Introduction – Letters to the Churches
Those who hold the historist view of Revelation believe that each of the letters to the churches we’ll read in chapters 2 and 3 represent a time period in history. They try and align the descriptions of the churches here to the circumstances of the church at different times up until the present time. Of course we’ve discussed how this view leaves something to be desired because 1. Some scholars have made points that show it doesn’t really match up that well technically, 2. You can always use circumstances in each letter to describe the church in any time, 3. Those who espouse this view have a very westernized perspective on the church, all but ignoring the other areas in which the gospel is being proclaimed throughout the world, 4. As history has unfolded, the historists have had to continually update their schema. That alone shows just how fluid this model is.
All that being said, there are benefits for us today in these chapters (2 and 3). The proper way to examine them is to ask first of all, “what would they have meant in their original context, to their original audience?” and secondly, “what can we learn from them today?”
I like what Warren Wiersbe says, “John did not send this book of prophecy to the assemblies in order to satisfy their curiosity about the future. God’s people were going through intense persecution, and they needed encouragement….Some students see in these seven churches a ‘panorama of church history,’ from apostolic times (Ephesus) to the apostate days of the twentieth century (Laodicea). While these churches may illustrate various stages in the history of the church, that was probably not the main reason why these particular assemblies were selected. Instead, these letters remind us that the exalted Head of the church knows what is going on in each assembly, and that our relationship to Him and His Word determines the life and ministry of the local body.”
The churches in chapters 2-3 are all admonished and commended. Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only churches commended without rebuke. They are given more instruction and encouraged to “keep the faith.” (*By the way, has there ever been an entire AGE of the church that is free from sin that didn’t need rebuke? – I think not!) Churches received admonishments for indifference, love for Christ no longer being fervent, being a dead church, tolerating cults of idolatry and immorality, and tolerating heresies.
Specific instructions ranged from doing the works which they (the church) did “at the first”, to keeping the faith and strengthening what remained. At least four of the churches were called on to repent (Ephesus, Pergamum, Sardis, Laodicea, and a specific group in Thyatira was called to repent as well).
Jim Hamilton sees an interesting chiastic structure in the letters (which he describes in terms of a framed picture). This may provide a helpful as a visual to breakdown the section:
- Revelation 2:1-7, to the church in Ephesus, which has lost its first love. Think of the letter to Ephesus as the wooden border of (a picture) frame on one side.
- Revelation 2:8-11, to the church in Smyrna, which is commended for its faithfulness, not reproved, and not called to repentance. Think of the letter to Smyrna as the mat on one side of the frame.
- Revelation 2:12-17, to the church in Pergamum, which has people who hold to a false teaching, eat food sacrificed to idols, and practice sexual immorality. Think of the letter to Pergamum as one side of the picture that is matted and framed.
- Revelation 2:18-29, to the church in Thyatira, which seems worse off than the church in Pergamum because it tolerated a false prophetess who seduces people to practice sexual immorality, eat food sacrificed to idols, and is unrepentant! Think of the letter to Thyatira as the middle of the picture that is matted and framed.
- Revelation 3:1-6, to the church in Sardis, which is worse than both Pergamum and Thyatira because it is dead. Think of the letter to Sardis as the other wise of the framed and matted picture.
- Revelation 2:8-11, to the church in Smyrna, which is commended for its faithfulness, not reproved, and not called to repentance. Think of the letter to Smyrna as the mat on one side of the frame.
A. Revelation 3:7-13, to the church in Philadelphia, which like the church in Smyrna is commended for its faithfulness, not reproved, and not called to repentance. Think of the letter to Philadelphia as the other side of the mat.
- Revelation 3:14-22, to the church in Laodicea, which like Ephesus has lost its first love and is now lukewarm. Think of the letter to Laodicea as the other wooden border on the far side of the frame.
Lastly, the promises to each church are rich with meaning. John MacArthur lists some of them in the following way: the tree of life, the crown of life, the hidden manna and a stone with a new name, rule over nations and receiving the morning star, faithful being honored and clothed in white, given a place in God’s presence, a new name, and the New Jerusalem, and having a share in Christ’s throne.
To the Church in Ephesus
2:1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
The History of the Church at Ephesus
The Ephesian church had a rich Christian history even by the time of John’s writing. It was the scene of many of Paul’s works and preaching, and it was the center of John’s ministry as well.
George Ladd remarks, “Ephesus was for a long time the commercial centre of Asia. The temple of Diana was at the same time a treasure house, a museum, and a place of refuge for criminals. It furnished employment for many, including the silversmiths who made miniature shrines of Diana.”
