Updated: Oct 2, 2020
Where we are in Revelation
The further we go into Revelation, more discussion will be needed around the structure but chapters 2 and 3 are pretty straight forward in terms of structure as they are written as letters to seven churches. As said in chapter 1, these churches are real churches but also represent the wider global church. It does show the complexity of Revelation because it isn't just an apocalyptic prophecy but it also has elements of the letters (epistles) in the New Testament. All genres should be read in different ways, which makes Revelation even more interesting.
As these letters are to real locations, this map is helpful in working out where these were in relation to modern day countries if you compare it to modern day Turkey.
The structure of the letters
Ian Paul (and other commentators) point out the repeated structure of the letters to the churches in these two chapters.
To the angel of the church in (place name) write:
Thus says he who (connection to vision of Revelation 1)
'I know your' (attributes and actions but these vary)...
But this I have against you...
Command to respond or repent
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches
To those who are conquering (promise drawn from the vision of the New Jerusalem).
Some have taken to apply these letters to 'ages' since Jesus' ascension but these are rather subjective and unnecessary. It makes far better sense to see these as letters to actual churches but with an audience listening in ("He who has an ear, let them hear..."). There is something to be learnt in each letter, not just picking and choosing, because they build on each other to give a view of the Christian hope of rescue and the warning of judgement. Some commentators note that all of the letters are actually still introducing us to the rest of Revelation, that the themes found in each letter will resurface throughout the book.
2:1-7 - The Letter to Ephesus
Ephesus became highly developed as a Roman imperial administrative hub but under the influence of Rome, the cult of Emperor worship also thrived alongside many local religions. You can also find more about Ephesus from the letter Paul wrote but also the church's establishment in Acts 18. Christianity's exclusivity and the way that Christians did not worship or promote other religions alongside the way of Jesus, meant that trade of statues and shrines were threatened and Christians faced great opposition. This gives a little background to the following verses.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ ' Revelation 2:1-7
Continuing on from Ian Paul's comments on the structure of the letters, he also makes a significant point on the word translated as churches. When you see this word, it is probably hard to distance yourself from your own experience of church, the organisational structures, the doctrinal statements or even the building. This is hardly what John would have had in mind and Ian Paul argues that 'assembly' would be a better word to use - a place where the people of God assemble together. For a better picture of what ekklesia pointed to in the New Testament see Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-37.
For the church in Ephesus, John doesn't directly quote the vision of Jesus in chapter 1 but utilises a much stronger word for 'holding' stars, instead of possession (1:16) it is more a grasping both powerfully and with authority. As well as grasping on to the angels of the churches (the meaning of the stars given in chapter 1), Jesus walks amongst the lampstands. He knows them. This repetition of Jesus 'knowing' is both an encouragement and a warning. It is a comfort for believers as their suffering and endurance are acknowledged but Jesus is therefore also aware of where the body of believers falls short. As he "grasps" the churches, he has the authority to remove the lampstands from their place. It seems like a very severe warning after all of the good works Ephesus are seen to do, but if love is missing it could discount an assembly from inclusion in the paradise of God. We must repent when our works are empty of love for God. Echoes of 1 Corinthians 13 can be seen in the importance of love in all that believers do:
'If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. ' 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
As we work through these letters there are key words that will be seen throughout the rest of Revelation. In the case of Ephesus, they are the example of patient endurance which is one way believers are considered people who conquer.
For Ephesus, part of their patient endurance was testing those who claimed to be apostles. Weeding out false teaching and standing up against evil is hard, laborious work and may well take time and emotional toil. Sometimes to see false teaching is straightforward, but other times you may not realise something is false until the fruit begins to show. In an age where knowledge is at the click of the button and 'fresh' teaching is all over youtube, worshiping and reading the bible in community helps us recognise false teaching. That said, this passage shows that recognising false doctrine is not necessarily going to save us nor is it necessarily the sign of a true witness of Jesus. This is a major warning to the modern church and those debating doctrine but lacking in love!
Two things need to be dug into further as we finish this first letter. Who are the Nicolaitans and what is the significance of the tree of life at this point?
We will dig into who the Nicolaitans are further on in the chapter but the first thing to note is that there is a wordplay occurring. Richard Bauckham notes that
"the name of ... the followers of Nicolaus, which means 'conquer the people', alludes to Revelation's keyword 'conquer'"
The teaching of Nicolaus was not only allowing Christians to participate in the society around them but the way they were doing this was participating in the beast's success. The beast was conquering those who followed Nicolaus. There is a promise for those who conquer the beast.
