Friday, February 7, 2014


            In a previous article, I discussed the first four letters to the churches in Asia in Revelation 2.  This article continues that discussion as I analyze the final three letters in chapter 3.  The letters more or less conformed to a pattern, which I diagram at the beginning of the discussion of each letter.  Although the letter is to the church in a particular city, I simply title the section with the name of the city.


SARDIS (3:1-6)


Out of
Promise to one who conquers
Has 7 spirits and 7 stars
Reputation of being alive, but you are dead
Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die…remember... what you received…keep it…I will come like a thief…
You have… a few names… who have not soiled their garments
Clothed in white garments…I will never blot his name out of the book of life… confess his name before before my Father


            Sardis is described as a city that was in obscurity (Ladd, 55).  It had been a capital of the kingdom of Lydia centuries before, but its glory days were long past.  Now it was a center for dying wools and a place where several roads met.  Two pagan religious activities were prevalent:  the mystery cult of the goddess Cybele and the worship of the Roman emperor. (Ladd, 55)

The description of Christ (2:1) is a reminder of the seven stars (1:16 and 20) and of the seven spirits before the throne (1:4) (I am listing in the reverse order to that in verse 1).  The seven stars were interpreted in 1:20 to be the “angels” of the churches, which I have interpreted as ministers to those congregations, although others have other interpretations (see article on chapter 1).  The seven spirits participated in the greeting (1:4-5) to the recipients of the epistle (which Revelation has some resemblance to).  In my comments on that greeting, I explained that the greeting is from the triune God and that the seven spirits can be understood to be a representation of the Holy Spirit.  In 1:4, those seven spirits are before the throne of the Father, and in 2:1 Christ “has” those spirits.  We see throughout the New Testament a close relationship among the persons of the Trinity, so we should not be surprised by a statement concerning Christ as the One who has the Spirit. 

            Jesus began His letter to the church with the same expression that He used in each of the previous letters:  “I know.”  The facts, that He walked among the lampstands that represented the churches and that He held the angels of the churches in His hand, communicate His intimate knowledge of these churches.  Generally, “I know” introduced a praise of the church.  In this case, it gave a chilling diagnosis:  you may seem like you are alive to people looking from the outside, but you are dead.  Perhaps this church went through all the motions of being a church.  It had worship services.  Perhaps it had other activities; perhaps it even had charitable activities.  It had an organization—church leaders and modes of operation.  It had a tradition—a history of how it was founded and who were the important people and events of its past.  Yet it was, in the eyes of the Lord, a dead church. 

We are given a couple of hints as to the nature of the disease that led to death.  First, the church was admonished to “wake up.”  This tells us it was spiritually asleep.  The word translated “wake up” is often translated “keep watch” (e.g. Matthew 24:42, 43 in NIV and 26:38 in ESV and NIV).  A person who is not alert or watching the events that surround him is really sleeping through those events.  Persons who are dead spiritually are oblivious to the spiritual meaning of events.  Jesus characterized the people of Noah’s day and those who will live in the last days as oblivious to the spiritual import of events (Matthew 24:38-41).  The consequence is that judgment comes for these people before they know it.  So, to be oblivious to our environment and to spiritual matters is tantamount to spiritual death.

Furthermore, Jesus did not find the works of Sardis “complete in the sight of my God.”  The expression “in the sight of my God” (literally, “before my God) puts this indictment into the spiritual dimension.  In the sight of the world, Sardis was a lively, active church.  But in the spiritual dimension what they did was incomplete.  The word that is translated “complete” is a strong word that is translated “fulfill,” “fill,” “accomplish,” etc.  These people had “works,” but their works did not fulfill their function.  When they worshiped, they went through the motions without truly encountering the living God.  They may have had love feasts and other times of fellowship, but they really did not make connection with one another.  Their acts of charity did not aim to bless and restore the damaged persons that they ministered to. 

This church is admonished to “remember” what they received and heard.  This church had forgotten.  ESV and others ignore the adverb “how” which is in the original (KJV includes it).  I think it adds something:  “remember how you received and heard.”  They received the gospel through the witness of faithful servants who were empowered by the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 2:1-5).  Yet, they had forgotten the message, and they had forgotten their response to the message.  To forget that initial commitment is spiritual death. 

Jesus knew this church, and He knew that they may have had a reputation of being a going church, but the truth was that they were dead.  Therefore, there was nothing to praise this church for.  It is one of the few churches in which Jesus can find nothing to praise. 

