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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
Revelation 3

 

 

Other Authors
Verse 1

REV:3

This chapter continues the letters to the seven churches, having the last three: to Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6), to Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13), and to Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22).

SARDIS

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars: I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead.

A present-day village named Sart, composed of a few paltry huts, is all that remains of the once proud capital of the Lydian monarchy,[1] and which probably existed even before the Lydian kingdom came into being in 1200 B.C.[2] Great names of ancient history were associated with the place, such as Croesus (with fabulous riches), Cyrus, and Alexander the Great. When Xerxes launched his disastrous invasion of Greece, Sardis was the staging area for his immense army. It was strategically located on top of a plateau protected on three sides by almost perpendicular cliffs overlooking the Hermus valley, giving the city strong military protection. Despite this, however, the city was twice destroyed through their overconfidence in leaving the supposedly unclimbable cliffs unprotected. Such overconfidence is understandable; for on all but the south side, "Its perpendicular rock walls rose 1,500 feet above the valley, and provided a natural citadel."[3] Both Cyrus in 546 B.C. and Antiochus the Great in 218 B.C. captured Sardis by scaling the undefended cliffs. The great importance of the city in ancient times, how ever, had sharply declined in apostolic times; and the city itself partook somewhat of the "deadness" that this letter ascribes to the church there. The principal temple of the place was that of Cybele, identified with Artemis, and like all other pagan temples a center of immorality. Ruins of it lie along the Pactolus river in the valley below the cliffs, the once gold-laden sands of which were one source of the city's wealth. The worship of the emperor was also strong there; and, out of gratitude to Tiberius who had aided financially in rebuilding the city after an earthquake in 17 A.D., they competed for the honor of building a temple to him; but they lost out to Smyrna.[4] Tiberius remitted their taxes for a period, but Sardis never regained its place of importance, except for a brief while in the reign of Diocletian. It existed continuously until 1402 when it was so completely destroyed by Tamerlane that it was never rebuilt.[5] Scott reported that "only two or three shepherds inhabited a hut there" at the time of Arundel's visit in 1826, and that in 1850 "no human being was found living in the once mighty and populous Sardis."[6]

The fact that no New Testament records tell of the establishment of the church in Sardis should not be thought strange; because only a small fraction of the activity of the apostles and first generation Christians is mentioned in the New Testament. Sardis probably learned the truth about the same time that other churches in the area were planted, and possibly from the very same sources.

He that hath the seven Spirits of God ... Christ represented himself to this church in terminology describing the glorified Saviour in the first chapter. As noted earlier, this clause is difficult; but it likely means, "the Holy Spirit sent in his fullness to the seven churches."[7]

I know thy works ... This is stated in all seven of the letters.

Thou hast a name that thou livest ... This means that the people of this church were "nominal Christians, professing to live the Christian life";[8] but it also seems to indicate that they enjoyed a good reputation in the community, a deduction from the fact that no mention of any opposition from the pagan society is made. They apparently had no Balaam, no Nicolaitans, and no Jezebel. Not even the Jews were mentioned as opposing them. Perhaps Caird was right in referring to them as, "The church everyone spoke well of, the perfect model of inoffensive Christianity, unable to distinguish between the peace of well-being and the peace of death."[9] Although not all at Sardis were "dead" (Revelation 3:4), "The majority had so fully compromised with the pagan environment that they were Christian in name only."[10] They could have been a rather large and influential body of people, for there is no reference to their having but a "little strength" as was the case at Philadelphia. However they might have looked in the eyes of men, they were nevertheless dead in the eyes of the Lord.

And thou art dead ... What a dreadful sentence of condemnation is this. The Lord had not one word of approval for this church, no works to commend; and the inference in Revelation 3:5 is that he had already blotted the names of some of them out of the book of life.

[1] W. Boyd Carpenter, Ellicott's Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 546.

[2] E. M. Blaiklock, Cities of the New Testament (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1965), p. 113.

[3] G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 47.

[4] Robert H. Mounce, Commentary on the New Testament, Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 109.

[5] E. J. Banks, ISBE, p. 2692.

[6] Walter Scott, Exposition of the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d.), p. 40.

[7] G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation (Greenwood, South Carolina: The Attic Press, 1974), p. 94.

[8] John T. Hinds, A Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Company, 1962), p. 53.

[9] G. B. Caird, op. cit., p. 48.

[10] Robert H. Mounce, op. cit., p. 110.


Verse 2

Be thou watchful, and establish the things that remain, which were ready to die: for I have found no works of thine perfected before my God.

Be thou watchful ... Many commentators love to tie this in with the repeated destruction of the city of Sardis through failure to "watch"; but this is not necessary. Christ himself, in the great discourse on Olivet (Matthew 24 and parallels), enjoined watchfulness; and that discourse is frequently in the mind of the writer throughout Revelation; and this is very likely the case here. See Mark 13:35,37.

Establish the things that remain ... This stresses a truth sometimes overlooked, namely, that even in dead, wicked, in different congregations there may be some members, probably humble and obscure, who are still trying to do the will of God and in their hearts grieve for the desolation. Barnes said, concerning such as these:

An important duty in a low and languishing state of religion, is to "strengthen the things that still survive." It is to cultivate all the graces that do exist; to nourish all the love of truth that may linger in the church; and to confirm, by warm exhortation, and by reference to the gracious promises of the word of God, the few who may be endeavoring to do their duty, and who, amidst many discouragements, are aiming to be faithful to the Saviour.[11]

ENDNOTE:

[11] Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament, Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1961), p. 89.


