If Jesus wrote a personal letter to Stonebrook, what would he say? Perhaps that question is presumptuous. After all, who am I to put myself in Jesus’ place and speak as if I was Jesus?
But the Scriptures are the very words of God, and the Holy Spirit takes that Word like a sword and penetrates our souls to enlighten us. So by walking in the Spirit and reading God’s Word, perhaps we can get an idea of what Jesus actually does think about us here in our little church in Ames, Iowa, USA.
This morning in Week 2 of our series on Revelation, we are going to read letters from Jesus Christ to seven churches. Letters—epistles— similar to other NT epistles like Philippians, Thessalonians—highly personal and powerful, although much more brief.
We encourage everyone to have a Scripture Journal. We gave them out free last week. If you didn’t get one, I encourage you to get up right now and get one. I want you to have one.
Slide Last week, Matt proposed that the central Message of Revelation:
“… is that believers can overcome the tribulations of life, even persecution and martyrdom, because of the victory won by the Lamb of God.” (Mark Wilson, Victory Through the Lamb)
A dominant theme in Revelation could be termed as, “Holy War.” The book is filled with visions of a struggle in both the heavenly and earthly realms. A struggle between Satan and man and God that has been going on since John wrote this book.
Revelation tells us that in the end, the Lord wins. The Lamb of God gets the victory. That is the great hope for the Christian. But until the final victory… all of mankind, including the church- the people of God- are in a fight for the hearts and minds of all those who are created in the image of God. And eternity is at stake in this Holy War. That is why the word “overcome” or “conquer” is so significant in this statement and in the two chapters we will read today.
But in this 16-week series, we hope to begin to unpack this glorious book. We won’t answer every question. But hopefully we will all gain some insights into these remarkable words. And have some tools in our Bible “tool belt” to help us understand and apply it. And be less intimidated by it. So this morning, we will read from our Scripture Journals. Begin on page 6. Chapter 2 and 3. Take notes there, if you desire.
Letter to the Church in Ephesus
1 “Write to the angel of the church in Ephesus: Thus says the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
2 I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars.
3 I know that you have persevered and endured hardships for the sake of my name, and you have not grown weary.
4 But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first.
5 Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
6 Yet you do have this: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
7 “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.Revelation 2:1–7 (CSB)
Before we get into the specifics of this letter, let’s talk about a few things.
First, the seven churches are all in modern day Turkey. From chapter 1, John was persecuted and sent into exile to this tiny island in the Aegean Sea called Patmos. The churches listed here in chapters 2 and 3 follow a geographical pattern.
Second, we need to note that each of the seven letters has a consistent pattern:
- Jesus Christ presents himself with names and attributes. Most of these are also found in Chapter 1.
- He offer personal messages to each church. To each one he says, “I know…” “I know about you.”
–To most he commends them for something.
–To most he rebukes them for something.
–Then he calls them to repent.
- To every church He calls them all to conquer. To overcome. In this spiritual, holy war going on in and around these churches, the people belonging to Jesus need encouragement and correction to stay in the fight. To all who “conquer”, who walk with Jesus to the very end of their lives, to them Jesus promises glory in the next life.
- To every church, he says, “LISTEN!” Like vs. 7, Let the one who has ears, hear what the Spirit says to all the churches. Don’t plug your ears. Don’t harden your hearts.
Each letter follows this pattern. The seven letters help frame the central message of Revelation, that Christians can overcome the difficulties in life because Jesus, the Lamb of God, has won and will win the victory. And as we read each letter like we read the other NT letters, we will find some things that will relate to us personally, and even to us as a church.
Now let’s look specifically at this first letter to the church in Ephesus.
In vs. 2-4. Jesus “knows.” He sees this church, and he notices their good works. Their hard work. And their perseverance. They have endured hardship. Such noble qualities. The same could be said about Stonebrook, don’t you think? I see much of that here.
And Jesus also sees their hatred of evil. They see and recognize and hate the sin they see in the world, particularly some false teachers. False apostles. So they hate what is wrong and love what is true.
But vs. 4 is a very sad comment. He says, “You have abandoned the love you had at first.”’ Another English translation says, “You have abandon your first love.” Said slightly differently, but they get to the same point: The church members had loved the Lord at first. They had loved people in the earlier days of their Christian lives. But sadly over time, they had lost that passion for Christ and genuine care for people.
In summary we could say that the Ephesians loved truth, but they were loveless. They are standing firm in truth, but not in love. Like in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3: we can have great faith and gifts and sacrifice, but without love it is nothing. Jesus’ conclusion is startling: “If you don’t repent, I will remove your lampstand.” They were at risk of not being his church!
