If you liken the entire book of Revelation to a symphony, and if chapter 1 is considered the program to the symphony, chapters 2-3 can be considered the opening overture. They consist of seven specific messages written to the seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Now even though they are addressed to specific churches at that time, that doesn’t mean what is written doesn’t (or can’t) apply to us. But it does mean that if we are to properly apply what it says to us, then we must first make sure we understand what it originally meant to them.
What we find when we read these seven messages is that various churches were faced with various problems: some were being persecuted, some were being led astray by false teaching, some were getting rich, arrogant and seduced by the things of the world, and some were just stale and lifeless. Some things haven’t changed all that much in 2,000 years, for today there are churches with the exact same problems. So as we go through these seven messages, ask yourself, “Which church more closely resembles my church, or the situation of the state of the Church in America today?”
John fashions his seven messages using the same basic formula for each one. Each message is laid out in the following manner:
- There is a description of Jesus that corresponds to John’s vision in chapter 1.
- There is an encouraging word to the church (i.e. “Good job!” and a pat on the back)
- There is reproof to the church (i.e. “You eeediot!” and a slap in the face)
- There is a warning and/or instruction
- There is a promise to those who “conquer”
- There is a final statement: “He who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”
In his message to Ephesus, Jesus is depicted as the one holding the seven stars and walking among the seven golden lampstands.
John then congratulates them on their toil and patient endurance, and the fact that they don’t put up with “evil-doers.” They also guard against false teaching. They are still standing strong, even in the face of some resistance. Still, John says that they have “abandoned the love you had at first,” and he calls them to repent.
Interestingly, John then congratulates them for hating “the works of the Nicolaitans.” No one really knows who this group is, but some have speculated that since the word “Nicolaitans” is derived from the Greek word nike (yes, like the shoe), and since nike means “to conquer” or “victory,” that this group might be equated with what we might consider the “health and wealth gospel”—“Trust Jesus and get rich, get that Mercedes…and live your best life now!” If that’s the case, then there are a few church leaders in America whom John would probably consider a Nicolaitan.
The promise John gives to Ephesus is that to the “one who conquers” will be allowed to eat from the Tree of Life in the garden of God. This foreshadows the end of Revelation when John sees the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem.
In his message to Ephesus, Jesus is depicted as “the first and the last, who was dead and came to life.”
Smyrna is the one church the John has nothing bad to say about. The only word he gives to them is positive. Even though the church in Smyrna was undergoing affliction and poverty, John says they are truly rich. We learn that there is a group of Jews in Smyrna who are slandering the church in Smyrna—John goes so far as to call them “the synagogue of Satan.” Now it must be pointed out that John is not being anti-Semitic, after all, he was Jewish. No, he was referring to that specific Jewish synagogue in Smyrna who was actively hostile to the church.
In any case, John tells Smyrna not to be afraid of the coming suffering, and that some of them would be thrown in prison. The test for them would be to stay faithful. If they are faithful even to death, John says they will be given the crown of life.
The promise John gives to Smyrna is that the “one who conquers” will not be hurt by the second death. Now, at this point, “the second death” might seem ambiguous, but it is something that John clarifies at the end of Revelation. Spoiler alert: it’s the lake of fire.
In his message to Pergamum, Jesus is depicted as “the one with the sharp, two-edged sword.”
John indicates that Pergamum is where “Satan’s throne” is—this is not the same as the “Synagogue of Satan” from Smyrna. In all probability is a reference to the Roman authority in Pergamum. Nevertheless, he congratulates the church there for holding fast to Christ, even “in the days of Antipas my witness”—evidently a church member who was martyred there.
Nevertheless, not everything is positive for Pergamum. John says that some of them are holding “to the teaching of Balaam.” In the book of Numbers, Balaam gave advice to King Balak of Moab to send his women into the camp of Israel and entice the Israelites to sleep with them and worship their gods. John is not saying that some in Pergamum are literally sleeping with Moabite women—but he is indicating that some apparently still would frequent some of the pagan temples in Pergamum. This is what John equates with the “teaching of Balaam.”
In addition, some in Pergamum were also enticed by the teaching of the Nicolaitans. John warns them to repent.
