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II. THE LETTERS TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES CHS. 2-3
Before analyzing each of the seven letters that follows, we should note some of their features as a group. They are similar in that they are all brief, and each contains a unique description of the Lord Jesus, drawn from Revelation 1:12-20, that is appropriate to that church. Moreover each contains a word of commendation (except the letter to Laodicea) and each carries some rebuke for the congregation (except those to Smyrna and Philadelphia). Furthermore each exhorts its readers to specific action, and each holds out a promise as an incentive for faithful obedience.
"These promises are often the most metaphorical and symbolic portions of the letters and thus in some cases present interpretative difficulties. Each is eschatological and is correlated with the last two chapters of the book (21-22). . . . Furthermore, the promises are echoes of Genesis 2-3 : what was lost originally by Adam in Eden is more than regained in Christ." [Note: Johnson, p. 432.]
"Churches 1 and 7 are in grave danger; churches 2 and 6 are in excellent shape, churches 3, 4, and 5 are middling, neither very good nor very bad." [Note: Morris, p. 58.]
These were letters to historical churches in the first century similar to so many of Paul’s epistles, for example. A notable difference between Paul’s letters and these, however, is that in his epistles normally doctrine precedes practical exhortation, but in Revelation practical exhortation precedes teaching about future events.
"The letters are not structured in strict epistolary form; they are special messages addressed to the seven churches. The book as a whole is in the form of a letter." [Note: Ladd, p. 36.]
The messages of these seven letters are applicable to individual local churches and to the Christians in them today. Furthermore there are remarkable parallels between conditions in these seven local churches and conditions in the western church as history has unfolded from the first century to the twenty-first. Their order has proven prophetic though there is no statement in the text that God intended them to be prophetic. Nevertheless the situations these churches faced represent characteristic situations the church has faced at any given time in various geographical locations. Each letter is applicable to the church today to the extent that local churches find themselves in similar circumstances. Discussion of the three major views of the interpretation of chapters 2-3 will follow the exposition of these chapters.
"The pointed message of Christ to each of these churches is the capstone to New Testament Epistles dealing with the practical life of those committed to the Christian faith." [Note: John F. Walvoord, "Revelation," The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, p. 927.]
". . . they are more like prophetic oracles than formal epistles. The likeness extends to form and content." [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 72. Cf. Amos 1-2.]
1. Destination and description of Christ 2:1
Ephesus was a leading seaport and the capital of the Roman province of Asia. Paul had evangelized it and used it as a base of operations for at least three years (Acts 18:19-21; Acts 19; 1 Corinthians 16:8). Timothy had labored there (1 Timothy 1:3) as had the Apostle John. [Note: See my comments on 1:9.] It was the largest city in Asia Minor and was "the Vanity Fair of the Ancient World." [Note: William Barclay, Letters to the Seven Churches, p. 12.] Ephesus was definitely the first recipient of four New Testament books (Ephesians , 1 and 2 Timothy, and Revelation) and possibly four more (John’s Gospel and his three epistles). Paul also wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus. It was a very important city in the early history of the church.
The "angel" who was the primary recipient of this letter was probably the representative of the Ephesian church who carried this letter, along with the rest of Revelation, to the church at Ephesus. [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 128.] By the end of the first century there were probably many house-churches that composed the body of Christ in Ephesus (i.e., "the church in Ephesus"). The messenger would have made the letter known to the congregation when he read it publicly. It seems unlikely that God would have sent the letter to a spirit being. The word translated "angel" usually refers to a heavenly messenger in the New Testament, but it describes human messengers as well (cf. Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:24; Luke 7:27; Luke 9:52). Another view is that the reference is to the prevailing spirit of the church personified. [Note: Mounce, p. 85.] However, "angel" is a very unusual term to describe such a spirit.
John described Jesus Christ figuratively as the One in authority over the churches’ leaders and One who knew their situations. He was watching over them (cf. Revelation 1:13; Revelation 1:16).
A. The letter to the church in Ephesus 2:1-7
Jesus Christ told John to write the letter to the church in Ephesus to commend the Ephesian Christians for their labors and perseverance in God’s truth. He also wanted to exhort them to rekindle their former love for the Savior.
2. Commendation 2:2-3 (cf. Revelation 2:6)
The Greek word oida, translated "know" (Revelation 2:2), reflects full and exact knowledge from absolute clearness of vision and is always the word used to describe Christ’s knowledge in Revelation. [Note: Swete., p. 24] The other Greek word for knowledge, ginosko, speaks of progress of knowledge in Revelation.