I believe Stonebrook is increasingly growing in their love for God and for others. But there is a warning here to every church since this one: Loving God and people is so foundational to our calling as a church, that if we fail in this, we could question whether we are truly a church at all. Yes, we should hate what is false and love what is true. But may we also grow year by year in our love for God and for others.
Letter to the Church in Smyrna
8 “Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna: Thus says the First and the Last, the one who was dead and came to life:
9 I know your affliction and poverty, but you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
10 Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will experience affliction for ten days. Be faithful to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
11 “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will never be harmed by the second death.Revelation 2:8–11 (CSB)
From vs. 9, this church was suffering from persecution and they were poor. They may have thought, “We’re nothing. We don’t amount to anything.” But Jesus’ response is so heartwarming. He sees them differently than they do. “You see yourselves as poor, but I see you as rich.” They are about to suffer even more. Some of the church members are going to be imprisoned for Jesus’ sake. And for ten days….this is probably symbolic, indicating a short time.
In spite of this coming persecution, Jesus says, be faithful to me. Stay true to me. Don’t stop trusting me. If you do this, I will give you the crown of life. Whether this is a real crown or symbolic, the larger point is, Jesus is going to reward them in eternity. All their suffering will not be forgotten. He remembers. He notices.
And he will honor this church for holding on to him during some severe hardship. Surely these words strengthened the church in Smyrna. I wonder if Christians today in parts of Africa and Asia would relate to this letter to Smyrna even more than we would.
This map shows levels of persecution of Christians around the world today. It’s startling. The dark brown and mid brown are countries that are restricting the gospel or hostile to it. Some of us in this room this morning are from these nations.
Jesus’ words to Smyrna will strengthen those churches today. As they follow his call to be faithful to him in their tribulation, they remember his promised “crown of life.” He will never forget their love for and trust in him.
Letter to the Church in Pergamum
12 “Write to the angel of the church in Pergamum: Thus says the one who has the sharp, double-edged sword:
13 I know where you live—where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding on to my name and did not deny your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness who was put to death among you, where Satan lives.
14 But I have a few things against you. You have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to place a stumbling block in front of the Israelites: to eat meat sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality.
15 In the same way, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
16 So repent! Otherwise, I will come to you quickly and fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
17 “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it.Revelation 2:12–17 (CSB)
First, I have to say, the name “Pergamum” makes me think I’m in chemistry class again reading the Periodic Table. You know: Titanium, Chromium… and Pergamum.
Anyway…the city was well-known for its idols. That’s why Jesus says, “You live where Satan’s throne is.” It’s like saying, “The capital of Satan’s dominion is right there in your city.” And the Christians are in the middle of all this. One Christian, Antipas (vs. 13) was killed for his faith.
So it’s a dark, dark city. I think of Genesis 19 where a man named Lot was living in the dark city of Sodom. But Jesus praises these Pergamite Christians for “holding on to his name.”
The one dark spot in this letter is that some in the church are listening to false teachings. The teaching of Balaam, a reference to the Book of Numbers and a false prophet who led Israel astray. Jesus calls those people to repent and come back to the truth.
So for us in Ames in 2023, I wouldn’t say that our city is at the level of Pergamum in its evil and idolatry. But every city has its lures and its false teachers. Are we helping each other be alert to such temptations? Are we watching out for each other for false teaching that is creeping into our homes?
Letter to the Church in Thyatira
This is the longest letter of the seven.
18 “Write to the angel of the church in Thyatira: Thus says the Son of God, the one whose eyes are like a fiery flame and whose feet are like fine bronze:
19 I know your works—your love, faithfulness, service, and endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first.
20 But I have this against you: You tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and teaches and deceives my servants to commit sexual immorality and to eat meat sacrificed to idols.
21 I gave her time to repent, but she does not want to repent of her sexual immorality.
22 Look, I will throw her into a sickbed and those who commit adultery with her into great affliction. Unless they repent of her works,
23 I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am the one who examines minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you according to your works.
24 I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who haven’t known “the so-called secrets of Satan”—as they say—I am not putting any other burden on you.
25 Only hold on to what you have until I come.
26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works to the end: I will give him authority over the nations—
27 and he will rule them with an iron scepter; he will shatter them like pottery—
28 just as I have received this from my Father. I will also give him the morning star.
29 “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.Revelation 2:18–29 (CSB)
The church in Pergamum had a few people straying. But this church in Thyatira had many. Their situation is much more serious. The city was famous for trade guilds. These were like local unions or clubs based on your occupation. And many of the guilds had patron deities. False gods they worshiped. So for tradesmen to be in good standing with their industry, they would have to participate in sacrifices to idols and sexual immorality. To refuse could mean being kicked out of the guild, resulting in great personal financial hardships. It’s quite possible many in the church were compromising their faith due to these economic and social pressures, to stay in good favor with the local guilds.
