Chapters 2-3 - Letters of the King - Revelation 2

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 20th January 2008.

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As I was rooting though some boxes just recently, I came across some old school reports from my first year at Primary School which make very interesting reading. For instance, Mathematics: “Nathan enjoys the number activities, but his written work is rather uncontrolled as yet.” Art: “Nathan finds it very difficult to control his paint brush but he has some interesting ideas for his paintings.” Games: “Nathan is a nimble runner and is learning how to catch a ball. He is quite agile and he manages to keep pace with bigger boys on cross country runs.” Scripture: “Nathan enjoys the scripture stories and he can usually answer the questions afterwards.” Well little has changed I guess more than 25 years on, and though we leave school behind and move on in life, yet receiving reports never leaves us. We perhaps have to sit through personal evaluation assessments every few months at work or college or school. And every so often we hear on the news of how the most recent government report has declared that our hospitals are in decline, and crime is up but unemployment is down, or whatever the report has considered. Reports and assessments are the very stuff of life today.

Well last week we began our sermon series on the book of Revelation. And we found that John is writing a letter to some churches in Turkey who were under attack. They were facing persecution and were in danger from false teaching. And we saw that whilst the book of Revelation is avoided by many Christians because of its strange symbolism and its being high jacked by groups pushing their own particular agendas, yet it is a fantastic book. For it teaches us three wonderful truths. First, that God is totally in control and sovereign over human history. He is in charge and will bring all wrongdoers to justice. Secondly, that Jesus has the victory. The great battle is not Armageddon in the future but the cross and resurrection in the past. Jesus has paid for our sin and has conquered Satan. And thirdly we saw that as God’s people we are totally secure. We are spiritually safe, and looking forward to the great day when we will see God face to face. And we found that the book of Revelation is therefore not a timetable of events before Jesus returns, but a picture of life in between the first and second comings of Jesus. It’s a book for today. Because it shows us the sorts of things that will happen in our day, and it will encourage us in no uncertain terms that we must keep going and keep trusting the victorious Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ.

But before we get to the main bulk of John’s revelation from Jesus, we find in chapters 2-3 that Jesus addresses these seven churches in Turkey with a personal message. Seven letters to seven churches. And the reason he does this is very simple. You see if we were to skip over chapters 2-3 and simply move to the amazing visions of chapters 4-22, then we might think that this has no application to us as ordinary Christians living in the world. It seems too lofty, too other worldly. Now of course we’ll see that those visions are very relevant to us, but chapters 2-3 in particular ground the whole letter in reality. For these letters of Jesus to the seven churches are real words to real people. These churches were real live churches. These were real issues. Real people were suffering for the faith. Real people were dying. And there is good reason to think that these letters written 2000 years ago are actually for us as well. For a start there were plenty of other churches in Turkey at the time including the Colossians, for example, but they are not included. Instead only seven churches are mentioned. But the number 7 is almost certainly meant to be symbolic of completion. Just as creation was brought into being in 7 days in the book of Genesis, so the Jews believed the number seven was a symbol of totality. So it’s likely we’re meant to see these seven churches as representing the whole church. But also notice that at the end of every letter, we hear these words of Jesus: “He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” So Jesus has recorded these things so that we can eavesdrop on what he is saying. In his wisdom, Jesus has given these messages, not just for seven churches in the 1st century, but to the whole church in all times, before the Lord returns. And there are things in all seven that apply to us. These letters then are Jesus’ own Christ ray report of church life. With his blazing eyes, he speaks to the church, this glorious risen Lord that we met in chapter 1. He is Lord of the church, and as such he has every right to say what needs to be said. Now we’ve not got time to look at all the details, but we’ll see that there are four basic themes which crop up in these churches. And as we go through, we need to ask ourselves if we are listening carefully to what the Spirit is saying to us. And the four themes are these, each describing one or more of the churches:

1) Committed but Cold (2 vv 1-7)

2) Tough but Tired (2 vv 8-11; 3 vv 7-13)

3) Active but Adulterous (2 v 12-3 v 6)

4) Rich but Repulsive (3 vv 14-22)

1) Committed but Cold (2 vv 1-7)