This church had remained faithful to Jesus Christ for over 40 years. He approved of the good works of these believers-their toil in His service, patient endurance of circumstances (Gr. hypomone) under affliction, and discipline of evil men and false teachers. The false teachers probably claimed to be functional apostles (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13) rather than official apostles (Acts 1:15-26).
"The false teachers claimed to be apostoloi [apostles] in the wider sense, itinerant teachers with a mission which placed them on a higher level than the local elders (I Cor. Xii. 28, Eph. iv. 11 . . ." [Note: Ibid., p. 25.]
"As to whether the authoritative function of apostles continued after the first century, the apostolic fathers are instructive. In no case do the many references to apostles in the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas relate to any recognized apostles other than those associated with the NT. The Fathers apparently understood the special apostolic function to have ceased with the end of the apostolic era." [Note: Johnson, p. 434.]
Particularly commendable was the faithful perseverance of this church (Revelation 2:3).
3. Rebuke 2:4
The Ephesians, however, were serving Jesus Christ and maintaining orthodoxy as a habit rather than out of fervent love for their Savior (cf. Ephesians 1:15-16). Many commentators, however, took the first love as a reference to the Ephesians’ love for one another (cf. Acts 20:35; Ephesians 1:15). [Note: See John R. W. Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church, p. 27.] Yet the emphasis in all these letters on the congregations’ allegiance to Jesus Christ seems to favor the view that love for Him is in view here. Genuine believers are in view. [Note: Richard C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation, pp. 86-87.] They did what was correct but for the wrong reason. Service and orthodoxy are important, but Jesus Christ wants our love too.
"It is only as we love Christ fervently that we can serve Him faithfully." [Note: Wiersbe, 2:572.]
4. Exhortation 2:5-6
The corrective for a cold heart that the Lord prescribed was a three-step process. They needed to remember how they used to feel about Him, to repent (change their attitude), and return to the love that formerly motivated them. The "deeds" they used to do probably refer to the activities that fanned the flame of their love (e.g., the Lord’s Supper perhaps) as well as their service for Him (Revelation 2:2). To rekindle first love there needs to be a return to first works because there is an intimate relationship between love and good works (1 John 5:2).
"Memory can be a powerful force in effecting a return to a more satisfying relationship (cf. the prodigal son in Luke 15:17-18)." [Note: Mounce, p. 88.]
Eventually the Ephesian church passed out of existence, but that did not occur until the eleventh century. [Note: Swete, p. 28.] The recipients of this letter seem to have responded positively to this exhortation. The site of the city has been virtually without inhabitants since the fourteenth century. The present city of Ephesus is farther west.
"The church that loses its love will soon lose its light, no matter how doctrinally sound it may be." [Note: Wiersbe, 2:572.]
We know little of the Nicolaitans who were evidently followers of someone named Nicolas, perhaps the proselyte from Antioch who was one of the Seven (cf. Acts 6:5). Irenaeus, who lived in the late second century, wrote that they were without restraint in their indulgence of the flesh and practiced fornication and the eating of foods sacrificed to idols. [Note: Irenaeus, Against Heresies, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:352.] The word "Nicolaitans" is a transliteration of two Greek words that mean "to conqueror" and "people." Consequently Nicolaitanism has come down through history as typifying any system that seeks to dominate rather than serve people.
"The teaching of the Nicolaitans was an exaggeration of the doctrine of Christian liberty which attempted an ethical compromise with heathenism." [Note: Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation, p. 61.]
"Though they had left their first love, they had not left their former hatred for evil." [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 147.]
5. Promise 2:7
An invitation preceded the promise, as in all the letters to follow (cf. Revelation 1:3). Jesus was the only person to issue this invitation in Scripture. The Gospels also record Him doing so seven times (Matthew 11:15; Matthew 13:9; Matthew 13:43; Mark 4:9; Mark 4:23; Luke 8:8; Luke 14:35). This invitation always occurs where Jesus appealed to His hearers to make a significant change.
