God's Final Word
by Ray C. Stedman
James D. Denney
God's Final Word
Copyright @ 1991 by Ray C. Stedman
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Stedman, Ray C.
God's final word: understanding Revelation / by Ray C. Stedman with James D. Denney.
p. em. Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 0-929239-52-0
1. Bible. N.T. Revelation-Commentaries. I. Denney, James D.
II. Bible. N.T. Revelation. English. New International. 1991. III. Title. BS2825.3.S686 1991
228'.077-dc20 91-33778 CIP
Unless indicated otherwise, Scripture is taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright @ 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Discovery House Publishers is affiliated with RBC Ministries, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49512.
Discovery House books are distributed to the trade exclusively by Barbour Publishing, Inc., Uhrichsville, Ohio 44683.
Printed in the United States of America.
04 05 06 / CHG / 14 13 12 11
Other books by Ray C. Stedman
From Guilt To Glory (2 volumes)
How To Live What You Believe
Is This All There Is To Life?
Man Of Faith: Learning From The Life Of Abraham
Psalms Of Faith
Talking To My Father
Waiting For The Second Coming
Chapter 1 Behind the Scenes of History
Chapter 2 Seven Letters to Seven Churches
Overview: Revelation 1:19, chapters 2 and 3
Chapter 3 The Church That Lost Its Love
Chapter 4 A Church under Pressure
Chapter 5 The Church That Compromised
Chapter 6 The Worldly Church
Chapter 7 The Church of the Zombies
Chapter 8 The Little Church That Tried
Chapter 9 The Rich/Poor Church
Chapter 10 Supreme Headquarters
Chapter 11 The Great Breakthrough
Chapter 12 The Riders of Judgment
Chapter 13 To Jew and Gentile
Chapter 14 Angels of Doom
Chapter 15 All Hell Breaks Loose
Chapter 16 The End of Mystery
Chapter 17 The Last Warning
Chapter 18 The Woman and the Serpent
Chapter 19 When Men Become Beasts
Chapter 20 The Time of Harvest
Chapter 21 Earth's Last Trial
Revelation 15 and 16
Chapter 22 The Dragon Lady
Chapter 23 The Rider on the White Horse
Chapter 24 One Thousand Years of Peace
Chapter 25 The City of Glory
Revelation 21 and 22
Behind the Scenes of History
The book of Revelation is the scariest book in the Bible. Yet it is also one of the most comforting, reassuring, and exhilarating books in the Bible.
Why is it scary? Well, just imagine having your home shaken and broken to splinters by a devastating 8.0 earthquake. Then imagine huddling in a shelter as bombs rain down upon your city with deafening explosions, lung-searing smoke, and blistering fire. Imagine the horror of being surrounded by plague, of watching friends and family falling sick, moaning, dying. Imagine the eerie sight of strange creatures descending from the sky, settling over the whole earth, killing people by the hundreds and thousands.
Now imagine experiencing not just one but all of these horrors at the same time. That is just part of the terrifying, electrifying, awe-inspiring swirl of events that make up the book of Revelation.
And yet, as I said, the book of Revelation is also one of the most comforting and exhilarating books in the Bible. It pictures a time when there will be a glorious new heaven and a new earth, a time when God will dwell with human beings, when there will be universal peace and an end to all sorrow. Jesus will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death, nor mourning, nor crying, nor pain.
As we attempt to place ourselves amid this dizzying vortex of terrors, miracles, and wonders that are prophesied for the end of this age in the book of Revelation, we have to agree with Dr. Earl Palmer, who observed, "This remarkable book is both hard to understand fully and impossible to forget."l
Perhaps the most striking and profound aspect of this book is its relevance and importance to our lives in these closing days of the twentieth century. The book of Revelation is not just a musty piece of parchment from a bygone age, nor is it merely a collection of mysterious, symbolic images for some future age. The book of Revelation is vibrant, alive, and profoundly applicable to the times in which you and I live.
The "Bookends" of the Bible
It is no accident that the book of Revelation appears as the last book of the Bible. Revelation gathers all the threads of theme and historic events contained in the rest of the Bible, weaving them into a seamless whole. The entire scope of human history--and of eternity itself--comes into brilliant focus in the book of Revelation.
Someone has rightly observed that the book of Genesis and the book of Revelation are like two bookends that hold the entire Bible together. In Genesis we have the story of the origin of human sin; in Revelation we have the complete and final victory over sin. Genesis presents the beginning of human history and civilization; Revelation presents the end of both. In Genesis we learn the beginnings of God's judgment and His grace toward mankind; in Revelation we see the awesome result of His judgment and the triumph of His grace. The great themes of these two books are intricately intertwined.
Have you ever been to a major airport and watched the people get off the planes? You may see a crowd of people wearing shorts and flowered shirts, with leis around their necks. Aha, you think, these people just arrived from Hawaii. You may see another crowd of people lugging raincoats and umbrellas, with faces wreathed in gloom like an overcast day. They are just off the plane from Seattle.
In much the same way, as you work your way through the book of Revelation, you recognize the identifying features of the great themes of the Bible, and it is easy to tell in which Old Testament books those themes originated. Here we catch an echo of Daniel, there an aroma of Joel, and elsewhere we find nuggets from Isaiah and Ezekiel. In Revelation, we see very clearly the organic unity of the Word of God.
A "Sign-ificant" Book
The first three verses of Revelation form a prologue or preface which tells us the purpose of the book, the importance of the book, and the spirit or attitude in which it is to be read:
1:1-3 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw--that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
There are two words in this paragraph that reveal to us the special nature of this book: it is called a revelation and a prophecy. The Greek word which is translated "revelation" is apokalupsis, which literally means "an unveiling." A revelation removes the veil which obscures our understanding, it unravels the mystery, it makes the meaning plain.
Accordingly, as we move through the book of Revelation, we will find many mysteries made clear. We will learn why evil persists on the earth, and what the ultimate fate of evil will be. The mystery of godliness will also be explained, so that we can discover how to live a godly, righteous life in the midst of a broken, evil world. Many other mysteries will be unveiled in this book of apokalupsis, of revelation.
And then there is the other word used to describe the book of Revelation: "Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy." This is a book that deals in predictions. It deals with people and events which lie in the future. Powerful personalities are waiting to make their entrance on the stage of human events. Extraordinary circumstances are waiting to unfold as the juggernaut of history rumbles toward its fateful consummation. We will meet these personalities and witness these events in the book of Revelation.
The book is called the "revelation of Jesus Christ," and John says that Jesus Himself "made it known by sending his angel to his servant John." The English phrase "made it known" actually has a deeper meaning in the original Greek, where instead of three words there is just one Greek word, semaino. This word should be translated "signified"--or, if you want to really get the true sense of this word, pronounce it aloud: "sign-ified." In other words, Jesus made His revelation known to John by signs or symbols. Once you grasp the symbolic "sign-ificance" of this book, you can begin to understand and apply the book of Revelation.
Revelation is a book of symbols, and these symbols are important. Symbols help to simplify difficult concepts and to clarify things which are baffling or murky. I once heard of a boy who tried to explain to his little brother what radio was like. He said, "You know that a telegraph is a long wire that runs between two cities. It's like having a big dog with his tail in Los Angeles and his head in San Francisco. If you step on his tail in Los Angeles, he barks in San Francisco. Now a radio is the same thing--only you don't have no dog!" This boy tried his best to clarify an idea with the use of symbols--though I doubt his brother was any more enlightened as a result.
The book of Revelation, however, uses symbols with great precision and clarity. The weird beasts and strange persons of Revelation are all symbols of things which are real and literal. As we journey together through the pages of this book, I think you will be surprised to see how many seemingly difficult images and events in the book of Revelation become clear.
The key to understanding the symbols of Revelation is recognizing that almost all of these symbols have been given to us elsewhere in the Bible. If you try to read Revelation without any understanding of the rest of the Bible, you are doomed to confusion. But if you use the rest of the Bible as a guide and interpreter of the symbols of Revelation, most of these symbols immediately become understandable.
A Book from the Mind of God
Who is the author of the book of Revelation?
At first glance, the answer might seem to be John. But look again. John writes that this book is "the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him," and which Jesus in turn made known to John. The author of Revelation is God Himself! John was certainly involved in the process of producing this book, but it truly had its origin not in the mind of John, but within the Godhead, in the mind of God the Father. The Father revealed it to the Son, who in turn made it known to a human being named John.
Why did God the Father have to give this revelation to Jesus the Son? Remember that in Matthew 24:36 Jesus said that though He understood many of the events of the last days of the age, He did not know the time when these events would happen. This knowledge, He said, belonged only to the Father. Now, of course, since Jesus is risen and glorified, He knows all that the Father knows, but while on earth the timing of these events was unknown even to Jesus Himself.
So God the Father gave this revelation to Jesus, who in turn entrusted it to John by means of an angel. Thus, while all Scripture is inspired by God, the book of Revelation occupies a unique place in the Bible, because no other book of the Bible has been given to us in this way. John's role in the writing of this book is virtually that of a secretary taking dictation John is the writer, but God is the Author of the book of Revelation.
But who is this man John, whose pen has preserved for us this awesome and powerful vision of the future? In verse 4 he simply identifies himself as "John." By comparing Revelation with other Scriptures and by examining the traditions of the early church, we can be reasonably sure that the author is John the apostle, the brother of James, the son of Zebedee, the beloved friend of Jesus, author of the gospel and three letters that bear his name. Certainly, there are Bible scholars who disagree, but when we compare the style, content, and structure of Revelation with that of the other writings of the apostle John, it is difficult to come to any other conclusion.
John probably wrote this book near the end of his life, at around A.D. 94 to 96. He was an old man, likely in his eighties, when this vision was given to him. The book is addressed to seven selected churches located in the Roman province of Asia, which today is part of the nation of Turkey.
As we begin our journey through the vision God gave to John, notice the inspiring promise we find at the outset: "Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it." God has promised all the readers of this book--including you and me--a special blessing if we read, hear, and take to heart the words of this prophecy.
What kind of blessing? I believe the Lord is promising that we will find comfort, guidance, and assurance, even through such times of upheaval and fear as described in Revelation. The 1990s are troubled, confused times, filled with temptations, pressures, and anti-Christian philosophies--and the days will grow darker as we near the conclusion of history. But the person who understands the book of Revelation will have a faithful guide through the tumult and confusion of this dying age.
The Key Number of Revelation
Once, during a trip to England, the renowned Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan was visited at his hotel by the English mathematician J. E. Littlewood. As the two men settled into their chairs to share tea together, Littlewood remarked, "You know, on the way over here, I happened to notice the number of the taxicab was 1729. I thought to myself, 'That is certainly a dull number.' I hope it's not an unfavorable omen for our visit."
"Oh, but you're quite mistaken, my friend," said Ramanujan. "In fact, 1729 is quite an interesting number! It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways!"
Numbers which would escape the notice of you and me hold a strange fascination for mathematicians. Similarly, we find there are certain numbers which hold a fascinating significance in the book of Revelation.
To the seven churches in the province of Asia:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father--to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.
"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty."
Note, first of all, the greeting, "Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come." These words describe God the Father as the Lord of all time and all eternity. His name in Hebrew, Yahweh, means "I Am." In English, "I Am" sounds like a statement in the present tense, but in Hebrew it contains all the tenses used in Revelation 1:4--in effect, "I am he who is, and he who was, and he who is to come."
Next we come to the key number of Revelation, the first of a series of sevens: "and from the seven spirits before his throne." Why is the number seven significant in Revelation? Because, whenever you encounter seven of anything in this book, it is a symbol of completeness and perfection.
Who is signified by the "seven spirits before his throne"? Here we find the first of many echoes from Old Testament prophecy. In Isaiah 11:2, the prophet speaks of the Spirit of God coming upon the Messiah:
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him--the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. . . .
In this passage the Spirit of God is described in a sevenfold way. He is (1) the Spirit of the Lord, (2) the Spirit of wisdom, (3) the Spirit of understanding, (4) the Spirit of counsel, (5) the Spirit of power, (6) the Spirit of knowledge, and (7) the Spirit of the fear of the Lord. So the "seven spirits" of Revelation 1:4 are a symbol of the Holy Spirit in His sevenfold completion, perfection, and fullness.
This greeting of grace and peace comes from God the Father, the eternal "I Am"; from the Holy Spirit; and from Jesus Christ, the central figure of Revelation, who is introduced in threefold fashion as (1) the faithful witness, (2) the firstborn from the dead, and (3) the ruler of the kings of the earth.
He is called "the faithful witness" because what He says is true and reliable. When He speaks, He utters absolute, trustworthy reality. In a confusing, chaotic, dying world, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the truth-teller.
He is called "the firstborn from the dead" because of the resurrection. Though there were others (such as Lazarus, whom Jesus called forth from the tomb at Bethany) who died and were raised again, they were merely raised to the same earthly life they had before. Eventually, they died again and were buried. Only Jesus was raised to eternal, incorruptible glory. It is this same eternal, incorruptible life that Jesus gives to those who believe in Him. He is the life-giver.
He is called "the ruler of the kings of the earth" because He has ultimate sovereignty over the whole world. There are many rulers and leaders who claim to be sovereign in their own countries, but Jesus exercises ultimate authority over them all. He is the great law-maker, the king of kings.
So, in this passage, Jesus is introduced in threefold fashion as the truth-teller, the life-giver, and the law-maker.
The First Doxology
This introduction is followed in verses 5 and 6 by a threefold doxology to (1) "him who loves us," (2) who "has freed us from our sins by his blood," and (3) who "has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father." This is the first doxology of the book of Revelation, a paean of praise to God, which concludes, "to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen." This is a powerful declaration, and its three essential themes deserve closer examination.
First theme: He loves us. This is a statement in the present tense. It's an amazing fact. Despite all our foolishness, waywardness, selfishness, and sin, the Lord Jesus loves us. He is always on our side.
Years ago, while I was traveling in the state of Virginia with Dr. H. A. Ironside, we met a man who was rector of an Episcopal church. This man told us the story of his conversion to Christ. I've never forgotten that story.
He was a student at England's Cambridge University when D. L. Moody was invited to speak to the students. He and a number of other students were furious that such a distinguished institution as Cambridge would invite Moody--an unschooled American preacher--to give a lecture. Moody murdered the king's English so badly that he is said to have pronounced the word "Jerusalem" in only one syllable!
The night of Moody's appearance, the group of rebellious students sat in the very front row, waiting for just the right time to humiliate Moody with jeers and mocking. Just before Moody was to speak, the great gospel singer and composer Ira B. Sankey stood and sang. As he sang, the restless audience grew quiet and respectful. Immediately after the song and without introduction, Moody stepped up on the platform, pointed his finger at the young men in the front row, and said, "Young gentlemen, don't ever think God don't love you, for He do!"
It was perhaps the most ungrammatical sentence ever uttered on the Cambridge University grounds. Yet there was such power in Moody's face, in his voice, and in his straightforward declaration of God's love that the young men in the front row dared not jeer and mock as they had planned. Moody went on to speak of the love of Jesus for a lost human race--a love that compelled Jesus to go to the cross and die an agonizing death in our place. In the course of his talk, he repeated those ungrammatical but awesomely powerful words, "Young gentlemen, don't ever think God don't love you, for He do!"
Concluding his reminiscence of that meeting, the Episcopal rector looked first at Dr. Ironside, then at me, and he said, "In those moments, I saw myself in a different light. By the end of that meeting, I gave my heart to Jesus Christ."
That is how John wants us to see ourselves in relationship to Jesus Christ: He loves us, in the present tense, despite our rebellion and sin. When the truth of this statement begins to seep into our hearts, then our lives--like the life of this Episcopal rector--can be transformed.
Second theme: He has freed us from our sins by His blood. Jesus breaks the shackles of sin and destructive habits in our lives. He sets us free from the addictions and dependencies which harass us, enslave us, and chain us down. It is true that many Christians continue to struggle with evil habits even after coming into a relationship with Christ. Some struggle with drug or alcohol dependency, some with selfish attitudes or sexual temptations, some with an angry temper or a malicious tongue. But the blood of Christ gives us the power to break the chains of sin--if we will but turn the control of our lives over to Him. As in the words of the old hymn,
He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood availed for me!
Third theme: He has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve His God and Father. We are all sinners, estranged from a holy and just God because of our sin. The role of a priest is to bridge the alienation between the people and God, to bring the people near to God again. In the Old Testament, priests explained the meaning of sacrifices, called the people to repentance, and thus brought the people near to God.
Today, all believers are called to perform the function of a priest. Do you ever think of yourself as a priest? It's a high and holy calling, given to us by Jesus Himself.
We are to reach out to others in their pain and lostness. We are to explain to them the sacrifice that Jesus has made on their behalf. We are to share with them the fact that God loves them and longs to draw them to Himself, to heal their loneliness and alienation. For this reason, Jesus has made all believers, including you and me, to be a kingdom of priests.
The Splendor of His Coming
Some years ago, I was visiting with a number of rabbis in Southern California. The subject of our discussion was the differences between Judaism and Christianity.
"You know," one rabbi said to me, "when the Messiah comes, we Jews will say, 'Welcome!' But you Christians will say, 'Welcome back!'
"And what will the Messiah say?" I asked.
"I think," the rabbi replied without missing a beat, "He will say, 'No comment.'"
In Revelation 1:7, the Lord is introduced to us not only in terms of who He is, His attributes and His glory, but also in terms of what He will do in the future: "Look, he is coming with the clouds." This is the focal point of human history, the single event toward which all human events--and heavenly events as well--are moving. One day Jesus Himself will break through the skies, and He will appear again in glory, just as when He left the earth. His coming will have planet-wide impact, for, as Revelation 1:7 says, "every eye will see him."
This account of Jesus' return accords with that of Matthew 24:30. There, Jesus said, "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory."
No one will miss this spectacular event, not even those without televisions. He will appear everywhere, and He will be visible to everyone in the world at once. In 2 Thessalonians 2:8, Paul calls this event "the splendor of his coming," or, more literally, "the outshining of his parousia" (parousia is the Greek word which describes the future presence of Jesus on earth).
Jesus' appearance will be so unmistakable that even the Jews will recognize Him. John tells us, "even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him." This is a reference to the prophecy in Zechariah 12:10-13:6, where we are told that when the Messiah appears, those who pierced Him shall look upon Him and mourn greatly. The Jews shall ask Him, "What are these wounds on your body'?" and He will say, 'The wounds I was given at the house of my friends."
From these passages, I have to conclude that my rabbi friend was mistaken when he said the Jews would say, "Welcome!" when Messiah comes. I am convinced that even they will say, "Welcome back!" because they will see Him, they will know Him, and they--along with all the peoples of the earth--will mourn, knowing that the Messiah has visited this planet once before, that He was despised, rejected, and crucified.
One of the great puzzles of history is the fact that the Jewish people have so resolutely turned their backs on the evidence that Jesus is their promised Messiah. At the beginning, of course, the early church was almost entirely Jewish, but over time, increasingly more non-Jewish converts came into the church, while the number of Jewish converts dwindled to a trickle. Why? Because the Jewish people are "blinded" (as Paul so convincingly argues in Romans 9 through 11) by long-standing unbelief.
But Jewish unbelief will not last forever. The day will come when the Jewish people will recognize--and mourn--their Messiah. They will mourn, just as all the peoples of the earth will mourn, because of the tragic and terrible way they have treated Jesus and His work for all mankind upon the cross.
The Alpha and the Omega
The nineteenth-century English clergyman William Lisle Bowles was a prolific and much-admired poet. He was often asked to autograph copies of his poetry collections. On one occasion, while visiting in the home of his friend Tom Moore, he presented a Bible to Mrs. Moore as a gift. She was so pleased with the gift that she asked Bowles to inscribe it, which he did. After the poet left the house, Mrs. Moore opened the Bible to the flyleaf and was surprised to discover that he had absentmindedly written, "To Mrs. Moore, with cordial wishes, from the Author."
In these opening verses--the "flyleaf" of the book of Revelation--God takes the pen in His own hand and signs the book with His own signature: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God," using the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet to symbolize the beginning and end of all things. He continues, describing Himsclf in this inscription as the One "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty."
In no other book of the Bible do we find this wonderful imprimatur of God. When we read these words, we are reading a copy autographed by the Author Himself!
The Prisoner of Patmos
The first chapter of Revelation concludes with John's explanation of how and where he received this prophecy from God.
1:9-20 I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: "Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea."
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone "like a son of man," dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: "Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever' And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
"Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now, and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches."
Here, even in the first chapter of Revelation, we discover truth imparted in the form of symbols. Jesus is described in a way that is not intended to convey His actual physical appearance but various aspects of His character, His attributes, and His role.
The setting for the vision John received is a tiny island in the Aegean Sea. This island, called Patmos, is only about four miles wide and six miles long, located just off the coast of Turkey. It was a dreary little place in John's day, containing a stone quarry, some mining excavations, and very little else. John had apparently been banished to Patmos by the Romans in order to silence his preaching--hence his statement that he was there "because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus." John was a prisoner on Patmos.
On one Sunday morning (or "the Lord's Day," as John calls it), John was "in the Spirit." This does not mean that John was in some state of religious ecstasy, but rather that he was worshiping God and meditating on God's greatness and majesty. It is the state of mind and spirit that Jesus described in John 4:24 when He said, "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."
While John was in this worshipful attitude, a voice like a trumpet said, "Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches." Upon hearing this voice, John did what you or I would have done: he turned to find the source of this powerful, trumpetlike voice. What he saw was the Lord Himself, standing among seven golden lampstands, holding seven stars in His hands. Note the significance of the number seven again, the number of completeness.
John's Encounter with the Lord
Now let's look at each of the symbols which characterize John's vision of the Lord Jesus:
1. Jesus is dressed in a long robe, bound across the chest by a golden sash, a priestly garment symbolizing His role as the Great High Priest. In Scripture, gold symbolizes deity. This robe with its golden sash speaks of the fact that Jesus is a priest who is Himself God. He is the Lord, sovereign over all of history, healing the breach between God and man.
2. His head and His hair are white. These are symbols used in the book of Daniel to denote wisdom and purity.
3. His eyes are like blazing fire, from which nothing can be hid. Fire speaks of judgment.
4. His feet are like bronze, glowing in a furnace. Again, the image of furnace-hot fires of judgment.
5. His voice is like the sound of rushing waters, like the roar of the surf as it dashes against the rocks. The sound of His voice is the sound of power, inspiring our awe.
6. The sword which comes out of the mouth of Jesus is clearly the Word of God, by which Jesus reveals truth to us.
7. His face is like the sun shining in its strength. The brilliance of the sun symbolizes the burning intensity of truth.
Perhaps as John looked upon the brilliant face of the risen Lord, he recalled a time during the Lord's earthly ministry, when John, Peter, and James stood together with Jesus on a high mountain in northern Israel.2 There, as they prayed together, the face and garments of the Lord suddenly shone with a whiteness like nothing ever seen on the earth. This is the event which theologians call the transfiguration of Jesus. In 2 Peter 1: 16-18, Peter recalled the transfiguration and said that it was a preview of the future coming of Jesus.
Perhaps this vision of Jesus in Revelation 1 explains an interesting episode at the end of the gospel of John. In John 21, Jesus commissioned Peter with the words, "Feed my sheep," then prophesied that Peter would one day die a martyr's death. At this point, Peter indicted John, and said, "Lord, what about him?" Peter wanted to know what sort of death was prophesied for John. And Jesus replied, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." Because of a misunderstanding of this conversation between Peter and the Lord, word went out among the disciples that John would never die until the Lord returned.
Here, in Revelation 1, is the explanation: John did remain alive to see the coming of the Lord. He foresaw the Lord's coming as an event in history, but he saw it in the form of a vision from God. Though historical tradition holds that John died at the age of ninety and was buried in Ephesus, he did live to see the coming of the Lord. He saw the Lord's coming in symbols of priestly garments, of brilliant light, of blazing fire, of thunderous sound, of supreme power, purity, wisdom, and holiness.
Throughout the remainder of Revelation, we will see other symbolism employed to describe various aspects of Jesus' character, power, and position. In chapter 5, He will appear as a lamb--and also as a lion. In chapter 19, He will appear as a rider on a great white horse. He is a bridegroom coming for His bride in chapter 21. But it is the image of Jesus which John describes in chapter 1 that is the most startling and graphic of all.
Before such an awesome sight, what could John do, what could any human being do, but fall at the feet of Jesus as though dead? Who could remain standing before such a vision? This, indeed, is the reaction of every human who experiences the kind of profound encounter with the living God that John experiences in Revelation 1. John's reaction is identical to that of Isaiah when he sees the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, with the long train of His robe filling the temple.3 John's reaction is the same as that of Job when he is awed and humbled in the presence of God.4
And as John lay prostrate before the feet of Jesus, the Lord did something that was completely typical and characteristic of Him: He reached down and touched John! He placed His right hand on the trembling shoulder of the beloved disciple.
As you read through the gospels, you see that Jesus was always touching people. When He healed a leper, He touched him. When He restored sight to the blind, He put His hands upon their eyes. Now, in Revelation 1, Jesus touches His friend John and reassures him with the words, "Do not be afraid." He is saying to John, in effect, "I am your friend, not your enemy. I am the First and the Last. I set the boundaries of time and history. All people and all events are enclosed within the limits that I have determined in my sovereignty. I hold the keys of death and hell, the keys of both physical death and spiritual death. I am sovereign over all that is, so you have nothing to fear, my friend."
Having reassured John, Jesus then commissions him. "Write, therefore," says the Lord, "what you have seen, what is now, and what will take place later." Notice that Jesus gives him a three-part writing assignment. First, John is to write what he has seen, which is that vision we have just examined, recorded in Revelation 1.
Second, John is to write "what is now." That is, he is to write seven letters to seven churches about existing conditions in those churches. These letters comprise Revelation chapters 2 and 3.
Third, John is to write "what will take place later." This is the prophetic vision of the future contained in Revelation chapters 4 through 22. These are the three divisions of the book of Revelation, as given to us by the Lord Himself. If we will follow these divisions carefully, we will be able to understand God's message to us in this challenging, rewarding, symbol-laden book. That, of course, is our goal as we keep before us God's promise from verse 3, "Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near."
The point of the first chapter of Revelation is to focus our attention on Jesus. He is the central figure of Revelation, just as He is the central figure of all history. Our lives can never be lived realistically, triumphantly, and joyously without reference to Him. We, as Christians, are called to live as though we see Him who is invisible. He is the One we must take to work with us each day. He is the One who will be beside us as we drive our cars, as we go to sleep, as we face our trials, as we experience our joys. He is the source of our courage, our peace, our wisdom, our forgiveness when we sin, our help in time of need.
In this first chapter of Revelation, John takes up the commission given him by Jesus and performs it with dramatic force: he elevates our hearts and focuses our attention upon Jesus, upon who He is and what He is doing in human history. The Lord, through His servant John, has lifted the veil from the obscured face of the future. He invites us to look behind the scenes of history and see the great and awesome things He is doing--and is about to do!--upon the earth, and within each individual life.
So come with me. Let's venture a step closer and look upon the face of Tomorrow.
Seven Letters to Seven Churches
Overview: Revelation 1:19
Chapters 2 and 3
The Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn was a man with a cheerful disposition, despite the fact that he was married to an exceedingly bitter and malicious woman. She continually belittled both Haydn and his music. Several times, purely out of spite, she stole the only existing copies of his musical scores from his desk and destroyed them.
Haydn spent much of his career traveling around Europe--partly because his talents were in such demand throughout the Continent, but also because travel gave him time away from his disagreeable wife. During one extended visit to England, an acquaintance visited Haydn in his rented room in London. This friend noticed a large stack of unopened letters on Haydn's desk and asked the composer why he did not open his mail.
"All of those letters are from my wife," Haydn jovially explained. "We write to each other every week, but I do not open her letters, and I am quite sure she does not open mine."
In Revelation chapters 2 and 3 we find a stack of letters, seven in all, which have largely lain ignored and unopened by the Christian church over the years. As one Bible scholar laments, "Many casual worshipers in Christian churches today who are quite familiar with the Sermon on the Mount are not aware of the existence of these seven messages of Christ."l
I find that many people tend to skip over these seven letters to the churches, so eager are they to hurry on to those juicy, action-packed, blood-and-thunder sections of Revelation. We would rather hear about the great cataclysms of the last days than be confronted with the urgent challenge of our own present moment. How tragic!
These seven letters to seven churches are powerful letters, burning with urgency. Their message is still as vital and timely today as when first written. So many ills of our churches in the 1990s could be cured if we would only listen with attentive ears to the message Jesus gave us through the pen of John nearly 2,000 years ago.
In these letters, our Lord outlines for us His plan for the church. He shows us that He has set His church in the midst of the world. It is His instrument to impact and direct the course of human history. Jesus calls the church "the light of the world" and "the salt of the earth." The apostle Paul calls it "the pillar and ground of truth." That is the mystery and the mission of the church. God intends the church to exert tremendous influence over the affairs of the world.
These seven letters set forth His eternal "game plan." So it's a grievous mistake to slight the crucial importance and timely relevance of these letters. They are filled with both warning and encouragement to churches that are struggling with sin and complacency within, and persecution without. In these letters, our Lord teaches the church how to live as light in a darkening world while also confronting the sin and error that threatens the health and life of the church.
A Sevenfold Pattern
As we approach these letters, two questions occur to us: (1) Why are only seven churches addressed? (2) Why these particular seven?
The only satisfactory answer is that these are seven representative churches. They were carefully selected to represent not only the spectrum of churches that existed in the first century A.D., but the spectrum of churches that exist now, at the close of the twentieth century.
There were many churches in the province of Asia at the time John wrote this letter. Other churches could have been chosen. In fact, many other churches were better known--churches such as Colossae, Tralles, and Manisa. But the Lord chose these seven churches because they represent conditions that have prevailed throughout church history, from the beginning to the end.
In other words, there are seven basic types of churches that exist in any period of church history. Every church that truly knows Jesus as Lord can be recognized as fitting one of these seven models at some particular moment in its history. By either repentance or disobedience, a church may change from one classification to another of these seven basic types--but it can always be found somewhere within this sevenfold pattern.
Moreover, as many Bible scholars have pointed out, these letters also serve as a preview of the entire history of the church, from its beginning to its consummation. They represent seven stages or key periods in church history. This view is suggested by verse 1:3, which calls the entire book of Revelation a "prophecy." This prophecy includes chapters two and three as well as the rest of the book.
As we've previously noted, seven is the number of completeness. These seven letters, then, constitute our Lord's complete overview of the church, stage by stage, from beginning to end.
We must never forget that all of Revelation was written for these seven churches. Each church--not just one particular church from chapter 2 or 3--is expected to know and understand the entire book. As we explore these seven letters we will briefly trace the different historical periods of the Christian church, while also carefully examining what the Lord says to each of these seven historical churches.
Somewhere in this sevenfold list we will find your church and mine.
The Light of Truth
Light has a special significance throughout the Bible. The first words of God ever recorded in Scripture are the words He spoke at Creation: "Let there be light!"2 And the findings of science confirm the significance of light in the created order. Astronomer Carl Sagan says that in the first moments after Creation "space was brilliantly illuminated" and did not become dark as we now see it until much later.3 A science book published by Encyclopaedia Britannica reports that the early universe "was flooded with a light that was denser than matter."4
In Scripture, light appears as a symbol of God's Word,5 of God's truth,6 of God's righteousness and justice,7 of God Himself8 and His Son Jesus Christ.9 In Matthew 5:14 and 16, Jesus used the symbol of light to describe us, His followers, and the impact we are to have upon the world. "You are the light of the world," He said. "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."
In Revelation 1, light again is used as a powerful symbol. Jesus is described in this passage as holding seven bright stars in His right hand, and He is surrounded by seven golden lampstands. In verse 19 the Lord commands John,
Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lamp stands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Note that a lampstand is not the light. It is the bearer of the light. A light-bearer holds the light so that the light itself can shine forth, illuminating its environment. The light, of course, is the truth God reveals to the world in Jesus Christ.
The world is full of learned men, of prestigious universities, of libraries that are great repositories of knowledge. Yet, despite the great accumulation of knowledge our race has amassed over the centuries, there are many truths which are unknown to man in his natural state. One place where these truths may be found is in the church, the light-bearer, the lampstand. Only in the church can mankind find the moral and redemptive light which alone can illuminate this darkening world. As members of the church, you and I are called to uphold that light and reflect it into every corner of our society.
The church is not just a holy huddle where we gather to escape the pressures of a hostile world until the Lord returns. The church is called to move out, to penetrate the world with the white-hot rays of God's truth. We have a powerful influence to exert and exercise in the world, and that's what these seven dynamic letters are all about.
Angels in the Church
In his bestselling novel This Present Darkness, Frank Peretti describes a praying, faithful community of believers called Ashton Community Church. Unseen by human eyes, this church is guarded from satanic evil by shining beings in white with swords at their sides, bearing such names as Scion, Krioni, Signa, and Triskal. These beings are angels, guarding and ministering to the church.
And while Peretti's depiction of angels as something out of an Italian Renaissance fresco--winged, clad in flowing white robes, bearing swords--may seem at times a little quaint and melodramatic, the seven
letters of Revelation clearly suggest that churches do in fact have angels. Each of these letters is addressed to the angel of that particular church.
Many Bible scholars struggle over this statement. What is meant by "the angel of the church"?
It is true, as some Bible commentators note, that the word in the original text for "angel" could also be translated "messenger," which some would suggest means the pastor of the church.
In other parts of the New Testament this word in the original language does mean "messenger" rather than "angel"--but it does not have that meaning anywhere else in Revelation. Everywhere this word appears outside of chapters 2 and 3, it definitely refers to an angel--a heavenly being.
Moreover, as you carefully examine the structure of the church in the New Testament you never find a church governed by just one human leader. Leadership in the first-century church appears to have been plural--elders and pastors--and it is only in later centuries that men placed churches under the authority of a single leader. So it seems highly unlikely that these letters in Revelation are directed to a single human "messenger" or pastor.
Remember that in Hebrews angels are called "ministering spirits, sent forth to serve the heirs of salvation"--that is, Christians like you and me. It seems likely, therefore, that in those invisible but utterly real dimensions of spirit, there are angels assigned to each church to help the leaders and the congregation know what is on God's heart.
I am convinced that the "angel" or "messenger" addressed in Revelation 2 and 3 is not a human leader or pastor. I believe these seven letters are addressed to the angels of the seven churches--heavenly beings responsible for guiding the human leaders of each church.
Letters to History
It was Christmastime in 1945 at the White House. President Harry Truman strolled into one of the rooms of the family quarters only to find his wife feeding old letters, one by one, to a merry fire in the fireplace. "Bess, dear!" Harry exclaimed. "What are you doing?"
"Burning some old letters, dear."
"But those are letters I wrote to you over the past thirty years!" Harry protested. "Think of the history!"
"I have," Bess replied with a wink.
When you think of all the letters in the New Testament--the many letters of Paul, the epistles of Peter, James, and John, and these letters from the heart of our Lord to the seven churches in Asia-do you ever wonder if the human writers of these letters stopped to think of the history, the 2,000 years of church history that would follow, the millions and millions of believers who would someday read those words? Perhaps not. But I do know that God, when He inspired these letters, was thinking not only of the moment in which they were written, but of the centuries of history to come. That is why these ancient letters continue to live and breathe and give life to the church in our own era, as in every previous era.
You and I are making history. We are the latest links in an unbroken chain of church history that extends all the way back to the time of Jesus and His disciples. The letters of the Bible, including these seven letters to seven ancient churches, were written with history in mind. Future history. Our history, yours and mine. A history filled with computers and electronic media and space travel--and the unchanging human condition, the age-old problems of the human spirit.
So let us now turn to the first of these seven letters. If we have ears to hear, let us listen to what the Lord has to say to the churches--and to you and me.
The Church That Lost Its Love
When Daniel Webster was but a struggling young lawyer in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he became acquainted with a lovely, delicate young woman named Grace Fletcher. She was his first love, the first woman he had ever given his heart to, and he was deeply devoted to her. Grace's father, a clergyman, allowed young Webster to call on Grace in their home. Webster spent many hours holding skeins of silk for her while she unknotted the thread so that it could be sewn. It didn't matter to him what they did together, as long as he could be near her.
On one of his visits to Grace's home to help her unknot her silken thread, Webster waited for just the right moment to speak what was on his mind. Finally, the moment came. Grace's father and mother stepped out of the room for a few moments, and Webster knew it might be a long time before they would be alone again. Screwing up every ounce of his courage, Webster said, "Grace, we have been untying these silken knots for many weeks together. I think it is time we tie a knot which will not be untied for a lifetime."
Speechless, her eyes wide, her heart tripping, Grace watched as Webster took up a piece of red ribbon and began to tie an elaborate knot in the middle of it. Then he handed the ribbon to Grace. She took it and added several more intricate loops, completing the difficult knot. This silent act was the ceremony of their engagement.
Soon afterward, Daniel Webster married Grace, a marriage which lasted until her death, 21 years later. Webster eventually remarried and lived on for many years, but he never lost his affection for his first love. Following his own death in 1852, a box was found hidden among his personal effects. Inscribed upon the box were the words "Precious Documents." Within the box were the letters he and Grace had exchanged during their courtship and marriage. They were well-worn, as if they had been often removed from the box, read, then replaced and hidden again.
And there was one other memento in Daniel Webster's box of memories: a length of red ribbon, still tied in an intricate knot.
This is a beautiful story of a man who never lost his affection for his first love. And in many ways, it is a parable of how our love for Jesus Christ should be: devoted, loyal, fond, tender, filled with remembrance, thankfulness, and yearning. Do you remember the first time you fell in love? Do you recall that feeling of always wanting to be near the object of your love, to simply bask in the presence of that person?
In Revelation 2:1-7, we meet a church that once loved Jesus that way. But tragically, at the time that we encounter this church in Revelation, the fondness, the remembrance, the yearning of that first glow of love had faded. Instead of a church that is ardently in love with its Lord, we find a church that has lost its love.
The Ephesian Story
2:1-3 "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary."
The first thing the Lord impresses upon the Ephesian church is that He is the Lord of all the churches. He holds the seven stars in His right hand, and He walks among the seven lampstands. He is in control of the angels of the churches, and He is directly observing the lampstands, the churches themselves, as He walks through their midst.
The city of Ephesus was one of the most important cities in the Roman province of Asia, a center of wealth and commerce and a crossroads of travel and trade, much like San Francisco or New York in our own era. Ephesus was a center of worship for the pagan goddess Artemis (also called Diana), and the world-renowned Temple of Artemis was located there. This temple was longer than two football fields, and was considered one of the seven wonders of the world. Its ruins can still be visited today.
The church at Ephesus was planted by the apostle Paul. You can read of its founding in Acts 19. When Paul came to Ephesus on his third missionary journey he discovered a number of disciples living there who had been given a smattering of truth by Apollos, the great orator of the early church. At the time Apollos had been at Ephesus he had known only the ministry of John the Baptist, so when Paul found these disciples at Ephesus the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was unknown to them.
Paul asked the Ephesian disciples if they had received the Holy Spirit, and they replied that they did not know the Holy Spirit had been given. So Paul explained to them about Jesus, and they believed and were baptized by the Spirit and in water. Thus the church at Ephesus was born.
Some time later Paul spent two years in Ephesus, teaching and building up this body of believers. Later he sent Timothy to the Ephesian church to ground them even more firmly in God's Word. Paul's two letters to Timothy were written while Timothy labored in Ephesus. There is even a tradition (though it is not confirmed in Scripture) that John, after writing the book of Revelation, also went to Ephesus and spent the closing days of his life there.
So the church at Ephesus was rich in church history, having enjoyed the ministering presence of some of the most prominent charter members of the Christian faith.
An Appraisal and an Appeal
This letter to the Ephesians--like the other six letters to follow--consists of both an appraisal and an appeal. There is an affirmation of what is good, plus an admonition against what is wrong. There is also an appeal for those who have fallen away to repent and return to true faith, and a spiritual promise to those who hold fast.
The Lord finds three things to affirm in the Ephesian church. First, they are committed and hardworking. "I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance," He says. The Ephesian Christians are activists, not couch potatoes. They take their faith seriously and put it to work. They tell others about their faith. They minister to human needs. They reach out to the homeless and the outcasts. They are busy people, and the Lord says that is good.
Second, the Ephesian Christians have sound, orthodox doctrine. The Lord commends them highly for this: "I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false." Their faith was well defined and well defended. They exposed and opposed false teachers.
And there were, unfortunately, plenty of false teachers around. In Acts 20, Paul says his final goodbye to the Ephesian elders, and he warns them to expect such teachers to come and seduce the Ephesian Christians away from true faith. He warns them to watch out for such "wolves"--and to oppose them. In Revelation 2:2, the Lord commends the Ephesian church for heeding Paul's advice.
Such "wolves" are still around today, prowling among the flocks with doctrines that are subtly yet fundamentally skewed from the truth. Certainly there are many godly, Christ-centered, biblical teachers and preachers who lead congregations, preach on radio or television, have thriving audiocassette ministries, or write books. But there are also "wolves" who do these same things. Every Christian must be on guard against deceptive doctrine. The words of every preacher, teacher, and author--including the words in the book you are holding in your hands--must be subjected to the pure light of God's Word.
When you do this some people will say you are being judgmental. Yet the Scriptures command us to judge what is right--and what is not right. "Test everything," says 1 Thessalonians 5:21. "Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil." Similarly, in Revelation 2:2, the Lord commends and approves the Ephesian Christians for testing and judging what is right and what is wrong.
Third, the Lord commends the Ephesian Christians because they have "persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary." The Ephesians were not quitters, even when the going got tough. Up to this point in the letter, the Ephesian church is getting an A+ grade. But the other shoe is about to drop.
And Now the Bad News. . .
It's the old "good news, bad news" story. In verse 4, our Lord uses that fateful word yet. He commends the Ephesians for A, B, and C--yet there's the matter of D.
2:4-6 "Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: you hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate."
Now we learn there is serious trouble in the Ephesian church. Yes, there is much to applaud about this church--yet there is also something tragically wrong. "You have forsaken your first love," says the Lord.
So serious is this situation that the Lord says, in effect, "If you don't fix this problem, I'll have to remove your lampstand." This doesn't mean that individual members of the church will lose their salvation or lose the grace of God. Rather, it means that this church will lose its ability to shed the light of truth. No matter how hardworking, persevering, and orthodox this church may be, if it loses its first love it will cease to have an illuminating impact on the world.
This first-century warning of our Lord has been fulfilled again and again in thousands of churches down to and including our own age of the 1990s. All across the world, everywhere you turn, you find church after church where congregations continue to meet, sermons continue to be preached, hymns continue to be sung, good works continue to be done--and yet there is no impact, no fire, no light. The lampstand has been removed. The community which surrounds such a church goes on about its business, blithely ignoring whatever is said and done within that quaint little building with the cross on the roof. That church has become irrelevant. So has its message. Its light has failed.
Our First Love
What does the Lord mean, "You have forsaken your first love"? What is our first love?
It is the love we felt for Jesus when we first came to know Him. It is that wonderful sense of discovery that He loves us, that He has delivered us, that He has freed us from our sins. Once our hearts went out to Him in gratitude. Once we had eyes for no one but the Lord Jesus.
Watch a young couple in love. See how they talk to each other, how they touch each other's hands, how their eyes meet! Talk to them and they probably won't even hear you. They are "spaced out." They are lost in each other. They are thinking only of the wonder of each other. That is what it's like when a person first comes to Christ. His heart is filled with gratitude, with wonder, with amazement. "I have been forgiven!" he thinks. "Jesus died for me! God loves me! I can hardly believe it!"
Think of the times you've heard the testimony of a new Christian. Remember those tears of joy? Remember the trembling voice, the look of wonder on his or her face?
I have seen strong men--athletes, successful businessmen, political leaders--break down completely, unable to finish telling their own story, so overcome were they by the wonder of the fact that Jesus had come to live His life through them. Their lives had turned around 180 degrees. Their families had been rescued. Their sins had been forgiven. The love of Jesus is something new, fresh, heart-stopping, incredible. It is the feeling captured in the lines by Charles Wesley:
Amazing love, how can it be
That Thou My God shouldst die for me!
That is what "first love" is like.
How do we lose our first love? It happens very gradually, as our focus slowly, imperceptibly shifts from our love-relationship with Jesus to simply being busy for Him. Whereas we once delighted in serving others, singing God's praise, and studying His Word out of a wondering love for Him, we now begin to do these same things out of a subtly different motive. Now, instead of pleasing Jesus, we seek the approval of others. Our position, our status, our reputation in the church begins to matter more than our love-relationship with Jesus.
Without even noticing the change, we have lost something of our first love. The busyness, the religious activity, the pious jargon is all there--but the wonder and the intense love are gone. The light has failed. When this occurs to an entire church, then that church's lampstand is removed. The Ephesian church trembled at the brink of this very precipice. Its light flickered, yet still shone--but for how much longer? And could it be that you and I stand at this same brink, wavering alongside the Ephesian Christians, tottering, about to tumble off? If so, how do we know? And how can we be rescued from such a fate?
The great English poet Alexander Pope lay on his deathbed with only a few days of life remaining. His doctor, meanwhile, was cheerily attempting to lift his spirits. "Why, Alexander," exclaimed the physician, "already your pulse is stronger, your breathing is easier, and the color is coming back into your cheeks. All the signs are completely encouraging. Soon you shall be out of that bed and back to work, as fit and robust as ever!"
"Here I am," Pope wheezed in reply, "dying of a hundred good symptoms."
So it often is with you and me. Just look at all the good symptoms in our lives--our busy religious activity, our faithful church attendance, our charitable giving and volunteerism. But could it be that we, like Alexander Pope, are "dying of a hundred good symptoms"?
Whenever Christians lose their first love, there are always telltale symptoms to watch for. I will list for you just three.
The first symptom of a fading first love is when you lose that distinctive, glowing joy of the Christian life. This symptom rarely shows on the outside. It's just something you know deep within you. Life becomes humdrum and routine. You listen to the Word of God or to a powerful sermon or to the testimony of a fellow Christian, and you feel you've heard it all already. Worship begins to be mechanical, routine, dull. This is a danger sign; heed it! It means you are beginning to lose your first love.
Second symptom: you lose your ability to love others. One of the great revelations of Scripture is that the reason we love others is because we have first been loved ourselves. When we lose that awareness of the amazing wonder of Jesus' love, it is almost inevitable that our love for others begins to fade. We become critical of others. We become complainers. We become more selective in our friendships, singling out only those who match up to our beliefs, standards, professional level, economic status. We lose our Christlike, indiscriminate, unconditional love for others--that kind of love we expressed in the days when our love affair with Jesus was warm and new and alive.
Third symptom: we lose a healthy perspective on ourselves. Our wants, our needs become more and more important in our thinking. Instead of concerning ourselves with what pleases God, we think only about pleasing ourselves.
When enough people in a church develop this symptom (and just a few is enough), the result is division and schism in the church. Instead of being focused on their love for Christ, and wanting to spread that love to others, they become focused on themselves, their own agendas, their own programs, their own interests. Self-centeredness sets in--and the light of the church flickers, falters, and fails.
These are the marks of a church that is gradually losing its first love and this is what was happening to the church at Ephesus. The frightening thing is that there is nothing particularly unique about the Ephesian crisis. We have all been "Ephesian" in our faith at one time or another. I have. I'm sure you have, too. We know these symptoms all too well.
If the symptoms are not recognized early enough, if the disease of losing our first love goes untreated, then our light goes out. Our lampstand is removed. We cease to be light-bearers in our darkening world.
So what can we do? Is our disease treatable? Can we recover from the loss of our first love--or is the darkness inevitable?
Three Steps to Recovery
In His letter to the Ephesian church, our Lord gives three specific, practical steps to recovery: Remember, repent, and return.
First, remember. "Remember the height from which you have fallen," He says. Look back. Recall how you felt and how you responded when you first came to Jesus. Re-experience in your mind that sense of joy and wonder and closeness you felt when you first gave yourself to the living Christ. Re-experience that sense of inner support and strength that came to you in times of pressure and trouble. Recall the eagerness with which you went to the Lord in prayer. Warm your soul with the fond memory of the delight you took in fellowship with other believers, in hungrily devouring God's Word, in soaking up the preaching and exposition of that Word in church. Recall how you could hardly bear to miss a service, because each Sunday morning was an adventure of discovery of God's transforming truth for your life. "Remember the height from which you have fallen." Only then can you see how to undertake the journey back to that height.
Think back. Look back. Remember.
Second, repent. Change your mind--and change your life. That is what repentance means. Change your mind about what has taken the place of Jesus in your life. Renounce that ambition, that pride of position and reputation, that longing for approval that has replaced your original wondering love for Jesus. Many of the things you now do--your service in the church, your Sunday morning worship, your weekly Bible study, your outreach to others--will take on new meaning and fresh power from God as you replace your old prideful, self-centered motivation with a new, joyful, Christ-centered motivation.
Give up that critical spirit, that complaining attitude, that reliance on knowledge. Put Jesus back into the center of all you are and do. Allow the joy of your salvation and your amazement over God's love to permeate every endeavor you undertake.
Change your mind. Repent.
Third, return. "Do the things you did at first," says our Lord Jesus.
I will never forget an illustration which Dr. Robert Munger used during a pastors' conference at the Mt. Hermon Christian Conference Center near Santa Cruz, California.
Dr. Munger, who was then pastor of the University Presbyterian Church of Seattle, stood before us and drew a great circle on the blackboard. He put a big X in the middle of the circle, then turned to us and said, "As I look back on my pastoral ministry there were many years when Christ was here, like this X, at the center of all my endeavors. The Lord Jesus was real and vital to me. But in these past few years of my life, I feel I have drifted."
He turned and drew another X on the edge of the circle. "I've drifted," he said, "so that the Lord is no longer at the center but at the periphery. I want you all to know that I'm praying God will enable me to put Jesus back here," he tapped the center of the circle, "where He belongs. And I ask you to pray to that end for me."
I can testify that God answered Dr. Munger's prayers, and he has continued to be in fruitful service for the Lord. It was a moving and challenging experience to hear this man of God open his heart to us, and ask us to pray for him as he did what the Lord is calling you and me to do right now: repent and return to where you were before.
"Do the things you did at first," our Lord pleads with us. As we return to our Bibles, absorbing its truths with eager eyes; as we pray to God continually, trusting Him with all the issues of our lives, great and small; as we respond to others selflessly and compassionately out of a heart full of wondering love for the Lord Jesus; as we praise God from the depths of our hearts, full of gratitude for all He has done in our lives; as we sing praises to His name and meditate on His grace--then we are truly returning to our first love.
Are We Listening?
At the end of this confrontational and convicting passage, the Lord adds a comment which at first may seem puzzling and strange. "But you have this in your favor," He says. "You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." What did Jesus mean?
Today there is some controversy as to who these "Nicolaitans" were. They are mentioned again in the letter to the church at Pergamum. I believe the Lord deliberately mentions the Ephesians' abhorrence of the practices of the Nicolaitans because this is the starting point for the recovery of the Ephesian church. Their spiritual fire has not entirely gone out yet, and Jesus points out to them that a coal still glows and may yet be fanned into flame. Here, in this one important respect, some of the fire of their first love remains: they hate the practices of the Nicolaitans.
As best we can tell from Scripture and the traditions of the early church fathers, the Nicolaitans were probably a sect that combined some aspects of the Christian faith with dictatorial leadership and loose sexual practices. They believed you could be Christian while your sex life reflected the unrestrained practices of the world.
In Revelation 2:6, our Lord says, in effect, "Return to your first love but retain your abhorrence of such practices, which I also hate. That is how to fan this remaining vestige of your first love into a brilliant flame once again. Start here--and return to the place you once were."
When we look at this letter from the viewpoint of church history, we see that many churches began to lose their first love in the period immediately following the death of the apostles. The "Ephesian" period of church history covers the years from A.D. 70, when the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed, to about A.D. 160, the middle of the second century. During that time, there were literally hundreds of churches that drifted away from a warm, accepting, compassionate ministry to the world, and toward a hard, formal, unloving institutional religion. The church became rife with conflict and theological arguments. Formalism and ritualism were on the rise.
In many ways, the dangerous drift of that period has come to characterize many churches in our own age. Instead of a loving, awe-inspired relationship with Jesus, we see critical spirits, religious ambition, and contentiousness abounding. Human endeavor, human dogma, and human achievement have superseded a pure love relationship with the living Lord.
So our Lord's message to the Ephesian church assumes as great (if not greater) urgency in our own darkening age.
2:7 "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God."
"He who has an ear, let him hear. . . ." Do we have an ear to hear what God is saying to us? Are you and I really listening to this urgent message from the Spirit of God?
If we do, if we take the steps to remember, repent, and return to our first love, if we overcome and persevere in the original wondering love we first experienced when we gave ourselves to Jesus, then God will give us the right to eat from the Tree of Life.
Imagine it! The Tree of Life which was removed from us by sin in the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, is now being offered to us again in the book of Revelation. In the concluding book of the Bible, the Word of God comes full circle.
As we shall later explore in detail, the Tree of Life appears in Revelation 22, when the new heaven and the new earth appear, with the Tree of Life in the midst of the New Jerusalem. The twelve fruits of the Tree of Life--one fruit for each month--are the food of the people of the city. You might even call it a "Fruit of the Month Club."
The Tree of Life is a symbol of our Lord Jesus. He feeds us and sustains us, and we draw our strength from Him. That is what He says to us in these verses. Feed on the Tree of Life. Listen to His words and obey them, and soon you will find that your spiritual life is flourishing. You will find yourself growing strong and resilient, even amid the pressures and struggles that come your way.
As a people, we "Ephesian" Christians are prone to drift from our first love. One hymn-writer put it this way:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.
Prone to leave the God I love.
We are prone to forget the wonder of our Lord's self-sacrificing love for us. He is urgently, lovingly appealing to you and to me: remember, repent, and return.
The great English novelist and poet G. K. Chesterton had a reputation for absentmindedness. He relied upon his efficient and organization-minded wife to guide him in all his practical affairs, including his travel itinerary. Without her, he was literally "prone to wander."
Once, while on a lecture tour, he sent his wife a telegram which read, AM IN BIRMINGHAM. WHERE OUGHT I TO BE?
She wired back a single word: HOME.
May you and I find our way home to the safety, security, and warmth of our first love, the Lord Jesus.
A Church under Pressure
It was a thriving seaport city more than 3,000 years before Christ was born, and it is still a thriving city today. During the time Revelation was written, it was a center of commerce, wealth, and architectural splendor, located about 40 miles north of Ephesus. The city fathers proclaimed it (with typical Chamber of Commerce humility) "the Pride of Asia."
Today it is the third largest city in Turkey and a major international trade center, as well as the home of the NATO southern command headquarters and the prestigious Aegean University. The city is now known as Izmir, but during the first century, when the book of Revelation was written, its name was Smyrna.
Smyrna. The name means "myrrh," a fragrant spice or perfume obtained when the tender bark of the flowering myrrh tree is pierced or crushed. It is a fitting name for the first-century church of Smyrna, which gave off a fragrance of Christ throughout the region because it was a church that was often pierced, often crushed, often afflicted.
