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This short series is a response to a request for some explanation of the Book of Revelation, so I thought I’d take courage in both hands and attempt to make this difficult book relevant to today.

I’ve divided the book into four sections and this will obviously be a fairly brief overview of the book.

First by way of introduction, it was written by someone called John who may have been the apostle John or may have been another John known as John of Ephesus. He wrote it whilst in exile on the island of Patmos off the Turkish coast between 90 and 95 AD during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian, who was one of the emperors who initiated intense persecution of Christians. The book is an example of what’s known as apocalyptic writing, the definition of which is “a divine disclosure in which God promises to intervene in human history to bring times of trouble to an end and destroy all wickedness.” It’s different from prophecy in that it often contains highly symbolic pictures and language which are not necessarily predicting the future.

There are four main ways in which theologians have interpreted the book:

  1. It’s wholly about contemporary events of Christians under Roman persecution to encourage the early Christians.
  2. It’s a panorama of church history from the early church to the end of time
  3. From chapter 4 onwards, it’s wholly about the future end times.
  4. It’s a symbolic book about such timeless truths as the victory of good over evil.
  • 1:1 – 8

The book opens with a promise of blessing to those who simply read it. It then tells you who the readership is to be: a group of seven churches in Asia Minor, or modern Turkey. This is a map which shows where those churches were: (show mapThen there’s a doxology of praise to Jesus with the promise of his return.

  • 1:9 – 19

John is then commanded to write down all he hears and sees and send it to the seven churches. When he turns to see who is speaking to him, he sees this powerful and symbolic image of Jesus in all his power and majesty. It’s clearly not a literal picture: Jesus is seen with white hair and a white head – usually symbols of maturity and wisdom – eyes of fire, feet of bronze, a voice like rushing waters, a face shining like the sun, and a sword coming out of his mouth. It’s all to portray his power, his authority, his glory, and his judgment and his word, the sword of the Spirit, proceeding from his mouth.

John falls down at this awesome sight, but Jesus places his hand on him and raises him up, and instructs him to write what he’s seen already and whatever else he’s about to see in this great apocalyptic vision.

Before this dramatic vision begins, John is instructed to write seven letters to the seven churches of Asia. Each of the seven letters follows the same pattern: Jesus first addresses each church and identifies himself, then defines things that he knows about the church in question. After this a challenge or reproach is given, followed by a promise. In all seven cases the admonition is included, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." These are seven literal churches who are commended for their strengths and criticised for their weaknesses or errors: that’s the historical relevance of the next two chapters. What do they have to say to us? Well, I think we have to ask ourselves, both as a church and as individual Christians, how far the comments to these churches are applicable to either our church or to us as individuals. So let’s have a look at what the churches are commended for and then criticised for.

  • Ephesus (2:1 – 7)

The Christians at Ephesus are commended for their hard work and perseverance. They’ve endured hardships but haven’t lost heart. They’ve rejected false teachings and false prophets and haven’t tolerated any wickedness. However, they have lost their first love. What happened here was they had become so obsessed with ensuring that they got all their doctrinal truths correct and purged the church of anything unorthodox that they’d forgotten Jesus’s command to love one another. If they didn’t return to their first love, Jesus says, he will remove their lampstand from its place; in other words, their witness will come to an end. The interesting fact, historically, is that, of all these seven churches, the first one to disappear was that at Ephesus. Perhaps they didn’t learn their lesson, and forgot the importance of love.

Where does love figure on your scale of what matters in your Christian walk? Or is doctrinal soundness more important? Without love, we become like sounding brass or tinkling cymbals.

  • Smyrna (2:8 – 11)

The church at Smyrna is one of only two churches that escape any criticism. They are a church facing persecution, false accusations, imprisonment and martyrdom and they have remained wholly faithful. How would you and I face persecution if it ever came to us? And don’t let anyone tell you that Christianity in this country is persecuted. Think instead of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi Christians who at best have been driven from their homes, at worst have been beheaded or even crucified. Compared with that, you and I experience nothing more than minor irritations. I don’t know how I’d be if I was going to be taken out and crucified, and I pray it will never happen here.