In addition to the implied promise of the whole church’s continuance if obedient (Revelation 2:5), Jesus Christ gave a promise to the individuals in the church. "Him who overcomes" probably refers to all Christians (cf. Revelation 2:2-3; Revelation 2:10 c, 13, 19, 25; Revelation 3:3; Revelation 3:8; Revelation 3:10; 1 John 5:4-5). [Note: L. S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 3:306; W. Robert Cook, The Theology of John, pp. 173-83; R. E. Manahan, "’Overcomes the World’-1 John 5:4" (M.Div. Thesis, Grace Theological Seminary, 1970), pp. 38-39; William Newell, pp. 42, 52, 339; James E. Rosscup, "The Overcomer of the Apocalypse," Grace Theological Journal 3:2 (Fall 1982:261-86; Ryrie, Revelation, pp. 22-23; Smith, p. 65; Stott, pp. 97-98, 118-25; Lehman Strauss, The Book of the Revelation, pp. 108; Walvoord, The Revelation . . ., pp. 59, 98-99; Ladd, pp. 41, 69; Thomas, Revelation 1-7, pp. 151-53; and Beale, pp. 234, 269-72.] The promises given to overcomers in all seven letters and in Revelation 21:7 bear this interpretation out. Some interpreters who hold this view appeal to 1 John 2:13; 1 John 4:4; and 1 John 5:4-5, where John referred to his readers as overcomers. However, in 1 John 2:13; 1 John 4:4 John said his readers had overcome the world, not that all Christians are overcomers. In 1 John 5:4-5 he wrote that only believers in Christ can overcome the world, not that every believer in Christ does overcome the world. Some students of Revelation have concluded that the overcomers are not all Christians but only faithful Christians. [Note: E.g., Donald G. Barnhouse, Messages to the Seven Churches, pp. 38, 43-44, 47, 56-57, 74-75, 84, 94-95; J. Sidlow Baxter, Awake My Heart, p. 323; R. R. Benedict, "The Use of Nikao in the Letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation" (Th.M. Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1966), p. 13; Harlan D. Betz, "The Nature of Rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ" (Th.M. Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1974), pp. 36-45; Zane C. Hodges, Grace in Eclipse, pp. 107-11; Ralph D. Richardson, "The Johannine Doctrine of Victory" (Th.M. Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1955), pp.20-29; William R. Ross Jr., "An Analysis of the Rewards and Judgments in Revelation 2, 3" (Th.M. Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1971), p. 20; Mounce, pp. 90, 106, 256; Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings, pp. 37, 470, 474; Chitwood, p. 48; and J. William Fuller, "’I Will Not Erase His Name from the Book of Life’ (Revelation 3:5)," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 26 (1983):299.] The Lord held out a reminder of what would inevitably be the Ephesians’ in the future to motivate them to follow Him faithfully in the present. Similarly other New Testament writers wrote of our blessings in Christ to motivate us to live in harmony with our calling.
". . . the promises to the conquerors are fundamentally assurances to the faithful of the benefits of Christ’s redemption, expressed in the language of apocalyptic. In the nature of the case the promises afford inspiration for faith and fortitude in all who may be called to lay down their lives for Christ, and they are intended to do so." [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 78.]
John prefaced the promise with a special exhortation to give attention.
"These promises pertain to Christians alone, and their realization awaits the future Messianic Era. The time when Christians will enter into these promises must follow the time set forth in chapter one-Christ appearing as Judge in the midst of the seven Churches. The Church must first be brought into judgment, and then overcoming Christians will realize that which has been promised." [Note: Chitwood, p. 45. Cf. Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 153.]
The promise itself seems to be that those who remember, repent, and repeat the first works (Revelation 2:5) will partake of the tree of life. There is a connection between the tree of life and man’s rule over the earth. Adam in his unfallen state had access to this tree, but when he fell God kept him from it (Genesis 1:26-28; Genesis 3:22). In the future, believers will have access to it again (cf. Revelation 22:14).
"A number of other Jewish texts use the eating of the fruit of the tree of life as a metaphor for salvation (1 Enoch 25:5; 3 Enoch 23:18; T. Levi 18:11; Apoc. Mos. 28:4; Apoc. Elijah 5:6), and this metaphor continues to be used by Christian authors (T. Jacob 7:24). . . The tree of life is not simply a symbol for eternal life alone but also represents the cosmic center of reality where eternal life is present and available, and where God dwells. . .
"One tradition often used in apocalyptic literature originated in Genesis 2:9; Genesis 3:23-24 and involved eschatological access to the tree of life in the heavenly paradise, clearly a metaphor for the enjoyment of eternal life." [Note: Aune, p. 152.]
Paradise is a Persian loan word meaning a walling around, hence a walled park or garden (cf. Genesis 2:8-10 in LXX; Revelation 22:1-4; Revelation 22:14).
"To eat of the Tree is to enjoy all that the life of the world to come has in store for redeemed humanity." [Note: Swete, p. 30.]
The tree of life appears four times in the Book of Proverbs and its use there helps us understand its presence in Genesis and Revelation. Solomon referred to wisdom (Proverbs 3:18), righteousness (Proverbs 11:30), satisfied hope (Proverbs 13:12), and controlled speech (Proverbs 15:4) as a tree of life. These are all the fruits that would have provided Adam and will provide the overcomers with what they will need to flourish in the millennial kingdom and beyond. The tree of life in Eden and the tree of life in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:2; Revelation 22:14; Revelation 22:19) appear to be literal trees. [Note: See Daniel K. K. Wong, "The Tree of Life in Revelation 2:7," Bibliotheca Sacra 155:618 (April-June 1998):211-26.]
In church history, conditions described in this letter characterized the apostolic age especially.
1. Destination and description of Christ 2:8
Smyrna was also a seaport on the Aegean Sea about 40 miles north of Ephesus. Late in the first century it was a large, wealthy city with a population of about 100,000. It still thrives today as Izmir with a population of about 200,000.
Jesus Christ described Himself to this church as the eternal One who died and experienced resurrection. "Smyrna" means "bitter." The Greek word translates the Hebrew mor, myrrh, a fragrant perfume used in embalming dead bodies (cf. Matthew 2:11; John 19:39). It becomes very fragrant when someone crushes it. These believers would have found encouragement that even though the prospect of death threatened them, resurrection and eternal life with Christ were certain. Smyrna had died as a city on several occasions because of invasions and earthquakes, but it had risen again to new life because the residents had rebuilt it. In Smyrna many residents worshipped a goddess named Cybele whom they regarded as the personification of the yearly rejuvenation of nature. Her devotees claimed that she arose from the dead every spring.
B. The letter to the church in Smyrna 2:8-11
John penned this letter to commend its recipients for their endurance of persecution and poverty for the sake of Jesus Christ. He also did so to exhort them to be fearless and faithful even to death. Whereas the Ephesian church needed to return to past conditions, this one needed to persevere in what was characteristic of it in the present.
2. Commendation 2:9
Jesus Christ knew the afflictions (lit. pressures) these Christians were experiencing as a result of their testimony for Him, including abject poverty. Evidently their persecutors were cutting off some of their incomes. Notwithstanding their physical poverty, the Christians in Smyrna were rich spiritually. Evidently some of the persecutors were Jews who slandered the Christians (cf. Acts 18:12-17) and cursed Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 26:11). They apparently claimed to be committed to God but were not. They came from Satan’s camp (cf. Acts 14:19; Acts 17:5-8; Acts 17:13).
"At the martyrdom of Polycarp at Smyrna in 168, these Jews eagerly assisted by gathering on the Sabbath wood and fagots for the fire in which he was burned." [Note: Ryrie, p. 23.]
". . . the imperial cult permeated virtually every aspect of city and often even village life in Asia Minor, so that individuals could aspire to economic prosperity and greater social standing only by participating to some degree in the Roman cult." [Note: Beale, p. 240.]
Jesus Christ had no rebuke for these saints. Evidently in their trials they had remained pure in belief and behavior. In the first century the enemies of Christians leveled six slanderous accusations against them: cannibalism, lust and immorality, breaking up homes, atheism, political disloyalty, and being incendiaries (because they taught that the world would burn up). [Note: William Barclay, The Revelation of John , 1:98.]
3. Exhortation 2:10a
These persecuted Christians did not need to fear their adversaries or death since they would live forever with Jesus Christ. "Behold" signals an oracular declaration (cf. Revelation 2:22; Revelation 3:8-9; Revelation 3:20). [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 167.] The devil would incite their foes to imprison some of them shortly, having received permission from God to do so (cf. Job 1). This would be a trial (Gr. peirasthete) that Satan would use to try to entice them to depart from the Lord.
"Under the Roman legal system imprisonment was usually not a punishment in itself; rather it was used either as a means of coercion to compel obedience to an order issued by a magistrate or else as a place to temporarily restrain the prisoner before execution . . . . Here it appears that imprisonment, viewed as a period of testing, is primarily for the purpose of coercion." [Note: Aune, p. 166.]
