The return of Christ is imminent—it could happen at any time. And although we don’t know when he will return, we do know how we are to function in the church in the meantime. Christ’s message to each church in chapters 2–3 represents an aspect of his plan during the church age for every properly functioning church—represented by the numeral seven, the number of completion.
2:21 Though Christ gave her time to repent, she refused. A refusal is different than a struggle. At times, believers fight sins but cannot stop committing them on their own power. Jezebel was unwilling to make any effort.
2:22-25 The affliction described here illustrates that one purpose of repentance is to limit or remove sin’s consequences (2:22). Repentance allows Christians to regain fellowship with the Lord. Those not following the way of Jezebel did not have to worry about the burdens listed. They were to hold on until Christ returned (2:24-25).
2:26-27 The reward for obeying Christ is authority over the nations, a reference to the thousand-year reign of Jesus following his second coming. During that time, believers who exhibit purity in this life will help the Lord rule the world. That millennial reign, though, is merely a down payment on eternity.
2:28-29 Jesus himself is the morning star (see 22:16). Thus, the reward for a pure life is a greater experience of Jesus during his millennial reign and for eternity. Naturally, a co-ruler of the universe will have greater access to the King than a common citizen.
3:1-4 The seven spirits of God is a reference to the Holy Spirit (see commentary on 1:4-7). This church had a reputation for being alive. It was the kind of place about which people today might say, “They have great music and great preaching.” Yet because Jesus knew their works, he saw there was no true spiritual life there (3:1-2). They were merely playing church. The believers in Sardis, then, were to stop the spiritual sleeping. The remedy included remembering what you have received and heard. Jesus warned that he was coming in judgment. But as he does repeatedly with his people, he gave the church in Sardis an opportunity to repent first (3:3). Notably, a few believers in this church were committed spiritually and not acquiescing to spiritual apathy (3:4).
3:5-6 White clothes for the one who conquers represent the garments required for a special event, like a gown or tuxedo of today. The promise to never erase his name from the book of life is not a reference to eternal life, because every believer has a secure place in heaven. Instead, the names in this book are invitees to special fellowship with God, to an exclusive party, so to speak, for those who persist in spiritual vitality. The special clothes and invitation list are two parts of the same metaphor: a banquet with God for those who conquer. At that banquet, Jesus will brag on the conquerors before [his] Father and before his angels (3:5).
3:7-9 The church in Philadelphia (3:7), although small and viewed by the world as insignificant, was spiritually serious. They were committed (3:8). Except for the church at Smyrna, this was the only church not to receive a rebuke from Jesus. Even though this church had little worldly power, Jesus promised to reward their faithfulness by overruling the satanic enemies that came against them. That act of divine defense, he said, would put wicked enemies on notice that I have loved you (3:8-9).
3:10 Within the premillennial view of eschatology, which this commentary adopts, there are at least four different views on the rapture—the return of Christ to remove his church from the world. Some premillennialists believe the rapture will occur prior to a seven-year period of tribulation; some believe it will occur in the middle of that tribulation; some say it will happen two-thirds of the way through; and some insist it will come at the end. This verse suggests a pre-tribulational rapture because it says, I will also keep you from the hour of testing that is going to come on the whole earth. Jesus will not merely keep them from the test but from the period of the test—that is, the tribulation period.
3:11-13 The believer’s crown is a symbol of his or her eternal reward. The admonition, Hold on to what you have, so that no one takes your crown, suggests eternal rewards can be lost (3:11). Christ’s promise to make the one who conquers a pillar in the temple of God is a promise of public recognition (3:12). In the end, everyone will know the spiritually serious person is special to God because Jesus will publicly identify that person as set apart.
3:14-16 The church in Laodicea can be labeled the carnal church (3:14). The key sentence here is this: Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth (3:16). The Everyday English Tony Evans Translation puts it this way: “Y’all make me want to throw up!” Nobody orders a lukewarm drink. They want iced tea or hot coffee. In the spiritual realm, God finds tepidness unappealing as well.
3:17 Here Jesus debunks a prominent lie of prosperity theology: being materially successful means God has blessed you. Not so. The Laodiceans said, I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing. But the external appearance of prosperity was not indicative of the condition of their hearts or their level of fellowship with God. They were spiritually uncommitted, carnal, and compromising. As Jesus put it, they were wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked spiritually.
3:18-20 They needed to acquire from Jesus true wealth—those character traits, behaviors, and beliefs that have eternal value. Then they truly would be rich (3:18). By stating, be zealous and repent, Christ gave this carnal church an opportunity to get right with God (3:19). See! I stand at the door and knock was an invitation. Jesus will not force himself into a church. But if any member of a congregation will open the door by submitting to his will, he will come in and eat (3:20)—that is, he will have intimate fellowship with believers who respond to his invitation.
3:21-22 To the one who conquers, Christ offers a high position of rulership and an elevated level of personal experience with him (3:21). He uses rewards here, as with the other six churches, as a motivation to conquer sin and slackness—not as a motivation to salvation.