Before we get started with the much anticipated 7 letters to the 7 churches, I wanted to share that some theologians think that these aren’t really 7 actual churches but are in reference to “apostolic ages” between the beginnings of the New Testament church and today. For example, here is a possible timeline.
1. The Apostolic Church ≈ 30 – 300 A.D.
2. The Martyr Church ≈ 100 – 313 A.D.
3. The Compromising Church ≈ 314 – 590 A.D.
4. The Roman Catholic Church ≈ 590 – 1517 A.D.
5. The Reformation Church ≈ 1517-1700
6. The Revival Church ≈ 1700-1900
7. The Worldly Church ≈ 1900- Rapture
While there may be some truth to that theory and a deeper meaning contained in these letters, after all Revelation is prophetic and full of symbolism, but I think that these are 7 letters to 7 literal churches that are also meant to be applied to all churches in every age as is the rest of scripture. The message for those 7 churches is the same as it is for ours today. These letters serve as an example of how churches are supposed to conduct themselves. There is a right way (God’s way) and a wrong way (our way) of doing church or following Jesus.
The message to each church is similar. They start with a greeting, but it’s interesting that they are addressed to the “angel” of each church. Remember we discovered last week that each church has a resident angel. Again, the word “angel” in the Greek is ἀγγέλῳ (angelō) meaning “messenger”. However, ἀγγέλῳ (angelō) can also refer to a human messenger like John the Baptist or a pastor. In addition, all 7 letters end the same way with “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches”. “Spirit” is capitalized here because it is the Holy Spirit who is the third member of the Godhead or Trinity. Also, there are only two churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, that don’t receive negative criticism, rebuke, or where there is nothing “held against them”. This is encouraging to know that it is possible to “do church” or follow Jesus the right way or God’s way which is also a central theme of all 7 letters. Another “theme” that we will discover in these letters and the rest of the book of Revelation for that matter is a Jesus that is not very popular in our current culture. This Jesus makes us very uncomfortable, and many find Him unacceptable to the point where they refuse to acknowledge and even deny this part of His character. This “side” of Jesus is left out and substituted for one that is more palatable. More on that later.
Okay here we go. I’ll give a brief summary of what Jesus says to each church, but I’m saving the “worst” for last because it’s actually the last letter.
Letter to Ephesus:
They get good marks on their deeds, hard work, perseverance, and enduring hardships. They don’t tolerate wicked people or false prophets-teachers. BUT they have forsaken their “first love” or the love they “had at first”. Ah, first love! Ain’t it grand?
Of course, we know that Jesus isn’t talking about romantic love. He’s talking about our love for Him, and He may also be referring to a previous command from John 14:15-24 that begins by saying, “If you love me, keep my commands.” To “keep” or τηρήσε
With all “loves” whether it’s someone or something, the emotional intensity can wane over time, especially the initial infatuation. But if we want to have a love or a relationship that is lasting, it has to be nurtured and cultivated. It’s hard work and even painful at times. Apparently, the Ephesians had been falling down on the job in this department because Jesus says, “Consider how far you have fallen!” However, there is good news for the Ephesians and us today. Jesus throws them a lifeline. He tells them to “repent and do the things you did at first”. In other words, confess your sins, stop sinning, and get back to what you were doing before which was keeping His commandments.
Some may not see this as good news. It comes with conditions and consequences for not adhering to or keeping His commands because in the second half of this verse Jesus says, “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (Revelation 2:5 NIV) In effect they will no longer be an effective church. Their “light of Christ” will no longer shine. The church will be “dead”. Hold on to that because it will come up again later.
There is an interesting piece of this letter that will come up again later in another letter, but it concerns a group of people called the “Nicolaitans” who were followers of, you guessed it, a religious sect led by a guy named Nicolas. This sect was located in Ephesus and Pergamum (3rd Letter). The Lord accuses them of laxity about eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual license. This may have been “Libertine Gnosticism”. Gnosticism is a heretical or false doctrine that arose in the early 2nd century. Gnostics believed in indulging the body. They thought that the body was evil and should be satiated or satisfied. In other words, give the body what it wants. They advocated sexual tolerance, which is only the tip of the iceberg from a theological perspective.
Fortunately for the Ephesians, they didn’t hold the Nicolaitans in very high regard. In fact, they “hated” their “practices” or way of living. Jesus commends them for this in Revelation 2:6 when He says, “But you have this in your favor: “You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” (Revelation 2:6 NIV) Hold up. Did Jesus just say He hated something? Is this the same Jesus that commanded us to love our neighbor and enemies? Yep. But let’s focus in on what Jesus hates about them.
Just to be clear. Jesus doesn’t hate the Nicolaitans. He hates their “practices”, their behavior, what they are doing and saying. He loves them as His creations, but not their sin. There is a big difference. The Greek word for “hate” in this verse is μισεῖς (miseis). It means what we think it means to hate, detest, love less, or esteem less. Does that mean that Jesus is contradicting His prior statement of loving our enemies? Absolutely not. Again, He is encouraging the Ephesians and us to “hate” evil practices and behaviors, not the people that do them. Judgement is not our job. It’s God’s and His judgements will be for all who have “sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), which means everybody. Even the righteous will be judged by their deeds and practices according to Revelation 20:11-15. Paul also refers to this in 2 Corinthians 5:10 when he says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” So, as it is implied in this verse and others, Jesus will in fact be a judge for us all. For some Jesus as a judge is just too difficult to contemplate.
Just to reiterate. Jesus’ issue is not with people. It’s what they practice, how they live, behave, and what they decide to engage in. In 1 Thessalonians 5:22-24, Paul says, “reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” Other translations tell us to “abstain from every form of evil” Not just some forms of evil but all of them, every kind and in every form. Keep or stay away from them completely. Don’t have anything to do with them. In the King James Version of these verses, it says to “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” In other words, our practices and behaviors should never mirror, resemble, or be associated with evil. It’s kind of like the old phrase “guilty by association”, which will come up in another letter. As we’ll see, Jesus isn’t finished with the Nicolaitans just yet. For examples of “every kind of evil”, study the Bible Genesis to Revelation. It’s all in there.
If we go back a few verses in 1 Thessalonians 5, it says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil”. Everything we do, say, and think needs to be tested, filtered, washed, and sanctified by God through the “Spirit” (Holy Spirit). If we’re unsure about anything, a practice or behavior, we need to wash it through the word of God or the Bible, God’s greatest tool for sanctification. Not only to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), but also to cut open and expose sin that may be hidden deep inside. As we read and study the Holy Spirit will help us dissect and discern what practices or behaviors are evil or “quenching the Spirit”. To “quench” or σβέννυτε (sbennyte) in the Greek, means to extinguish, suppress, or thwart. Uh, we shouldn’t want to do that. It’s not a good idea to get in God’s way.
The word of God or the “sword of the spirit” as it is called in Ephesians 6:17 is a part of the “full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11) that enables us to “stand against the devil’s schemes” or evil. According to Hebrews 4:12-13 this “word of God” or “sword of the spirit” is “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints, and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” The “him to whom we must give account” is Jesus, the One who “hates” evil practices and behaviors.
In closing, not all of the letters will require this much detail, so hang in there. However, it’s important for us to see the bigger picture by cross referencing with other scriptures and connecting the dots so to speak. While the “Jesus” in these letters may appear to have a different tone, it is still the same Jesus who loves us and wants to protect us from sin and evil. His character and identity go much deeper than we can ever imagine. He is our Savior, Judge “to whom we must give account”, and so much more. Remember He is the “Alpha and Omega”,the “beginning and the end”. If that sounds “awesome” or extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear; it’s supposed to. He is God. Big “G”.
Okay, I’ll close with the second letter because it’s short.
Letter to Smyrna:
As they say, “it’s all good”. Smyrna is in good shape from a faith and following Jesus perspective. The letter begins with Jesus saying, “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!” In other words, “I know you’ve suffered but you guys have remained faithful. You’ve done it the right way and that’s AWESOME!”Remember this isn’t a great time to be a Christian anywhere. Persecution is widespread and it’s far from over, so this church is offered some much-needed encouragement from the “Alpha and Omega” to hang in there, and that’s it. He has nothing against them.
See I was able to close on a positive note.
Have a great weekend! Love y’all!
Director of Family Ministry and Facility Coordinator – Andrews UMC