The "ten days" of trouble may refer to a period of relatively brief duration, specifically the "days" of persecution under 10 Roman emperors (cf. Genesis 24:55; Numbers 11:19; Numbers 14:22; 1 Samuel 1:8; Nehemiah 5:18; Job 19:3; Jeremiah 42:7; Daniel 1:12; Acts 25:6). The emperors whom advocates of this view identify are usually Nero, Domition, Trajan, Hadrian, Septimus Severus, Maximin, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian. [Note: See Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 169; and J. Vernon McGee, Through the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, 5:906.] However, Ladd claimed that these were not empire-wide persecutions. [Note: Ladd, pp. 8-10.] Other interpreters view the days as symbolic. Some interpret these days as undefined periods of trial. [Note: Beale, p. 243.] Others see them as an undefined period of years. [Note: William Lee, "The Revelation of St. John," in The Holy Bible, 4:481, 520, 532.] Still others take them as some other period of time (e.g., complete tribulation). Of these, some view the days as a longer period of time. [Note: Ray Summers, Worthy Is the Lamb, p. 113; Mounce, p. 94.] Others interpret them as a short, limited time. [Note: Swete, p. 32; Charles, 1:58; Martin Kiddle, The Revelation of St. John, p. 28; Aune, p. 166; Ladd, p. 44.] However, John probably intended us to interpret this period as 10 literal 24-hour days that lay in the near future of the original recipients of this letter. [Note: See Walter Scott, Exposition of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, p. 69.] There is nothing in this text that provides a clue that we should take this number in a figurative sense.
4. Promise 2:10b-11
The citizens of Smyrna had a reputation for being faithful to the emperor because of their previous acts of fidelity to him. The crown of life is probably the fullness of eternal life as a reward (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; Hebrews 2:9; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 4:4). This appears to be a victor’s crown (Gr. stephanos) given for enduring the trials and tests of life even to the point of death without denying Christ. It is not the gift of eternal life but the fullness of that life (cf. John 10:10, et al.). The person who endures these trials will receive the crown of life after Jesus Christ has approved him or her. This approval will take place when the Lord evaluates that believer’s works at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:13). He will award the crown at this judgment (1 Corinthians 3:14). [Note: Aune, p. 167. See Joe L. Wall, Going for the Gold, pp. 128-29, 140-51.]
|An Imperishable Crown||For leading a disciplined life||1 Corinthians 9:25|
|A Crown of Rejoicing||For evangelism and discipleship||1 Thessalonians 2:19|
|A Crown of Righteousness||For loving the Lord’s appearing||2 Timothy 4:8|
|A Crown of Life||For enduring trials||James 1:12;|
|A Crown of Glory||For shepherding God’s flock faithfully||1 Peter 5:4|
The Greeks called Smyrna "the crown of Asia Minor" because of its beauty as a city. Moreover every year a few city administrators, rulers, and priests received a crown of leaves for their faithfulness to their duties.
". . . it is noteworthy that Smyrna was famous for its games . . . in which the prize was a garland." [Note: Swete, p. 33.]
Christians will not (a double negative in Greek: "not in any way") suffer injury or harm (Gr. adikethe) by the "second death." The second death is eternal separation from God. It follows the first death, which is separation of the soul from the body.
"It is not annihilation, but conscious unending punishment." [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 174. Cf. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6:303.]
"By litotes this [promise] intimates a superlative triumph over the second death. But since the second death is actual banishment from the presence and life of God (Revelation 20:14-15), the litotes also intimates a splendid experience of the divine life and presence." [Note: Zane C. Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege, p. 119. ]
Litotes is a figure of speech in which the writer expresses an affirmative idea through the negation of its opposite. Examples include, "I am not amused" (meaning "I am very annoyed"), "I won’t forget that" (meaning "I’ll remember it"), and "That test was no snap!" (meaning "That was a tough test!"). For some biblical examples, see Acts 12:18; Acts 15:2; Acts 17:4; Acts 17:12; Acts 19:24; and Acts 27:20.
The point of the Lord’s promise is that those who remain faithful will experience eternal life to the utmost in the life to come. The first death might hurt them briefly, but the second death would not hurt them at all. [Note: See idem, "No Small Problem," Grace Evangelical Society News 6:3 (March 1991):4.]
Historically the church experienced intense persecution during the post-apostolic era until Constantine elevated Christianity to the official religion of the Roman Empire. As mentioned before, some interpreters have correlated the 10 days of persecution (Revelation 2:10) with 10 periods of persecution instigated by 10 Roman emperors between A.D. 54 (Nero) and A.D. 284 (Diocletian). [Note: E.g., W. A. Spurgeon, The Conquering Christ, p. 28.]
1. Destination and description of Christ 2:12
Pergamum (modern Bergama) lay about 55 miles north of Smyrna inland a few miles from the Aegean coast. The meaning of the name "Pergamum" is "citadel." The town was noteworthy for three reasons. It was a center for many pagan religious cults, and emperor worship was more intense there than in any other surrounding city. [Note: Barclay, Letters to . . ., p. 45.] Second, it boasted a university with a large library. Third, it was the leader and center of the production of parchment.