Pricilla and Aquila were the first to share the gospel along with Paul in this thriving metropolis:
After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.  And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.  When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined.  But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus. (Acts 18:18-21)
John MacArthur gives us more context on this important city:
They (Pricilla and Aquila) were soon joined by the eloquent preacher and powerful debated Apollos (Acts 18:24-26). Pricilla, Aquila, and Apollos laid the groundwork for Paul’s ministry in Ephesus.
The apostle Paul stopped briefly in Ephesus near the end of his second missionary journey (Acts 18:19-21), but his real ministry in that key city took place on his third missionary journey. Arriving in Ephesus, he first encountered a group of Old Testament saints, followers of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1-7). After preaching the gospel to them, he baptized them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 19:5). That began Paul’s work of building the church at Ephesus – a work that would last for three years (Acts 20:31).
Paul’s ministry in Ephesus was so impactful that many people repented of their magic, and their sorcery and idolatry. So this church began in a miraculous way, with hundreds – if not thousands of people coming to faith in Jesus.
Sovereign Over the Church
It says here that the one authoring the letter both walks among the lampstands, and holds the seven stars in his hands. We’ve already seen that this “one” is Jesus Christ. And if we are correct in our interpretation that the stars and the lampstands both represent the church (its heavenly and earthly components), then Jesus is seen here as both omnipresent amongst His people, and sovereign over their lives.
He not only walks with us and amongst us, seeing all we do, but He also holds all circumstances – and our very lives – in His hands.
This is seen all the more clearly as we read on…
2:2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.
He begins by saying “I know” your works. Throughout these letters He says these two words “I know”, and it shows us that even though He is in heaven, He is not far – nor is He missing anything going on here on earth.
During His ministry, Jesus said that God knows the number of even the hairs on our heads (Luke 12:7). The underlying assumption here is that Jesus is divine. He is God. He knows all the goings on in our lives. But not only does He know them – He controls them.
You Have Tested
Then He says something interesting. Jesus says that the church at Ephesus has “tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.”
In John’s first epistle he had instructed the church to “test the spirits”:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.  By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,  and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:1-3)
So the church had been vigilant in testing doctrine, and rejecting false leaders and false doctrine.
This is a rather challenging passage I think, because it is rather common today for Christians not to know enough about their Bible to be able to test anyone at all. In order to test a leader and what a leader teaches, one must be a skilled handler of the word.
Of course one of the most famous examples of this “testing” took place during the ministry of Paul:
Paul and Silas in Berea  The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.  Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:10-11)
In order to spot a false teaching one must know the real article. That’s why experts in counterfeit money spend a great deal of time first becoming intimately familiar with real money. Likewise, we too ought to be intimately familiar with the Word of God.
2:3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.
Next Jesus gives His second commendation, namely that the people of Ephesus have stood firm in their doctrine for the sake of the name of Jesus. They have not grown weary.
Similarly, we are called by God not to grow weary of doing good:
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.  So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:9-10)
Additionally, we are to do all things for the glory of God and the praise of Jesus’ name without grumbling, but steadfast and enduring:
Do all things without grumbling or disputing,  that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,  holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Philippians 2:14-16)
The people of Ephesus had been “enduring” patiently, and this brings to mind that passage in Romans which brings such hope to those enduring trials:
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:2-5)
Unfortunately, the Lord didn’t stop with these two commendations…
2:4-5 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.  Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
The call from the Lord is to repent for loss of their “first love”. I once heard a great sermon on this passage from Pastor Philip De Courcy who admonished us (in Toledo at the time) that we too had lost our first love. The “first”, he said, is not a matter of chronology, but a matter of priority.
This church reflected a church who had likely been in existence over 40 years. A new generation was rising up that was not as zealous as the first generation. They had been trained well in doctrine, but their hearts were not passionate for the Lord.
Does this reflect us today? Is the Lord the main priority, the main focus, the main driving ambition of your life? If you cannot answer, “yes” to these questions then this rebuke is aimed squarely at you.
It is not simply enough to be thoughtfully cognizant of these truths, we must govern our lives by them, and from them all of our greatest passions must emanate.
Many of you are more passionate about your work, your family, or your football than you are the Lord Jesus Christ. What thrills your hearts and minds? What kindles excitement on Friday afternoon when the workday is coming to a close?
Now I am not saying that it is bad to be interested in doctrine – no one who knows me even a little would ever accuse me of that! But what I am saying is that the reign of God in your heart is more than a truth marked down on the page of a Bible from when you accepted the Lord. Church, your Bible, your Christian friends and conversation ought to thrill your soul!
If not, then there is no doubt that you must repent. Repentance is not simply mental, it is from the heart. It is a mindful and soulful recognition that you have been cold in heart and must soften and ask for forgiveness.
I will go a step further – if these words do not ring true to you, and you find them to be insulting or find yourself even indifferent to their message, then I would strongly urge that you check to see if you are in the faith at all. For as Paul says:
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5)
Christians, it is of my own experience week to week that I can tell you that becoming cold in heart is possible even for the most devoted followers of Jesus. If we spend a great deal of time not fired by the fellowship of believers, and the encouragement and refining of the Word of God, then we are likely to get cold of heart and undisciplined of mind. We were never meant to walk this life alone (Hebrews 10). Therefore strengthen yourselves in the strength God has given you.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6:10-13)
2:6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Interestingly, not only are we called to love that which God loves, but to hate that which He hates. It is a common misconception that “hate” is wrong in any situation. Not true. We are called to hate sin, and to war against it. We ought to have sensitive consciences that recoil at the evil of the world, yet courageous hearts that do not shrink back from society. We are not called to be societal introverts, but to live our lives in and amongst unbelievers, loving and caring for them as light in the darkness of their lives.
That being said, we can only “hate” and “love” correctly by instruction and guidance and knowing what it is that God loves and hates. We do this by spending time in the word, and soaking in the reality of His character and actions.
2:7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’
There are three parts to this final verse…
First, the final admonition resounds with familiar words from the life of Jesus. Jesus would often call on those who were spiritual to understand His words. He would do this by saying phrases like “he who has an ear, let him hear.”
Note now that Christ is speaking to believers. For He says that this message is coming from “the Spirit.”
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.  The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.  “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16)
During our study of the Gospel of John, we talked a lot about the nature of the spiritual man versus the unspiritual man and the way in which God works within a man to open those closed “ears” of his heart and mind.
Jesus’ quote is actually rooted in Isaiah’s call (Isaiah 6:9-10), and is the explaination for why men reject Christ – their hearts are hardened by their love of sin (see also John 12:36-43).
Secondly, we see what will become an evermore familiar refrain “To the one who conquers” followed by a promise of eternal life (which we’ll address momentarily).
William Hendriksen, whose commentary on Revelation is titled ‘More Than Conquerors’, has this to say:
The conqueror is the man who fights against sin, the devil, and his whole dominion and in his love for Christ perseveres to the very end. To such a conqueror is promised something better than food offered to idols, with which the heathen at their licentious festivals probably tried to tempt church members. The conqueror would be given to eat of the tree of life (Gen. 3:22; Rev. 22:2, 14); that is, he would inherit eternal life in the paradise of heaven.
As Ladd explains, all those who are believers are conquerors, and all who are conquerors are those who are take up their cross daily (Matthew 21:27), and follow Christ – even though it may cost us our lives:
The Revelation pictures a life and death struggle between Christ and the Antichrist for the heats of men; and the conqueror is he who is unswervingly loyal to his Lord even though it costs him his life.
Third, Beale makes the point that the “main point of every letter” to the churches is that he who conquers will gain eternal life. It reminds me of the essence for which Christ came to Earth in the first place:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)
The essence of the letter is one of encouragement, admonition, and a reminder of the larger work of redemption that Christ is doing in them and in the whole world from the time of the fall until He returns in glory.
The “Tree of Life” of course is first found in Genesis:
And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)
And later found in Paradise at the end of Revelation:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. (Revelation 22:14)
…and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:19)
Morris adds helpful context when he says, “Paradise was originally a Persian word for pleasure garden. In later Judaism it was used to portray the abode of the righteous dead. The Paradise of God in Revelation symbolizes the eschatological state in which God and man are restored to that perfect fellowship which existed before the entrance of sin into the world.”
Beale adds a helpful explanation as to how the tree ties into the redemptive work of Jesus:
To “eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” is a picture of forgiveness and consequent experience of God’s intimate presence (22:2-4). The same end-time hope is referred to with virtually identical language in several early Jewish texts…And in Genesis 2-3 the image of the “tree of life” together with the “paradise of God” symbolizes the life-giving presence of God, from which Adam and Eve were separated when they were cast out of the garden paradise…Revelation speaks of the consummated restoration of this divine presence among humanity in the future (22:2-4), which has already been inaugurated in the present. Therefore, the “tree” refers to the redemptive effects of the cross, which bring about the restoration of God’s presence, and does not refer to the cross (itself).
I pray that we all would ensure that our top priority, our top passion, and main concern in this life is the cause of Christ. I pray that His lordship would be evident in my own life, and that whether I eat drink or sleep that I would do all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
 MacArthur’s Bible Handbook, Pg. 519.
 Hendriksen, Pg. 60.
 John MacArthur, Commentary on Revelation Volume I, Pg. 56.
 Hendriksen, Pg. 63.
 Ladd, Pg. 41.
 Morris, Pg. 90.
 Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 234-235.