The promise John gives to Pergamum is that the “one who conquers” will be given “hidden manna” and will be given “a white stone” with a new name written on it. The manna is clearly a reference to the Exodus, but what about the white stone? In the ancient world, the giving of stones was part of the judicial system—that’s how verdicts were handed down. Basically, John is saying that God will judge in their favor.
In his message to Thyatira, Jesus is depicted as the Son of God who has eyes like fire and feet like burnished bronze.
After giving a brief commendation to Thyatira for their love, faith, service, and patient endurance, John spends most of his time with what’s wrong in Thyatira. It has to do with a woman named Jezebel (yet another allusion to the Jezebel of the Old Testament). The problem is similar to Pergamum: some were indulging in fornication and idol food, and apparently this “Jezebel” was someone in the church of Thytira who was encouraging it.
John’s message is simple: Jezebel is going to get punished, and anyone with her when that happens will be punished too. Whatever this teaching of Jezebel was, John calls it “the deep things of Satan.” He then says to the rest of the believers there to hold fast until Christ comes.
The promise John gives to “the one who conquers” is that he will be given authority over the nations (an allusion to Psalm 2:8-9), and he will be given the morning star.
In his message to Sardis, Jesus is depicted as the one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
Things aren’t looking too good in Sardis—John says nothing positive about it. Instead, it’s pretty much all bad. John says they have a reputation for being alive, but really are dead. He then calls them to repent and remember what they had been taught. If they don’t, John says that Christ will come “like a thief in the night.”
That being said, John can’t resist at least one positive word: there are some in Sardis who are still faithful who, as John says, “have not soiled their clothes.” They will be dressed in white and walk with Christ.
The promise John gives to “the one who conquers” is that he will be clothed in white, and will not have his name be blotted out from the Book of Life (again, this reference foreshadows what comes at the end of Revelation, where the Book of Life is mentioned again).
In his message to Philadelphia, Jesus is depicted as “the holy one, the true one” who has the key of David, who opens what no one will shut, and who shuts what no one will open.
In contrast to Sardis, Philadelphia gets only good words from John. Evidently, Philadelphia is a small church with little power, but they have remained faithful and haven’t denied the name of Christ. Apparently, there is a “synagogue of Satan” in Philadelphia as well who is making trouble for the church, and John says that Christ will make them eventually bow down at the feet of the church in Philadelphia. Because they have remained faithful, John tells them Christ will spare them from the “hour of trial” that is “coming on the whole world.” Apparently, they will be spared from Domitian’s empire-wide persecution of Christians.
John’s promise to “the one who conquers” is that he will be made a pillar in the temple of God, have the name of God written on him, along with the name of the New Jerusalem that will come down from heaven—again, all this foreshadows the last few chapters of Revelation.
In his message to Laodicea, Jesus is depicted as “the Amen, the faithful witness, and the origin of God’s creation.”
Laodicea gets only a negative message. The interesting thing about Laodicea was that the city itself was a booming commercial success. It was known for its banking industry, its textile and wool trade, and it even had a medical school that developed an ear and eye ointment. So basically, it was a city known for money, clothes, and eye medicine. If you know this, then you’ll get just how harsh John’s criticisms of the church in Laodicea were: he calls them poor, naked, and blind.
Furthermore, John also accuses the church in Laodicea of being “lukewarm,” and John says Christ will soon spit it out of his mouth. This too is interesting, for there was a nearby city called Hieropolis that was famous for its hot springs. Another nearby city called Colossae (yes, Paul wrote Colossians to the church there) was famous for its cold springs. Laodicea, by contrast, produced only lukewarm, tepid water. Therefore, in his criticism of the church there, John uses that very imagery.
It is here, in the message to Laodicea that we find a famous verse: “I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me” (3:20).
John’s promise to “the one who conquers” is that he will be given a place on Christ’s throne.
So that’s it—a brief summary of John’s seven messages to the seven churches. As you’ll see as we go through the rest of Revelation, many of the images laid out in these earlier chapters are picked up in the later chapters.
So, which one do you think most describes your church, or the church in America as a whole?
Incidentally, when I was in high school, there was a Christian singer named Steve Camp who had a song called “Living in Laodicea.” Clearly he felt the church in America was like that of Laodicea. In any case, I thought I’d share a bit from my high school days to end this post.