In vs. 23 the situation in this church is so serious that Jesus is ready to strike some of these idolaters dead. Then all the other churches will see this and fear the Lord. It reminds me of Act 5 when a husband and wife, Ananias and Saphira, lied to the apostles and to the Holy Spirit. And the Lord struck them dead. “And great fear came on the whole church.”
In vs. 18, Jesus describes himself as having eyes like a fiery flame (as in chapter 1). Such descriptions of Jesus tell us that, while he is loving and kind, he is not to be trifled with.
So for us in Ames, Iowa, are there cultural and economic pressures we are facing and succumbing to? Are there any compromises we have made individually or corporately we need to repent of?
Letter to the Church in Sardis
1 “Write to the angel of the church in Sardis: Thus says the one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: I know your works; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead.
2 Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die, for I have not found your works complete before my God.
3 Remember, then, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. If you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come upon you.
4 But you have a few people in Sardis who have not defiled their clothes, and they will walk with me in white, because they are worthy.
5 “In the same way, the one who conquers will be dressed in white clothes, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before my Father and before his angels.
6 “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.
In this letter, Jesus has little positive to say about this church. Vs. 1 They think they’re alive, but he says they are dead.Revelation 3:1–6 (CSB)
From ancient historians, we know that Sardis was a proud, self-reliant city. They thought they were secure, and nothing could conquer them. This church apparently had the same attitude as the general population. They were deceived.
In vs. 4, only a few people in the entire church…a few out of 100? 300?… only a few had not succumbed to spiritual malaise and evil behavior.
Every church since Sardis may face similar temptations. May the Lord help us to stay humble. Alert to the lures of sin. Watchful of the tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought….to the point where, though we think we’re alive, Jesus would say, “You’re dead.”
Letter to the Church in Philadelphia
7 “Write to the angel of the church in Philadelphia: Thus says the Holy One, the true one, the one who has the key of David, who opens and no one will close, and who closes and no one opens:
8 I know your works. Look, I have placed before you an open door that no one can close because you have but little power; yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
9 Note this: I will make those from the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and they will know that I have loved you.
10 Because you have kept my command to endure, I will also keep you from the hour of testing that is going to come on the whole world to test those who live on the earth.
11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one takes your crown.
12 “The one who conquers I will make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will never go out again. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God—the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from my God—and my new name.
13 “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.Revelation 3:7–13 (CSB)
Every church should strive to be like the Philadelphians. Though they don’t have much power, and they don’t feel significant or influential, Jesus views them very differently. In vs. 8, he knows how they are working for him. How they have little power of their own, but he has given them opportunities…an open door, perhaps gospel opportunities… that no one will be able to stop.
I love vs. 12. All who conquer…all who endure in faith…Jesus will make them pillars in his eternal city. This seems to indicate that they will have an eternal place of strength in his kingdom….like a pillar holding up a building…forever and ever.
And if you want more, Jesus says he will write on us his name. Writing your name on something indicates ownership. By writing the name of God on us, Jesus is claiming us as his own. We belong to him for all eternity. What glory awaits us who know Jesus! This is for the ones who conquer…who hold on to Jesus to the end, regardless of the suffering they are enduring.
May we take heart like this church surely did when they read this.
By the way, enduring in faith is not what saves us. We are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus and his work on the cross. Enduring by faith, though, is the evidence that indeed, God has saved us. And he will give us the strength to keep going to the end. So the grace of God through our faith in Jesus is the ROOT of our salvation. Enduring….conquering… is the FRUIT. This is a crucial distinction.
Letter to the Church in Laodicea
14 “Write to the angel of the church in Laodicea: Thus says the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the originator of God’s creation:
15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot.
16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth.
17 For you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.
18 I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see.
19 As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be zealous and repent.
20 See! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
21 “To the one who conquers I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
22 “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”Revelation 3:14–22 (CSB)
The seven letters end on a bad note. To this church Jesus has little positive to say to them. In vs. 15, their faith and works were merely lukewarm. We know from ancient history that the City of Laodicea was known for its terrible drinking water. It was lukewarm. Polluted. This church would have understood the analogy instantly. They weren’t following Jesus with a heart hot for him. They weren’t cold towards him, and obviously rejecting him. It’s like the church wanted the best of both worlds. They wanted the benefits of Jesus, but they wanted the benefits of this world. Of sin and worldly pleasures.
But what is hopeful is that Jesus hasn’t given up on them. In vs. 18, he says, “Come to me and find what you truly need. Let me give you true, heavenly gold. Let me clothe you with my righteousness. Let me heal your blind eyes.” All that they truly need is found in Jesus. And in vs. 19 & 20, he invites them back to himself because he loves them. He loves them.
