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: 1-7 “The Loveless Church”

Last week saw the release of the Scottish Church Census. Here are just three of the key statistics:Picture1

Now, I appreciate that the Church is not a numbers game: our primary concern is that people come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, not that people attend on a Sunday. That being said: following Jesus does involve gathering with His people to worship Him – so numbers can occasionally be an indication of spiritual health.

There are cultural reasons for the decline of Christianity, and these are too varied to consider here. The Church does, however, need to accept some responsibility for this decline: for the way we have conducted ourselves (especially in “the West) in the last 100 years or so.

This is one reason to look closely at the letters to the churches in Revelation: to help us get to grips with some of the issues which have led to  decline in the Church, and what we can do about them!

We begin with the first letter: to the Church in Ephesus.

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The Church in Ephesus (v.1)

In many ways, this is the most important church to Jesus writes through the Apostle John. It is the church planted in the largest city of the Roman province, which was also a major religious centre. It was also one of the churches Paul helped to plant!

We read that Jesus comes to this church as one who holds seven stars and walks among seven lampstands. Each star and lampstand represents one of the seven churches: the fact that Jesus holds them, and walks among them, suggests something of his support of and closeness to these churches.

A Church with Sound Doctrine (v. 2-3)

Jesus commends this church:

  • For their deeds, hard work and perseverance;
  • For their ability to spot false apostles;
  • For their endurance through hardship in Jesus’ name.

In summary, Jesus commends them for their sound doctrine (doctrine is simply what we believe).

Why is sound doctrine something which is commendable?

I would suggest sound doctrine is commendable because:

  1. It means the Church knows what it is about: in this day and age, you (unfortunately) cannot assume that those in the church actually know what the Church is all about!
  2. It keeps the Church grounded: it ensures anything we do as a Church has its foundation in what we believe.
  3. It sets us apart from the world: on the occasions when the Christian view and the World’s view conflict, sound doctrine ensures we are doing things God’s way!

A Church without Love (v. 4-5)

Jesus does, however, hold one thing against this Church: They have lost their love! Leon Morris comments:

It is not clear whether this is love for Christ … or for one another… or for mankind at large. It may be that a general attitude is meant which included all three. (Morris, TNTC Revelation, p.65)

What happens when a church has sound doctrine, but lacks love? I fear that it sets up an “us and them attitude”:

“God loves us because of our sound doctrine. God, therefore, does not love you, unless you also subscribe to our doctrine.”

This is not how Scripture testifies to the love of God. We are told that God loved us, even when we were incapable of loving Him (e.g. Romans 5:8 and 1 John 4:10). Furthermore, our conforming to God’s ways comes as a response to His love, not as a means of earning His love.

So, what does love in the Church look like?

‘Love’, in the early Christian sense, is something you do, giving hospitality and practical help to those in need, particularly to other Christians who are poor, sick or hungry. That was the chief mark of the early church. No other non-ethnic group had ever behaved like this. ‘Love’ of this kind, reflecting (they would have said) God’s own self-giving love for them, was the best expression of, and the best advertisement for, faith in God. (Wright, Revelation for Everyone p.13)

Why is love in the Church important? Because, “‘Love’ of this kind, reflecting… God’s own self-giving love for [us, is] the best expression of, and the best advertisement for, faith in God.” (Wright, 2011:13)

The Nicolaitans and the Victory (v. 6-7)

Jesus calls on the church in Ephesus to repent, to find its love again, or it will lose its lampstand (i.e. cease to be a Church of Jesus Christ).

Then Jesus gives a strange affirmation: both he and the Ephesian Church hate the Nicolaitans.

Scholars don’t know much about the Nicolaitans: they only appear twice in the Bible, and both times in Revelation. Given the context of this letter, we can assume that their message/practices were drawing people away from the Gospel. As such, it is no surprise that Jesus says He hates their practices: anything that tried to draw people away from the Gospel is against God!

(Incidentally: note that Jesus hates the practices of the Nicolatians, not the Nicolatians themselves. Jesus still loves the people, even if He hates their actions.)

Finally, Jesus closes with a promise: to those who are victorious, they will eat of the tree of life.

Each letter contains an expression of the ultimate hope of the Christian faith; new life and new creation. The way it is expressed to this church is through the promise of being able to eat of the tree of life, in the paradise of God.

Conclusion

If the Church is serious about trying to get things right, then we have to consider seriously what we read in Revelation.

From this first letter, we learn that doctrine is important. What we believe is important. It is our beliefs which define us and shape how we operate in this world. If we are to be an effective church, we must know what it is we believe, and why we believe it.

But this, in and of itself, is insufficient, because if we have our beliefs sorted, but do not show love, then we are useless. The whole Gospel message is concerned with God showing His love for this world through Jesus Christ. If we are to be an effective church for God, then we must be prepared to live and work in a way which shows His love.

By doing so, we may halt the decline, and see numbers attending church grow once again – which would be nice. But that’s not our ultimate aim. We are not in this for the numbers! Our highest calling, as part of God’s Church, is to help others come to saving faith in Him, that they too may one day eat of the tree of life.