I grew up in a Protestant church whose roots in the Reformation of the sixteenth century eventually led me to focus on the clarion cry of this movement: “sola fide” or “faith alone.” Since the Reformation, Protestant Christians have sought to distinguish themselves from the Roman Catholic Church by emphasizing the claim that they are justified before God by faith alone and not by their works. The result has been, in some cases, for Protestants to downplay exhortations to moral actions, claiming that to give in to such exhortations would be legalism. Thus they reduce Christianity to mainly one element: faith. We Christians can overemphasize other elements of Christianity as well, and we do so most often simply because of personal preference that results from personality or giftedness. Artists and musicians can tend to emphasize worship. Type A people and salesmen might emphasize missions and evangelism. Professors and academicians can tend to emphasize Bible study. Business professionals might emphasize church growth and financial success. People who like feeling religious can tend to emphasize religious practices. In each case, one feature of Christianity gets highlighted at the expense of others that may be equally important. Yet, Christians need to be well-rounded in their Christianity in order for it to be authentic—a point hit home for me recently when I studied the seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3.
These letters are organized in much the same pattern, which includes six parts:
- A statement that a message is being sent to a community of believers in a particular city (“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write…” [2:1]).
- Jesus’ description of Himself as the one sending the message (“The One who holds the seven stars…” [2:1]).
- Affirmations and/or criticisms of the intellectual and moral climate within the particular community of believers (“I know your works and your toil and perseverance…” [2:2-6]).
- An exhortation to continue acting according to Jesus’ affirmations or to correct the problem He cites to warn of eternal consequences (“Therefore remember from where you have fallen…” [2:5]).
- An exhortation to take seriously Jesus’ messages to all the communities of believers (“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” [2:7]).
- The result of properly heeding the messages—that is, eternal life in the kingdom of God (“To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life…” [2:7]).
The third and fourth parts with their affirmations and/or criticisms along with their attendant exhortations and warnings make clear that Jesus considers only a well-rounded Christianity to be authentic.
In the first letter (2:1-7), Jesus praises the Ephesian church community for their works, toil, and perseverance as demonstrated by their being highly critical of evil men who pretend to be apostles of Christ but whose message is obviously in error. This church community is indefatigable in their opposition to evil. Yet Jesus goes on to say, “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love… repent and do the works you did at first….” In other words, while the Ephesians are against evil, they are not all that much for good. They are not continuing to pursue morality as they did when they first heard the gospel. It is always easy to identify and criticize others’ sin, seeing the specks in their eyes; however, to pursue our own goodness, taking the log out of our own eye and doing what is right, is much more difficult. But Jesus says that if the Ephesians do not correct this problem, He will “remove [their] lampstand”; He will take away their status as an authentic community of believers because they are not one. At the moment, they are not well-rounded Christians—in spite of their hatred of the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus also hates. Unfortunately, we do not have adequate information to help us understand what these detestable works of the Nicolaitans were. Nevertheless, the one who overcomes—that is, the one who conquers (literally) the elements of the world and the sin that could permanently lead him away from the truth of the gospel—that one will obtain eternal life in the “Paradise of God.”
This victory over worldly elements in this life is not the same as moral perfection. Neither is it something a person accomplishes on his own. It is being—by means of God’s grace initiating and working at the core of our beings—fundamentally committed to all the characteristics of authentic Christianity that Jesus describes in these seven letters and not taking any one of them lightly. In the case of the Ephesians, to be against evil is one thing, but to be for good is a whole other thing. Both are necessary for salvation.
In the second letter (2:8-11), Jesus praises the community of believers in Smyrna, “I know your tribulation and your poverty… and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” These Christians are under a lot of stress, and they are financially poor. Nevertheless, Jesus claims they are rich because of the gospel’s promise of eternal life. He is also aware that a local gathering of Jews is claiming to have the biblical message correct in contrast to the Smyrnan believers. These Jews’ understanding is probably the same that Jesus dealt with in the gospels and that the other New Testament authors addressed in their letters—that is, they believed they could earn God’s favor through their obedience to the Mosaic Covenant. But this mentality makes them a gathering of Satan, not of God. The word “Satan” is a transliteration of an Old Testament Hebrew word meaning “enemy” or “opponent.” To believe one can earn God’s blessing comes from a complete misunderstanding of grace and mercy and makes one an enemy of God, opposing biblical truth.
Jesus goes on to tell the Smyrnan Christians that they will have to endure imprisonment for their Christianity, but He encourages them to persevere in their faith until death and they will receive the “crown of life”—that is, eternal life. They will then have conquered any worldly influence that would lead them permanently away from Christianity. The result will be that the “second death”—eternal condemnation after the first, physical death—will not be their lot.
In the third letter (2:12-17), Jesus starts out by praising the community of believers in Pergamum because, while living right at the center of Satan’s rule and authority (his “throne”), they are holding fast Jesus’ reputation as the Messiah and not denying their belief in Him, even when one of their own, Antipas, was killed for his faith. (“Antipas” literally means “against all,” which Christians are because of their opposition to anyone who would deny Jesus as the Messiah.) But Jesus criticizes the Pergamum church community for its having some within it who are being led astray by a Balaam-like movement (cf. Numbers 22-25) which is encouraging people to engage in sexual immorality and the worship of idols, both of which were common practices in the pagan religions of the Roman Empire. A faction is also following the immoral influences of the Nicolaitans. Jesus urges these rebellious groups to repent because His second coming is, apocalyptically speaking, right around the corner and He will destroy them “with the sword of [His] mouth.” Nevertheless, those who conquer the temptation to follow the immoral influences of the Balaam-like movement and the Nicolaitans will receive the “hidden manna”—that is, inward and eternal life in heaven.
In the fourth letter (2:18-29), Jesus, as He does with the Ephesians and Pergamumites, both praises and criticizes the church community at Thyatira. He begins by affirming them: “I know your works, and your love and faith and service and perseverance, and that your works of late are greater than at first.” It sounds as though they are well-rounded Christians. Jesus criticizes them, however, for tolerating “the woman Jezebel.” Like the Balaam-like movement in the previous church, Jezebel is leading people within the community of believers away from a proper pursuit of morality and toward sexual immorality and pagan idolatry. Jesus has patiently waited for her to repent, but she refuses. Therefore, He says He will “cast her into a bed”—that is, others can still join her in her immorality by “committing adultery with her”—but Jesus will cast those who join Jezebel into their own “great tribulation” (eternal condemnation) if they do not repent of their alliance with her. And like the Jezebel of old, all her children will die. (“Children here could mean her biological children, who will die. Or “children” might mean the people who are influenced by both her and those who “commit adultery” with her, who will die an eternal death.) Thus, every church in that area will know that Jesus is the one who “searches the minds and hearts.” He knows what happens at the core of their humanity, the place where authentic spirituality lies and which results in a well-rounded Christianity.
For those in Thyatira who are not following the woman Jezebel, Jesus adds nothing to what he has already said about them. They are doing well, except for “tolerating” Jezebel. So they should hold fast to all they know and are doing with respect to Christianity and vigorously oppose her teaching; and the long-term result will be that they will rule over the eternal kingdom of God with Jesus—a most startling promise. Jesus is the King, but the Thyatiran Christians, and by extrapolation all Christians, will exercise more power and authority in heaven than has the most powerful man of any human government in world history. Thus, biblical believers, who have been oppressed by most earthly governments, will gain more power than any of their oppressors ever had—a perfect example of the irony of God, who raises up leaders and brings them down.
In the fifth letter (3:1-6), Jesus is mostly critical of the community of believers in Sardis. They have the reputation of being alive, of being Christians, but in reality they are dead and close to not being Christians at all. Therefore, Jesus exhorts them to “wake up” and strengthen whatever kernel of authentic spirituality exists within them because He has “not found [their] works completed in the sight of [His] God.” They may have a reputation amongst others for being Christians, but there is no well-roundedness to their Christianity, thus rendering it vacuous and a sham. They are only pretending to be Christians. Therefore, He exhorts them to remember “what [they] have received and heard; and keep it…,” referring to the message of the gospel. Like the Old Testament believers who guarded and protected the biblical message they heard, these people in the church of Sardis should do the same. [See Genesis 26:5. The Hebrew word shamar is used of Abraham who kept, guarded, and protected God’s commandments.] If they do not awaken from their spiritual slumber, Jesus’ second coming will be a shock to them because it will bring judgment and condemnation. Nevertheless, a few in this community are authentic Christians and will inherit moral perfection, being “clothed in white garments” in heaven because they are “worthy”—that is, they demonstrate a genuine response to God’s grace.
In the sixth letter (3:7-13), Jesus has no criticism of the church of Philadelphia, literally the city of “brotherly love.” They have “little power” (a good place to be), relying on the great power of God for His mercy and salvation. They have kept and guarded Jesus’ message. Thus, He will guard them by causing their authentic Christianity to persevere when the hour of testing comes on the world. He is coming quickly, apocalyptically speaking, and the Philadelphians should grasp onto all that they have and are as Christians in order that they might not lose the crown of life, which is eternal life. Thus, he who overcomes the influences of the world that would permanently lead people astray from the truth will become a “pillar in the temple of God,” a very part of the place in heaven where God dwells—among and in His people.
In the seventh letter (3:14-22), Jesus is quite critical of the community of believers in Laodicea. They are neither hot nor cold. They are neither fully committed to the gospel nor fully opposed to it. Would that they be fully committed to it. But because they are “lukewarm,” Jesus will reject them like vomit. Because they are materially wealthy, they conclude that God is blessing them for their wonderful obedience to Him—not unlike the Pharisees who measured their spirituality by the size of their bank accounts according to the promises of the Mosaic Covenant. But Jesus says they are “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” Thus, He advises them to “buy from [Him] gold refined by fire,” referring to real wealth, real Christianity that has gone through the test of faith and the purification process of suffering. They should also obtain from Him “white garments” of moral perfection in heaven and “eye salve” that opens their eyes to the truth of their wretched sinfulness and need for God’s gracious mercy. Jesus is being very loving by giving them this message, which is both reproof and training to lead them into authenticity. Like a potential guest in an ancient near eastern home, Jesus stands at the door and knocks. Will the Laodiceans follow the cultural norm and invite Him in and embrace Him as their friend because they fully comprehend all He is warning them about, or will they invite Him in strictly out of cultural obligation, still viewing Him as their enemy? Those who conquer whatever worldly influences are keeping them lukewarm will, as Jesus told the Thyatirans, reign with Him in the eternal kingdom of God.
The order in which the letters are presented has a chiastic structure: the first is like the seventh; the second is like the sixth (no criticism of these churches); the third is like the fifth; and the fourth is the central letter, written to people who are not vigorously opposing someone who calls herself a prophetess speaking on behalf of God but who is as wicked as the Jezebel described in the Old Testament (I Kings 16-22; II Kings 9). Jesus’ point throughout these letters is for the Christians not only to believe in the message of the gospel and in Him as the Son of God, but also to be people of loving, serving, persevering, repenting, and moral actions who guard and protect the gospel message in their minds and hearts. In other words, He wants them to be well-rounded, to be Christians who, by the grace of God and only by the grace of God, take every aspect of Christianity seriously and struggle vigilantly against all worldly influences that could permanently lead them away from the truth and jeopardize their eternal destination of heaven.