Verse 3

Remember therefore how thou hast received and didst hear; and keep it, and repent.

Earle, in this and the preceding verse, found five steps to a revival: (1) "Be watchful"; (2) "Strengthen the things which remain"; (3) "Remember"; (4) "Hold fast"; and (5) "Repent."[12]

Remember ... "Memory is again the lever for repentance, as in Revelation 2:5"[13] See notes on that verse, above. And just what were those things they were supposed to remember? We are not told, but Hinds is probably correct in the view that:

This could include the miraculous proof which may have been present when the church was established, a remarkable evidence of the truth of the gospel; but it may have reference to the sincerity and enthusiasm with which they accepted the gospel.[14]

[12] Ralph Earle, Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol. 10 (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1967), p. 515.

[13] James Moffatt, Expositor's Greek New Testament, Vol. V (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), p. 364.

[14] John T. Hinds, op. cit., p. 54.

If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.

It is common for interpreters to make this mean that John is warning Sardis to be prepared for the Second Advent; but as Caird noted, "If we allow John to speak for himself, he is clearly saying that the coming itself is contingent on the church's refusal to repent."[15] Thus, as in the other references to "the coming" in these chapters, it is a "coming in judgment" that is meant, not the final Advent, but a providential visitation upon the sinful. The Second Advent is not contingent upon any group's repentance. When our Saviour gave the great Olivet discourse (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), he mingled the prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem and those of the Second Coming, some of his discourse referring to both events, the first as typical of the second; and the same method is here employed. Therefore, the warnings of providential judgments and "trials" coming upon the church, with the admonitions to "watch," etc., likewise have their application to the ultimate Coming of the Son of God in glory.

ENDNOTE:

[15] G. B. Caird, op. cit., p. 49.


Verse 4

But thou hast a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments: and they shall walk with me in white; for they are worthy.

A few names ... This means, of course, a few persons, Christians, who despite the prevailing wickedness and deadness of the church were still faithful, but in danger of being overcome at last by the defection of the vast majority. As Barnes said, "This indicates that where error and sin prevail, there may be a few who are worthy of divine commendation."[16] When a church dies, or becomes evil, many innocent persons are always discouraged and lost as a result. Nothing can be more tragic than such an event.

They did not defile their garments ... This plainly indicates that the prevailing immorality of the pagan culture was being indulged by Christians. "While maintaining outwardly their good works and Christian activities, they were adapting themselves to the luxury and (sinful) pleasures of their pagan environment."[17] Moffatt declared that the language here is similar to that found in votive inscriptions from Asia Minor, in which "soiled clothes disqualified the worshipper and dis honored the god."[18] However the resemblance was superficial. Whereas the pagan priests were concerned with literal clothes, the apostle's letter here has reference to "soiling one's clothes" figuratively or spiritually. Committing immorality would in deed have been soiling one's clothes spiritually.

For they shall walk with me in white ... Like all the other promised rewards in this series of letters, this is a promise of eternal life stated in figurative terms. Most commentators seem to concur in this view. "This white is not the white of the undefiled robe; it is the lustrous white of glory."[19] "It would seem that walking in white is a way of describing those who are justified."[20]

[16] Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 90.

[17] George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), p. 57.

[18] James Moffatt, op. cit., p. 364.

[19] W. Boyd Carpenter, op. cit., p. 547.

[20] Robert H. Mounce, op. cit., p. 112.


Verse 5

He that overcometh shall thus be arrayed in white garments; and I will in no wise blot his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.

Shall be arrayed with me in white ... This, of course, is to be taken in close connection with Revelation 3:4. Rather than finding some reference in this to customs of pagan worshippers, it is better to understand the figurative meaning of it as similar to that mentioned by Adam Clarke:

The great council of Israel sat and judged the priests. If in a priest any vice was found, they stripped off his white garments and clothed him in black, in which he wrapped himself, went out, and departed. Him in whom no vice was found they clothed in white; and he went and took his part in the ministry with his brother priests.[21]

I will in no wise blot his name out of the book of life ... For fuller comment on "The Book of Life," see in my Commentary on Hebrews, pp. 381,382. It is significant that Christ's confession of the faithful is, in some manner, connected with enrollment in the book of life, not only upon the occasion of the initial inscription, but upon the final entry into heaven. A verse like this is inevitably associated with the study of predestination; and sharply divergent views of it are taken. Bruce, for example, has this:

The "book of life" appears here ... to include at first all whose names are on the membership roll of a local church; but those whose membership is but nominal have their names deleted, the Lord declares he never knew them (Luke 13:25,27).[22]

The significance of such an interpretation is that it means that some who are enrolled in the book of life were never saved at all. "The Lord never knew them." It is difficult to understand how anyone could believe that heaven itself endorses the earthly enrollment of wicked people whom the Lord "never knew" by inscribing their names in the book of life. It is impossible, therefore, for us to accept the notion that any reference whatever to the membership rolls of any local church is to be found here. Any true conception of the "Book of Life," which belongs to the Lamb of God, makes it inconceivable that any unsaved, unredeemed persons would ever be inscribed in such a list unless they were entitled to be so recognized. Whatever this passage may seem to say to others, this writer sees in it the positive and certain declaration that born-again, redeemed Christians, whose names, upon the occasion of their conversion, are indeed written in the book of life, are still subject to probation. If they should fail to continue in faithfulness to the Lord, their names will be blotted out of the book of life; and we fully agree with Roberts who wrote, "Christ had already had to blot out the names of most of the Sardis Christians from the heavenly register."[23] The predestination in which John believes is a conditional predestination. A man cannot earn the right to have his name on the citizen roll, but he can forfeit it."[24]

And I will confess his name ... This is an echo of Matthew 10:32,33. For the connection between this confession and inscription in the book of life, see in my Commentary on Hebrews, pp. 381,382. From this place, it seems that Christ not only confesses the redeemed upon the occasion of their conversion, but again, upon the occasion of their entry into heaven.

