Interpreting the Book of Revelation is challenging. However, a good place to begin is with the letters to the seven churches (chapters 2-3). Several commonalities strike us immediately. Each is addressed “To the angel [singular] of the church in” one of seven different locations in Asia Minor, present-day western Turkey. However, it is clear that these letters were intended for a wide readership. This is made evident by how each concludes:
- He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)
This suggests several things:
- We shouldn’t just look at what the Spirit says about one church. We need to hear the entire range of criticism and commendations spoken to all the churches. This is a command!
- Not every one “has an ear” that actually hears. If the message is coming from the Spirit, we can assume that it must be spiritually discerned. We need to thank God that He has cleaned out our ears and to pray that He will continue to do so.
I know how easy it is to go astray. The heart is so terribly deceitful (Jer. 17:9). I therefore always try to pray that He will lead me into His truth, not only in terms of what I write but also in terms of what I say. I have a terrible habit of responding to challengers on Facebook or my blog before I pray. By failing to do this, I am essentially telling God, “I can handle this myself.” However, this contradicts Scripture which informs us that we can do nothing without Him (John 15:4-5; 2 Cor. 3:5). I’m therefore asking God that He would teach me a greater dependence upon Him.
Although each letter ends with the admonition to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” each also states that this message is also coming from the risen Christ. For instance, the letter to Thyatira reads, “these are the words of the Son of God (2:18). This is not a contradiction but an assertion that the Two are also One.
These seven letters also conclude with a promise of great blessing to those who “overcome.” First, let’s look at the blessings, and they’re all related, all part of a package deal called “salvation” or “eternal life in Christ Jesus”:
- In the letter to the church in Ephesus, the “overcomers” are promised “the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7) – the promise of eternal life.
- To the church in Smyrna, the “overcomers” are promised that they will not be “hurt at all by the second death” ( Rev. 2:11).
- The “overcomers” of the church in Pergamum are promised “hidden manna” (Rev. 2:17), the bread of life.
- The “overcomers” of the church in Thyatira are promised “authority over the nations” (Rev. 2:26). This is a promise later affirmed for all believers (Rev. 22:5).
- The “overcomers” of the church in Sardis are promised that God “will never blot out his name from the book of life” (Rev. 3:5).
- The “overcomers” of the church in Philadelphia are promised that they will be made “a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it (Rev. 3:12), reiterating that we will all be priests of God, ministering from the Tree of Life.
- The “overcomers” of the church in Laodicea are promised “to sit with me on my throne” (Rev. 3:21). Again, this relates to the promise that all believers will reign with Christ (Rev. 22:5)
This gives all of Christ’s bondservants the same hope! No matter how good or bad a church has been, repentance opens the very same door to eternal life! (Repentance is the opposite side of the same coin as faith. They, therefore, are inseparable, both the product of a cleansed heart.)
Now for the big question: “What does it mean to be an ‘overcomer,’ and how can I be sure that I am one?” There are two passages from First John that are particularly illuminating. They give us a portrait of what overcoming looks like:
- You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 John 4:4-6)
- For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (1 John 5:4-5)
Here’s what we can take away from these verses about overcomers:
- They are all born of God through faith in Christ. Those who aren’t of God cannot be overcomers.
- Overcoming is of God. Only He is greater than anything we can possibly encounter that might jeopardize our victory.
- Overcomers are those listen to the Apostles and obey God’s Word. Those who are not overcomers place other things before God’s Word!
- Overcoming is the same thing as believing and trusting in Christ. Consequently, those who overcome are those who continue to the end (Hebrews 3:6,14).
This is good news! It doesn’t mean that we have to attain to a certain level of moral perfection, but it does mean that our life in Christ depends on trusting in Him as He truly is. This, of course, entails repentance. If we refuse to repent of our sins, it means that we aren’t trusting in Him. Instead, we’re trusting in something else! If we do trust in Him, we will do what He tells us to do.