The city of Smyrna was a center of idolatrous emperor worship. As early as A.D. 26, during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. a temple was erected to the emperor, and all the citizens of Smyrna--including Christians--were expected to worship the Roman emperor. If you were a Christian in Smyrna, you were called upon once a year to appear at the temple and either say, "Caesar is Lord," or, "Jesus is Lord." Those who refused to confess Caesar as their Lord were either imprisoned or put to the sword.
So Smyrna was a place of enormous oppression and persecution for the early church. This persecution was inflicted upon the church by the Roman government. And it was also inflicted upon the church by the Jewish community in Smyrna--a community that was fanatically hostile to the early Christian church.
These, then, are the circumstances of the church in Smyrna at the time the second letter of Revelation was written.
2:8-11 "To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty--yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death."
That is our Lord's appraisal of the church of Smyrna. Clearly this was a church under oppression, under affliction, under severe pressure. To be a Christian in Smyrna was to exist in a twilight between two completely opposite extremes: (1) the rich, nurturing, loving fellowship of the Christian church family, and (2) the cruel and hostile surrounding society.
So as the Lord appraises the church at Smyrna--a church under pressure, living within two extremes--His message to them is a message that encompasses the extremes. He begins by identifying Himself to the Smyrna church as "the First and the Last," the One "who died and came to life again." Jesus was present at the beginning of Creation; He will be present at the end of history. He encompasses all the forces and events of the cosmos, including both death and life. The Lord's statement in Revelation 2:8 is reminiscent of His declaration to the disciples when He gave them the Great Commission in Matthew 28: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." He is the Lord of all heavenly and earthly forces.
Jesus is the Lord of all extremes, and of everything in between. It must have been a tremendous encouragement for the believers in Smyrna, who were enduring enormous persecution and pressure, to receive this reassurance from their Lord.
Jesus says, "I know your afflictions." The original Greek for afflictions in this verse conveys a sense of crushing, relentless pressure. From this word we get an image of a church caught in a vise and being slowly, cruelly squeezed.
Perhaps the closest analogy to what the believers in Smyrna were forced to endure would be the experience of the Jews in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Their travel was restricted. Their shops were subject to frequent vandalism and looting. Their livelihood was destroyed. Their synagogues were defiled or destroyed. Their property was seized. They were humiliated, stigmatized, slandered, harassed, and physically assaulted. Eventually, even their lives and their children's lives were taken.
So also the Christians in Smyrna were subject to the same kind of unrelenting pressure and affliction.
Jesus then says to them, "I know. . . your poverty--yet you are rich." This is probably a reference to the economic deprivation the Christians in Smyrna faced as part of the overall pattern of persecution. Remember that Smyrna was an exceedingly prosperous city, one of the richest cities in Asia, so the "poverty" Jesus refers to could hardly have been the result of a recession or bad economic conditions. It was clearly caused by persecution. The homes and shops of the Christians of Smyrna had probably been pillaged and their possessions taken--a common feature of early persecution. Perhaps these people--even those who were educated as teachers or doctors or lawyers--were forced to do menial labor for low wages just so they and their families could survive.
Yet, despite this picture of poverty and persecution, the Lord says to them, "You are rich!"
Poverty is a terrible thing which perhaps few of us have experienced firsthand. Since World War II, there have been periods of recession or double-digit inflation or stagnation, but nothing remotely like a genuine economic collapse. Yet until the last few decades economic depressions and panics were a fairly ordinary occurrence. Prior to the Great Depression, which began with the panic of 1929, there were major international panics in the years 1797, 1820, 1835, 1857, and 1873. During such times, banks failed, factories closed down, commerce ceased. Thousands were out of work, homeless, and hungry. For the most part, the present generation has no conception of what real economic depression is like.
I was a high school student during the Great Depression of the 1930s. We did not have much to eat, and we had no luxuries at all. We bought nothing but the basics, and almost never had new clothes to wear. We had nothing in the way of entertainment except a battery-operated radio (sparingly used) and whatever entertainment we could create on our own--street and sandlot sports, imaginative indoor games, and songs sung and stories told among ourselves.
We were, I suppose, poor. Yet I look back on those days as a wonderfully rich time of my life. We enjoyed each other. We laughed together. We experienced the simple joys of relationships and fellowship. We were rich in everything except material possessions.
Someone once captured what it means to be poor yet rich in the lines of a poem:
I counted dollars while God counted crosses.
I counted gain while He counted losses.
I counted my worth by the things gained in store,
But He sized me up by the scars that I bore.
I coveted honors and sought for degrees.
He wept as He counted the hours on my knees.
I never knew till one day by a grave,
How vain are the things that we spend life to save.
I did not yet know, till a Friend from above
Said, "Richest is he who is rich in God's love!"
There is a program on U.S. television called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. On this series, the luxury seemingly enjoyed by the rich is paraded before the viewers to ogle and desire. But as you look closely at the lives of the rich and famous you rarely discover a happy person among them. Riches do not make people happy. Many of the richest people in the world are extremely poor in the things that are truly important.
True riches, says the Lord, are those riches that are found within, where the heart is filled with grace and the love of God. "I know your poverty," He encourages the church in Smyrna, and all Christians who are poor, persecuted, and oppressed, "yet you are rich!" When our lives are full of rich relationships with other Christians and with God Himself, then we have riches indeed! That was the experience of the church in Smyrna.
A Smear Campaign
Jesus goes on to say, "I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." There was a smear campaign being waged against the Christians in Smyrna! Lies were being spread about them. Their reputation was being ruined.
Historical records show that all manner of fraudulent and despicable stories were broadcast about Christians in the first century. Because Christians celebrated Holy Communion and talked about partaking of the body and blood of Christ, they were accused of being cannibals, of actually eating one another. You can imagine the horror and loathing that must have attached to the name "Christian" among those who heard such stories.
Because they refused to worship the gods who were enshrined in the pagan temples, they were called atheists and infidels. They were scorned by a world given over to idolatry.
Christians talked about being members of one another, of loving one another, so they were accused of engaging in sexual orgies. When they met together in homes for worship and fellowship, others accused them of indulging in obscene practices.
This slander was the cause of much of the suffering and persecution faced by the early Christians. It came, as Jesus tells us in this letter, from false Jews. That is, it came from people who were the physical, genetic descendants of Abraham, people who attended a synagogue in Smyrna, but who proved by the quality of their lives that they lacked the spiritual insight of their father Abraham. They scorned and slandered the truth. They hated and persecuted people whose only crime was loving God and loving one another. By persecuting the truth and being far removed from the true faith of Abraham, they were, in effect, "a synagogue of Satan."
If you've ever been the victim of slander you have at least a taste of what the Christians in Smyrna were forced to endure. There are few experiences in this life more frustrating and painful than the experience of having one's reputation destroyed. Often by the time you discover that someone is spreading lies about you, there is no way to set the record straight. Too many people have heard--and repeated!--the false report about you. The damage that is done by a smear campaign often cannot be undone.
A well-known Christian was once subjected to a campaign of lies, and he could do little to defend himself. One day, a friend approached this Christian leader and told him how much he hurt for him and sympathized with him over this trial of being slandered. Then he said, "Remember, at least they have not spit in your face yet."
Jesus could understand what the church at Smyrna was going through, for He had not only been lied about and verbally abused but His enemies had spit in His face. Moreover, they physically assaulted Him. They beat Him with rods. They mocked Him and pressed a crown of thorns onto His brow. Then they pierced Him and hung Him on a cross to die. If anyone understands what it means to be slandered, attacked, and abused without cause, it is Jesus.
And Jesus wanted the church at Smyrna to be encouraged and strengthened, for the pressure and persecution was going to grow more intense, not less. "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer," He told them. "I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you." Notice that this is the first mention of the devil in the book of Revelation. The Lord acknowledges that He who is the First and the Last is going to allow this to happen. The devil will cause some believers to be put in prison. Roman prisons were ghastly places where prisoners knew they could be hauled out of their cells and executed at any moment.
Encouragement for the Testing
But the Lord has three words of encouragement for those who will endure this severe form of persecution, three statements to strengthen and embolden the hearts of the believers in Smyrna:
First, He says, "The devil will put some of you in prison to test you." Many people interpret these words to mean that God seeks to learn how committed they are by this test. But this can hardly be the case since God already knows their hearts. He knows what we are able to endure even before we are subjected to it. The fact is, it is not God but we who learn from the testing we go through!
When we go through pressure or persecution or affliction or prison experiences it is we ourselves, not God, who learn from that test. We discover how much we have matured in Christ, and how trustworthy God is in times of trouble. Trials strip away our artificial and superficial supports and force us to lean on the only support that is truly reliable: the grace and strength of God Himself!
Second, He says that the persecution will last only a limited time. "You will suffer persecution," He says, "for ten days." What exactly does the Lord mean when He says "ten days"? We will examine that question more fully in a moment, but for now we can be encouraged to know that the Lord sets the limits to our suffering. The test will not last longer than we can endure. If the Lord says the test will last "ten days," then there is no force on earth that could make it last eleven days! The pressure under which the Smyrna congregation suffered would not last forever.
Third, He says, "Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life." We can be certain that "the crown of life" had a special significance to the Christians in Smyrna. The city was fronted by the coast of the Aegean Sea and flanked by a hill known as the Pagos. The crest of this hill was ringed by a circle of pagan temples, giving the appearance of a crown resting on the brow of the hill. Because of this crowned hill, the city of Smyrna was often called "the crown of Asia." This feature was a source of status and pride to the citizens of Smyrna.
But in the second letter of Revelation Jesus says that He will give to the Christians of Smyrna an even better crown--the crown of life, the enjoyment of eternal life in glory! These words of reassurance to the church in Smyrna remind us of Paul's statement in Romans that "the sufferings of this present moment are not to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us." And elsewhere Paul writes, "This light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us to produce an eternal weight of glory."
We are continually encouraged by the fact that these trials, testings, and pressures are producing something of eternal value in our lives.
The Age of Martyrs
As we discussed in chapters 2 and 3, each of the seven churches of Revelation represents a period of church history. According to this prophetic view the church in Smyrna represents a period called "The Age of Martyrs," which lasted from about A.D. 160 to the rise of the first "Christian" emperor, Constantine the Great, in A.D. 324. To call this period "The Age of Martyrs" is not to suggest that this was the only time in history when Christians have been martyred. Believers have suffered and died for their faith and their Lord from the earliest days right up to the present day. In fact, it might surprise you to learn that the century that has seen the most Christians put to death for their faith was not the first, second, or third century, but our own twentieth century!
But it was during the Age of Martyrs that Christians were persecuted in ways almost beyond our ability to describe or believe. Their bodies were torn apart, joint from joint, upon the racks. Their fingernails were pulled out. They were wrapped in animal skins and thrown into sports arenas to be gored by wild animals for the amusement of others. They were covered with tar, suspended in Nero's gardens, and set alight--grisly human torches to illuminate the festivities of the pagans. Other atrocities against the faithful, as gruesome or worse than those I've already mentioned, are described in Fox's Book of Martyrs.
One of the prominent early casualties of the Age of Martyrs was Polycarp, bishop of the church at Smyrna. As a young man Polycarp had personally known the apostle John. Perhaps he had even heard the vision of Revelation recounted from the lips of the apostle himself. Without question, Polycarp knew well the words of the letter from Jesus to the church in Smyrna: "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. . . . Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life."
In A.D. 155, at the age of 86, Polycarp was brought before the Roman proconsul at Smyrna, who demanded that Polycarp take an oath renouncing Christ and placing his trust in "the Luck of Caesar." Polycarp refused. "Eighty-six years have I served the Lord Jesus," replied the bishop. "He has been faithful to me. How can I now be faithless to Him and blaspheme the name of my Savior?"
"Swear by the Luck of Caesar," the proconsul insisted, "or I will have you torn and eaten by wild beasts."
"Hand me over to the beasts," Polycarp calmly replied. "You will not change my heart. I tell you plainly that I am a Christian, even unto the death."
Enraged, the proconsul sent a messenger out into the city to proclaim that the bishop Polycarp had admitted to being a Christian. The messenger gathered a mob together in the arena of Smyrna. There the mob built a pyre of kindling, sticks, and planks, while clamoring that Polycarp be handed to them. The speed with which the bloodthirsty mob was assembled is clear evidence of the intense anti-Christian hatred that poisoned the city of Smyrna.
When Polycarp was delivered to the mob in the arena, several of the people brought forth hammers and nails with which to nail the bishop's hands and feet to the stake to keep him from struggling. "Put away those nails and let me be!" said Polycarp with such an air of authority that the men put down their hammers and nails. "The One who gives me strength to endure the flames will give me strength not to flinch at the stake."
As the wood was piled around his feet and ignited, Polycarp turned his eyes skyward and said, "O Lord God Almighty, Father of the blessed and beloved Son, Jesus Christ, I thank you for giving me this day and this hour, that I may be numbered among your martyrs, to share the cup of Jesus, and to rise again to life everlasting."
His "Amen" was wafted up in the flame and smoke of the pyre.
The Second Death
Let's look again at the Lord's promise to the church at Smyrna: "You will suffer persecution," He says, "for ten days." History tells us that there were ten separate periods of persecution in the Roman Empire. There were ten edicts of condemnation against the Christian church issued by Roman emperors, beginning with Domitian in A.D. 96 to Diocletian, the last emperor before Constantine.
In verse 11, the Lord appeals directly to each individual believer in the church of Smyrna:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death."
To understand the term "second death" we need only to look near the end of Revelation, in chapters 20 and 21, where the phrase "second death" appears three times. There we are shown in vivid, graphic terms what is meant by "the second death." It is the terrible lake of fire, the symbol of the final judgment of all those who refuse the gospel of the grace of God. The second death was not originally prepared for humanity, but for the devil and the rebellious angels--yet it will be shared by those human beings who align themselves with the devil by refusing God's grace.
The "second death" involves complete, eternal separation from God, a torment of soul and spirit that is so devastating that it is depicted by the effect that fire has on the nerve endings of the human body. It is the fate demanded by those who say, "I don't want anything to do with God. I don't want God in my life." The God of love, of grace, of mercy, the God who gave us all free will, will at the final judgment give people what they have demanded all their lives--a total and complete separation from His love.
"If you listen to the message of this letter," says Jesus, in effect, "if you trust me in times of pressure and persecution, I will give you the gift of eternal life and you will have nothing to fear from the judgment of God. You will be kept safe from the second death."
This is the hope Paul rejoices in when he writes in Romans 8,
Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Except for those believers who are alive when Jesus returns, we are all destined one day to die. Some people reading this book will die quietly in their sleep. Some are no doubt certain to go through great suffering, although the Lord has promised it will not be more than they can bear. Some who read these words may even be martyred for their faith someday, just as Polycarp and so many other Christian saints of past and present ages have been.
Whatever happens, however death may come to us, we have the promise of Jesus that, as His faithful followers, we can never be hurt by the second death. So let us determine, as the believers of Smyrna determined, that we shall be faithful until death, no matter how or when that death shall come, secure in the fact that nothing, nothing, nothing in heaven or on earth will ever separate us from the love of God.
The Church That Compromised
It has been said that Christians ought to live with a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other, for it takes one to understand the other. The newspaper records the visible events that take place across the face of the earth, day by day. The Bible looks beyond, to the invisible realm where the councils of God determine what events take place upon the earth--and also what is the eternal significance of those events. You cannot really understand life in all its scope and meaning unless you look into both realms.
There is no book in the Bible which more clearly discloses that invisible, eternal realm to us than the book of Revelation. As we open its pages we learn not only what will someday happen upon the earth, but we learn about what is happening now--and why. We learn the invisible, eternal counsel of God about how we are to live out our lives in the world and in the church.
In recent years the newspapers, news magazines, and television news reports have been focused on many of the same problems which are addressed in the Lord's third letter to the churches in Revelation--problems of scandal, immorality, and corruption in high places in the Christian church. For example, the second-highest-rated segment of ABC's Nightline show was one which featured an interview with a televangelist involved in a major sex-and-hush-money scandal. These well-publicized religious debacles have brought shame, scorn, and disgrace upon the Christian church and the Christian gospel. So it also was in the church at Pergamum.
2:12-16 "To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live--where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city--where Satan lives.
Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth."
Notice how sharply these words contrast with the Lord's previous message to the church in Smyrna. The church in Smyrna was enduring enormous pressure and persecution. The church in Pergamum was flirting with corruption and immorality.
It seems that the devil has two very effective weapons which he delights in using against the church: intimidation and/or enticement. He either seeks to make the church knuckle under--or he tries to tempt and lure the church into destroying itself. The church is hemmed in on one side by the violence and terror of a roaring lion, and on the other side by the cloying corruption of a fallen angel of light. The fellowship at Pergamum is fast being undermined by corrupt practices and corrupt teaching.
The Double-Edged Sword
In His letter, Jesus identifies Himself as the One having "the sharp, double-edged sword." As we previously discovered, the sharp, double-edged sword is a symbol of the Word of God, proceeding with power from the lips of Jesus. Because it is double-edged it cuts two ways. I believe this is a reference to the fact that the Word can cleave the skull so as to reach the mind, and it can also pierce the heart so that it can touch the emotions.
The Word of God awakens us to objective reality. It appeals to the thinking, reasoning dimension of our humanity. It speaks to the mind. By its light, we can see truth that would otherwise be hidden from our sight. The Word of God is a reasonable book, through which God appeals to us, saying, "Come now, let us reason together."1
The Word of God also awakens feelings within us. It inspires our awe and our reverence. It touches us with the message of God's unconditional love and forgiveness toward us. It thus activates the will. It appeals to the soul and spirit. By its fire, our hearts are warmed and energized.
The emotional power of the Word of God was demonstrated on the day of Pentecost. Peter stood before a crowd in the Jerusalem marketplace and preached a message about Jesus Christ from two Old Testament books, the Psalms and the prophet Joel. After Peter had finished preaching the people who listened to him "were cut to the heart" and asked Peter and the other apostles standing with him, "Brothers, what shall we do?" In other words, "Tell us what we can do to be saved!" As a result, three thousand people found faith in Jesus Christ that day.2
Clearly, the Word of God has power to touch both the intellect and the conscience.
Where Satan Has His Throne
Pergamum was the Roman capital of the province of Asia, boasting a population of around a quarter of a million souls. Located about fifty miles north of Smyrna, it was a center of pagan idol worship and emperor worship. Jesus calls Pergamum the place "where Satan has his throne"--that is, the place where Satan rules. He also calls it the city "where Satan lives"-that is, where Satan has his headquarters.
Many Bible scholars think this is a reference to the great altar of Zeus which stood on a hillside overlooking the city. This altar was in the form of a great throne or chair, forty feet high. From almost any place in the city, you could look up and see what the Lord called "Satan's throne." Because Pergamum was such an influential center of pagan worship, the Lord portrayed it in His third letter as the very focus of satanic evil.
There is a fascinating historical footnote in connection with "Satan's throne" in Pergamum. In 1878, an archaeological team, working under the auspices of the Berlin Museum, began excavating in and around the site of ancient Pergamum. The team unearthed several fabulous historical finds, including a beautiful hillside terrace theater, a magnificent temple to the goddess Athena, and--most amazing of all--the great altar of Zeus, "Satan's throne" itself!
Considered one of the most valuable and intriguing artifacts of Hellenistic culture, the throne of Zeus is richly ornamented with carved figures from pagan mythology. It was removed from Pergamum and shipped to Germany where, for over a hundred years it has remained on display in the Pergamum Museum in East Berlin. Such sites as Hitler's bunker, the Nazi Reich Chancellery, and the pre-unification communist government's Palace of the Republic are all located within twenty-five miles of "Satan's throne."
Could there be some connection between Pergamum's satanic altar-throne and the black rise of Nazism or the gray oppression of East German communism? I leave that for you to judge.
The Lord's Affirmation of the Pergamum Church
The first half of the Lord's assessment of the Pergamum church is an affirmation of its strengths. He affirms the Pergamum believers because they have remained true to His name. They have refused to budge on the issue of who Jesus Christ is. They hold sound doctrine concerning the fact that Jesus is the God-man--not godlike, not half-man, half-God, but fully God and fully man in one completely whole person. Almost all the heresies from that day until our own day flow out of a corruption of this basic truth, out of a denial of the deity of Jesus.
Jesus also affirms the fact that the Pergamum believers risked their own lives for the faith. He says, "You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city--where Satan lives."
The name Antipas means "against all." We do not know much about this man, although he is said to be the first martyr under the Roman persecution in Asia. Tradition holds that Antipas was tortured to death, seared alive inside a hollow brass statue in the form of a bull which was heated until it glowed white-hot. That is the price Antipas paid for being true to his faith in Jesus Christ. He had to literally stand "against all."
The Lord's Rebuke of the Pergamum Church
The second half of the Lord's assessment of the Pergamum church is a rebuke for the serious errors that undermine the soundness of this church. One such error is what Jesus calls "the teaching of Balaam." This is a reference to Numbers 22 to 25, where Balaam, a false prophet, is hired by King Balak of Moab to place a curse on the nation of Israel. Balaam attempts to impose the curse, but every time he opens his mouth, out comes not a curse but a blessing! God would not let Balaam and King Balak curse His people.
Yet Balaam was so determined to achieve his evil purpose that he paid women from Moab and Midian to entice and seduce the men of Israel into sexual immorality. Because these women were worshipers of idols, they also seduced the Israelites into following their false gods. Thousands of Israelites suffered and died because of Balaam's error and Israel's sin.
So Jesus, in Revelation 2:14, warned the Christians in Pergamum not to be seduced by the same error. Peter issued the same warning when he wrote about those "with eyes full of adultery" who "seduce the unstable," who "have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam."3
The error of Balaam continues to threaten the church in our own day: it is the practice of pornography, adultery, fornication, and cohabitation (living together as husband and wife without the sanction of marriage). Many individual Christians, individual churches, and even some entire denominations openly tolerate or endorse such behavior, and the result is the same today as it was in Balaam's day: emotional, psychological, spiritual, and even physical damage to many lives. Those who engage in such behavior are invariably led away from God and closer to their own destruction.
Another error Jesus warns against is "the teaching of the Nicolaitans." In chapter 3, as we examined the Lord's letter to the Ephesian church, we saw that He affirmed the Ephesians for hating the practices of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans, remember, were probably a sect that combined aspects of the Christian faith with loose sexual practices. There is also historical evidence that the Nicolaitans claimed to have a special relationship with God and special revelations from God. In other words, they claimed to be spiritually superior to other people and presumed to take the place of the Hebrew priesthood.
The name Nicolaitans means "conquerors of the people," and there is evidence in church history that the Nicolaitan cult did indeed "conquer" many Christians and even entire churches, leading them into error and destruction. Their doctrines appealed to both physical lust and sinful spiritual pride.
The teachings of the Nicolaitans can still be found today in churches where an "imperial pastor" is put on a pedestal and given a kind of spiritual supremacy over the laypeople. Such pastors claim to have a more intimate relationship with God. Such churches seem to view themselves as a theater filled with spectators, all watching the performance of their pastor.
But the Christian life is not a spectator sport. Rather, we are all expected to be players on the field, part of the game plan. A church can be likened to a football team. When we gather together on Sunday for worship, we are "in the huddle." We are there to learn the game strategy and to become motivated for the struggle of the game. Monday through Saturday, on the playing field of everyday life, we all do our part for the team, and for our ultimate Coach, the Lord Jesus. No one is on the sidelines or in the stands. We are all in the game.
How, then, should a church deal with such threats as the error of Balaam or the teaching of the Nicolaitans, whether in the present day or in the day of John the apostle? Jesus' reply was, in effect, you deal with error with a sharp, two-edged sword! "Repent," He said. "Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth." The Word of God exposes both the error of immorality and the error of spiritual pride and priestly superiority. That is one reason why many churches in our time ignore the clear exposition of Scripture.
The Pergamum Stage of Church History
As we've previously seen, each of the seven churches of Revelation corresponds to a period of church history. The Pergamum stage is that period of time between the accession of Constantine the Great in A.D. 324 to the sixth century, when the era of the popes began. During that period of time, the great councils of the church--Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and others--determined and canonized the true doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ--who He was and how He combined in Himself the full nature of God and of man.
But this was also the time of the first "marriage" between church and state, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In fact, the name Pergamum means "marriage" and comes from the same root word from which we get such words as monogamy and bigamy.
Despite the seemingly desirable goal of fostering the rise of Christianity by making it the state religion, Constantine was not an orthodox Christian. In fact, he adopted many pagan practices and brought them into the church where they became accepted. By this time in its history the church was enjoying considerable popularity. It had come to be viewed not so much as a family of faith, but as a formal, institutional, worldly kingdom, much like any other kingdom. As the church's political influence grew throughout the Pergamum period of history, its spiritual influence waned.
Symbols of Intimacy
At the close of His letter to the church at Pergamum, the Lord gives a special promise to the believers of that far-off place and time--but also to believers of our own time.
2:17 "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a while stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it."
This promise is addressed to all those who heed the warnings of this letter, who are vigilant and faithful in the areas of sexual immorality, spiritual superiority, and spiritual pride. If you and I stand fast against the lure of corruption and the lust for power over others, Jesus promises that we will be given several things--secret things with a special significance.
First, He says He will give us "hidden manna." Second, He will give us a white stone. Third, upon that stone will be written a new name, known only to ourselves. Here is a beautiful symbolic picture of special intimacy with God.
Manna was the food from heaven with which Moses fed the people of Israel in the wilderness.4 Jesus Himself is the food from heaven on which you and I may feed. In John 6, Jesus says, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." He is the "hidden manna." He is the food for the inner spirit--a food that others do not know about.
In John 4, the Lord sent His disciples into the city of Sychar to get food. When they came back and found He had been ministering to the woman at the well, He said, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about." Jesus fed upon the inner strength He found in His intimate relationship with God the Father. We find that same inner nourishing and strength when we experience true intimacy with God as we resist the lure of moral impurity and spiritual conceit.
Jesus also promises a white stone with our new name--a secret name--written upon it. The symbol of the white stone is significant because the Romans of John's time used it as a mark of special favor. The secret name written upon the white stone was, of course, another symbol of intimacy, of a special, intimate relationship with God.
A number of years ago, the well-known Christian author Elisabeth Elliot came to speak at Peninsula Bible Church, where I served as pastor. I had read several of her books, including one she wrote about her life with missionary Jim Elliot, who was martyred in Ecuador. In that book, she referred to herself as Betty a number of times, so while she was visiting at PBC, I called her Betty. After a while, she took me aside and said, "Could I ask a favor? Would you please call me Elisabeth? You see, Betty was Jim's private name for me."
I immediately understood. A private name is a special mark of intimacy. The name Betty was a mark of the special relationship Elisabeth Elliot enjoyed with her late husband. She cherished that name and very properly wanted to preserve its special value. From that moment on, I called her Elisabeth.
If we know the Lord Jesus and if we keep our hearts pure from the corrupting influences of the world around us, He has promised to give us a new name, a secret name, a special mark of intimacy with Him. That name signifies not merely a change in what we are called, but a change in what we have become: We are new creatures, with a new nature, heirs to a new and exciting destination in eternity--a rich, warm, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ that goes on and on forever.
The Worldly Church
The beginnings of the modern city of Akhisar in western Turkey are shrouded in mystery. No one knows when it was founded. Once it was a little village named Pelopia, nestled in a fertile plain on the banks of the Zab River. Around 300 years before the birth of Christ, it became a Greek colony and was renamed Thyatira--the name by which it is known in the book of Revelation. During the time of the writing of Revelation, it was a Roman colony.
