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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- I & II CHRONICLES --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH---ESTHER---PSALMS 1-73--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
Introduction (to be read before the book is considered and then after it has been studied).
There is no more exciting book than the book of Revelation. It follows to some extent the pattern utilised in what is termed ‘apocalyptic literature’, which itself is patterned on aspects of the book of Daniel. It uses visions of wild beasts and heavenly figures and fiendish monsters, with the aim of conveying ideas by vivid imagery, and by this imagery propounding mysteries hidden from the majority for the benefit of the few.
While those who were on the outside dismissed it as a fantastic conglomeration of other worldly creatures and mythical figures, those on the inside understood its deeper significance and rejoiced in its teaching.
The difference between this and other apocalyptic literature is that while the authors of most apocalyptic literature portrayed their work as produced by ancient figures of the past who had heavenly connections, (such for example as Enoch), with the author hiding his own identity, the Book of Revelation is written by John, an identifiable man on earth, to a specific group of people, as a revelation from God. It is intended to be a revelation not a mystery.
Furthermore he claims that what he writes about was what he saw in a series of mystical visions, and we have no reason to doubt his veracity. And these visions the early church saw as an inspired revelation from God. This why today we have The Book of Revelation in the Scriptures.
How far the book represents the rational views of the author and how far he owed it to mystical experience we can never know, but the visions came through the mind of John and even his mystical visions had to be written down, which required some degree of selection and interpretation by the author. In interpreting the book we therefore see it as the work of John under guidance from the Holy Spirit, with his ideas behind it, while also recognising that he saw things beyond full comprehension, heavenly realities revealed to him by God Himself, which John himself did not fully understand.
Combined with the vivid portrayals of his visions is the idea of numerals as containing specific significance, which may not always mean what we take them to mean. To the ancients numbers were adjectives which conveyed meanings, not just dull arithmetic. They were not necessarily to be taken literally. They conveyed ideas rather than quantity. (See The use of Number in the Ancient Near East and Genesis).
For example the number seven abounds in the book. This number conveyed among all ancient nations the ideas of divine perfection and completeness in a way beyond anything we moderns can begin to appreciate. Not only does it convey the idea of quantity, an idea which is secondary (it was not a mathematical world), but it also represents totality, the fullness of divine perfection. Thus the seven churches represent the whole world-wide church, the seven seals represent the whole of the future, and so on. This is the idea at its simplest. We must therefore approach the book cautiously, and, as far as possible, without dogmatism.
Some argue that because it is a difficult book the safest way is to treat it literally as far as possible, (although that is the last thing apocalyptic literature attempted to be) and to assume it to be chronological. They have then related the majority of the book to ‘the end times’, failing to recognise that ‘the end times’ began at the resurrection. But this ‘literal view’ denies itself, for when convenient, literalness is forgotten. Just to give one example. The promises to the church at Pergamum are treated as applying to the worldwide church. But that is not to treat them literally. And that there are many things which cannot be taken literally all would agree. In the end it must depend on judging each factor.
The fact that ‘the end times’ began at the resurrection is vital and is clearly stated in Scripture. ‘He was revealed at the end of the times for your sake’, says Peter (1 Peter 1.20), so that he can then warn his readers ‘the end of all things is at hand’ (1 Peter 4.7). So to Peter the first coming of Christ has begun the end times. Likewise Paul says to his contemporaries ‘for our admonition, on whom the end of the ages has come’ (1 Corinthians 10.11). What could be clearer? The first coming of Christ was the end of the ages, not the beginning of a new age. The writer to the Hebrews tells us ‘He has in these last days spoken to us by His Son’ (Hebrews 1.1-2), and adds ‘once in the end of the ages has He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself’ (Hebrews 9.26-28). So those early writers saw their days as ‘the last days’, for this age is the culmination of all that has gone before and leads up to the end.
Others have seen in the book specific events of history. But the methods have been very selective of history, and there have been wide divergencies of interpretation. There are no real grounds for this method. Where it occurs in Daniel it is clearly stated. But there is nothing in Revelation to suggest it. However these are ‘modern’ approaches, taken without considering fully enough the nature of apocalyptic literature, and failing to acknowledge why John wrote as he did.
The fact is that John was writing to Christians in the midst of a Roman Empire that seemed all-powerful, that spasmodically bitterly persecuted Christians, and was hugely sensitive to any suggestions that it might be overthrown. He was shown by God that bitter persecution lay ahead at the hands of the Roman Empire. Under God’s hand he was therefore trying to give his fellow Christians encouragement in the face of adversity while at the same time seeking to avoid enflaming the authorities.
To have written what he did openly would have been to court persecution for both writer and reader alike, so instead he adopted the method of using apocalyptic imagery to get over his message to Christians who were undergoing, and would undergo, something of what he wrote. It was this aim that led on to his God-given visions. To fail to recognise this is to fail to understand the book.
This is not, however, to deny that what it describes also goes beyond those early days, and that particular aim, for it deals with events through history of all kinds with which God’s people would be faced time and again and its focal point is the second Coming of Christ and the establishing of a New Heaven and a New Earth. We can compare here the words of Jesus in Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21 where He portrayed events which would take place through history, false Messiahs, wars, famines, earthquakes, pestilence, tribulation and persecution for His people, and the Gospel reaching out to the nations. The same thing is portrayed in Revelation in more vivid form.
As we have said the book contains a number of visions. Except where it is clear that one part must follow another, they are not necessarily chronological. Indeed, on the contrary, they are largely concurrent. Again and again in different sections we find ourselves brought up to the time of the Second Coming and the final judgment (6.15-17; 7.15-17 with 21.3-5; 11.19; 14.17-20; 16.21; 19.19-21). What we must first do, if we want a chronology (and the ancients were not as bothered about chronology as we are, they were more concerned with impact), is to find points of contact so that we can fit the visions together as far as this is possible, while asking ourselves, what is the main message the writer is trying to get across?
Of course it is inevitably true that some things contained in it did happen in sequence. But this does not necessarily mean that that sequence should be everywhere applied. They are a series of visions received at different times, not just one vision, and the visions clearly overlap. The same ground is gone over again and again from a different perspective (something other views have to ignore). We move backwards and forwards in time. The Revelation comprises a series of overlapping visions, not one whole vision, interwoven with which are flashbacks to introduce the particular vision in question.
Ascertaining the main message is probably more simple than determining a chronology. We think that all will agree that the real purpose of the book is to make sense, from a Christian point of view, of what at first sight appears inexplicable, the most dreadful of happenings, the domination of the world by the most evil of forces, and to encourage Christians, in the face of the most terrible persecutions, with the thought that their affairs are watched over in Heaven. It seeks to reveal that however bad the situation might appear, God’s purposes are moving forward according to His time-scale and under His control. This has been its assurance to the church throughout the ages.
Those of us who live in countries where persecution has been, and in the near future is likely to be, relatively minor (with a few exceptions) find it natural to assume that the terrible things portrayed are mainly yet to come. It is not like the world as we know it. But we forget, or are unaware, that the world has seen and is seeing terrible things, and that in many parts of the world, especially the Bible world, persecution has been, and still is, more common. Christians there know what it is to go constantly in fear of their lives and to dread future events.
It is possibly not without significance that the main exponents of certain Second Coming teachings have lived in the countries where persecution of the most severe kind was not rife. (Not that we are suggesting that that has been the only issue to sway them, for many great Bible teachers have spent considerable time earnestly wrestling with the Scriptures in order to understand them and establish their views. But one may hopefully be forgiven for suggesting that had they lived through centuries of bitter, intensive continual persecution, enduring great tribulation as others have, they might have looked at things slightly differently and applied things more generally. Certainly they have not been able to reach a consensus of opinion on what they do teach, and this is partly because the genius of apocalyptic is that it is not too specific so that it can be applied to so many situations).
What is perhaps even more significant is the way in which, through the last two thousand years, different generations have been able to apply the visions directly to their own age, seeing fulfilment in what was happening around them, for this demonstrates clearly the usefulness of the method of portraying truth through vision. By this means they can be applied specifically to a thousand situations. This fact itself shows that on the whole the underlying events portrayed have happened again and again through history. The book is dealing with large ideas that are themselves the things which determine history.
Perhaps one more point must be added here. When John speaks of ‘the world’ and ‘the earth’ he means the limited world as he knew it (see Acts 11.28; 17.6; 19.27; Romans 1.8; 16.19). What he ‘saw’ occurred in that world. It is the world of the Near and Middle East and that is where the events were seen as centred. Great Britain was peripheral to the events and America non-existent. Thus while both may be considerably affected it may not necessarily be so. Only time will tell. The persecutions and tribulations described pertained to that world and indeed are apparent in that world today. It is by their experiences and not by ours that the book must be interpreted.
It is clear, of course, where the book begins and ends. It begins with the appearance of the son of man and the consequent position of the seven churches, continues with the activity of the Heavenly influencing the earthly, and the rebellion of the earthly against the Heavenly, among all of which move the people of God, and ends with the triumph of God through Christ. But at that point the unanimity ends, and this has caused many to say, ‘well, very good, let us leave it there’, but as this usually means, ‘let’s not bother with the book at all’, it is certainly not satisfactory.
We do not have to read far before we discover that John was clearly a man saturated in the Scriptures. His mind thought along Scriptural pathways. His ideas sprang from His knowledge of them. Old Testament Scripture lies directly at the back of every chapter. That is why we have interpreted in the belief that what he says is to be illuminated mainly by those Scriptures and not by external ideas. He was quite happy for the Romans to see the woman clothed with the sun (chapter 12) as somehow involved with the signs of the zodiac. But he wanted Christians to interpret it by using the word of God, remembering that the twelve patriarchs were seen as twelve stars, whilst Jacob and his wife were seen as the sun and the moon.
The book is quite remarkable in this respect. Revelation mirrors and reverses the situation in Genesis. It parallels the history of Israel with the condition of the churches. It is saturated with indirect references to the Psalms and the Prophets. We will endeavour to illustrate this further.
The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation.
1). Genesis and Revelation.
The close connection of Genesis with Revelation cannot be doubted. What begins in Genesis is finalised in Revelation. Thus:
In Genesis 2-3
There are many more contrasting parallels between the two books.
Consider The Seven Letters to the Churches and the Old Testament.
One of the patterns that among others have influenced the construction of these letters is that of the events of the Old Testament. John is warning the churches to take to heart the lessons of history in the Old Testament. We can put these simply in order.
Although there may be controversy over detail the main line is clear. The churches are seen to be again repeating history, and are to take warning from the Old Testament Scriptures. (Which explains why they can be seen as paralleling the history of the church. Man as a whole does not change).
It is important as we approach the book that we take this lesson to heart. The churches are the new people of God, sprouting from the old, made up of the true Israel (John 15.1-6) and the Gentile Christians who were adopted by God and grafted into Israel (Romans 11.17). Israel was outwardly seen as the people of God, but it was only the faithful in Israel who were the true people of God as the prophets (and Paul in Romans 9) made clear.
The same is true of the church. Outwardly they are one people. Within that people there are those who are faithful to God and there are those who are renegades. But the true church and the true Israel is composed only of those who are faithful. The unfaithful have been cut off from Israel.
Paul makes this clear in Romans 9.6 following. And it important to recognise that the Apostles did not see the church as replacing Israel but as being the true Israel. In Ephesians 2 Paul tells the Gentiles that in the past they ‘were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise’ (2.12). Thus in the past, he says, they did not belong to the twelve tribes. But then he tells them that they are now ‘made nigh by the blood of Christ’ (2.13), Who has ‘made both one and broken down the wall of partition --- creating in Himself of two one new man 2.14-15). Now therefore, through Christ, they have been made members of the commonwealth of Israel, and inherit the promises. So they are ‘no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God, being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets’ (2.19-20). Thus as with people in the Old Testament who were regularly adopted into the twelve tribes of Israel (e.g. the mixed multitude - Exodus 12.38), Gentile Christians too were seen as so incorporated. That is why he can call the church ‘the Israel of God’, made up of Jews and ex-Gentiles, having declared circumcision and uncircumcision as unimportant because there is a new creation (Galatians 6.15-16). ‘The Israel of God’ can only mean that new creation, the church of Christ, otherwise he is being inconsistent.
The point behind both of these passages is that all Christians become by adoption members of the twelve tribes. (There would be no point in mentioning circumcision if he was not thinking of incorporation into the twelve tribes. The importance of circumcision was that to the Jews it made the difference between those who became genuine proselytes, and thus members of the twelve tribes, and those who remained as ‘God-fearers’, loosely attached but not accepted as full Jews. Paul says that circumcision is unnecessary for men’s acceptance into the Israel of God).
Again in Romans he points out to the Gentiles that there is a remnant of Israel which is faithful to God and they are the true Israel (11.5). The remainder have been cast off (Romans 10.27, 29; 11.15, 17, 20). Then he describes the Christian Gentiles as ‘grafted in among them’ becoming ‘partakers with them of the root of the fatness of the olive tree’ (11.17). They are now part of the same tree so it is clear that he regards them as now being part of the faithful remnant of Israel. For ‘those who are of faith, the same are the sons of Abraham’ (Galatians 3.7).
The privilege of being a ‘son of Abraham’ is that one is adopted into the twelve tribes of Israel. It is they who proudly called themselves ‘the sons of Abraham’ (John 8.39, 53). That is why in the one man in Christ Jesus there can be neither Jew nor Gentile (Galatians 3.28). For ‘if you are Abraham’s seed, you are heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3.29). To be Abraham’s ‘seed’ within the promise is to be a member of the twelve tribes. The reference to ‘seed’ is decisive.
That is why Paul can say, ‘he is not a Jew who is one outwardly --- he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and the circumcision is that of the heart’ (Romans 2.28-29 compare v.26). In the light of these passages it cannot really be doubted that the early church saw the converted Gentiles as becoming members of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are ‘the seed of Abraham’, ‘sons of Abraham’, spiritually circumcised, grafted in to the true Israel, fellow-citizens with the saints in the commonwealth of Israel, the Israel of God. What further evidence do we need?
When James writes to ‘the twelve tribes which are of the dispersion’ (1.1) (Jews living away from Palestine were seen as dispersed around the world and were therefore thought of as ‘the dispersion’) there is not a single hint that he is writing other than to all in the churches. He sees the whole church as having become members of the twelve tribes, as the true dispersion, and indeed refers to their ‘assembly’ with the same word used for synagogue (2.2). But he can also call them ‘the church’ (5.14).
There is not even the slightest hint in the remainder of the epistle that he has just one section of the church in mind. In view of the importance of it, had he not been speaking of the whole church he must surely have commented on the attitude of Jewish Christians to Christian Gentiles, especially in the light of the ethical content of his letter, but there is not even a whisper of it. He speaks as though to the whole church.
Peter also writes to ‘the elect’ and calls them ‘sojourners of the dispersion’ and when he speaks of ‘Gentiles’ is clearly assuming that those under that heading are not Christians (2.12; 4.3). So it is apparent he too sees all Christians as no longer Gentiles, but members of the twelve tribes (as above ‘the dispersion’ means the twelve tribes scattered around the world). Good numbers of Gentiles were becoming members of the Jewish faith at that time, and on being circumcised were accepted by the Jews as members of the twelve tribes (as proselytes). In the same way the apostles, who were all Jews and also saw the pure in Israel as God’s chosen people, saw the converted Gentiles as being incorporated into the new Israel without the need for circumcision.
Today we may not think in these terms but it is apparent that to the early church to become a Christian was to become a member of the twelve tribes of Israel. That is why there was such a furore over whether circumcision, the covenant sign of the Jew, was necessary for Christians. It was precisely because they were seen as entering the twelve tribes that many saw it as required. Paul’s argument against it is never that Christians do not become members of the twelve tribes (as we have seen he argues that they do) but that what matters is spiritual circumcision, not physical circumcision, and that we are circumcised with the circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2). Thus early on Christians unquestionably saw themselves as the true twelve tribes of Israel.
The end of Revelation also reverses the pattern of Genesis 1-11. In Genesis 1-11 man shares Paradise with God (Genesis 2), he directly faces Satan, sins and is separated from God (Genesis 3-4), wicked man sets himself up away from the presence of the Lord and builds ‘a city’ (Genesis 4), rebellious man builds a great city and a sanctuary to the gods with a view to domination (Genesis 11). In Revelation 17-18 the great city is destroyed, wicked man still continues his rebellion and turns directly to Satan (17.16-17 with 19.19) and is also destroyed, sin is removed for the repentant and man is restored to God, man is instated in a new Paradise.
With regard to the remainder of the Old Testament, the writer was steeped in the Old Testament and every page reflects what is written there. These references will be dealt with in the Commentary as they occur.
We offer all our thoughts in a spirit of helpfulness, not controversy. We consider ‘love of the our Christian brothers’ to be more important than winning an argument over matters that have been debated throughout history. We do not pretend to have all the solutions, nor to exhaust the meaning of the book, but we do believe that what we have to say is fair to what the book says and will give some meaning to the book for our day, and for every day.
Finally we will seek to present a panorama showing how what we are to read fits into a total picture.
A Summary of the Message of Revelation.
The first chapter portrays Jesus Christ in His glory and demonstrates that all is to be seen as happening in preparation for His coming. He is near, even at the door (as He is always represented). Now to John that portrayed one thing. Like all the early church he saw things in terms of the past (the old dispensation which was no longer), the present, the things that the church was going through and would go through prior to Christ’s return, and the future, the coming of Christ and the everlasting glory. Their view had originally been that the present would not last for too long. Christ would soon return. But gradually they began to recognise that perhaps it would last longer than they had at first expected, so that Peter could write in terms of ‘a thousand years’, indicating by this a possibly long but unmeasured period of time (2 Peter 3.8-9). This is confirmed in Revelation chapter 20.
The second and third chapters comprise letters written to seven churches (on behalf of the whole church) with warnings, instructions, commendations, words of preparation for what they are to face and promises for the eternal future, showing their state at that time.
The chapters from 4 to 19 mainly deal with the panorama of history, revealing what the churches and the world are to face before His return, ‘the things which shall be from now on (hereafter)’. These are seen first in the light of the heavenly activity that causes them (chapters 4-5) with the resultant consequence on earth following.
It is portrayed in terms of a sealed document, sealed with seven seals, the breaking of which will bring its words into effect (just as the seals of a will may be broken when it is to be read out and its provision carried out). As each seal is broken history unfolds. In chapter 6 the four horsemen of false religion, war, famine, death and suffering ride (and they have ridden throughout history), the people of God suffer persecution, the world suffers tumult and then the day of wrath and revelation of the glory of God comes. Thus chapter 6 ends with the second coming. The following chapters then cover the same ground from different perspectives, with, intermingled, insights into God’s special provision for His people, both at the beginning when He seals them (7.1-8), through the period as He receives them to Himself (7.9-17), and at the end when He raptures His people and brings history to an end (11.12; 14.1-5).
The seventh seal that is opened (and they are opened in quick succession so that the activities in each occur alongside each other following the pattern in Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) results in the blowing of the seven trumpets which show the more direct activity of God in judgment both through natural catastrophes and the release of spiritual forces of evil (chapters 8-9). It probably also includes much of what follows, for the seven sealed book incorporates the purposes of God. Thus the march of history and the evil that it reveals, and climactic events through history, are all shown to be under final God’s control. This again leads up to the final judgment portrayed by the seventh trumpet (which further demonstrates that the trumpets are contemporaneous with the seven seals).
The great Beast representing ‘world’ empire, and his confederate second Beast representing ‘world’ religion and ‘world’ trade, then arises from the sea (again contemporaneous with what has gone before) (chapter 13). This represents primarily in the first instance the Roman Empire, and then ‘world’ empire and world government as it follows on from Rome and is represented in the first instance by Rome. It is in constant conflict with the people of God. Its persecution of the people of God results in the pouring out of the seven bowls of the wrath of God on the world. These are ‘the last, for in them is finished the wrath of God’. This may mean simply the last of the ‘series of sevens’ of judgment to be described (no more will be described as they represent completeness of judgment - three times seven), completing the total judgment, and not necessarily the last chronologically. They describe an intensification of the judgments of the trumpets and again lead up to the final judgment. Whereas the seventh seal results in the blowing of the trumpets (8.1-2) there is no indication that the bowls are connected with the seventh trumpet.
A second great Beast from the Abyss comes on to the scene at an early stage (chapter 17), although intrinsically there from the beginning (chapter 12), which manifests itself through the first which thus becomes more directly Satanically inspired, demonstrating that the power of Satan is at work through world empire, world religion and world trade. And this leads on to the destruction of civilisation as man knows it and the final denouement in terms of the quashing of man’s (and Satan’s) rebellion against God by the second coming of Christ (chapters 18-19). This results in the Final Judgment and the eternal glory pictured in terms of a New Jerusalem and a new Eden (chapters 20-22).
The approach of the time of the end is signified:
Thus the end itself is portrayed in 6.15-17; 11.15-19; 14; 16.12-16; 19.11-21. Thus the narrative splits into separate sections, each leading up to the final judgment.
Chapters 1-3. The Son of Man and the Seven Churches.
Opening Words (1.1-8).
1.1 ‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show to his servants, even the things which must shortly happen.’
The book is the ‘revelation’, the revealing, of Jesus Christ. It is not just a revelation from Christ, wonderful though that would be, but a revelation of Christ. He is its centre and revealed in all His splendour as both Saviour, slain Lamb, lion of Judah, Controller of history by the opening of the seals, Judge of all men and Central focus along with His Father of the New Heaven and the New Earth.
It is first described as preparation for the things that will ‘shortly happen’ (Revelation 1.1), and we are told ‘the time is at hand’ (Revelation 1.5). Another suggested translation ‘will quickly happen’ in the sense of ‘ will quickly happen in the far off future once it starts’ is not really tenable on its own in the light of the position of the phrase, which is introductory.
It is true that ‘en tachei’ can mean ‘with speed’ given the right context, but even then it must be noted that it always has ‘soon’ in mind. But the context here means that any Greek speaker would naturally read it as ‘shortly’. It is only the requirements of theories that attempt another translation. ‘En tachei’ occurs in Luke 18.8; Acts 25.4; Romans 16.20, and in some manuscripts in 1 Timothy 3.14, where it means ‘shortly, soon, speedily’ as here, and in Acts 12.7; 22.18 where it means ‘with speed’ but both times with the idea of ‘as soon as possible, shortly’ in mind.
This stress on the nearness of events parallels what Jesus said in His eschatological address in Matthew 24.34, that ‘this generation shall not pass away until all these things be accomplished’. But in Matthew it is important to notice 24.3 and that ‘these things’ are distinguished from the Second Coming itself. (See also Mark 13.30 with verse 4 and Luke 21.32 with verse 7). In all cases ‘these things’ refer to the detailed events described as necessarily preceding the Second Coming of Christ, including the destruction of the Temple. But it does not refer to the Return itself, and in all cases the events desscribed did happen within the lifetime of some standing there which tied in with Jesus’ warnings. But the actual Second Coming of Christ is the summation of all things and its timing was specifically stated by Jesus to be unknown, even to Jesus Himself while on earth (Mark 13.32). It could not therefore be foretold.
In the same way the main events in Revelation will ‘shortly happen’, and we must accept then that many did occur within a fairly short time span. Any interpretation of the book must take this into account. There is a deliberate stress on ‘immediacy’ and the future facing those to whom John first wrote.
But the phrase is not necessarily indicating that everything described will shortly happen, only that the main theme of the book will, for it was a recognised fact, as mentioned above, that the time of the Second Coming, and the events closely related to it, were not known and that its timing could not therefore be determined. John is aware that momentous events are about to overtake the Christian church and he wants them to be prepared for those, but He is not predicting the timing of the final end, only its certainty.
However, what none of the records stated was whether the events would only occur once. That was beyond their purview. That they would happen soon did not necessarily mean that that they would only occur once. The writer did not say, or even have reason to know, that they would be repeated again and again through history, for he did not know how long the future would be. He prepared the way towards the Second Coming, the timing of which was specifically stated to be unknown, but he did not fix when it would be. This sense of immediacy, combined with the acknowledgement of uncertainty, pervades all references to the future in the New Testament. As Peter stresses, ‘one day is with the Lord as a thousand years’, God does not see time as we see it (2 Peter 3.8). In God’s eyes we, in the third millennium, are two days from the time of Christ!
1.1b ‘And he sent and signified it by his angel to his servant John.’
The meaning is ‘signified, revealed through signs’. The book constantly uses symbolism to get over its message. We are left to interpret that symbolism carefully and thoughtfully recognising that it is a message from Christ Himself.
‘By his angel’. The message was considered so important that it was committed to a special angelic messenger. ‘His angel’ means simply the messenger whom God chose.
‘To his servant John’. The early church accepted that this was John the Apostle which was why the book was accepted. He is described as Christ’s ‘servant’. We can compare this with Paul’s constant claim to be ‘the servant of Jesus Christ’ (Romans 1.1; Philippians 1.1) and a ‘servant of God’ (Titus 1.1). James says that he is ‘a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (James 1.1), as do Peter (2 Peter 1.1) and Jude (Jude 1.1). Revelation similarly uses this title of Christians as a title of honour.
1.2 ‘Who bore witness of the word of God and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, even of all things that he saw.’
John regularly begins his writings with reference to Him Who is the Word of God (John 1.1-14; 1 John 1. 1-4) and Who is Himself the fullest expression of the word of God to man. We are therefore justified here in giving it its twofold meaning. He bore testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Word from God, and he bore testimony to the revelation proceeding from Him, especially this particular revelation. In Revelation Jesus is revealed as the Word from God (19.13) and reveals and bears testimony to what is to be.
‘The word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.’ Jesus spoke of Scripture as ‘the word of God’ (Mark 7.13). All other preaching of the word of God was to be on the basis of that word and thus became, in as far as it was true to it, ‘the word of God’ (Acts 4.31 and often). This book is saturated with references taken from that ‘word of God’ and thus it proclaims it, along with further revelation. The testimony of Jesus Christ includes that testimony of His life and teaching which we now have in the Gospels, as more fully expressed in the glorious figure to Whom we are shortly to be introduced.
‘Of all things that he saw’. The revelation was ‘seen’. These were not just ideas that flowed through his mind. He had ‘visions of God’, visions which brought out a new dimension on Jesus Christ and on the future. And that is what he is testifying to. He is testifying to what he ‘saw’. What he had to say was what God had revealed. Yet as the recorder of those visions he had to select and interpret. Thus we have what came from outside him as interpreted by the Spirit of God within him.
1.3 ‘Blessed is he who reads, and they who hear the words of the prophecy, and keep the things which are written in it, for the time is at hand.’
The book was intended to be read to churches and a special blessing is promised to the one who does the reading and to those who receive its message and respond to it. Books to be read in church were those which were seen as the inspired word of God (later a clear distinction would certainly be made between books to be read in the churches because they were accepted as the word of God and those which could be read as spiritually useful but not the word of God). Thus John is claiming that this is the inspired word of God.
‘For the time is at hand.’ It is not a book just about the distant future. It is writing about something of imminent concern for the churches. It has present relevance for them, and its events will apply to their times and their lives.
John begins by describing the source of his revelation.
1.4-5a ‘John to the seven churches who are in Asia: Grace to you, and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits which are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ who is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the rulers of the earth.’
This greeting is so full of significance that it requires careful examination.
The book is written to ‘the seven churches who are in Asia’. These were individual churches probably selected because they illustrated the conditions John wants to draw out, but their number as seven, the number of divine perfection, points to the fact that they are seen as representing the whole church. This is confirmed in that they are seven lampstands (1.20) which parallel the sevenfold lampstand in the Tabernacle. They are God’s witness and His light shines out through them to the world.
1) ‘From him who is and who was and who is to come.’ In this description of God, the order is significant. While He is saying that past, present and future are in His hands because He is personally present in all three, He is also placing the stress on the fact that He is the ‘One Who is’. He Who was responsible for the past and Who controls the future, is the Ever Existing One Who is present with them in whatever present situation that they face so that they need have no fear. As at the Exodus, when, as the ‘I am’, He guaranteed to deliver His people from their great tribulation (Exodus 3.14), so here as the ‘I am’ He will again deliver His people from the tribulation that is coming. They can therefore rest assured that in all their tribulations He is ‘the One Who is there’.
2) ‘And from the seven spirits who are before his throne’. In the light of the content of the book this must refer to the seven angels who blow the seven trumpets, ‘the seven angels who stand before God’ (Revelation 4.5; 8.2), for we know that angels are also called ‘ministering spirits’ (Hebrews 1.14). We can compare the usage here with 1 Timothy 5.21 where God, Christ Jesus and the ‘elect angels’ are also mentioned together, and how the angels are brought in in Revelation 3.5 along with the Father. These seven angels are the ones who will issue in the judgments of God, and they are here shown to be on the side of His people. Because of their special and central part in what lies ahead they are included in the greeting to show their special concern for God’s people.
John may well have in mind the seven ‘angels of the Presence’ of Judaism but if so he is concerned not to name them. (Later they would be known as Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Raguel, Sariel, Remiel, but these are in the main traditional not Scriptural names). One of these was ‘Michael the archangel’ (Jude 1.9 compare Revelation 12.7), ‘one of the chief princes’ (Daniel 10.13), and the special prince of Israel (Daniel 10.21; 12.1), and another was ‘Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God’ (Luke 1.19). (The apocryphal book of Tobit mentions Raphael as ‘one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the holy ones and go in before the glory of the Holy One’ (Tobit 12.15), giving us an indication of certain Jewish beliefs at that time). The point of these words is to remind the churches that all the forces of Heaven are behind them, as they were behind Elisha (1 Kings 6.17).
These seven spirits of God are described as ‘seven lamps of fire burning before the throne of God’ (Revelation 4.5). We can compare this with Hebrews 1.7 where the writer says ‘he makes his angels spirits and his ministers a flame of fire’ (Hebrews 1.7). This fire is representative of purity and fiery purpose.
They are also ‘sent out into all the earth’ (Revelation 5.6). It is not necessary to assume that they are the same as the seven angels of the seven churches described as stars in Christ’s right hand (Revelation 1.20), for this latter indicates that every church has an angel watching over it, and seven angels are mentioned because there are seven churches (compare Matthew 18.10). The guardian angels were not limited to seven.
That it is not the Holy Spirit Who is referred to comes out in that:
This is especially true in that in 3.1 the seven spirits are active along with, and parallel, (or possibly are the same as by translating ‘the seven spirits of God, even the seven stars’) the seven stars which are the seven angels of the churches. There clearly are seven angels of the churches, which suggests that there are also seven spirits.
f). In contrast the Holy Spirit is revealed as speaking to each of the churches (2.7, 11, 17, 29; etc) as an individual. He also speaks in 22.18. Compare how John is ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s day (1.10), and John was in the Spirit when he was taken up into heaven (4.2; compare also 17.3; 21.10). So in these cases the Spirit is seen as one Spirit.
3) ‘And from Jesus Christ who is the Faithful Witness, the Firstborn of the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth.’ This phrase sums up the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ, and encourages His people.
He is ‘the faithful witness’, the One Who fully made God known to men and Who witnessed faithfully even to death. He is uniquely God’s witness and the prime example of what all who serve God are called to be. There is almost certainly in the phrase an emphasis on His faithful witness through His great suffering and death. He was to be seen as an example to all martyrs.
He was the first to rise again as ‘the firstborn from the dead’. This was ‘the first resurrection’. He led the way from death to life, and because He lives we shall live as well (John 14.19). And others rose with Him as a result of His resurrection (Matthew 27.52-53). He is thus the guarantee that all His people too will rise when all is over. But Scripture emphasises that just as those Old Testament saints did, we already live and share in His resurrection life (Ephesians 1.19-2.7; Colossians 3.1-2; Galatians 2.20). Thus do we partake in the ‘first resurrection’, His resurrection, in which we partake when we become Christians, raised into heavenly places in Christ to share His throne (Ephesians 2.6; Colossians 3.1), and in which the martyrs have their full share (Revelation 20.5). Later we will partake in a resurrection in a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15.44) which is the consummation of what we already have in Christ. He was the firstfruits of all those who sleep (1 Corinthians 15.20).
The term ‘firstborn’ signifies not only precedence but also pre-eminence and unique relationship. Thus He is the firstborn of all creation - Colossians 1.15. And He is now over all, exalted at God’s right hand as ruler of the rulers of the earth, as one day His people will also be, whatever men may seek to do to them.
Compare here Psalm 89.27, 37 where all three titles are used of the Davidic king. Their use here stresses that He is great David’s greater son, the heavenly Messiah. Important for all to recognise here is that He is therefore alive and Ruler over persecuting kings, including the Roman emperors and their successors through history.
1.5b-6 ‘To Him who loves us (present tense), and freed us from our sins by (en) His blood (aorist tense), and made us to be a Kingdom, even priests to His God and Father, to Him be the glory and dominion for ever and ever, Amen.’
At the thought of what Jesus has done for us John now bursts into praise. The tenses are significant. His love is continuous, unceasing and unfailing, never ending (present tense). His work of freeing from sin was accomplished once for all (aorist tense) at the cross where He offered one sacrifice for sins for ever (Hebrews 10.12).
He has also ‘made us to be a kingdom’. He is the King we are His kingdom, we belong to Him in close connection. His kingdom are His people. ‘Even priests.’ Thus are we priests to His God and Father under our great High Priest (1 Peter 2.5), indeed we are a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2.9). Compare Revelation 5.9 where the kingdom and priests are purchased from every tribe, tongue, people and nation. (We could actually translate ‘a kingdom of priests’ (compare Exodus 19.6) for the author tends to combine two nouns in this way when the second is to be treated as a genitive. Compare verse 9).
1.7 ‘Behold He comes with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, including those who pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. Even so, Amen.’
John now gives us the theme of the book. The book is centred on the Second Coming of Christ, for that is its focal point. In the end all, both believers and persecutors, will see Him in one way or another, for in His coming in glory He will be unavoidable.
But sadly for the great majority, ‘the tribes of the earth’, it will be a time of mourning. The words are based on Zechariah 12.9-10. ‘They will look to him whom they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for his only son’.
Both these verses end in ‘Amen’, the guarantee of their fulfilment. Later the Son of Man will be declared to be ‘the Amen’ (3.14), and thus the guarantor of their fulfilment.
1.8 ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’
At this point God is seen as dramatically stepping in to make His declaration over the whole revelation, reinforcing John’s words in 1.4.
Alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Thus He is declaring Himself to be the beginning and the ending, the One Who sums up everything in Himself from start to finish. But there may also be the idea that every letter in this revelation comes directly from Him. That each letter is rooted in Him (compare 22.18-19), as is all that happens.
He is ‘the Almighty’. The word means the all-powerful One, the Omnipotent One. In the Septuagint it translates ‘the God of hosts’, the One Who is over all that is ( Hosea 12.5; Amos 3.13; 4.13; 5.14). He is the One Who ‘forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness and treads on the high places of the earth, the Lord, the God of hosts is his name’ (Amos 4.13).
He is also the ever existing One Who is there with His people, the One Who always was, the One Who always will be. As ‘the One Who is’ He controls history and destinies, as ‘the One Who was’ He created all things and fashioned history, as the One Who ‘is coming’ He sums up the future. And He is the Almighty (compare 2 Corinthians 6.18). All things are in His hands. So as the people of God face up to what is to come they can rest in the confidence of the overall power of their protector, the ruler of time and of history and of all that is and will be.
THE FIRST VISION.
1.9 ‘I John, your brother, and partaker with you in the tribulation and kingdom and patient endurance in Jesus, was in the isle that is called Patmos for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.’
Now begins the first vision. It is written by John to the seven churches of Asia Minor. He is on the isle of Patmos, a small island in the Aegean sea. He describes himself as their brother. This is significant because it is an indication of how closely he is aligning himself with them in what is to come.
He is a ‘partaker with you in the tribulation and kingdom (kingly rule) and patient endurance which are in Jesus’. Thus he aligns himself with them in what lies ahead. Tribulation and patient endurance are ever the lot of the Christian (Acts 14.22; Romans 5.3), and this is a main theme of the book. The intermission of the idea of the ‘kingdom’ (kingly rule) stresses that present experience of the kingdom is tied up with tribulation and patient endurance. What they endure for Christ’s sake is confirmation that they are in the kingdom. (We could translate ‘the tribulation of the kingdom’, for that is what is in mind).
He was there ‘for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’. This refers back to verse 2 where he was there to ‘bear witness of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, even of all things that he SAW’. So the word of God and the testimony of Jesus of which he speaks is descriptive of the things that he ‘saw’, the things that are about to be described. It refers to the coming revelation which he is there to see and receive. But that it sums up Christian testimony is seen by the fact that the people of God who have already died in persecution also did so ‘for the word of God and for the testimony that they held’ (6.9).
But bearing witness to the word of God through his visions includes bearing witness to Him Who is the Word of God (Revelation 19.13 compare John 1.1-14; 1 John 1.1). Indeed, in view of the fact that both John’s Gospel and John’s general epistle begin with He Who is ‘the Word’, it may well be we should see ‘the word of God’ in 1.2 and here as referring to Him Who is ‘the Word of God’. Either way it includes Him for He is the central element in the word of God.
Whether John was there by choice or as a prisoner of the Roman Empire we do not know, although later external testimony suggests the latter. His reference to being a ‘partaker with you in the tribulation’ may hint at this also. But whatever brought him there he is stressing that he was essentially there in God’s purpose, that he might receive God’s revelation.
1.10a ‘I was in Spirit on the Lord’s day.’
The phrase ‘in Spirit’ refers in Revelation to the work of the Spirit in bringing John to a specific point or place so that he may receive a vision, moving backwards and forwards in space and time (4.2; 17.3; 21.10). Compare also Ezekiel in Ezekiel 3.12, 14; 8.3; 11.1, 24; 37.1; 43.5.
‘On the Lord’s day.’ This is the only occasion where such a phrase is connected with being ‘in the Spirit’. And this suggests that it is not just a reference to the day on which it happened, for that is never considered important anywhere else, but rather to a reference to where the Spirit took him. Thus we must question whether it means what we call ‘Sunday’.
Sunday is not called ‘the Lord’s day’ (he kyriake hemera) anywhere in Scripture, and as far as we know the term was not elsewhere used in that way until the early second century, when it was possibly by mistaken implication from this book. In fact the technical term in the New Testament for what we call Sunday was ‘the first day of the week’. This was true when 1 Corinthians was written (16.2) and also when Luke was writing (Acts 20.7).
So in view of the fact that the phrase ‘in the Spirit’ occurs three times more in Revelation (4.2; 17.3; 21.10), in each case when John is introduced to particular revelations, it seems certain that this phrase here refers to such a revelation and this would suggest that the phrase ‘the Lord’s day’ parallels to some extent references to ‘the day of the Lord’, that great day when God would act to bring about His final purposes.
But the change of phraseology prevents direct connection. Had John meant ‘the day of the Lord’ he would have said so. While in Hebrew, and therefore in the Old Testament, a phrase directly parallel to ‘the Lord’s day’ is not linguistically possible, it would have been possible in the New. But when the phrase ‘the day of the Lord’ also occurs in the New Testament, as it often does, it is always in the same form as in the Old Testament. It is a technical term directly imitating the Hebrew. Thus had he meant that John would have used it here.
The fact is that in the New Testament ‘the Lord’s’ always means ‘Christ’s’. Compare for this ‘the Lord’s supper’ (1 Corinthians 11.20), and also see 1 Corinthians 7.22; 10.21; 11.26, 29; Galatians 1.19. So this is rather referring to ‘the Lord Christ’s day’, for which compare 1 Corinthians 1.8; 5.5; Philippians 1.6,10; 2.16. This is confirmed by the immediately following vision of Christ as about to act on His day.
So in this vision John is transported to ‘Christ’s day’ or, as he puts it literally, ‘the Lord’s day’, to the time when the Lord Christ is about to have His day, the day awaited from the beginning of time.
This is in contrast with the present time. At present it is ‘man’s day’ (1 Corinthians 4.3 - which is of similar construction) rather than the Lord’s day (4.5). But that is now about to pass and man will learn at Christ’s return that man has had his day. So John is brought face to face with the glorified Christ at the point when He is ready to bring this age to completion and to carry out the final judgment.
The Day of Christ differs from the Day of the Lord in that the former refers to the day in terms of Christian accountability whereas the latter refers to the time of God’s judgments on the world, although this latter signifies more than that for it culminates in the new Heavens and the new earth (2 Peter 3.10-13) connecting the two. But John’s message is specifically to Christians and he is concerned to refer the day specifically to them so that it is ‘Christ’s day’ that he refers to.
It should be noted that this reference to time refers only to this particular vision. There are therefore no specific grounds for referring the phrase ‘the Lord’s day’ to any other visions in Revelation, for they move backward and forward in time.
The significance of this first vision is to remind the churches that Christ is coming, that the day of Christ is imminent, and that He is, as it were, poised on the point of returning for His people, something which will encourage them in what lies ahead. It is to remind them that they must therefore be in readiness for that Coming.
Later in Revelation 19 that coming will be described in terms which clearly connect with this vision. So in vision John is taken forward in time (he was not aware of how long it would be) so that he can report back to the churches that he has seen the glory of the Coming One for Whom they are waiting, standing as it were at the gate, ready to return, thus stressing the imminence of His return.
1.10b-11 ‘And I heard behind me a great voice as of a trumpet, saying “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamum, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.’
Having been thus carried forward to ‘the Lord’s day’ he is initially commanded, by ‘a great voice, as of a trumpet’, to write down what he sees in a ‘book’ and send it to seven churches.
The picture is vivid. John has arrived in the Lord’s day but at first he looks around and sees nothing. And then a voice like a trumpet comes from behind him which makes him turn round, and there before him he sees what he is told to write about, a figure of matchless splendour, whom he recognises as the glorified Jesus, standing among seven lampstands, in readiness for His return.
The voice of a trumpet echoes Exodus 19.16-19 where God spoke with the voice of a trumpet and officially adopted His people in the Lordship covenant treaty containing the ten commandments, with a view to what lay ahead. Here too the Son of Man reminds His churches in the most solemn and powerful manner of His covenant with them, again with a view to what lies ahead. This brings out the solemnity of the moment.
(We must remember here that the ten commandments were in the context of a covenant of grace, very similar in form to the suzerainty treaties of those days. The covenant begins with a description of God’s Name and His gracious acts, describing Who He is and what He has done for them. He then requires in return their response, submission and obedience. It is initially a covenant of grace not a covenant of Law. Its nature was changed by the misinterpretation of later ages).
What John has to write down is ‘what he sees’. That is that the Lord Jesus Christ is poised to return in splendour to have dealings with His people, and that they need to prepare for this occasion. Then he is told to send to the seven churches the messages delivered to him, in the context of this vision. The seven letters containing the messages follow in chapters 2 and 3 and are directly based on the vision. It is clear from this that the description of this magnificent revelation of the returning Christ was also sent with the letters. We have no grounds for denying that these letters actually were sent round the seven churches, for the churches are mentioned in a circular order suitable for visits by a messenger.
1.12-13 ‘And I turned to see the voice which spoke with me, and having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the middle of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girded about at the breasts with a golden girdle.’
The seven lampstands are reminiscent of the sevenfold golden lampstand in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25.31, 32,37; Hebrews 9.2) and in the Temple (2 Chronicles 4.7), which was filled with oil and gave light in the tabernacle. It represented God as Israel’s light (compare John 8.12) and Israel as God’s light to the world (compare Matthew 5.14-16).
But just as Israel was supposed to be a light to the world, this task is now placed on the churches. This representation of the church in connection with the sevenfold lampstand of Israel confirms that John and Christ see them as the new Israel. Here however the lampstands are separate, because they represent seven individual churches.
Yet there can be little doubt that we are to see these seven churches as representative of the church as a whole, for the number seven would be seen as the number of divine perfection and completeness. Thus there is diversity in unity, and unity in diversity. The messages are to individual churches, but these seven churches also represent the whole church.
We can also compare with this the sevenfold lampstand connected to the two ‘sons of oil’, the anointed servants of God, in Zechariah 4. There too the two anointed servants of God were to further the purposes of God and, in their case, to build a Temple of God as a witness to the nations in the face of great difficulties and opposition. Here the idea is that the churches, as the Temple of God (1 Corinthians 3.17; Ephesians 2.21), should be a witness to the nations.
‘And in the middle of the lampstands.’ This stresses that the imminently returning Christ is in a real sense already with His people. Thus later we are told He walks among the lampstands (Revelation 2.1). He stands and walks among them in what they have to endure, loving, empowering, ever watchful, in readiness to bring this age to its conclusion. As He says elsewhere, ‘Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28.20).
‘One like a son of man.’ The reference here is to the heavenly figure mentioned in Daniel 7.13. This is one who comes out of a background of suffering at the end of a long period of tribulation to receive the kingdom and the glory and the dominion. While on earth Jesus constantly referred to Himself as this figure in His use of the term ‘the Son of Man’, but He always referred His ‘glorious appearing’ to the world as in the future. Now by the Spirit John is carried forward to that glorious moment, to witness Christ in readiness for that glorious appearing.
So John is indicating that what he is describing is Jesus in readiness for His appearing as directly connected with the events outlined in Daniel. The ‘one like a son of man’, having received dominion, power and authority on behalf of His suffering people at the resurrection and ascension (Matthew 28.18; Acts 2.33, 36; Romans 14.9; 1 Corinthians 15.24-25; Ephesians 1.20-22; Philippians 2.9-11; Hebrews 1.2-3; 1 Peter 3.22; Revelation 17.14), and having established the Kingly Rule of God over His people, is now about to introduce the everlasting kingdom. In vision John, carried forward into the future, sees the day of Christ, ‘the Lord’s day’, as having arrived. (This applies only to this vision. It does not necessarily attach to future visions). This is John’s vision. And he has to declare it to the churches.
The people to whom he will write are aware that in ‘the end days’ the people of God would endure great suffering, but that eventually, through their representative, they would achieve final triumph (Daniel 7.27 with 13). So the presentation of a vision of Jesus as having entered the presence of the Ancient of Days, and as being in readiness to bring in the everlasting kingdom, having received everlasting dominion, great glory and a kingdom which shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7.14), will bolster them up in the suffering they are to face. For while His people may suffer while here on earth, they can then be sure that the Victor stands among them to enable them in their witness (compare Matthew 28.18-19) and to finally bring them to Himself to be with Him where He is (John 14.2-3), sharing His everlasting rule.
But these churches are not told that theirs is the end of ‘the last days’ which have already begun (Acts 2.16; 1 Corinthians 10.11; 1 Peter 1.19-21; 2 Peter 3.3; Hebrews 1.1-2). What is promised is imminence not immediacy. Like Christians of every age they are to live in expectation. Thus this vision of Christ is applicable in every age, and acts constantly as a strengthening and encouragement in whatever God’s people have to face. He, as it were, still stands there like this ready to come.
The garment down to the foot (1.13) parallels the description of the High Priestly garment in the Old Testament (Exodus 28.4, 39 LXX). Jesus is here depicted as the great High Priest Who acts on behalf of His people. Additionally the girdle ‘of gold’ stresses His kingship. Thus He is the royal priest, Who represents the churches before God, ever living to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7.25). And now, having been once offered to bear the sins of many, and having been in the Holy Place on behalf of His people, He is appearing to those who wait for Him, a second time, apart from sin, unto salvation (Hebrews 9.28).
The description that follows is partly based on Ezekiel 43.2 and Daniel 7.9; 10.6 but we are not to assume that this means that they are representative of the same person. Indeed it is clear that that is not the case. The phraseology is utilised by John because he finds it highly descriptive and fitting to describe the indescribable. (Jesus Christ would not have needed Michael’s help against the ‘prince of Persia’ (Daniel 10.13). The opposite was the case (Jude 1.9)).
1.14a ‘His head and his hair were white as white wool, as white as snow.’
In Daniel 7.9 ‘the Ancient of Days’, Who is the everlasting God, has hair like white wool, and raiment white as snow. There they represent everlastingness (great age) and righteousness. We can apply the same ideas here. Christ is depicted as the everlasting, righteous One. The book of Revelation constantly applies to Christ descriptions elsewhere used of God. It stresses His essential deity.
1.14b ‘And his eyes were as a flame of fire.’
Compare Daniel 10.6 where the angel has ‘eyes like flaming torches’. Fire is constantly used to depict visions of the other world, for example on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24.17) and in Ezekiel (1.27), (for its use of angels compare Hebrews 1.7), because of its unique splendour and purity. Perhaps it has within it here the idea of eyes of piercing judgment, for fire is the supreme tester (1 Corinthians 3.13; 2 Thessalonians 1.8; 1 Peter 1.7; Revelation 2.18; 19.12).
1.15a ‘And his feet (or legs) like burnished brass, as if it had been refined in a furnace.’
All the descriptions are seeking to bring out His glory, and John no doubt remembers the Transfiguration (Mark 9.1 and parallels) as he gazes at this heavenly figure. The translation ‘legs’ (podes) is possible as the same word is used in terms of pillars of fire in Revelation 10.1 where it is descriptive of legs. But the usual meaning of the word is feet, and as the garment covers down to the feet, this would seem more probable here. (For OT parallels see Ezekiel 1.7; Daniel 10.6).
The actual word used here for brass is unknown outside Revelation, so that any Biblical parallels are only secondary. Undoubtedly it signified brass at its most pure and glorious, as is brought out by the fact that it has been ‘refined in a furnace’. In Isaiah 63 a glorious figure is depicted as treading down men in the winepress of God’s wrath. In view of the parallel with eyes like a flame of fire, and its application to the partly idolatrous church of Thyatira (2.18), such an idea may be in mind here (see 14.19-20), for all things are to be brought into subjection under His feet (Psalm 8.6; I Corinthians 15.27; Ephesians 1.22; Hebrews 2.8).
1.15b ‘And his voice as the voice of many waters.’
In Ezekiel 43.2 we are told that God’s voice was ‘like the sound of many waters’ as the glory of God came and the earth shone with His glory. This is clearly reflected here. Later the sound of heavenly voices is also described in these terms (Revelation 14.2; 19.6). So the voice of the ‘son of man’ is as the voice of God and as the voice of a heavenly multitude, demonstrating His supreme power (compare and contrast ‘as of a trumpet’ 1.10).
1.16 ‘And he had in his right hand seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was as the sun shines in its strength.’
The idea of the seven stars held in the right hand may have in mind in the background the seven then known planets, the holding in the hand intending to signify the universal rule of Christ over the cosmos, or more likely the seven stars of Pleiades which, with Orion, are especially mentioned as God’s workmanship and are linked with God turning deep darkness into morning, making the day dark with night, pouring the waters of the sea on the face of the earth, and bringing sudden destruction on the strong (Amos 5.8). Thus they are connected with His creative and controlling power. Compare Job 38.31 which mentions ‘the sweet influences of the Pleiades’, thus suggesting heavenly power. These ideas could well immediately spring to the minds of his readers.
But this is immediately applied to the seven angels of the seven churches to whom the letters will be sent (1.20). They are the seven stars, and the ruler of the cosmos holds the seven angels in His right hand. This would confirm that we are to see in the seven churches the universal church. The fact that they are held in His right hand, His most powerful hand, demonstrates that they are both under His supreme control and under His protection.
The sharp two-edged sword (rompheia here in Revelation) is mentioned in Hebrews 4.12 where the word of God is sharper than a two-edged Sword (machaira), dividing soul and spirit and discerning the thoughts and intents of the heart. Compare Ephesians 6.17 where the sword (machaira) of the Spirit is the word of God. The different words for sword could be used interchangeably but demonstrate that if this idea is in mind we are dealing here with an idea common in the churches and not with a direct reference to those verses. Interestingly the ‘two-edged sword’ of vengeance in the Old Testament is also both romphaia and machaira in LXX (Psalm 149.6; Proverbs 5.4).
The suggestion is that the word of God proceeds from His mouth, defending and guiding the righteous and cutting through the defences of the wicked. Compare Isaiah 49.2 where the mouth of the coming Servant of God is made ‘like a sharp sword’ (LXX macheira) and Isaiah 11.4 where the coming King will ‘smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips will slay the wicked’. Compare also Revelation 19.15 where a sharp sword goes out of His mouth with which He will smite the nations. (For general references to the sword (rompheia) as connected with the mouth see Psalm 57.4; 64.3. In both cases the idea is of sharp words).
We may also compare Isaiah 66.16 where ‘by fire will the Lord plead, and by His sword (LXX rompheia), with all flesh, for the slain of the Lord will be many’, tying in with the eyes of fire and the sword from the mouth and stressing judgment. The lightning in Genesis 3.24 was also like a flaming sword (LXX rompheia), again symbolising judgment but including the protection of God’s holy place. But in Psalm 17.13; 35.3 LXX the psalmist looks to the sword (rompheia) of the Lord to deliver him from the wicked. So the sword delivers the righteous and judges the undeserving.
‘And his face was as the sun shines in its strength.’ This compares with the Transfiguration where Matthew says ‘His face did shine as the sun’ (Matthew 17.2). The shining of the sun is used as an indication of righteousness in Matthew 13.43. Thus it refers not only to glory but to supreme righteousness. So John draws on many sources, which are clearly known to him, to bring out the glory and divinity of this son of man’.
The vision is vivid. Face shining like the sun, eyes as a flame of fire, hair of the purest whiteness, feet of burning brass, the word of God like a sharp two-edged sword issuing from His mouth, seven shining stars in His right hand, and a voice like the sound of many waters.
Later on at His second coming in chapter 19 He is similarly depicted as having 'eyes like a flame of fire' and as having a sharp sword (rompheia) going out of His mouth with which He will smite the nations.
1.17a ‘And when I saw him I fell at his feet as one dead.’
We can compare this with Ezekiel 1.28 where Ezekiel ‘fell on his face’ before God. Here too John is seeing the ‘appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’, and is traumatised. If we really consider Him Who is seen in the vision we may well do and feel the same. Here again Jesus Christ is paralleled with God.
1.17b-18 ‘And he laid his right hand on me and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, and the living one, I died and, see, I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades”.’
Here the glorified Jesus applies to Himself the ideas previously applied to God. For ‘the first and the last’ compare the Alpha and Omega of ‘the Lord God’ in 1.8, and see 22.13 where both descriptions are applied to Christ; and the One Who is the first and the last and the living One parallels the One who was, and who is to come, and who is (1.4). Compare also Isaiah 44.6 where God is said to be ‘the first and the last’. Jesus Christ is revealed to be on the divine side of reality.
‘The living One.’ He is the One Who had life in the beginning, the One Who has conquered death, the One Who ever lives, and the personification of life itself. Elsewhere He could say ‘I am --- the life’ (John 14.6), and as such He could give life. For even while He was on earth He could say ‘The hour --- now is when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’ (John 5.25). How much more in the last day when ‘those who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come forth, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done ill to the resurrection of condemnation’ (John 5.25.28-29).
‘And I have the keys of death and of the afterworld.’ It is as the Living One, Who Himself died, and burst open the gates of death and of the grave, that He has, through His eternal resurrection, received the keys of death and the afterworld so that He can release or imprison in them whom He will. Thus His people need not fear death or the grave, whatever comes, for He controls the entry and exit from both. (‘Hades’ refers to the world of the dead, depicted as ‘beneath’ the earth because it was associated closely with the grave whence bodies went (see Ezekiel 32.18-32). There was no thought of any real existence in it, only a shadowy form).
1.19- 20a ‘Write therefore the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will happen hereafter, the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands.’
These words have borne a host of interpretations as they have been used as the basis for various theories. But what he is being told to do is fairly simple. He is to write what he has seen - the vision of the glorified Son of Man and the seven golden lampstands - the things that are - the present state and position of the seven churches - and the things that will be hereafter - the impact of coming events on the seven churches, and their final destiny, as will be described in the letters and the remainder of the book.
The word ‘hereafter’ means simply ‘after the present moment’. The letters to the seven churches include descriptions in the future, and things even reaching into eternity. Nothing could be after those. Thus to make ‘hereafter’ mean ‘after the time described in the letters to the seven churches’ is totally artificial. We must therefore seriously dispute the suggestion that it can be given the stressed meaning of ‘after these things’ in the sense that it relegates the happenings to the far future beyond the time span of the seven churches.
It should be noted that these words to some extent parallel the words spoken of God in verses 4 and 8 but in a different order. The One Who is and Who was and Who is to come, has brought about and will bring about that ‘which you saw, and the things which are and the things that will happen hereafter’. This in itself stresses that ‘the things that are’ refers to the things in being at that time, controlled by the God Who is.
A glance at the letters to the seven churches shows quite clearly that they themselves contain elements which are eternal which will be enjoyed by the overcomers in the seven churches. What could be after those? Besides the letters include descriptions which are dealt with later in Revelation, and consistent exegesis means that we must take the two together. The truth is that the natural translation here is ‘hereafter’, ‘after this point in time’, and ‘the things that are’ means ‘are now’ i.e. the present state of the churches at that point in time. Any other meaning is forced and unnatural.
1.20b ‘The seven stars are the seven angels of the seven churches. And the seven lampstands are seven churches.’
What he is to write is here summarised, ‘the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands’. And what is that mystery? That the seven stars in His right hand are the (seven) angels of the seven churches, and the lampstands are the seven churches.
In the Old Testament the sevenfold lampstand was connected with the two sons of oil, the anointed servants of God (Zechariah 4), who received spiritual power from Him. In the New the seven lampstands are connected with seven powerful angels. So the churches can go forward in confident assurance, knowing that the coming Christ is among them and that the angels responsible for their wellbeing are held in His right hand. Though other angels may fail, no one will pluck these from His hand. He has full control over them, as He has over the churches.
In all this there are no grounds for making chapters 4-19 refer to something that only occurs in the distant future. They are, with the exception of the description of the Second Coming itself, (and like Peter and Paul before them they knew that they had no guarantee of survival to that glorious event), something that the churches will themselves experience This is reinforced by what is actually said to the churches, which includes references to later chapters in Revelation.
On the other hand it is not necessary, for this reason, to state that chapter 4-19 refer only to what will happen to the churches at that time. That they will happen in their near experience does not exclude their happening again and again throughout the period before the Second Coming. John foresaw that the churches would face what is described in the book. He foresaw events of the future. What he did not foresee was that such events would be repeated again and again through the ages at different levels of intensity. This it was not God’s pleasure to reveal. Whenever such things do reoccur His people can be encouraged by this vision.
Jesus, and the Bible, make clear that the timing of the second coming and therefore the things intrinsically related to it are totally unknown except to God. That timing is such a secret that it was even unknown to Jesus while He was on earth (Mark 13.32). Thus there must always be a valid distinction timewise between those things and the things that occur before. There must indeed always be an unknown gap between them, the extent of which cannot be postulated. Peter can see it in terms of ‘a thousand years’ (2 Peter 3.8). Jesus certainly told men that His coming could not take place until the Temple had been utterly destroyed, for He knew that had to happen. He told them of other things that must take place. But He could give no idea of the time of His return because He specifically stated that He did not know it (Mark 13.32).
With regard to the view that the seven churches refer to stages in the consecutive condition of the church through the ages, this owes more to subtle selection from history rather than to truth, and to our conceit that the church in the Western world is mainly the one that matters. History is so diverse that any order of the seven churches could have been fitted into history. What is true, however, is that through history different parts of the church have regularly been in a similar condition to that pictured in the seven churches. At any one time all the churches described are typified somewhere. The view has truth in that the central message of Revelation did illuminate events through history.
Messages To The Seven Churches (2.1-3.22).
The Son of Man now gives John messages to the seven churches. Each of them follows a general pattern. Firstly an introduction based on John’s vision (‘the things you saw’), secondly the state of the church and various warnings (‘the things which are’), and finally future events and the promises to the overcomers (‘the things which shall be hereafter’). Among other things they follow the pattern of Israel’s history as a warning of the danger of following the path they took (see introduction).
The Letter To The Church In Ephesus (2.1-7).
2.1 ‘To the angel at the church in Ephesus write, These things says he who holds the seven stars in his right hand, he who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands.’
Each message is written ‘to the angel’ of the church. While it has been suggested that this could mean the leader of the church that is unlikely as we have no grounds for thinking that at this stage churches had an overall bishop. Larger churches, including the church at Rome, had a plurality of bishops. (Even the Roman Catholic historian, Duchesne, speaks of ‘the ghost of poly-episcopacy in the Roman church’. Any so-called line of bishops for the earliest centuries is quite frankly unreliable).
Nor does the use of the term ‘angel’ in a book filled with supernatural angels tie in with this usage. We can therefore say with confidence that genuine angels are in mind, the angels responsible for those particular churches (as there were angels who took responsibility for countries - Daniel 10.13; 12.1). But the churches are guaranteed that theirs at least are good angels for they are in His right hand (in contrast with some of the angels who affect the course of nations). Note, however, that the content of the message is directly directed to the churches themselves (1.11).
The fact that the letters are addressed to the angels gives the messages a sense of timelessness. John has been transferred to ‘the Lord’s day’ and he is to write to churches who are from that viewpoint in the past. Thus the messages are addressed to their angels for transmission into the past. This emphasises the surreal nature of John’s encounter.
It should be noted that while Scripture constantly reminds us of these heavenly beings who support the people of God, nevertheless they are always kept in the background. They are there as a quiet assurance, not to be magnified. In no way are they to be venerated for they are our fellow-servants (Revelation 19.10; 22.9). They are ‘ministering spirits sent to serve the heirs of salvation’ (Hebrews 1.14).
This church, which on the whole is doing fairly well, is reminded of the closeness of the presence of Christ. He walks among them and holds their angel in His right hand, i.e. has full control over, and provides full protection for, their angel. The mention of His ‘walking among them’ looks back to Genesis 3.8 where God walked in the Garden of Eden, for the promise to overcomers is the restoration of ‘Paradise’ (1.7). It can also be compared with Deuteronomy 23.14 where it is said ‘the Lord your God walks in the midst of the camp to deliver you, therefore your camp shall be holy so that he see no unclean thing in you and turn away from you’. So His walking among them reminds them that, while He is there to strengthen and encourage them, He also expects them to walk in holiness, for He is also very much aware of all that goes on.
2.2-3 ‘I know your works and your labour and your patient endurance, and that you cannot bear evil men, and you tried those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them false, and you have patience and have endured for my name’s sake and have not grown weary.’
In many ways this appears an exemplary church, good-living, hardworking, resilient, enduring, unaccepting of wrongdoing, but they lack one thing. They have become bogged down. They are so busy that they are losing sight of Christ.
We can contrast what is said here with the epistle to the Ephesians. There the emphasis was all on the grace of God and the centrality of Christ, here the emphasis is on works, labour and endurance. These latter are commended, but the church is reminded that the former is more important still.
The reference to apostles need not indicate that there was a wider level of apostleship. (In the New Testament apostleship is strictly limited to the twelve, Paul and Barnabas and James the Lord’s brother). Rather it indicates that there were those who tried to claim such status for themselves, calling themselves apostles. The church rightly rejected them.
2.4-5 ‘But I have this against you that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you are fallen, and do the works that you did at first, or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand from its place, unless you have a change of mind and heart (repent).’
The ‘works’ that they ‘did at first’ clearly involve love for Christ. Jesus constantly spoke of doing the works of the Father, one of which was that they should trust in the One Whom He had sent (John 6.29). This should they do, and not leave the others undone. How crucial it is that we keep our eyes fixed on Christ and not on the church.
These words are simple but they touch the heart. The love that they once had has now cooled down. Let them therefore consider the vision of the glorious Son of Man standing among His people and be enflamed with love for Him again. Otherwise their church will simply cease to exist. They will be removed from the universal church of Christ. It is clear from this that the ‘first work’ for any church is to centre its eyes on the living Christ Himself. Without that their existence is essentially meaningless.
Possibly in mind here is the fact that Adam lost his first love when he sinned in Eden. Thus he lost access to the tree of life and to the Paradise of God (the Garden of Eden is ‘Paradise’ in LXX, a Greek version of the Bible). The reward for restoring that first love will indeed be to enter the new Paradise (verse 7)
Israel also lost its first love. As the words of God in Jeremiah say, ‘I remember concerning you the kindness of your youth, the love of your espousals, how you went after me in the wilderness in a land that was not sown’ (Jeremiah 1.2). But though God walked among them (Deuteronomy 23.14) they too lost their first love and eventually strayed far from God. How history repeats itself. God walked with Adam and yet he lost his first love, God walked in the midst of Israel, yet they lost their first love, and now it is happening to the churches.
2.6 ‘But this you do have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans which I also hate.’
We know little about the Nicolaitans but they were clearly influential then in leading astray the churches, and were probably followers of a Nicolaus (variously identified). They apparently taught that it was good to eat things sacrificed to idols and to behave immorally, engaging in self-expression and full release (see vv.14-15). This meant both a compromise with the Roman religion, with its sacrifices to Roma and its love feasts, and with other religions, thus denying the exclusivity of Christ. This then meant involvement in idolatry and licentiousness.
To openly eat things sacrificed to idols would be seen as acknowledging the gods who were being ‘worshipped’, and licentious behaviour, introducing overt sexual expression outside marriage (often with ‘sacred prostitutes’), was a common feature in many religions of the day. Misused sex and idolatry, two constant enemies of the church, these things Christ hates. But there was none of this in the Ephesian church. They had maintained their purity.
2.7a ‘He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
The first phrase was a phrase used only by Jesus Christ. ‘Let the one who is willing to hear, listen and take note and respond’ (Matthew 11.15; 13.9, 43). This was always what distinguished true followers from the false. The Spirit here is the Holy Spirit for He speaks to all the churches (the angels would only be seen as ‘speaking’ to the individual churches, although they do not actually speak to them as the message is communicated through the letters).
2.7b ‘To him who overcomes, to him will I give to eat the fruit of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’
Every Christian is to be an overcomer, overcoming sins, patiently enduring temptation and tribulation, serving Christ, loving Him, being faithful to Him. As Paul says, ‘we are more than overcomers through Him that loved us’ (Romans 8.37). They hear His voice and follow Him (John 10.27-28). Without these a person is not a Christian.
This arises from our oneness in Christ. In John 16.33 Jesus declared that His people need not fear tribulation as He has ‘overcome the world’. He has rejected its power and conquered it and therefore has final control over it. Thus it is powerless to hurt them more than He allows. He also declared that He had overcome Satan (Luke 11.22). Once we are united with Him we therefore also become ‘overcomers’ in Him. As John tells us in 1 John 5.4, ‘whatever is begotten of God overcomes the world, and this is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith’. For they ‘are of God -- and have overcome them (false teachers with the spirit of antichrist)’ (1 John 4.4). Those who are in Him overcome the world and overcome Satan through Him.
These are the ones who have ‘heard His voice’. It is noteworthy that overcoming is a theme of the whole of Revelation (e.g. 11.7; 12.11; 13.7; 21.7), something which directly connects these churches with the events that occur later on. And to those who are overcomers He ‘will give to eat of the tree of life’ (compare Revelation 22.14). To eat of the tree of life was to live for ever (Genesis 3.22). Thus the promise is that, whatever experiences they have to go through, they will enjoy eternal life and have their share in God’s glorious Heaven, the Paradise of God (2 Corinthians 12.4).
(It is often argued that many Christians cannot be described as ‘overcomers’ because of worldly lives, or because they even backslide and appear for a time to reject Him. But then they can hardly be described as ‘righteous’ either. Yet if they really are His they are ‘righteous in Him’ and are therefore overcomers in Him. It is not for us finally to determine who are Christians and who are not but there are plenty of warnings in the New Testament that such people should beware lest at the last their ‘faith’ (or lack of it) proves in vain. But in the end all is of grace. And if such are truly His, they are ever ‘righteous’ in Him and are therefore ‘overcomers’ in Him, and will reveal it in their lives. No one stresses more than John does that salvation is of faith, but no one is more severe in his requirement that it be revealed in their lives - 1 John 2.1-5, 9-11, 19).
The Letter To The Church In Smyrna (2.8-11).
2.8 ‘And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, ‘These things says the first and the last, who died and came to life.’
This description is taken from 1.18. The church is to face intense persecution so they are reminded that their Lord is ‘the first and the last’, the beginning and the end, from everlasting to everlasting, the One Who was before all things, the One Who will be into eternity. Thus temporary things are unimportant for those who are His. And yet He Who is the First and the Last died. ‘Tis mystery all, the immortal dies’. How incomprehensible it is. But it was necessary so that He could conquer death Thus He Who is the First and the Last is now the crucified and risen Saviour, the conqueror of death, so that in the end they have nothing to fear, because He is the Eternal Saviour Who has defeated death (2 Timothy 1.10; Hebrews 2.14-15). They too, therefore, need not fear death.
2.9 ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (although you are rich) and the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews, and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.’
Smyrna is a suffering church. They are at present facing tribulation, and will yet face greater tribulation, as depicted later. They are poor in this world’s goods, but rich in what really matters, the things of God (compare James 2.5).
Their present problems stem from actions initiated by Jews, certain of whom regularly persecuted the early church and stirred up the people and the authorities against them. (They would later be the main cause of the martyrdom of Polycarp in this very place (156 AD)). And these Jews claim to do it in the name of God, which can only be regarded as blasphemy, for they are attacking the people of God. Thus they show themselves really to be serving Satan in what they are doing, assisting him as he seeks to make war on God’s people (12.17). Their synagogue has become the tool of Satan.
‘Satan’ means ‘the adversary’ and they are here acting as adversaries against the people of God. Compare how Jesus told the Pharisees that they were of their father the Devil (John 8.44) when they professed to serve God but demonstrated by their actions whom they really served.
In the light of the fact that the other letters refer specifically to events in Old Testament history in ascending chronological order, and the fact that overcomers will avoid ‘the second death’, which relates to the accounts of the first deaths in Genesis 4.8, 23, we may well apply this situation to Cain’s building of ‘a city’ (a tent encampment). First there was a city and then there was the great city, Babel, with its Ziggurat or Temple. Thus the synagogue of the Jews, seen as outside the sphere of the Christian church, parallels Cain’s encampment, outside the sphere of ‘the presence of the Lord’ (Genesis 4.16). Both ‘say they are’ and are not. Those who were once ‘in’ are now ‘out’.
2.10 ‘Do not be afraid of the things which you are about to suffer. Behold the Devil is about to cast some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.’
It is noteworthy that Smyrna, the insignificant church, is one of only two not criticised for failure (Philadelphia is the other). Their patient endurance is acknowledged, and as they continue faithful in the persecution to come they will, through death, receive the crown of life. As Jesus died, and is alive again (verse 8), so too will they be. And they will be given the victor’s crown, the crown of life, given to those who love Him (James 1.12).
‘The Devil’ (diabolos - ‘one who brings charges with hostile intent’) probably refers to his activity through the Roman authorities, as will be apparent later (chapter 13), combined with the Jews mentioned earlier as members of the Synagogue of Satan, as tools of the Devil. They falsely accuse Christians and are acting as agents for the Devil by ‘accusing the brethren (12.10).
There is to be a short but intense persecution, instigated by these Jews, which will result in imprisonment and martyrdom for many. ‘Ten days’ means a shortish period with ten signifying ‘a number of’ (compare how Jacob could say ‘you have changed my wages ten times’ (Genesis 31.7)). Persecution was often spasmodic, with some incident suddenly raising the tempo, which then continued a short while and finally died down.
Possibly intended by the phrase ‘ten days’ is the idea that God will not allow the persecution to go on longer than He permits. Its time is of a duration fixed by God. More information about such persecution will be given later in Revelation. This again confirms that these churches are to face what is described there. In Daniel 1.12 Daniel and his friends are tested for ten days to see if their diet was satisfactory compared with what the Babylonians offered. This may have sprung to mind here with the thought that the ten day test would make these Christians more pure than ever. Compare also how Jeremiah waited before God for ten days when ascertaining what would be the fate of God’s people after Gedaliah had killed the representative of the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 42.7). So ‘ten days’ is seen as a period of waiting and testing.
2.11 ‘He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt of the Second Death.’
The second death was a concept of Judaism, the death of the soul. No doubt their Jewish persecutors taunted them with the fact that after their martyrdoms their souls also would be destroyed. Jesus promises them that, on the contrary, the second death cannot touch them (compare Revelation 20.6, 14; 21.8). Rather will they receive the crown of eternal life.
The Letter To The Church in Pergamum (2.12-17).
2.12 ‘And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write, These things says he who has the sharp two-edged sword.’
Taken from 1.16 this description suggests that the church in Pergamum is being reminded that it will be especially sifted, and if necessary exposed, by the word of God and judgment, because of the heresy in its midst. It may also be contrasting the glorious Son of Man with the throne of Satan (v.13), the One having the word of truth the other the words of lies.
2.13a ‘I know where you live, even where Satan’s throne is.’
Compare Revelation 13.2. This refers to the first Temple to Roma and the Emperor, built there by Caesar Augustus in 29 BC, the centre of semi-official emperor worship which would later become official. Its existence would ensure that Christians in Pergamum came under the most stringent scrutiny whenever the emperor’s supposed divinity was being emphasised.
In the advance of history this parallels the building of the first Temple to Satan at Babel (Genesis 11). There was first established what would become ‘Babylon the Great’, so that Babylon was ever the symbol of man’s ultimate rebellion against God, summing up in itself all idolatry and occult practises, and any ruling city in rebellion against God could be thought of as ‘Babylon the Great’. Thus Pergamum is an aspect of Babylon the Great (see Revelation chapters 17-18).
2.13b ‘You hold fast my name, and did not deny my faith (your faith in me), even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you where Satan dwells.’
‘You hold fast my name’ - compare Revelation 11.18 and contrast 13.17. Pergamum has already suffered some persecution in times when fervency for the Emperor and for Rome has raised the passions of the people against Christians. But they had not wavered.
‘Did not deny my faith.’ The aorist tense suggests that this refers to some particular period of persecution which they would all remember, when the church emerged triumphant
‘The faith of me’ contains an objective genitive and means ‘your faith in me’. Antipas is unknown to us but was clearly well known then. The importance of the mention of the name is that it reminds them that God knows us each by name. God will hold fast the names of those who hold fast the name of Jesus. Indeed Antipas mirrors Jesus as a faithful witness (compare 1.5). So the members of the church at Pergamum have already proved their readiness to suffer for Christ’s sake.
Notice the continual reference to Satan. He is working through Jews, he is working through Romans, he is working through officialdom. Pergamum appears to be especially the target of Satan.
2.14-15 ‘But I have a little against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit immorality. In the same way you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.’
The reference is to Numbers 25.3 onwards, compare 2 Peter 2.15; Jude 1.10-13. It is clear that these ideas were fairly widespread (compare 2.6). Balaam was a soothsayer and worker of magic, called in to bring down the power of the gods to destroy Israel. Yet under the influence of God he blessed them instead. His name (bala ‘am) probably means ‘he who swallows down the nation’. (Compare Nicolaus, ‘he who conquers the people’). And in spite of blessing the people of Israel he did them harm nevertheless.
Eating things sacrificed to Roma and the Emperor would have great significance as being looked on as a compromise with Emperor worship, giving it a kind of approval. (Later it would be demanded as proof of loyalty to Rome). It refers to any participation of Christians in marginal religions and beliefs which could give a false impression to outsiders.
Immorality, or involvement with sex for its own sake, has always been men’s downfall. In contrast with the sex which seals the marriage bond, it is totally contrary to the teaching of Christ. Peter speaks very vividly of these people, ‘revelling in their love-feasts --- having eyes full of adultery, and who cannot cease from sin, enticing unsteadfast souls’ (2 Peter 2.13-14).
The Nicolaitans held the same views, but were clearly not alone in them. Compromise with idolatry and sexual excesses were thus seen by Jesus as two of the greatest dangers to His people. (The word (oliga), literally translated ‘a few things’ in versions, often means ‘a little’ (e.g. Zechariah 1.15 LXX) and probably means that here). These things were the product of Babylon the Great.
2.16 ‘Repent therefore, or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of my mouth.’
Notice that it is the whole church that is told to repent (‘you’). They are failing in their responsibility. They are clearly not taking a stand against these flagrant evildoers, for they should have cast them out. So they must change their attitude of heart and mind immediately, and do what is required. However finally the judgment will be against those involved (‘them’). The two-edged sword, the word of God, will expose them, discerning the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4.12), and they will be smitten and have judgment brought on them.
2.17 ‘He who has an ear to hear, let him hear, what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows but the one who receives it.’
The hidden manna refers to the manna that was hidden in a pot which was laid up before the Ark of Testimony (Exodus 16.33), the manna that according to Jewish belief was hidden in Heaven and would be revealed at the end time and given to those who were faithful to God. We find the Ark of the Covenant, containing the hidden manna, later in Heaven (11.19).
It is thus a promise of benefiting from eternal life, paralleling the Tree of Life and avoidance of the Second Death. And as Jesus makes clear elsewhere, this hidden manna is Himself, for He is the bread of life (John 6.35) and as such He will guarantee their resurrection at the last day (John 6.32-33, 35, 39). The eating of the hidden manna contrasts with the eating of idolatrous food. Those who reject the latter will enjoy the former.
‘And I will give him a white stone and on the stone a new name written which no one knows but he who receives it.’ Stones with names written on them are described in Exodus 28.9 and 28.21. They are alternately stones of onyx, and stones of all colours, bearing the names of the twelve patriarchs, and thus of the tribes who were associated with them. The tribes thus received their blessing by their connection with the patriarchs to whom the promises were made. They formed part of the High Priest’s breastplate (28.15) and were also on his shoulders (28.12). In one case there was one stone for six tribes, in the other one stone per tribe.
But here there is a new stone, and this one is pure white signifying the true righteousness of those who bear the new name, it is the stone of the righteous. And there is one for each person. The stone testifies to God on their behalf and they receive their blessing by their connection with Christ, whose secret name is on the stone. They are individually represented before the Lord, for each is precious in His sight.
And as a kingdom of priests they are able to represent themselves as Christ’s before the Lord, wearing their white stones as tokens of Whose they are. However, the names on the older stones were borne on the High Priest’s shoulders and breastplate before the Lord, and it is possible we are to see here that our great High Priest (Revelation 1.13) will figuratively bear on His shoulders and breastplate a stone for every believer, inscribed with His own new name.
For mention elsewhere of this new name we turn to God’s declaration in Isaiah 62.2. ‘The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory, and you will be called by a new name which the mouth of the Lord will name’. So this giving of a new name to the people of God was long promised. This name is a new name of Jesus, and is connected with the name of God and of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 3.12; 19.12).
When God determined to deliver His people in the days of Moses He revealed His new name to Moses (Exodus 6.3 with 3.14). It is true that the name Yahweh was already known to them, but now He was revealing Himself as the ‘I am’, the ‘One Who is there to act’ on behalf of His people, giving the old name a new significance, ready for the new deliverance by which His essence would be revealed. In the same way Christ will receive a new name, which will presumably be a variation of the old, but will reveal His essence and will be for the final deliverance of His people. The name is therefore undoubtedly connected with the name which is above every name which He has already received, the name Yahweh (in Hebrew) and ‘Lord’ (in Greek) (Philippians 2.9-11), which is the name in which all Christians are baptised (Matthew 28.19), a name which did reveal His essence.
But Christ’s new name, His own eternal name, will even more fully reveal His essence, and it is the significance of this which is to be finally revealed to His own, for ‘He has a name written which no one knows but He Himself’ (Revelation 19.12). It may be that this name is KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS (Revelation 19.16). God says in Isaiah 52.6 ‘therefore my people will know my name; therefore in that day they will know that I am He who speaks, here I am’. Here ‘knowing the name’ means more than just intellectual knowledge, it means knowing the name fully in experience, and we notice that the name is connected with the ‘I am’. In the same way only those who are granted to know Christ fully in experience will ‘know the name’. ‘Now I know in part, but then I will know even as I am known’ (1 Corinthians 13.12). Until that day only Christ Himself truly knows the name.
So the reception and ‘knowing’ of the new name on the white stone will signify that they belong to Christ and have come truly to know Him in all the fullness of His being, something that can only happen in eternity. Having received His righteousness, and having been made righteous in Him, and being destined to enjoy in the future the full experience of the wonders of God’s gracious benefits in Christ in the last day, they are worthy recipients of the white stone of righteousness which has His name written on it. This is in contrast with those who later in Revelation (13.17) bear the name of the Beast, the mark of Rome.
The knowledge of a name was considered by the ancients to confer mysterious spiritual powers, but we do not need to bring this idea in here. The true knowledge of the name of Christ does indeed confer spiritual power. However, it is not through magical means, but through the grace of the One Who bears the name.
The fact that they will eat of the hidden manna in the heavenly Temple, and bear the white stone carrying the new name of Christ, sets them apart from those who worship in the Temple of Satan, bear the mark of the beast, and eat the defiled sacrificial foods.
The Letter To The Church In Thyatira (2.18-29).
2.18 ‘And to the angel of the church in Thyatira, write, These things says the Son of God, who has his eyes like a flame of fire, and his feet are like burnished brass.’
The fact that these descriptions of the Son of Man are used in relation to Thyatira confirms that they contain the ideas of discerning judgment, powerful eyes that burn into the heart, and powerful feet that tread down evil. (See for eyes Psalm 11.4-6; Proverbs 15.3; 20.8; Isaiah 1.16; Jeremiah 5.3; 16.17; 32.19; Zechariah 12.4 and for feet Isaiah 14.25; 41.25; 63.1-6). Here the true identity of the Son of Man is openly declared, He is ‘the Son of God’. This is mentioned to put extra stress on the warnings.
2.19 ‘I know your works and your love and faith and ministry and patient endurance, and that your last works are more than the first.’
This is as high a commendation as any church receives. The pure among them have not lost their first love (their last works are more than the first (contrast 2.5)), their faith is true, their ministry vibrant and they faithfully endure, and they are continuing to grow.
It should be remembered here as elsewhere that ‘the church in Thyatira’ would not be composed of just one assembly but of a number of assemblies and house churches of varying sizes throughout the town connected through one set of bishops and deacons who would supervise the whole. Thus some groups may have kept themselves pure and maintained their zeal, while others have tolerated the heresy. Their failure lies in the fact that the leadership have not been more decisive.
2.20-23a ‘But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess; and she teaches and seduces my servants to commit sexual immorality, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent but she is not willing to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I am throwing her into a bed, and those who commit sexual immorality with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am he who searches the reins and hearts, and I will give to each of you in accordance with your works.’
In this church is a woman who has set herself up as a prophetess, but she is really like the evil Jezebel who was considered the epitome of evil (1 Kings 16.31; 18.4, 13; 19.1; 21.7-15, 25), who painted her face to try to seduce Jehu (2 Kings 9.30). It was Jezebel who encouraged the worship of Baal with its accompanying sexual rites, and had been infamous for it ever since.
Here we have the same sins, sexual immorality and idolatry, which were clearly prevalent in a number of churches, but here exacerbated by the fact that they are encouraged by someone who claims to speak ecstatically in the name of God. And here the sexual immorality is mentioned first. It is clear that it was a major problem in the church, and that ‘Jezebel’ and her followers indulged in it to the limit.
Yet God has graciously given her time to repent. This suggests that she has been warned in some way about her behaviour, but she has hardened her heart. It is possible that she had been publicly admonished by the church, although their failure lay in the fact that they failed to take the necessary step of casting her out. So He will now provide her with another kind of bed, a bed of great tribulation and probably even death, possibly a mortal sickbed. ‘I will throw her into a bed’. Vividly in mind here is that the first Jezebel was thrown from a window to her doom (2 Kings 9.33), thus it presumably signifies death. ‘Bed’ is, of course, ironic. She spends her time in bed, so she will be cast into one.
And similar ‘great tribulation’ will be meted out on those who indulge in immorality with her if they also fail to repent. Here the ‘great tribulation’ is God’s direct punishment, and it will be inflicted to the full. This is in contrast with the churches’ experience later in the book (7.14). They will also experience ‘great tribulation’, but their suffering will be undeserved. Great tribulation is not only endured by Christians. Others too will suffer.
Alternately the ‘great tribulation’ here may have in mind pestilence, especially sexually transmitted disease, which will strike them, but the deliberate use of ‘great tribulation’ demands a connection with 7.14. However disease is undoubtedly one of the tribulations to come.
In the Old Testament the faithful often had to go through the judgments meted out on the wicked, although watched over by God in the process. So while the faithful would endure great tribulation knowing it to be their means of entry into Heaven, these heretics would experience it with little hope. The description of some as her ‘children’ probably refers to those who hold fast her teachings and propagate them, as against her lovers who only indulge in them. The former will suffer an even more intense fate, for they will be ‘killed with death’.
Once more we have an advancement in Old Testament history. The effects of Babel, with its introduction of idol worship and accompanying uncleanness, and Balaam, who was considered by the Jews to have introduced Israel to idolatry and sexual extravagance, have resulted in Jezebel who drove Israel even deeper into the same.
2.23b - 25 ‘And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches the reins and hearts, and I will give to each of you in accordance with your works. But to you I say, to the rest of you in Thyatira, as many as do not hold this teaching, who do not know the deep things of Satan as they say, I throw on you no other burden. However, that which you have, hold fast until I come.’
For searching the reins and the hearts, searching out what controls men and how they feel and think, see Psalm 7.9; 26.2; Jeremiah 20.12 where it is the work of God and compare Romans 8.27. Thus the Son of Man is the One Who tests men’s motives and thoughts to their very depths, for in the end the final test of any man is the way he lives. In Revelation, as in Jesus’ teaching (John 6.29), works include the work of faith, but that faith must reveal itself in action. As James said, ‘faith without works is itself a dead faith’ (James 2.17).
The great tribulation that these heretics would face will be witnessed by the churches for ‘all the churches will know ---’. This again confirms that the churches are present throughout Revelation. In Heaven there is only one ‘church’, but they are never even described as that (but compare Hebrews 12.23).
The Son of God reserves His specific condemnation for those who commit the evil and hold the evil teaching. On the remainder He wishes to place no further burden than they already have, and He has already commended them. This ‘burden’ may have Acts 15.28-29 in mind for its phraseology is echoed in this passage. ‘For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these necessary things, that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from sexual immorality’. Thus Jesus is confirming that Christians are released from Old Testament ordinances including circumcision.
‘Who do not know the deep things of Satan as they say.’ This is probably just a reference to the fact that the origin of this teaching is really Satanic although the teachers claim to ‘know the deep things of God’ (this is most likely. John applies ‘Satanic’ to the Jewish synagogue and to the Roman authorities, and there it was metaphorical also), but it may even suggest that those condemned actually claim to ‘a knowledge of the deep things of Satan’ and boast about the fact (contrast here the real ‘deep things of God’ (1 Corinthians 2.10).)
However Satan’s throne was in Pergamum (2.13), and that almost certainly refers to the Temple of Roma and the Emperor there. So these ‘deep things of Satan’ may have been connected with the this cult which included open partaking of offerings made to Roma (Rome) and the Emperor, and sexually immoral activities in their love-feasts, with ‘Jezebel’ justifying connection with it by false prophesy and even falser teaching. We must beware of syncretists who seek to combine Christianity with lesser religions. The fourth century would see such syncretism under Constantine the Great which would lead to many errors in the church.
Emperor worship was not yet fully established but it was certainly prevalent, especially in the East away from Rome, where the frailties of the Emperors were less well known. We shall see later that the writer speaks harshly of the worship sought, and at times demanded, by Rome, for itself and its Emperors (e.g. chapter 13 on). So ‘Jezebel’ and her ilk may well have been tied up with this worship and its consequences, somehow incorporating it into their professed worship of Christ.
2.25 ‘However what you do have, hold fast until I come.’
While many in the church are doing well, they must be careful to maintain their vigilance so that they maintain their position before God, in order to be ready for when He comes. Jesus is clearly concerned lest they be overrun by this menace.
It is perhaps significant that the church of Thyatira appears to have reached a very low ebb in the second century AD, so much so that some denied its very existence. Tertullian (late second century AD) tells us that some sects rejected Revelation because they denied the existence of a church at Thyatira, and Epiphanius (fourth century AD) knew of some who said the same. But it is unlikely that the first century wave of evangelism failed to establish some sort of church there, for churches were formed everywhere in that area. It may well, however, be that the effects of Jezebel destroyed the church so that by the second century it no longer existed.
2.26-28 ‘And he who overcomes, and he who keeps my works to the end, to him will I give authority over the nations, and he will shepherd them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to shivers, as I have also received of my Father. And I will give him the morning star.’
The ones who stand firm will enjoy with Christ His authority over the nations, something far better than aligning themselves with the Emperor of Rome. This promise is taken from Psalm 2.8-9 where the rule of the Messiah over the nations is linked with their being 'broken with a rod of iron', and 'dashed in pieces like a potter’s vessel'. Thus it is acting in judgment that is in mind. ‘Shepherding with a rod of iron’ means acting in judgment. The shepherd would carry his rod of iron for dealing with wild beasts.
As Christ has received an iron rod from His Father, so will He share it with His people. They too will share in the judging of the world (1 Corinthians 6.2). Indeed they too will judge even angels (1 Corinthians 6.3). Notice that here overcoming is described in terms of ‘keeping my works to the end’. There is a constant emphasis to this church on the need to endure.
‘And I will give him The Morning Star.’ This idea comes from Numbers 24.17. ‘There shall come forth a star out of Jacob, and a rod (or sceptre) shall arise out of Israel’. (The word, usually translated ‘sceptre’ here, most often means ‘rod’). So the coming of Messiah as a star is there connected with His arising as a rod which will bring judgment on their enemies, which is like the description here in Revelation 2. That this reference in Numbers specifically applies is confirmed in Revelation 22.16 where Jesus says, ‘I am the root and offspring of David, the bright, the morning star’, connecting the morning star with the Davidic king. Notice that the giving of the morning star in Revelation follows, or parallels, the exercising of the iron rod. The idea of the morning star cannot therefore refer to a parousia before Christ’s final coming. Indeed the reason for the use of the adjective ‘morning’ is stated. It is because of the special brightness of that star (22.16).
So the brilliant star which is the Messiah will be given to the overcomers, who will thus share in His glory and His final judgment. The idea of the ‘morning’ star may have partly come from Job 38.7 where we learn ‘the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God (bene elohim - angels) shouted for joy’. Thus morning stars are connected with heavenly beings. But here the writer sees Jesus as not a morning star, but The Morning Star. He is the supreme heavenly Being.
2.29 ‘He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
From now on this phrase comes after the promise to overcomers, (whereas previously it has introduced it), as though it is a final warning.
The Letter To The Church In Sardis (3.1-6).
3.1a ‘And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, these things says he who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.’
Sardis is a dying church so they are being reminded of the powerful forces acting on behalf of the churches. Both the seven ‘angels of the Presence’ and the angels of each church are under His control and are there to minister to them. (Alternately we may translate ‘the seven spirits of God, even the seven stars’). Both are referred to in chapter 1. Angels are considered important here for they are mentioned again in verse 5, where they will be witnesses to the success of overcomers.
It must be stressed that all this does not mean we should ever address angels directly, or especially honour them. This is made clear later in Revelation, where John is rebuked for such behaviour (19.10; 22.9) and is told we must worship God alone. He is reminded that they are our fellow-servants, not our superiors in status. They are there to guard and to help, not to be exalted.
The mention of the seven angels of the Presence comforts the church in the light of the activities they will engage in. These powerful beings are active on behalf of the church. When they engage in those activities, revealed later in the Book, the church can gain comfort from the fact that they are in the hand of their Lord and therefore indestructible. The overcomers in the church will be powerfully protected.
3.1b ‘I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, and you are dead.’
This church has gone further away from God than the Ephesians. The Ephesians had lost their first love, but these have lost the life they once had. They are supposed to be Christians - they have a name that they live - but they have actually become almost nothing but a social gathering, if not worse, and they are bereft of the Spirit. They are not rebuked for idol worship or immorality. They are rebuked for formality, for having no life. They gather as a church, but their ‘worship’ is lifeless. They meet for social pleasure rather than to come to a fuller knowledge of Christ.
3.2-3a ‘Be watchful and establish the things which remain, which were ready to die, for I have not found any works of yours fulfilled before God. Remember therefore how you received and heard, and keep it and repent.’
They are not only a church without the Spirit, they are a church without works of any kind, whether spiritual or physical. No love, no faith, no labour, no tribulation, no patient endurance, nothing. They have almost nothing left. There is nothing to distinguish them from those of other religions round about them. This is evident in that they have even ceased to watch for the Lord’s coming.
But there is still a slight hope. Something still lingers in their midst. If only they will wake up and go back to their beginnings, and remember how their church first heard, how they first responded to Christ, what message had first stirred them, and consider it deeply and hold it fast, then there will be hope. If only they will repent and have a change of mind and heart from the condition they are now in, and begin to watch. That is their hope.
This church parallels Israel at its last gasp. It too was ‘dead’, and its bones dried up (Hosea 13.1; Ezekiel 37.11). Thus it was carried away never to be a separate nation again. Sardis should heed the warning.
3.3b ‘If therefore you will not watch, I will come as a thief and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.’
Jesus’ teaching was full of the need to be like servants waiting for their Lord to return, busy about His service, doing good, and honouring their Lord, with love in their hearts as they expect His arrival. This is what this church must revive if they are to live. They must begin to watch for His return and live in the light of it.
But if they will not do so then He will suddenly arrive unexpectedly, creeping in like a thief, taking them unawares. It is always to unbelievers that he comes as a thief, for they are the ones who are not watching (1 Thessalonians 5.2, 4; 2 Peter 3.10; Revelation 16.15 compare Matthew 24.43; Luke 12.39).
3.4 ‘But you have a few names (people) in Sardis who did not defile (spoil) their clothing, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.’
Sardis was a centre for the manufacture and dyeing of woollen garments. They knew what it meant for clothing to be ruined in the process of manufacture and dyeing, and that is what the church themselves have done with their spiritual garments. They have totally ruined them. They are useless. No longer are they concerned to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. No longer do they seek to live as He directed. Their whole lives are spoiled spiritually.