Let me try to illustrate this simple truth with an analogy. If I say that I really trust in my doctor, but then I throw away the pills that he instructed me to take, I don’t really trust in Him. Likewise, if I trust in Christ but refuse to do what He tells me to do, then I don’t really trust in Him. Those who trust Him will keep His Word (John 14:21-24).
Don’t worry that your faith seems so flimsy and insubstantial or that you are struggling against many temptations that are vying against your faith. You can’t even keep your own faith. It’s something that God has to protect for you (1 Peter 1:5; Acts 13:48; 18:27; 16:14; Phil. 1:29). If you’re not sure that you really want God more than anything else, confess that to Him and ask for His help. He hears your repentant prayer.
The Spirit informed five of the seven churches that they must repent. Interestingly, the Spirit did not insist on this requirement for the churches in Philadelphia and Smyrna, as He did the others. Clearly, it wasn’t that everyone in these churches was sinless. Anyone who says that they are without sin are in denial or a liar (1 John 1:8-10; James 3:2). Instead, they had repented of their sins and had found complete forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9) – a clean beginning.
Repentance is so foundational to the entire Christian life. When one person repents, this constitutes the supreme act of overcoming. In fact, the victory is so glorious, that it is the one thing that causes the angels of heaven to rejoice (Luke 15:7, 10).
The other five churches were instructed to repent because, unlike Smyrna and Philadelphia, they hadn’t yet repented and experienced a total restoration. While driving through heavy traffic on route 80, I was talking to a pastor-friend on the cell as my wife was driving. The traffic came to a dead stop. I became so upset that I forget that I was talking on the phone and began to curse. Suddenly, to my great embarrassment, I remembered that I was on the phone with my pastor-friend. I apologized but continued to feel humiliated.
Months later, I saw my pastor-friend and told him that I had related this story to another friend who said, “Well, I guess that’s the last time you’ll ever get to speak from his pulpit!” When I related this conversation to my pastor-friend, he laughed and assured me that this wouldn’t be the case (and it wasn’t!)
He had embodied Christ for me. He reflected back to me the way Christ is for us. When we honestly confess our sins, they are immediately obliterated along with any of their attendant filth. We are no long burdened by their deception, condemnation and contamination. This is how the churches in Philadelphia and Smyrna had overcome, and how they could be assured of all future glory.
Three of the churches that hadn’t yet repented were either castigated for their tolerance or commended for their lack of tolerance:
The church in Ephesus had “forsaken [its] first love,” but to its credit, the Spirit says, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. (Rev. 2:2).
Tolerance has become the chief virtue in our society and even in some of our churches. However, there are things that the church shouldn’t tolerate. The Ephesian church also hated the “practices of the Nicolaitans” (Rev. 2:6), and they were commended for this. Conversely, churches that tolerate false teaching in their midst are scorned. The church in Thyatira wasn’t a bad church:
- “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first” (Rev. 2:19).
However, God was angry at this church and demanded that they too repent. Why?
- “Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” (Rev. 2:20)
We find a similar story at the church in Pergamum. It had been grandly commended:
- “I know where you live--where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me.” (Rev. 2:13)
However, they too had to repent of their evil:
- “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” (Rev. 2:14-15)
We are our brothers’ keepers. We must be concerned about what the brethren teach and believe. We can’t let bygones be bygones. Many have endorsed the false teaching, “Judge not that you not be judged.” Instead of teaching against all forms of judgment and discernment, Jesus was teaching that we first had to remove our own blindness (log in our eye) before we could see clearly enough to correct our brother (to remove the splinter from his eye.) For the sake of being tolerant and broad-minded, we tolerate entirely too much falsehood in our midst and sin.
Truth is the growth-food of the church. When this food is withheld or abused, we do not grow. This is why teaching and Biblical discipleship has always been central to Christ’s church. Consequently, the early church “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching” (Acts 2:42). Likewise, Jesus’ Great Commission required His Apostles to go forth, “teaching them [new disciples] to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). As Paul tearfully departed from the Ephesian elders for the last time, he committed them “to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).
If the Word is food, then the perversion of the Word is poison. Therefore, Paul required that the elder,
- …must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach... (Titus 1:9-11)
Love should never tolerate deception and falsehood. These are just too destructive. Instead, love must judge and correct. Paul reiterated Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 18:15-19) in this way:
- Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)
Correcting and restoring a brother to the truth is not optional, but it’s also not required of everyone. Only those who are “spiritual” – those who have removed that log from their eye – can see clearly enough to remove the splinter from their brother’s eye. Well, what does being “spiritual” entail? Repentance, of course! When we are repentant, we acknowledge how needy and fallible we are. We face the ugly truth about ourselves. Humbled by this, we become gentle, since we realize that we too have likewise fallen. Therefore, Paul counsels us to “watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” The one who feels he cannot be tempted is in denial and shouldn’t try to correct anyone. If he does, his arrogance will be a turn-off!
However, Pergamum and Thyatira were far from the worst churches. Sardis and Laodicea head this list. Their sin was the most grievous and the most dangerous to real spiritual vitality. Consequently, the Spirit had reserved His strongest denunciations for these two churches. To Sardis, He wrote:
- “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Rev. 3:1)
Sardis and Laodicea were the two churches that had received no commendations. Ironically, these were the two churches that had thought well of themselves! Here’s what the Spirit says to Laodicea:
- “You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Rev. 3:17)
I shutter when I read these denunciations. This is because I know that I too am capable of thinking that I “have a reputation” and that “I am rich…and do not need a thing.” It makes me think of the prayer of the Book of Proverbs:
- Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:8-9)
Pride is a murderer. It has slain many. It overtook Saul and Solomon. It had almost brought down David. I want this prayer to be my prayer. I pray that the Lord would only give me my “daily bread” and protect me from a diet too heady for me.
Let’s now return to those two churches that weren’t required to repent – Philadelphia and Smyrna. God had protected these two churches through a healthy diet of trials. To Smyrna, the Spirit writes:
- I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! (Rev. 2:9)
However, they would not be rich in this life:
- Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Rev. 2:10)
What leanness! Our Lord called some from Smyrna to martyrdom. To Philadelphia, He writes: “I know that you have little strength” (Rev. 3:8), and He calls upon them to “endure [the hardships] patiently.” Ironically, those who thought themselves rich and self-sufficient are really poor, while those who regard themselves as poor and needy are really rich in the Lord.
Meanwhile, the world calls us to be like Sardis and to believe in ourselves and boost our self-esteem. Tragically, such messages even emanate out of many of today’s churches. The former pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller, is reported to have preached:
- “Reformation Theology failed to make clear that the core of sin is a lack of self-esteem.” “The most serious sin is the one that causes me to say, ‘I am unworthy. I may have no claim to divine sonship if you examine me at my worst.’ For once a person believes he is an ‘unworthy sinner,’ it is doubtful if he can really honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Jesus Christ.” (Horton quoting R. Schuller, “The Agony of Deceit,” Michael Horton, Moody Press, 136)
However, Jesus consistently taught the very opposite thing:
- “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Luke 17:10 (ESV)
What are we to conclude from this? First of all, the Lord is my strength, my righteousness, and protection. Once we regard ourselves as righteous or worthy, we no longer regard God this way and will be humbled. But those who humble themselves to see their poverty, He exalts. Those who exalt themselves He humbles so that they might repent (Luke 14:11; 18:14; 1 Peter 5:4-6).
My prayer then is this: “Lord, only give me those things that are good for me. Let me not trust in my own faulty judgment or righteousness but in yours alone. Let me never think that I am good or worthy of anything from You, but let my hope and my joy be in You alone.”