Located about 35 miles southeast of Pergamum, Thyatira was a small but bustling commercial center on the main road between Pergamum and Laodicea. In many ways, modern Thyatira, the Turkish city of Akhisar, is much like it was in the days of the apostle John. Akhisar is still a busy commercial center, and even in the 1990s its most important exports are essentially the same products that ancient Thyatira was known for: cotton and wool cloth, fruits, and dyes.
In fact, the word "dyes" may jog your memory if you are familiar with the New Testament, because in the book of Acts we are introduced to a woman named Lydia, who was led to the Lord by the apostle Paul in the city of Philippi. Lydia was a seller of purple dyes and dyed goods, and she originally came from the city of Thyatira.1
It might surprise you to know that Thyatira was a city in which trade unions were very important. You might think that trade unionism had its beginnings in the "sweat shop" factories and coal mines of nineteenth century England and America, but the truth is that carpenters, dyers, merchants, cloth makers, and other trade workers had organized into fraternal guilds even before the time of Christ. In Thyatira the trades were so strongly unionized that it was difficult to make a living without being a guild member--a fact which will soon become very important in our study of the Lord's fourth letter in Revelation.
In this letter, Jesus begins with a word of affirmation.
2:18--19 "To the angel of the church in Thyatira write:
These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first."
I think it is significant that the title "the Son of God" appears in these verses for the first and only time in the entire book of Revelation. Some cults, sects, and nonbelievers claim that Jesus never said He was the Son of God, yet here is one of several New Testament passages where He clearly makes that claim.
In this passage Jesus stresses the fact of His deity and adds to the claim such potent, memorable imagery as "eyes. . . like blazing fire," and "feet. . . like burnished bronze." The picture of eyes like blazing fire suggests His ability to pierce the facades, disguises, and pretensions of His people. Nothing can be hidden from the hot gaze of His truth. The picture of feet like burnished bronze suggests His ability to trample sin and injustice underfoot, His authority to punish evil.
Both the eyes of blazing truth and the bronze feet of justice are needed at the church in Thyatira. Tragically, it is the most corrupt of the seven churches of Revelation.
An Attractive Church
The church at Thyatira was neither dead nor doomed to die. The Lord found many things to affirm in this church. "I know your deeds," He said, "your love and faith, your service and perseverance." These four qualities--love, faith, service, and perseverance--are inter-related.
Love leads to service. If you love God, you will serve His people. You cannot help it. Service is the visible sign, the outward expression of a heart full of love.
Faith leads to perseverance. If you have faith, you will persevere. You now understand that God is in control of all the circumstances of life and things will always work out for His good purpose. When you have faith you keep at your work. You do not quit.
Within the fellowship at Thyatira were many believers who loved God, who served His people, who had faith in His word, and who persevered. As they loved God and served others, the church grew. And, as the Lord observed, the church had grown in these qualities since its early days: "you are now doing more than you did at first."
That is the way churches grow: People are always attracted by the reality of Christian love, the heartfelt compassion of Christian service, the stirring hope of Christian faith, the challenging example of Christian perseverance. People who stand outside the church and see such qualities being lived out in the name of Jesus are like hungry children standing outside the window of an ice cream shop with their noses pressed against the glass. They earnestly desire what they see inside.
If you and I could stand among the believers in Thyatira, we would be marvelously impressed by all that we see: the busyness, the bustling activity, the personal warmth and caring of many wonderful people, the deep faith, the concern and care for others. It was a very attractive church--on the outside. But something was dreadfully wrong deep within.
2:20-23 "Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer immensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds."
Evidently, there was a woman in the church at Thyatira who was influential, domineering--and depraved. Jesus names her "Jezebel." That, of course, was not this woman's given name, but rather a name the Lord gave her to indicate her character. Jesus often renamed people according to their inner qualities, much as He renamed Simon, an ill-educated fisherman, to show that he would one day emerge as a "rock," as "Peter." Without question, everyone in the church at Thyatira knew who Jesus meant when He said "Jezebel." Equally without question, Jesus chose to give her the name of the most evil and loathsome woman in the Old Testament.
The original Jezebel in the Old Testament was the daughter of the king of Sidon, an ancient town in Lebanon that has been in the headlines of our own era as a major site of bloodshed and upheaval.2 Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and she is particularly noted for having introduced and made popular the worship of the pagan god Baal in Israel.
Baal was a fertility god, and the worship of Baal involved obscene sexual practices and temple prostitutes, both male and female. The worship of this demonic god spread throughout Israel because of Jezebel's influence, and she used her wealth to sponsor more than 800 false prophets of Baal.
It was Jezebel who attempted to murder the prophet Elijah after his famous encounter with 480 false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. There, you recall, the false prophets failed in their attempt to call down fire from their god Baal to consume a sacrificial bull. But when it was Elijah's turn, he called upon God, and God sent fire from heaven to consume not only the sacrifice upon the altar, but the wood fuel, the stones of the altar, the dust of the ground, and the water Elijah had poured upon it all. When Jezebel learned of the humiliation and defeat of Baal and the prophets of Baal, she threatened Elijah's life.3
Jezebel also murdered her neighbor Naboth so that her husband, the king, could seize the dead man's vineyard. Jezebel was a ruthless, godless, calculating, power-mad seducer of the people. According to Old Testament prophecy, her life ended when she was thrown from the palace window into the courtyard below. There her body was set upon by dogs, who licked up her blood.4
As we gain an understanding of what kind of evil woman the original Jezebel was we begin to see exactly what Jesus means when He calls the tyrant who dominates the Thyatira church by the name Jezebel. The Jezebel in Thyatira called herself a "prophetess," and there is nothing innately wrong with that. No Scripture forbids a woman from exercising the gift of prophecy per se. There were other prophetesses in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New. Philip, the Spirit-filled evangelist of the book of Acts, had four daughters who were prophetesses and who faithfully exercised their spiritual gift for the edification of the church.5
The problem with Thyatira's Jezebel was not that she was a prophet of the feminine gender, but that she was a false prophet. The Lord tells us what her corrupt teaching consisted of: seducing believers into tolerating, accepting, and engaging in immorality and idolatry.
"Business Is Business"
At this point we find the link between this evil woman Jezebel in the Thyatira church and the pervasive economic control of the Thyatiran trade unions. In order to make a living in Thyatira, a citizen of the city was required to join a union or guild. The membership of these guilds was comprised largely of pagans. The problem for the Christians in Thyatira was that the meetings of the guilds were mostly devoted to idol worship and the licentious debaucheries associated with the Greek culture's erotic idols.
The English Bible scholar William Barclay describes the dilemma of the Thyatiran Christians this way:
These guilds met frequently, and they met for a common meal. Such a meal was, at least in part, a religious ceremony. It would probably meet in a heathen temple, and it would certainly begin with a libation to the gods, and the meal itself would largely consist of meat offered to idols. The official position of the church meant that a Christian could not attend such a meal.6
Here was the problem: These Thyatiran Christians had to belong to a union in order to make a living--yet belonging to the union meant they were pressured (and perhaps even required) to participate in immoral sexual practices and idol worship. So these Christians had to make a decision--a decision that in many cases came down to a raw choice between remaining faithful to God and simple physical survival for themselves and their families.
Worst of all, this Jezebel in the Thyatira church was teaching that it was all right for the Thyatiran believers to join the unions, to submit to the pressures of the surrounding evil culture, and that God would overlook their sin. Her philosophy was one we often hear these days whenever Christians want to excuse or justify an unethical or immoral business practice: "Business is business." If your Christian principles get in the way of your success in business, then it is those Christian principles that have to go. "I have to make a living, don't I?" is the plea of many. I've heard this argument many times. You've probably heard it, too.
Here again we see how powerfully applicable and relevant the book of Revelation is to our own time and problems. The Thyatira syndrome is closely paralleled by many churches in our era. There are churches which endorse homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle, churches which do not discipline their members who engage in sexual immorality, churches which allow pornography to go unchallenged in their midst.
But the Lord holds such churches accountable today, just as He did in the first century. His charge against them is, "You tolerate that woman Jezebel." This is a problem that church leadership must face today just as church leaders of the apostle John's era had to.
Notice that in the letters to the churches at both Pergamum and Thyatira the Lord links sexual immorality with idolatry. At first glance we may wonder what one has to do with the other. In fact, however, one inevitably leads to the other. Fornication and adultery are clear-cut violations of what the Word of God clearly commands. So when a person engages in sexually impure behavior, he or she deliberately violates the authority of God. Even if that person verbally professes to be a Christian, he or she is living a lifestyle in which God is no longer their God.
Now the link between immorality and idolatry becomes clear: If people reject the Lord's authority over their lives and if God is no longer God in their lives, then they must find another god! It is impossible for the human spirit to thrive without something to live for, something larger than itself--and that something is what a god is! Whatever makes your life worthwhile becomes your god. It may be the god of pleasure, of self-gratification, even of sexual self-indulgence. Or it may be the god of wealth, success, ambition, power, or fame.
The point is that we "enlightened," "modern," "sophisticated" people still have our idols, just as the ancients had. Our idols may not be carved out of wood or stone. But they are just as real, just as seductive, just as dishonoring and offensive to the one true God.
For most of us, our greatest temptation to idolatry can be found in our place of work--in the office, on the campus, at the store, on the road. It is there that we spend most of our waking hours, there that we invest so much of our self and our aspiration, there that we are under the greatest pressure to compromise and knuckle under to the corrupt standards of the dying world around us. As Earl Palmer reminds us,
The most subtle challenge to faith does not usually originate in public amphitheaters but in the daily places where we earn the money we need to live. . . . A job that is worshiped is a job badly done. This is because we ask too much from the job we are doing--from the company, from the union, from the success of financial achievement. What the trades need, what professions need, what all deployments of our lives need is not our soul but our skill, not our worship but our hard work. When we once learn this vital alignment of values, we will do better in our work, and have fewer ulcers too. Idolatries, whether of the dramatic amphitheater type or the low-grade office type, always make us sick.7
The Disease of Immorality and Idolatry
The punishment our Lord assesses against the corrupt teaching of Thyatira's Jezebel reflects the seriousness of the disease of immorality and idolatry. Notice that this punishment involves three parties.
First, there is Jezebel herself. Jesus says, "I will cast her on a bed of suffering." There is a note of irony and even sarcasm in this statement. A bed, in this instance, implies a place not of sleeping but of illicit sexual union. He is saying, in effect, "If it's a bed she wants, so be it--but it will prove to be a bed of pain, not pleasure." The "bed of suffering" is an inducement for Jezebel to recognize her sin--and to repent of it.
Second, there is a group of people around Jezebel who will also be subject to punishment. The Lord says, "I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways." This is a reference to those who practice immorality and idolatry after the corrupt example of Jezebel.
The suffering Jesus refers to may well be a reference to sexually transmitted diseases. Gonorrhea and syphilis were common in the ancient world and are still with us today. In our own century, such sexually transmitted diseases as chlamydia, type II herpes simplex, and AIDS have been identified as the causes behind untold human suffering, from disfigurement, blindness, birth defects, and sterility to the most horrible, wasting form of death imaginable. I have known people dying of AIDS, and words are completely inadequate to express how horrifying and excruciating this disease is, both physically and emotionally.
Third, the Lord says, "I will strike her children dead." This is a reference not to physical children but to those who are spiritually the children of Jezebel--that is, those who have absorbed her teaching, who have lived their own lives by it, and who now teach others to do the same. The death Jesus refers to is, I believe, spiritual death, what He calls "the second death" in His letter to the church at Smyrna. The second death is the terrible destruction of the lake of fire.8 This extreme form of punishment is merited by the "children" of Jezebel because their commitment to a lifestyle of evil, along with their corrupt teaching, makes repentance difficult and unlikely.
Judgment and Discipline
Does this mean that the Thyatira Jezebel and those around her are doomed? Is there still hope that they might repent and be spared from the judgment of God?
Yes. The Lord is gracious and always leaves the door of repentance and forgiveness open. The key phrase He uses in this passage is "unless they repent of her ways." As John recorded the Lord's words to the believers in Thyatira, there was still time for them to change their ways. But would they?
When people go through times of affliction or have a close brush with death as a result of sickness, accident, natural catastrophe, or war, they often come through such times with a new recognition of their own powerlessness and mortality. At such times people have an opportunity to think hard about their way of life--and about whether they should change their way of life. Such events may seem harrowing, frightening, or even punishing, yet God can use these events to shake us, rouse us, and shout "Wake up!" to us. He wants to use all the circumstances of our lives, both our pain and our joy, to draw us closer to Him.
God has attempted to reach the Jezebel in the church at Thyatira, giving her time to repent of her immorality. Jesus ultimately concludes, however, that she is unwilling to repent. She has hardened her heart. As a result, judgment must come. In verse 23, Jesus says, "Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds."
The purpose of judgment and discipline within the church is purification. A pure church is a strong church. The more aware we are of our weaknesses and hidden areas of sin, the more alert we become to sin's destructive power in our lives. We are better able to arm ourselves against temptation and to guard ourselves against becoming conformed to the dying world around us. We can stand against the tide and swim against the current.
The church at Thyatira needed this kind of purification. So do many churches in our time. Tragically, there are all too few churches in our time that have the courage, conviction, and obedience to Scripture to undertake the purifying process of church discipline.
The process of church discipline derives from such passages as 1 Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18:15-17. It is used on those rare occasions when a church member is engaged in a pattern of behavior that is destructive to himself and to the purity of the church. At the top of the list of such behavior in 1 Corinthians 5 is sexual immorality, but the apostle Paul also includes unethical business practices, idolatry, slander, substance abuse, and thievery as causes for church discipline. The motive for biblical church discipline is always two-fold: (1) love for the sinner himself, a desire to call him to repentance for his own spiritual welfare, and (2) love for the church, a desire to keep it pure, undefiled, and distinct from the sinful world around it.
Every church will someday know, says the Lord, that He is the one who searches hearts and minds and who repays each according to his or her deeds. A church that obediently practices self-purification will be repaid according to its good deeds and its purity. A church that must be forcibly purified by the Lord will be repaid according to the evil which it tolerated and condoned.
The original Greek phrase rendered "hearts and minds" in verse 23 would, if strictly translated, read "kidneys and hearts"--a phrase that would be jarring and meaningless to the modern mind. The translators simply chose a phrase that would convey the same sense to the modern mind that "kidneys and hearts" did to the ancient mind.
People in the first century regarded the kidneys as the source of feelings. If your kidneys were not working well, then you wouldn't feel good either. They viewed the heart as the seat of the will, of decision-making, of volition. So what the Lord means when He says that He searches "the kidneys and the hearts" is that our feelings are important, our deliberate choices are important, and each of us will be held responsible for his or her choices. We cannot shift the blame for our actions to anyone else. We are accountable to God.
The Devil's Millennium
We have examined the dynamics of the historic church of Thyatira and its relevance to our own lives and our churches today. Now let's take a prophetic look at the church of Thyatira and discover what age of church history this church symbolizes.
The Thyatiran church, remember, was the most corrupt of the seven churches. Accordingly, this church clearly symbolizes the darkest and most corrupt period of Christian history. It foreshadows the time from the sixth century to the sixteenth century--a thousand-year period that has been variously called "The Dark Ages," "The Middle Ages," and even "The Devil's Millennium."
It was a time when the institutional church had become very powerful and very corrupt. It defiled itself by combining pagan rites and magical practices with watered-down Christian teaching. Believers were taught to venerate and pray to images. The church was organized into a massive, intricate multi-level structure which more closely resembled worldly government than the simple servant-leadership we see exercised in the New Testament. The elite hierarchy of the church introduced practices which were unknown in Scripture or the early church. Religious authorities sought to dominate the political sphere of power.
During the sixth century the Bishop of Rome became accepted as the dominant figure in the church, and the office of pope came into being. For centuries the pope was more powerful than emperors and kings. On one occasion the pope summoned a German emperor to Rome and then forced him to stand barefoot in the snow for several hours before he would receive him. When the king was finally permitted to enter the presence of the pope, he was required to crawl on his hands and knees. Such was the power, arrogance, and corruption of the church during "The Devil's Millennium."
Yet, just as there were many within the corrupt church at Thyatira who loved God, who served His people, who had faith in His word, and who persevered, there were many Christians during "The Devil's Millennium" of church history who were equally faithful. The monasteries which flourished during this time served as hospitals and refuges for the sick, the poor, and the oppressed. Some of the most beautiful and enduring hymns and literature of our faith were written by devoted Christians of those days--Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Jan van Ruysbroeck, Catherine of Siena, and Thomas ˆ Kempis, to name a few.
Yet these devoted, compassionate, faithful people were just islands of light in a sea of religious darkness. The "Thyatira stage" of church history could only be characterized as a period of incalculable oppression, corruption, and depravity. The evil influence of that period of history continues to reverberate in our own time, and it will culminate in a future time that is described for us in Revelation 17 and 18. There we will see the great harlot who rides the beast and who has assumed dominion over the kings of the earth.
It is a common notion among Bible commentators to identify the "harlot" only with the Roman Catholic Church, but I am convinced that this is a serious mistake. Although many of the doctrines, practices, and structures of the Roman Catholic Church are rooted in the "Thyatira stage" of church history, it is not the only branch of Christendom that suffers from these errors.
For centuries we Protestants have strongly differed with Rome over a number of issues, especially the "Three M's"--Mary, the Mass, and the Magisterium (that is, the form of government of the church). But you will find many of these errors also in the great Orthodox churches of the East, the Coptic church in Egypt, the Anglican and Lutheran churches of northern Europe, and many of the great Protestant denominations in America and around the world. In fact, the seeds of Thyatiran error are everywhere you look.
Wherever there are domineering, power-seeking "church bosses" like Thyatira's Jezebel; wherever Christians begin to accommodate themselves to the moral laxity and impurity of the surrounding society; wherever Christians slip into the idolatrous mindset of allowing ambition, self-gratification, and pride to remove God from the throne of their lives; wherever church structure becomes more important than Christian love, service, faith, and perseverance--at that point, that church, regardless of its denomination or its history, has become Thyatiran in character. The Lord will repay that church according to its deeds.
Now comes a sensitive and encouraging word, straight from the heart of the Lord to the hearts of those who remain faithful amid the corruption of the Thyatiran church.
2:24-25 "Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan's so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you): Only hold on to what you have until I come."
Here, for the first time in Revelation, our Lord lays special emphasis on His coming. Notice, too, the phrase "Satan's so-called deep secrets." This indicates that when a church drifts away from its moral purity, it invariably drifts toward the things of Satan, toward mystical rites and occultic rituals.
People love to feel they are a part of something special and secret. They love to feel that they are the initiated, the knowledgeable, the ones who know what the "truth" is. As a result we are seeing a proliferation of mystical cults and movements arising across our society. The New Age movement seduces people by the thousands with its promise of "so-called deep secrets"--revelations from powerful spirit beings who can impart information that ordinary folk on the outside just don't have.
Notice how the Lord's reference to the deep secrets of Satan parallels Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 2:10: "The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God." It seems that whenever God has something good, Satan imitates it. The dark and hidden matters of Satan are his twisted imitation of the wonderfully deep truths in the Word of God.
The Lord's message of encouragement to the faithful in Thyatira is Hold on! "Only hold on to what you have until I come." He says in effect, "Do not let go of the truth. Do not let go of your moral standards. It may be difficult to live for Christ in a worldly and corrupt church. but remain faithful until I come."
To those who hold fast until His return, the Lord gives an inspiring word of promise.
2:26-27 "To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations--
'He will rule them with an iron scepter;
he will dash them to pieces like pottery'--
just as I have received authority from my Father."
The Old Testament quotation in these verses is from Psalm 2, and it is a reference to the rule of the Messiah in the earthly kingdom called the Millennium.
There is an important distinction here. The "rule" of the Messiah during the Millennium should not be confused with His ultimate rule over the new heaven and new earth which follows the Millennium. Notice that the passage Jesus quotes says, "He will rule them with an iron scepter." Clearly, this is a description of a stern and authoritarian mastery. Then, "He will dash them to pieces like pottery," speaks of judgment and the breaking up of evil strongholds.
In the new heaven and new earth evil will be a thing of the past. There will be no rebellious subjects to rule with an iron scepter, no evil strongholds to be broken into pieces like pottery. As we shall see in later chapters, only righteousness dwells in the new heaven and new earth, and there will be nothing there except that which is pure and good.
Clearly, then, these verses refer to the earthly kingdom of the Millennium, in which the saints will share ruling authority with Christ. The Millennium will be a time when righteousness reigns, but it will also be a time when judgment must occur, for both sin and death will still exist.
The Morning Star
Finally, the Lord gives a beautiful symbol to the faithful believers in Thyatira.
2:28-29 "I will also give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
Have you ever stood outside and watched the rising of the morning star? Today we know the morning star as the planet Venus, second planet from the sun and the brightest object in the night sky. Depending on where it is in its orbital path, the morning star can be seen to rise as much as three hours before the sun. You must arise early, while it is still dark, while the sky is still jet-black. Then when the morning star appears over the horizon with its light second only to the moon in nocturnal brilliance, you will understand what an awesome symbol the Lord gives us in this passage.
In the last book of the Old Testament there is a prophecy regarding the return of Jesus Christ in power and glory: "But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings."9 When He returns visibly to the earth Jesus will be like the noonday sun breaking through the gloom of the dark night of the world.
But before the sun rises, the morning star will appear. Later in the book of Revelation, Jesus says of Himself, "I am . . . the bright Morning Star."10 So what Jesus is saying to the faithful believers in the corrupt church at Thyatira is that there will be two stages of the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ. First He will appear as the morning star, shining brightly before dawn, coming for His own. Then, at a later period, He will appear as the shining sun, coming in all His power and glory, visible to all the world.
The promise of the morning star is in fact the promise of the Rapture or gathering of the church out of the world--the first such promise in the book of Revelation. Jesus will appear to collect all those who truly belong to Him, who have been guarded by the Spirit of God from the evils of the world around them.
This is not to say that those He takes are utterly sinless. Even the most faithful and devoted Christians sometimes fail and sin. The visible sign of their faithfulness and devotion, however, is the fact that they repent, they turn back to God, and they recover. These are the ones whose faith is real. Someone once said, "If your faith fizzles before you finish it's because it was faulty from the first!" True faith holds on until the end of life.
What an amazing reality awaits us! If you and I hold on until the end, we will receive the bright morning star, Jesus Himself. Whether we have died or still live when He returns for us, He will gather us together to be with Him.
But the story doesn't end there. We know that soon after the morning star rises, the sun will also rise--brilliant, powerful, visible to the whole world. Think of it: a new heaven is coming, and a new earth--and we will be alive with Jesus to see it!
The Church of the Zombies
It was one of the most depressing worship experiences I have ever had.
I was scheduled to preach in a church in a major city in Australia. I had never been to this church before, and I had no idea what to expect before I arrived.
The building was old and beautiful, fashioned out of stone and stained glass, topped with a sky-scraping spire, furnished with rich-looking carved pews, altar, and railings. An organ with enormous brass pipes filled the sanctuary with rolling swells of music.
The spacious, ornately decorated sanctuary could seat 800 worshipers, but only 35 mostly elderly worshipers were present. The choir consisted of seven elderly ladies, led by a woman who tried enthusiastically (if unsuccessfully) to coax a joyful noise from the ensemble. The organist mechanically played a few hymns, then picked up his sheet music and left.
As I awaited my time to preach I was aware that just outside this dying church a bustling city went about its business. People streamed by along the thoroughfare, totally unaware of-and untouched by-this church. Those within the church might as well have been worshiping inside a tomb. Today, whenever I read the letter to the church at Sardis I am reminded of that tragic, dying congregation in Australia.
Sardis was once one of the greatest cities of the world. It was at one time the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, and today its ruins can be visited near the city of Izmir, Turkey. In the sixth century B.C., Sardis was ruled by a fabulously wealthy king whose name, Croesus, became a byword for unimaginable wealth. When I was young, millionaires were said to be "as rich as Croesus" (a phrase now replaced by "as rich as an Arab sheik").
Sardis was built on a mountain spur about 1500 feet above the valley floor. It was regarded as virtually impregnable against military assault. Many armies laid siege to Sardis, but only two--the Persians and Greeks--ever succeeded. Both victories were achieved by stealth, not force, because the overconfident military of Sardis failed to post an adequate guard by its "impregnable" walls. Both times, small bands of spies climbed the sides of the ravine and entered an unwatched gate. So if there is one observation we could draw about the character of Sardis, it is that the city possessed a smug, complacent spirit.
Christians in Name Only
The church at Sardis is the least favored of all the seven churches addressed by the Lord in Revelation. He can literally find nothing to commend in this church.
3:1 "To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead."
Remember that the way the Lord presents Himself to each church is a clue to what that particular church needs. In this passage He refers to Himself as the one "who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars." These images signify the Holy Spirit in His fullness and completeness. What the church at Sardis desperately needed was the Spirit, from whom all believers receive life.
They also needed to remember that Jesus is Lord of His church. It is not left to mere human beings to set up, run, and govern a church. These are the prerogatives of the Lord Himself, and the church at Sardis had forgotten this fact.
"I know your deeds," the Lord says to the church at Sardis. The life and character of a church is revealed in its deeds. And the deeds of the church in Sardis have been done not to please the Lord but to impress people. The church had built up a good reputation, but it was really dead and corrupt inside. The members of this church were, for the most part, not even believers.
Today we would call the Christians at Sardis "nominal Christians"--nominal from the root word for name. They were Christians in name only. Jesus told them, "You have a reputation [a name] of being alive, but you are dead." This indicates that the church at Sardis was made up largely of people who outwardly professed Christ, but who possessed no real spiritual life.
Unfortunately, such churches have only grown more numerous in our own day. It is churches such as these which have largely created a negative image of Christianity in the world today. People see the outward profession of Christianity and hear the pious-sounding words--but they see no life, no reality, to back it up. Someone once described such churches as full of "mild-mannered people, meeting in mild-mannered ways, striving to be more mild-mannered."
The Church of the Walking Dead
Calvin Coolidge, our thirtieth president, was an extremely quiet and reserved man. When questioned, he rarely answered in more than two or three words--a tendency which earned him the nickname "Silent Cal." The public saw him as a stiff and emotionless man, causing Alice Roosevelt Longworth to remark, "He looks as if he'd been weaned on a pickle."
In 1933, the radio airwaves crackled with the news of Coolidge's death. Columnist Dorothy Parker was in her office at The New Yorker when a colleague flung open the door and blurted, "Dottie, did you hear? Coolidge is dead!"
Endowed with a quick but acid wit, she shot back, "How can they tell?"
And as we stand under the hot glare of our Lord's letter to Sardis we have to look honestly within and ask ourselves, "Can anyone tell if we are alive or dead? Am I truly alive--or do I just have a reputation, a name, for being alive?"
The Lord's words to the church at Sardis are blunt and strong: "You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead." What sort of image does that conjure up in your mind? I picture a church peopled with the walking dead. I picture scenes out of some awful Hollywood B-movie with a title like Night of the Living Dead or I Married a Zombie. And yet, a church full of zombie-like walking-dead Christians is a thousand times more terrifying to me than any old horror movie. Why? Because one of those walking corpses could be me. Or it could be you.
The letter to the "First Zombie Church of Sardis" is the most dire and somber of the seven. There are serious issues at stake in this letter--eternal issues. There was a time when the Sardis church was truly alive, quickened by the Spirit of God. The people in the Sardis church once served the needy out of a genuine love for Jesus. They worshiped out of a heart of devotion to their Lord. As a result, they won a reputation for being active and alive.
But as the book of Revelation was being written, the life had departed. A church that had once made an impact on its society had become a corpse--a walking, zombie-like corpse of a church that didn't have sense enough to consent to be buried. It continued to carry out its ghastly, hollow pretense of life.