[21] Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. VI (London: Carlton and Porter, 1829), p. 984.

[22] F. F. Bruce, A New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), p. 640.

[23] J. W. Roberts, The Revelation of John (Austin, Texas: R. B. Sweet Company, 1974), p. 47.

[24] G. B. Caird, op. cit., p. 49.


Verse 6

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.

This is identical with the admonition addressed to all seven of these churches. See discussion of it under Revelation 2:7.


Verse 7

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write.

PHILADELPHIA

The very name Philadelphia arouses our interest, as one of the great modern cities of the United States bears the same title. "Here is the seventh and last occurrence of this word in the New Testament, the other passages where it is found being: Romans 12:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 13:1; 1 Peter 1:22; and 2 Peter 1:7 (twice).[25]

Philadelphia is supposed to have been founded between 189 B.C. and 138 B.C., either by Eumenes, king of Pergamum, or his younger brother Attalus; but, "one thing is certain: its name commemorates the loyalty of Attalus to his brother."[26] The word means "lover of his brother," a fact evident in these events: (1) a false rumor of Eumenes' assassination led to Attalus' acceptance of the crown, which he relinquished when his brother returned to Greece, and (2) Attalus resisted Roman encouragement to overthrow Eumenes and become king.[27]

The great earthquake which devastated twelve cities in the very district where these seven churches lay (17 A.D.) was particularly destructive in Philadelphia, due to its being nearest the fault line. For an extended period afterwards, there continued to be many more earthquakes, especially at Philadelphia, which was called the "city of many earthquakes." Some of the citizens refused any longer to live within the city proper.

Philadelphia was also the city that tried to change its name. After Tiberius' help in rebuilding after the earthquake, they tried to name their city "Neocaesarea," meaning "New Caesar," but the name never became established. They tried again in the reign of Vespasian to name the place "Flavia" after the name of his dynasty; but this too failed to catch on; thus the city twice tried to name themselves after their "god," but failed! It is difficult indeed not to see a consciousness of this in Revelation 3:12.[28] "Still another name of the city was Decapolis, because it was considered one of the ten cities of the plain. And in addition to all these names, it sometimes bore the title of Little Athens."[29] There were many temples and centers of learning in the city. The grape industry in the area resulted in the practice of rites connected with the pagan god Bacchus (Dionysus). The present name of the place is Ala Sheher, "the Red City," so named, not from the bloodshed there, but for the volcanic earth of its location.[30]

Up until the current century, Philadelphia was nominally Christian, with about one fourth of its population professing Christianity, leading to the comment of Gibbon that, "Among the churches of Asia, Philadelphia is still erect, a column in a scene of ruins, a pleasing example that the paths of honour and safety may sometimes be the same."[31] Still, Philadelphia suffered the terrible subjection under the Turks who followed Tamerlane, who had subjected the city in 1403, and is said to have "built about it a wall of the corpses of his victims."[32] "Of whatever remnant of Christianity may be left in Philadelphia today, there are no statistics."[33] Following the edict of the League of Nations in 1922, practically all the Christians were deported.

[25] William R. Newell, The Book of Revelation (Chicago: Moody Press, 1935), p. 67.

[26] Robert H. Mounce, op. cit., p. 115.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] E. J. Banks, op. cit., p. 2366.

[30] E. M. Blaiklock, op. cit., p. 122.

[31] (Gibbon, as quoted by Blaiklock), Ibid., p. 123.

[32] E. J. Banks, op. cit., p. 2366.

[33] E. M. Blaiklock, op. cit., p. 122.

These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth and none shall shut, and that shutteth and none openeth:

Holy ... true ... These attributes of Christ are clearly appropriate for a church maintaining their love and faith in Christ in the midst of pagan culture.

Key of David ... openeth and none shutteth ... shutteth and none openeth ... This verse is clearly related to the principal problem which confronted the Philadelphian church. That problem was Jewish opposition. Secular Israel, still in power over the Jews in a religious sense (this was prior to 70 A.D.), still pretended to have final right of determining who should or should not enter heaven, sternly resisting the claims of the Christians that they, the Christians, were the true Israel of God. To enforce their claims, the Jews cast out of their synagogues all Jews who accepted Christ, and the existence of that situation in Philadelphia when Revelation was written points squarely to the sixties and not to the eighties or nineties, be cause there were evidently Christians who desired to continue in fellowship with the Jewish synagogues, if it had been allowed. Paul, it will be remembered, attempted to maintain such a fellowship throughout his missionary efforts, always going first to the synagogues. This passage emphasizes the truth that, "It is Christ alone, and no longer Israel, who can give men entrance into the messianic kingdom."[34] "Christ speaks as he by whom alone comes entrance to the Church, the spiritual house of God."[35] The imagery of "key of David" and other expressions here is from Isaiah 22:25-25, where the king of Israel deposed Shebna and appointed Eliakim as the chief-steward. The analogy is that Judaism has been replaced by Christianity as the true religion.

The key of David ... therefore means, "undisputed authority to admit or exclude from the New Jerusalem (heaven)."[36] We also agree with Mounce's opinion that, "This is an intended contrast with the practice of the local synagogue in excluding Christian Jews."[37] However, there are further implications of this passage that are exceedingly important in understanding the New Testament, especially with reference to the kingdom of Christ (the church). The "key of David" means that, "Christ possessed the throne of David, and that the government was upon his shoulder (Isaiah 9:6)."[38] The annunciation angel promised Mary the mother of Jesus that God would give her Son "the throne of his father David" (Luke 1:31-33); and this verse is an indication that God had kept his promise. Acts 13:33-34 indicates that the prophecy of the "sure mercies of David" was fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ; and the prophecy of the rebuilding again of the tabernacle of David (Amos 9:11-15) was determined by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to have been fulfilled by the establishment of the church to which all of them at that time belonged. Added to all of these prophecies, declared by inspiration to have been fulfilled, is the pronouncement of Peter on Pentecost to the effect that God's raising up one after David to sit upon the throne of David was a prophecy of the resurrection of the Son of God (Acts 2:29-33). Wallace's summary of this is:

Jesus has the throne of David, the tabernacle of David, the sure mercies (blessings) of David, and the key of David in every spiritual sense of these terms ... These passages teach that the house of David was perpetuated in the kingdom of Christ, his Church.[39]

[34] George Eldon Ladd, op. cit., p. 59.

[35] J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 1076.

[36] Robert H. Mounce, op. cit., p. 116.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Foy E. Wallace, Jr., The Book of Revelation (Nashville: Foy E. Wallace Publications, 1966), p. 100.

[39] Ibid., p. 101.


Verse 8

I know thy works (behold, I have set before thee a door opened, which none can shut), that thou hast a little power, and didst keep my word, and didst not deny my name.

A door opened ... Many see here a promise of opportunity; but, in the light of the preceding verse, it appears that the door of admission into the church, the messianic kingdom identified with the church, - this is the door meant. "It assures the church of how futile were such excommunications as the Jews were leveling against them."[40] Beckwith and Mounce concur in this interpretation. However, both of these with many current scholars, hold there is a difference between the church and the kingdom; but throughout this series of commentaries, the position has been maintained that the church and the kingdom are one institution, not two, and that the "everlasting kingdom" mentioned by Peter (2 Peter 1:11) is not a different kingdom, but the eternal phase of the present kingdom. There are many New Testament references regarding the "open door" of opportunity (1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3; Acts 14:27, etc.); but, with reference to all such doors, it is not necessarily true of them that "no man can shut." That promise pertains to the door of God's holy church.

Hast a little power ... The general weakness of the church at Philadelphia is stated here. Despite this, the congregations here and at Smyrna are the only two against which the Lord uttered no condemnation. A church does not have to be large to be true and to be approved by the Lord.

Didst keep my word ... didst not deny my name ... This means simply that the church there had been faithful to their trust; but by contrast with other congregations mentioned in these letters, it could indicate that the principal sins of those not approved were those of not keeping the Lord's word, and of denying his name. For further comments on "the name of the Lord," see under Revelation 2:3.

ENDNOTE:

[40] James Moffatt, op. cit., p. 366.


Verse 9

Behold, I give of the synagogue of Satan, of them that say they are Jews, and they are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.

This verse is not to be understood in the literal sense at all. Christians would not be honored by having anyone worship before their feet, nor could God be pleased by such a thing. What is done here is to take the ancient Scriptures regarding the Gentiles "bending before" Israel (Isaiah 60:14) and to state that the reverse is true now. The Jews were once God's chosen people, an honor forfeited by them in their rejection of the Son of God. "These words echo the words of the prophets telling of the coming of the Gentiles to do homage to the people of Israel, and of bowing themselves down before the soles of their feet."[41] The fulfillment of this came when the Gentiles bowed them selves before the feet of Christ, the true Israel; and the fulfillment of Jesus' words as given by John here will occur when Jews are converted and bow themselves before Christ, with whom Christians are identified as being his spiritual body on earth. It is wrong to read this as if it declared any wholesale conversion of Jews at some future time. Throughout the ages, many faithful Jews have received Christ, and they are still doing so; and in this the prophecy is continually being fulfilled. Thus, in what Moffatt calls "the grim irony of providence,"[42] "what the Jews fondly expected of the Gentiles, they them selves will give to the Gentiles. They will play the role of the heathen and acknowledge that the church is the true Israel of God."[43] After the Babylonian captivity, many Jews were settled in the district where these seven cities lay, and in time many of them became wealthy and powerful. "They were proud of their national privileges (which, by inference, they still enjoyed), and powerful in numbers and wealth, no doubt despising the Jewish Christians as traitors."[44]

[41] Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1919), p. 481.

[42] James Moffatt, op. cit., p. 367.

[43] Robert H. Mounce, op. cit., p. 118.

[44] J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 1976.


Verse 10

Because thou didst keep the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of trial, that hour which is to come upon the whole world, to try them that dwell on the earth.

The word of my patience ... Of several interpretations advocated regarding this, that of Trench as quoted by Earle seems the best: "It is much better to take the whole Gospel as the word of Christ's patience, everywhere teaching, as it does, the need of a patient waiting for Christ."[45]

I will also keep thee from the hour of trial ... This figures prominently in the theories of millennialists, who take the passage as emphasizing that Christians shall be delivered from not through the great trial, "implying the rapture of the church before the time referred to as "the great tribulation."[46] "The thrust of the verse is against this interpretation. It was precisely because the church was faithful in time of trial that Christ in turn will be faithful to them.'"[47] This view of the passage harmonizes with the great high-priestly prayer of Jesus who did not pray that the Father would take his disciples "out of the world" (John 17:15), but that they would be faithful in the world. Furthermore, the promise of Luke 21:17 is explanatory of what is meant here. What Christ promised is safety through trials, not exemption from trials. "There is no promise in Revelation that God's people shall escape suffering and death, but there is the promise that no harm can come to their souls."[48]

The hour of trial ... What is the great trial which is coming upon the whole world? Primarily, the meaning is the great persecution that was upon the point of breaking out against the church. We agree with Beasley-Murray that it is certainly possible that, "an identical period of trial is referred to in both Revelation 2:10 and Revelation 3:1."[49] The looming persecution against the church is starkly evident in all the New Testament books, and hardly any of them failed to address the situation. In fact, the principal burden of the great prophecies about to be unveiled was that of strengthening and encouraging the church against that very event. That it is here called "the hour" of trial does not mean that it will be over in an hour, or even in any relatively short time. "In the hour of trial" means "in any hour of trial." As Beasley-Murray said, "This is not a designation of a period of time, but of the trial itself."[50] A secondary meaning applies the text to the final judgment. "In principle, the same promise would fit the judgment as the great trial for the whole human race."[51] From Matthew 24, etc., all should be familiar with this quality in prophecies regarding such events.

[45] Ralph Earle, op. cit., p. 520.

[46] Walvoord as quoted by Robert H. Mounce, op. cit., p. 119.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Edward A. McDowell, The Meaning and Message of the Book of Revelation (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1951), p. 58.

[49] G. R. Beasley-Murray, op. cit., p. 101.

[50] Ibid.

[51] John T. Hinds, op. cit., p. 59.


Verse 11

I come quickly: hold fast that which thou hast, that no one take thy crown.

I come quickly ... It is wrong to read this as if it said in the next few months or few years. Scholars love to give it that meaning; but it cannot be denied that, "Quickly may also mean suddenly, or unexpectedly."[52] Why was a word with such a double meaning used? Simply because a double meaning was required. The great persecutions would indeed come quite soon, within months after this Revelation was written; where as, the judgment would not occur for millenniums, a fact which the exact words of the sacred writers allowed for, even though they themselves might not have understood this. Indeed, it is not likely that they did fully understand it. See comment on this in my Commentary on 1Peter under 1 Peter 1:12. For identically this same reason, the Lord used the word "generation" (Matthew 24:34), having the double meaning of "those who are now alive," and of "the race of Israel." The first meaning applied to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the second applies to the Second Advent.

Hold fast ... is an admonition to continued fidelity. Some had already given up the struggle.

That no man take thy crown ... Regarding the crown of life, see under 1 Peter 2:10, above. The possibility of another's taking the crown of a Christian does not have reference, as Plummer thought, to another's receiving the crown the Christian forfeits, but to the fact that those who through deception, seduction or social duress may influence a Christian to forfeit his crown through sin. It is true, however, that if a Christian forfeits the crown, another will take the place he lost. "Jacob received Esau's crown; Matthias Judas's; and the Gentiles that of the Jews."[53]

[52] Edward A. McDowell, op. cit., p. 59.

[53] A. Plummer, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 22, Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 112.


Verse 12

He that overcometh, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God and he shall go out thence no more: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God, and mine own new name.

He that overcometh ... That is, the conquerors of earth's allurements and temptations. Hendriksen's great book on "More than Conquerors" comes to mind frequently through the repeated use of this expression.

A pillar in the temple of my God ... Like all of the similar promises to these churches, this is a promise of eternal life. The mention of the new Jerusalem and the new name require this understanding of it. "The temple, then, and the pillar are both figurative; and all reference to the historic church, or to position in it are excluded."[54]

Despite the interpretation advocated above, many insist on seeing the temple here as meaning the church, and the reference to the pillar as a promise of security and stability in it for the faithful Christian, a view supported by Paul's frequent mention of the church as "the temple" of the Holy Spirit, etc. Wallace was of this opinion. There is also the additional consideration that in the new Jerusalem, there shall not be any temple (Revelation 22:22). Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression remains that the Lord was here speaking of eternal life. Many of the figures in Revelation are not always used in strictly the same sense. Of course, it is true, also, that the overcomer shall be established in the church with safety and security; but the greater fact of inheriting eternal life seems to be more in keeping with the similar promises prevailing throughout this series to the seven churches.

I will write upon him the name of my God ... Addressed to Christians in a city which at least three times had changed their name, trying repeatedly to write upon themselves the "name of their God," this seems peculiarly appropriate. Some intimations of this glorious naming of God's children in eternity is seen in the fact of their being now baptized into the sacred triple name (Matthew 28:18-20) and of their wearing the name of Christ in the title Christians. We cannot say what may be implied beyond this in heaven.

ENDNOTE:

[54] Isbon T. Beckwith, op. cit., p. 485.


Verse 13

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.

What the Spirit saith to the churches ... All of these seven messages are to all of the churches in perpetuity; and what is said to one, especially regarding promises, is said to all.


Verse 14

And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write:

LAODICEA

Laodicea is a word which has come to stand for lukewarmness, indifference and compromise. Some theorists make a big point out of what they affirm to be the meaning of the word: "Its name designates it as the Church of mob rule, the democratic church, in which everything was swayed and decided by popular opinion."[55] We are reluctant to accept this, be cause the town was actually named by its founder Antiochus II (261-246 B.C.) after his wife Laodice.[56] It was situated in the same general vicinity of the other six cities addressed in this series, on the great Roman road to Syrian Antioch. It was never much of a fortress, due to the vulnerability of the water supply, "which came principally by a vulnerable aqueduct from springs six miles away to the north in the direction of Hieropolis ... Laodicea could hardly stand a determined siege."[57]

Laodicea was a banking center with a great deal of wealth. One of the great industries was that of wool and woolen garments, featuring a fine quality glossy black wool from Phrygian sheep; another industry was that of drugs developed in connection with the medical school there. One of the famous Laodicean remedies was a "Phrygian eye-salve" which was supposed to cure inflammation. Blaiklock speculated that this probably came from dried mud from one of the numerous hot springs in the area.[58] This information illuminates the charges which the Lord made against the church of this city, in his words, "Thou art miserable and poor, and blind, and naked" (Revelation 3:17). It is as though he had said, "You are spiritually bankrupt in spite of all the banks, looms and pharmacies in the city."

Particularly noticeable was the wealth of Laodicea. Following the great earthquake which demolished the place in 60 A.D., they rebuilt at once from their own resources, declining the lavish gifts offered by the emperor. Scholars who suppose that Laodicea could not have recovered so quickly as a date in the late 60's for Revelation would indicate that they have failed to take their great wealth and self-sufficiency into account.

One other significant fact of the environment is that of the hot springs, which when mixed with water from the colder springs resulted in a lukewarm, nauseous mixture totally unsuitable for drinking purposes.

Laodicea suffered the same kind of general decline that came to the whole area in subsequent centuries, finally falling to the Turks in the 14th century. Today, it is called Eski-Sheher, meaning "old town," the capital of the Turkish province of the same name. The population in 1955 was 122,755.[59]

The church at Laodicea was one of a group of three congregations known to us from the writings of Paul. He directed that two of his epistles should be sent there (Colossians 4:16). "These were the Colossian letter and another which has been lost, unless the epistle to the Ephesians is meant."[60] This church received, along with Sardis, the strongest of our Lord's denunciations, there being no compliment of any kind extended to them.

[55] J. A. Seiss, The Apocalypse Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1900), p. 72.

[56] E. J. Banks, ISBE, p. 1836.

[57] E. M. Blaiklock, op. cit., p. 124.

[58] Ibid., p. 125.

[59] Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago: William Benton, Publisher, 1961), Vol. 1, p. 710.

[60] Isbon T. Beckwith, op. cit., p. 487.

These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God:

The Amen ... This denotes the one in whom verity is personified."[61] There is also the sense of completeness and finality in it. Before Christ, there was no other; and after him there is no other.

The faithful and true witness ... The faithfulness of Christ is affirmed in this, a truth often overlooked. As deity, Jesus Christ had no need of faith in the sense of its use today; but "as a man" he walked in faith, implicitly trusting all that the Father had promised. In the ultimate sense, all human justification derives from the perfect faith and perfect obedience of Christ.

The beginning of the creation of God ... Plummer pointed out that the words here bear two possible interpretations:

The two meanings are: (1) that which would make Christ the first created thing of all things God created, and (2) that which would understand Christ as the Source of all the things God created.[62]

Plummer and many other able scholars declare the second meaning to be the one intended here. "The words mean, the one from whom creation took its beginning."[63] The agreement with Colossians 1:16 is probably intended, for the church in Laodicea received Colossians.

[61] Ibid., p. 488.

[62] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 115.

[63] Isbon T. Beckwith, op. cit., p. 488.


Verse 15

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would that thou wert cold or hot.

Two possible meanings of this are intriguing, and either one or both could be correct. Which is the right turns upon what Jesus meant by "I would thou wert cold or hot." If the Lord's reprimand here is the rough equivalent to, "You Laodicean Christians are just like the notoriously lukewarm drinking water in your town," then he meant that the Christians should be either like good cold drinking water, or like a beneficial hot drink from one of the thermal springs. On the other hand, if the "lukewarmness" here has reference solely to the spiritual temperature of the people, then he could have meant that he could prefer them to be cold, "because a lukewarm Christian can do the church more harm than an outright enemy of the faith."[64] Others have explained the possible meaning thus, "An honest atheist is more acceptable to the Lord than a self satisfied religious man."[65] Whatever, exactly, was meant, the principal idea is devastatingly clear. This church had lost its enthusiasm, zeal, and excitement concerning their holy religion. Through the ages they have come to stand for the most disgusting thing on earth, a fat, lazy, self-righteous and complacent church, basking in their own presumed achievements, but wholly unacceptable to the Lord.

[64] John T. Hinds, op. cit., p. 62.

[65] G. R. Beasley-Murray, op. cit., p. 105.


Verse 16

So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth.

Neither hot nor cold ... The contrast is between the hot medicinal waters of Hieropolis, and the cold pure waters of Colossae."[66] Thus, the church was providing neither refreshment for the spiritually weary, nor healing for the spiritually sick.

I will spew thee out of my mouth ... This is a shocking figure, but one of the most expressive in the New Testament. Strangers entering Laodicea for the first time, when they tried to drink where the hot spring water and the cold came together, would usually "spew it out."

ENDNOTE:

[66] Robert H. Mounce, op. cit., p. 125.


Verse 17

Because thou sayest, I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art the wretched one and miserable and poor and blind and naked:

How strange that God's people in such a place were destitute of spiritual graces. There was plenty of money, but they were poor; there was plenty of the finest clothing on earth, but they were naked; there was healing for many in the medical school, but they were blind. This is a sad commentary upon the way things are today with many Christians who live in the affluent society, with plenty of everything except that alone which can prevent their being like the Laodiceans, miserable and poor and blind and naked.

