II. Letters to the Seven Churches (Revelation 2:1–3:22)


II. Letters to the Seven Churches (2:1–3:22)

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.

A. Letter to the Church in Ephesus (2:1-7)

2:1 Jesus reminds the pastor (angelos, “messenger”; see 1:20) of the church in Ephesus that he holds pastors in his right hand and walks among churches. Jesus knows what’s going on.

2:2-3 Because of this, he could say, I know your works, your labor, and your endurance. He also knew they did not tolerate evil people (2:2). They tested everything by the Scriptures and rightly found that some so-called apostles did not teach pure doctrine. Moreover, the Ephesian believers persevered amid hardships for the sake of Christ’s name (2:3). There were a lot of positive things happening in this church.

2:4 But Jesus shifts from patting them on the back to rebuke: You have abandoned the love you had at first. They had correct doctrine, but not a correct heart. The key word here is first, not love. As with romantic love between a man and a woman, first love always involves passion. Yet there was not passionate pursuit of an intimate relationship with Christ in the church. They were merely following a program. Duty had replaced devotion.

2:5-6 The remedy was to remember how it used to be when the church was excited about Jesus and return to that attitude. If the church failed to repent, Christ would remove its lampstand (2:5)—that is, put out its light. If our church’s activity is about us rather than about Jesus, he’ll remove his presence from it. The Ephesians hated the practices of evil people, but that positive did not outweigh their loss of passion for Christ (2:6). They needed to remember the primacy of relationship over performance, to repent of their spiritual departure, and to repeat prioritizing intimate fellowship with God (see Luke 10:38-42).

2:7 At the end of each letter, Jesus gets personal, directing his remarks to individuals in the church rather than the church as a collective. In each case, he addresses individual believers with the words “to the one who conquers” (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). The Greek verb translated as “conquers” is nikao, and it means to be victorious in the midst of, over, in, or through whatever circumstances are illegitimately holding a believer hostage. In 1 John 5:5 we read, “Who is the one who conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” If by believing in Jesus we are conquerors, then why in these letters to the churches are we still exhorted to conquer? Well, John is addressing the contrast between our legal status (our declared position in Christ) and our experiential reality. We must work out this position of being a conqueror in the experiences of our everyday lives in order to have special intimacy with Christ in the kingdom.

In this message to the Christians at Ephesus, Christ appeals to anyone who has ears, referring to the person who heeds this spiritual principle being articulated. The one who conquers the temptation to push Christ to second place will be granted to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God. The tree of life was a special tree in the garden of Eden (see Gen 2:9), and here it represents a special level of intimacy with God in heaven. All believers will go to heaven, but those who do not lose passion for Christ in this life will experience a special place of intimacy with the Lord.

B. Letter to the Church in Smyrna (2:8-11)

2:8-10 Christ acknowledges that the church in Smyrna is a faithful congregation undergoing persecution. Some who claimed to be Jews were actually a synagogue of Satan because they were doing the devil’s work, slandering believers (2:8-9). Christians at Smyrna would be thrown into prison as a test of their faith, and the church would be afflicted (2:10). While such circumstances might make them feel poor, they actually were rich due to the coming reward for their spiritual endurance (2:10). To those who refuse to compromise when faced with persecution, there is no condemnation. That’s why Jesus says nothing negative about this church.

2:11 To never be harmed by the second death refers to enjoying a sense of full gain when Christ separates believers from unbelievers at the end of history. Because the recipients of this letter were already Christians, they could not be separated from God. Yet at the final judgment, some Christians will experience a sense of loss, despite their eternal salvation, when Jesus rebukes their unfaithfulness (see Matt 25:28-30; 1 Cor 3:15). The faithful at Smyrna, in contrast, would be untouched by any negative consequence on that day.

C. Letter to the Church in Pergamum (2:12-17)

2:12-16 The one who has the sharp, double-edged sword is Jesus speaking the Word of God. The church in Pergamum had some good things going. They were holding on to Jesus’s name and did not deny [their] faith in him (2:12-13). Yet they tolerated those who, like Balaam in the Old Testament, claimed God’s name (see Num 22–24) while also enticing his people to compromise (Num 25:1; 31:16). It’s a big deal to God when we cause other people to stumble, especially when we do it knowingly and for profit like Balaam (2:14-15). That’s why the Lord demanded that the Christians in Pergamum repent (2:16).

2:17 The reward is twofold for those who refuse to compromise or tempt others to do so. First, there is hidden manna. Manna was the supernatural food God rained down from heaven to sustain Israel in the wilderness (see Deut 8:16). This manna is “hidden” in that it is not available to all. It represents exclusive sustenance and kingdom fellowship with God for Christians who reject the way of Balaam (see commentary on 2:12-16).

Second, there is a white stone inscribed with a new name. In the Roman world, a white stone was used as an admission ticket for an event. A white stone with someone’s name on it was a personalized, all-access pass. This image, then, reinforces the idea of exclusive, personal fellowship with God as the conquering Christian’s reward. For the one who rises above being a nominal Christian, Jesus has special benefits. You get invited to the private reception.

D. Letter to the Church in Thyatira (2:18-29)

2:18-20 The description of Jesus here echoes 1:14-15, where he is positioned as the church’s powerful Judge. The church in Thyatira needed a judge because despite its faithfulness, service, and endurance, it tolerated the sin of a woman referred to as Jezebel (2:19-20). Though perhaps this was her real name, Jezebel also brings to mind the wife of Israel’s King Ahab (see 1 Kgs 16:31; 2 Kgs 9) and represents an entire category of immoral and idolatrous women. This woman in Thyatira promoted sexual immorality and idolatry (2:20). Christ condemned both her and the church’s tolerance of her.

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.

E. Letter to the Church in Sardis (3:1-6)

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).

F. Letter to the Church in Philadelphia (3:7-13)

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.

G. Letter to the Church in Laodicea (3:14-22)

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.