Steps to Recovery
Dr. William Barclay has said, "A church is in danger of death when it begins to worship its own past, when it is more concerned with forms than with life; when it is more concerned with material than it is with spiritual things." I've seen many such churches; perhaps you have, too. Churches which exist only as shrines to past glories. Churches where "worship" consists of mechanically sung hymns and anemic rituals. Churches which celebrate appearances and reputation and distinctives rather than a jubilant, buoyant, living relationship with the God of the universe.
Notice the differences between Sardis and all the other churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3. Ephesus lacked love, Sardis lacks life. In every other church, there is something happening, there is tension, there is even struggle and conflict. Tension and struggle may be unpleasant, but at least they are signs of life. The church in Sardis was so devoid of life that it actually had no struggles going on within it.
In this church we find no orthodox Jewish opponents of the church, even though there was a large Jewish population in Sardis. The Jews ignored the Christians because the Christians of Sardis were neutralized, impotent, dead.
There were no false apostles harrying the church at Sardis either. There were no Nicolaitans springing up like choking weeds, nor was there a seductive false prophetess as in the church at Thyatira. There was no struggle, no contending for truth in Sardis. There was only death.
What does a dead church need? Can a dead church like Sardis be resurrected? Yes--but there is no time to waste.
It's encouraging to notice that the Lord Jesus is the Lord of all the churches--even of the First Zombie Church of Sardis. He doesn't say, "I wash my hands of you." He says, "You are dead--but I am still your Lord, and I will show the way to recovery."
So let's examine the signs of death--and the steps to recovery and resurrection--that Jesus sets forth in His letter to the church at Sardis.
Part of the lore that circulates in many theological seminaries is a tale concerning a seminarian with a bent for practical jokes. This seminarian, the story goes, was sitting in a class taught by an exceedingly boring professor. Noticing that the student in the next seat had fallen asleep, he thought to himself, "Aha! Now I'll liven things up a little!"
So, in the midst of the lecture, as the professor turned to jot a note on the chalkboard, the student leaned over to his sleeping friend and nudged him sharply. "Wake up, Tom!" he whispered, "class is over! The professor called on you to close in prayer!"
Shaken awake, the victim of the prank jumped to his feet and startled the professor and the class with the announcement, "Fellow students, let us pray!"
The Lord has a message for the church at Sardis--and for you and me. The message is, "Wake up!" and unlike the seminarian's message to his hapless seatmate, this message is no joke. It is an urgent alarm for a dead church to rouse itself back to life.
3:2-3 "Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief; and you will not know at what time I will come to you."
The first need of a church that is dead or near death is to wake up to its desperate condition.
The words of Jesus' message to Sardis are sharp, staccato commands in the original Greek. They are like a slap in the face, a splash of cold water, a sniff of spirits of ammonia, a shout, an urgent cry of alarm:
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says, "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." This was the desperate need of the church in Sardis: Wake up! Honestly face your failure and spiritual dullness! Admit the futility of your self-serving religious activity! Catch a whiff of the reeking corruption of your way of life!
As Christians we must not shrink from the convicting words of the letter to Sardis. Rather, we must bravely face them and ask ourselves, "What has gone wrong with my spiritual life? Why does my worship and Christian service seem so dreary? Why does my church seem so lifeless and unattractive? Why don't people want to come?" As individual Christians and as collective bodies of believers, these are the questions that confront us in the letter to the church at Sardis.
"Wake up!" our Lord cries to us in our worldly lethargy and stupor. "Wake up now--or you may never wake up!"
Strengthen What Remains
If the first need of the church at Sardis was to rouse itself and wake up to its dying condition, the second is to strengthen what remains. Why does Jesus tell the Christians at Sardis to "strengthen what remains"? Certainly, the Lord found nothing to commend about this church. What, we wonder, was there left at Sardis worth strengthening?
But remember in verse 1, Jesus said, "I know your deeds." Clearly the church at Sardis was doing some good deeds, or else it wouldn't have had a reputation (however misplaced) for being "alive." The Christians at Sardis were doing good works, but these works were incomplete, unfinished. Their actions were right, but their motives were wrong. By doing the right things for the wrong reasons they robbed their good deeds of power. That is why the Lord says in verse 2, "Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God."
The Christians at Sardis were like so many Christians today--busy doing good things, but doing them primarily to impress people. They were trying to enhance their reputation for being alive. But as Jesus warned them, even these good works, as incomplete and falsely intentioned as they were, were about to die. Soon the church at Sardis would end up bereft of even its flimsy reputation and phony good deeds.
"Strengthen what remains," says Jesus to the Sardis Christians. How? By setting their motives aright.
All through the Scriptures we see that God judges not merely our actions but the intentions of our hearts. Often, the same activity that is done out of love and gratitude toward God can also be done for reasons of our own pride and our desire to impress others. God is watching not only our behavior but our hearts, monitoring whether we are living to please ourselves or to please Him.
Mother Teresa, the Albanian nun who has given her life in service to the untouchables of India, once told an interviewer for Time magazine, "We try to pray through our work by doing it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That helps us put our whole heart and soul into doing it. The dying, the crippled, the mentally ill, the unwanted, the unloved--they are Jesus in disguise." What a powerful motivation for Christian ministry! This is the vision the church of Sardis needed to recapture.
Remember, Obey, Repent
So the church at Sardis needed to remember what they had heard. Then they needed to obey, and, third, to repent.
At this point, I have to disagree with that fine Bible translation, the New International Version, and point out that verse 3 should not read, "Remember, therefore, what you have received. . ." but rather, "Remember, therefore, how you have received and heard; obey it, and repent."
What they had heard, of course, was the Christian gospel. They had heard the story of the life of Jesus, His death upon the cross on behalf of sinners, His resurrection, and the new life He offers to all who believe in Him. But what Jesus is talking about here is how they received it.
What Jesus is referring to is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Remember that Jesus had said He is the one who holds the seven spirits. When these people first heard the gospel, they had heard it by the Spirit.
The Word came to them in the power of the Spirit. Many years ago I visited a large, well-known Methodist church in the Midwest. As I was waiting for the service to start I turned to the doctrinal statement in the back of the hymnal, a statement that originated with John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. This statement came out of the Great Awakening when John Wesley, his brother Charles, and their colleague George Whitefield preached to thousands in the fields and streets of England.
As I examined that statement of faith, I pondered the fact that the gospel preached by the Wesleys and Whitefield was the same gospel the church has had for 2,000 years. Yet in the days of the Great Awakening the gospel went forth with extraordinary power--the power of the Holy Spirit.
As I sat in that sanctuary the service began, hymns were sung, creeds were recited, Scripture was read, a sermon was preached. But the spirit of that service was cold, formal, and lifeless. I remember looking at the doctrinal statement and feeling grateful that the Methodist denomination continued to hold to the creed John Wesley had formulated during the world-shaking days of the Great Awakening. Yet I was also saddened as I left the sanctuary. For in this particular Methodist congregation, the fire was flickering, if it had not gone out altogether.
That was many years ago, and perhaps that church has recovered. I hope so. For that church once had a national reputation for being alive. Yet the church I visited that morning was spiritually dead.
How do you lay hold of the Spirit and revive a church--or an individual--who has become spiritually dead? Many Christians have the gospel, but do not seem to have the life-giving presence of the Spirit. How do we bring the Spirit's life back into our lives and our churches?
According to this letter from Jesus, there is only one way: Remember, obey, and repent! Look at yourself, your wrong outlook, your tainted motives. Recognize that all your prideful religious busyness is little more than a covering of filthy rags for your poverty and sin. Cast yourself upon the grace of the Lord Jesus, believe, and receive His grace. Let it take root in your heart, and then He will give you the life of the Spirit of God. That is what the Christians in Sardis needed. And that is what you and I need today as well.
Recover Your Hope
The fourth thing they needed at Sardis was to recover the hope of the Lord's return. "If you do not wake up," says the Lord, "I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you." The hope of the Lord's return is alluded to many times throughout the New Testament and particularly in the book of Revelation. But Sardis had lost its expectation of that coming.
Some friends of mine live in a two-story house, with bedrooms upstairs. One morning they came downstairs to find that while they had slept peacefully in their beds upstairs a thief had been very busy downstairs. Their silverware and many other costly items and furnishings had been stolen. They had heard nothing, because a thief never knocks, never rings the doorbell, never announces his presence. He enters silently, takes what he wants, then disappears again.
The Lord says that is what His coming again will be like--not His visible coming when He appears to establish His kingdom, when every eye will see Him, as described in Revelation 1:7. Rather, what Jesus describes here is the coming He mentioned in His great Olivet discourse in Matthew 24:43. There He says He will come suddenly, without warning, like a thief who comes to steal treasure in the night. That is how the parousia, the coming of the Lord for His church, will begin. He will take His true church suddenly out of the world. It will disappear from the world's sight.
Paul describes this event in 1 Corinthians 15, the great resurrection chapter, when he says, "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep [i.e., die], but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye." That is the dynamic hope of the church. The church is the great unrecognized treasure of the world, but the Lord will one day come as a thief and take it to Himself. That is what theologians have called the Rapture of the church (though departure of the church might be a better term).
The church at Sardis desperately needed to focus upon this elevating, emboldening, encouraging hope. Without this hope, the church was dead.
Winds of Reformation
In 1986, East German Communist party boss Erich Honecker declared that the Berlin Wall would stand for at least a hundred more years. Three years later that wall was pulled down in pieces. Beginning in the spring of 1989, the winds of reform and freedom swept through East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania.
As I watched these exciting, world-shattering events unfold on the evening news and on the front-page of my newspaper, I was reminded of the winds of reform and freedom that swept through Europe more than 400 years earlier during the Protestant Reformation. In the days of the Reformers--Martin Luther in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin in Switzerland, and John Knox in Scotland--the gospel of Jesus Christ spread like wildfire throughout Europe, and the cruel walls of spiritual bondage fell before the power of God's Word and God's Spirit.
What many people forget about the Reformation, however, is how rapidly its fire was quenched. Many of the churches founded by the Reformers began to die even within the lifetimes of the Reformers themselves. Why? Because the leaders of the Reformation made a serious error!
Yes, they had correctly and wisely steered Christendom back to a focus on salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But they made a grievous mistake when they linked the authority and oversight of the church with the civil government of the country in which they lived. Luther looked to the German princes for protection against the power of Rome. Zwingli tied the church to the ruling state in Switzerland. Calvin attempted to establish a theocratic government in the city of Geneva. So also did Knox in Scotland.
The result was a system of state churches spreading across the continent of Europe. Today these state churches are almost uniformly dead, like the church in Sardis.
I had an opportunity to see what the spiritual life of a state church is like when I toured northern Germany, Denmark, Holland, England, and Scotland in 1965. I met many laypeople and clergymen in these countries. The laypeople were uniformly dissatisfied with the stagnant atmosphere in their churches. The clergymen were frustrated by the fact that their duties as state-employed civil servants robbed them of time to prepare sermons and preach the Word of God.
"I simply have no time," said one pastor in Copenhagen, tears brimming in his eyes, "I have to baptize all the babies that are born, marry all the couples, and bury everyone who dies in the parish. I have no time to study." As someone put it, these state-employed pastors are so busy "hatching, matching, and dispatching" their parishioners, they have no time to feed them the life-giving Word of God! I'm sure there are a few genuine believers in these cold and lifeless churches, but I am equally certain that most of these parishioners are people with a reputation for being alive, yet who are spiritually dead.
In the historical overview provided by the seven letters of Revelation, the church at Sardis represents that period of church history from the last half of the sixteenth century (immediately following the Reformation) to about the middle of the eighteenth century, the beginning of the Great Awakening. It was a time of great darkness and death in Christendom. The light was not entirely gone, but it was failing until the moment the Spirit of God rekindled the light through men like the Wesleys and George Whitefield.
Those Who Overcome
In every age in history and in Sardis-like "dead" churches, there are usually a few faithful believers. It is to these faithful few that the Lord delivers a special promise.
3:4-6 "Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
White garments are always a symbol of redemption in Scripture. In Revelation 7, we will read of a great multitude who emerge from the great Tribulation, and who have "washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." Clearly, white garments are a sign of being redeemed and saved by the grace of God. Remember the words of the Lord in Isaiah 1:18--"Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool."
In Sardis, and in other dead churches, there are usually a few believers who walk with Jesus, dressed in white. God calls them "worthy"--not for any works of righteousness they have done, but because they are covered by the righteousness of Jesus.
These, then, are the models for those in the church who wish to be "overcomers," as mentioned in verse 5. And to these believers, the Lord promises three things:
1. They will be dressed in white, the righteousness of Jesus.
2. Their names will not be blotted out of the Book of Life.
3. Jesus will acknowledge them before His Father and the angels.
Here, the Lord calms the fears of the redeemed. To anyone who worries that he might lose his salvation and the grace of God, Jesus says, in effect, "Those who place their trust in me rather than in their own efforts, those who are covered by my righteousness, can never be blotted out of the Book of Life. Their names are written in indelible ink and sealed with the seal of my own promise."
I recall, as a young pastor, visiting a much beloved and respected Presbyterian pastor in the San Francisco Bay area of California. He was a godly man in his 90s. When I sat down to visit with him, I found he was deeply troubled by the fact that he was nearing the end of his life. He wondered if he was really a Christian after all. Older people are often troubled by such doubts. Our Lord knows that, so He gives us these reassuring words in Revelation, "I will never blot out his [your] name from the book of life."
That word never in the original text is the strongest negative possible in the Greek language. To convey the true force of this word the passage should actually be rendered, "I will never, ever, under any circumstances, blot out your name from the Book of Life'" Added to that, these words should be underlined, italicized and set in headline-size type! That's how total and all-encompassing this wonderful reassurance truly is.
And when, in eternity, the book of our lives is opened, and everything we have done in our earthly lives comes spilling out--the good, the bad, and the ugly--Jesus will be there to acknowledge us before the Father and the angels. "None of that matters," He will say. "This one is covered by my blood, my righteousness. This one wears white garments. This one is mine." That is what Jesus promised in Matthew 10, and that is what He promises to those who remain faithful in Sardis--and to those who remain faithful today.
Church attendance is good, but church attendance won't save you. Church membership is good, but church membership won't save you. Giving money to the church is good, but giving won't save you. Activity in the church--teaching, serving, leading, witnessing--all of this is good, but being active in the church won't save you.
You can only be saved when you repent of your self-reliance and self-will and self-centered pride. You can only be saved when you place your trust in the One who settled it all for you on the cross.
We who have ears to hear, let us hear what the Spirit says to the First Zombie Church of Sardis--and to us.
The Little Church That Tried
Most people know that the name Philadelphia means "brotherly love." English religious and civic leader William Penn founded the historic American city by that name as a place where he and his fellow Quakers could worship in freedom. He took the name for his "city of brotherly love" from an obscure city in Asia Minor. That ancient biblical city is remembered primarily because of a letter that was addressed there during the first century A.D., a letter from the Lord Jesus Christ, the sixth letter of the book of Revelation.
The biblical Philadelphia was located about 28 miles southeast of Sardis. It was the youngest of the seven cities of Revelation, having been founded about 150 B.C. by King Attallus Philadelphus of Pergamum. The name Philadelphus, meaning "lover of a brother," was actually a kind of nickname. King Attallus was noted for the great affection and admiration he had for his brother Eumenes, and the city of Philadelphia was named in his honor.
In A.D. 17, Philadelphia and a number of cities in the region were devastated by a massive earthquake. Philadelphia suffered more than the rest in that it was not only leveled in the initial quake, but it continued to be jolted by serious aftershocks for years afterward. Many were killed and injured in this lengthy "season" of earth tremors.
The Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar helped Philadelphia rebuild after the earthquake. In gratitude to him, the city changed its name to Neocaesarea (meaning "New Caesar"), a name it bore for a number of years. The history of this city and the suffering the Philadelphian people endured during the years of earth tremors are important to understanding the Lord's message to the church in Philadelphia.
The church in Philadelphia is unique among the seven churches in that it is the only church against which the Lord registers no complaint--not one. Here is a church that delights the Lord! I suppose each of us wishes his or her church could be like the church in Philadelphia.
As we take a close look at the Lord's message to the believers in Philadelphia, notice the unusual way He addresses this church, as compared with the other six churches of Revelation.
3:7 "To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut. and what he shuts no one can open."
In all the letters except this one, the Lord vividly describes Himself, using symbols from John's first vision of Him in Revelation 1. In this letter, however, Jesus makes no reference to that vision. Instead, He uses other titles to describe Himself. First He tells the Philadelphian believers who He is. He says He is the one who is holy. That means He is morally perfect and His character is without flaw. He also says He is the one who is true. That means He is genuine, objective reality, the one who is behind all that truly exists. That is who Jesus is.
Jesus also tells the Philadelphian believers what He does. He "holds the key of David." This is a reference to an incident in Isaiah 22. In the days of King Hezekiah there was a palace courtier (the modern equivalent would be a chief of staff) named Shebna. He dishonestly used the power of his position to enrich himself. He was, in effect, a scam artist. So the Lord pronounced judgment on Shebna, declaring that he would be sent to die in disgrace in Babylon and that a godly man named Eliakim would take his place. The words of the Lord in Revelation 3:7 are an echo of the prophecy of the Lord upon Eliakim in Isaiah 22:22--"I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open."
When the Lord, in His letter to the Philadelphian church, applies these same words to Himself, He is saying that His will cannot be opposed. He governs all events in the history of this planet. He will open some doors and close others. The doors He opens will remain open. The doors He closes are inalterably locked. No power on earth can contravene what He has determined.
A Church with a Little Power
The Lord then tells the Philadelphian church how He will use His power to open and close doors.
3:8 "I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name."
The image of open and closed doors has been powerfully employed elsewhere in the New Testament. The apostle Paul used this imagery to describe his missionary efforts. On his second missionary journey, he attempted to go into the province of Asia to preach the gospel, but was disallowed by the Holy Spirit--a shut door. Then he tried to go into Bithynia, on the southern shore of the Black Sea, but again was not allowed by the Lord--another shut door.
But when Paul came to Troas he received a vision of a man from Macedonia beckoning to him, and from this vision he learned that the Lord had opened the door for him to enter Europe. Paul's commitment to enter that open door changed the course of the entire Western world, affecting all of civilization since that time. Because of that open door into Europe, Paul took the Christian faith north and west through Europe and into Italy. Thus the Christian gospel gained a major beachhead in Europe from which it eventually launched itself around the world.
Later, in 1 Corinthians 16:8, Paul writes, "But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me." Ephesus was the capital of Asia, a region that was once a door tightly shut against Paul. But later, as he penned these words to the Corinthians. that door was wide open, and Paul chose to stay there to make the most of his opportunity.
In recent years, we have seen doors that were locked and barred for decades being suddenly flung open to receive the gospel. Against all human calculation and completely without warning, doors have opened in Poland, Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. In these countries, millions of people--starved for hope, truth, and meaning in their lives--are responding to the Christian gospel. In these countries, the door is open, and fresh, fragrant air is sweeping in.
At this point I have to make a correction to the New International Version's text: "I know that you have little strength." This is not what the Greek text says. The NIV takes one continuous thought and breaks it in two, which I think is unfortunate. I believe a more faithful rendering of this entire thought would be:
"I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut because you have a little power and have kept my word and not denied my name."
There is a cause-and-effect principle at work here. The Lord opened a door for the Philadelphian church because this church had fulfilled certain conditions: because they had "a little power," because they had kept the word of the Lord, and because they had not denied His name. When a church fulfills these conditions, a door for ministry is always opened.
The Philadelphian church had "a little power"--that is, it had discovered to some degree the power of the Spirit. The Lord is talking here not about human strength, but about spiritual power. This is the kind of power that comes from faith, from expecting God to act. The Philadelphian church was comprised of people who sensed that God could act in human events, and they looked for an opportunity, a way to respond, a door for ministry and service and evangelism to the world around them. They sought to bring others through that open door and into a rich and fulfilling relationship with Jesus Christ.
To me, Ephesians 2:10 is in some ways the most exciting verse in the New Testament. The apostle Paul says, "For we are God's workmanship [also translated "masterpiece"], created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." That is why you have been made and saved by Jesus Christ: to do good works, works of help, mercy, kindness, witness, love, comfort, counsel, and strength.
Then notice that Paul adds the phrase, "which God prepared in advance for us to do." God in His foreknowledge and His love has made us and prepared for us the opportunity of doing works of love and service to others. When you are confronted with a need--from a child with a skinned knee to a neighbor who has just lost a spouse to a friend dying of cancer--you may feel that you have an insignificant role to play. But as you respond to that need it becomes an open door through which ministry--God's ministry, through the power of His Spirit--may flow. As you continue responding to such opportunities, you will be challenged, encouraged, and blessed, and the lives of those all around you will be changed.
The Lord does not say to the believers in Philadelphia, "You are weak," or, "You are powerless." Rather, He says to them, "You have a little power." He is stressing the fact that the Philadelphian believers have untapped potential for doing good works. This statement of the Lord's underscores the fact that most churches scarcely realize the power they have for ministry. Each of us in the body of Christ has been given spiritual gifts, and the responsibility to use those gifts to bless others and meet human needs. Yet how few of us really exercise our spiritual gifts as God truly intended!
What vast untapped potential resides in a single congregation, or in a single believer, when there is a willingness to utilize the gifts of the Spirit! That is why the Lord suggests to the believers in Philadelphia, "You have a little power--not much, but some." He is hoping they will grow in using that potential for ministry.
The presence of the Holy Spirit has been promised to every believer without any conditions whatsoever. But the power of the Spirit is given only to those believers who actively choose to keep His Word and not deny His name. These two dynamics are crucial to the ministry of every believer and every church.
God always plants His Word at the heart of His church. A church that is faithful and pleasing to God is a church that preaches, teaches, studies, knows, and lives out His Word. The Word of God is not just for pastors or elders or Sunday school teachers. Every individual believer in the church is to know and obey God's Word.
Beyond the Word of the Lord stands the Lord Himself. The Word points us to the reality of a relationship with God Himself. That is why Jesus commended the Philadelphians not only for keeping His Word but for being faithful to His name. An old hymn puts it this way:
Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord.
My spirit pants for Thee, O Living Word.
It is the Word of God that enables us to know the character of Jesus, to have fellowship with Him, to build His character into our own lives. His name is to be the identifying mark upon our lives. As non-Christians watch us live out our faith amid the stress and pressure of the real world, they are to see the imprint of the name of Jesus in all that we do.
When Jesus is present with us throughout each day, and when our lives serve to reflect the life and character of Christ, then doors of ministry open before us. This is true of each believer in an individual sense, and it is true of entire churches.
The Synagogue of Satan
Some years ago, I was discussing the future of Israel with a rabbi. During our talk, he said something to me I will never forget. "You are a premillennial evangelical," he said, "and I am a Jew." (The word premillennial refers to Christians who believe that Jesus the Messiah will literally return to rule over Israel during the future Millennium in fulfillment of Old Testament promise and prophecy.) "You premillennial Christians," he continued, "are the only Christians we Jews can really talk to."
I was intrigued. "Why is that?" I asked.
"Because," he replied, "you believe there is a future for Israel. That enables us to communicate with you. So many other Christians have just written us off; they have written Israel off, and we have nothing in common with them."
This rabbi's comments underscore the fact that when you truly reflect the love and compassion of Christ, and when you truly understand the promises to Israel in the Old Testament and how they relate to the prophecy of Revelation, you have something in common with Jews anywhere. You can communicate with them, and they will respect what you say and do.
As we come to verse 9, we will see that our Christlike love, together with our reverence for the Word of God, gives us an open door for ministry to the Jews.
3:9 "I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars--I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you."
Here is the Lord's promise that He will use His power to subdue the enemies of the Philadelphian believers. Their enemies will respect the Philadelphian church and openly acknowledge God's blessing upon them.
In this verse a phrase from the letter to Smyrna appears again: the "synagogue of Satan." As in the Smyrna letter, this phrase refers to those Jews who claim to be spiritual descendants of Abraham, yet who persecute Christians and reject the truth. Though they are physically descended from Abraham, their attitude is far removed from Abraham's faith. During His earthly ministry the Lord Jesus repeatedly opposed the "synagogue of Satan," the spiritually arrogant scribes and Pharisees who claimed to be Abraham's children. Jesus' message to them was harsh but true: "You are of your father the devil."
The church in Philadelphia, like most churches of that early era, was composed largely of Jews who had converted to Christianity. So the hostile Jews of the "synagogue of Satan" were actually persecuting other Jews--converted Jews--because of their beliefs. In His letter, Jesus reassures the mostly-Jewish Christians at Philadelphia, "I will make [those Jews who persecute you] . . . fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you."
How? What will cause the anti-Christian Jews to bow before the believers in Philadelphia and acknowledge God's blessing on the church? Answer: they will see the church respond to their opposition with love, courage, and an intimate knowledge of God--a knowledge these nonbelieving Jews do not possess, even though they have the Scriptures. Their hearts will be changed as the Christians of Philadelphia exhibit the results of a special and supernatural relationship with the living Christ.
What was true for the first-century Christians in Philadelphia is true for you and me today. Today, Jews are far more persecuted than persecutors. The plague of anti-Semitism continues to threaten the Jews worldwide, and the nation of Israel continues to survive while encircled by enemies. But though there is no Jewish oppression of the church today as there was in the first century, there are many Jews who harbor deep resentment against Christians. This resentment is rooted in the fact that many past persecutions of Jews were carried out by so-called "Christians."
I have a friend named Tuvya Zaretsky. He is Jewish, and as a child was raised to distrust Christians and to hate the Christian gospel. The name of Jesus was anathema to him. The very subject of Christianity filled him with an intense loathing and anger.
Today, however, Tuvya Zaretsky is a changed man, a devoted Christian who is always eager to share his faith in Jesus Christ. He now works with Jews for Jesus in San Francisco.
What made the difference? His heart was changed by the loving, caring example of genuine Christians, living out the Word of God and the lifestyle of Jesus. At a crucial point in his life he met some Christlike people who were willing to minister to him, listen to him without judging or arguing, and accept him despite his anger and hostility. Gently and gradually they loved my friend Tuvya into the kingdom of God.
As we live out the lifestyle of Jesus under the authority of God's Word the Lord opens doors of ministry even among those who are hostile and unreceptive to our message.
A Triumphant Promise
In verse 10, the Lord gives the Philadelphian church a word of amazing encouragement and promise.
3:10 "Since you have kept my command to endure patiently,1 I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth."
Here is a clear reference to what Jesus, in Matthew 24, called "the great distress." It will be a time of worldwide upheaval the like of which has never been known in human history. Those who remember such events as World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, or the Desert Storm conflict in Iraq have only barely tasted the uncertainty, the horror, the sorrow, and the fear of the coming Tribulation. There will be slaughter, atrocity, terror, and panic on a scale that beggars our ability to imagine, and we will encounter vivid descriptions of that time in the coming pages of Revelation.
The Great Tribulation is coming, the Lord says, "to test those who live on the earth." This phrase is widely misunderstood to refer to all those who are residents of the planet. But no, "those who live on the earth" are metaphorically those who live as though this life is all there is, who have their minds set upon the things of the earth, who are materialistically minded.
The amazing promise of verse 10 is that the church will be delivered from that hour of trial. "I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world," says the Lord. So the church will be kept from the time of trial, caught up and removed even before the Great Tribulation begins. This is the promise of the departure of the church, which Paul describes so beautifully in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
And as we shall see, there are many signs which indicate that the fulfillment of this wonderful promise may be very close at hand today.
The Philadelphia Stage of Church History
Viewed from the standpoint of Christian history, the church at Philadelphia symbolizes a very rich and shining era: the Great Awakening of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, following the decline of the Reformation church.