Yet Jesus held out hope for the church.  It could remember what and how it had originally heard the message of the gospel and received it.  If they did remember, surely they would be “keep it.”  The word for “keep” is also translated “observe,” “obey,” etc.  They were to come back to the truth not just in memory but in attitude and action.  Just as the church at Ephesus was admonished to do the works they did at first, Sardis was to return to who they had been as a church.  This would be a true repentance.

But, Jesus warned them, if they did not heed His call to repentance, consequences would follow.  Jesus warned He would come “like a thief.”  He does not explain what will happen when He came.  In 2:16 He warned the church at Pergamum that, when He came, He would make war.  His presence can be a glorious blessing, but His presence also is an opportunity for judgment.  John the Baptist described the coming of the Messiah would mean both a gathering of grain and a burning of chaff with “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12). 

The expression “come like a thief” is used by or in reference to Jesus in several cases in the New Testament.  The relevant passages include the following:

·         Matthew 24:43 (Luke 12:39):  In the Olivet discourse, Jesus warned His disciples to keep watch for Him to come.  He used the illustration of a house owner who failed to keep watch for a thief.

·         I Thessalonians 5:2, 5:4:  Paul explains that the Day of the Lord will come like a “thief in the night.”  However, his readers will not be surprised by that sudden arrival because they were not living in darkness as the world is.

·         II Peter 3:10:  Peter has warned about scoffers who scoff at the Parousia because it seems the time has been so long.  However, the Lord patiently waits to fulfill His promise so that, during the delay, some will repent.  When the Day of the Lord does come, it will be like thief, however.  At that time the elements will be destroyed and everything will be laid bare.

·         Revelation 3:3:  In the present passage, Jesus warns that His coming to the church at Sardis in judgment will be like a thief.

·         Revelation 16:15:  In the midst of the description of the demonic preparation for the Battle of Armageddon, Jesus breaks in and announces that He comes “like a thief.”  Those who are awake and have their clothes on will not be shamed by His arrival.

In each of these cases, the arrival, either of the Lord or of the Day of the Lord, “like a thief” or a “thief in the night” is a warning of suddenness to those who are unprepared for His arrival.  The popular notion that the expression “a thief in the night” refers to the sudden rapture of the church is not reflected in these Scripture passages.  In the present passage, the expression does not necessarily refer to a last-day coming of Jesus, but rather to His coming in judgment upon this church.

            Each of the seven letters was to a church as an entity.  However, Jesus also addresses individuals and recognizes those who thrive despite their environment.  In Sardis there are a “few” who had not “soiled their garments.”  The word for “soiled” is also translated “defiled.”  We are not told specifically how the church members had defiled themselves.  If we take the evidence that we have, we conclude that the fact that they had gone asleep spiritually and had failed to fulfill their functions as Christians were factors in their defilement.  Some people have the notion that, as long as they keep their noses clean, they are all right before the Lord.  Allowing oneself to dose off into spiritual oblivion is repugnant in the sight of God. Nevertheless, in the midst of this spiritual defilement, some people were still walking with the Lord and had avoided the defilement of their spiritual environment.  The Lord promised that He would reward them with white garments.  He immediately goes on to the “one who conquers.”  No doubt those whom He just mentioned—who had not “soiled their garments”—would be included among the conquerors.  But perhaps, also, there would be those who would respond to His call to repentance and would return to their original faith and walk with God.  Just as those who had been faithful were promised white garments, so were all the conquerors.  The white garments are symbols of purity before God.  Another group who wear white robes is mentioned in Revelation 7:9-14ff.  These are a great multitude who have come out of the Great Tribulation and “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  This passage reminds us that the ultimate source of cleansing is not our own doing, but comes through the blood of Jesus.  The old song is still valid:  “Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?” 

The further promise to the conqueror is that the Lord will “never blot his name out of the book of life.”  The “never” is literally “not not.”  Greek permits the double negative, and it is used to express negation in the strongest sense.  The Book of Life is also called “the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27).  It is mentioned in three contexts besides this mention.  First, those who live on the earth (what might be called “earth dwellers”) will worship the Beast and will notably not have their names written in the Book of Life (13:8 and 17:8).  Second, the Book of Life is consulted at the Great White Throne Judgment.  Those whose names are not written there will be thrown in the Lake of Fire (20:12 and 20:15).  Third, the New Jerusalem will only be entered by those whose names are written in it.  So, this mention of this important book is anticipating its eternal importance.  Those who are able to overcome a spiritually dead church and find life in the Son of God will be carefully noted and recorded in the Book of Life.

An additional promise to the conqueror was that Jesus would confess that person’s name before the Father and His angels.  Jesus made it very plain that we should be willing to openly declare our faith in Jesus.  If we do, then He will confess us before His Father.  He put this in both the positive and the negative in Matthew 10:32-33.


As in all the letters, the admonition is to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.  That is to anyone who has an ear to hear.  If we have a pulse and can “sit up and take nourishment,” then we can hear what the Spirit is saying.  God is not playing church and has not patience with those who do.  God is looking for the real deal. 



Out of
Promise to one who conquers
Phila- delphia
The holy one,
True one, has the key of David, One who opens and shuts
Your works, you have but little power, but have kept my word and not denied my name
I have set before you an open door…
I am coming soon.
I will make those of the synagogue of Satan…bow down before you… I will keep you from the hour of trial…hold fast to what you have
Make a pillar in the temple of my God…write on him the name of my God and [His] city


            Philadelphia was a relatively young city.  It was known as a center of wine making.  Naturally, its chief god was Dionysus.  Dionysus was pictured in myths as arriving abruptly from a foreign country.  This may have been in mind in Christ’s declaration of His coming (3:11).

            Jesus is described as holy and true.  God is also praised for His holiness in 4:8.  The saints in heaven pray to the “Sovereign Lord, holy and true” (6:10).  Jesus is also described as the One who has the Key of David.  A key gives one authority.  Jesus has the Key of the great King David.  This gives Him authority to reign over Israel and (perhaps) beyond.  He is further described as using that key to open and shut.  No one can reverse His action:  what He has shut remains shut and what He has opened remains open.  This power and authority will be used on behalf of this church.

            Jesus said quite briefly:  “I know your works.”  They were not described in detail, but we may infer that they were good.  In verse 3:10, we learn that they kept “my word about patient endurance.”  NIV renders this more as a paraphrase:  “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently…”   This probably is an accurate understanding.  They also kept the Lord’s word in general and did not deny His name (3:8).

This church, like Smyrna, is not rebuked for anything.  Jesus then says that He has set an open door before this church, which no one can shut.  The One with the Key of David has opened the door for this church.  There are two possible meanings that come to my mind for this open door.  One is the door to heaven.  The other is the door to greater possibilities for this church.  That seems a reasonable possibility, because it follows immediately after Jesus’ saying “I know your works.”  Jesus is aware of what this church is doing, and so He opens the door for them to do more. 

The church did not have a lot of power (NIV:  “strength”).  This does not necessarily refer to the spiritual condition of the church.  It may describe the size of the congregation or the influence and “clout” of its membership in the city.  However, it was faithful:  it kept the Lord’s word and did not deny His name.  Because of their faithfulness the Lord promises a reversal of fortunes for them.  Evidently, their most threatening neighbors in the city were the Jews.  Jesus described them as “the synagogue of Satan.”  Furthermore, they lied when they claimed to be Jews.  This is a consistent message in the New Testament.  Paul condemns the wretched state of humanity in Romans 1:18ff.  In the second chapter of Romans, he takes aim at the Jew.  Though he may boast of his blood ties to Judaism and of his circumcision, he cannot stand before God.  A true Jew is one who has been circumcised in the heart (Romans 2:28).  So, these Jews in Philadelphia, though they may have been exemplary in their external adherence to Judaism, were not true Jews.  Because they opposed Christ and His church, they were a synagogue of Satan.  And someday they would have to come before this little church and bow down and recognize that the Christ-followers are the ones whom the Lord has chosen and loved.

This church kept the Lord’s word (or message) of patient endurance.  Jesus said in Matthew 24:13:  The “one who endures to the end will be saved.”  This church took that message to heart and remained faithful no matter what their circumstances were.  Because of this faithfulness, Jesus promised to keep them “from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.”  (3:10b) Because this is a pivotal verse in the arguments concerning Pretribulation Rapture and Post-tribulation Rapture, I shall analyze it in detail.

The word “kept” is used in both clauses of the verse:  the Philadelphians “kept” Jesus’ message of patient endurance, and Jesus will “keep” them from the hour of trial.  I find seven different uses of the word that is translated “keep” or “kept” (tereo).  My interpretation of the usage is not always exactly in line with the translation, but conforms to the context.  The uses are as follows, in descending order of frequency:

·         Obey:  It is used 33 times to mean “obey,” “observe,” or “keep” as one “keeps a commandment.  See Matthew 19:17.  This is the first use in verse 3:10.  The Philadelphians obeyed Jesus message of patient endurance. 

·         Save, reserve for later:  It is used 8 times to mean “save” or “reserve” for later.  See John 2:10.

·         Hold, keep in one place:  It is used 7 times to mean “hold” or “keep in one place,” often in reference to holding a prisoner.  See Acts 12:5.

·         Maintain, keep something up or keep something going:  It is used 6 times to mean “maintain,” “keep something up,” or “keep something going.”  See Ephesians 4:3.

·         Protect:  It is used 5 times to mean “protect” or “keep safe from.” See John 17:11, 17:12, 17:15, I John 5:18, Jude 1.  This is the second use in 3:10.  Jesus will keep the church safe from the hour of trial that is coming.

·         Guard, keep under guard:  It is used 4 times to mean “guard” as one guards a prisoner. See Acts 16:23.

·         Keep back, keep away from:  It is used 2 times to mean “keep back from” or “keep away from.”  See II Corinthians 11:9.

To expand on the idea of tereo meaning “protect,” I refer to John 17:11 and following.  I have added the boldface to the word that is translated from tereo.   In John 17:11, Jesus prays:   “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”  The use “keep” is ambiguous.  It could mean “maintain them as a unit.”  It could also mean “protect them, since I am going away.”  The next verse, 17:12, seems to use the word with the meaning “protect”:  “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.”  This idea is extended in 17:15:  “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”  Notice especially this latter verse implies that God’s protection can extend to those in the world without removing them from the world.  The first verb, “take…out of” (airo), is contrasted in the sentence with the second verb, “keep…from” (tereo).  The second choice is to keep Jesus’ followers safe from the evil one even while they are in the world.  This seems a reasonable understanding of the use of tereo in Revelation 3:10.   Incidentally, NIV translates the word as “protect” in all three of these verses in John. 

In I John 5:18, the idea of protection is implied.  In fact, ESV uses “protect” in this instance (NIV uses “keeps safe”):  “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.”

Robert Gundry has written an extended argument concerning Revelation 3:10.  He is defending the same conclusion that I have made—that the meaning is to protect the church without removing her from the earth.  He maintains that the preposition ek (“from”) does not mean “away from” but “out from within.”  Frankly, though he has done extensive research, I think his argument is futile.  I was told many years ago:  “Prepositions are the most difficult words to deal with.”  As an example of that difficulty, I cite John 17:15-16.  In those two verses, the preposition ek means “out of,” “from [away from],” and “of [originating from].”  Thus, though I respect Robert Gundry’s scholarship generally, I do not agree with his argument in this case regarding the preposition.  However, Gundry’s additional material on this verse is very helpful.  He makes similar points to mine regarding the verb “keep” and the comments that I make below on “those who dwell on the earth.”  He also makes comparisons between 3:10 and similar Old Testament promises.  (See Gundry, 54-61.)

   The “hour of trial” that will “try those who dwell on the earth” is best understood as the Great Tribulation.  The expression “those who dwell on the earth” is found in the same or very similar form throughout Revelation.  It is found in the following verses in Revelation:  6:10, 8:13, 11:10, 13:8, 13:12, 13:14, 17:2, and 17:8.  Again and again, the expression has a universal sweep.  For example, see verse 13:8:  “and all who dwell on earth will worship it [the Beast/Antichrist], everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.”  Notice that “all” will worship the Beast.  However, there is an exception:  those whose names are in the Lamb’s Book of Life.  Throughout Revelation “those who dwell on the earth” are tested, judged, seduced by the Beast, and so forth.  Yet, though the actions extend to ALMOST everyone, there are those who are excepted.  In fact, another understanding of “those who dwell on the earth” is not “everyone on earth,” but rather “those who are tied to the earth and its concerns.”  This is similar to the concept of the “world.”  (See I John 2:15 and 5:19.)  Thus, the “trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 3:10) is one that will affect various categories of people in different ways.  Most people will, in fact, be tried or tested and will fail that test.  Some, however, will be found in the Lamb’s Book of Life and will not, for example, worship the Beast.  It is not beyond reason to understand that the church at Philadelphia and other churches with similar spiritual conditions may receive spiritual protection during that hour of trial.  Jesus prayed for His followers that they might receive that kind of protection even as they lived in the world (John 17:11-15).  We know that those who are born of God receive that kind of protection (I John 5:18).  

      The two study Bibles that I have consulted (ESVSB and NIVSB) comment on 3:10 by mentioning both the Pretribulation Rapture theory and the idea that the verse implies protection during the hour of trial (without physical removal). 

            My extended argument concerning this verse anticipates the arguments of the Dispensationalists.  This verse is, on the face of it, a strong “proof text” for the idea of the Pretribulation Rapture of the church.  However, I do not believe that “keep you from” necessarily means “take you away from.”  Instead, I believe it is reasonable to believe that it means “protect you from” the hour of trial and that that protection can take place while the church is on the earth.  Obviously, without other evidence against the Pretribulation Rapture theory, this exegesis would not be very strong.  But, in concert with other evidence, I believe it can be accepted as a reasonable understanding of the verse.

In 3:11, Jesus assures the church that He is coming soon.  Obviously, this brings up the debate with the Preterists.  Just as 3:10 can be a “proof-text” for the Pretribulation Rapture, so 3:11 can be a “proof-text” for the idea that Revelation is concerned only with events of the first century of our Lord (AD).  Arguments regarding that idea would be beyond the scope of
commentary on this letter to Philadelphia.  In brief, I would say that one can use a single verse (along with a few others) to interpret an entire book or can put the verse in the context of the entire prophetic picture.  I believe that the Preterists use verses such as 3:11 as their key to interpretation of the entire book.  This is similar to their practice of using Matthew 24:34 to interpret the entire of Matthew 24.  I maintain that the attempts of the Preterists to “fit” Revelation into the first century are failures.  The scope of the book is much larger than the events of that century.  In II Peter 3:3-13, Peter discusses the time elements of the Parousia and the Day of the Lord.  He asserts that the Lord’s timing does not conform to human timing.  So, if the Lord said He is coming soon, that “soon” will not conform to our notions of “soon.” 

Jesus gave promises to the conquerors of the Philadelphia church.  Though this church did not receive a rebuke, the fact that Jesus recognizes the conquerors implies that not all are conquerors.  In these letters there were three types of messages.  There were messages to the individual churches as entities.  These churches were responsible for the overall spiritual condition of the church.  There were also, in some cases, messages to groups or leaders of groups (such as the Nicolaitans, those who follow Balaam and Jezebel).  These groups and leaders were responsible for their wicked teachings and actions.  There were also messages to individuals, especially to the conquerors.  These individuals were responsible for their own spiritual condition no matter what the environment of the church.  Obviously, in some cases, these individuals had strong influence on the spiritual condition of the church, but this did not necessarily mean that they could lead the church in a good direction, if the church was unwilling. 

Whatever the case might be, Jesus did recognize and give promises to the conquerors.  In Philadelphia, He promised to make them “pillars” in the temple of God.  I surmise that the expression “pillar of the church” came from this reference.  I knew a woman who liked to talk about a group of people who pretty much ran affairs in her little church.  She called them the “little pillars.”  A pillar is a substantial column that helps support a building.  One of the blessings of God’s grace is that God brings us into His overall program and graciously makes us junior partners.  So, Jesus promised these people that they would help support God’s temple.  He also promised to write two names on them—the name of the city, New Jerusalem, and His own name.  In Revelation 22:4, the servants of God “will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”


LAODICEA (3:14-22)

Out of
Promise to one who conquers
The Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.
Neither cold nor hot; say you are rich, but you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked
Buy gold refined by fire and white garments, and salve to anoint your eyes so you can see
Because you are luke-warm, I will spit you out of my mouth.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. Be earnest and repent.  Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me.
I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.

            Laodicea was a center of commerce and manufacturing and was quite prosperous.  From the letter to the church, we can infer that the religions of the area did not pose a threat of persecution.  (Ladd, 64)  In this place of economic optimism and religious ease, the church at Laodicea basked in its success.

            The description of Jesus begins with the “Amen.”  For us, “amen” has become a meaningless word that we tack onto the end of prayers.  For the Hebrews it was a solemn statement of agreement and of the truth of what followed or had just been stated.  Jesus is what makes truth truthful and certainty come to pass.  He is further described as the “faithful and true witness,” an echo of 1:5.  He is also the “beginning of God’s creation.”  The word translated “beginning” has a wide range of meanings.  It is related to a verb that means “to rule” or “to govern” or “to begin.”  It was used in the Prologue to John’s gospel:  “In the beginning…”  In that prologue, the Word of God was involved deeply in the creation.  So, the “beginning of creation” may be understood as the “origin of creation.”  In contrast to the spiritually empty church at Laodicea, the one who addressed them was this person who perfectly true and the origin of all things.

            Once again, Jesus let this church know that He knew them perfectly well—far better than they knew themselves.  At this point, much of the pattern that was followed in the other letters breaks down.  I have put elements of the letter into the chart, but one could argue with my choices.  The content is more important than trying to follow the pattern.  Jesus knew this church, and He immediately characterized them:  they were a lukewarm church.  They were neither cold nor hot.  Water was an important topic for Laodicea.  It had an inadequate water supply.  Also, there were hot springs in the nearby town of Hierapolis.  (NIVSB)  This background information is helpful, but Jesus’ pointed assessment was not about local color.  This was a church that was repugnant to Him, not because they were evil or had rejected the faith, but because they received the faith with a shrug of the shoulder.   It was no big deal.  This church had become extremely comfortable.  Jesus’ reaction was not to remove the lampstand or to come and make war on them.  His reaction was to throw up.  Well, it is true that the word translated “spit” or “spew” can mean “vomit.”  In the strongest terms Jesus expressed His distaste for a church that was lukewarm.  Such a church does just enough.  It sings hymns and worship songs and occasionally one gets a goose bump or two.  Now and then there is an altar call and a few go to the front and pray.  There are greeting times and someone is genuinely glad to see someone.  There are not horrible church fights.  Nor does attendance decline to a half dozen “frozen chosen.”  It is an “OK” church.  And Jesus says to that church:  “I just wish you either were burning with zeal or were totally cold.” 

            Jesus expanded on the spiritual condition of the church.  One church was poor, but it was truly rich (Smyrna).  One church thought it was alive, but it was dead (Sardis).  The church at Laodicea thought it was rich, but, in fact, it was “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”  This reminds me of the “prosperity gospel” that has been preached so much in the last forty years or so.  It has been a gospel that focused on the material—money, clothes, houses, cars, and the income to buy all those things.  I wonder how many have been blessed with the things their gospel promised them and have come up short before the Lord.  The church at Laodicea was in “one of the richest commercial centres in the world.”  (Morris, 81)  It is very likely that the members of the church benefited at least to some extent from the prosperity of their city.  Yet, they had lost out on the true riches.  Isaiah spoke for the Lord:

 “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!   Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?  Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”  (Isaiah 55:1-2)

I heard Tony Campolo speak about how advertising is aimed at creating the desire for things.  Advertisers instinctively have recognized the deep hunger of the soul and how people try to fill that hunger with fast food, fast cars, and sex.  He noted how some advertisers recognize the spiritual hunger to the degree that they make commercials that combine the spiritual hunger with the fleshly hunger.  The commercial for Coke that features the song, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…” is probably the perfect example of this wedding of spiritual and fleshly.  The church at Laodicea looked around at how well its membership dressed, how richly they ate, how opulent their church furnishings were, and it concluded:  “We must be doing something right, dude.”  One remembers Jesus’ chilling story of the man who had to build bigger barns to contain all his grain and who told his soul to take it easy.  But God said his life was up that very night.  (Luke 12:16-21) 

            Jesus, though he wanted to be rid of this church, took the time to give it some advice.  “Buy from me gold…garments…salve…”  How do you buy stuff from God?  God through Isaiah said, “If you have no money, buy from me…”  Was God telling them to pay more in tithes and offerings?  (I can hear some preachers trying that line.)  I do not think so.  No, Jesus’ counsel has to do with learning where true value is and gaining it.  The true value begins with a relationship with God.  From that relationship one begins to develop right relationships to people, to things, to money, and to all the issues of life.  Proverbs 4:23 wisely counsels:  “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs [KJV:  “issues”] of life.” 

            Jesus named three values that this church could relate to:  gold, clothes, and eye salve.  What is gold for God?  Wisdom is considered of more profit than gold (Proverbs 3:14).  The commands of the Lord are more valuable than gold (Psalm 19:10).  Jesus said we should seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness first, rather than the means (gold) to having a secure life.  What kind of clothes did Jesus counsel to seek for?  It was the white robe of righteousness from God.  This robe would be more desirable than a garment made from the black wool the city was famous for (Morris, 84).  The city of Laodicea was also famous for its eye salve.  But that medicine could not cure the spiritual blindness that only the transforming work of the Holy Spirit could heal. 

            Though Jesus was almost shocking in His rebuke of this church, He also assured them of His great love.  He reproves and disciplines those He loves.  After all, He could have just ignored this church at let it float down the river to hell.  Instead, He let them know He could spit them out any time.  But He had hopes that they would hear what He had to say and take the occasion to come back to God.  He very directly admonished them:  “Be zealous and repent.”  It is not cool to be zealous.  A zealot can be a pain in the neck.  He is emotional, excited, single-minded, and sometimes sticks his nose where it does not belong.  He breaks the rules of decorum and can create some chaos.  I think especially of that woman with “an issue of blood.”  She broke all kinds of rules of ceremonial cleanness in pressing through the crowd and touching Jesus.  And guess what?  She was healed!  The church at Laodicea was comfortable and secure in material things.  It needed some discomfort and some zealots who banged some chairs together and disrupted things.  It needed also to recognize the direction it was going in and to change things, big time.  It needed to repent.

            Then, Jesus delivered to this church—perhaps the church in the greatest spiritual need of the seven—the greatest promise of all those found in the seven letters.  “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…”  It is one of the most precious verses (2:20) in all of Scripture.  How should we take it?  Was it to the church or to individuals?  Was it to saved people needing reviving or to unsaved needing a Savior?  It seems to me that the immediate context is to the individuals in this church.  If they will open the door, Jesus will come in and meet them at the core of their being.  Nevertheless, it is also applicable to any person, whatever his or her spiritual situation.  Jesus knocks at the door and wants to come in and be with you and me.  For the individuals in Laodicea, opening that door would be the transaction that would “buy” the things of value they needed so desperately.  For the person whose soul is empty and hungry, who watches a Coke commercial in hopes that song of human connection will fill the void within—for that person, Jesus can come in and satisfy the hunger and thirst of his soul.  Thank you, Jesus.

            Jesus followed this great assurance with a promise to the one who conquered.  This church was a comfortable church.  The conqueror would have to break out of that lethargy and renew a vibrant relationship with Jesus, as He had just described.  To that person, the promise was to reign with Him on His throne.  Jesus sat down with the Father on His throne after He had conquered.  He conquered by dying on the cross and rising from the dead.  He conquered the consequences of sin, including death.  All has been won, now He awaits the final consummation.  He will someday sit on a throne in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:3).  Exactly how His reign as the Davidic King will play out is a matter for a debate beyond the scope of this article.  So, exactly how the saints will participate in rulership with Him is also a matter of debate.  Nevertheless, we are assured that we shall reign with Him.



            In chapter 1, the style of the book vacillates to some degree between an epistle and a book.  It begins with a prologue (1:1-3) before the salutation (1:4-5) that begins an epistle.  John is commanded in 1:11 to “write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches…” 

            In 1:19, Jesus gives John another command to write.  There are debates about how to interpret the verse.  Some see this as a series of three tenses and three time frames:  Write what:  (1) you have seen, (2) what is, (3) and what is going to happen after this.  Others see this as a command to write what he saw which is in two time frames:  Write what you have seen:  (1) what is now and (2) what is going to happen after this.  The second understanding seems better for the following reason.  The verb of the first clause is “to see” in the aorist tense.  This is probably a “culminative aorist,” which emphasizes the completion of the action.  He is to write “the things he has seen.”  The second two clauses are two verbs that relate to the state of being.  The first clause uses the verb “to be” in the present:  “the things that are.”  The second is a verb that has many translations from simply “is” to “become” to “take place” as well as other meanings.  It is combined with the auxiliary verb that can be translated “going to” or “about to,” etc.  The clause would be:  “the things that are going to take place after this.”  The second two clauses, which use verbs related to the verb “to be”, are parallel to one another; whereas the first clause, which uses the verb “to see”, is not in parallel.  Therefore, the second interpretation is probably accurate:  John is commanded to write what he has seen, which comprises both things that are and things that will take place or will be later.  Obviously the letters to the seven churches would be included in “the things which are.”  I believe at least part of the following chapters, four and five, should be included among “the things which are.”

            The seven churches are the recipients of the entire book (1:4-5, 1:11, 1:19).  These are Christian churches who will be informed of both “things that are” and “things that are going to take place after this.”  This is an important point because the Dispensationalists maintain that the church is absent during the Tribulation period, and they maintain that the Tribulation period is a time of focus on Israel and not the church.  Yet, this book is not addressed to Israel.

            Within the content of the letters to the churches, there is a strong condemnation of the Jews.  The Jews of that time were persecutors of the Christians.  They used the officials of the Roman Empire to carry out much of the persecution, but they were the chief instigators in many cases.  (See Acts 13:50, 14:5, 14:19, 17:5, 17:13, 18:6, 18:12-13.)  The letters include two denunciations of those who were Jews by religion and nationality, but who are not truly Jews because they have rejected the Jewish Messiah and Savior, who is Jesus (Revelation 2:9 and 3:9).  This is consistent with the teaching of Paul in Romans.  He condemned the Jews because they failed to live up to the Law (Romans 2:17-27) and because they had not received the circumcision that “is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:28-29).  These considerations do not necessarily contradict the Dispensationalist position, but they should be kept in mind when considering the relationship between the church and Israel.

            The seven letters to the seven churches are similar to the epistles of Paul to various churches, especially to the churches at Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, and Colosse.  Those letters especially were from a pastor concerned for the welfare of the churches.  The letters to the churches in Asia reflect Jesus’ concern for those churches.  He is the Lord of the church universal and of the individual churches.  He sees with penetrating eyes that can discern the difference in a church’s reputation and its true spiritual condition.  In the letters, He encouraged and reassured those churches that were faithful, but also were facing persecution or dealing with weakness.  He rebuked churches that allowed false teaching or sin or both in their midst.  He revealed the moribund spiritual state of some of the churches.  He called the churches to repent and to return to their spiritual roots.  Throughout the letters there is a tone of love and concern for the churches from the One who walked among the lampstands.

            Yet, these two chapters represent less than 10% of the number of chapters in the book.  Much more is to come.  How do these chapters relate to what is to follow?  These chapters might be called a spiritual clinic for these churches.  They were counseled by Jesus as He met them “where they were” in their walk with Him.  If they needed reassurance or rebuke or warning, then Jesus gave it to them straight.  One can imagine how each message may have been received.  Hopefully, it was received with humility and with an appropriate response.  Hopefully, the church at Ephesus did the first works again.  Hopefully, Smyrna was reassured as it entered persecution.  Hopefully, Pergamum disciplined the followers of the Balaam heresy.  So, we hope for each of these churches that they responded to Jesus’ message in the right way.  Once the church had gone through its “clinic,” then it would be ready to hear as the reader began to read the material that follows the seven letters.

            As they listened, they began to learn a new perspective on the Christian life.  It is a perspective that understands that a time will come in which much suffering will come upon the earth.  This will include judgments from God as well as God’s permitting demonic and satanic oppression.  It will include the rise of the Antichrist/Beast.  This latter development, along with the activity of the great whore, Babylon, is a hallmark of the period.  And the Beast and Babylon will be noted for their persecution of the saints.  Through all of this the saints will be conquerors, even in the midst of persecution and even death. 

            This period, which we call the Great Tribulation (from the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:21), will indeed be a difficult period.  Yet, we observe throughout the description of this period certain truths that apply to every period of history.  We see

·         those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and their eternal reward

·         the heavenly incense that is the prayers of the saints

·         the tragedy of unrepentant hearts

·         the warfare of Satan against Christ and His saints

·         the names of saints in the book of life—and the readiness of the unsaved to be deceived by Beast-like persons

·         the pressure that the world system exerts on people to succumb to deception and false worship for the sake of economic well-being

·         the spiritual danger of being marked by the Beast of the world system

·         the harvest of salvation and the harvest of judgment

·         the heavenly praise that eventually will be echoed on earth

·         the need to keep spiritually dressed—ready to receive the Lord Jesus

·         the inevitable fall of the powers of this earth—both false spiritualities and military strongholds

·         the final triumph of the Lamb who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords

·         the reigning of the saints

·         the end of Satan and all he has inspired

·         the final judgment on those whose names are not written in the Book of Life

·         an everlasting kingdom of blessing. 

These present, future, and eternal verities were pertinent to the seven churches of Asia.  They are pertinent to us today.  They will be pertinent to the saints in the Tribulation period.  Having had their spiritual clinic, which gave them the assessment they needed to serve God in their day, the churches could step into the deeper perspectives of the remainder of the book of Revelation.


Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible.  Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Gundry, Robert H.  The Church and the Tribulation.  A Biblical Examination of Posttribulationism.

            Grand Rapids:  Acadamie Books, Zondervan Publ. Co., 1973.

Ladd, G. Eldon.  A Commentary on the Revelation of John.  Grand Rapids:  William B.

            Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.

Morris, Leon.  The Revelation of St. John.  Tyndale Bible Commentaries. Vol. 20.  R. V. G. Tasker,

            Gen. Ed. Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980.

Zondervan NIV Study Bible.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publ., 2002


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