The Seven Churches – Part 4

The Seven Churches – Part 4

This is the final of four articles examining, exploring, and explaining the message of the seven churches. The goal has been to be expositional in looking at the text and also practical in the application for us in this age. The Lord Jesus occupies the same place today as He did in Revelation 1; He is still in the midst of the churches. From that place of prominence He is intimately aware of all that takes place in each assembly and deeply concerned for what is lacking in doctrine and devotion.

His view of the local church is from heaven’s perspective; the assembly as it is in reality. The earthly view of the assembly may be far different. The local church may look like it is flourishing and prospering with God’s blessing whereas the Lord Jesus sees the true spiritual condition. He knows if the assembly has left their first love or are compromising with the world and bowing to its’ pressure.

From His vantage point He offers words of commendation for that which is commendable. He also gives the needed correction for what is lacking. In each letter the Lord Jesus has an offer of compensation and a call to hear what is being said about the assembly.

The churches that have the strongest word of condemnation (such as Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea) are most like the culture and city where they are found. Those with the greatest words of commendation (Smyrna and Philadelphia) are the least like the culture and characteristics of their home city. This reminds me of the illustration of a ship at sea. There is no problem with the ship in the water but it poses a great problem when the water is in the ship. So it is in church life, the church is designed to function in the world but there is danger of sinking when the world comes in to the church.

The two churches examined in this article graphically demonstrate this truth. Philadelphia did well in a hostile world. In contrast Laodicea had no influence because they were so much like the world around about.

Each of the previous articles has given the “progressive view” presenting the progress of the church age. This is not the primary meaningoftheseletters.However, based on the other groups of seven, feasts in Leviticus 23 and parables in Matthew 13, there is some precedent. The feasts of Jehovah give Israel’s history in advance and the parables of the kingdom outline the progress of the Kingdom of Heaven through this period and on to the end of the age.

The progressive view of the seven letters would see Ephesus as the Apostolic Church, starting well and remaining active, but, having left their first love. Smyrna speaks of the persecuted church in the time of ten different Roman Emperors. Pergamum would be the compromising church from the time of Constantine to the early 500’s. From that point, through the dark ages and the domination by Rome, would be characteristic of Thyatira. Sardis would be the Reformation Church, having signs of life but spiritually dead.

Philadelphia would represent the revivals and progress of the church from the early 1800’s. During this time there was numerical growth and sending out of missionaries to many foreign fields. There was also development of doctrinal positions in regard to the church, the person of Christ, and the second coming with a distinction between the rapture and the revelation.

The present age is often referred to as the Laodicean age. The characteristics of this church were complacency and
consumerism. It speaks of a time when the church is so like the world and the believers so blind to their condition that they exert no influence in the place where they live.

The name of the city and the meaning of each are perhaps indicative of the potential in Philadelphia and the problem in Laodicea. Philadelphia means “brotherly love” which is fundamental to assembly life and testimony. Laodicea means “rule of the people”which suggests that the desires of individuals rise above the centrality of the person of Christ.

It is to be kept in mind that though the present period may indeed be the Laodicean age individual assemblies can be like Philadelphia. No one forces believers individually or collectively to conform to the values and morals of the world. There are in many countries in the world where local churches are more like Philadelphia than like Laodicea. The challenge in the affluent world is not to succumb to the pressures and pleasures of the world but to rise above it in love and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Church at Philadelphia

The City: Philadelphia was about 40 kilometers southeast of Sardis on a plateau in the Hermus River valley. An imperial road that went from Rome, through Troas, and on to Pergamum and Sardis ran through Philadelphia. It was a significant city for agriculture, industry, and a center for Greek culture. For the latter it was, in a sense, a missionary city as it aggressively spread Greek culture and language through the surrounding region.

It was a city that was subject to a number of severe earthquakes over the course of history. As a result many people preferred to live in the rural areas around the city. Those in the city lived in near constant fear of another earthquake.

The Christ: The presentation of the person of Christ to this church is not drawn from the scene in chapter one as is the case in the other letters. Here is a fresh revelation of His person to a group of believers who are faithful in their devotion to Him. He is the One who is holy and true; these virtues speak of His righteousness and reality and stand in contrast to Bacchus who was likely the primary god for this city.