It was during this "Philadelphia" stage of history that the Moravian Brethren began meeting in small groups for prayer, catching the vision for what God could do in the world, and eventually sending Moravian missionaries throughout the world.
In England the Awakening began with the Puritan Movement. The Puritans included John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, and John Newton, writer of so many great hymns of the faith, including "Amazing Grace." The Awakening also encompasses the great Wesleyan Revival and George Whitefield's preaching throughout England and in America.
In America the Great Awakening was characterized by men like Jonathan Edwards, the American Puritan theologian who strongly advocated Christian missionary activity. It included the Methodist circuit riders, who rode horseback from church to church, preaching the gospel up and down the eastern seaboard and eventually moving out across the western plains.
I am personally indebted to a circuit rider named Brother Van who came to the territory of Montana soon after it became populated in the Montana gold rush. He went into the saloons and mining camps, preaching the gospel, winning hundreds to Christ, planting churches throughout the state, many of which are still there. I was for a while a member of a church founded by Brother Van and knew people who knew him well.
The Great Awakening was a time of tremendous missionary activity. During this time, William Carey in England got a vision of the desperate spiritual need in India. He went there and planted the gospel, and a powerful outreach for Christ was born in India. Also from England, Robert Moffet and his famous son-in-law, David Livingstone, took the gospel into untouched regions of Africa.
The American missionary Adoniram Judson pioneered a major outreach into Burma. Hudson Taylor took the gospel into inland China. David Brainerd gave his life on the American mission field at the age of 29, living, caring, and witnessing among native Americans.
This was the time when so many of the great evangelists of church history emerged: George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Charles Finney, and Dwight L. Moody. Out of the ashes of a deteriorating Reformation, God's Spirit brought forth new light and new life, a new and vibrant awakening throughout the Christian church.
All of the great people, events, and movements of the Great Awakening were foreshadowed by the church at Philadelphia in Asia Minor. Even while so many other surrounding churches were sinking into death and decay, the Philadelphia church was coming marvelously alive.
In early 1942, just a few months after the disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was suffering another bitter military setback: the Philippines were about to fall into the hands of the Japanese invaders. General Douglas MacArthur, who had led a courageous delaying action for several months, realized that defeat on the field of battle was inevitable. Reluctantly and sadly, he ordered American forces to withdraw.
On March 11 he stood with the Pacific surf lapping at the cuffs of his trousers and made a promise to the Philippine people: "I shall return." In 1944, MacArthur kept his promise and liberated the Philippines. Those events are a part of history.
Nearly two thousand years ago, our Lord Jesus left the shores of this planet. He made a promise to return. His promise is a part of our history, and His return is our future hope.
3:11-13 "I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
What a tremendous promise, so simply stated! "I am coming soon."
Hearing this promise, many people ask, "How can Jesus say that? This letter was written almost 2,000 years ago. The church has been expecting Him ever since. He still has not come. How can He say, 'I am coming soon'?"
The answer is to see this promise in its proper context. The Lord has just referred to "the hour of trial," the Great Tribulation. In His Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, He vividly depicts that time as the most terrible upheaval in the history of the planet. He describes a darkened sun, the moon not giving its light, stars seeming to fall from the heavens, and men's hearts failing as they look in fear on the things coming to pass upon the earth. It is in relationship to that event that Jesus says He is coming soon. As that event draws near, His coming will be even sooner.
As world events grow more tense, violent, and climactic, we need to hear again the Lord's promise that He is coming soon. As the attention of the entire world grows continually more focused on events in Israel and the Middle East we should focus our attention on the Lord's reassuring promise. He Himself said, "When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."2
In view of the Lord's promise to return soon, a question logically occurs to us: "How should we then live? What should our lives be like as we expectantly wait for the Lord's return?" To this, Jesus replies: "Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown." As times get harder, it becomes increasingly more difficult to be a Christian. As the world becomes more and more hostile to Jesus and the people who bear His name, as it casts off Christian values and plunges headlong toward moral and spiritual destruction, there will be increasing pressures on us to compromise. We will find ourselves tempted to let go of what we have, to lose our grip on God's Word, to deny the Lord's name, to yield to worldly desires and ambitions.
Amid these temptations the Lord says, "Hold on to what you have. Don't allow the desire for status, for prestige, for material possessions, for wealth, for self-gratification to become central in your thinking. Don't let anyone take your crown."
Now, the Lord is not referring here to a loss of salvation. The "crown" is a symbol of God's eternal reward--although not in the sense that we usually think of a reward. This reward from God is not like a paycheck, a bigger mansion in heaven, a plaque or a trophy, or a pat on the back. This reward is profoundly more than any of our paltry, earthbound conceptions of "rewards" could match. The reward, the crown, is the opportunity for even greater service for God! It is the privilege of knowing God and being given opportunity to serve Him both now and in the eternal ages!
As James I. Packer has said well,
The Christian's reward is not directly earned; it is not a payment proportionate to services rendered; it is a Father's gift of generous grace to His children, far exceeding anything they deserved. Also, we must understand that the promised reward is not something of a different nature tacked on to the activity being rewarded; it is, rather, the activity itself--communion with God in worship and service--in its consummation.3
This is the truth Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. In this passage, Paul speaks of Jesus as the foundation which is laid in the hearts of believers, and adds,
If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. [Paul is speaking here of the Day of Judgment described in Revelation.] It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
Thus, the crown of greater opportunity to serve Jesus might be lost. Perhaps the most painful tragedy of all, in the long view of eternity, would be the loss of the opportunity to demonstrate our love and gratitude to Jesus for all He has done for us. Do not let that opportunity slip away, says the Lord. Do not let anybody take that crown away from you.
Pillars in the Temple
The Japanese warlord Hideyoshi who ruled all of Japan in the latter half of the sixteenth century, commissioned a massive statue of Buddha for a shrine in the city of Kyoto. It took five years and thousands of laborers to construct the statue and the great temple which housed it.
In 1596, just a few months after the statue and temple were completed, a powerful earthquake toppled the structure. Great chunks of stone rained down upon the impassive Buddha, grinding the statue into fragments, chips, and dust. As soon as the ground had ceased its rumbling, Hideyoshi ran to the temple and found it in ruins. Enraged, he snatched a bow and arrow from a nearby soldier and shot the arrow at the broken statue. "Curse you!" the warlord screamed to his fallen god. "I spent millions to build you! Couldn't you even look after your own temple?!"
The people of Philadelphia knew what it was like to be shaken by an earthquake. As we discussed at the beginning of this chapter, the city had been leveled by a massive quake in A.D. 17, and the rubble continued to be shaken by severe aftershocks for years afterward. Every time one of these massive aftershocks struck, the people were forced to flee the city and run into the countryside.
But in verse 12, Jesus promises the Philadelphian believers a temple which will not be shaken and from which they will never have to flee. "Him who overcomes," says the Lord, "I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it."
A pillar is a symbol of strength and permanence. For example, the great temple of Jerusalem which was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70 had two great pillars set in the front of the building. One of those pillars was called Jachin, meaning "established" or "permanent," and the other was called Boaz, meaning "strength." Visit the ruins of an ancient temple in Greece, Italy, or Turkey, and you will notice that often all that remains standing are the pillars. Our Lord promises those who overcome, those who hold on to what they have, a position of strength and permanence in the life to come. They will be pillars of strength in the imperishable, unshakeable temple of God.
This is not the first time Christians have been called "pillars." In Galatians, the apostle Paul refers to fellow apostles Peter, James, and John as "pillars" of the church. The church rested on them, and they supported the church, imparting guidance and knowledge to the early church through the apostolic gift that was given them by the Holy Spirit. In His letter to the believers at Philadelphia, the Lord applied this same symbolism to ordinary believers like you and me. Imagine, Jesus promises that we can become pillars in the everlasting temple of God!
This must have been a profoundly reassuring promise to the believers in Philadelphia, who remembered the terror of earthquake tremors. "When you labor for me," Jesus said in effect, "you will be planted firmly in a stable place, the dwelling place of God, and you will never have to flee from that place." What a picture of security, serenity, and strength!
Unlike the enraged warlord who could only rave and moan over the rubble of his impotent god, we serve a God who lives, who can never be shaken, and who draws us into partnership, fellowship, and intimate communion with Him!
Three New Names
Finally, Jesus promises, "I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God. . . and I will also write on him my new name." The overcomer will receive the imprint of three new names!
The first is "the name of my God." This is a promise that believers will be made godlike. How does that statement sound to you') Perhaps you are thinking, "How could I ever be godlike?" The average person, hearing the word godlike, probably pictures a man with superhuman power, able to hurl thunderbolts, create planets, or reverse the flow of time. But that is not what godlikeness is about at all. That is a description of what it would be like to be Superman, not God.
The Bible instructs us to be godly, and godliness is merely a shortened form of the word godlikeness. The purpose of the Spirit in our lives is to make us godly or godlike--not in terms of God's power, but in terms of His character. If you are growing and maturing as a Christian, each passing year ought to bring more evidence that you have become a little more like Jesus Christ--a little more patient, compassionate, understanding, and sound in judgment. You should become more godlike, more Christlike.
That is the Lord's promise to the Philadelphian Christians, and to you and me: the name of God, which symbolizes His character, will be written upon our lives. We will be godlike in our spirit and attributes.
Second, Jesus says, "I will write on him. . . the name of the city of my God." We will see a striking description of this fabulous city when we come to the last two chapters of Revelation. It is the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven "as a bride adorned for her husband." Think back to every wedding you have ever been to and that one magical moment when everyone stands and turns to catch the first glimpse of the bride making her appearance, glorious in her adornment, invoking a collective murmur of wonder throughout the people as she steps down the aisle. That kind of admiring, awestruck wonder is what the New Jerusalem will inspire at its appearance.
The image of the bride also captures the sense of loving sweetness, affection, longing, and intimacy that surrounds a bride and groom. The earth is just a waystation on the road to our real home in this beautiful city of God, and we long to be there, in the presence of God, just as a husband longs to be home in the presence of his beautiful bride.
Finally, says Jesus, "I will also write on him my new name." What name is that? The book of Revelation does not tell us. This verse refers to Revelation 19: 12, where we are told that when Jesus appears He will have that new name written upon Him, but it is a name that no man knows. However, we do know that when the Lord gives a new name, it is a descriptive name, a name which befits the character of the object that is named.
Before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, an angel appeared to Joseph and told him that Mary would bring forth a son, "and you are to give him the name Jesus." Why? "Because he will save his people from their sins." Jesus is a name which speaks of the Lord's redemptive ministry. It means "Yahweh [the Lord] saves."
At the end of time, when the work of redemption is finished, when we are all home in glory with Him and God's work of saving and redeeming us has been accomplished, Jesus will be given a new work to do. No one knows what it is. No one knows what His new name will be. But whatever this new role, whatever this new name, the church is promised a share in those vast new labors! In the new heaven and the new earth, human redemption will be accomplished--but a new adventure awaits the Lord Jesus and all those who have placed their trust in Him.
The Lord concludes this letter as He concludes all seven letters to the seven churches of Asia. He impresses upon us the fact that these letters spell out our future destiny:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
The Philadelphia church was a little church with a little power, a little church that tried, a church against which the Lord had no complaint. Do we hear what the Spirit says to this church? Are we heeding its example? Are we holding on to what we have, obeying the Word of God, remaining faithful to the name of Jesus, guarding our eternal crown?
May it be said of your life and mine that we, like the believers in Philadelphia, are Christians who truly delight our Lord!
The Rich/Poor Church
Benjamin Disraeli, the flamboyant British prime minister of the nineteenth century, was once the guest of honor at a gala public dinner. Unfortunately, the kitchen was quite a distance from the banquet hall so that by the time the food was set before Disraeli and the other guests, all the "hot" dishes had cooled to an insipid lukewarm condition. After a few bites Disraeli gave up trying to enjoy the unpalatable meal.
Finally the champagne was poured--but instead of being properly chilled, it was the same temperature as the inedible meat and vegetables. Sighing glumly, he turned to the person next to him and held up the glass of champagne. "At last," he said, "they have served me something warm."
There are few things more disagreeable and unappetizing than lukewarm foods. What would you do with a cup of lukewarm coffee? Microwave it! A glass of lukewarm Coca-Cola? "Could I have some ice, please?" An omelette, a filet of sole, a stack of pancakes, a pizza, a ch‰teaubriand with bŽarnaise sauce that has cooled to a tepid 70 degrees F? Scrape it into the sink disposal or feed it to the dog?
In the seventh and final letter to the churches, the Lord compares the church in the city of Laodicea to a plate of lukewarm food--a disagreeable and unsavory description to say the least. The Lord's message to the Laodicean Christians is tough and confrontational. Could it be that the Lord was also looking beyond the first-century church in Laodicea? This letter, like the previous six letters, was written to Christians and churches of every century, including our own. The Laodicean letter is meant for all lukewarm Christians--and perhaps its target includes you and me.
Let's take a closer look and find out.
The Bank of America, Macy's, and the Mayo Clinic
The city of Laodicea was located about 100 miles directly east of Ephesus. It was part of a tri-city area, closely associated with Colosse (to which Paul's letter to the Colossians was written) and Hierapolis. Laodicea was famous throughout the Roman province of Asia as a center of wealth, or bustling commercial activity, and of the medical profession. It was the most prosperous of the seven cities of Revelation.
Many large, beautiful homes were built in Laodicea, the ruins of which can still be visited. Some of those expensive homes were probably owned by Christians. A textile and clothing industry flourished in Laodicea. A special breed of black sheep was raised in the area, producing a highly prized, glossy, black wool The city was also known for its eyesalve, produced by the medical school of Phrygia located there.
As a center of wealth, commerce, and medicine, Laodicea was a kind of first-century Bank of America, Macy's, and Mayo Clinic rolled into one. An understanding of the social and economic setting of the church in Laodicea will help to explain some of the references we find in this letter.
As in all the previous letters, our Lord introduces Himself in this letter in words that have deep significance. In His opening lines, the Lord gives the Laodicean believers the key to what they need.
3:14 "To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation."
The first noteworthy thing the Lord says is that He is the "Amen." This is a familiar word to all Christians, though perhaps it is not so familiar in this particular usage. We are used to hearing or saying Amen at the close of a prayer or when we want to express our agreement with a meaningful statement. It is a word that means "so be it" or "truly."
"Amen" is a word that Jesus used frequently, although we may not be aware of this fact from reading English translations of the four Gospels. If you read through the words of Jesus you will frequently encounter the phrase, "I tell you the truth." Or, if you are more familiar with the King James Version, you find, "Verily, verily, I say unto you." In the original language of the New Testament, what Jesus says is, "Amen, amen, I say unto you." He used this phrase to underscore to His listeners that what He was about to say was extremely important and utterly true. He always highlighted significant truths this way. So when you encounter this phrase in the conversations and discourses of Jesus pay close attention to the important truth He is sharing.
"Amen" is the last word, the mark of trustworthiness, the imprimatur of truth. So it is only fitting that this word applies to Jesus, who is the final Word and who is the embodiment of truth. The book of Hebrews begins by declaring, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son." The word of Jesus is the last word, the reliable truth, the Amen. Anyone who would claim to give revelation beyond the word Jesus has already given is not giving us a new truth but is departing from the final truth, the Amen, that has been spoken to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
God's New Creation
Second, the Lord calls Himself "the faithful and true witness." He has emphasized His truthfulness in previous letters, but here He adds the word "faithful" to stress the fact that He not only tells the truth, but He tells the hard truth. He faithfully, plainly, clearly reveals to the church everything that the church needs to understand. Because of the confrontational nature of this letter, the Lord wants the Laodicean church to be very much aware of the truthful and faithful side of His nature.
The next phrase, "the ruler of God's creation," is in my view a mistranslation. It should actually read "the beginning of God's creation." It is the same Greek word we find in John 1:1, which reads, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Two verses later, John amplifies this thought, saying, "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." Jesus is not merely the ruler but the origin, the source, the beginning of God's creation.
Note, too, that the Lord does not use the word "creation" merely to refer to the old creation, the physical universe in which we live, including the great galaxies of space, the planets, the sun, and the earth itself. More than that, Jesus is the source of God's new creation as well.
In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul writes, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" We are part of a new world that the Lord is bringing into being. In fact, it has already begun: the old has gone, the new has already come!
This is a truth the church in Laodicea desperately needed to apprehend. Note that at the end of his letter to the Colossians, Paul adds, "After this letter has been read to you [in Colosse], see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea." So the Laodiceans were to be familiar with Paul's letter to the Colossian believers--the letter in which Paul strongly emphasizes Jesus' link with the beginning of creation. Jesus, says Paul, is the "firstborn over all creation" and the "firstborn from among the dead" through His resurrection. The resurrection, in fact, is the new creation.
The church at Laodicea needed to be told important truth, even painful truth. And the truth they needed to hear was the truth about how to relate to God's new creation.
"I Know Your Deeds"
For the seventh and last time in Revelation, we encounter the phrase "I know your deeds."
3:15-16 "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth."
These are chilling words--especially that opening line, "I know your deeds." Imagine receiving a phone call from an anonymous caller, and his first words to you were, "I know what you did." Would you feel gratified or ashamed to know that someone else knew your deeds?
When the Lord said, "I know your deeds," to the church in Philadelphia, it was cause for rejoicing. But when He said these same words to the church in Laodicea, it was cause for mourning. The Lord had been watching the church in Laodicea, and what He saw was not pleasing. There were two problems in the Laodicean church.
First, there was something tragically lacking in their commitment. "You are. . . neither hot nor cold" says the Lord. Like Disraeli's unappetizing meal, these Christians were tepid and lackluster in their devotion to Christ. The Laodiceans were not like the church at Sardis, which was as cold as death. Nor were they like the church at Philadelphia, which was hot, alive, and vital. They were merely lukewarm.
Archaeologists have discovered an interesting fact about the city of Laodicea. The source of the city's water supply was a hot spring at Hierapolis, about six miles away. The water was carried by aqueduct from this spring, and by the time it reached Laodicea the water was no longer hot, nor was it cold. It was lukewarm. Cold water is refreshing on a hot day, and hot water can be made into a warming, pleasant tea, but lukewarm water is nauseating.
So the Lord used the lukewarm water of Laodicea as an analogy for the lukewarm character of the Laodicean church. And His word to the church is, "I am about to spit you out of my mouth" because of the lukewarm commitment of the people. The word "spit" is a very weak translation. The word should be "vomit." The Lord is not merely saying He finds the works of the Laodicean Christians unappealing, but downright nauseating.
How did the Laodicean congregation get into such a state? There can be only one answer: compromise.
How do you get lukewarm water out of the tap? You turn on the cold water a little and you turn on the hot water a little. You combine a little of each, and the result is a lukewarm compromise.
Most humans don't like extremes of climate. In fact, some of us are still searching for that mythical corner of the world where the temperature is a constant 72 degrees year-round. What a retirement haven that would be! "Give me my comfort zone!" we say. "Let me just lie in the shade and take it easy."
But Jesus wants to move us out of our comfort zone, just as He wanted to move the Laodiceans out of theirs. What was their comfort zone? What issues were they compromising on?
They were compromising important doctrine. They were compromising truth. They were compromising spirituality for the sake of comfort. They had found that it is much more comfortable to attend a church where nobody takes doctrinal issues too seriously, where discussion of controversial issues is avoided. It is a lot easier to keep the peace if you just tone down the teaching a bit, so that no one gets ruffled or convicted. The Laodicean church had just enough truth to salve the conscience without anyone becoming a fanatic. They had a little truth mixed with enough restraint to keep the truth from affecting their will and launching them into service for Jesus.
The Laodicean church was a comfortable church. You could attend there for years and probably find it very pleasurable. You would never be challenged, rebuked, or corrected. You would never even have your conscience pricked. You would only be encouraged and stroked and flattered, because this was a comfortable, compromising church.
What does Jesus think of such a church?
"I am about to vomit you out of my mouth." Or, to paraphrase, "Yuck! How nauseating! It gags me!" The people may love the lukewarm climate in Laodicea, but Jesus does not. It makes them comfortable, but it makes the Lord sick! And the tragedy of the Laodicean experience is that it is being repeated again and again, in thousands of churches around the world.
Whose Church Is It?
The Laodicean church was symptomatic of an attitude I run into all the time: "The church belongs to the people." I believe this is one of the most dangerous and destructive attitudes a church can have. The idea that the church is owned by the people and that it exists for their benefit is what turns so many churches into what some have called "religious country clubs," operated for the exclusive benefit of the members.
Some years ago a young pastor called me and said, "I need to know what you would do if you were in my place. Last week the chairman of the board of our church called me in and said, 'You've been pastor here for a year, and you're a fine young man. We like you. You're a good Bible teacher. But there are a couple things we want you to understand before we renew your contract as pastor of this church.
"'First, we want you to understand that this is our church, not yours. We were here before you came, and we will be here after you leave. So don't get the idea you're going to make a lot of changes here.
"'Second, understand that we hired you, and we can fire you. If you don't like the way we do things, it's you that will be leaving, not us.'
"That's what they told me," he said. "I have to meet with them again next week. What would you tell them if you were in my shoes?"
I said, "Well, I would say, 'The next time we meet I'd like you all to bring your Bibles, because we're going to have a Bible study.' And when we all sat down together with our Bibles I would say to them, 'I understand that some of you feel this is your church. Now, I want you to show me where the Scriptures say that a church belongs to the people. I've looked and looked, and I can't find it. Instead, I find that Jesus says, "On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." And when Paul speaks to the Ephesian elders, he says, "Tend the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof." I'm willing to stand corrected, but as near as I can tell, there are many passages which say that the church belongs to Christ, and not a single passage which says it belongs to the people.'"
About two weeks later I got a letter from this young man. "I did and said everything you suggested," he wrote, "and you know what? They fired me!"
I admit that I had hoped events would take a different course for this young pastor. But within a few more weeks, I got another letter from him. "Another church has just called me to be their pastor. Before starting a new ministry there, I sat down with the board and we settled all these issues. I think this church and I are going to have a very effective ministry together."
I have followed this young man's ministry in his new church for several years, and I am happy to report that both pastor and congregation love each other, and the work of God is flourishing. I am convinced that a lot of the reason this church is doing so well is that the people in this church remember what the Laodiceans forgot: every church belongs to the Lord, not to the people.
Wretched and Poor
So the Laodiceans were comfortable. Even worse, they had become complacent and smug.
3:17 "You say. 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked."
How tragic! Notice the big difference between "you say" and "you are." His message is, "You say you are rich, but you are poor." The faithful and true witness, Jesus Himself, has set the truth before the Laodicean church--the whole truth, even though it hurts. To use a popular expression, the Laodicean church was "fat, dumb, and happy." It was smug, self-sufficient, and complacent. These poor believers had no idea how much trouble they were in!
The Laodicean economy was humming along splendidly. The people had plenty of money, nice homes, plenty to eat. Translated into a twentieth-century cultural context, we would say that they had a beautiful sanctuary with padded mahogany pews, a mighty pipe organ, a golden-throated choir, a dynamic preacher, the wealthiest and most prominent donors, and the respect of the entire community. The Laodicean believers thought they were doing extremely well.
But the Lord, in whose name they were gathered together, looked at their sumptuous, comfortable, complacent church and said, "You are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked." Why are the Laodiceans' self-appraisal and the Lord's appraisal so far apart? Because they are measuring by different standards.
If someone asked you the temperature outside, you might check a thermometer and say, "It's 32 above zero." I might check another thermometer and say, "No, you're wrong. It's actually zero." The truth is that we are both correct. You were looking at a Fahrenheit thermometer, while mine was marked off in centigrade degrees. Zero degrees centigrade equals 32 degrees Fahrenheit. If we measure by different standards, our evaluations will not agree.
Similarly, the Lord and the Laodiceans were measuring the Laodicean church by different standards. The Laodiceans were using the standards of the world. Their church was a pleasant, comfortable, respected body of believers. They thought they were doing splendidly. But Jesus used the standard of what He intended His church to be like.
The church is not a country club, operated for the benefit of its members. The church is not a performing arts center, where one is entertained with dramatic speeches and wonderful music. The church is not a political action group or a protest movement, taking sides on issues in the world's political arena. Elements of these roles may legitimately be expressed in the church from time to time: the church family may gather sometimes for fun and fellowship, or for a special concert, or to take action on important political issues that have strong moral and spiritual implications. But none of these roles constitutes the church's central purpose for existing.
Jesus has already told us what His church is to be like: salt. And not just plain salt--it must be salty salt! He said, "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men."l A church that is salt should be salty. Like salt which is sprinkled over food, the church should be dispersed throughout its community and its world, flavoring whatever it touches.
The church is to function not only when it gathers together on Sunday, but during the week, as its members go out into the marketplace, the business offices, the shops, the neighborhoods. There, in the outside world, is where the real work of the church is done! There is where believers are to take the good news of Jesus Christ! There is where the church is to be salt, demonstrating before a watching world that Christians respond to opposition, trials, temptations, and joys in a different way than the world does. There is where we demonstrate a special attitude toward life, and where we flavor life with a distinct flavor.
The church is also called to be light. "You are the light of the world," said Jesus. "A city on a hill cannot be hidden."2 Light is a symbol of truth. The church is to be a source of truth, literally enlightening the world with the gospel, enabling the world to clearly see spiritual reality by the light that it sheds. The church is charged with the task or enabling people to understand the program of God throughout history. The church interprets the events of the day so that men may see not what man intends to do, but what God is already doing and will do in human history. The church declares the truth about humanity's lost condition and the good news that a Savior has come to save us from our sin.
By this standard, the Laodicean church was wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. It thought itself rich, but it actually had nothing.
The Laodicean Stage of Church History
In this, as in all six previous letters, we must step back and take the long view of church history. Each of the seven churches of Revelation represents a time when the prevailing atmosphere of the worldwide Christian church matched the conditions described in the letter. Looking back across twenty centuries of church history, we can see how accurate each of these prophetic symbols has been.
Now we come to the seventh age of the church, the Laodicean period. It is clear, as both history and prophecy confirm, that Laodicea symbolizes the church of the twentieth century, the last age of the church--
Our own age.
The Laodicean period is characterized by the phenomenon of people dictating what will be taught rather than submitting to the authority of the Word of God. It is significant, I believe, that the name "Laodicea" means "the judgment of the people," or to put it loosely, "people's rights." For isn't that the cry of our times?
Laodicea is where the people tell the ministers what to preach. We see this happening around us today. The apostle Paul predicted in his second letter to Timothy that in the last days, "men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths."3 Tragically, this is already taking place around us.
There used to be a time when the church taught that the natural self with which we were born needed to be crucified, denied, kept under careful control. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."4 Yet we live in a day when churches are openly, brazenly advancing the self, teaching that we should assert the self and discover the powers and possibilities of the self, all apart from the necessity of a new birth.
Once the inerrancy of Scripture formed the bedrock of all evangelical churches. You could depend on the fact that the Bible was fully accepted as the inspired Word of God. But now churches, colleges, and seminaries which call themselves evangelical are rethinking the nature of Scripture, denying its inerrancy, and claiming it cannot be fully trusted. Instead of people submitting themselves to the judgment of the Word of God, we have people submitting the Word to their own judgment!
This is the age of compromise within the church. The church of the twentieth century is fast becoming a drifting church, a lukewarm church, a nauseating church in the eyes of the Lord. Once the church exhibited a burning desire to evangelize the world, to save those who were lost. Today, that desire has cooled in many churches, because pastors are telling their congregations that God is too loving to condemn anyone to an eternal separation from Himself. They say that good people who live good lives, even though they live apart from Jesus, will still be saved.
The church in the twentieth century is drifting away from the biblical truth that all have sinned and fall short of the standard of God's perfection, and that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Even while the lostness of mankind is made unmistakably plain by the rise of crime, the plague of drug abuse, the failure of morality, the increasing pollution of our planet, compromising Christians in complacent churches continue to preach a feel-good "gospel" that has nothing to do with the authentic good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Once it was unheard of that Christians would suggest that the killing of unborn babies should be condoned, or that practicing homosexuals should be ordained to the ministry or married in religious ceremonies. Yet these things are taking place today at an accelerating rate.
Truly, this is the age of Laodicea.
"Buy from Me"
The Lord concludes His letter to the Laodicean church with an urgent appeal. This appeal can be divided into three parts. First, verse 18:
3:18 "I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see."
The key to this verse is in those three little words: "buy from me." This is a profound truth that the Lord wants us to grasp: He has everything we need to live, to thrive, and to function. He is completely sufficient to supply all our needs, both in the church and as individual believers.
There's nothing wrong with a church having a large building, a great choir, and beautiful music. Nor is there anything intrinsically wrong with a Christian having a big home, a new car, a stereo, a TV, and a VCR. But these are not the things that churches and Christians need.
The Lord knows what our truest, deepest needs are: "gold," "white clothing," and "eye salve." These things, of course, are symbols for spiritual realities--realities that we desperately need in our lives. The Lord alone is the source of these spiritual possessions. and He makes them available to us whether we are materially rich and socially respected, or whether we are poor, persecuted, hunted, oppressed, and being put to death.
The first of these spiritual possessions is "gold refined in the fire." Peter tells us that our faith is "of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire."5 Faith comes from the Lord Jesus. As we look to Him, our faith is awakened and stirred. We then see how true the Scriptures are and how clearly they fit with and explain our daily experience. The Laodiceans were secure and self-sufficient in their own prosperity, and they had ceased to live by the "refined gold" of faith in Jesus Christ alone.
The second of these spiritual possessions is "white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness." Everyone is morally naked before God. We all have secrets deep within us that no one else knows, that would virtually destroy us if anyone else discovered them. But God knows! He sees us in our nakedness and shame--and He makes us a gracious, compassionate offer: He offers to clothe us in the righteousness of His Son Jesus Christ!
Throughout these letters we have seen that white clothes stand for redemption, for righteousness imparted by Jesus Christ. As Isaiah tells us, our own righteousness is nothing but filthy rags in the sight of God,6 but the righteousness of Christ is perfect and acceptable to God. When we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ Himself, all our shame and sinfulness is removed. As in the words of the hymn,
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
'Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
White clothes stand for the changed character and new position we have received in Christ. They symbolize how God sees the believer who has washed his robes in the blood of the Lamb, which we shall learn more about in Revelation 7.
The third spiritual possession is "eye salve." Notice, first of all, that the Lord used an analogy from the everyday experience of the people He addressed. Speaking to His hungry disciples, He used the analogy of "the bread of life." To the woman at the well, He talked about "living water." In His parables He used everyday analogies from the marketplace, farming, and domestic life to translate deep spiritual truths in terms anyone could understand. In this letter He uses a medical analogy in addressing a community of believers that doubtless contained many physicians on its rolls. Laodicea was a center of medical learning, and it was noted for producing such pharmaceutical products as eye ointment. So He was borrowing from the everyday experience of the Laodiceans to make a spiritual point.
The Lord said that the Laodiceans needed eye salve to enable them to see. We find this same image elsewhere in Scripture--the image of a salve or ointment which opens blind eyes. This symbol refers to the anointing of the Spirit which opens our eyes to understand God's truth. In 1 John 2:27, the apostle says, "The anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit--just as it has taught you, remain in him." This does not do away with the need for teaching and preaching, but it does mean that unless the Spirit in you is opening your ears to the meaning of truth, all teaching will fall on deaf ears. When the anointing Spirit of Christ lives within us our eyes are opened to understand the Word of God and we see the Bible in a new, fresh, and penetrating way.
Are you having trouble understanding the Bible? Then ask yourself, "Do I have the Spirit of truth in my life'? Or have I not yet come to Jesus and received that anointing salve which will open my eyes to see?" That, truly, is the most momentous and fateful question each of us must answer within our own hearts. And that question brings us to the second part of the Lord's three-part appeal. For in the next few verses, we will encounter one of the most vivid and poignant images in the Bible--the image of Jesus standing at the door of our hearts, knocking, waiting, earnestly desiring to come in and have fellowship with us.
Jesus at the Door
The second division of the Lord's appeal is given in verses 19 to 20, where He tells us how to obtain these spiritual possessions--the "gold," the "white clothes," and the "eye salve."
3:19-20 "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest. and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me."
What a kind and gentle expression of God's love! The Lord approaches this church, with its nauseating smugness. complacency, and failure, and He says, in effect, "I love you! The reason I rebuke you and discipline you is that I care for you!"
If you had loving, nurturing parents, or if you are a loving, nurturing parent, you probably have a deep understanding of the Lord's heart when He says, "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline." You know that parenting isn't just hugs and bedtime stories and a pat on the head. Sometimes the parent-child love relationship involves pain and tears.
You may remember times when, by your wayward actions, you forced your parents to love you in such a way that "the board of education" was applied to "the seat of knowledge." You went away rubbing your smarting posterior and thinking, "I wish they didn't love me so much!" But in your heart you knew that your parents' rebuke and discipline was a sign of their love for you, and there was a great sense of security in that love.
Jesus wanted the Laodicean Christians to have that same sense of security, knowing that even with all the bluntness of this confrontational message, He loved the church. He loved the Laodicean Christians too much to allow them to go their lukewarm way. He would not let them go.
Verse 20 is, to my mind, the most moving and powerful explanation in the Bible of how to become a Christian. I have used this passage many times in my own witnessing to non-Christians. I have seen hearts melted and lives changed by this beautiful description of Christ standing outside our lives, patiently knocking at the door of our hearts.
The act of receiving Christ takes place in three simple steps. Step one: We sense that Jesus stands outside, wanting to come in. This sense often comes upon us when we feel that our lives are empty or meaningless, when we are hurting over the direction our lives have taken, or we feel a sense of guilt and remorse over our sins. At this low point in our lives we hear good news: Jesus loves us, He died for us, He has power to forgive our sins and change our lives! Something within us responds. We want Jesus to come in. We long for it. We have awakened to our need and to the Lord's offer to meet our need.
Step two: We must open the door. He will not open it. He will not force His way in. He never forces salvation on anyone. There is a famous painting which depicts the Lord standing before the door and knocking. The artist was very spiritually perceptive, for he painted the door without a handle or knob on the outside. This door of the heart can only be opened from the inside, by the occupant himself or herself. Jesus goes only where He is invited.
Read through the Gospels, and you will see several instances where the Lord offered Himself to men and women, then grieved over the fact that they would not receive Him. Remember how Jesus lamented over Jerusalem: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!"7 In every case, Jesus offers Himself to others but He does not impose Himself on others. When rejected, He is not angry. He is sorrowful.
We must invite Jesus in, saying, "Come, Lord Jesus. Enter my life. Be my Lord. Be my Savior. Deliver me from my sins, and deliver me from my self."
Step three: Jesus enters' He promises that when we invite Him, He comes into our lives. We do not have to have a special feeling, a mystical sensation, an emotional experience (though occasionally people do). We can simply rely on His promise: "If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me."
It is a beautiful picture of our relationship with Jesus. He comes in. we have fellowship together, we have communion together, we dwell together in the same place.
The Throne of Jesus
The third division of the Lord's appeal is given in verses 21 to 22.
3:21-22 "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
As we have seen in the Lord's last three letters, Jesus promises that we will share in His reign. The true church will one day reign with Christ. But the Lord makes a very careful distinction in this thought: He distinguishes clearly between His throne and His Father's throne. The Father's throne, of course, represents the sovereign government of the universe. God the Father is sovereign over all.
When the Lord completed His work on earth, having endured faithfully to the end, He ascended and sat down on His Father's throne. Both Psalm 110 and the book of Hebrews describe the Messiah as sitting down at the right hand of the throne of God. Thus He is Lord over all the universe right now, exalted on His Father's throne.
But Jesus, too, has a throne. In verse 21, He refers to it as "my throne." And Jesus invites the Christian who patiently, faithfully overcomes to reign with Him on His throne. In Scripture, that throne is called the throne of David. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, as recorded in Luke 1, he told her she would have a son, that He would be called the Son of God, and that the Lord God would "give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever."
The house of Jacob is the nation of Israel. All twelve tribes of Israel are descended from the sons of Jacob. So this is a promise which specifically relates to the future time when Jesus assumes the throne of David and Israel is made the head of the nations. That future time, as we have seen in previous letters, is the Millennium. The promise of these verses is that the resurrected and glorified church will one day share with Jesus in reigning over His millennial kingdom.
This is the same amazing promise the Lord made to His disciples when He said, "I tell you the truth [literally, Amen, Amen], at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."8 This promise could not be any plainer.
But the end of the Millennium does not mean the end of the reign of the church alongside Jesus. We shall reign with Christ on into eternity, in the unimaginably sublime realm called the new heaven and the new earth.
In the last verse of Revelation 3, we hear the Lord's refrain for the final time: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." Are we listening to what the Spirit says to you and me in the church at the end of the twentieth century? The promises and warnings to the seven churches are as relevant to our lives as to the lives of the first-century believers. The seven letters could be summarized as follows:
To Ephesus: "Do not let your love for Jesus grow cold."
To Smyrna: "Do not fear the persecution of the world."
To Pergamum: "Trust the Word of God to keep you strong and faithful."
To Thyatira: "Avoid both sexual and spiritual adultery. Be pure."
To Sardis: "Wake up now! Strengthen what remains and is about to die!"
To Philadelphia: "I will open a door of ministry and witness for you."
To Laodicea: "Don't yield to complacency. Invite me in! Let me revolutionize and transform your life! If you do, you will have a princely position in the age to come!"
Sobered by the knowledge that we live in the lukewarm, Laodicean age of church history, stirred by the confrontational yet comforting message of these seven profound letters to seven churches, we now turn our attention to the next section of the book of Revelation. It is time to see what the world to come will look like.
The future is big news.
Tune your television to CNN and sit back for a while. Odds are you won't have to watch long before seeing some "expert" give his predictions for the future. First, a scientist is interviewed about future developments in computers, technology, and space. Then a diplomat is asked to pontificate on the future of the Middle East. Next a political pundit speculates on the future of the coming election. Finally, a woman steps in front of a satellite photo to deliver the most dubious prophecy of all--the weather forecast.
The future is also big business.
Despite the fact that we live in the most scientifically sophisticated age in human history, the occult prophecy business is booming. Check the Yellow Pages of any large city directory: You'll find page after page of advertisements for palm readers, tarot readers, astrologers, psychics, and other assorted soothsayers. You can discover your future in the astrology column of your morning newspaper--and if you take three newspapers, you can read three different astrologers, forecasting three completely dissimilar forecasts for your future! You can even have your horoscope read over the phone by dialing a 900 number shown on your TV screen (only $10 for the first minute, $5 for each additional minute).
Our society is fascinated with the future. Indeed, as we approach the year 2000, that fascination seems to be turning into an obsession. People are turning to the occult, to the New Age, to books by Nostradamus and Cayce and Dixon, to supermarket tabloids, to every kooky and irrational source in a frenzied search for certainty about the future.
Ironically, our society has largely bypassed and ignored the best source of information about the future: the book of Revelation.
As we come to Revelation 4, we stand at the brink of the third division of the book. In Revelation 1:19, we learned from the Lord Himself that this book properly divides into three sections. There He told the apostle John, "Write, therefore,  what you have seen,  what is now, and  what will take place later." Part 1 comprised Revelation chapter 1, Part 2, Revelation 2 and 3; and Part 3 begins with Revelation chapter 4 and continues to the end of the book--the part that Jesus calls "what will take place later."
4:1 After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this."
Notice that this passage begins and ends with two words, "after this."
These words form the hinge of Revelation. In chapters 2 and 3, Jesus addressed the burning issues of the age of the church. But now we reach a transition. The scene shifts abruptly from the church to events that take place "after this." These words signal to us that what John is about to see is a vision of events which come after the church has finished its course, after the church has been removed from the world.
The fact that the remainder of Revelation takes place after the church has been taken up to be with the Lord (the event which has come to be known as the Rapture) is underscored by several details in the opening verses of Revelation 4. Let's examine those details.
John first sees an open door, and through that door he catches his first glimpse of heaven. He is not the first biblical prophet to have the privilege of standing on earth and looking into heaven. The Old Testament prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Daniel also did so. But in John's case, there is an important difference: John, unlike all the other prophets who only looked into heaven, is actually summoned into heaven. No prophet in all of Scripture was ever allowed to enter heaven to report what he saw except John.
What is the significance of this fact? I believe it is important in that it symbolizes the point at which the church is removed from the world and taken into heaven, and the point at which a new era of human history begins. From this point on in the book of Revelation there is not a single reference to the church until the very last chapter. There are "saints" referred to throughout the book of Revelation, but the word "church" does not appear again until the Bride of the Lamb appears near the end of Revelation.
Many Bible scholars believe (and I agree) that John the apostle, as he is summoned into heaven, represents the church which will be called out of the world and into heaven at the end of the Laodicean age in which we now live. What John sees during the rest of Revelation is what the church will see from its heavenly vantage point after it is caught away to be with Christ.
This means that as we read on through the book of Revelation, we no longer see events from the standpoint of time but from the standpoint of eternity. In eternity, there is no set yardstick or sequence of events as there is in time. This fact makes the book of Revelation difficult to interpret in many ways, but it also adds to its fascination.
As we examine the rest of Revelation we must be careful not to impose our preconceived notions of time, eternity, and heaven on the events we will witness. Many of us have some rather muddled notions of what heaven will be like. Some people actually think of heaven in the old stereotypical terms of people living on clouds and playing harps. Some of us project our favorite pastimes on heaven, so that a golfer, for example, might picture heaven as an endless golf course where a fellow can hit a ball 500 miles with one swing. In my youth as a cowboy in Montana, we talked about "that great roundup in the sky."
But the reality of heaven transcends all our stereotypes, imaginative notions, and misconceptions. We will have to shed, as much as we are able, the earthbound preconceptions which might blind us to God's truth about eternity as He has revealed it in the book of Revelation.
In God's Revelation, eternal events are not reeled out in a simplistic, linear fashion, all neatly labeled and dated in tidy chronological categories. Events appear here and there, out of sequence. For example, the series of judgments which we will soon examine--the seals of the seven-sealed book, the sounding trumpets, the outpouring of the seven bowls of God's wrath--apparently do not follow one another in chronological order.
The reality of heaven is not that of an ethereal castle floating in the sky or on some other planet. Heaven is a real dimension of existence, and it exists in the here and now. It is a reality of being just beyond the reach of our senses. When John saw the open door into heaven, he was permitted to see into a very real realm, a dimension that is present all the time and from which all the visible affairs of the earth are governed. That is the biblical perspective on heaven, from the book of Genesis to the book of Revelation. To understand what God is revealing to us in this book we must shed our culturally bound, nonbiblical notions of heaven, and learn to see heaven as it is revealed to us in the Word of God.
The Headquarters of Heaven
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, I took a ship to Hawaii, not as a serviceman, but as a civilian. I vividly remember looking out over the harbor and seeing the dead hulks of America's shattered Pacific fleet, some capsized, some little more than half-submerged piles of twisted wreckage. I was part of a two-man paint crew brought over from the mainland and assigned to repaint the militarily sensitive buildings. Most of the painters in the area were Japanese Hawaiians, and because of the tensions of those times, people of Japanese descent were not permitted into certain areas of the base.
One day my partner and I were brought in to paint the office of Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet and the chief naval strategist of World War II. I remember the awe I felt as I entered that office. I found myself surrounded by maps and charts of the Pacific islands. Here in this room, I thought, the historic events of this war are being conceived and brought into existence. Within these four walls, the Admiral gathers with his captains and advisers to plan the tactics, advances, and assaults of the greatest conflict in human history.
But the awe I felt at that moment pales in comparison to what John must have felt in the next scene from the book of Revelation--a scene in which he finds himself in the control center for the entire universe!
4:2-3 At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne.
Here is the Supreme Headquarters of heaven! The first thing John saw, dominating everything else in this scene, was a great throne and someone seated upon the throne. You might be surprised to find that the throne is a central theme of the book of Revelation. Out of 22 chapters in the book, there are only five chapters in which the word "throne" does not appear. This fact impresses us with the truth that the government of God towers over all human events. Everything that we read about in the newspapers and see on our TV screens, however awesome, saddening, or triumphant, takes place in the shadow of the sovereign throne of God.
Some years ago I was asked to speak at a church conference in England. We met in a Methodist chapel on the road between London and Cambridge. I particularly remember the song service at the beginning of the meeting. The chapel was filled with Christians, singing heartily to the Lord. One of the choruses we sang was the popular "Our God Reigns." I knew the song well so I didn't look carefully at the song sheet as we began singing. But in the midst of the song I happened to glance at the sheet--and I began to smile. For though the words of the song are, "Our God reigns," what was typed on the song sheet was, "Our God resigns"!
I was grateful that the people in that room were singing what was in their hearts, not what was on that song sheet. Unfortunately, however, many Christians these days not only sing but live as if their God had resigned and was no longer in power. But He has not! Thank God, He reigns! He is on the throne! And that is the theme of the book of Revelation.
The fact that there is a God and that He is on the throne of the universe goes directly against the thinking and spirit of our age. Modern man does not like the idea of a throne, of cosmic Authority, because that means there are absolutes which cannot be changed. Moral and spiritual values are guaranteed by the Authority of the throne.
People of our age want to be their own moral and spiritual authorities. They want the right to choose whatever sexual behavior suits them and to be free of such consequences as AIDS or unwanted pregnancies or to be able to abort unborn babies if those babies happen to be inconvenient. They want to do so without guilt or judgment. They want to be free to make up their own religion, to invent their own gods, or even to become their own gods if it suits them. They want to be free to conduct their business and amass their fortunes without ethical constraints.
But no matter how people may rebel and object, the existence of God's sovereign throne is an inalienable fact of the universe. The operation of His moral law is as certain and irreversible as the operation of such physical laws as the law of gravity. We can no more circumvent the laws of God than we can circumvent the laws of physics. God maintains and enforces those laws, and He is not concerned about man's feeble attempts to repeal the laws that He has issued from His sovereign throne.
"A glorious throne, exalted from the beginning," wrote the prophet Jeremiah amid the tumult and upheaval of his own time, "is the place of our sanctuary."1 That is the throne that John saw.
The Figure on the Throne
The next observation John records is that there was someone seated upon the throne. As we read his words our expectations are immediately heightened: At last, we think, we shall learn what God looks like! John is permitted to actually see the Lord of the universe on His throne. And how does the apostle describe what he sees?
Pure, flashing, jewel-like colors, like the blazing radiance cast off by a prism. There are some Bible scholars who believe the letters of John were written after the book of Revelation. If that is true it might explain why the apostle writes in 1 John 1:5, "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all." Perhaps he penned those words while recalling the rainbow-like cascading colors that reflected the majesty and glory of God upon His throne.
Moses was once told that no man can see the face of God and live. No one, not even John, has ever seen the face of God at any time. All that anyone has ever seen are those manifestations of His Being which tell of His attributes and His glory. John saw a figure seated on the throne of heaven, but the features of that figure were lost in the dazzling nimbus of lights that surrounded the throne.
Compare the vision of John with the vision of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 1, the prophet describes a vision of God very similar to John's--forms veiled in clouds, scintillating with brilliant lights, giving off lightning-like flashes. Like John, Ezekiel gives us no description of God's features, because God is so much more than a man.
John records that God manifested Himself in spectacularly colored light. These colors are full of rich significance and meaning. From these colors we learn several important things about the figure upon the throne.
First, we learn that it is not merely God the Father whom John sees upon the throne. There are actually three Persons manifested there. The first is signified by the stone jasper, which is really a diamond, the most beautiful and precious of all gems, highly prized for its ability to capture and refract light into a brilliant display of intense colors. The reason "diamonds are a girl's best friend" is that they so beautifully reflect light, enhancing her beauty in a spectacular way. The brilliant crystal John describes here symbolizes the dominant attribute of God the Father: His holy perfection.
The second stone is the carnelian or sardius, which is a beautiful, glowing, blood-red stone. This stone immediately suggests the Son, who gave His blood for us as an atonement for our sins. He is the Lamb of God, and the precious sacrifice of His blood is suggested by the color of the precious carnelian stone.
The third stone is the emerald. John saw a great rainbow encircling the throne, green as an emerald. Green is the color of nature, the color of creation. A rainbow was first given at the flood of Noah, a sign expressed in nature of God's promise of grace to sinful mankind. "I have set my rainbow in the clouds," God said, "and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. . . . Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life."2
The rainbow in John's vision, brilliant in varying shades of emerald green, circling the throne of heaven, symbolizes the Holy Spirit administering the holiness and redemption of God to all creation. You may wonder, at first, how a rainbow can encircle the throne. Aren't all rainbows arch-shaped?
Actually, all rainbows are circles. When we see a rainbow in the sky we are seeing only part of it. When we stand on the ground and look at a rainbow, half of the refracted image of the rainbow is hidden below the horizon.
The best place to view a rainbow is from an airplane, where the entire circle of it is visible. If you are flying over clouds where a rain shower is taking place and the plane is positioned so that the sun is directly behind you as you watch the rain, you will see the full, brilliant, multicolored circle of the rainbow--and in the very center of the circle will be the shadow of your airplane!
The Twenty-Four Elders
Secondary to the powerful, colorful, scintillating image of God's glory that we have just examined, John then noticed that there were others seated in the Supreme Headquarters of heaven.
4:4 Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders [ancients]. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.
There has been much debate over what these twenty-four elders or ancients mean. Many Bible scholars consider them to be redeemed saints, both of the Old and New Testaments: twelve elders of Israel, representing the twelve tribes, and twelve apostles. I used to hold this view myself, but one nagging detail of this view always troubled me: If twelve of these elders are the twelve apostles, then one of them would have been John himself. Does he see himself seated there? Does that make sense? I don't think so.
Those Bible scholars who see these twenty-four elders as saints point to their white robes and the golden crowns of victory upon their heads. The suggestion is that these crowns indicate that they have conquered evil, and their white robes have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. But there is another explanation for the crowns and robes, as we shall soon explore.
I have come to the conclusion that this group of elders is probably what Daniel and other Old Testament prophets saw when they looked into heaven. In Daniel 4, the prophet Daniel is called before King Nebuchadnezzar to interpret the king's dream. In this dream, a great tree is cut so that only the stump remains. Daniel's interpretation is that the tree represents Nebuchadnezzar himself, and the dream is a prophecy that his crown will be taken away from him for a period of seven years. During those seven years, he will lose his mind and be turned out to eat grass like a horse or cow. At the end of that time his throne and authority will be restored to him. This is what Daniel tells the king:
"The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men."3
Clearly there are other inhabitants of the dimension of heaven. They are associated with God's judgment upon this king and are called "messengers" or "holy ones." In Daniel 7 we find a similar reference. This is the scene Daniel saw as he looked into heaven:
As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him: ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.4
So Daniel, like John, saw thrones arrayed about the great throne of God. Individuals seated upon these thrones took part in the judgments and decisions which God Himself rendered. We find a similar reference in Psalm 89:6-7:
For who in the skies above can compare with the LORD? Who is like the LORD among the heavenly beings? In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him.
Who, then, are these twenty-four elders in Revelation 4? I believe they are angels who have been put in charge of this present age. They are a body of twenty-four intelligent, powerful angels associated with the government of God. They wear crowns because they are victors in their battles with Satan. They wear white robes because they are righteous angels who refused to join the rebellion of the devil.
From Grace to Judgment
As John continued to look, he saw still more symbols--awesome, powerful symbols, both sights and sounds.
4:5-6a From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
Understand that these are symbols which stand for a hidden reality. The real form of the deep things of God is undoubtedly far beyond our ability to comprehend, so He communicates to us through pictures. These pictures are helpful and instructive and tell us all we truly need to understand--but these pictures should not be confused with the deep reality they represent.
Note, first of all, that John relates that "flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder" came from the throne. These are sights and sounds associated with the moment God gave the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses records that the mountain was covered by dark clouds lit by flashes of lightning and that the earth shook constantly with great thundering rumbles. The sight was so awesome that the people of Israel were stunned with fear. These sounds, then, are symbols of the judgment of God.
What we have to understand about the book of Revelation (and what will become abundantly clear the more deeply we explore this book) is that this book describes a time when God's dealings with mankind enter a new phase. At the end of human history God at last turns from grace to judgment. All through the Bible God has demonstrated the gracious dimension of His personality. We have seen Him appealing to people to open their minds and hearts, to listen to His instruction, to receive the truth. He has lovingly, graciously invited all of mankind to join in sweet fellowship with Him.
Now, however, we see at last what results when people reject God and cling to their self-will and sin. Now we see the just and righteous dimension of His personality. We see God in His role as sovereign judge over all people.
My friend Charles Swindoll has said that the first theological statement he ever heard was spoken to him by his mother when he was just a little boy. She said to him, "May God help you if you ever do that again!"
In a way, that is what the book of Revelation is about: For centuries God has warned humankind what sort of judgment their folly would lead to, and now, in Revelation, He carries out that judgment.
The symbols of lightning, rumblings, and thunder are repeated several times throughout the book of Revelation. They are a reference point to which the book returns again and again. When you see these symbols in the book of Revelation--for example, in 8:5, 11:19, and 16:18--you can be certain that they accompany scenes of God's final judgment against the world's evil. Each time there is thunder, lightning, and rumbling, and a further element of judgment is added.
The other symbols which appear in verses 5 and 6 represent the Spirit of God, the instrument of God's judgment. John saw seven burning lamps, blazing with divine vengeance. The lamps represent the Spirit of God.
John also saw a crystalline sea before the throne. As we have already discussed, crystal speaks of purity and holiness. The sea is the Spirit of God in His holy perfection. That is why we call Him the Holy Spirit.
Anyone who comes into the presence of God must be holy. As the book of Hebrews tells us, "Make every effort. . . to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord."5 The Spirit of holiness stands before the throne of God like a brilliant, crystalline reflecting pool, mirroring the holy purity of God.
Next we are introduced to four weird, wonderful symbolic creatures.
4:6b-8 In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
"Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come."
These are bizarre creatures, unlike anything that has ever existed on the earth. They are like winged animals, covered with eyes all over their bodies, even under their wings. Who are these creatures? What do they represent?
Again, if you turn to the Old Testament book of Ezekiel you will find a close parallel to the description in the book of Revelation. In Ezekiel 1, we find very similar creatures, which the prophet calls "cherubim." The matter of cherubim is yet another area of popular misconception. Many people think of cherubim (or "cherubs") as pudgy, naked baby angels who fly about on tiny wings, shooting people with Cupid-like arrows of love. But cherubim, as Ezekiel describes them, look like this:
Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out upward; each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side, and two wings covering its body.6
In Isaiah 6, we find such creatures again, and Isaiah calls them "seraphim," which means "burning ones." Small details of the descriptions vary from account to account. Sometimes they have six wings, sometimes only four.
Ezekiel and John both mention the fourfold faces of these creatures--faces of the lion, the ox, the eagle, and man. Four is always the number which symbolizes government. These creatures, therefore, are somehow associated with God's government, both of human affairs and of the created universe.
The many eyes of John's description symbolize discernment and knowledge. The wings describe soaring strength and rapidity of movement. The faces symbolize the qualities and forces of life in the created universe. The lion's face speaks of power; the ox of patience; the eagle of swiftness; the man of intelligence.