Jesus Christ described Himself as the One who judges with His Word (cf. Revelation 1:16; Revelation 19:15; Revelation 19:21). God’s Word separates believers from the world and sinners from God. This is perhaps its double-edged quality. Or perhaps life and death are in view. Roman officials who had the right to carry this sword (Gr. hromphaia, cf. Revelation 1:16; Revelation 2:16) had the power of life and death in cases of capital offenses.
"It is interesting that Pergamum was a city to which Rome had given the rare power of capital punishment (ius gladii), which was symbolized by the sword. The Christians in Pergamum were thus reminded that though they lived under the rule of an almost unlimited imperium, they were citizens of another kingdom-that of him who needs no other sword than that of his mouth . . ." [Note: Johnson, p. 440. Cf. G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, p. 38.]
C. The letter to the church in Pergamum 2:12-17
The purpose of this letter was to encourage the Christians in Pergamum for their faithfulness to Christ and to urge them to reject the false teaching in their midst.
2. Commendation 2:13
The Pergamum Christians had held firmly to their commitment to Jesus Christ and their witness for Him even though they lived in one of Satan’s strongholds.
"Antipas is said to have been a dentist and a physician, but the Aesculapiades suspected that he was propagating Christianity secretly and they accused him of disloyalty to Caesar. He was condemned to death and was shut up in a brazen (or copper) bull, which was then heated until it was red-hot." [Note: Frederick A. Tatford, The Patmos Letters, p. 75.]
Satan’s throne may be an allusion to one or more of the pagan temples in the city, most likely the Aesculapium. [Note: For information about the temples in John’s seven cities of Asia, see R. Larry Overstreet, "The Temple of God in the Book of Revelation," Bibliotheca Sacra 166:664 (October-December 2009):446-53.] The Aesculapium was a complex of buildings devoted to the god of healing. This made Pergamum "the Lourdes of the Province of Asia." [Note: Charles, 1:60.] Some have thought that this throne was the altar of Zeus, which was very prominent in the town. [Note: E.g., Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, p. 281, footnote 3.] Another possibility is that Satan’s throne refers to emperor worship that was stronger in Pergamum than elsewhere. [Note: Beale, p. 246.]
"The city was a leader in this form of worship, which was relatively new to the province of Asia . . ." [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 184. Cf. Mounce, p. 96; and Ladd, p. 46.]
". . . it appears that the ’throne of Satan’ should be identified not with a specific architectural feature of Roman Pergamon (in part because so little is actually known about first-century Pergamon) but rather with the Roman opposition to early Christianity, which the author of Revelation 2-3 perceived as particularly malevolent in that city." [Note: Aune, pp. 183-84.]
Swete referred it to the rampant paganism of Pergamum that included emperor worship. [Note: Swete, pp. 34-35.]
3. Rebuke 2:14-15
Balaam told Balak that he could overcome the Israelites if he would involve them in Moabite religious feasts that included sacred prostitution (Numbers 25). This would render them unfaithful to God and consequently subject to His discipline. The pagans in Pergamum were evidently encouraging the Christians to join in their pagan feasts and the sexual immorality that accompanied them too. By participating, some in the church had given tacit approval to Balaam’s teaching. The Nicolaitans evidently regarded these sins as acceptable under the pretense of Christian liberty (cf. Revelation 2:6). Interestingly "Balaam" in Hebrew can mean "swallow the people," so the ideological connection between the Nicolaitans ("conquer the people") and Balaam is clear. [Note: Cf. Johnson, p. 441.]
"The best conclusion is that there were two different but similar groups in this church, both of which had disobeyed the decision of the Jerusalem council in regard to idolatrous practices and fornication (cf. Acts 15:20; Acts 15:29)." [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 193. Cf. Robertson, 6:306.]
"The main facet of the doctrine of Balaam which is being promulgated in Churches today is the teaching that [equal] future blessings and rewards have been set aside for every Christian solely on the basis of Christ’s finished work on Calvary and the Christian’s positional standing ’in Christ.’ Thus, all Christians-regardless of their conduct during the present time-will receive crowns and positions of power and authority with Christ in the [millennial] kingdom. However, the teaching throughout the Word of God is to the contrary. The Israelites did not sin with immunity, and neither can Christians. Sin in the camp of Israel resulted in the Israelites being overthrown in the wilderness, short of the goal of their calling. And it will be no different for Christians." [Note: Chitwood, p. 70. Cf. Charles H. Savelle, "Canonical and Extracanonical Portraits of Balaam," Bibliotheca Sacra 166:664 (October-December 2009):387-404.]