The Lord Jesus is also seen as the One holding the key of David. The background for this imagery is found in Isaiah 22 where Shebna was removed as steward was replaced by Eliakim who was given the key of the house of David. The key was a badge of office and a symbol of authority which is here held by the risen glorified Christ. The implication is that the Lord Jesus can open a door of opportunity that no one can shut. To the people of Philadelphia, Janus (from which comes January) was the key- bearer and the one who opened the New Year.

The Commendation: This is a church that did not receive a word of condemnation or correction. The Lord Jesus knew their works and also knew they had a little strength which suggested that there was a level of spiritual life unappreciated by the world. Their works were twofold; they were true to the scriptures and true to the Savior. The fact that they kept the word is suggestive of a life of obedience. To be true to the name of the Lord means that they refused to renounce their allegiance to Christ.

The Lord Jesus set before these faithful saints a provision and three promises. The provision is that He has put before them an open door. There are a number of references and inferences to an open door in the N.T. and all the references have to do with opportunities for evangelism. In Acts 14:27 it is a door of faith for the Gentiles that is open. In 1 Corinthians 16:8, 9, there was great door for an effective work, a door of opportunity but also opened to opposition. There were occasions when the door was closed such as in Acts 16:16 when Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach in Asia. In light of the usage in the N.T. it seems best to see this door in Revelation 3:7 as a door for the gospel.

One of the promises has to do with the response of those who were ethnically Jewish but were not so spiritually because they opposed the work of God. Their synagogue is called the synagogue of Satan, whether there was a literal synagogue or not the point is they aided Satan in his opposition to the gospel. The response the Lord anticipated is, that these Judaizers will have a change of mind as they see evidence of God’s love toward these people.

The next promise was given because the believers persevered in obedience to the Lord’s command. He promised them they will not go through the time of temptation or better the time of trial. The definite article suggests a specific time is in view. It will be upon the whole world and its’ purpose is to try or test them and by implication to reveal the true character of mankind. This is an important verse in defense of a pre-tribulation rapture.

The third promise is that He is coming quickly. The assurance that believers will not go through the Tribulation is based on the promises and the purposes of God. The Lord Jesus will come to take His own prior to the start of the time of testing on the whole world. The exhortation to the church is to hold fast to what they have and the result is that no one will take their crown. It is difficult to interpret the crown as to whether it was what marked them there at that time or is related to eternity.

The Compensation: The Lord Jesus offered the overcomer to be a pillar in the temple of God. The thought of a pillar is stability and honor. The two pillars in the O.T. temple were named Jachin and Boaz, (established and strength), and this was common in pagan temples. Philadelphia was subject to earthquakes so to these believers it would a great honor and spoke of stability.

The other honor was to have a name written on them. This would be the name of God, the name of the city, and the name of Christ which until then is unknown. Those who refused to deny His name in this age will have this great honor in the coming age.

The Conclusion: These believers were exemplary in a way that perhaps only the Lord Jesus, the Head of the church could appreciate. The fact they had little strength was perhaps indicative of their size and resources. There was so little of what mankind would value that the Lord could use these saints for His glory. He opens the door of opportunity and is also appreciative of their faithfulness to God’s word and to His person.

The Church at Laodicea

The City: Laodicea was about eighty-five kilometers southeast of Philadelphia and was located in the Lycus valley. The cities of Colosse and Hieropolis were nearby in the same valley. The road from Ephesus to the rest of Asia ran through Laodicea. The city was famous for three industries and two products that were produced there. The banking sector was very well established and wealthy. There was a medical school famous for its eye salve. They also had a garmentindustry,mainly,though not exclusively, glossy black wool that was produced in Laodicea.

The city lacked an adequate water source. They got their water from almost ten kilometers away through a conduit. The source was either hot springs or
a cool spring but when the water reached the city it was lukewarm. Though it was a wealthy city there was no solution to this issue. The people were very self-sufficient even refusing imperial help to rebuild after an earthquake in 17 A.D. They also had a reputation of being very accommodating to the point of compromise. The characteristics of the city are mirrored in the church.

The Christ: The Lord Jesus gives a threefold description of Himself. Two of these three are alluded to in chapter one, the exception is the first title, “Amen.” This familiar word when used by men is a word of assent literally, so be it. The word does appear in 1:6, used as the agreement to the ascription of praise given to Christ. When the word is used of God as in the “God of truth” or the “God of Amen” it means He is faithful. Here in 3:14 it occurs as a title of Christ “because through Him the purposes of God are established,”2 Cor. 1:20 (Vine’s Dictionary).

