Have you ever read a letter that was addressed to someone else? Perhaps it was with their permission – or maybe not! Revelation is a very detailed letter that was written for a specific group of people; it was originally meant for seven churches that were located in what is now Turkey. The local body of believers in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea each received a copy of the visions John recorded.
Before John was given a glimpse of the future, he received a personal message from the Risen, Glorified Savior for each church. These are recorded in Revelation 2-3. Some speculate these seven represent seven types of churches, or seven time periods of the universal church’s growth, but taken literally, we can confidently read them as personal instructions to the churches that were meeting locally at that time. However, like all of scripture, we can glean wisdom from Jesus’ words for our own churches today. God’s Word was inspired, written, and preserved for all of God’s people. While our cultural contexts may change, the things revealed about God and our relationship to Him does not.
The messages Jesus had for each church reveal His intimate knowledge of what is going on in the hearts and minds of those who proclaim faith in Him. If there is something to commend, He begins with that and then addresses the sin or shortcomings that He sees in the church and the consequences of discipline that will happen if they do not repent. He ends with a message of motivation and hope for those who respond to His words and overcome.
Ephesus was commended for their perseverance and for their attention to doctrine but had left their first love. Smyrna received no rebuke but was only encouraged to be faithful in the coming persecution. Pergamum was struggling with the influences of idolatry and immorality. Thyatira was tolerating a false prophetess who posed as a believer but was leading them away from truth into sin. Sardis was dying with apathy. Philadelphia was commended for her faithfulness and promised protection from the hour of testing to come. Laodicea was lukewarm, caught up in self-sufficiency and empty religious activity.
Each local church had a decision to make when they received this letter; they could take heed to the warnings, repent, turn away from their sin and purify the church from false doctrines, and be counted as overcomers. Or they could go on in their ungodly behavior and suffer the discipline and judgment reserved for those who reject God.
It’s not coincidental that Jesus begins with an examination of the church before He reveals all that is to take place at the end of the age. It’s preparation. He will purify His church, separating the sheep from the goats, the true believers from those who are only posing as Christ-followers. The lesson for us is to examine our hearts personally for any of the sinful behaviors, attitudes or deeds represented in these seven churches.
What is promised to those who overcome, remaining faithful to God, and enduring until the end?
Overcomers will eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God (2:7).
Overcomers will not be hurt by the second death (2:11).
Overcomers will be given hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written on it (2:17).
Overcomers will be given authority over the nations, to rule with Christ (2:26-28).
Overcomers will be clothed in white garments, and have their name confessed by Jesus before the Father and His angels (3:5).
Overcomers will be made a pillar in the temple of God forever and have God’s name written on him (3:12).
Overcomers will sit down with Jesus on His throne (3:21).
Wow. Those are some amazing promises, aren’t they? Things we don’t even really know what they mean fully, although we can speculate based on other scriptures. For example, a white stone was often given by a King to someone as a sign of victory, or as a “pass” into the presence of the King. As Revelation unfolds, we will see more details of our future, and be given more understanding of these precious promises.
How do we overcome? Faith in Jesus, and Jesus alone. Believing faith. Obedient faith.
1 John 5:1-5 – Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.
John has much to tell us about the future. We will move quickly from things that terrify us, to descriptions of things happening in heaven that will excite and inspire us. Like those seven churches, let’s make sure our hearts are ready, for the time is near.