The Lamb is the Lord, part 5: Jesus’s Messages to Local Churches

Photo by Gadiel Lazcano on Unsplash

Each of the seven churches of Asia was a lampstand (1:20). It was a stand on which an oil lamp―like the one shown above―was placed. In Scripture, the Lord Himself is associated with light. Each local church was a lampstand that ‘carried’ the light of a lamp―in other words, it ‘carried’ the presence of God. These seven churches were to be alight with God’s presence.[1] Every local church is to shine with God’s presence.

“I know . . . .”

When a patient comes to a doctor complaining of pain, the doctor may try to diagnose what’s wrong by arranging a scan to see inside the patient’s body. Jesus is taking a ‘scan’ of these seven churches. He sees beneath the surface. He sees right through to their inner spiritual condition. Two of these churches are healthy. Five are not.

Two sickly churches

Jesus said some very complimentary things about the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira.

But in both cases there was a “But” (2:14,20). All was not well―not at all. As we saw in the previous part of this series, false teachers were at work. If there was no repentance, judgment would follow (see 2:5,16,22-23).

The church in Sardis

But two churches were in an even worse state―the churches in Sardis and Laodicea.

The church in Sardis had “the reputation of being alive”; but they were actually “dead”. A little life survived; but even that was ”about to die”. Only a few hadn’t “soiled their garments”.

This church’s sleepy condition had a remarkable parallel in the city’s history. Sardis was set on a hill. The sides of this hill were steep, and provided a natural defence against invaders. In 547/546BC the Persian army, under Cyrus the Great, attacked the city. In one place, there weren’t any guards―the people defending Sardis believed this place to be so difficult to climb, they didn’t need to put guards there! The invaders got in at that very point! And so the Persian army took the city.

In 214BC the same thing happened again. This time the city was taken by the army of King Antiochus III.

If the church didn’t repent and wake up, Jesus tells them “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (3:3). Twice the city had been captured because it had failed to keep watch. If this church failed to wake up, Jesus would come without warning, and bring judgment upon it.

The church in Laodicea

The church in Laodicea was in the worst condition of any of these churches. Jesus could find nothing to commend about it, nothing at all. He said: “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.” (3:15-17).

This church had become thoroughly at home in the world around it. They must surely have compromised with the godless, pagan world around them. Clearly they weren’t suffering persecution. The world would have found no reason to persecute them!

Jesus was blunt with this worldly church: they made Him sick!

He would rather they were hot or cold. His words probably relate to the city’s water supply. Laodicea didn’t have a good natural water supply. So water had to be piped in. By the time it got there, the water was lukewarm and full of dissolved minerals. It wasn’t nice to drink!

Hot water is useful for bathing and is considered to be therapeutic. Cold water is life-sustaining, cooling and refreshing. Laodicea’s water was tepid and full of dissolved minerals. It made you sick!

Discipled by the world

After His resurrection, Jesus said to His followers: ”Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . .” (Matthew 28:19). But the churches in Laodicea, Sardis, Pergamum and Thyatira had, to varying degrees, allowed the world to disciple them. They should have been teaching the world about Jesus and His salvation. In fact, they’d allowed the world to teach them how to live.

Loveless orthodoxy

The church at Ephesus had a different problem. This church seemed to be a shining light in a dark city. They were hard-working, patiently enduring, “bearing up” for Jesus’s sake. They hadn’t “grown weary” (2:2-3). They’d tested and rejected false apostles; they hated “the works of the Nicolaitans” (2:2-3,6).

But Jesus tells them, “you have abandoned the love you had at first” (2:4). Was this their love for Jesus or love among themselves? Probably both. The two are intimately connected (compare 1 John 4:20).

The Ephesian church had benefitted greatly from some rich teaching input. On his third missionary journey Paul spent around three years teaching in Ephesus (Acts 19:8-10, and see Acts 20:31).

Paul wrote the letter of Ephesians to this church. Timothy led the church for a time. While Timothy was there, Paul wrote the letter of I Timothy to him.

John himself, it seems, lived in or near Ephesus both before and after his exile in Patmos. John may well have written his Gospel during his residence there. If so, the Ephesian church would certainly have possessed at least one copy of this Gospel.

They were undoubtedly a well-taught church. And they were eager to refute false teaching. They were on the lookout for false teaching in their midst. That, in turn, could easily have led to believers in the church mistrusting each other, and failing to love each other as they should.

Jesus said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). If the Ephesian believers didn’t love each other, how would people around them know that they were disciples of Jesus?

But the love they had abandoned was doubtless also their love for God. When asked what commandment was the most important, Jesus responded, “. . . you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”’ (Mark 12:29-30, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5).

The Ephesian church is, like every local church, a lampstand. They were to be ablaze with the presence of God. But their relationship with Him had cooled; their love for each other had faded. And so the flame of God’s presence had burned low. Their light had dimmed. And what’s the point of a lampstand, if it doesn’t bear a light?

Jesus said, “repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, . . . .” (2:5). If they didn’t repent and rekindle their love, Jesus would remove their lampstand. Their witness to God would be extinguished; the church may even cease to exist.

Standing strong for Jesus

But the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia received no rebuke from our Lord. Despite their suffering, they’d remained faithful to Him.

 The Smyrnan church: Jesus knew their ”tribulation” and “poverty”, yet He considered them “rich” (2:9). He knew “the slander” of those who said they were Jews, but were actually “a synagogue of Satan” (2:9). The devil was about to throw some of them into prison, that they might be tested. For ‘ten days’ they would suffer “tribulation” (2:10). This would be harsh; for some it may end in death. But it would be limited. And they weren’t to fear what they were about to suffer. He assures them of victory: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).

 The Philadelphian church: Jesus knew their ”works” and that they had “but little power” (3:8). But they’d kept His word; they hadn’t denied His name; they’d endured patiently. The Jewish community were causing trouble for them. But Jesus assures them of victory: “I will make those of the synagogue of Satan . . . come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you” (3:9). These Jews didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah; they oppressed those who did. But these Jews would realise that God had set His love on these believers! And He tells them, “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” (3:10-11). This didn’t mean they’d be spared from suffering, or even death. It meant God would protect them in their suffering. And one day, they’d stand victorious ”before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9)! So He urges them, “Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (3:11).

Both churches no doubt felt embattled and vulnerable in a world that despised them and seemed poised to engulf them. But, through it all, these two churches were faithful to Jesus. And so they received our Lord’s commendation. And, if they remained faithful, they would receive His crown. This crown was a wreath of honour awarded, for example, to victors in the games or in battle. Through all the suffering they’d endured, through death and the threat of death, through all the privations and difficulties they had face, they would emerge triumphant. They’d enjoy life―eternal life, life in fellowship with the Father and with His Son. There can be no greater reward than that!

Focusing on Jesus

Jesus begins each message by telling them something about Himself. This is usually drawn from what they’d already been told in chapter 1. Jesus knows exactly what they need to see about Him. As an example, let’s look at what He tells the church in Pergamum.

To this church, Jesus calls Himself “him who has the sharp two-edged sword” (2:12, reflecting 1:16). The sword here pictures Jesus’s word of judgment. He judges this world. And He judges compromise and false teaching among the churches.

Pergamum was one of the region’s centres for the Roman system of justice. The Roman governor of the region had ‘the right of the sword’―that is, authority to judge and to execute people. Antipas (2:13) may himself have been executed by the Roman authorities. But it’s actually Jesus who has the true ‘right of the sword’. He’s the true Judge, not the governor! That’s what Jesus wants them to remember.

”To the one who conquers . . . .”

Jesus closes each message by making a wonderful promise to “the one who conquers”. Again, let’s take the church in Pergamum as an example. To this church, Jesus makes two promises. He says: “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” (2:17).

The “hidden manna”

What is “the hidden manna”? After the Exodus, God fed His people Israel with manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:1-36). But Jesus said, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:49-51). This hidden manna is Jesus Himself. It’s hidden because the world can’t see Him.

Jesus is the Bread of Life (see John 6:32-35,48-58). Whoever eats of Him―that is, whoever believes in Him and receives Him into their innermost being―has eternal life (John 6:54), life in fellowship with Him (see John 17:3).

We believers eat from Jesus now. And when He comes again, we’ll feast at “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (19:9). That’s another picture of life in fellowship with Him―fellowship with Him for all eternity in the new creation.

What’s the ”white stone” ? This stone has been explained in several ways―one commentator lists no less than seven! Perhaps the most likely is that small stones were given as ’tickets’ for admission to events, such as feasts. Perhaps this white stone is our Lord’s ‘ticket’ or invitation to His marriage supper.

What’s the ”new name” on the stone? Perhaps it’s our new name that we’ll have in the new creation. We believers are “born again” (John 3:3,7). A newborn baby is given a name. It seems reasonable to think that our Father has chosen a new name for us. And we’ll begin to be called by that name when Jesus returns, and we begin our new lives in the new creation.

When you get an invitation to a wedding, that invitation has got your name on it. We suggested above that the white stone might be our Lord’s ‘ticket’ or invitation to His marriage supper. If so, it will have our name on it! But it won’t have our present name. It will have our new name written on it!

So it may be that this hidden manna and this white stone both relate especially to the marriage supper of the Lamb and our life in the new creation.

Why does Jesus promise this hidden manna and this white stone to this particular church? Recall what Jesus said to the church: “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 practise sexual immorality” (2:14).

Surely Jesus is saying, in effect, “Don’t eat food sacrificed to idols! I am the living bread! Eat of Me! And eat of Me at my Marriage Supper when I come again! And don’t even think of practising sexual immorality. Keep yourself pure, so you can be part of my pure Bride and come to My Marriage Supper!” [2]

The promise to the Laodicean church

Finally, we can’t end without mentioning Jesus’s breathtaking promise to the church in Laodicea. He says, “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.” (3:21-22).

Isn’t it astonishing that He gives His most amazing promise in His message to the very worst church―the church in Laodicea!

That word “throne” in 3:21 introduces us to what we see in the very next two chapters of Revelation. John sees a vision of “a throne . . . in heaven, with one seated on the throne” (4:2). One writer comments, “From Revelation 4:1 and following we will be seeing everything from the perspective of the throne.”[3] In the next two parts, we’ll look at what John saw in Heaven.

FOOTNOTES [1] Barry Webb comments, in his comments on the lampstand of Zechariah 4:1-14: “We are therefore driven to the conclusion that the lampstand represents the community – the people who are involved with Zerubbabel in the work of rebuilding the temple. It is a community ‘alight’ with the presence of the all-seeing, all-knowing God, who dwells in their midst.” The Message of Zechariah: Your Kingdom Come (The Bible Speaks Today), by Barry G. Webb, pages 92-93. Published by IVP, London in 2003. [2] See Discipleship on the Edge: an Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation, by Darrell W. Johnson, page 85. [3] Quoted from Discipleship on the Edge: an Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation, by Darrell W. Johnson, page 126.

CREDITS Text copyright © 2023 Robert Gordon Betts All Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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