4. Exhortation 2:16
If the erring believers would not judge themselves and repent, they could anticipate God’s judgment (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:31).
"Unwillingness to repent shows that a person is not a faithful believer." [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 196.]
They would die by the sword proceeding from Christ’s mouth. Balaam had died, ironically, by the Israelites’ sword (Numbers 31:8). This judgment would be by the unyielding standard of God’s revealed Word that clearly condemns such behavior. Having taken sides with the enemy, they could expect God to oppose them in His war against evil.
"The fault of Pergamum is the opposite of Ephesus where the heretics were rooted out but love was missing (Revelation 2:2; Revelation 2:4)." [Note: Mounce, p. 99.]
5. Promise 2:17
The "hidden manna" seems to be a reference to the manna that sustained the lives of the Israelites in the wilderness that lay "hidden" in the holy of holies. The Christians in Pergamum did not need the food of pagan festivals since they already had much better food. Christians feed spiritually on Jesus Christ, the bread of life (John 6:48-51), who is the real manna hidden from sight now. [Note: See Daniel K. K. Wong, "The Hidden Manna and the White Stone in Revelation 2:17," Bibliotheca Sacra 155:619 (July-September 1998):348-49.]
The "white stone" seems to allude to the tesseron. [Note: Mounce, p. 99.]
A tesseron was, ". . . given to those who were invited to partake, within the precincts of the temple [at Pergamum], of the sacred feast, which naturally consisted only of meats offered to the idol. That stone bore the secret name of the deity represented by the idol and the name was known only to the recipient." [Note: Tatford, p. 82.]
A white stone represented a vote of acquittal or a favorable vote. [Note: Beale, p. 252.] Victors in contests or battles also received a white stone. [Note: Chitwood, p. 73.] Perhaps God will elevate the overcomer to the position of ruler over the earth and will give him or her a new name, as He did Joseph (cf. Genesis 41:39-45). The name on that stone is new (Gr. kainon) in the sense of being different, not new in contrast to what is old. However the name is probably that of Christ (cf. Philippians 2:9). [Note: Aune, pp. 190-91. See my comments on "name" as "reputation" at 3:5.] It is unknown to others in the sense that others who are not overcomers do not possess it.
The historical parallel to the church in Pergamum is the period following Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313 that lasted for about 300 years. When Christianity became the official religion of the empire, paganism overwhelmed it. It became hard to distinguish true Christians because people claiming to be Christians were everywhere. Many of them were practicing pagans who indulged in immoral festivals and all kinds of behavior inconsistent with the teachings of Christianity. Many writers have noted that "Pergamum" comes from the Greek word gamos that means marriage. This letter pictures a church married to the world rather than to Christ.
1. Destination and description of Christ 2:18
Thyatira was the smallest of the seven cities, but it was the one that received the longest letter. It lay about 45 miles to the southeast of Pergamum. It was famous for its textiles, especially the production of purple dye (cf. Acts 16:14), and its trade guilds.
Flame-like eyes suggest discerning and severe judgment (cf. Revelation 1:14). Burnished (highly reflective) bronze feet in this context picture a warrior with protected feet (cf. Revelation 1:15; Daniel 10:6). "Son of God" emphasizes Jesus Christ’s deity and right to judge. This is the only use of this title in Revelation, though it is practically equivalent to "Messiah" (cf. Psalms 2:12; Luke 4:41; John 1:34; John 1:49; John 3:18; John 5:25; John 10:36; John 11:4; John 11:27; John 20:31). The main local god in Thyatira was Tyrimnas who, his worshippers said, was a son of the gods. They pictured him on the city coins as a warrior riding a horse and wielding a double-edged battle ax in judgment.
D. The letter to the church in Thyatira 2:18-29
Jesus Christ sent this letter to commend some in this church for their service, orthodoxy, and fidelity, and to warn others in it to turn from false teaching and sinful practices.
2. Commendation 2:19
In many particulars some in this church were praiseworthy. They were strong in good deeds, love for others, trust in God, service of their Savior, and patient endurance in trials. Moreover they had become even more zealous recently. Love shows itself in service, and faith demonstrates itself in perseverance through persecution. [Note: J. P. Lange, "The Revelation of John," in Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, p. 121.]
3. Rebuke 2:20-23
Evidently a woman claiming to be a prophetess (cf. Luke 2:36; Acts 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5) had been influencing some in this church to join the local trade guilds without which a tradesman could not work in Thyatira. This meant participation in the guild feasts that included immoral acts and the worship of idols. [Note: See Beasley-Murray, pp. 89-90.] Her name may or may not have been Jezebel. I think it was not. [Note: Cf. Newell, p. 54; Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 214; and Aune, p. 213.] Jezebel, Balaam, and the Nicolaitans all sought to lead God’s people into idolatry and sexual immorality. This woman’s behavior reflected that of wicked Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 16 -2 Kings 9) who led Israel into immorality and idolatry by advocating Baal worship (cf. Revelation 2:14; Acts 15:28-29).
"With her Nicolaitan orientation the prophetess could suggest that since ’an idol has no real existence’ (1 Corinthians 8:4), believers need not undergo the privation which would follow from unwillingness to go along with the simple requirements of the trade guild." [Note: Mounce, p. 103.]
God had not brought judgment on her previously so she might repent (2 Peter 3:9). Since she refused to change her ways, God would judge her and her followers unless they repented. She might experience a fatal illness (cf. 2 Kings 1:4; 1 Corinthians 11:29-30), and her followers might experience great tribulation. This could be a reference to the seven-year Tribulation. [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 219-21.] But it seems more likely to refer to severe divine discipline similar to what is coming during the Tribulation. Death would also be the punishment of her spiritual children (Revelation 2:23), another way of describing her followers (Revelation 2:22). The other churches would recognize her punishment as coming from God, who knows all people intimately (cf. Psalms 7:9; Proverbs 24:12; Jeremiah 11:20; Jeremiah 17:10; Jeremiah 20:12).
4. Exhortation 2:24-25
Apparently this woman claimed that her teaching (that Christians can indulge the flesh with impunity) was deeper than the apostles’ teaching, but it was, of course, the depths of Satanic doctrine. Gnosticism, which taught that only its members could understand deep spiritual truth, was growing in popularity in this region at this time. It may have been part of her teaching. Jesus Christ exhorted the faithful in the church to continue with their present good conduct (Revelation 2:19). He would soon purge the wicked ones from their midst.
"He cast (ballo) Jezebel and her children into conditions of unparalleled suffering (Revelation 2:22-23), but He does not cast (ou ballo) upon the faithful anything worse than to keep doing what they already are doing." [Note: Ibid., p. 230.]
5. Promise 2:26-29
The prize for faithfulness was the privilege of reigning with Christ in His earthly kingdom (cf. Revelation 1:6; Revelation 12:5; Revelation 19:15; Psalms 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:4-6). As with the promises in the other letters, this one is probably for all believers and would encourage them to overcome the temptations this Jezebel held out. The Lord intended the prospect of this blessing to motivate the unfaithful in the church to return to God’s will for them and to encourage the faithful to persevere. Believers who are faithful will receive authority in heaven from Jesus Christ and will "rule" (lit. shepherd) others during the Millennium (Luke 19:11-27; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 3:21). Some believers evidently will receive greater authority for being faithful than others who have not been as faithful (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10). This is the first mention in Revelation of the Lord’s coming for the church, the Rapture (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
"This is the nearest we have in the seven letters to a definition of the conqueror. He holds fast the traditions of faith and life delivered to the Church till the coming of Christ (Revelation 2:25), and he keeps Christ’s works till the end (Revelation 2:26)-whether that ’end’ be the Lord’s parousia or his own death." [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 93.]
While not all Christians will remain faithful to the Lord (2 Timothy 2:12), He evidently described believers as faithful to motivate them to remain faithful. John identified the "morning star" (Revelation 2:28) elsewhere as Jesus Christ Himself (Revelation 22:16). The morning star (usually the planet Venus) appears in the night sky just before the dawning of a new day. From Babylonian to Roman times the ancients regarded the morning star as a symbol of sovereignty and, in Roman times, victory. [Note: See ibid., pp. 93-94.] Jesus Christ will guide faithful believers in the future as the new day of His rule dawns (cf. Titus 2:13).
"The gift of the morning star must refer to the fact that the exalted Christ shares his messianic status with the believer who conquers." [Note: Aune, p. 212. Cf. Isaiah 11:1; Revelation 22:16.]
Commentators have pointed out that spiritual conditions during the Middle Ages in the West (A.D. 606-1520), where the church was most prominent in the world, were similar to those that existed in this church. There were faithful believers, but there was also a strong encouragement coming from those who claimed higher authority to do things contrary to the teachings of Scripture. This came primarily from the Roman Catholic Church. Some have also compared the leadership of the Virgin Mary, as promoted by the Roman Church, to Jezebel’s leadership in Thyatira. [Note: E.g., Walvoord, The Revelation . . ., p. 75.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Revelation 2". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany