Tagged: letters to the seven churches

To the church at Thyatira

Read an introduction to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3

This is the fourth in a series of commentaries on Christ’s letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Read about Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum.

Revelation 22:18-29 (HCSB)

To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: “The Son of God, the One whose eyes are like a fiery flame, and whose feet are like fine bronze says:  I know your works—your love, faithfulness,  service, and endurance. Your last works are greater than the first.  But I have this against you: you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and teaches and deceives My slaves to commit sexual immorality  and to eat meat sacrificed to idols.  I gave her time to repent, but she does not want to repent of her sexual immorality.  Look! I will throw her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her  practices.  I will kill her children with the plague.   Then all the churches will know that I am the One who examines minds  and hearts, and I will give to each of you according to your works.  I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who haven’t known the deep things  of Satan—as they say—I do not put any other burden on you.  But hold on to what you have until I come.   The victor and the one who keeps My works to the end: I will give him authority over the nations — and He will shepherd  them with an iron scepter; He will shatter them like pottery  — just as I have received ⌊this⌋ from My Father.  I will also give him the morning star. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”

The letter to the church at Thyatira

Lydia, a seller of purple goods, whose heart God opened to the message of Christ, is from this commercial center steeped in paganism (Acts 16:14). Having heard Paul’s proclamation of the gospel in Philippi, she may have taken the good news back to Thyatira and been among the first to evangelize her city. Thyatira was a military town that also boasted guilds dealing in metals and fabric. Guild members celebrated their patron deities in festivals that no doubt tempted Christians. Some even may have given in to the message of a “prophetess” who promoted illicit sex and food sacrificed to idols. The city is known for its temple to Apollo, the sun god. Thyatira is the smallest of the seven cities yet receives the longest letter, and one of the sternest rebukes, from Christ.

Christ’s self-description

Jesus identifies Himself as “The Son of God,” the only time in Revelation this name is used. The title “Son of God” is from Ps. 2:7 and expresses the unique relationship He has with the Father, just as Jesus’ favorite name for Himself, “Son of Man,” identifies Him as the Messiah and as deity (see Dan. 7:13; Matt. 26:64). Matthew Henry comments: “His general title is here, the Son of God, that is, the eternal and only-begotten Son of God, which denotes that he has the same nature with the Father, but with a distinct and subordinate manner of subsistence” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible : Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Re 2:18–29). Borrowing from John’s description in Rev. 1:14-15, Jesus calls Himself “the One whose eyes are like a fiery flame, and whose feet are like fine bronze” (v. 18). He sees all with his piercing, penetrating eyes and knows the hearts of men and women. Nothing escapes His attention. And though some may seek to hide themselves beneath rocks and in caves, they will be found and made to stand before Him one day without excuse. His feet of fine bronze move swiftly and surely to judge; He will not stumble, fall, or delay.

Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition

Jesus commends the church, saying, “I know your works – your love, faithfulness, service, and endurance. Your last works are greater than the first” (v. 19). In contrast to the church at Ephesus, which has abandoned the love it had at first, the believers in Thyatira are growing stronger in heartfelt Christian service. They are not merely busy in religious activity; they are motivated by a love for the Lord and for one another.

Nevertheless, Jesus rebukes the church for tolerating a false prophetess named Jezebel, who leads many into the same sins practiced in Pergamum – sexual immorality and eating meat sacrificed to idols. While it’s possible that a woman, Lydia, helped evangelize the city, it is now clear that a different woman, Jezebel, is leading many into grievous sins. The name Jezebel may or may not be the woman’s real name, but it suggests that she has the same influence on the church that King Ahab’s wife Jezebel had on the Israelites in Old Testament times. Jezebel’s evil is so pervasive that the Bible says her husband Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God than all the kings of Israel before him (1 Kings 16:33). Just as Ahab is responsible for the actions of those under his authority, including his wife, the leaders of the church at Thyatira are responsible for allowing the New Testament Jezebel to corrupt their congregants.

The apostle Paul makes is clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols (“We are not inferior if we don’t eat, and we are not better if we do eat” – 1 Cor. 8:8), but mature believers are to abstain from such practices if they are a stumbling block to weaker brothers and sisters; no doubt, the dietary and religious aspects of eating these meats could not be separated at Thyatira. Rather that abstain, the people indulged and the church leaders did little or  nothing to stop it. Apparently this has been going on for quite some time because Jesus says He gave Jezebel time to repent. She refused. Therefore, judgment is imminent.

“Look! I will throw her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her practices,” Jesus declares (v. 22). Note that the time of God’s grace has ended for Jezebel but not for the church. It’s not too late for those deceived into sexual immorality and spiritual adultery. They still have an opportunity to repent. It is not God’s judgment but His kindness that leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4).

Christ goes on with a dramatic statement: “I will kill her children with the plague” (v. 23). This most likely is a reference to Jezebel’s followers, not to any innocent children she may have. Disciples, whether of Christ or of those who oppose Him, often are depicted as children and may suffer the same fate as their masters. Jesus warns His followers they will be hated, persecuted, and even killed because of their devotion to Him (Matt. 24:9; John 15:18-25), and we know from church tradition that most of the apostles suffer martyr’s deaths. At the same time, those who ally themselves with Satan and his stewards should expect to suffer the wrath of a holy and righteous God (2 Cor. 11:15b). We don’t know what the “sickbed” is in verse 22 – perhaps a pestilence of some kind, a public humiliation that exposes her wickedness, or an abandonment of her false teachings. As for the death of her “children,” this could be a reference to the second death, the lake of fire. In any case, while the church tolerated Jezebel and her evil, the Lord would not.

Finally, notice the distinction between Jesus’ reference to “My slaves” (v.20) and “her children” ( v. 23). Even though believers may be deceived and led into grievous sins, they are secure in their relationship with Christ; He loses none of those given to Him. Who suffers death in “the plague?” The children of Jezebel, who are by extension children of Satan. The result of Christ’s judgment is dramatic: “Then all the churches will know that I am the One who examines minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (v. 23).

Christ’s comfort and/or commands

Jesus has a word for those who have remained faithful: “I do not put any other burden on you. But hold on to what you have until I come” (vv. 24-25). The burden of the faithful in resisting Jezebel’s tempting doctrines and protesting the church’s weak defense against them is sufficient in the eyes of the Lord. He asks them simply to “hold on” to their steadfast faith in Him and their confidence that one day soon He will make things right.

Note the commendation in other passages of Scripture to those who hold on:

  • In the parable of the sower: “But the seed in the good ground – these are the ones who, having heard the word with an honest and good heart, hold on to it and by enduring, bear fruit” (Luke 8:15).
  • In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians: “But test all things. Hold on to what is good” (5:21).
  • In Paul’s second letter to Timothy: “Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:13).
  • In the letter to the Hebrews: “But Christ was faithful as a Son over His household, whose household we are if we hold on to the courage and the confidence of our hope” (3:6) … “Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (10:23) … “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us hold on to grace. By it, we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and awe” (12:28-29).

Christ’s urge to listen

Jesus says in verse 29, “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” The church today is, in many respects, as corrupt as the one in Thyatira. While there are faithful believers who “hold on” to sound doctrine, there are many that tolerate false prophets and embrace their teachings, while some church leaders do little or nothing about it. Just as a little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough (Gal. 5:9), a little tolerance of false teachings in the interest of political correctness or for the sake of expediency will result in a church that can barely be distinguished from the world.

Christ’s promises to the victor

Jesus says, “The victor and the one who keeps My works to the end: I will give him authority over the nations … just as I have received [this] from My Father” (v. 26-27). In the middle of these words Jesus inserts a Messianic Old Testament passage, Ps. 2:9: “[A]nd He will shepherd them with an iron scepter; He will shatter them like pottery …” Jesus not only reaffirms His Messianic claims; He confirms the authority the Father gave Him to rule the nations and promises His followers a place in His coming administration. “Though Psalm 2:9 refers to Christ’s rule, John’s quotation of it here relates the ruling (shepherding) to the believer who overcomes. Believers will have authority just as Christ does (1 Cor. 6:2-3; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 3:21; 20:4, 6)” (J.F. Walvoord, R.B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures).

In addition, Jesus tells the faithful He will give them “the morning star.” While the Scriptures do not elaborate on this term, Jesus uses it to identify Himself in Rev. 22:6: “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright Morning Star.” As the morning star appears just before dawn, Jesus one day will step into the clouds of heaven and return in power and great glory (Matt. 24:30). Every eye will see Him, for His coming will be like lightning (Matt. 24:27). Believers have an added promise: “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

Hidden manna and a white stone

In His message to the church at Pergamum, Jesus says, “I will give the victor some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17).

What are the “hidden manna” and “white stone?”

As God supplied manna to the Israelites in the desert, Christ sustains His followers with Himself – His promises and His presence. “I am the bread of life,” He tells His disciples. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry” (John 6:35). When Jesus’ disciples urged Him to eat after He revealed Himself to the Samaritan woman, He told them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about” (John 4:32). As the Creator of all, Christ also sustains all things “by the power of His word” (Heb. 1:3). R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and D. Brown add this insight: “As the manna hidden in the sanctuary was by divine power preserved from corruption, so Christ in His incorruptible body has passed into the heavens, and is hidden there until the time of His appearing” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.).

Jesus goes on to say, “I will also give him [the victor] a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it” (v. 17). The ESV Study Bible provides these observations: “Historically, a white stone was given to victors at games for entrance to banquets (cf. the messianic banquet); such a stone was also used by jurors at trials to vote for acquittal. The new name, given to the one who holds fast to Jesus’ name (2:13), may refer to the Holy Spirit’s work of conforming believers to the holiness of Christ (Rom. 8:29). The manna and the white stone suggest differing types of eternal blessings and rewards, as appropriate in each situation.” The white stone also may correspond to the Urim, or diamond worn by the high priest on the breastplate. No one but he knew the name inscribed on the stone – probably the unspeakable name of God: Yahweh. And only the high priest had access to the manna, which resided in the ark in the Holy of Holies. Perhaps the message here is that believers, as priests unto God, will in heaven enjoy rewards that were reserved on earth for only a few.

