A Study in Revelation - Chapter 3
Part 4 of a chapter by chapter study of the book of Revelation
Given the symbolic nature and self-referencing that occurs through Revelation the previous chapters are going to be assumed as we progress.
Where we are in Revelation
Chapter 3 is a continuation of chapter 2 and the two chapters should be read together. Chapter 2 has covered four letters to four different churches and now we come to the last three. Seven churches that are both real churches in real locations but through the use of the number '7', the number of completeness or wholeness, we can see these churches as a representative of the global church and those with ears are expected to listen to what the Spirit is saying to them.
3:1-6 - The Letter to Sardis
"Sardis belonged to the greats among the seven cities in Revelation. It had history, location, beauty, and wealth comparable to cities like Ephesus and Pergamum" (Tonstad). It had a diverse population as well as a large Jewish community with the largest known synagogue which could house up to 1000 people.
Ian Paul gives a more detailed history as it is pertinent to interpreting the message. The walls of Sardis were said to be impenetrable yet both Cyrus in the sixth century and Antiochus III the Great three hundred years later used a trapdoor under unguarded walls. Antiochus learnt about the trapdoor by reading about Cyrus! The appearance of prestige and reputation wasn't what it seemed.
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ Revelation 3:1-6
The opening line for the church is that the Holy Spirit ('the seven spirits' is a connection to the third person of the Trinity, see Chapter 1) and the host of heaven are available for any church that needs help.
'The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death' Romans 8:2
A church that is in danger of dying out needs a breath of life from the spirit of God. The reputation of the church is like that of the pharisees that Jesus condemns so completely in Matthew 23 to the extent they are called 'whitewashed tombs'. The problem of this church is not an outside force but their own reputation and not sticking close to what they received and heard and what made them alive.
The urgency and need to wake up or be disturbed by the thief that destroys is not just an allusion to Jesus' return (see Matt 24:42-44, 1 Thess. 5:2 and 2 Pet. 3:10) but also to the repeated failures of the city to defend itself due to inattentive or sleeping guards. There is a type of church and a type of Christian that does everything 'right' from the perspective of the world and other Christians and yet the inside is rotted. If this isn't a case for needing the power of the Holy Spirit to live and work within us I'm not sure what is. This is a reminder that what we do, even if it 'looks' right, isn't necessarily what God wants of us. We need to live in step with the Spirit and expect Him to take us places we wouldn't necessarily go.
There is an argument raging at the moment between Christians who argue that the church should act when it comes to racial inequality by activism and fighting for the destruction of systemic injustice. There are Christians on the opposing side who simply say preach the gospel. I would argue that the Spirit calls for a Church (a united body of believers) that does both. As we go through Revelation we will see repeated ideas of systems of oppression and powers that are outside of human control that the church must stand against. How the church stands against them is through an opposition that may lead to the death of witnesses. Though this may or may not end up being activism in the political sense, the church must not be one that looks clean on the outside, continually cleaning her hands of the mess around her. The Spirit calls for a church that walks in white, bearing witness both in word and deed and they will be called worthy.
There is a glimmer of hope for Sardis, a few people who are keeping in step with the Spirit and have not 'soiled their garments' or hidden their witness by remaining comfortable. These who walk in white, who stand out as witnesses will be deemed worthy and remain in the book of life. At this point it is worth noting that a theme through Revelation as noted by G.K Beale is that 'white robes' represent "purity that has resulted from the fidelity of the faithful being tested by a refining fire".
Those who are blotted out, they will be no more. For many Christians coming to this passage, an additional idea must be held that the opposite of being in the book of life is an eternity in torment in hell. Though there are passages we will come to that may, on the face of them suggest such a thing, for now, I recommend looking back in chapter 2. Those who are deemed worthy will not be harmed by the second death (Rev 2:11) and be given the fruit of the tree of life (2:7). The opposite of life is not eternal torment but death. Those who are worthy will have their name in eternity, those who are not will not (see also Psalm 37:10-11). The hope of new creation through these letters is one of life with no stain of evil or sin or death (or continual torment!) left in it.
3:7-13 - The Letter to Philadelphia
Philadelphia was not a significant city. It is important to note that the size and importance of the city wasn't necessarily the reason for their inclusion in these letters. What may be important here is the insecurity of its physical and economic situation as Ian Paul notes. The earthquake in AD17 meant the city had to be rebuilt and at the point of writing in Revelation it would have been a very young city. In the economic sense, an edict to halve the growth of grapes across the empire in AD92 meant that many lost their source of income and were driven into poverty. Very little remains of the city today due to the continued earthquakes.
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” Revelation 3:7-13
Jesus is the Holy and True one. Tonstad notes that the words translated 'Holy' (which is often used to denote the separateness and perfection of God) could be translated as the whole one. Jesus is complete, whole, in comparison to the brokenness of humanity. This juxtaposition of Jesus' character with humanity is emphasised in Jesus being the True one when the continual reminder throughout the letters is one of warning against those who lie about themselves, deceive and slander others.
I discussed what it means for Jesus to have the 'keys' in chapter one. The key of David connects to Isaiah 22:22 which is a prophecy about the one who will have authority over entry to the kingdom - the new Jerusalem/New Creation and the presence of God. Jesus is the judge and we will see this theme of judgement continue later through the book. Ian Paul notes that this encouragement that Jesus has opened the door and this door will not be shut to them is a recognition that they (and we who have ears to hear) are weak and cannot open the door to the kingdom ourselves. Why is this door opened? Because they have patiently endured and remained faithful by not denying his 'name' despite the weakness of their position.
Jesus will humble those that deceive the church, those that pretend to be Jews but are not. Many have unfortunately used these words for anti-Jewish sentiment but it is key to remember that the early church would have included many Jewish believers. Those that oppose the church are not Jews but are lying, potentially to themselves, as they do not have the name of the True one while those in Philadelphia will know that they are loved by the Whole and True one. A potential play on the name of the location which means brotherly love.
The imminence of the 'hour of trial' is felt by the language but we should not rush to see dates and timings as any more than symbolic ideas - there is urgency to the message but also an encouragement to patiently endure. This might seem a contradiction between patience and urgency but it emphasises the need to respond while we can that even without the Lord's return we still face death at any moment. While we do not know when the hour of trial will be or how long it will be (remember even time is symbolic), we can know that through patient endurance we will conquer!
What joy and honour will be given to those who hold fast to what they have been given through Christ. They will be the very structure of the temple of God. Given the New Testament idea of the body of believers being the temple of God (1 Corinthians 6), those who are patiently enduring are given the symbol of the most vital structural elements that hold the temple up! They will bear the mark of the name of God, of the new Jerusalem and the name of Christ. This theme of names and identity will continue throughout Revelation and it is important to note now as many will see this as symbolic while noting other infamous uses of 'marks' and 'names' get translated to modern day technologies and tattoos. In this case, these names show that the church in Philadelphia is known by and belongs to the almighty who, despite their weakness, will open the door to them, protect them from trial and honour them before others.
3:14-22 - The Letter to Laodicea
Laodicea was another large town that benefited from being at the intersection of several trade and communication routes. It was wealthy and self-sufficient due to its benefactors, location and agriculture and even managed to rebuild itself without imperial aid after an earthquake in AD60 destroyed the city.
' “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”' Revelation 3:14-22
It is interesting that Jesus is called the 'Amen'. Tonstad goes into detail as to the Old Testament background of "Amen" being a "designation for God and God's defining attribute" quoting Isaiah 65:16 where [belohe amen] is translated as faithfulness. Tonstad concludes this is "affirm[ing] God's disposition not only God's existence". God isn't just revealed and shown to exist, his very nature is worthy of our trust and worship. Jesus is the ruler/beginning (the Greek can be translated as either) of creation and has shown that he is the faithful and true witness through his death and resurrection. We will see the faithful witness again in chapter 19 and witness in general is an idea that will also be repeated.
The Laodiceans are known as are their actions and the phrase being 'lukewarm' is often said to be obvious in meaning. In fact common usage in culture would suggest as much. If only common usage was a good way of understanding the bible! Notice that 'cold or hot' are both given in preference to being 'lukewarm'. Lukewarm is often thought to be mediocre or apathetic while cold is at least a position against God and hot is passionate and zealous. Why would being against God be a positive position? A connection with Laodicea's apparent 'lukewarm' water is also often utilised to show the disgust felt towards their mediocrity and inner disposition towards God. Unfortunately the context points out that the focus is on works not disposition and the common and most popular understandings of this text start to fall apart.
So what is really going on here? Ian Paul points out that the lukewarm water was not good for anything whereas cold water would be good for cooling and refreshing and hot water good for therapy and healing. Cold and hot are better than lukewarm. He concludes that it isn't the "state of their faith that Jesus was criticizing[sic], but the lack of fruit in their lives." (Italics in original quote). This makes more sense that the preferred condition is either hot or cold.
Being spat out (or vomited) is a strong and violent reaction - often involuntary. Those who think they can be a part of the kingdom through their own merit and works, even if they seem good, will fail. Our own success and definitions of good fruit in our lives are simply hiding the reality of our spiritual poverty, nakedness and wretchedness which will be unveiled when Jesus judges. The plea is for the Laodicean church to see that the only real gold is available through Jesus and it is only this gold that gives the honour of clothing and healing. This gold is only found through repentance (see Isaiah 55:1).
There is an odd comparison of the door metaphor between the letter to Philadelphia and this one to the Laodiceans. Jesus has the keys to open doors and yet waits for this door to be open to him. The theme of meal sharing and hospitality is common throughout scripture but Jesus waits to share the meal with those who invite him in. If we are dealing with the theology of feasting and the promise of New Creation we can get an idea of what to expect in Isaiah 25:6-9:
'On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord ; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” ' Isaiah 25:6-9
The invitation is there, Jesus is standing, knocking at the door. Will you invite him in? Will you buy the gold without money and be clothed in Jesus' righteousness rather than your own? The result isn't just hospitality and intimacy but also co-rulership and the throne with God. We were made to rule and have dominion over creation with God (Genesis 1:26-30 see 'dominion') and new creation will be the bliss of this co-rulership as it was meant to be without the corruption of sin and death. What an awesome hope! God will rest on his throne as he did in the beginning and we will join Him in his rule! The Greek for 'sit down' is the same as 'came to rest' in Acts 2:3 and carries this idea of the rest in Genesis 1 when God finishes creation.
Summary and Conclusion on Chapters 2 and 3
Throughout chapters 2 and 3 we see the character of Jesus, the expected character of the Christians, the common opponents to the Christian life and the promised hope of New Creation with a hint at what happens to those who fail to conquer.
Jesus is the one who knows his church and sees their works. He is the one who will judge but also the one who rebukes and disciplines those whom he loves.
We are able to respond to the rebuke, the calling and the love of Christ by either keeping the door closed, not accepting the 'gold' offered, deceiving ourselves or not enduring.
If we reject the offer, we reject life and we will face judgement to be excluded from the new creation. This is called the second death, something explored in chapter 2 but will be explored further in later chapters.
If we open the door and accept Jesus' offer given through his death and resurrection we have a hope of honour, healing (salvation) and co-rulership in the new creation where there will be no more pain, death or grief and where the second death will not harm us.
I pray that as we continue to dig into Revelation you see that opening the door opens to love, hope and honour, a removal of shame, and a vision of the kingdom in all of God's glory. That God offers life in all its fullness in a creation made new with heaven coming down. Rejecting life will not end in an endless pit of torment and torture but death. I hope that you see that God loves the world and has given himself up for her. God is not the god of wrath that many would preach for fear of 'softening' the gospel. God hates sin and death and he offers love and life and we have the freedom to choose.
See all commentaries used in chapter 1.
If you want to explore the idea of rest, the hope of new creation as well as the meaning of 7 and the Sabbath, I recommend The Bible Project video below: