The Address to Ephesus
Each local assembly is addressed on the basis of its responsibility as a testimony for God. Each of these assemblies actually existed and were functioning as assemblies in Asia Minor at the time of John's writing, but the spiritual condition of each is strikingly representative of seven successive stages of the entire history of the Church on earth from its beginning until the coming of the Lord (the Rapture). This interpretation is supported by such scriptures as Acts 20:29-30 and 2 Timothy 2:1-26 and 2 Timothy 3:1-17, and many others.. How great is the wisdom of God in overruling and using all these things in the way He does!
The assembly at Ephesus (which means "one desire") therefore represents the first state of the Church in having been blessed "with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3) and having responded in fresh, ardent affection toward the name of the Lord Jesus. Coming first, she in a special way represents all, for the Lord speaks to her as He who holds all seven stars in His hand and walks in the midst of the seven lampstands.
The Lord usually commends what He can before reproving what needs reproof. "I know your deeds (v. 2). He takes full account. Their labor, persistent hard work, is fully acknowledged, together with patient endurance or perseverance, a characteristic we may all deeply desire. More than this, they had discernment and energy of faith to refuse the fellowship of evil people. Those who had falsely claimed to be apostles had been tried (that is, examined by the truth of Scripture) and had been proven to be liars. The assembly at Corinth had not been so wise in this matter (2 Corinthians 11:13-20).
Ephesus not only was firm in refusing evil, but also manifested a forbearing patience, no doubt in reference to many weaknesses, irritations and frustrations that always will attend a testimony for God. Paul had before told the Ephesians that such lowliness, meekness, longsuffering and forbearance were necessary in order to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3). In these things they had remained well balanced. It is added that they had labored, not simply out of habit or because pressed by conscience, but for the sake of the name of the Lord. They had not allowed themselves to become discouraged.
Nevertheless the Lord must raise the serious issue that they had left their first love (v. 4), not simply "first" in point of time, but in importance. This was not a small thing: their fresh ardor of affection for the Lord Jesus had dimmed. This is the beginning of all departure. Thus, the least weakening of our love for Him is dangerous. We cannot be too watchful to guard against this in ourselves and to face it when we have begun to slip.
Simple honesty will stir us to remember the state that we once enjoyed and from which we have fallen, and to respond to His admonition to repent and do the first works (v. 5). Confession of our failure is most important here. The first works are those spontaneously produced by fresh warmth of love toward the Lord Jesus. In case this is not heeded, He adds the solemn warning that if there is no repentance He will quickly remove the lampstand out of its place! He would remove the testimony of that assembly: she would no longer be a light-bearer for Him. Throughout the history of the Church to the present time, once large and active and godly assemblies have ceased to exist because they left their first love. This is a solemn consideration for every individual who expresses fellowship in a local assembly!
He commends them however that their thoughts were consistent with His in hating the deeds (not the persons) of the Nicolaitans (v. 6). This word means "conquerors of the laity"-of the common people. Some, like Diotrephes, loved to have the preeminence (3 John 1:9). The Ephesians hated deeds of this kind.
Therefore, the doctrine of the clergy-of some taking the place of being spiritually and positionally above the "laity"-found no foothold among them, for they knew all such distinctions were gone with the end of Judaism. All believers at present are recognized as priests (1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9) and are expected to function in unity together with one another as "a holy priesthood," with Christ alone in authority.
The one who has an ear to hear is urged to hear (v. 7). May we truly have listening ears! If so the promise to the overcomer (one who is born of God-1 John 5:4) will be attractive to us. Such will eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God. This tree is Christ, the completely satisfying portion of those who love Him. The promise is of a heavenly paradise, of being in the presence of God. Wonderful prospect! It is a contrast to the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise, where the tree of life was in the midst, but never tasted (Genesis 2:9).