  

  • Pergamum (2:12 – 17)

On a mountain top in Pergamum was a massive altar to the god Zeus, and the worship of Zeus was very prominent in Pergamum, hence the reference to Satan’s seat. The Christians here had held to their faith even when one of their brothers, Antipas, was martyred. However, although as a church they remained true to Christ, they did allow people to be part of their church who held to doctrines which were contrary to the truth; there were some who believed in sexually permissive religious practices, and others, called the Nicolaitans, who argued that, because the law now no longer applies and we’re all under God’s grace, we can do what we like because God’s grace will cover all our sins. It’s often referred to as antinomianism, condemned in several places in Paul’s letters.

  • Thyatira (2:18 – 29)

In Thyatira, the Christians are commended at first because they’re a church which is clearly making progress because more is going on there than when the church was first established; however, they had gone a step further than the Christians at Pergamum: they were not just tolerating people in their midst who heldT false doctrines, but they were actually compromising their faith by allowing false teaching to be promoted by a false prophetess called Jezebel.

I suppose the question for you and me that arises from both of these churches is, where do we stand in our pursuit of the truth? I think it’s very important to make a distinction between gross error and differences of opinion. It does seem to be that the heresies being tolerated and even promoted at Thyatira and Pergamum were indisputably wrong: sexually permissive religious ritual, and doing whatever you like because God’s grace will cover it are not things about which we should have to disagree. There will always be grey areas in doctrine and practice and this is where what I said last week about the importance in church of mutual respect is so important.

  • Sardis (3:1 – 6)

There’s not much to commend at Sardis. There are a few people, it says, who have remained faithful to Jesus, but, apart from these few, they were all about an outward appearance of righteousness: they had a reputation for being alive but they were actually dead. I think Sardis can be a real challenge to each of us. It’s so easy for any of us to give the appearance that we’re living the lives that Jesus expects of us but it’s all a front: I don’t know what’s going on in your heart; what you’re like when you’re not here; I could be saying all the right things and giving an appearance of holiness whilst failing to live a genuinely Christlike life. I challenge myself as much as any of you to remember that man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.

  • Philadelphia (3:7 – 13)

This brings us to the other church which receives no criticism, Philadelphia. Maybe there’s something in its very name, which means brotherly love. Here is a church which is not very strong, but its folk have been completely faithful and have taken every opportunity to witness to their faith where God has given them an open door. We still have an open door in our country and our community, and perhaps we need to be more active in witnessing whilst the opportunities are still here.

  • Laodicea (3:14 – 22)

Finally, we come to the saddest church of all, Laodicea, which is the only church to receive no commendation at all. As a city it had a lot going for it. It had a fine medical school particularly noted for treating diseases of the eyes; it was noted for the quality of the wool which was used to make fine clothing; it was at the heart of many east-west trade routes, and was a major banking centre, so was a wealthy community. However, it also had a problematic water system: water from hot springs near Hierapolis in the north mingled with cold water from Colossae in the south to give a quite undrinkable water supply. If you know these facts about the city, you can see the irony of the criticisms levelled at the church here. Like the water, they are lukewarm, and worthy only to be spat out. Though they are materially rich, they are spiritually poor. Though they make beautiful clothes, they are spiritually naked. Though they have wonderful medical facilities, they need ointment for their own eyes to open them to their nauseating complacency.

Laodicea has become a metaphor for becoming complacent and apathetic. Sadly, I think there is so much in the church today which reflects Laodicea. We can so easily become comfortable in our passivity as a church; we enjoy our Sunday mornings, and we press on doing things the way we’ve always done them, never actually asking why we do what we do, and whether we’re doing anything at all which is actually growing God’s kingdom. When I stand before Jesus on his judgment seat and he asks me what I’ve done for the extension and growth of his kingdom, what will I say? What will you say? The last thing I want to have to say is, I helped to maintain the status quo! I want us to be a Philadelphian community, not a Laodicean community, and I hope you do, too.

I finish this morning at chapter 4:1: “I will show you what must take place after this.” Jesus has dealt with the present – the current churches and now he’s going to move on to this dramatic apocalyptic vision, which is what we’ll move on to next week. In the meantime, let’s look at our own lives in the light of the commendations and criticisms which we’ve seen in these letters to the seven churches.


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