The next phrase is “the Faithful and True witness.” In 1:5 the Lord is referred to as “the faithful witness.” The fact that He is the Faithful and True witness may be an expansion of His title as “the Amen.” These titles stand in contrast to the church in Laodicea which contained people who were neither faithful nor true.

The final name the Lord Jesus uses is “the Beginning of the creation of God.” A similar thought is found in 1:5 where Jesus is designated as the prince or ruler of the kings of the earth. The word Beginning is from the same root word as ruler, to be first in rank or order. The people in Laodicea were very sure of their condition and asserted that they needed nothing, the One who ruled over all knew better.

The Condemnation: This church had no word of commendation as they were characterized by pride and self-sufficiency. The condemnationandcorrectionare the largest of any of the letters.

The discerning eyes of the Lord saw through the outer facade and exposed the inner reality. “All things are naked and exposed before the eyes of Him with Whom we must give an account” (Heb. 3:13).

The Lord knew their works and also their words. They were both ignorant and indifferent to their true condition. Their indifference is displayed in that they were lukewarm. Like the insipid water of the city the Lord found the state of these people nauseating. He wanted to spit them out, the word spew or spit could also be translated as vomit. The point is not that the Lord wants them to be cold in a spiritual sense but in the analogy they were neither one nor the other.

Their ignorance is shown in their assessment of their own condition thinking that the prosperity of their physical state was reflective of their spiritual state. Their evaluation was that they were in need of nothing but the Lord exposes them to what they were in reality. He says they were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. What a scathing rebuke and revelation of their true condition. It is reminiscent of H. C. Anderson’s fairy tale – The Emperor’s New Clothes, where only the little boy stated the reality; the emperor has no clothes on at all.

The Correction: The Lord in heaven offers counsel to the church on earth. It the midst of such spiritual lethargy His advice is to get from Him the material that counts and that ultimately leads to vitality. The Lord draws from what the city was famous for and offers a contrast, holding out what is of eternal value and would represent true wealth.

Gold that is refined may refer to true riches such as Moses anticipated, “he looked to the reward” (Heb. 11:26). The white garment may be suggestive of the true righteousness and the practical expression of holiness the Lord desires in His own. The eye salve could be addressed to their spiritual vision that was impaired by the glitter of the world.

Whatever these three items represent the Lord is offering these people a different life. They were so tied to this world and its wealth that they had no clear view of that world. They assumed their physical prosperity was an indication of God’s blessing and thus they were in need of nothing. They had little understanding that to love the world meant that they were not capable of the enjoyment of the Father’s love.

Their lack of love for the risen Christ did not diminish His love for them. His love is seen in His concern, His rebuke, and discipline. The Spirit in us is jealous for our affections (Jas. 4:5), and the Savior in heaven is as well. The correction included a call to repent; to agree with God, to exhibit godly sorrow, and to change the direction of life. The Lord is looking for zeal, that they would neither be cold nor lukewarm but have heat, some fervor for the Lord.

The Lord standing at the door knocking has been interpreted in two distinctly different ways. One’s interpretation is dependent on their view of what is meant by the word church. Some would see the church here as being filled with unsaved and the Lord is giving an invitation to salvation. This in essence involves seeing the church as the kingdom of heaven.

The other primary interpretation sees the church as it is throughout the New Testament, which is a called out company comprised of believers. The invitation is to individuals to open the door of their heart to the Lord Jesus and to enjoy fellowship with Him. Those within this church are so indifferent to their condition and are thus unaware of the enjoyment that can be found in Christ.

The Compensation: The overcomer is offered the privilege of reigning with Christ. The intimacy He seeks here with us will be the eternal portion of God’s people.

The Conclusion: The Laodicean church and age is characterized by worldliness and spiritual apathy. This seems to be true of the church in the Western world so much that many Christians may well say, “we have need of nothing.” The Lord Jesus seeks to have fellowship with His own, which is the foretaste of heaven on earth. In Holman Hunt’s famous picture of the Lord Jesus in the garden, the Lord is pictured with a lantern and is knocking on the door. There is no latch visible, the door handle is on the inside reminding us that the Lord Jesus gently knocks but will not force His way in.

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