Our Lord Jesus, about 60 years after the events in Acts 1, where He once again returned to Heaven to sit on the throne of the universe with God the Father, appeared to the Apostle John, and dictated to him seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey. These churches, in order of appearance, are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum (or Pergamos depending on your translation), Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The Lord Jesus had something to say to each of them. Two received no trace of discipline, two received no good word at all, and I am willing to speculate that ALL of them were surprised with what can be seen as a bit of a report card on their progress, and constructive criticism so that their courses could be corrected in their pilgrimage to be with Him for eternity.
We will look at all seven churches in brief to see what the Lord’s final words to them were and see what applications we may make for ourselves. It is a daunting task, because inevitably we will have to omit something. This is of critical importance to the believer today because our Lord is returning soon, hallelujah! As such, our conduct in the world must be blameless. There are several reasons for this, but the most important of these is that we bring no shame on the name of Christ—that we are a good testimony with our lives, and not a bad one.
This all starts with the Gospel, which is a term from Elizabethan English that means “good news.” Now, we all know that before good news comes bad news. That’s what makes the good news so good! Did you know that you are a traitor? Oh, not to Canada, we’re not talking about that…but to God. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden, they broke the one law that God had given them to obey—and committed cosmic treason against God. Worse, they passed that on to all their offspring, and that, Beloved, is US! That makes us ALL traitors to God by extension. We are still accountable for that sin, as well as all our own! And we know what those are too if we are honest with ourselves! Idolatry, the worship of man-made “gods” like “success,” blasphemous use of the Lord’s name, not gathering with the saints when you can, disobedience to parents if you’re younger, murdering, thieving, adultery, lying, and thinking we deserve the neighbour’s stuff more than they do. We call those the Ten Commandments. And everyone here today has broken every single one of them, whether you know it or not. I have, and I’ve known some of you for a long time, and you and I know where the bodies are buried! Those crimes against the Creator demand restitution, Beloved, and we are unable to pay it. We cannot simply die for our crimes because they are against God Himself. We will have to face His judgement and burning anger for all eternity unless we have some outside help. That’s the bad news. But don’t get all maudlin, there is some really good news here! The Apostle Paul puts it best in 2 Corinthians 5:21 — “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Beloved, Paul said a mouthful! Do you understand this? We covered this very recently in our Bible Study on Thursday evening online! I’ll give you the Cole’s Notes version: God the Father made God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the One that never knew sin like we do, to be sin for us! The One that according to the Apostle John, whose text we read earlier, that spoke the entire universe and all it contains into existence! HE became sin vicariously in our place! First, Jesus lived the life that we should have lived, in full submission and obedience to God, and then He willingly and knowingly gave up that life to pay the penalty for our sins, like if I paid your parking ticket! And this was a lot bigger than a parking ticket! He even did this for a reason: “…that WE might become the righteousness of God in Him.” And after that, He rose from the grave, because as an innocent man, the Law had no hold on Him! And He ascended into Heaven to resume His place on the throne, and now as a human! That’s right…He lived the life we should have lived, and then died the death we should have died—and WE now get the Life He has because of that. This was even demonstrated that Pentecost when the Holy Spirt, also God Himself, came to live inside of each real believer! He exchanged that…mere existence…for His glorious resurrection life! And beloved, if you will put your faith and trust in Him, He will justify you before God and begin your sanctification, the life-long process of your becoming more and more holy until the Lord comes and takes you to be with Him forever.
That’s where it starts, when God Himself regenerates you and you truly and irresistibly believe Him once for all! And there begins your being sanctified through your sufferings in life, to give you “The sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb 12:14) As you can imagine, this will NOT be easy, and we must endure each trial in faith. It has been said that these seven letters that we will examine in brief here represent every trial a church will face until the return of Christ, and I agree with that statement. Let us briefly consider each local gathering to see what principles we may learn and thereby be made holy.
First, this is actually Jesus Christ speaking. If you have a red-letter edition of the Bible, you should see His words in red in this section. I prefer all-black myself, but I’m just giving you information. We know it is Jesus Himself because of what happens, and what He says. When John realizes who is speaking, he falls at His feet as if dead. Beloved, no flesh can abide His presence. To resurrect our dead flesh will require His touch, and Jesus laid His hand on John and assured Him—do not fear. It is I! Then He identifies Himself, as if John needed that. Then He says to John a simple command—write. These seven short letters to seven churches in Asia Minor were the result of that command. And John even tells us why these things were written in the passage we read at the opening of the service this morning. Revelation 1: 3 says, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.” Three simple things are required to gain that blessing. Read. Hear. Heed. Easy, right? Well, maybe not. Let’s look at those seven churches.
The Lord Himself commends the Ephesians for remaining faithful to the teachings, the didaktikos, or doctrines taught by the apostles. They found false teachers, exposed them, and put them out. But their adherence to doctrine was not enough, because, says the Lord, “…you have left your first love.” (2:4). What is that? The love of the Saviour, the reason we do everything in the first place, and here is our very first application. We must cultivate that love for Him. How do we anchor our faith? Acts 2:42 — “…and they were continually devoting themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread (worship), and prayer.” Those four activities are HOW one cultivates love for Christ. I have noticed that when I neglect those four actions of faith, I find myself drifting.
We need to be clear about the love of God because the word here is agape. This indicates God’s love, and it isn’t just one’s feelings that are involved. It also required that we engage our will and choose to love. This actually runs contrary to our fleshly natures; we like to let our emotions run us because it is easier—in fact it is our default setting. However, like Christ, we must choose the will of the Father and not our own will.
For those that found themselves of the wrong side of that particular accusations, where they were just going through the motions, doing the deeds like automatons, Christ called them to repent and engage their will again, and to be willing servants, that doulos that Paul wore as a badge of honour.
We’ll talk about the “deeds of the Nicolaitans in a moment.
Smyrna is the persecuted church. We tend to think that persecution can’t and doesn’t happen here in the western world, but I can personally assure you it does, because I have seen it and have been the target of it occasionally. And one does not have to look hard to see that more of it is headed the church’s way. A Pastor in NB was fined over $100K just for gathering his church outside with everyone masked and socially distance. Two Ontario churches that I am aware of have been fined and seized by police for not doing as they are told. One of them was fined over $10M. Yes, you heard that right. And their property was seized and sealed off by the OPP. A MB church in the boonies wanted to have outdoor services where everyone was socially distanced. The meeting was shut down by the RCMP (the provincial police in MB). Ditto SK. In AB, 4 pastors have been arrested and jailed for simply being pastors and obeying God instead of men. Whatever you may think about their actions and how they are engaging in what amounts to civil disobedience, they are NOT bothering MOSQUES, which are filled to capacity on their day of worship, no masks, no social distancing. Liquor stores and Marijuana Markets remain open. Only the church is supposed to close? Sounds kind of suspiciously like persecution, doesn’t it. That wasn’t a question.
The Lord lays no other command than this on Smyrna: remain faithful. The Lord also makes no secret that that faithfulness of heart and purpose will cost at least some of them their lives. The modern version of that is something like cancel culture. The make it impossible for you to transact business. I know a fellow that is a businessman and a Christian that has had both Visa and MasterCard, as well as PayPal, and at least 5 major American banks refuse to do business with him. He runs a Facebook alternative called Gab. He asks for user support, and almost every month, he gets more than enough to break even. He has about 12 staff I am aware of, and a WHACK of computer server equipment that actually owns himself so that they can’t shut him down. You should hear the man preach the gospel. Beloved, that’s a faithful man. Let us endeavor to be faithful regardless of the cost! Remember how the Lord said, “…take up your cross and follow me?” (Mt. 16:24, Mk. 8:34, Lk. 9:23).
Our Friday Night Book Club is about to begin a book that talks about the cost of following Christ by Dr. Steven J. Lawson. It is titled It Will Cost You Everything. Beloved, that is the cost of following Jesus. No one EVER said that it would be easy on earth of follow our Lord and Saviour. What He promised is that it will be worth the price of admission. Let me challenge you. Join us in this resolve—remain faithful.
This church has demonstrated its faithfulness under fire, so to speak. A fellow named Antipas, ordained by the Apostle John to be the Overseer in Pergamum, was thrown into a red-hot brass bull where Roman people put their sacrifices for their deities in the days of Caesar Nero. He is said to have prayed loudly as he cooked, asking the Lord to receive his soul and to strengthen the faith of Christians. He apparently fell asleep peacefully, joining our Lord in heaven.
These people KNEW the cost and were joyfully willing to pay it! Can you imagine? I grumble when I make myself get out of bed in the morning, and when I drag myself to go to bed at night! These believers WERE faithful. And yet, these faithful believers had some things to work on! They had a few people (I would be hard pressed to say they were real Christians, you’ll see why) that held what John refers to as the doctrine (didache, teaching) of Balaam. Balaam, you will recall, was the Old Testament Gentile seer that Balak King of Moab hired to curse Israel on their way to Canaan. He taught Balak that the way to get God to curse Israel was to cause Israel to sin. There were false teachers that had crept in unawares teaching the believers at Pergamum two things that we know of here: to violate their own consciences and eat things that unbelievers knew had been sacrificed to false idols, and to commit acts of sexual immorality. Obviously, these are violations of the moral Law of God, which we should here remind ourselves that we should WANT to keep this so that we are pleasing to our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Then there was the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. Remember we referred to that when we spoke about Ephesus? We don’t know what this was, but we can make a couple of educated guesses. Some have postulated that a man named Nicolaus was the primary mover in those teachings we just mentioned, and it is a possibility. There are others. The original study notes in the Scofield Reference Bible tell us that the word is composed of two other Greek words: nikos, to conquer as would a tyrant, and laos, the people. The position of J. N. Darby of the Plymouth Brethren and others I have heard over the years is that this is a reference to the beginning of a professional class of “priests” that would be “intercessors between man and God. We KNOW that’s wrong! Paul tells Timothy in his first letter to the young pastor, “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…” (1 Tim. 2:5)
Whatever you want to believe about the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, please see the progression. If the DEEDS in Rev. 2:6 are not checked by repentance and discipline, then they will become doctrine as it says in 2:15. The Lord tells His own beloved bride that if that behaviour and teaching is continued, they are fighting against Jesus Himself. Now which of us wants that? Not me! And hopefully not you! We see here the need to be HOLY. God has set us apart for His holy purposes. We must KEEP ourselves that way.
In this church, the Son of God Himself, with burning gaze and feet of burning bronze that speak of His authority and ability to judge, addresses this gathering. This church, by Jesus’ own words, had some strong things going for them! Love, faith, perseverance (that’s patience under suffering), service, good deeds—they were practicing the fruit of the Spirit that we can find in Galatians 5! And this group of believers working for the Lord had a terrible secret.
Whether Jezebel is a literal person or analogous is immaterial here. This individual (and I have a difficult time imagining her as anything except real), is actively teaching, and worse, a plain reading of the text gives one the impression that she is participating in the wickedness that was just a behaviour issue in Ephesus and was a teaching in Pergamum. Here is seems that audience participation was being encouraged and modeled for the believers. In fact, the text tells us that there were two groups—the group that was participating, and the group that did not follow these doctrinal practices. Those that are NOT participating in the wickedness are told to simply hold on to what they have and faithfully keep walking with Christ. Overcome the deeds of the flesh—literally. And there is our application. Overcome your natural tendencies by repenting with the faith of God.
This gathering had a problem! But it wasn’t an OBVIOUS problem. From the outside, they appeared to have it all together, they appeared to be strong in faith, they appeared to be filled with new life! However, according to the One who has the Holy Spirit and owns the churches, nothing could have been farther from the truth. They were asleep at the switch at the very least! Some may have even been non-Christians. Beloved, have you ever encountered a fellow that claimed Christ as his Lord, but whose speech and behaviour left you wondering how true that was? That’s what the Lord is speaking about here. But they say they’re a Christian, so I can’t really say anything…
Wrong. That has been unofficially called the 11th commandment by theologians. The 11th commandment says, “You shall not be mean to people if they claim to be Christians.” I don’t know who originally came up with that, but I like it. I mean, we shouldn’t be mean to people…oh really? Paul was. Elymas the magician and the guy in 1 Corinthians 5 that was sleeping with his own stepmother (we think) are examples of that. Peter was. Simon Magus comes to mind, another example. Both Jesus and John the Baptist had NO kind words for the religious authorities of the day. I could go on, but I have made my point from scripture with those examples that I will leave you to look up yourself. If you see open rebellion against the will of God, Christian, it is your DUTY to call it out. I know that’s hard. But NOT doing so is at least partly how the entire church got into the current mess it is in now.
According to the Lord here, the cure is to wake up from your slumber. I believe that scripture teaches that this is one of the jobs of your pastor—to sound the alarm and wake you up! After all, we are shepherds of the sheep, charged with your well-being. The application comes here directly from the Lord. Keep your garments white. That is a Bible code phrase to walk in a worthy manner—in holiness, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who knew no sin, and yet was made sin on our behalf, so that we could be the righteousness of God in Him. Have a worthy, holy, blameless walk, beloved, and if you find yourself in need of help, that is the reason that we under-shepherds have been given as gifts to you. Did you know that the conical is a symbol of the slave of Christ? It represents the ring around our necks and how we are slaves of Christ. A handful on purpose. I’m personally glad they have size double-extra-large.
This is the church everyone claims as the one in which they belong. The reality is that we don’t all, but it is a good goal. This church is stroking on all cylinders so to speak. All of the applications here are kind of like a to-do list so that we can become like this one. So let’s look at them quickly.
The first thing Jesus says to them is, “I know your deeds.” I see, and I know. And YOU are doing what I said to do! He says, “You have a little power!” Truthfully, I think that power must come from Him because I have none of my own. “You have kept my word!” They had done what He said to do! And notice in 3:10 that His word is a word of perseverance. The Greek here implies that one would patiently remain in austere circumstances. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? Yes, Lord, it is. We are so sorry when we do not. Not because we got caught not remaining, but because we know our sin hurts You. “You have not denied my name!” Can we really say we have not denied His name if we continue in our sin and live like we are not born from above as Jesus says is necessary? No, we cannot. Have you ever wondered what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain? That commandment is about more than vocabulary, it is about lifestyle and behaviour.
This church is one that I find interesting, and more than a little frightening. Remember, this is a church. Where is Christ in this passage? He’s OUTSIDE, Beloved! It isn’t His church anymore. The Greek word Laodicea is also composed of two words, and both will sound familiar to you. We’ve look at the first one, laos. It means people. The second word is dike, and it is the Greek word from which we derive our English word “diocese.” It has the meaning of justice, as in its execution, a kind of just governance. It is governed, if you will, by the people. And there is Jesus outside of this, knocking on the door.
And we, in all of our lukewarmness don’t give two flicks of a dog’s tail. Why? I suspect it is because we are comfortable.
Beloved, I know we treat this as a Gospel verse, but it was written to the church. Should our Lord be knocking on our door, and no one will let Him in? He is the Lord of Hosts, and He has such manners that He will KNOCK and ASK to come in? Lord, we open the door here and now for you. Come in and dine with us. You will also note He brings all of the food and supplies. We cannot, and are not required, to do anything. What a great coincidence.
You should know that ancient Laodicea was famous for some things. The first thing was its garment industry. It made rich and colourful coats, and tunics. I think I read somewhere that it made Caesar’s clothing, but I can’t remember where I came across that. The second thing was that it was a relatively wealthy community. They didn’t really have poor people there, everyone worked, and we would consider them today as upper middle class to upper class. The final thing was an eye ointment that was helpful in treating some forms of blindness. So—everyone was well-dressed, rich, and had decent eyesight. See how the Lord addresses that.
“…you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” (3:17b)
The lesson I see for us here is that we must not rely on our own natural resources, or gifts, and talents. I have been told I sing well. You don’t see me out there looking for a recording contract like a star-struck teen, do you? No! Besides, I’m not that good. We cannot be so blind about ourselves that we do not realize that we need Christ. And we DO need Him, every day, every hour, every minute! We cannot live without Him! Personally, I don’t want to, and I hope that is your desire as well.
Beloved, I know that there is MUCH, MUCH more that could be said about all these things. But this is a great framework for your own investigations into Jesus’ final instructions for His church. We are a part of that church, if we have been born again, or born from above, or regenerated, or justified, or saved, whatever language you choose from the Scriptures about this. But think about this. Our King will return sometime to take us all home. When He will do so cannot be known, and if we will go all at once, or when we pass from our mortal bodies to our immortality that we must put on, we must then give an account of how we will have lived our lives.
These seven letters tell us how to do that. May they bring us safely to His shore, by His grace.