And knowest not ... The worst thing about their condition was their total ignorance of the true nature of it. They had evidently mistaken "the good life" for the righteous life. They boasted of their riches and professed to need nothing whatever; and yet they were the neediest of all. May all Christians pray that they may not be self-deceived concerning their own spiritual condition. What can be done for the hypocrite who does not know he is a hypocrite, for the spiritual beggar who is dreaming that he is rich, or for the naked sojourner who images that he is fully clothed?


Verse 18

I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eye-salve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see.

It is evident that the lack of the Laodiceans was precisely in those areas where they fancied they were the strongest. The allusion to Laodicean wealth, their garment industry, and their "Phrygian eye-salve" is evident.

Buy of me gold refined by fire ... This is a metaphor of true fidelity in Christ Jesus, as suggested by 1 Peter 1:7; but the expression, "Buy of me" is particularly interesting. "the of me is emphatic,"[67] indicating that the true wealth is procurable only from the Son of God. Neither the banks of Laodicea nor the gold mines of Pangaeus can supply the blessed "riches in Christ" without which all mankind is miserable and poor and blind and naked. Furthermore, the very fact of a purchase being required in this command raises the question of what shall be tendered in order to receive the gold refined by fire? Lenski quoted Isaiah 55:1 in this context:

Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price (Isaiah 55:1).

Lenski's comment on this is: "Buy for nothing! This is the strange wonderful gospel buying."[68] With due deference, how ever, to the respected Lenski, the riches in Christ are not avail able "for nothing," but without money, there being a world of difference in the two propositions. The very thing wrong at Laodicea was that they were proposing to enjoy true riches of Christ for nothing. The same is true of a great deal of the current religious world around us today. Among the things that "in a sense" must be exchanged for the true riches are an obedient faith in Jesus Christ. However, it is only "in a sense" that such may be called "buying." There is no quid pro quo that may be tendered in order to receive salvation; and it was probably this that Lenski intended.

And white garments that thou mayest be clothed ... Like the buying, above, this represents something which to some degree, at least, must be provided by the wearer, Christ, of course, being the only source. The apostles commanded that one should keep himself "unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). White garments of righteousness are supplied by the Lord to the baptized believer; but there is no promise of any such thing to the believer or unbeliever who will not be baptized. Thus, people are here commanded to "buy" white garments.

And eye-salve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see ... This demanded purchase, like the others, may not be had for money; but that does not mean that it is available upon any other terms than the one laid down in Scripture. "The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes" (Psalms 19:8). The only eye-salve, therefore, that will do spiritual blindness any good is the word of the Lord; and it was precisely this that the Laodiceans needed. How could they "buy it"? Through study and attention given to the word of God. Is this "for nothing"? Indeed no; but it is without money.

[67] Ibid., p. 127.

[68] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Revelation (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943), p. 158.


Verse 19

As many as I love, I reprove and chasten; be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

For full discussion of the doctrine of chastening, see in my Commentary on Hebrews, pp. 317-319.

There is nothing like this in the whole New Testament; it could be in tended for all the churches, but Laodicea's being the last one caused it to be incorporated here with the letter to that church. A literal translation is: "See, I have taken my stand upon your threshold, and I am continually knocking."[69] Many have commented upon this matchless verse which is honored in the music and art of the world. Morgan paraphrased the meaning thus:

He waits for man. He is not waiting for a committee to pass a resolution. If any man hear my voice, I will come to him ... I will be his guest, "I will sup with him." He shall be my guest, "and he with me." I will sit at the table which his love provides, and satisfy my heart. He shall sit at the table which my love provides, and satisfy his heart.[70]

"This promise has a eucharistic flavor about it. The mention of a supper with Christ pictures the last supper in the upper room, and the subsequent occasions when it was re-enacted as the continuing symbol of Christ's continuing presence."[71] "This is one of the greatest gospel texts in the New Testament and should be quoted frequently in both public evangelism and in personal work."[72]

Certainly, one of the applications of this verse is that of referring it to the Lord's Supper. This sacred institution, observed without interruption throughout the Christian era, enables every Christian to "eat with the Lord" in every observance of it. We agree with Caird who considered this reference imperative.

[69] Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), p. 67.

[70] G. Campbell Morgan, The Letters of Our Lord (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d.), p. 104.

[71] G. B. Caird, op. cit., p. 58.

[72] Ralph Earle, op. cit., p. 527.


Verse 21

He that overcometh, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with my Father in his throne.

Plummer, and many others, see two thrones in this passage. "The throne promised is not that which Christ now occupies with his Father, but his own throne."[73] However, there is only one supreme throne. "God's throne is Christ's."[74] As we shall see in the next two chapters, Christ is now completely and gloriously enthroned. The notion of two thrones in this passage must be rejected. "God knows no other victory, and needs no other victory, than that which is won by the cross of Christ."[75]

To sit down with me in my throne ... "This promise of sharing the throne is the climax of an ascending series of glorious promises which carry us from the Garden of Eden to the throne of God in heaven."[76]

Many do not seem to believe that Christians are now sharing the throne with Christ, but in a sense they are; despite the fact of this interpretation being merely the type of the glory that shall come later at the Second Advent (which is also in view here). Howard stated it thus: "Christians reign with Christ as his agents in proclaiming Christ's authority for man's salvation."[77] Hinds' great summary of the thought here is:

As Christians are agents through whom men are saved (1 Timothy 4:16), so they are agents through whom Christ reigns. Hence, they sit with him in his throne, that is, rule with him. It is called the Father's throne because he gave it to Christ; it is Christ's because he sits upon it; it is the throne of David, because Christ, a Davidic descendant, sits upon it. Moreover, only one throne is supreme, that "of God and of the Lamb" (Revelation 22:1).[78]

[73] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 118.

[74] James Moffatt, op. cit., p. 373.

[75] G. B. Caird, op. cit., p. 58.

[76] W. Boyd Carpenter, op. cit., p. 551.

[77] G. T. Howard, Revelation (Dallas: Christian Publishing Company, 1966), p. 28.

[78] John T. Hinds, op. cit., p. 65.


Verse 22

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.

For the seventh time this message has been thundered from the gates of heaven, indicating that these letters to seven ancient churches have a relevance infinitely beyond the circle of the original recipients. "They are a composite word to the church universal throughout time."[79]

A SUMMARY REGARDING THE SEVEN LETTERS

The background. The discerning student cannot fail to see that Jewish persecution against the church is active in these letters, in which "the synagogue of Satan" is twice mentioned (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). The casting of Christians into prison at Smyrna is evidently related to this Jewish opposition. "When the appeals of sophistry failed to draw the Christians back to the religion of their ancestors, the Jews sought every association possible with the Romans to crush the new sect (Acts 24:14)."[80] At the time Revelation was written, this power of the Jews to enlist Roman authority in their campaign against the church was drawing to a close; and therein, perhaps, is the explanation of the "ten days" reference in the letter to Smyrna. Such a deduction as this is disputed; but the fact cannot be denied that there is a strong Jewish complexion in the opposition cited in these two chapters. "Therefore, it appears that this was written before the fall of Jerusalem."[81] If Jewish persecutions were about to end, however, there was yet a greater trial upon the horizon, "the great trial" coming upon the whole world (Revelation 3:10); and that is best understood as the great Roman persecutions, already begun under Nero, but due to be intensified and continued.

The throne. There is only one throne of universal power and authority, and that is the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 22:1); and these seven letters show the power of the throne judging, encouraging, protecting, and guiding the church, reaching a climax in Revelation 3:21, where the church itself is promised a seat upon it, true in a sense now, but to be followed by greater honors later. In these letters, "ominous warnings provide a dark background for glowing promises."[82] The next two chapters will provide a revelation of that great throne in more specific terms, but it is the same throne (authority) that dominates these letters. In this is seen the unity and logical sequence of progression in the Apocalypse.

The judgment. This is the theme of Revelation (Revelation 1:7); and the coming of Christ in his judgment of the churches is evident in all of the seven letters, his infinite knowledge of their affairs being invariably repeated, "I know thy works." Significantly, however, the judgments threatened are obviously related to the present time, being contingent in some cases upon the repentance of those judged; but beyond this, there are undeniable echoes of the Second Advent, as indicated by the repeated promises of eternal life, variously stated as eating of the hidden manna, receiving the crown of life, walking with the Lord in white, etc. In this double application of "judgment" both to things in the present life and to the saints' entry into heaven, the exact pattern of the Saviour's great Olivet address (Matthew 24, etc.) is followed. Much of Revelation will remain unintelligible unless this conformity to that pattern is observed. "Each representative church is being judged by the living Lord in anticipation of that climax (the judgment), and the correctives that he seeks to apply are preparatory for His elevation of the church to His side on the throne."[83]

The dangers. What are the dangers against which these admonitions are designed to warn Christians? They are the danger of leaving our first love (Ephesus), the fear of suffering (Smyrna), the toleration of false teaching (Pergamum), allowing leadership to fall into evil hands (Thyatira), spiritual deadness (Sardis), the danger of not holding fast (Philadelphia), and that of an indifferent complacency and lukewarmness (Laodicea).

Plan of interpretation. We have rejected the futuristic notion that in the future all these cities are to be restored and that then these things shall be fulfilled, and also the conception that seven successive ages of the church are indicated. The seven churches have been understood here as literal, historical congregations, and that these seven were chosen because of the varied types of correction needed, thus making the letters applicable to all situations in the future of the church, in which the specified conditions might occur. Regarding the "seven successive ages" interpretation, we agree with Wilbur M. Smith who said:

The only aspect of this interpretation that may have some virtue is the interpretation of Laodicea. It seems that lukewarmness and indifference will mark the church at the end of the age, particularly indifference to the great doctrines of the faith and unwillingness to defend them.[84]

THE INTRODUCTION AND KEY TO REVELATION

These seven letters are a marvelous introduction to the whole prophecy because: (1) there are just seven mentioned, corresponding to the seven successive parallel views of history which follow; (2) each of the seven letters ends with a reference to the "judgment" of Christ upon each church; and (3) the great and final reward of eternal life appears under various figures in each of them, corresponding exactly to the culmination of the whole prophecy in the final JUDGMENT and the awarding of eternal life in the NEW JERUSALEM for the saints. These letters, in a sense, are a preview of the entire book of Revelation.

[79] Robert H. Mounce, op. cit., p. 130.

[80] Beeson, Ulrich R., The Revelation (Little Rock, Arkansas: Ulrich R. Beeson, 1956), p. 42.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Charles M. Laymon, The Book of Revelation (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960), p. 72.

[83] Merrill C. Tenney, op. cit., p. 68.

[84] Wilbur M. Smith, Wycliffe Bible Commentary, New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 1063.

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Revelation 3:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/revelation-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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