What is the function of these four weird yet wonderful creatures of heaven? In Revelation 6 they will summon the four horsemen to action with the command, "Come!" But in this chapter their function is to call all of creation to worship the Creator.
Did you know that all of nature worships God? Even inanimate objects--stars, stones, trees, flowers, waters--give Him praise. Nature worships whenever any part of nature fulfills the intention God had in mind for it.
The poet has written,
Full many a rose was born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
To which I reply: What waste? No rose ever wastes its sweetness! Even if there is no human being within a thousand miles of that rose, God inhales its fragrance and delights in its beauty.
The perfection of nature gives praise and glory to God, its Creator. Examine a flower closely and you can't help marveling at the beauty and complexity of its design, conceived and executed by the power and wisdom of God. All of nature is as amazing as that flower, and the contemplation of nature should lead us to worship and praise Him.
In verses 9 to 11, we see that one of the tasks of these four living creatures is to elicit from the creation--including that part of the creation called man--the praise and perfection God intended it to produce.
4:9-11 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
"You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being."
This is a powerful, moving song of praise, strongly suggesting to the mind the power of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. These words should not be repeated mechanically or merely skimmed over, because that would be boring. Heaven is anything but boring!
Why does heaven resound with praise to God? Because the inhabitants of heaven continually discover new, exciting, profound aspects of God's wisdom and power! They are continually inspired and re-inspired and re-re-inspired to praise God for the wonderful Creator He is. So should our worship be, for that is true worship.
Eugene Peterson has said that true worship accomplishes five specific functions:
1. True worship centers our attention. We are truly worshiping God when we see Him--not our own ego--as the center of everything. True worship means we stop living for ourselves and thinking of ourselves and start living and thinking solely in reference to God and His agenda.
2. True worship gathers people together. As we truly worship, we become part of a family. It is an inclusive, not exclusive, activity.
3. True worship reveals truth. As we truly worship, we begin to understand things we have never seen before. Familiar patterns of life suddenly expand to become new vistas of experience. New realizations dawn. We are uplifted and renewed in mind and spirit.
4. True worship makes us sing. We can't help it. We can't hold it back. Worshiping Christians are always singing. Indeed, Christians can sing even when others weep. As we go through the rest of Revelation we will see that, even in the midst of worldwide travail and judgment, there are many songs being sung, because there is true worship taking place.
5. True worship affirms. As we truly worship, we respond to God's great promises with a resounding "Amen," with thousands of voices united in saying "Yes!" to God.
Peterson beautifully sums up the power of worship as he writes,
Failure to worship consigns us to a life of spasms and jerks, at the mercy of every advertisement, every seduction, every siren. Without worship we live manipulated and manipulating lives. We move in either frightened panic or deluded lethargy as we are, in turn, alarmed by spectres and soothed by placebos. If there is no center, there is no circumference. People who do not worship are swept into a vast restlessness, epidemic in the world, with no steady direction and no sustaining purpose.7
Revelation 4 represents far more than just a first glimpse into the realm of heaven and the future. It is a vivid collage of images which focuses our eyes on what worship should be in all times and in all places. What this passage reveals about the condition of our hearts right now is at least as important as what it reveals about the future. Can we, with all our hearts, say "Amen!" to the words of this great hymn of true worship?
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.
How blessed, how glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, Victorious, Thy great name we praise.
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
All praise we would render, O help us to see
'Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee!
For just a moment in our study of Revelation, let's set the future aside and ask ourselves as Christians living in the lukewarm Laodicean age of the 1990s, "Are we, in the here and now, truly a worshiping people as God intended us to be?"
The Great Breakthrough
In the 1960s the late member of the Beatles, John Lennon (who once claimed his rock-and-roll music was more popular than Jesus Christ), wrote a song called "Imagine" which describes a world made perfect by the elimination of war--and the elimination of religion. This song has been revived in the 1990s as an anthem for a new generation of New Age-influenced young people. They march in the streets, singing "Imagine" or Lennon's other peace anthem, "Give Peace a Chance," while carrying signs demanding peace, demanding plenty, demanding Utopia.
There is nothing new about humanity's longing for Utopia. This wistful desire for a place where there is no war, no poverty, no hunger, no hatred, and no sorrow is the most universal and enduring passion of mankind. Utopian literature can be traced back as far as Plato (around 400 B.C.) and Euhemerus (around 300 B.C.). Some utopian dreamers, such as Thomas More, have placed their hope in human reason as the cure for social evils. Edward Bellamy, in his book Looking Backward, suggested that the road to Utopia lay in reforming our economy.
There is, however, only one hope for a utopian society: the Person whose birth was heralded some 2,000 years ago with the words, "On earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." As we come to Revelation chapter 5, we find that we stand at the brink of the realization of mankind's most elusive dream. As we shall see, this dream is destined to be fulfilled--not by economic reforms, human reason, or protest marches, but by the sovereign authority and dominion of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
The Ultimate "Mystery Thriller"
In the previous chapter, John the apostle was caught up into heaven, where he saw the throne of God and the court of heaven. Now, in Revelation 5, the scene is still heaven, but the theme changes. From a theme of worship of God the Creator, we shift to the theme of worship of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
5:1-4 Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, "Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?" But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.
The first questions this passage suggests are, "What does the scroll represent? Why is it sealed?"
Note, first of all, that what John sees is not a book but a scroll, a large rolled strip of paper or parchment, sealed with seven seals on the end so that it cannot be unrolled and read. As we shall see in Revelation 6, the opening of these seals and the unrolling of this scroll will reveal a series of momentous events which will shake the earth to its foundations. In fact, the events described in this scroll will continue to unfurl throughout Revelation 7, 8, 9, and 10.
What does the scroll signify? We are given a clue in Revelation 10:7, where John is told, "But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets." The scroll, then, is a "mystery" book. Indeed, you might call it the ultimate "mystery thriller," and its title is The Mystery of God. It answers all the great unanswerable questions people have been asking for generations.
Perhaps the most persistent and vexing of these great questions is, "Why can't humankind solve its own problems?" Everyone wants Utopia, but no one knows how to achieve it. Everyone wants an end to war, crime, evil, and prejudice, but no one knows how to end the misery of our humanity. We continue to make such rapid technological and scientific progress that the amount of combined knowledge amassed within the libraries, archives, and data bases of the human race literally doubles every dozen years! One would think humanity, having made such amazing strides, would be on the verge of physical, intellectual, and moral perfection.
Yet the human race has never seen more suffering, nor been in greater peril, than it is right now.
All the greatest, thorniest problems of human society remain as insoluble today as they were thousands of years ago. Why? Why, after all our progress and increased knowledge, can we not solve our most basic human problems?
The scroll of The Mystery of God holds the answer.
A Perfect World
The contemporary writer Annie Dillard has posed what she calls "the chief theological question of all time." The question is, "What in the Sam Hill is going on here anyway?"
Have you ever felt that way? Things seem to happen in life that we just can't understand. Unjust, meaningless, random events. In confusion, frustration, and disgust, we say, "What in the Sam Hill is going on here anyway?"
The answer to this "theological question" is in the scroll. God will straighten out the mess that this world has become, and He will fulfill His promise of a golden Utopia where men will live without war, without crime, without hatred. There will be no death, no sorrow, and all tears will be wiped away.
A writer in a popular magazine once described what she thought a perfect world would be like:
No drug abuse.
A relationship that works.
More time with our families.
A decent education for all.
Clean air and water.
A birth control pill for men.
A car really built for families.
Health (no AIDS).
Happiness (no war).
And the pursuit of a family-friendly workplace.1
That, according to this writer, would be a perfect world. Clearly, this writer does not expect God to have very much to do with bringing this perfect world about. But isn't that a common attitude in our age? Our image of the perfect world tends to be a mixture of peace on earth and material comfort, with no room for God.
The scroll in Revelation, however, reveals that God has a different plan for bringing about true Utopia. That plan is what the book of Revelation is all about, and at the center of it all is Jesus the Redeemer.
At the outset John makes an interesting observation about the scroll. It is, he says, "a scroll with writing on both sides." The ancients hardly ever wrote on both sides of a scroll because, normally, only one side was formed smooth for writing, while the back side was rough and uneven. A scroll with writing on both sides is symbolic of a full and important message. This seems to indicate that the nature of the message will be complex, involved, and lengthy--an indication which chapters 6 through 10 will bear out.
The fact that God's plan was written in the form of a scroll rather than simply being revealed by a voice is also very significant. A written scroll is symbolic of permanent, indelible truth. What God has written, no one can change. As in the famous lines from the Rub‡iy‡t of Omar Khayy‡m,
The moving finger writes, and having writ
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
Or as Pontius Pilate said of the inscription he ordered hung over the cross of Christ, "What is written is written." The words are indelible. They cannot be changed.
Who Is Worthy?
"Who is worthy?" This question is at the heart of all politics, for it is in the mind of every voter who enters the voting booth. Who is capable of leading us toward the solutions for our problems? Who is smart enough? Moral enough? Strong enough? Who is worthy?
It is also the question that haunts the apostle John in this passage. As he stands looking upon the scroll of God, an angel proclaims an invitation to all the universe: "Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?" The question lingers in the air of heaven like an accusation. No one steps forth.
Throughout human history there have been those who considered themselves worthy to "break the seals," to "open the scroll," to carve out a man-made Utopia on earth. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar boasted of his wisdom and might in building the great empire of Babylon. But his empire soon fell.
Alexander the Great thought he had achieved a Utopian empire. At the age of 32, having extended his rule into Persia, Media, Asia Minor, and India, Alexander wept because he had no more worlds to conquer. Yet within a year Alexander was dead, having gorged and drunk himself to death at an extravagant banquet. Without the force of his will to hold it together, his empire soon disintegrated.
Julius Caesar led his legions across the face of Europe to impose the Pax Romana--the Peace of Rome--upon the world by force of arms. But Rome ultimately fell, due to moral corruption within and assault from without by northern barbarians.
The boneyards of history are littered with fallen conquerors and their shattered dreams of a man-made Utopia: Charlemagne and Napoleon, who--each in his own way and his own time--sought to place the world under the banner of France; Germany's Hitler, who envisioned a worldwide Reich that would last a thousand years; Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who vowed to "liberate" the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem and Mecca, and who dreamed of uniting the entire Moslem world, from north Africa to Asia, under his own rule.
Those who considered themselves worthy to "break the seals," to "open the scroll," to subjugate nations and impose their will on the world have usually been narcissistic, egocentric tyrants. Their vision of an earthly "heaven" has usually resulted in an earthly "hell" of wars and suffering. The world regards such figures with a combination of alarm, pity, and loathing.
Yet even the best and most heroic leaders in history have not proven worthy to "break the seals," to "open the scroll," and to bring about a world of peace. George Washington, revered as a man of great leadership and wisdom, could not lead the world into the long-hoped-for golden age. Abraham Lincoln, with his godly heart full of compassion for both the North and South, was unable to resolve the deep social and political problems of his time--some of which continue to haunt us today.
In recent years, a movement was begun to add the likeness of Ronald Reagan alongside the four other faces on Mount Rushmore. But even those who consider President Reagan as standing alongside men like Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln would have to admit that none of these men was able to solve the great problems of history. None was worthy to open the scroll.
No wonder John wept! He wept and wept, he said, because no one could be found who could unseal the scroll or even look inside. No one knew how to go about it. Among all the leaders of the world there is not one man or woman who has a clue to the solution of the great issues that divide, plague, and imperil the human race.
The Lion and the Lamb
In verse 5, John learns to his amazement that the problem has already been solved! The twenty-four angels of the heavenly council around God's throne know the answer, and one of them discloses the answer to John.
5:5 Then one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals."
"The Lion of the tribe of Judah" and "the Root of David" are significant Jewish titles. They refer to prophecies from the Old Testament which predict that there would come one from the tribe of Judah and from the family of David who would rule over the earth and put an end to all the earth's pain and sorrows. These two titles refer to the King of the Jews--the same title which Pilate had posted over the cross of Jesus. It is the King of the Jews, the Redeemer Himself, who has gone through death and suffering in order to conquer death and suffering, who is destined to bring about God's kingdom on the earth.
"See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah," says the angel. We, like John, expect to see a great cat-like creature with claws and sharp teeth, shaking its golden mane. But when John turns, he doesn't see a Lion--he sees a Lamb!
5:6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
The body of the Lamb is wounded, as if it had been put to death. Without question this Lamb is the slain Redeemer of the world! This moment of John's recognition of his Lord in the symbolic form of a Lamb is echoed in the Fanny Crosby hymn which says,
I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
As redeemed by His side I shall stand.
I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
By the prints of the nails in His hand.
The marks of the Lord's death are still there, imprinted even in His resurrected body for all eternity. In the uniting of these two symbols--the Lion of Judah and the Lamb that was slain--we see the unity of two themes which pervade both the Old and New Testaments. The lion is a symbol of majesty, power, rule, and authority. The lamb is a symbol of meekness, innocence, and sacrifice. Lions conquer; lambs submit. Lions roar; lambs go to slaughter.
Here, in Revelation 5, the angel announces a Lion, then introduces John to a Lamb. The meaning is clear: Here is the One who conquers by submitting, who is worthy of power and authority by reason of His meekness, innocence, and sacrifice. Here, bound together in a powerful overlapping image, is the lionly Lamb, the fulfillment of God's earthly promises to Israel and His heavenly calling of the church.
It seems odd that many Bible commentators ignore the promises to Israel when considering these verses. The references to the Lion of Judah and the Root of David are clear signs that Israel is coming back to center stage as the end of human history approaches. As the scroll begins to unroll, God is calling Israel to the ultimate fulfillment of promises that were made to it long ago. All of earth's history is moving toward a climax, and the key to it all is the nation of Israel.
Indeed, throughout the entire span of the Bible, Israel has been the key to understanding history. The earth cannot be blessed until the nation of Israel is blessed. Even though the Messiah came to Israel and Israel rejected its Messiah, and even though God has chosen the church as His instrument of ministry to the world from the time of Christ until now, the time of Israel's full restoration is coming. The Old Testament prophets predicted it, and John describes it in Revelation: the Messiah, the promised Lion of Judah, the Root of David, is coming to fulfill God's promises to the people of Israel.
The Lion and Lamb theme is the basis for C. S. Lewis's popular fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis's great golden lion Aslan, a symbol of Christ, rules in majesty, roars in triumph, and conquers evil--but his real triumph comes only after he submits to being executed by the satanic White Witch. When Aslan is resurrected, the kingdom of Narnia is freed from its bondage to eternal winter. The springtime of the world arrives. The story contains profound symbolic echoes from the book of Revelation.
As the Lion of Judah, Jesus will rule the world with a rod of iron. As the Scriptures prophetically declare in Psalm 2,
Why do the nations conspire [rage] and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against His Anointed One. . . . [The Lord says,] "I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill. . . . You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery."2
Zion is symbolic of the city Jerusalem. In that city, says this prophetic Psalm, Jesus shall reign with a rod of iron and dash to pieces those nations that resist His reign.
But remember, the Lion is also a Lamb. Those who are weak, faltering, helpless, or without hope will find Jesus to be a compassionate, gracious Savior. As the Lamb of God, He is full of mercy and grace.
Those who are rebellious will find Jesus a Lion. Those who are needy will find Him a Lamb.
Notice the special description of the Lamb in John's vision. He has seven horns. In Scripture, an animal's horns speak of power, and seven is the number of fullness. So the Lamb which was slain has full, complete power as a result of His death and resurrection. As the book of Hebrews says, "He is able to save completely"--or as the King James Version says, "to the uttermost"--"those who come to God through him."3 And as Jesus Himself declared following His resurrection, "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth."4
The Lamb also has seven eyes. In Scripture, eyes speak of full intelligence, discernment, and understanding through the Holy Spirit. Again, the number seven indicates that the Lamb's understanding of the events and dynamics of human history is complete and perfect. These seven eyes are the seven spirits of God which, as we have already seen, are a symbol of the Holy Spirit. In John's gospel, we are told that Jesus "did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man."5 Jesus understands humanity. Thus He is the One who is worthy to take the scroll, to remove the seals, and to disclose and execute God's plan for the final stages of human history.
The Worship of the Lamb
Next, the Lamb who is worthy takes up the scroll--and all of heaven breaks forth into peals of song and praise.
5:7-8 He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
The court of heaven understands the meaning of history and the program of God. The realm of heaven rings with worship, and at the center of that worship is the Lamb who was slain. Each of the twenty-four elders has a harp, and there are bowls of fragrant incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
The harp symbolizes the music of inanimate creation. Not only will all human and angelic beings in the universe glorify God, but all of creation--the rocks, the trees, the mountains, the hills, the sea--will give praise and worship to God the Father and His Son, Jesus the Redeemer. You see this same image of all creation praising the Creator in Psalm after Psalm. Just as the strings of a harp vibrate in harmony, so the whole of creation will vibrate in harmonious worship of God.
Notice that the elders are depicted as holding the golden bowls of incense. The elders are, in fact, presenting the prayers of the saints to God. There is a profound and exhilarating truth for you and me in this image: we, the redeemed, actually contribute to the work of redemption through our prayers!
Of course, we cannot lay the foundation for our redemption. Only Jesus could do that, and He has accomplished that task perfectly. But we do have a role in applying God's redemptive power throughout the earth. As the apostle Paul has written,
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone--for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.6
That is what prayer does. When you care about another person and you bring that person before the throne of God in prayer, you become part of the process of applying God's work of redemption to that human heart. You actually become a partner with the God of the universe in changing and redeeming lives! The fact that you and I can become a part of God's eternal program for human redemption should ignite, excite, and transform our prayer life.
A New Song
Some fifty years ago I lived in a tiny room at the North Avenue YMCA in Chicago. One Easter Sunday morning, I rose before dawn and got dressed to attend the great sunrise service in Soldier Field. As I was dressing, I glanced at an open hymn book on my bureau. It was open to the hymn "Beneath the Cross of Jesus." The words of the second verse seemed to jump off the page as I read,
Upon that cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart with tears two wonders I confess--
The wonder of redeeming love, and my unworthiness!
I was struck with my own unworthiness, and my heart was melted as I read those words. Yes, I had known before that I was sinful and unworthy, but somehow this was different. The words of the hymn pierced my heart, and the marvel of God's redeeming love swept over me like a completely new emotion. The close walls of that little room faded away, and I seemed to be standing with that great throng in heaven, singing an awestruck song of God's love for mankind, made manifest on the cross.
In the next few verses of this passage, the apostle John hears a song very much like the song that melted my heart one Easter Sunday morning in the 1940s.
5:9-10 And they sang a new song: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth."
In these verses John hears the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, their voices joined as a heavenly choir, singing a new song. Why is this song called a new song? Because it is new to the elders and the four living creatures. They have never sung such a song before because, as angels, they have never been redeemed! They have learned about redemption by watching God's grace applied to sinning human beings.
For centuries these angels have observed the human race--willful, rebellious, defiant, sinning men and women like you and me, selfishly seeking our own way while rejecting the patient, forgiving love of God. They have also watched God calling to us, pleading with us, sacrificing His only Son for us, forgiving and redeeming us from our sin. Now, as the end of human history approaches, they join together to sing a song they have never known before, a song they learned from the saints--the song of the redeemed.
There is a grand old song which is rarely heard in churches anymore. I love the words of that song, because they express the yearning of my own heart, and because in just a few lines they express the mood of the heavenly scene in Revelation 5. The chorus of that song says,
Holy, holy, holy, is what the angels sing,
And I expect to help them make the courts of heaven ring.
But when we sing redemption's story they must fold their wings,
For angels never felt the joy that our salvation brings.
That is why heaven bursts forth in praise and worship: the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus! Yes, we love His teaching and the wonderful life He lived. We marvel at His miracles, His power, and His compassion for sinners. But most of all we praise Him because of the blood He shed on our behalf, and on the behalf of sinners in every age of history.
I never take the cup of communion without thinking of the words of Peter, "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect."7
I can't conceive of any thought that is more powerful in melting the human heart than the thought that we who deserve death have been given the gift of eternal life at the cost of the precious blood of Jesus. It is this amazing thought that calls forth the new song of the redeemed.
The old song of the angels is a song of creation. The new song is a song of redemption.
Worthy Is the Lamb
As John watches, all the universe is caught up in the wonder of God's sacrificial love for mankind. He hears a great, swelling chorus--the voice of millions upon millions of angels!
5:11-14 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
"Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!"
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
"To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!"
The four living creatures said,
"Amen," and the elders fell down and worshiped.
If you are familiar with Handel's Messiah, then you probably recognize the words of this passage from "Worthy Is the Lamb," which appears near the end of the oratorio. In both its music and its profound theme of redemption it is one of the most beautiful pieces of choral music ever written. At the end, the entire chorus joins in the repeated affirmation, "Amen, Amen, Amen." As you listen to Handel's music it is easy to envision the scenes John describes in this passage of Revelation.
The apostle Paul refers to this same scene in his letter to the Philippians. After encouraging his readers to imitate the humility of Christ--who willingly took the form of a servant, humbled Himself, and died for our sakes--Paul writes,
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.8
Note that the divisions Paul mentions--heaven, earth, and under the earth--are the same divisions John sees in his vision. And in each of those realms, throughout the entire extent of the universe, there is the sound of praise and worship offered to Jesus the Redeemer. The allusion to those "under the earth" refers to those who have already died, including those who die in unbelief and are in hell. So even hell must join with heaven and earth in acknowledging the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Clearly there will be some in eternity who gladly confess the lordship of Christ because they have appropriated the sacrifice of Jesus for their own eternal lives. But others will be forced to reluctantly confess His lordship. Those who scoff at the Scriptures, who ridicule biblical morality, who mock or persecute godly people will one day be made to see they are wrong and their lives have been wasted. When the illusions and delusions upon which they based their lives have all been stripped away, they will have no choice but to join the rest of creation in openly confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord.
John sees all of this in a vision. It has not yet happened--but it will. When the seven-sealed scroll is finally opened, all of creation will join in acknowledging God and His Son, Jesus. That is the goal toward which all of history is quickly rushing. Every historic event that occurs, and every day that passes, is linked to the moment John witnesses in Revelation 5.
The momentous events that stream across our TV screens and newspaper headlines do not take place in a vacuum. They take place in a grand and cosmic context. They are being woven into an eternal plan. You and I are woven into that plan as well. We have choices to make. We cannot escape the eternal consequences of those choices.
Someday every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. There will be no exceptions. You will confess His lordship, and so will I. The question is: When that moment comes, will our hearts be filled with joy and gladness--or with regret? It is not a choice for the future, but a choice we must make today.
The Riders of Judgment
I grew up on the Great Plains of Montana. During the summer months we frequently experienced sudden thunderstorms. Often before the storm there would be an eerie calm, a sense of ominous foreboding in the air. Something was coming. We could feel it. It was as though the impending storm hung over our heads, dark and threatening, its pent-up violence waiting to be unleashed.
That is the mood we sense in the affairs of the world today. Even after a period of reduced tensions between the East and West, the breakthrough of freedom in former "Iron Curtain" countries, the rollback of dictatorships in Panama and Nicaragua, and the successful liberation of Kuwait, the world continues to be a very dangerous place. As we approach the end of the second millennium of Christian history, there are many signs of apparent calm around us--yet most of us are still uneasy. We sense there is a storm on the horizon.
The globe bristles with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons--the arsenals of a worldwide Armageddon. The world still shudders at the very real possibility of economic, ecological, and energy crises. Poverty, hunger, terrorism, AIDS, and crime are just a few of the problems that tear at the fabric of our society today.
You find this mood not only in the writings of Christians but in the secular media as well. To use a different metaphor, it is as if we are floating down the river of time. Somewhere ahead of us we hear a thundering sound. It is growing nearer and louder as we drift downstream. Could it be that this river leads to a roaring cataract--and that we are about to plunge into the abyss?
The Bible has long predicted such a worldwide crisis, and in Revelation 6 we begin to see that crisis take shape.
A "Week" of Years
One of the strongest indicators of the reliability and divine inspiration of the Bible is the fact that all of its various books in both the Old Testament and the New agree and intermesh so closely together. And one of the places in which we find this close correspondence between different parts of the Bible is in the relationship between the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament book of Revelation. Although these two books were written some five hundred years apart, they are so closely interwoven in their themes and prophetic accounts that they could have been produced by the same hand. Unquestionably they were produced by the same Mind, for they both describe the same eternal plan of history.
In Daniel 9, the prophet Daniel describes a great calendar of events, spanning not just centuries but millennia, reaching from his own day on into our own future. Marked out on this calendar is a period of seventy "weeks." These are clearly not seven-day weeks, but rather "weeks" of years. In fact, the New International Version, in order to avoid confusion, uses the word "sevens" instead of "weeks." Each "week" is a seven-year period. Seventy "weeks," then, would be 490 years (70 weeks x 7 years = 490 years). The 490-year period that Daniel said would be fulfilled was from the building of the wall of Jerusalem in the days of Nehemiah until the end of the age.
Of those 490 years, 483 years would end on the day the Messiah (or "the Anointed One") would be presented to Israel as King. This timetable was first worked out in the early part of our century by Sir Robert Anderson, who was at one time the head of Britain's Scotland Yard. What Anderson discovered as he was doing his calculations from the book of Daniel was that on the precise day that the 483 years was completed, Jesus rode on the back of a donkey down a dusty road leading from the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem where He was presented to the people of Israel as their King.
That was on the first Palm Sunday. Just a few days later Jesus was rejected and crucified. Again, this is in accordance with the prophecy of Daniel 9, which predicted that "the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing"--surely a reference to the crucifixion. Following that, an indeterminate period of time follows, according to the prophecy, and it will be a time of catastrophic upheaval. "The end will come like a flood," the prophecy continues. "War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed."1
It is during this indeterminate period of time--a time punctuated by war and desolations, culminating in what is ominously referred to as "the end"--that the church comes into being. The era of the church begins on the Day of Pentecost,2 the day when God began to call out a special people for His name, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. The church that was founded at Pentecost has existed for almost 2,000 years. Its task in the world is nearly completed, but for now it remains on earth, carrying out the work God has given it to do.
The prophet Daniel is then told of other events which are to occur during the last "week" of that 490-year period. These events have not yet happened. Thus many commentators have understood this final "week" to be as yet unfulfilled. These events still lie in our future, and when they occur they will be closely associated with the nation of Israel.
Jesus Himself refers to these events in the final week of Daniel's prophecy in His great prophetic passage in Matthew 24. Before His crucifixion, as He talked with His disciples upon the Mount of Olives, He told them what must come to pass. In that passage He refers several times to what He calls "the end of the age," or more simply (and with echoes of Daniel) "the end." The final seven-year period of Daniel's prophecy is what Jesus refers to when He speaks of "the end of the age." Those seven years will take place when Israel is once again brought center stage in world events.
This seven-year period of Daniel's prophecy and of the Lord's prophecy comprises the fascinating--and sometimes frightening--series of events we will explore in Revelation 6 through 19. If you read the life of Christ in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you will notice that fully one-third of the story is focused on a single seven-day period: the week leading up to the crucifixion. Similarly, 13 of Revelation's 22 chapters are focused on a single seven-year "week" of time--a period which comprises the end of the history of this age.
This seven-year "week" is characterized by three series of events: (1) the seven seals, (2) the seven trumpets, and (3) the seven bowls of wrath. Each of these series divides four and three--that is, into four distinct and recognizable events and three revelations of what is occurring behind the scenes, in the hidden realm of the angels, both the Lord's angels and the fallen angels.
The First Seal: A Rider on a White Horse
Revelation 6 begins with the opening of the seven-sealed scroll, held by the Lamb who was slain.
6:1-2 I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder. "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.