Have you ever missed a really good opportunity to preach the truth? Regretfully, that was a recent experience of mine. During my lunch break at work, I was munching away and casually watching a current affairs web site, when suddenly my memory was triggered to various passages in the book of Revelation. Eagerly, I switched to the Revelation text of the online Bible and then alternated back and forth comparing the two. I became so absorbed, that it was some time before I became aware that my boss was watching with questioning interest. Immediately, the complexities of Revelation and the limits of break time flashed through my mind, so I self-consciously shut down the computer and finished eating my sandwiches.
That evening I tried to justify my behavior to myself. After all, how could I have explained all of those convoluted passages and symbols to a complete novice in such a short period of time? Where could I have started?
It is usually sensible to start at the beginning with any project; so turning to the opening chapters of Revelation, I soon found the answer. The letters to the seven churches have much that is helpful, encouraging, and spiritually uplifting, without the involved details of prophetic interpretation. I would like to share some of these gleanings with you now.
The impact of the letters
Just imagine what the brethren and sisters of the seven churches must have felt like when they read the letters. John was an old man when Christ gave them to him; so almost certainly none of the recipient ecclesias would have met Jesus personally. Some were Gentiles taught by Paul and Apollos, or by other early believers whose names we do not know. Others were Jewish converts of the diaspora.
Each ecclesia had some issue that Christ addressed, usually a fault or flaw that when brought to their attention must have been very humbling for the churches. Until this time the ecclesial elders had addressed wrongdoing; but as evidenced in the letters of Paul, in cases of outstanding problems, an experienced apostle was sent to intervene. To have the Lord personally addressing issues to individual bodies of believers must have been awe-inspiring.
In spite of the fact that Paul had already written a letter to the Ephesians, there were still outstanding issues: “You have forsaken your first love…Remember the heights from which you have fallen…If you do not repent, I will come and remove your lampstand” (Rev. 2:5, NIV).
Each of us can remember a time when we experienced the wonder of feeling close to God, maybe just after we were baptized, or at some other spiritual high point in our lives. Unfortunately, the daily concerns and cares of life have a way of intruding on our spiritual focus. We begin to realize that we have moved away from God; in effect, we have indeed fallen from a great height. Insight into our inevitable failure to reach God’s standards can be depressing, but note that Jesus did not utterly condemn the Ephesians with negative criticism. He looked for, and found, positive aspects of their behavior: “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary” (v. 3). In common with the brethren and sisters of Ephesus, we have good and bad times that affect our walk in the truth. The encouragement that Christ gave to them is pertinent to us: “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God”(v. 7).
There are no critical comments in this letter, rather an emphasis on strengthening faith in preparation for trials and suffering. Mercifully the majority of brethren and sisters today do not have to endure extreme persecution, although trials and suffering are still part of the human condition. The wonderful promise to the faithful: “I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10), gives tremendous reassurance to the faithful of all ages. The outworking of this promise involves nothing less than resurrection from the dead and a place in the kingdom of God.
Jesus, in this letter, mentioned the teachings of Balaam that led to idol worship and gross immorality. Human nature does not change; every person has the tendency to harbor an ugly idol of some sort in his or her heart. As for immorality, we are surrounded by it and it is a constant battle to avoid being tainted. That which is bad and corrupt needs to be cut out and Jesus indicated that he would do this when he comes to, “fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:16). In the mean time, it behooves us, by the use of the scriptures, to identify the areas in our lives that need purging.
Our attention is drawn to a small comment to the church at Thyatira: “You are now doing more that you did at first” (v. 19). We may not have started off on the right foot, but we are trying to improve, despite frequent slips and falls. When we have succeeded in overcoming one fault, there is no room for complacency. A spiritual holding pattern is not an option. There must be a steady progression, striving toward our template: Jesus the Christ.
In this short letter we find a serious warning that must have stunned the believers at Sardis. The shockwaves continue to vibrate down through the centuries as we read: “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (Rev. 3:1). Imagine earning a reputation of hard work for the truth, then receiving this condemnatory assessment.
As hard as it is, we must evaluate our motives — is our labor dedicated to the Lord, or is it to earn the esteem of others? To be held in high regard by brethren and sisters is very satisfying, but God knows the inmost thoughts; if our motives are not right, we are spiritually dead and guilty of hypocrisy. The warning is dire. Christ, however, offers encouragement and hope: “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain…he that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life…” (Rev. 3:2, 5).
How often have we felt that our spiritual strength is at an all-time low? The pressures of everyday life can be so crushing that our hold on the things of the kingdom can weaken.
At such times these words of the Lord are a life-line: “These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth; I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name…Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown” (Rev. 3:7,11).
In a weakened state, it may appear that the promises are locked behind a door. It is helpful to remember that this door is not impenetrable. The Lord has the key and opens the door, leaving it wide open to those who knock; what is more, he is that very door! (Jn. 10:7).
Interestingly, the metaphor of the door is changed in this letter. Here Jesus is seen knocking at the door of a lukewarm ecclesia. Let us pay attention to the message he gives: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:19-20).
There is a lovely link in the concept of our Savior eating with those who receive him. At the last supper, Jesus told his disciples that he eagerly desired to eat bread and drink wine with them. We are about to partake of the emblems of his body and blood in remembrance of him. As we do so, our prayer is that we will be granted to eat and drink with him in the kingdom of God.
The lesson is universal
These are the thoughts I regret not sharing with my boss who was wondering what I was reading that day at work. God willing I will have another chance. It was a lost opportunity but, in retrospect, I see that it wasn’t completely devoid of value, since it led me to review a section of the scriptures and enabled me to share my thoughts with you.
The lesson is this: no matter whether we understand all the imagery or rightly interpret all the prophecy of the book of Revelation, the message of Christ to the seven churches is pertinent for us today. The theme of these letters applies universally: Acknowledgement, encouragement, hope, repentance, forgiveness, salvation and love.