Revelation 2: 18-28 “The Corrupt Church”

It is fair to say that God’s values and our values are not the same. This letter is a good example: Jesus writes the longest letter in Revelation to the church which was, arguably, the most insignificant. Yet, as we look at this letter, we can see why this church needed such a letter from Jesus!

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1. The Church of Thyatira (v. 18-19)

Jesus comes to this church with “blazing eyes” and feet like “burnished bronze”. This image says something about His supernatural nature, but is also an image which would have been understood by this church: the main industry in Thyatira involved bronze work!

This is also the only time Jesus is described as “the Son of God” in the whole of Revelation. We are not sure why this is the case, but there is one possibility: since Thyatira was famous for bronze-work, it is possible they helped make the Roman coins, which bore the image of the Emperor, and described him as “a son of god”. This may have been Jesus’ way of reminding the church: Caesar isn’t God’s Son: I am!

Jesus commends this church for their deeds, love, faith, service and perseverance. He also commends them for doing more now than they did before. Another way to describe this may be “faith in action”. Their actions in their town reflect something of the Christian faith; and so they are commended. This is surely a call for the church today to act in a way which reflects our faith to the world?

2. To The Corrupt: Repent (v. 20-23)

Ironically, while the church was demonstrating their faith, they had failed to actually work out what they believed!

Jesus makes this corruption of their faith clear: He condemns their tolerating of the prophet Jezebel. While there probably was an actual prophetess in this church, it is also likely Jesus is evoking the Old Testament wife of King Ahab (1 Kings 16): Jezebel, whose name has become synonymous with idolatry.

The question is: how can a Christian justify such behaviour? How can someone, on the one hand, act in public as a follower of Jesus, but in private, indulge in lewd and gluttonous behaviour?

I think it comes down to the kind of “gospel” message this prophetess preached. I imagine it was something like this:

Jesus has taken the punishment for your sin, so you can live however you want! Do what you like, because Jesus will just take the punishment for you!

I hope you see how wrong this is, and how much it undervalues what God has done for us. Because of His love for us, through Jesus, He took all the punishment for our sin. How ungrateful must you be to take this for granted? How unmoved to think, “What a great opportunity for me to do what I like!”?

This is not a new problem for the Church:Paul addresses it directly in Romans 6:

1What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1-2 NIVUK)

To those who are corrupt, Jesus calls for repentance: to turn back to God’s way. It’s amazing that, even as Jesus is bringing judgement to this church, He still leaves room for redemption!

3. To the Rest: Hold On! (v. 24-25)

Not all in the church in Thyatira have corrupted themselves, and Jesus addresses them. He promises that those who have not learned “Satan’s so-called deep secrets” (i.e. the false gospel) will have no additional burden placed on them; that is, in addition to the burdens already faced in life.

Jesus encourages the believers to “hold on to what [you] have until [He] comes”.

While this is undoubtedly a call to persevere until the return of Christ, part of me wonders if this may be a warning against splits in the church.

Splits within the church have been a disaster for the unity of Christian witness. When Jesus wrote this letter, there was one Church (of Jesus Christ) and one church (the local congregation in each locale). Today, while there is still one Church, it is estimated there are at least 33,000 different church denominations in our world! I appreciate the fellowship and unity I can enjoy with others in the Church (for the Church is united by our love of Christ), but I can’t help but wonder, “would our mission and witness to the Gospel be more effective if the body of Christ wasn’t split into denominations?”

I also wonder, in the case where denominations are deemed to become “corrupt”: what happens if all the faithful leave? Who is left to witness to the Truth? The damage done by leaving often undermines any platform to proclaim the Truth of the Gospel.

These thoughts may not come directly from the text, but I share them here anyway, as personal reflections.

4. To the Victorious: Authority and Intimacy (v. 26-28)

The victorious ones receive two rewards:

First, authority. This suggests something of the authority humanity was given over creation: that is, before we rejected God. The authority we had will be restored: but this time, we will share it with Jesus.

Second, the morning star. As we read later in Revelation, Jesus is the morning star. The fact we receive the morning star ourselves gives an indication of the intimacy we will share with Jesus.

Yet, there is another possibility here. Tom Wright, in his commentary, points out that the morning star is the one which shines brightest before the Sun/Son rises over a new day. He goes on to say:

Christian witness is meant to be a sign of the dawning of the day, the day in which love, faith, service, and patience will have their fulfilment, in which idolatry and immorality will be seen as the snares and delusions they really are, and in which Jesus the Messiah will establish His glorious reign over the whole world. (Tom Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 2011:28)

Revelation 2: 12-17 “The Compromising Church

Introduction

We all experience of culture.

One definition of culture includes:

Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people. It is defined by everything from language, religion, food-tastes, social habit, music and arts.

Culture has, therefore, existed for as long as humans.

The church exists at a particular moment in time and culture. To effectively share the Gospel, we must understand the culture; presenting our message in a way which can be received. This is called contextualisation, and can present a challenge:

The need… for both respectful affirmation of culture and confrontation of culture – makes it challenging to engage in the work of contextualisation. We want to avoid both cultural captivity (the refusal to adapt to new times and new cultures) – and syncretism (bringing unbiblical views and practices into our Christianity). While the danger of the former is becoming incomprehensible and irrelevant, the danger of the latter is losing our Christian identity and distinctiveness. (Timothy Keller, Center Church, 2012, p.119)

The was the challenge facing the Pergamum church, but their response unfortunately led them into the trap of syncretism.

1. The Church at Pergamum (v. 12-13a)

Jesus comes to this church as the one who wields the double-edged sword. While this may seem like a violent image, it is not: it is a metaphor for the Bible, God’s Word:

Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. (Ephesians 6:17 NIVUK)

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:16 NIVUK)

As will become clear, there is a need for God’s Word in this church.

Jesus assures the Pergamum church that he knows they are operating in the place where Satan has his thrown, and this wasn’t just because we have finally reached the capital city:

Pergamum hosted [at least 3 temples dedicated to Roman Emperor worship] … [a temple] to Asklepios (god of healing, symbolised by serpents [Note the connection between Satan and serpents]), and a large alter dedicated to Zeus. The worship of the emperor was… strongly emphasised, even required, in the province of Asia…. All of this qualifies Pergamum to be called the site of Satan’s throne. (ESV Study Bible, 2008, p.2466)

2. The Church was Faithful (v. 13b)

Needless to say, it was not easy to be a Christian in Pergamum. Yet, even when one of their own number (Antipas) was killed for his faith, they did not renounce Jesus.

If we want to be a true Church of Jesus Christ today, it is important we note when and why Jesus commends the churches in Revelation. Here, He has commended them for remaining faithful to Him, even when being pressured to renounce their faith. This is surely a call for the church today to be faithful to Him.

In what way are we to be faithful? At the very least, we are called to faithfully proclaim that we are Christians; we belong to Him. Yet, it is not enough to simply say that we are Christians.

This was the issue at Pergamum: despite the pressure, they still said they were Christians; but their actions did not match their proclamation!

3. The Church was Compromised (v. 14-16)

Jesus accuses this church of following the teaching of Balaam. This is a reference back to Numbers 25: the prophet Balaam advised King Balak to tempt the Israelites away from worshipping the one true God by having them assimilate with the local culture.

This is equated with the teaching of the Nicolatians. We do not learn any more about this group, but it would appear they were also drawing people away from worshipping the One True God. All this points to one reality: the church in Pergamum had become indistinguishable from the surrounding culture.

Needless to say, when a church assimilates (unthinkingly) with culture, it is an absolute disaster.

It is with a heavy heart that I write this: parts of the church have fallen for the lie that, to engage with the world, we must be like the world. This doesn’t work!! If we are indistinguishable from our culture, then we will make NO difference in our world, because we will not BE different.

When people come to church, they are looking for something different and distinctive, and if we are living in accordance with God’s Word, that’s what they will find.

Do not fall for the lie that to engage the world means to be like the world. We are called to be a distinctive and different community; one which reflects, not our world, but God!

Jesus calls the church which has assimilated with the culture to repent, or He will fight against them using “the sword of His mouth”. This suggests Jesus will use His Word to actively fight those influences which might draw the church away from God.

4. To the Victor: Manna and Stone (v. 17)

Jesus’ promises to the victors suggest something of His desire to sustain us as we hold to our faith.

He will provide “Hidden Manna”: something to give us sustenance.

He will also give us a white stone with a new name. To quote Leon Morris:

“This has puzzled commentators for centuries.” (Leon Morris, TNTC Revelation, 2009, p.72)

If this is the case, I have little hope of shedding any light on this here!! I would, however, suggest:

  • The stone gives some assurance of blessing;
  • The new name indicates something of God’s personal love, and suggests some form of “new character”: in other words, that onyl God can personally transform us.
Conclusion

The letter to the church at Pergamum issues the church of today with several challenges.

Firstly, we must remain faithful to Jesus, and confess openly that we are His followers.

Secondly, we must reflect on our culture: to find what we, as Christians, can affirm; and what we, as Christians, must challenge. Above all, we are called to never fall into the trap of thinking that our only way of reaching out to our world is to be like our world. We are called to be a distinctive people: ones who reflect, not our world, but God and His love.

Revelation 2: 8-11 “The Persecuted Church”

I want to begin with something more positive: globally, Christianity is growing, especially in Asia, Africa and South America. In the last 15 years alone, it is estimated the African Church has grown by 51%!

While we need to be careful with these statistics (they can be difficult to verify), we can find them encouraging! But they also force the question: why is Church growth mostly outside “the West”?

In general, if you live in a “Western” country, you have some experience of daily routine, economic stability, and social independence. With all of this, why would you need God?

Compare this to places in Africa, Asia or South America (again, in general!) and people are less likely to experience these things. Life can be more difficult and uncertain, and I would suggest it is in this context that the Gospel message can flourish: a Gospel message that says there is a safe and dependable God, who loves you and protects you, and offers you a place in His Kingdom through Jesus Christ. This message is a powerful one to those for whom this life is a struggle.

It was this latter kind of context in which the Church of Smyrna operated. Image result for the church in smyrna

1. The Church in Smyrna (v.8)

The city of Smyrna shared some things in common with Ephesus:

  • Both were large cities.
  • It was important in terms of economics (being a harbour city, at the head of a well protected gulf).
  • It was destroyed around 580 B.C., and rebuild around 290 B.C. to a specific plan.
  • It was one of the first cities in the region to pledge its alliance to Rome.

The major difference between Smyrna and Ephesus was that the Christians in Smyrna were being given a much harder time for their faith.

As such, Jesus comes to this church as “the First and the Last”, and “the one who was dead and came to life again” (an appropriate image for a city which had been destroyed, and rebuilt). These two descriptions say something of Jesus’ authority: He existed before all things and will endure beyond all things, and He has power over death. These aspects of who Jesus are, as we shall see, hugely important to this church.

2. The Afflictions in Smyrna (v.9)

This is only one t 2 letters where Jesus has nothing bad to say of the church. Instead, we read He knows the afflictions faced by this church, of which there are 2.

First, poverty. Despite being in an economic centre, the church in Smyrna was poverty-stricken. Leon Morris explains why:

Many think that the Smyrneans’ poverty was in part due to pillage of their goods by the Jews. Christianity was not legally permitted, which made it easy for Jews or pagans to take action against believers (Morris, TNTC Revelation, p.68)

Of course, Jesus also says this church are rich: as we see in the next verse, their riches come from their faith. What seems clear here is that there is tension between the Jews and Christians, which leads to the second problem: slander.

Jesus describes those who are slandering the Smyrnean Christians as a “synagogue of Satan”, and “not true Jews”. This is quite the accusation, and requires some explanation!

Bear in mind that “satan” simply means “accuser” (although, we use it as a terms to describe the devil). What I take from this is that Jesus is pointing out that the Jews are unfairly accusing the Smyrnean Christians.

It is likely the accusation was that the Christians weren’t “true Jews”. At the time when these letters were written, the Jews were exempt from the Emperor worship of the Roman Empire. Christians, seeing themselves as part of the Jewish faith (albeit, they believed the Messiah had come) would have argued the same provision be extended to them. The Jews, not wishing to be associated with the Christians, made the claim that the Christians were not “true Jews”.

The irony is, of course, that to be a “true Jew” (i.e. a follower of God) after Jesus’ death and resurrection means believing in Him! The “true Jews” in the context of this letter is the church in Smyrna!

3. The Endurance of Smyrna (v.10)

Jesus follows this with a warning that this church will face persecution and imprisonment for 10 days. It is unlikely this is a literal 10 days: instead, I take this to mean their suffering has a limited time – it is not an eternal suffering and has a definite end.

Some will, unfortunately, die for their faith during this time of suffering. But it is here we see the richness of the Smyrnean church; because those who suffer and die for their faith will be granted a crown of victory! This is one of the reasons so many find hope in Christianity: even when there is no hope for you in this world, there is a definite and secure hope, a crown of victory, for you in the next!

4. The Victor is Unharmed by the Second Death (v.11)

Finally, Jesus reveals that those who are victorious will be unharmed by the second death. We are told what this is later in Revelation:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14-15 NIVUK)

We more commonly refer to this “second death” as Hell. I take no pleasure in talking about this (nor should I!), but we need to appreciate there is such a thing as a second death.

Humanity chose to reject God and His ways, and as such, we must bear the consequences of that choice. God, wanting to free us from these consequences, sent Jesus: He takes our punishment upon Himself, freeing us and enabling us to come back to God. That’s why Jesus is saying, “If you believe in me, I can give you certainty that you will not be harmed by the second death!” – because He has taken the punishment for us!

If you do not admit our need of Jesus: the only person who can deal with the consequences of your rejection of God is YOU! And the consequence of rejecting God is separation from Him: the second death.

Conclusion

If nothing else, this letter gives the Church a sincere motive for sharing our faith: we do not want anyone to be harmed by the second death. Our desire should be that all people coming to saving faith in Christ, and our whole work as a church should be geared to getting the Gospel out there!!