To the church at Ephesus

Read an introduction to the seven letters

Revelation 2:1–7 (HCSB)

To the angel  of the church in Ephesus write: “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands says:  I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. You also possess endurance and have tolerated ⌊many things⌋ because of My name, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you have abandoned the love ⌊you had⌋ at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. Yet you do have this: you hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

The letter to the church at Ephesus

Ephesus is one of the largest and most influential cities in the Roman Empire. It is devoted to the worship of Artemis (Diana in Latin), the goddess of fertility, and to the Roman emperor, who demanded to be worshipped as a god. Evidently, Priscilla and Aquila planted a church there around 52 A.D. and Paul ministered there for at least two years and used Ephesus as his base for evangelizing the region (Acts 19:8-10).

Christ’s self-description

Jesus borrows from Rev. 1:20 to describe Himself as “the One who holds the seven stars [angels of the seven churches] in His right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands [seven churches in Asia].” In this statement we are reminded of Christ’s authority as the Head of the church, His loving care as the Bridegroom, and His sovereign Lordship over all creation.

Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition

Jesus commends the church at Ephesus for its doctrinal purity and perseverance. Believers there have tested those claiming to be apostles and weeded out the false ones, perhaps in accordance with John’s instructions in1 John 4:1-6 and in light of Paul’s warnings in 2 Cor. 11:13-15. They also have held fast to sound doctrine despite withering attacks from those who oppose Christ and His people. They even share with Jesus a common hatred of the works of the Nicolaitans, a heretical Christian sect that, like Balaam, seduced God’s people to partake in sexual immorality (vv. 14-15), perhaps disguising these sinful practices as Christian freedom (see 1 Cor. 6:12-20; 8:1 – 11:1). Even so, Jesus rebukes the church for having “abandoned the love [you had] at first” (v. 4). Some interpreters say this means the church has lost the love it had for Christ when their faith was new. Others believe Jesus is rebuking His followers for losing the love they once had for one another. Still others see both meanings in view since the love of Christ and love of one another are related (Mark 12:29-31; 1 John 4:20). In any case, Jesus is sounding a wake-up call to a church that otherwise seems to have it all together.

Christ’s comfort and/or commands

Jesus commands the believers at Ephesus to remember and repent. They are to remember how far they have fallen – not from salvation but from a pure love for Christ that is lived out in Christ-like love for one another. It seems they are going through the motions of their Christian lives, doing all the right things but doing so mechanically rather than eagerly. They are slowly losing the joy of their faith and with it their effective ministry to one another and their witness to the world. Matthew Henry comments: “The sin Christ charged this church with, is, not having left and forsaken the object of love, but having lost the fervent degree of it that at first appeared. Christ is displeased with his people, when he sees them grow remiss and cold toward them…. If the presence of Christ’s grace and Spirit is slighted, we may expect the presence of his displeasure” (Matthew Henry Concise, Bible Explorer, Rev. 2:1).

Therefore, Jesus urges believers at Ephesus to repent, or to have a change of mind and heart that leads to a change in behavior. Otherwise, He warns, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (v. 5). In other words, He will come in special judgment and cause the church to close. The ESV Study Bible is more direct: “Remove your lampstand means that both in the near future and when Christ returns, they would lose their status as a church and Christ would treat them like apostate Israel.” The silting of the harbor at Ephesus and the ravages of earthquakes forced the abandonment of this once-glorious harbor town in the centuries that followed. What remains are the archaeological remnants of the temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and other evidence of a city known for its wealth, commerce and religion. The church at Ephesus evidently suffered a similar fate. W.A. Criswell writes: “The lamp does not burn apart from personal love to Jesus; and when love dies, the light goes out” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 90).

Christ’s urge to listen

Jesus says, “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (v. 7). These words echo Jesus’ warning at the end of the parable of the sower: “Anyone who has ears [to hear] should listen” (Matt. 13:9). While Christ’s message is directed toward the first-century church in Ephesus, it is clear He also is speaking to believers throughout the church age who will stand in judgment one day before Him (Rom. 14:10-12). As we see the church at Ephesus from our Savior’s perspective, we would do well to examine the works in our Christian lives, and the attitude behind them.

Christ’s promises to the victor

Jesus has defeated Satan, sin and death so that victory already is ours in Him. At the same time, He has sent His Spirit to live in us and give us power over sin on a daily basis. Even when we suffer hardship or persecution for the sake of Christ “we are more than victorious through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Believers who remain faithful conquer the dragon “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11) and they conquer the beast as well (Rev. 15:2).

Jesus promises the victor “the right to eat from the tree of life” (v. 7). Access to the tree in Eden, and the eternal life it offered to the pure, was denied after humanity’s fall (Gen. 3:22-24). But now the tree reappears in New Jerusalem, watered by the spring that gushes from the throne of God, providing nourishment and healing to all whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. One of the symbols of ancient Ephesus was the date palm tree. Perhaps Jesus is reminding the faithful in Ephesus that the tree of life in New Jerusalem is to be desired far above even the most glorious icons of renowned cities, just as the Lamb Himself is to be desired above all earthly possessions.