Yet even here there are a few who still enjoy unspoiled clothing, and in the future they will enjoy the finest. Walking in white is always the symbol of purity and acceptability to God (see Revelation 6.11; 7.14; 19.8), and is distinctive of heavenly beings.
So there is no live fellowship in Sardis, but, here and there, there are scattered Christians who are still living clean, pure Christ-like lives, and are still worshipping Him and experiencing the Spirits presence. God does not condemn the few because of the many, for there is nothing they can do about the situation. Sin can be cast out but not coldness. They need not fear. They will not lose out because of their solitary state. They will receive their due. Perhaps the mention of ‘names’ (which here simply means ‘specific people’) has in mind that they are remembered before God, because their names are in the Book of Life. Though they seem to be forgotten He knows them by name, and their names are recorded (v.5).
3.5a ‘He who overcomes will thus be arrayed in white garments, and there is no way I will blot his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels.’
In 6.11 we are told of those who are given white robes. They were martyrs who had died for Christ’s sake. What it means to be arrayed in white garments is illustrated in Revelation 7.9. This describes those who are before the throne, who have come out of great tribulation and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (7.14). Arrayed in these white garments they have entered the presence of God in Heaven. So to be arrayed in white garments is one more guarantee of eternal life for overcomers.
When Christ Himself was transfigured His garments became dazzling white (Matthew 17.2 and parallels). So the overcomer is to be made like Christ in His glory, and like the angels who faithfully serve God (Revelation 15.6; 19.14). White robes are an indication of heavenly status reflecting purity.
‘There is no way I will blot his name out of the book of life.’ The overcomer’s name is in the book of life and he can be sure that nothing will remove it. This does not necessarily mean that other names will be blotted out from the book. It is merely guaranteeing his absolute security.
The Old Testament knows of at least two records maintained by God (we must of course recognise that the earthly description as ‘records’ must not be too strictly applied. What they are saying is that in some way God has ‘recorded’ knowledge of such things). The first is ‘the book of life’ in which were recorded the names, probably of all Israel, - possibly of all men, who were still alive (Exodus 32.32-33; Psalm 69.28). That Moses was prepared to have his name blotted out shows that blotting out meant physical death.
It was commonplace for cities at various times to have a record of their inhabitants and to blot out the names of those who in some way disgraced the city or who had permanently left it (consider Isaiah 4.3), or had died. This would favour the idea that the book in Exodus was the record of the names of all Israel. Names could be, and were, blotted out of this book, and this would seem to signify either death or expulsion for sin of the most dreadful kind. It may be that such a book is in mind here.
The second is the book of remembrance containing the names of the righteous (Daniel 12.1; Malachi 3.16). In the New Testament Jesus tells the disciples to rejoice that their names are written in Heaven. This must surely refer to the book of remembrance, the book of those who are recorded as being righteous. Compare also Philippians 4.3 where the book of life is the roll of Christians.
But in Revelation 13.8; 17.8 we learn of a book in which the names of the redeemed have been entered from the foundation of the world. This book is also called the Book of Life. The usage in Revelation 13.8 must strongly support the idea that the book of life referred to in Revelation 3.5 and 20.12,15 is the same book, in which case removal is impossible and being blotted out is merely a theoretical idea. This book may well be connected with the book of remembrance.
Once we accept the record mentioned in Revelation 13.8; 17.8, however, it renders controversy unnecessary. That book is the guarantee that the truly righteous are written in Heaven in a way that can never be changed. Any other book therefore does not really matter.
Thus this reference may be to the book of the living with a real possibility that men’s names will be blotted out of it through irrevocable death, or the Book of Life from which no name can ever be blotted out because they have been written there from eternity.
There is incidentally also a book of the deeds of men (Revelation 20.12).
3.5b ‘But I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels.’
Rather than their names being blotted out, the names of the overcomers will be announced and honoured before the Father and His angels. They will not be shamed but will receive honour from God (compare Matthew 10.32).
3.6 ‘He who has an ear let him hear, what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’
The passage finishes with the usual refrain. ‘The Spirit is speaking, let him who will, listen’. It is one we must all heed.
The Letter To The Church In Philadelphia (3.7-13).
3.7 ‘And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, These things says he who is holy, he who is true, he who has the key of David, he who opens and none shall shut, who shuts and none opens.’
‘He who is holy.’ The ‘Holy One’ is a title of God (e.g. Isaiah 57.15; Hosea 11.9; Habakkuk 3.3), and in Isaiah He is regularly called ‘the Holy One of Israel’ (Isaiah 12.6 and often). It refers to His unique distinctiveness, His ‘otherness’, distinctive in essence and in total purity. It is a title bestowed on Christ (Psalm 16.10; Acts 3.14; 1 John 2.20).
‘He who is true.’ In 1 John 5.20 God is called ‘Him who is true’, and here the description is applied to Christ. In Revelation 6.10 Christ is called ‘the holy and true’ as here. The sense of ‘true’ is that He is real and reliable and the source of truth.
‘He who has the key of David, he who opens and none shall shut, who shuts and none shall open.’ This picture is taken from Isaiah 22.20-25. There in the days of Hezekiah the key of David is to be given to Eliakim, who will replace the false chief steward of the royal palace, the treasurer over the king’s treasury. ‘And he will be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah, and the key of the house of David will I lay on his shoulder, and he shall open and none shall shut, and he shall shut and none shall open’. Eliakim was a faithful steward who managed His stewardship well and was seen as a father to the people. So Jesus too will be faithful and true in watching over His people and providing for His own. None can prevent it. But He will be faithful, not as the steward, but as the son over His own house (Hebrews 3.6). The idea of the key of David may well suggest that He controls access to the New Jerusalem (See below, verse 12, and Revelation 21.2).
However, it will be noted that this is the only introduction which apparently does not refer back to chapter 1 for its source. If it was so this must be considered somewhat surprising. Thus we must consider the suggestion that the mention of a key ties in with the Son of Man as having the keys of the after-world and of death (Revelation 1.18). This would stress that He has power over the grave and can release or retain whom He will. If He opens, none can shut. If He shuts none can open.
So the church of Philadelphia are called on to recognise that as the greater David He controls the afterlife and death, releasing whom He will, and that He can provide, or refuse, access to the New Jerusalem.
3.8 ‘I know your works - (behold I have set before you an opened door which none can shut) - that you have a little power, and have kept my word, and did not deny my name.’
The reference to the opened door clearly refers back in some way to the previous reference to the key and demonstrates that Jesus also controls the opportunities of witness and service (1 Corinthians 16.9; 2 Corinthians 2.12; Colossians 4.3) which He has opened up for them. It is clear that the works of the Philadelphians include faithful witness. They are not a powerful church, but they are faithful. They have held on to and obeyed the teaching of Jesus and, unlike Peter, they have been true to Him and have not denied His name. Nothing in fact is actually said against them, except perhaps their need to experience more of the power of the Spirit.
The opened door and the reference to He Who opens and none shuts parallels the time of Hezekiah when, as Israel perished, Judah witnessed a revival characterised by the reopening of the doors of the Temple when they had previously been ‘closed’ (2 Chronicles 29.3). Compare also what is said about Eliakim, Hezekiah’s treasurer, who was the opener of doors for the people demonstrating a new attitude towards the people (see above on 3.7). Thus the opened door includes the thought of revival. Hezekiah’s time was the time of the open door. But eventually that door closed through the failure of the people. A warning to us all.
3.9 ‘Behold I give to you those of the synagogue of Satan, of those who say they are Jews but are not and do lie, behold, I will make them to come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you.’
Once again we have reference to those Jews who deliberately sought to cause trouble with the authorities for the Christian church (compare on Revelation 2.9). Though they claim to be Jews, says Jesus, they are not really true Jews, for they do not obey the Law or show mercy (Matthew 23.23), or love Him as required by their God (John 8.39-45). They are simply liars like their father Satan, who is the chief adversary. They demonstrate that really they belong to his synagogue, and not God’s.
But one day they will be made to acknowledge their error. In the words of Isaiah 60.14, ‘the sons of those who afflicted you will come bending to you, and all those who despised you will bow themselves down at the souls of your feet, and they will call you the city of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel’, and they will enter ‘the gates which are open continually’ (Isaiah 60.11). So these false Jews will have to admit that these Christians whom they hate and despise are the true children of ‘the One Who is holy’, and that they are the new Jerusalem, beloved of the Lord. Once again we have the interchange of thought between the Lord God and the Lord Christ. In the Greek ‘that I have loved you’ is emphatic.
3.10 ‘Because you kept my word of patient endurance I also will keep you from the hour of trial which is to come upon the whole world, to try those who dwell on earth. I come quickly. Hold fast what you have that no man take your crown.’
For His ‘word of patient endurance’ see Matthew 10.22; Mark 13.13; John 15.18, 21; 16.2. All who would live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3.12), and they must endure to the end. Clearly the Philadelphian church has also faced persecution instigated by false Jews, and has come through unscathed, patiently enduring. (Alternately we may read it as ‘the word of my patient endurance’, thus referring to His sufferings on the cross. But it is clear from verse 9 that there has been serious trouble, so the former is more likely).
‘I also will keep you from the hour of trial’. There is a play on the word ‘keep’. ‘You have kept my word of patient endurance’ - ‘I will keep you from the hour of trial’. God responds to the faithfulness of His people. They have already suffered enough. He will not ask them to suffer more.
‘Those who dwell on earth’ are mentioned regularly in Revelation, referring specifically to non-Christians, and the various trials that they have to go through are vividly described. They represent humanity outside the church.
So the Philadelphians are promised that in some way not described they will escape, not all the trials, but the worst of the trials to come, the ‘hour of trial’. This may have in mind that, as always in such times there will be places where the worst effects are not felt, possibly because of the presence of a humane governor. It is a reminder that God can keep His people either from or through, depending on His will, any hour of trial they have to face. But more probably it has in mind the particularly awful attacks of spiritual forces which are limited in time but which those sealed by God will not experience (9.4-11).
They will not be kept from everything that the world must face. Their preservation is limited to a particularly severe ‘hour of trial’ which God has in mind. This ‘hour’ cannot be seen as describing the whole process of tribulation described in the following chapters, which will be prolonged, but must have reference to a particularly severe part of the trials which are coming, which they will escape. As suggested it may refer to 9.4-11.
It may well, however, have reference to the ‘hour’ mentioned in Revelation 17.12; 18.10, 17, promising that they will not share the fate of Babylon the Great (His people are warned to come out of her (Revelation 18.4)). Revelation 9.15 demonstrates that an ‘hour’ means a small part of what is being described. But had Jesus meant that they would totally escape something tangibly called ‘the Great Tribulation’ He would have said so. The fact is that the unique period called ‘the Great Tribulation’ as such is an invention of Bible students. The great tribulation mentioned in Matthew 24.21 was of the Jews, and could be escaped by fleeing to the mountains. It began in 70 AD at the destruction of the Temple, and continued on through the centuries (see Luke 21.24). The great tribulation in 2.22 was threatened as possibly coming on certain members of the church in John’s day. That in 7.14 refers to the same possibility.
We can compare this use of the word ‘hour’ with its use by Jesus where we are told ‘His hour was not yet come’. His hour was a short period at the end of His life and ministry. The world also must face its ‘hour’, but this church will be kept from it. Great play is often put on the words ‘out of ’ and ‘hour’ in ‘out of the hour of trial’, suggesting that because they will not go through the hour they must have been raptured. But the hour is for those who must face the trial, ‘those who dwell on earth’. Those who do not face it, even though on earth, are kept out of it. (Jesus went through His hour, the disciples were kept out of it. It was not their hour. But they were still both on earth).
‘I come quickly. Hold fast what you have that no man may take your crown.’ Jesus intends that His people live in expectancy of His imminent return, for He knows it will be an encouragement in whatever they have to face. Now, today, Christians are still looking for His imminent return, as have Christians in every age. To every generation He is ‘coming soon’. The two thousand years that have passed may seem long to us, but in God’s terminology they are two days (2 Peter 3.8 - written specifically in the light of the second coming - compare Psalm 90.4). Besides these words come from Christ in resplendence in ‘the Lord’s day’ looking back in time to where the churches are. Thus ‘quickly’ can be seen as relating to His standpoint.
For those who have been faithful a crown awaits, an idea constantly repeated in the New Testament (an incorruptible crown - 1 Corinthians 9.25; a crown won by striving in accordance with the rules - 2 Timothy 2.5; a crown of righteousness - 4.8; a crown of life - James 1.12; an unfading crown of glory - 1 Peter 5.4). We must ensure that we endure stedfastly so that it is not taken from us by others. Like entry in the book of life it is not something that can be taken from us, but we are exhorted to live in such a way that we deserve it not to be taken from us.
3.12 ‘He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the Temple of my God, and he will leave it no more, and 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 from Heaven from my God, and my own new name.’
Here is Christ’s clear indication that the coming Temple of God is a spiritual one. Those who are overcomers will be made part of that Temple, the guarantee that they will be in the presence of God forever (see John 17.12; 18.9).
They will also be clearly identified as His. He will write on them the name of God, to show they are His, and the name of the new Jerusalem which descends from Heaven (Revelation 21.2, 10) to show that they belong there, and Christ’s own new name to show that they belong to the glorified Christ.
This new name, only known to those who receive it (Revelation 2.17), is the sure sign that they are His. In Revelation 2 they wear it proudly on the pure white stone, probably seen as on their breasts and on their shoulders as with the High Priest. Here the name is written personally on them (see Revelation 14.1; 22.4. Compare Isaiah 49.16 where the names of His own are written on His hands). We must not overpress the symbolism. It is the idea that matters, not the form in which it is put. So once again, in a different form, the overcomer is guaranteed eternal life.
This designation with a new name is spoken of in Isaiah 65.15. There the so-called people of God have forsaken the Lord, and have prepared a table for Fortune and filled up cups with mingled wine to Destiny, and because of this they themselves are rejected and forsaken and their name will become a curse. They have become enslaved by the occult, and caught up in fortune telling and belief in Fate. So God promises that He will call by another name those who have sought Him and are faithful to Him, His chosen ones, His servants (Isaiah 65.9-10). How much clearer could He have put it that those who take the new name have replaced those who bore the old, for they are the true seed of Jacob (Isaiah 65.9).
3.13 ‘He who has an ear let him hear, what the Spirit is saying or the churches.’
And once again Jesus tells us, ‘he who has an ear to hear, let him hear’. The constant repetition demonstrates how important and urgent it is.
The Letter To The Church In Laodicea (3.14-22).
3.14 ‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write, ‘These things says the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.’
Jesus is the One who is the ‘yes’, the ‘Amen’ (‘so be it’) to all the promises of God (1 Corinthians 1.20), and especially the promises in Revelation 1.5-6 and 1.7. He is the full provider of the riches in those promises. The Laodiceans were famous for their pride in their wealth but He is telling them that their riches do not compare with what He has to offer. He offers them the true riches, the riches of God.
He is the faithful and true witness ((Revelation 1.5; 19.11; 21.5). He has suffered for God and He has suffered to death for them and His words can be relied on (21.5). He has proved Himself and His faithfulness by His action in offering Himself for His own (compare 2.13) with all that results (1.6). He wants them to respond in like manner.
He is ‘the beginning of the creation of God’. As its beginning He is its source, the firstborn before the whole of creation (Colossians 1.15). But equally important is the fact that He is also the beginning of the new creation (21.1 with 1.7). In that there is a land of riches beyond anything they have ever dreamed of. Thus all things belong to Him and are in His hands.
The idea of the Amen comes from Isaiah 65.15-19 (literal Hebrew), where it is connected with the new creation. Here God distinguishes between ‘His servants’ and the rest of Israel and Judah.
‘He shall call his servants by another name, so that he who blesses himself in the earth shall bless himself in the God of Amen, and he who swears in the earth will swear by the God of Amen, because the former troubles are forgotten and because they are hid from my eyes. For behold I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered nor come to mind, but be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create, for behold I create Jerusalem a rejoicing and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people, and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying’ (Isaiah 65.15-19).
Thus ‘the Amen’ has in mind the new creation and the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21.1-2). The God of Amen is the God who says ‘so be it’ of the future, He guarantees it and can be relied on to bring it about.
The idea of ‘the Amen’ here in Revelation is to be seen as including both the faithful and true witness and the beginning of the creation of God within itself. In 1.5-6, He is revealed as the faithful witness and firstborn from the dead, ruler of the kings of the earth, the One who has delivered and exalted His people and John adds ‘Amen’, and in 1.7 He is the king coming in glory to judge the world, and John again adds ‘Amen’. So as the Amen He is the successful carrier out of His purposes. ‘The beginning of the creation of God’ has as much in mind the ‘new creation’ which results from His coming, as the old creation. The future is safe in His hands for He is the Amen.
3.15-16 ‘I know your works, that you are neither cold not hot. I would you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth.’
Laodicea’s water supply came from hot springs piped down from five miles away so that by the time it reached them it was lukewarm. They knew by experience the problems caused by lukewarm water and its effect on the digestive system. So Jesus describes them as like lukewarm water that can only make someone sick.
Many Bible students misunderstand this idea. It does not mean that the Laodiceans were only semi-spiritual, half and half, and that He would prefer them even to be unspiritual. The idea was rather that because they were like lukewarm water they were useless for anything, and could only make people vomit. Cold water had its uses and so did hot water, but lukewarm water had none. It just made men sick. And so did they.
They were self-satisfied, complacent and unresponsive. They were so self-important that they felt they were doing enough when in reality they were doing nothing of any real importance at all, nothing that counted. They were lacking in every way, but were so proud that they did not realise their own inadequacy. There is no mention of their love for Christ, or of their faith, or of their endurance, or of their works. They did not get involved. They just sat and preened themselves.
Jesus was not wishing that they were either fully spiritual or not spiritual at all, He was wishing that they had some value, like cold water for drinking or hot water for bathing. A lukewarm, useless Christian, who can only make people sick, is a contradiction in terms.
‘I will spew you out of my mouth’. These words have in mind Leviticus 18.25, 28; 20.22 where the inhabitants of Canaan are to be vomited out because of their sexually evil ways, and Israel is warned that for similar behaviour they too will be vomited out. However there is no mention of any particularly bad sexual irregularity here, so that it is the general idea that is taken up and probably their overweening pride and spiritual uselessness that made Jesus sick.
3.17 ‘Because you say I am rich, and have amassed wealth, and have need of nothing, and do not know that you are a wretch, a thing of misery, and poor and blind and naked.’
‘Wretched’ and ‘miserable’ both have the article before them suggesting they be read as nouns, thus ‘a wretched one, a thing of misery’.
Laodicea was a wealthy town with wealthy inhabitants and it was extremely proud of its wealth. When it was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 AD it proudly rejected all help from Rome and rebuilt itself from its own resources. It was famed for its black woollen garments, made from the wool of its equally famed black sheep, and there was a famous medical school in its vicinity where Phrygian stone was ground to make collyrium (Gk. ‘kollyrion’ as here - which mixed with oil was used for making an eye salve). Its inhabitants therefore had a very high opinion of themselves and were inordinately proud. Thus Jesus warns them that their view of themselves is really inadequate, for while they admire themselves because of their wealth, spiritually they are really like the homeless wretch in the street, a thing of misery, and poor, blind and unclothed into the bargain. Spiritually they are have-nothings.
The idea of nakedness was regularly used in the Old Testament to depict the sorry state of men before God because of their sinfulness (see Isaiah 47.3; Lamentations 1.8; Hosea 2.3; Jeremiah 13.25-26; Nahum 3.5; Genesis 3.7). For blindness see Isaiah 59.10; Zephaniah 1.17; Matthew 23.17, 19; John 12.40; 2 Corinthians 3.14; 4.4; Ephesians 4.18; 2 Peter 1.9. Their whole condition is described in Jeremiah 5.27-29. Spiritually they are bare, empty and unseeing.
This church parallels the final stage in the downfall of Israel and Judah. They too had become proud, declaring their riches (Hosea 12.8), yet poor (Ezekiel 22.18), blind (Isaiah 59.10), and naked (Lamentations 1.8; Ezekiel 16.39). They were counselled to buy what is good (Isaiah 55.2). Failing to do this Judah came to its final downfall. (see Introduction). And this is the danger at Laodicea.
3.18 ‘I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire that you may become rich, and white clothes so that you may clothe yourself and so that the shame of your nakedness should not be revealed, and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.’
They were famed for buying expensive goods. Let them therefore now take notice and ‘buy’ what is of worth. The purchases mentioned here are like the purchases made from the water-seller in Isaiah 55.1, ‘without money and without price’. Jesus is advising them to obtain them from Him, bought at the cost of His own blood. They consist of:
In Zechariah 13.7-9, when the shepherd has been smitten and the sheep have been scattered God promised to restore one third of the people, saying ‘I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried, they shall call on my name and I will hear them. I will say it is my people, and they shall say the Lord is my God’. And again in Malachi 3.3 he says of the Lord’s messenger, who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when he appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire --- he will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, and they shall offer unto the Lord offerings in righteousness’ See also Proverbs 22.1. So the idea of refined gold is of people who have truly turned from sin to the Lord and offer Him righteous offerings, which in the New Testament sense means righteous prayers with thanksgiving and full dedication (Romans 12.1; Hebrews 13.15; compare Revelation 5.8).
White clothing is regularly what heavenly beings are seen as wearing, suggesting purity, righteousness and acceptability to God. In the Old Testament God’s people are made white by God’s forgiveness (Isaiah 1.18); and by tribulation and martyrdom (Daniel 11.35; 12.10). In Revelation 19.8 the fine clothing of Christ’s bride the church is ‘the righteous acts of the holy ones’, God’s people, for receiving the imputed righteousness of Christ necessarily results in righteous actions, but the clothing there is not specifically said to be white.
Those who are redeemed to God are given white clothing (Revelation 6.11) as will be overcomers (Revelation 3.4-5). And the gathering in Heaven of the people of God is in white clothing, because they have gone through great tribulation and have washed their clothes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7.9, 13, 14).
So the buying of white clothing refers (1) to the obtaining of cleansing and imputed righteousness through the cross of Christ, (2) to the resulting lives lived in purity, producing good thoughts, attitudes and actions, (3) to the enduring of tribulation for Christ’s sake, and (4) to the goodness of God in the provision of such clothing to the redeemed. There is a subtle suggestion that, while they pride themselves in the black clothing they produce, they need to consider their need for white clothing.
They boast about their eye salve so let them truly anoint their eyes with the true eye salve. To anoint their eyes with eye salve is to pray to God that He will open their eyes through the Spirit so that the eyes of their understanding may be enlightened (Ephesians 1.18), and they may understand His truth (Isaiah 35.5), and so that their eyes may not be dim, which will result from looking to the King Who reigns in righteousness (Isaiah 32.3). Thus they should look to their Maker with eyes that have respect to the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 17.7).
3.19 ‘As many as I love, I reprove and punish for their own good. Be zealous therefore and repent (have a change of heart and mind).’
(See Proverbs 3.11-12 for the idea of chastening, cited in Hebrews 12.3-9). The word for love is philo meaning great affection. Jesus wishes the Laodiceans to know that His heart reaches out to them, that His love is not dependent on their deserts. As God as Redeemer says in Isaiah 43.3 ‘you are precious in my sight and I have loved you’, while in Deuteronomy 7.8 Israel are reminded that they were not loved and chosen because of anything in themselves, but because God had set His love upon them. Indeed He drew them ‘with the cords of a man, with bands of love’ (Hosea 11.4).
His reproof and chastening are proof of that love. In the Old Testament God told His people, ‘And you will consider in your heart that as a man chastens his son, so the Lord your God chastens you, and you will keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and fear Him’ (Deuteronomy 8.5-6). Thus when the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews were discouraged at the tribulation they faced, the writer told them ‘For whom the Lord loves, He chastens’ (Hebrews 11.6 quoted from Proverbs 3.11-12), and, ‘If you endure chastening God deals with you as sons, for what son is there whom his father does not chasten?’ (Hebrews 12.7). This suggests that Jesus is expecting tribulation for the church at Laodicea and is thus preparing them for the trials that lie ahead, and explaining its purpose so that they may benefit from it. It is because He loves them that they will be chastened.
‘Be zealous therefore and repent’. This ‘change of heart and mind’ is only demanded of four churches, one of them because of the heresy in their midst (Pergamum), one because they have lost their first love (Ephesus), and the other two (Sardis and Laodicea) because of the failure of the whole church as a result of their lax state. Refusal to hear means the lampstand being removed from it place (Ephesus), an attack with the sword of His mouth against the offenders (Pergamum), and the arrival of Jesus as a thief to catch them unprepared by His coming (Sardis). To the church of Laodicea He gives similar warning of His coming.
3.20 ‘Behold, I am standing at the door and knocking. If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come into him, and will sup with him and he with me.’
We must remember that these words are spoken by the Son of Man in ‘the Lord’s Day’ (Revelation 1.10). They obtain their meaning from words of Jesus while on earth.
In Luke 12.35-38 Jesus tells His disciples that they must ‘let your loins be girded about (the clothes tucked in to the girdle to make movement easier) and your lamps burning, and you yourselves like men looking for their Lord when he returns from the marriage feast, so that when he comes and knocks they may immediately open to him’. Then He will sit them down to supper and come and serve them (Luke 12.37).
3.20 is a clear reference to that parable. The Son of Man, Whom John saw standing among the lampstands, is pictured as having arrived and as standing and knocking at the door of this church so that He may come in and sup with them. ‘I am here’, He says, ‘knocking’. But the inference is that they are not ready to hear.
So He next makes His plea to individuals in the church. If any one will hear His voice and open the door He will come in to him and they will eat together. In other words He wishes the church to see Him as on the verge of His coming in glory, and to respond on that basis. At some stage He will come, and no one knows when, so they must be like servants making ready.
But He recognises that they are so complacent that He is doubtful of their response so He then addresses each individual member. If any individual will therefore recognise Him as the coming Lord and welcome Him, even before His coming, He will sup with them, and they with Him. This does not really represent the heart’s door, but it does refer to an individual’s willingness to receive Him and welcome Him, which is much the same thing.
This reminds us that all these letters sent to the churches are sent as from the Lord Who is about to come in His glory. They are to see Him as on the verge of coming. As we learn here, this is in order to awaken them. It is also an encouragement to them to persevere in the face of hardship and tribulation. He is still on the verge of coming today. He delays only because He is longsuffering (2 Peter 3.9). But who knows when He will finally arrive?
3.21 ‘He who overcomes, I will give to him the right to sit down on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.’
The Laodiceans had much of this world’s goods but they were not royalty. He can offer them so much more than their so-called riches. Here those who overcome are offered not only royalty, but the royalty of the King of Kings, for they can share His throne and reign with Him.
He Himself shares the throne of God, something He alone can do because of Who He is, the true God. They cannot share that. But the one who overcomes will be privileged to share His throne, the throne that was given to Him as the glorified God-man, and they can reign with Him for ever, a further guarantee of eternal life, and more!
So Jesus shares the throne of Godhead, for He is Lord of Lords, and He possesses the throne of glorified Man, for He is King of Kings (Revelation 19.16).
This guarantee to the overcomer may reflect Luke 22.29-30. ‘I appoint to you a kingdom, just as my Father appointed to me. That you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom. And you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel’. And also may reflect Matthew 19.28, ‘in the regeneration, when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of His glory, you also shall sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel’. These promises, set in earthly terms, promised the disciples that their faithfulness would result in advancement beyond their wildest dreams. They would share with Him the Messianic Feast, and would be set as judges over the people who have rejected them and their Lord.
But in Matthew He then goes on to say that all who sacrifice earthly possessions and relationships for His sake will receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life (19.29). This demonstrates the connection of eternal life with the above ideas, showing that these promises will be fulfilled in Eternity.
Here in Revelation a similar promise is made to overcomers, for to share a throne is to participate in the authority of that throne. Thus they too will reign with Him. As we have already seen, the promises to overcomers are of sharing in the heavenly; the heavenly Paradise, the heavenly manna, and the heavenly Temple. So this throne and this reigning must also be seen as heavenly and not earthly. Just as when interpreting the Old Testament, we must take the spiritual meaning behind the promises and not press the literal words.
The final words of the chapter underline all that has been said.
3.22 ‘He who has an ear to hear, let him hear, what the Spirit says to the churches’.
It is up to every man how he hears. And we have been warned seven times. How foolish we would be not to hear!
FURTHER THOUGHTS ON THE CHURCHES.
The care with which the letters to the churches were compiled is demonstrated when they are compared.
Firstly. The promises to overcomers follow a direct pattern, reflecting the Old Testament. The earthly Paradise (Genesis 2-3) will be replaced by the heavenly Paradise (2.7). The earthly death (Genesis 3 with 5, and 4) will be replaced by the Second Death (2.11). The earthly manna (Exodus 16.32-34) will be replaced by the heavenly manna (2.17). The earthly stones on the High Priests garments (Exodus 28.9, 12, 15) will be replaced by the heavenly ‘pure white stones’ (2.17). The earthly judgmental authority over the nations, the sceptre of iron (Numbers 24.17-19), will be replaced by the heavenly authority (2.27). The earthly robes of the High Priest (Exodus 28.4, 39) will be replaced by the heavenly robes (3.5). Entry in the earthly book of life (Exodus 32.32-33) will be replaced by entry in the heavenly book of life (3.5). The earthly Temple (1 Kings 6 on) is replaced by the heavenly Temple (3.12). The earthly Jerusalem is replaced by the heavenly Jerusalem (21.2). The earthly rule is replaced by the heavenly rule (4-5; 20.4). It is clear from all this that the earthly has been replaced by the heavenly, and therefore that all seemingly earthly promises should be interpreted in this light.
Secondly. The words to the churches reflect what is described in Revelation 4 onwards. The stress on overcomers and on overcoming (2.7, 11, 17 etc) is repeated throughout Revelation (12.11; 15.2; 21.7), and prepares the churches so that they will prevail in the tribulation that is to come (6.9; 7.14; 12.11; 14.4; 15.2; 21.7). The Ephesians are in danger of having their lampstand removed (2.5), by being decimated. The church in Smyrna is ‘about to suffer’ and will ‘have tribulation’ (2.10). The church at Pergamum dwells where Satan’s throne is, preparing us for the descriptions of Satanic activity to come. Their new name is in contrast with those who are marked with the mark and name of the Beast (13.17). The church at Thyatira harbours Jezebel, paralleling and preparing us for the scarlet woman (17.3-4). The tribulation and killing with death of her followers is illuminated continually in later chapters (e.g. 12.17; 13.7). The church in Sardis are to be arrayed in white garments reflected in Revelation 6.11 and 7.9, 14. The Philadelphians are warned of the hour of trial that is coming, from which He will ‘keep’ them. The church at Laodicea are to obtain gold refined in the fires of tribulation, and white garments (see above). In the light of all these warnings it seems perverse to separate them from what clearly follows in fulfilment of the warnings.
Thirdly. The churches are depicted in terms of the history of the people of God in the Old Testament, from when Adam lost his first love to when the overweening pride of Judah led to its downfall.
Although there may be controversy over detail the main line is clear.
Fourthly. While the letters are addressed to genuine churches, (and that the letters are to be delivered is suggested by the fact that the churches are in a circular pattern so that a messenger can pass easily from one to the next), it is clear that what is written to them applies to all churches, and that they are selected to cover the wide variety of experience within the worldwide church. Thus the church as a whole is being prepared for the tribulation to come.
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