The second question is what is the tree of life. For many who have grown up in the church, this might seem obvious, but it is the obvious things that we need to be most careful with. Like a ship travelling a bearing 1 degree off becomes lost after hundreds of miles, tradition that is even slightly wrong can lead us to damaging doctrine if not checked against scripture regularly. What seems familiar is where some of the best news is found. To help you dig in to this theme and how it works from Genesis to Revelation, watch the four minute video below by The Bible Project. For an even more thorough connect, I've put their podcast series in the resources at the bottom of this page.
The main purpose of creation was for humanity to live and rule with God over creation in perfect harmony and with access to every plant and tree and fruit (Genesis 1:26-30 - notice the language of dominion). The tree of life was in the "midst of the garden" (sort of like the son of man is "in the midst of the lampstands" in Revelation 1:13) and nearby was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The story is NOT one of not giving access to knowledge and allowing humanity to remain in ignorance but one of testing humanity to allow them to choose to rely on God for knowledge. Adam and Eve broke the relationship by taking knowledge on their own terms rather than trusting God for provision just as he had provided the abundance of the garden and the promise of ruling together and continuing the creation over the whole earth.
The break in relationship ends with a curse and a promise. A curse that shows that sin and death has entered the world through deception (more on this throughout our study of Revelation), a promise of one who will break the curse but be wounded by the serpent (or dragon or deceiver, see chapter 1) and ends with the statement:
'Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. ' Genesis 3:22-23
For those who conquer, they have not only stood firm in the faith despite toil and hardship but they have conquered the deception of the Nicolaitans. The tree of life will only appear again in chapter 22 but for now the hope of the faithful Christian isn't an ethereal realm in the clouds but the restoration of creation and life forever as it was meant to be in the garden (paradise). The fruit of the tree of life is a symbol of the presence of God that gives eternal life to those who taste it. This idea of new creation is important as we move into the next letter.
2:8-11 - The Letter to Smyrna
Smyrna is on the coast, just north of Ephesus. It has been permanently inhabited since Revelation but became Izmir after facing the first genocide of the twentieth century in 1922. Like Ephesus it had many imperial temples including the large Temple of Tiberius. As for Christian history, the early church father Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna until he was martyred by Marcus Aurelius within a century of the writing of Revelation.
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ ' Revelation 2:8-11
In chapter 1, we noted that the language of 'the first and the last' is the language of divinity. For Jesus to use this language (and for John to write it) is to show that the early church testimony was that Jesus is God. The author of life was killed (Acts 3:15) and by his death he defeated death itself.
As in the first letter, Jesus shows an intimate knowledge of the church and in this case, the church is suffering and in poverty. Despite the material lack, they are reminded that they actually have wealth and as shown later, there is a crown of life to be gained. This letter has an interplay of life and death that is significant. The call to have hope, not to fear what will be faced at the hands of others.
Who these 'others' are must be looked into carefully. The church in history has applied this verse to all Jews with devastating consequences. A tradition seeming to follow from John Chrysostom in the 4th century to Martin Luther in the 16th. Their words don't need to be repeated here but it led to ingrained anti-semitism within the church. So what is John meaning? There is some debate but my opinion is as follows: There is a theme throughout the letters of both of slander (a false accusation against a person's reputation) and of deception (false representation). If Jews are repeatedly seen as the people of God throughout the bible, and we have the theme of the Christian being grafted into the people of God (Romans 11:12, Ephesians 2:19-22) then those slandering the church were deceiving themselves in claiming to be the people of God. Ian Paul puts it more succinctly:
To claim that the accusers are not true Jews is not about displacing them, but about following the tradition of the Old Testament and of Paul that being part of the people of God is at heart about faith and obedience, not simply about ethnicity.
The warning I believe is those who claim to be God's people can actually be the adversary! How sad it is when those claiming to be the people of God slander those who are remaining faithfully obedient. You can see this happen on social media where debates over doctrine lead to insults and slander. You can see it where churches that have gone along with the moral zeitgeist slander those who remain faithful to Jesus and his teachings. Jesus knows his church and those who were adversaries to the church in Smyrna (and those who oppose the church today) were the synagogue [church] of the adversary [satan means adversary].
As we move through the passage, we see that 'The Deceiver' is also 'The Destroyer' and he seeks to wreak havoc by imprisoning some for a limited time. 10 days is symbolic and connected to Daniel and his friends as they were tested in Daniel 1:12-15. Even the devil's power is limited even if he kills us.
It can be so easy for us to read statements like this, especially those of us who have been Christians most of their lives with no threat to our lives because of our faith. The encouragement here is for a church facing the threat of death. It has similar undertones to Jesus encouraging his disciples:
'Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved... And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna [hell]. ' Matthew 10:21-22,28
The Christian has something that cannot be touched by death. This is exactly why the resurrection matters! If Jesus is the one who was dead but is now alive then we have hope that this will happen to us as well. This should give us courage when we face slander and threats to our lives. There is something that only God can destroy and there is a hint as to what that is in verse 11 of Revelation 2 but there could well be a connection back to Matthew 10:28 as seen above. Being faithful to death for the sake of Jesus will not only gain us the crown of life, the promise is repeated as a promise that the second death will not harm us.
Tonstad focuses on the word 'harm' to suggest there is some power of the second death, and possibly there is given chapter 20 (but we'll get there eventually and shouldn't just jump ahead). There is an element of passover here, when reading Exodus 12 you can see that the LORD will pass through the people and it is HE that brings judgement and in this case, death. BUT ALSO He who protects from harm (plague or destruction) and gives life:
'The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. ' Exodus 12:13
Death is harm! We are made to live with God and to reject him and not remain faithful to him will lead to the harm of the second death - the ultimate end.
I'm in danger of labouring this point but i see it as vital to understanding the hope of the Christian life. Life is juxtaposed with death. It is time to remove the lens with which you might see the word 'hell' in the quote from Matthew 10:28. You may need to take a step back and see what the word Gehenna connects to and why it doesn't necessitate a place of endless torment but is more likely a word picture to denote the total destruction of a person.
Most commentators note that the phrase second death is only seen in Revelation (chapter 20) so they jump ahead or point ahead for clarity on the phrase. Now while this is useful and encouraged, it is interesting that John doesn't feel the need to clarify this phrase at all. In fact, he clarifies symbols (the lake of fire in 20:14) with the phrase rather than it being a symbol itself. The second death will be an eternal punishment (see Matthew 25:46) in that there will be no participation or experience of new creation life.
What can be taken away at this point then is life with God is on offer even if we are killed for remaining faithful to Him. Conquering in this life actually means laying down our life like Jesus. We can conclude then that those who do not conquer or do the killing or slandering of the people of God will not have this promise and face the second death.
2:12-17 - The Letter to Pergamum
Pergamum was wholeheartedly given to the Roman Empire and the Imperial Cult (worship of the emperor) with no fight at all when its ruler, Attalus III gave it over to the empire when he died in 133BCE.
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ ' Revelation 2:12-17
The connection to chapter 1's vision of Jesus in this letter is now Jesus' sharp two-edged sword. Remember, this isn't a sword held in a hand but one that comes from Jesus' mouth. Jesus will wage war through words of truth against words of deception and slander. We talked about key words that will be seen throughout Revelation and there is another in this letter. War.
Here we are back with the Nicolaitans. Remember that there is a wordplay occuring with Nicolaitans and 'conquer' and now we have Balak and Balaam involved. As we saw earlier, those who followed the way of the Nicolaitans were being conquered by the beast. In looking up the story of Balak and Balaam, a Jewish commentary notes that Balak recognised the
"Jews’ strength lay in their mouths, i.e., in prayer, [Balak] planned to defeat them with a stronger "mouth"—Balaam’s curse" (chabad.org)
Interestingly the story surrounding Balaam and his donkey (an interesting one to go and read in Numbers 22) shows that God is even in control of the mouth of the donkey. All of this to show that God is in control and not Balaam. Balaam is eventually humiliated and becomes the 'mouth' of God's blessing on Israel rather than the intended curse Balak anticipated. Baukham notes that 'Balaam is said to mean 'destroy the people' in Jewish exegesis. It is ironic that he fails to do so fully though some do fall into temptation and idolatry and are destroyed (Numbers 25). Ultimately, as Tonstad notes, the story of Balak and Balaam is one of unfaithfulness. Unfaithfulness is repeatedly connected to idolatry and symbolised by sexual immorality and adultery. This theme will be seen throughout Revelation and may not directly mean physical sexuality but a seduction to other gods.
An interesting side note is that Polycarp who was martyred in Pergamum was said to have been a "puller down of our Gods, teaching many not to sacrifice or worship" (Beale quoting Martyrdom of Polycarp 12:1-2). It connects with both the background of what we know of Pergamum and the pressure on the church to worship the gods around them.
Repentance is vital. Just as in other letters, there is an opportunity to avoid the coming judgement as this judgement will come swiftly. This judgement comes not just against the individual who is unfaithful but also to the systems and powers that 'wrongly use the God-ordained power of the sword' (Beale, 1999) as Satan's power sits behind the society in which the church dwells.
As with the other letters we get to a promise of reward. So far we have rewards connected to new creation - the tree of life, no harm from the second death, a crown of life - but now we get to something that is not easily translated to our modern ears. I am convinced that the explanation falls along the lines of the white representing righteousness and the stone with a name inscribed is an invitation or admission (Beale) to the marriage supper of the lamb (to be discussed further in chapter 19). The connection to the supper is found when the stone is linked with the promise of manna - the bread of heaven. Tonstad connects the white stone to Zechariah 3:9 as a stone which removes guilt which is also a helpful image. Whoever conquers, holds fast to Jesus' name, will be given a new name bearing no guilt and only they will know the name when they receive it. Your true identity is held by Jesus and is intrinsically tied to Jesus' name, something we will look at in due course.
Before we move on, name, is another key word to look out for.
2:18-29 - Letter to Thyatira
Thyatira doesn't have much going for it. Tonstad quotes several scholars to make this point and ends with Colin Hemer stating "the longest and most difficult of the seven letters is addressed to the least known, least important, and least remarkable of the cities". The encouragement here is that for anyone working in a small church that is 'least known' or seems 'least important', Jesus says 'I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance...'.
Ian Paul gives the city some credit with some standard Greco-Roman buildings such as gymnasia and a theatre, but he states it "certainly was not one of the 'big players'". There isn't much known regarding a Jewish community here but there was a Christian community there "from the 80s until 1922, when the Greek Orthodox were expelled by the Turkish authorities and the archbishop took up residence in London." (Paul, 2018).
“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’' Revelation 2:18-29
There are obvious similarities between this letter and the letter to Pergamum. The image of Jesus remains one of judgement like that of Pergamum's letter and Thayatira's sins also include sexual immorality, the eating of food sacrificed to idols, it also is connected to satan and is shown it needs to repent...but we might be getting ahead of ourselves.
Jesus is called the "Son of God" something we may be used to seeing but it is the only time John makes this reference in Revelation. G.K. Beale connects this with a reference to 'Son of Man' from Daniel given the overt allusions of the bronze feet and 'flame of fire' to the fiery furnace of Daniel chapter 3 in which Daniel's friends were rescued by one like a 'Son of God' and the vision of Daniel 10 with the 'eyes like flaming torches' and 'feet like polished bronze'. Commentators also agree that this is a connection to Psalm 2,
'You are my son; today I have begotten you.'
The connection with Psalm 2 is emphasised when verse 9 is read and connected to Revelation 2:27:
'You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” ' Psalm 2:9
G.K. Beale also notes that a local god, Apollo Tyrimnaeus and the emporer were both known as sons of the god Zeus. John is making it clear there is only one true Son of God who will come as judge.
As Christians, our deeds are not just what we do for those in our community and those outside it. Works of service are important but not everything. Love, faith and patient endurance are also vital and the church in Thayatira have been growing in all of these works as opposed to Ephesus whose first works were greater than their last. Where Ephesus tested teachers and rooted them out, Thyatira has succumbed to false teaching. Jezebel, like Balak and Balaam, led Israel to divine adultery - to compromise faithfulness and turn to idolatry. The idolatry and immorality is fleshed out in detail, not only have teachings been heard, the Thayatiran church has "got into bed" with Jezebel. The offspring of this adulterous relationship - those who hold to Jezebel's teachings and lead others in her ways - will be struck dead. God will be known as just and judge, that the hearts and minds of those in Thayatira are known by him - a connection to the flaming eyes. The harlot is marked, and we will see her again in future chapters.
Despite the severity of the sexual immorality and idolatry within this church, there is hope. God does know the hearts and minds of those within the church and for those who have not taken on the "deep things of Satan", they are encouraged to hold fast. Not only will those who conquer by holding fast to Jesus be saved, they will be given authority just as Jesus has authority. In fact they will be given the authority of the 'Son of God' from Psalm 2 and they will be the ones that will rule with a rod of iron. The morning star emphasises this rulership through connections to Numbers 24:17 which connects to Psalm 2:9 and also makes sense due to its connection to Balaam and Balak as discussed already.
The church is meant to be a glimpse of co-rulership with God. A community that stands against the tides of cultural idolatry and points to a creator who is sovereign but desires to be known. The promise for those who endure and conquer even through the loss of life is the hope of judgement for those who oppress, slander and kill. It is also the hope of eternal life, the presence of God (tree of life), a crown of life, a realisation of identity in union with Jesus and the authority over the nations to rule with God as it was meant to be in the garden.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
So we come to the last letter of chapter 2 but we still have 3 churches to work through. There is a lot to hear and a lot to ponder on:
Where is the UK church being unfaithful?
Where is the UK church in danger of bearing false witness?
What does it look like to be patiently enduring?
Where have we put doctrine over love?
Where have we put community over doctrine?
How do we patiently endure?
I believe the answers to the latter 3 questions come through digging further into God's word, prayer and listening to God's spirit all in community. May we continue to do all three as we go into the next chapters.
See chapter 1 for commentaries used
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