So the first theme we discover in these churches is committed but cold. And that describes the church in Ephesus in chapter 2 vv 1-7. Now each of these seven letters follows a basic structure. Jesus first addresses the church using terms in which he was described in chapter 1. And this church is addressed by Jesus as the one who holds the seven stars and walks among the lampstands. This is the risen Lord who is with his church and knows what is going on. Then he will tell them something they are doing well, then expose what they are doing wrong, and then show how they need to act.

a) What is good? So what is good about this church? Well lots! Jesus says in verse 2 that he knows their deeds and their hard work and perseverance. This is not a lazy church. There is lots going on. They probably had kids clubs and student groups and old folks groups and Christianity Explored. They are very keen. And they are also doctrinally very sharp. Verse 2 they tested some teachers and found them to be false. These guys are very careful about who they let into their pulpit. They have a reputation for sound teaching and doctrinal purity. Such that they won’t have anything to do with the Nicolaitans in verse 6. We don’t know who they were. Probably some sect or the like. But they can’t be good, and the Ephesians have rejected them. They won’t compromise their doctrinal purity. And they’ve suffered too, verse 3. They’ve endured hardships for Jesus’ name and they have not grown weary. Hard working, sound, and willing to suffer. Very impressive isn’t it? I’d love to be in a church like this wouldn’t you?

b) What’s the problem? But there is a problem, and a serious one at that. Verse 4: “Yet, says Jesus, I hold this against you. You have forsaken your first love.” It must have been devastating to hear that comment. It’s possible these guys were really chuffed with themselves with all their good points. But there is something big missing. They have forsaken their first love. So what does Jesus mean? Well in the Bible the most important thing a believer should have is love for the Lord. In that sense he is the Christian’s first love. So this church is so concerned to work hard and be sound, but actually the heart of it is missing. Their love for God has grown cold. There is an interesting cross reference right at the end of Ephesians 6 v 24. Because the very last thing Paul says to the Ephesian church is this: “Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.” And it seems that within a generation this church have forgotten their first love. They are cold hearted. Sound as a pound, eager as beavers, keen as mustard, but lacking in love. And when you don’t love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, then it will affect the way you love others, both Christians and non Christians. Love for God is the bedrock of all our love. And this church had lost it. Yes, very keen and committed on the outside, but cold on the inside. They are committed but cold.

So what’s going to happen? Well verse 5 they have fallen a long way from where they were, and they need to repent. They need start doing the things they did at first. That is rekindle that passion and love for the Lord which drove that doctrinal purity and keenness in the first place. Otherwise, Jesus will remove the lampstand. The church will die. It’s a grave warning. A cold church will quickly become a dead church. But if you overcome, if you personally deal with this issue, if you rekindle that first love, then you can eat from the tree of life. You’ll enjoy the benefits of being with God in his perfect place.

c) What’s the point? So what’s the point? Well to my mind this is a real challenge to us today. Because the Ephesian church sounds a lot like a St. John’s Newland. We’re passionate about the truth aren’t we? We can smell a heresy at 200 yards? And we’re very active- every group under the sun is covered. And it’s all good stuff! But where is our heart? Have we lost our first love? Are we still in love with our Lord like the first day we met him? Are we growing in love of him each day? Or are we more in love with the creed than our Christ? And it’s especially dangerous when we are so busy doing things for the Lord. Many of us are very active doing good things. But we forget that actually we are serving Jesus whom we love. We’re not just doing a job! So where is your first love? Do you need to repent? Does that love need to be rekindled? It’s a challenge both to us as a church and us as individuals. Are we committed but cold? He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying.

2) Tough but Tired (2 vv 8-11; 3 vv 7-13)

The second mark of these churches is that they are tough but tired, and Jesus says that of the church in Smyrna (2 vv 8-11), and the church in Philadelphia (3 vv 7-13).

a) What is good? So what does the risen Lord say about these churches that is good? Well there is lots of praise from the Lord! In fact Jesus has nothing bad to say about them! In Smyrna, chapter 2 verse 9, they are afflicted and they are poor. But spiritually speaking they are rich. Now in ancient Roman cities at this time, especially in this region, worship of the Emperor was compulsory. You had to bow down before a statue of the Emperor and sacrifice to him. And in fact Smyrna was a centre of Emperor worship. And to compound things, a lot of the trades that people were employed in had special guilds, a bit like trade unions today. So there would be the leather makers guild and the gold workers guild etc. And if you wanted success in your business you had to be a part of these guilds. But the flip side was that the guilds would also be places where pagan gods, including the Emperor himself would be worshipped. So as a Christian, what can you do? Well you can either join in and risk compromising your faith. Or opt out and face persecution from the Romans plus financial hardship. Because if you weren’t in a guild, you wouldn’t get much business. And that was happening in a number of the towns mentioned in Revelation 2-3. And in both Smyrna and Philadelphia, the Christians were also suffering at the hands of the Jews. That’s why Jesus calls them the synagogue of Satan. They are doing the devil’s work by attacking Christians. But these Christians are standing firm! And it was the same in Philadelphia, chapter 3 v 8. These are folk who have kept Jesus’ word and not denied him. They have endured patiently in tough times. God has given them an open door of evangelistic opportunity and they are taking it. But it’s costing them.

b) What’s the problem? So what’s the problem? Well the problem for the Smyrnans was that they were afraid. So Jesus tells them not to be, 2 v 10. They will be persecuted but it will be only for ten days, which is symbolic for a short time. And in Philadelphia, 3 v 10, God will spare that church from intense suffering. It’s interesting that both churches are working hard and suffering. But for one God allows the church to suffer for a short time. And in another, God spares them from intense suffering. It’s a reminder that God is the one in control. He is in charge, and he does what he sees fit. Suffering is not random. It’s not that God is punishing the churches by making them suffer. Rather he uses even evil forces for his good purposes, refining Christians’ faith and enabling them to testify to him. But in both churches, God is with his people and will reward faithfulness. They will receive the crown of life. They will become a pillar in God’s Temple.

c) What’s the point? So what’s the point? Well for one we need to see that the Lord Jesus Christ does not miss anything. In every letter the Lord says “I know”. This Lord knows what is happening in his churches. And he knows what you and I are doing as well, including our hard work. Many people here work very hard behind the scenes for the Lord doing all sorts of things that never get mentioned and are never seen. But they are. If you ever think that the Lord does not notice the work you are doing for him, then think again. Others might not know, and you might well be overlooked in the church. But the Lord knows. And he says to you, “I know your hard work, I know your deeds.” Don’t be discouraged if you are beavering away without recognition, because the all seeing Lord sees and will reward you. But it’s worth noting too from these two churches that hardship is the norm in the Christian life. We are called to put self second and Christ first. And often that will mean tough times. Relationships strained, places of work hard, families antagonistic. These guys knew all about that, and though they were afraid, yet they pressed on. Because they were assured of Jesus’ power and strength with them. For Jesus is the First and the Last. He rose from the dead and gives us new life. He can bring us through anything we go through, however hard, even death itself. And that is great reason to trust him even in the toughest situation.

            Now there is an interesting historical footnote to the letter to Smyrna, because a few years later one Smyrnan called Polycarp fulfilled Jesus’ words. Polycarp lived in Smyrna at this time and became bishop and he died for his faith 60 years after John wrote his Revelation. In fact the young Polycarp met John the apostle in his old age. The story of Polycarp’s final weeks and hours is very moving and what strikes you as you read it is his absolute confidence in his King and Saviour Jesus Christ. When told that if he renounced his faith he would be set free, Polycarp replied: “For eighty six years I have been Jesus’ servant and he has done me no harm. How can I blaspheme my King how saved me?” And as Polycarp was tied to the stake on which he would be burnt, he prayed this prayer: “O Lord God Almighty, … I thank you that you have given me this hour so that I might share with the martyrs with the cup of your Christ looking forward to the resurrection to everlasting life… And may I today be received among them before you, as a rich an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the God who does not lie and is truth has prepared beforehand.” It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Polycarp had heard Jesus’ letter to the Smyrnans. And even if he didn’t he certainly lived it! And Jesus’ message to the Smyrnans and the Philadelphians is that you are tough but tired. Hard working, yes, but weary. So don’t give up. You will be rewarded. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying.

3) Active but Adulterous (2 v 12-3 v 6)

The third characteristic Jesus reveals about these churches is that they are active but adulterous, and that is what is said of the three churches in the middle of chapters 2-3, Pergamum, Thyatira and Sardis.

a) What is good? So is there anything good about these churches. Well in Pergamum, Jesus says in 2 v 13 that he knows where they live, where Satan has his throne, and yet they remain true to Jesus’ name. Now Pergamum was a key centre of Emperor worship, and that is probably why Jesus calls it a place where Satan has his throne. This city was a city proud of its connections to the emperor and they did not look favourably on those who refused to comply. And already there has been a death- Antipas, presumably a local Christian, has already been killed. Yet they are faithful! Even under intense pressure this group of Christians refused to buckle. Thyatira is a growing church. They are doing lots of good things and persevering, 2 v 19. And in Sardis, there are a few in 3 v 4 who remain faithful. There is some good in all these churches. Which actually is very sobering. Because on the outside we might think a church is good- lots of activity, even growth with people becoming Christians. But does that mean that it is healthy? Not necessarily. We must beware of spiritual pride.

Because no sooner does Jesus show the good, then he points out what is wrong!

b) What’s the problem? So what’s the problem? Well all three churches have very serious problems. And their problems stem from compromise. So in Pergamum the problem was false teaching and false lifestyle. So 2 v 14, there were some who held to the teaching of Balaam. The story of Balaam comes in the OT book of Numbers, and there we find that the prophet Balaam tempted the people of Israel to worship other gods and the men of Israel to sleep with other women who weren’t their wives. So false teaching and sexual immorality. In Thyatira in 2 v 20 it was the same sort of thing led by this woman Jezebel. Almost certainly the name is a false name, because Jezebel was the epitome of ungodly living and thinking in the OT. She corrupted Israel and led the people to turn away from God. And that was happening in Thyatira. Now it’s important to see that Jesus is not talking about the society in general in Pergamum or Thyatira. He’s talking about the church. These things were happening in the church. It appears that false teachers were basically encouraging the Christians to compromise with pagan culture. They were urging the people to lower their doctrinal and moral standards, probably so they would not be persecuted. They would probably have said something like this: “Oh, worshipping the other gods isn’t that bad. Just cross your fingers when you do it. Jesus knows you don’t mean it.” “It doesn’t really matter if you sleep around or engage in Temple prostitution. After all, everyone else is doing it, and it’s not your soul, its just your body. And it will save you from persecution.” You can imagine the sorts of things being said can’t you. And when there is so much pressure on you from outside, it is very tempting to give in on the inside. On the surface they were so courageous, but in the heart deeply compromised. And Jesus tells them to repent. Otherwise he will come with his sword and act in judgement. The warning is very serious to these two churches.

            And in Sardis, it appears they’ve just given up the fight. Sardis had a great reputation. Parents would look up St. John’s Sardis on the web and find out where they could send their children when they went to the University of Sardis. It had a great reputation, 3 v 1. Oh, yes, people would say. St. John’s Sardis, very good. Great student ministry, terrific teaching. But what does Jesus say? 3 v 1: You are dead. Spiritually speaking they are dead. They are sound but sound asleep. This church has given up. And Jesus’ verdict on this church is utterly scathing. They need to repent.

c) What’s the point? So what’s the point? Well very simply, these Christians in all three of these churches were deeply compromised, or totally failing to put their belief into practice. They were more shaped by the world than by the word. They had given up battling. They had compromised one too many times. And it’s a danger for us too. Perhaps we just find the battle too hard. It’s easier to go with the flow. Peer pressure is so great nowadays, whether you’re in Mark 2, or a student or in any stage of life. Everyone else is mucking around sexually, what’s the big deal? Everyone else is drinking heavily tonight, why shouldn’t I? No-one else believes Jesus is the exclusive way to God, why should I hang on to that archaic truth. Or perhaps like Sardis you are living on your spiritual reputation. Everyone thinks very highly of you, but scratch below the surface and the substance is lacking. Can you see how dangerous it is to compromise in the Christian faith. In both belief and behaviour, we must stand firm. There must be no gap between what we say and what we do. We must repent!

            A few years ago, Debbie and I had the privilege of going to Australia. And it occurred to me that as soon as I set foot on Australian turf I was in danger from all sorts of life threatening creatures. I’d read a few books, and all them boasted how many creatures were living in Australia which could kill you the most painfully and the quickest in the world. This was confirmed to me on the first day we arrived. We were happily strolling on the beach when we came across this sign. “Danger of death- crocodiles live on this beach! Do not proceed any further.” Well for a Brit whose only brush with danger has been a small wasp, then that was pretty scary. So what did we do? Turn round and run away very quickly! As we came back to the hotel we discovered another sign next to the beach. “Danger of death. Sea contains blue ringed octopus. Do not swim here!” So what do I do? I never went near the sea again. Now of course when you read those signs, you do exactly what you are told. You run the opposite direction from the danger. It would be daft to leap into the sea when such creatures are there, or to hunt out a crocodile when you’ve been told not to. Almost certainly you will die a painful death. Now if we do that with dangerous animals, then should we not do the same with sin? Sin is far more deadly than a blue ringed octopus, but we caress sin, we stroke it and say that we could not part with “my precious”. How foolish we are. Repent says Jesus. Get rid of it. Run a mile. Don’t compromise. That’s what Jesus said to these churches, and he says it to us too. Courageous maybe, but compromised certainly. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says.

4) Rich but Repulsive (3 vv 14-22)

Finally and briefly Jesus gives us a fourth characteristic in these churches, that they are rich but repulsive, and that was the situation in Laodicea, 3 vv 14-22.

a) What is good? So is there anything good? Well as with Sardis, it’s pretty damning. There is nothing really positive to comment on at all.

b) What’s the problem? Instead Jesus goes straight for the problem! Verse 15: “I know your deeds, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish you were either one or the other. So because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am going to spit you out of my mouth.” You see Laodicea was spiritually speaking like it’s water. Because Laodicea didn’t have it’s own water supply water was pumped in from two places. Cool mountain spring water came from Colosse, and hot bubbling water came from the springs of Hierapolis. And if you put those two together you get horrible lukewarm water. So Jesus wants them either to be refreshing and cool like Colosse’s water, or hot and bubbly like Hierapolis’. Instead they are nothing. Lukewarm, the sort of thing you spit out. And the heart of the matter is in verse 17: ““I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” The problem was that the Christians had become like their city- Laodicea was a proud city- she was well know for her clothing, her opticians and her jewellery. So they would swan into church with their Gucci shades and Armani suits, flashing their latest Omega watches thinking they were the bees knees. They were a well off, well to do church. But do you see what Jesus says? You’re tepid, lukewarm and I want to vomit you out of my mouth. That’s what I think of you. You talk a great game, but you’re lukewarm. You trust in your appearance. You’re more concerned with how you look than with the state of your heart. You think you’re so cool, he says, but actually, verse 17: “You don’t realise you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” So what does Jesus tell them? They need spiritual gold from him, spiritual clothes from him, spiritual eye salve to put on their eyes, verse 18. Not the wealth and clothes and eye treatment they trusted in in their city. So Jesus is standing at the door and knocking. Jesus wants to come into that church and be welcomed in. And they need to repent and open the door. Repent of their proud arrogance and materialism and submit to the creator of the world.

c) What’s the point? So the message for us? Well we can so easily trust in everything else but the Lord Jesus. We trust in our wealth, our status, our intellect, our good looks, our slick presentations, our flawless structures. But are we trusting in Christ first of all. We might think we are piping hot or refreshingly cool, but in fact are we in danger of being disgusting and tepid. We’re lukewarm. Again we might talk a great game, but we are we really like below the surface? He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

            Well the risen Lord has spoken. And his message have been tough. But it’s worth remembering that he speaks like this not to make us feel guilty but to drive us back to the cross, for forgiveness and power to live his way. For the Lord desires whole hearted servants. And we need to ask ourselves which of these lessons apply to us? My hunch is that in all of them, we see a little of ourselves. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

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