Such encouragement and hope we can take from this letter today even if we have strayed far from Jesus. He invites us back to himself. To find what we need in him. When we come back, he will say to us, “I will give you the right to sit with me on my throne, just like I conquered and now sit with my Father.” He promises glory with him.
General Observations and Summary of the letters
Let’s take a step back and consider these seven letters. Compared to some of the strange and intriguing visions in the remainder of the book, chapters 2 & 3 seem rather tame. Let’s get a quick summary of what we’ve just read.
First, we look at how Jesus describes himself:
Summary descriptions of Jesus Christ
- Holds the seven stars, walks among the lampstands. He is engaged with his churches.
- The First and the Last, who died and came to life. He is the Eternal One. Eternal life emanates from him.
- Has two-edged sword. He will bring justice to this world.
- Has eyes like flame of fire, feet like burnished bronze.
- Has the seven spirits of God. He is one with the Holy Spirit.
- Is the holy one, true one, has the key of David. In him is nothing corrupt or dark.
- The Amen, faithful and true witness, beginning of God’s creation
Most of these descriptions and names of Christ are found in chapter 1, and some in chapter 22. (By the way, Chapters 1 and 22 have great similarity and provide bookends to all the chapters in between them.) This is the One we worship. This Jesus is the One our hopes are set on as we battle this holy war we are in. When we want to quit. When we wonder who is in charge in this insane world. When we think sin will deliver what it promises. When we think such things, we remember Jesus. He has conquered by his blood. And he will reign forever and ever. He wins. And if we are on his side, WE WIN! That is the overarching theme of Revelation.
If we keep this in mind as we read this unusual book, we will be changed.
Jesus has a personal messages to each church. The condition of each church varies.
Summary of the personal messages to the churches:
- to Ephesus Jesus challenges a church that loves truth but is actually loveless
- to Smyrna he encourages a persecuted church and promises reward
- to Pergamum he addresses both persecution and compromise in their satanic city
- to Thyatira he challenges their compromise in an idolatrous city
- to Sardis he summons a dead, sleeping church to come alive and wake up
- to Philadelphia he promises power in their weakness
- to Laodicea he rebukes their pride and self-sufficiency
Corporately as Stonebrook, do we find ourselves similar to one of these churches? Individually, we find ourselves similar to one of these?
Then in every letter, he offers eternal promises to every Christian and every church that conquers. To those who hear and hold on to the truth, they conquer. And Jesus promises great, eternal blessings to them. What he promises, he will do.
- Eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God
- Crown of life; not hurt by second death
- Hidden manna, white stone, new name that no one else knows
- Authority over nations; the morning star
- Clothed in white garments; name never blotted out; Jesus will confess us before the Father and angels
- Made a pillar in the temple of God; his name is written on us
- Sit with Jesus on his throne
The fulfillment of these rewards are mostly found in chapters 21-22.
So when these churches were tempted to quit or despair, or to turn to sinful ways, they were called to look again to the Lamb of God who reigns over all things. And who promises life in glory.
It’s easy to get so caught up in many of the details of the remainder of this book… and we can forget the point of the book. The Lamb of God has won the victory. May we cling to him regardless of the suffering we are enduring or what temptations we face from this world.
So what should we prepare for as we read Revelation in the coming months?
Prepare to learn about Jesus Christ throughout Revelation
In these seven letters and in many of the chapters that follow, we will read of suffering in the world. This can shake us and even confuse us. So to know Jesus Christ better is critical for us, not only in our difficulties today but as we head towards challenges in the future.
Study him. When we read about him, whether descriptions given or words spoken or actions taken, pay attention. Study him to know him better.
And simply, Pray that not only your eyes would be open to know him, but pray for your small group friends, for us pastors, for the whole church.
Come prepared each week to learn about Jesus and to know him better.
God wants to prepare us to follow Jesus through trials
Though we are not suffering for our faith to the level of our brothers/sisters in some of these seven churches and in many parts of Asia and Africa today, God is preparing us to walk daily with him in our trials. The daily suffering we endure now—whether large or small—is part of God’s preparation for us. He uses our trials to shape us. To make us more like Christ in our character and our conduct.
So how do we prepare ourselves?
- Know Jesus Christ better (see my point prior).
He is our life. We must know him and trust him.
- Hear (listen to) what he says to us through the Holy Spirit in Revelation and the rest of the NT.
Have a humble heart.
- Don’t waste today’s trials.
What do I mean? God is bringing us all through various trials. Some small, some large. Let’s not waste the opportunity to learn and grow.
We learn from this mysterious yet intriguing book that Jesus Christ walks among his churches. He is not disinterested. He is fully engaged with those whom he was slain for.
In the Book of Revelation, Jesus calls us to walk with him. To trust him in hardships. To not compromise what we believe. To conquer by his power, holding on to the promises of glory that we will receive at the end of time, as described in the last two chapters of Revelation.