For the text of Revelation 2, click here.
One of the most discussed sections of revelation is the section of letters to the churches. One of the reasons for this is because they are far more straight forward than the rest of Revelation and involve far less symbolism. Each letter has a similar structure:
- Each addresses the particular church, “to the angel (or messenger) of the church of _______).
- That is followed by an identification of the one sending the message, Christ (the one who is first and last, Son of God, holy and true…).
- Then comes the positives and negatives of the church that is addressed.
- Each concludes with a promise.
The Church in Ephesus:
While the start of the church documented in Acts 18-20 had much to do with Paul it is widely held that John did have a connection with the church in Ephesus and may have spent some of his final years before exile to Patmos there (Oster, “Ephesus” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 548-549). Ephesus was most notable for its Artemis cult (Acts 19:23-24). Her temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Ephesus was also known for magic, which may be the background of the scrolls burned in Acts 19:19ff and one of the alternatives (in conjunction with the Artemis cult itself) drawing these Ephesian Christians from their “first love.”
(2nd century idol of Artemis)
Notice the presence of Christ with the church in Ephesus, “the words of him who…walks among the seven golden lampstands.” (2:1), which represent the seven churches (Rev 1:20). As with anyone you care about it is always best to compliment them before bringing up criticisms, they are praised before they are challenged in their weaknesses. The weakness? They have left their first love. Have they followed Artemis? Have they started worshiping the emperor? We are not certain. But we are certain that God does still love them and offers them a second chance through repentance (2:5) with the result being a share in the tree of life with God (2:7). The first mention of the Nicolaitans is found in this letters (2:6) and will later be seen in the letter to Pergamum (2:15) who, unlike the Ephesian Christians, are indulging in their practices. According to Irenaeus, “they lead lives of unrestrained indulgence” (Adv Haer 1.26).
The Church in Smyrna:
W.B. West holds the view that the angels of these churches were actually the alternate translation of “messengers” of the churches and believes that the messenger to Smyrna was Polycarp. Even though Polycarp was executed in Smyrna in 156 AD, West’s proposal is pretty unlikely as this word is used throughout Revelation to talk about angelic beings and because Polycarp was not even present at this time to take on such a role. While there are no warnings in the letter to Smyrna, the city was was well known for its emperor worship. They had a temple built to honor the goddess Roma and emperror Tiberius. However, of the seven churches, only Smyrna and Philadelphia are free of criticisms and warnings. The message is clear – persecution is coming but hold firm and you will be rewarded richly in a spiritual way. Those who do not hold firm have a worse fate in store. We are not certain if their poverty was due to persecution but it was a very real part of what they were going through and they are being assured that Christ is in their midst and is willing to reward the faithful.
The Church in Pergamum:
Pergamum was the capital of the province of Asia. It was also known as a place of great temples including a temple to Zeus that would carry out sacrifices 24 hours a day (Metzger, 34). This, as well as the presence of many other temples and symbols of Rome may be behind the reference to the city as, “where Satan has his throne” (2:13). The martyrdom of Antipas is mentioned, which Metzger takes to mean that the persecutions in Pergamum were even more intense and advanced than in the other locales, which do not specifically mention others who have already been martyred. I don’t know that that theory holds much water because martyrs are prevalent in other parts of the book showing that persecution was very real and loss of life a real possibility. The warning has to do with sexual immorality and food sacrificed to idols and they are given a reminder of what happened with Balaam (Numbers 31;16). This sexual immorality may be more of the kind mentioned in a previous post – spiritual adultery. One of the strangest parts of this promise is the gift of a white stone with a new name (2:17). These stones were well known at this time as marking someone as a member of a particular group, often having the name of a deity inscribed on it (Metzger, 36). We are the people of God and he is taking steps to ensure that we are identified with him as his people.
We see here that there are a variety of problems in these churches. Some are struggling with emperor worship, some with worshiping pagan gods, and some with sexual immorality. In each instance there is still hope and Christ is still among the lampstands (churches) and is waiting for them to repent.
The Church in Thyatira:
The church in Thyatira has done many things right. Yet they have accepted some false teachings by a symbolic Jezebel. As Jezebel led the Israelites into worshiping false gods (which as mentioned here previously is spiritual adultery) so this false teacher has led these Christians astray. The sin of Thyatira is cast in sexual, adultery terms but is probably more spiritual in nature. You have to remember the difficult position these early Christian were in. Participating in civic life basically required worship of all sorts of God. Parades were held in honor of gods, community events were seen as worship. Even going to the store to buy food for your family could be seen as worship because portions of the same food you were buying had probably been used at some time in worship to a God. That is foreign to use. Even going to work often involved elements of worship. If you were going on a long voyage and all the sailors offered sacrifices to ensure safety for the voyage and you stood on the sideline and refused to take part. You might be seen as jeopardizing the safety of the entire crew! What is a Christian supposed to do? In our culture people can live devoid of religion and no one cares. Their lives were wholly wrapped up in worship. To be a Christian was to break many of your social ties and exclude yourself from many social events. That is not easy. You can see why it would be tempting to fall back to your old way of life.
God promises punishment on the false teacher and on those who follow. As far as Satan’s deep secrets go, it is not certain if this is a reference to mystery religions but it was often understood that to possess secret knowledge could be a means of gaining control over someone.
Message for Today:
The take home message of all of this is that we need to ask ourselves two questions:
- Whose are we? Do we belong to Jesus or do we belong to another? Do we still love and follow our first love or have we abandoned him for someone or something else. Whose are we?
- How serious are we about holiness? Are we really other? Are we really set apart? Or do we just blend in to the surrounding culture so that no one can tell us apart from anyone else? The call is clear. No matter how difficult it is we are not to assimilate with the surrounding culture. Our society is so secularized that no one is forced to worship something they don’t believe in. The challenge we face is the opposite. How do you live in a culture that wants to keep religious forms and expressions from surfacing or being very visible? How do you live in a political environment that has fought hard to suppress the expression of religion, stripped society of moral values and held up secularism in its place?
Stand firm because as we will see in the coming chapters the One we stand with has greater authority and power than those who try to oppose Christianity. “To those who are victorious and do my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations…” (Rev 2:26). While doing God’s will to the end may have cost them their lives they are reminded that the world does not have the final say.