The Assembly at Smyrna
The name Smyrna is derived from the word "myrrh," a bitter but fragrant perfume used in embalming the dead and an ingredient of the anointing oil used in the tabernacle service (Exodus 30:23-25). Smyrna represents the early Church in its persecution under the hands of Gentile oppressors, the emperors of Rome from about A.D. 70 to 312. Satan's violence is here seen, designed to intimidate the people of God so that they might give way to his cunning deception which appears soon after in the address to Pergamos (vv. 12-14). Therefore the Lord speaks of Himself as "the First and the Last, who was dead and came to life" (v. 8). He was not intimidated by Satan's enmity, but faced death in perfect faith-and triumphed!
Again the Lord takes full account of their works and their resulting tribulation and earthly poverty. "But you are rich" (v. 9) He adds, having the true spiritual, eternal riches. Their persecution involved exclusion from proper employment as well as other deprivations. Reference here is made to the blasphemy of those who falsely say they are Jews. These people evidently claimed to be on Jewish ground (i.e., practicing Judaism) by their principles of law-keeping. However, Gentiles were never given the law and thus were never under the law (Romans 2:14). For them to make a boast of keeping the law is an insult to God and therefore blasphemy. This is specially true now that Christ has come and the grace of the gospel is declared to the world. The Lord therefore solemnly calls such men "the synagogue of Satan," for it is satanic opposition to Christ that energizes them. "Synagogue" means "a gathering together," which is in contrast to the "assembly" which means "a gathering out." The one settles in the world, the other is gathered out of it.
The Lord encourages them to have no fear of their sufferings, of their imprisonment by the devil, or whatever else. He limits the tribulation to ten days (v. 10), ten speaking of responsibility (as in the ten commandments). This indicates that their afflictions would not go beyond what they could bear, though these afflictions would be severe. Let them be faithful even in the face of threatened death, for death could not hinder His giving them a crown of life, life that is not merely temporal, but eternal.
Again the "ear to hear" (v. 11) is strongly pressed, and the promise to the overcomer is that he shall not be hurt by the "second death." The first death (that is, physical or natural death) is nothing compared to the second, which is eternal torment (Revelation 20:14-15). Death does not mean extinction, but has the idea of separation (James 2:26). Physical death is the separation of the spirit and soul from the body: the second or spiritual death is the separation of the whole person from God. Certainly no believer will ever suffer this, but this promise is a specially appropriate encouragement to those martyred for Christ's sake. In the case of all seven churches the promise to the overcomer is intended to have particular appeal to the person in his or her special circumstances.
The Assembly at Pergamos
The letter to the assembly at Pergamos refers to that time in the Church's history when Christianity was adopted as the state religion by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, in A.D. 312. From one viewpoint, Satan was successful in so intimidating the Church through the persecutions spoken of in the letter to Smyrna that it relaxed its clear testimony and accepted a link with the world that obscured its true character.
Pergamos means "a marriage," though implying that the Church virtually "married" the world though already espoused to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2). This was certainly unfaithfulness to her true Lord and Master, though many at the time did not think of it in this way. They rather considered that Christianity had gained a great victory and advantage in having the world recognize the Lord Jesus. They failed to discern that this recognition was in word only and not in heart. Great numbers became "Christians" in a formal manner while not knowing the reality of repentance toward God and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20-21). Because of the resulting mixture of believers with unbelievers, the Lord speaks to Pergamos as He who has the sword with two edges, who knows how to precisely divide between the Church and the world.
"I know your works," He says in verse 13, and adds the sad comment as to her dwelling where Satan's throne is, that is, the world which is under Satan's authority (1 John 5:19 -NASB). Thus believers became mixed with unbelievers. Unbelievers cannot understand what it means to possess a heavenly inheritance, and when believers join with them, believers lower themselves to the same earthly level as unbelievers. This is a contradiction to the true state of the Church, for the Church's dwelling is in heaven (Ephesians 1:3, Philippians 3:20).
Still, where there is faith it cannot be totally quenched, and the Lord commends their holding fast His name and not denying His faith, even when there was still such persecution as produced the murder of His faithful martyr Antipas. Antipas means against all and seems to infer that he stood alone against a persecuting world. The honor of the Lord's approval put upon this man's faithfulness is surely intended to speak deeply to every believer. While other believers in Pergamos no doubt sympathized with Antipas in his martyrdom, yet there seems not to have been the energy of faith to stand with him. But they did not give up their faith, though he was slain among them where Satan dwells.
However, the Lord had against Pergamos certain serious things, as verses 14 and 15 show. First, among them were those who held the doctrine of Balaam. This is the teaching that it is correct to eat things sacrificed to demons, and to indulge in loose, immoral practices. Possibly those in Pergamas did not approve of sacrificing to demons, yet tolerated a Christian eating things sacrificed to idols, thereby identifying himself with the unbelieving idol worshiper.
Balaam had counselled Balak to ensnare Israel by this means (Numbers 25:1-3, Numbers 31:16). Committing fornication is also indulging in a wrong association. Similarly today, many teach that association with evil is all right as long as we do not do the evil things. But God forbids the very association! (Compare l Corinthians 15: 33 and 2 Corinthians 6:14-18). How can I be identified with God and with that which dishonors Him? God shows mercy to evil doers, but He does not allow His name to be linked with their evil.
Also, those who held the doctrine or teaching of the Nicolaitans (v. 15) had advanced beyond those who did the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6). People generally begin with doing questionable deeds (in this case deeds that God hated), and because they like the deeds they then adopt the teaching that such deeds are right, and the bad doctrine breeds more bad deeds. We have seen that God does not hate the people who do such deeds, though He does hate the deeds. The deeds of those who desire to rule over the laity are bad enough, and we see such deeds attributed to Diotrephes who loved to have the preeminence (3 John 1:9). But the doctrine that justifies these deeds is worse! This terrible evil gained a foothold early in the history of the Church and has done devastating damage since that time. Because the teaching says it is right for certain men to take authority over the rank and file of believers, then most believers are denied the right to exercise any public gift the Lord may have given them, and few take any part in public prayer and praise and worship. Thus God is deprived of the honor He deserves and believers are deprived of the ministry they need and the privilege of using their gift for the Lord.
The assembly at Pergamos is held responsible for allowing those among them who held such doctrines: she therefore was to repent (v. 16), or else the Lord would come and fight against them (those who held the doctrine of Baalam and of the Nicolaitans) with the sword of His mouth-His Word-that would sharply discern and judge regarding such evil. If they would not judge the evil, He would.
Again there is the call to one who has an ear, and the promise given to the overcomer (v. 17). In all of these addresses the overcomer is not a special kind of Christian, but simply a born again Christian. John in his first epistle, Revelation 5:4-5, clearly shows that the overcomer is one who is born of God, one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. He overcomes by faith. In principle therefore, every believer is an overcomer, and so ought to be concerned to be an overcomer in every detail of practice. We have seen the bad conditions in Pergamos that called for overcoming. Faith alone could certainly overcome these. The overcomer is promised a special reward, the eating of the hidden manna, which reminds us of the golden pot of manna inside the ark which was kept in the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle (Exodus 16:33-34, Hebrews 9:4). It is the eternal reminder of the lowly humiliation of the Lord Jesus on earth. Although now glorified, He is the same blessed, faithful Son of Man. What a contrast to any worldly, temporal advantage such as Pergamos was seeking! The overcomer will find abundant nourishment in his appreciation of the lowly grace of the Lord Jesus. Further, he will have a white stone with a new name written, which speaks of the Lord's approval and appreciation of him. The name is known only to himself. This secret, personal knowledge of the Lord's approval is surely of great value.
The Assembly at Thyatira
Thyatira is the development of Pergamos. It developed into a great public religious thing in the world, but internally was full of corruption. It plainly represents the condition that is prominently displayed in Roman Catholicism and the period of the dark ages. Remember that the Lord does not address this church itself, but "the angel," which implies those in that Church who have an ear to hear, for the general condition is in total opposition to the truth of Christ even though His name is glibly used. Rome claims Peter as the first pope, but their system did not develop until over two centuries after Peter's death.
It is the Son of God who speaks (v. 18), not merely the child of Mary, as some may prefer to think of Him. The flaming fire of His eyes penetrates and judges all Thyatira's false pretensions, as indeed His feet of burnished copper will eventually tread down all wickedness.
Verse 19 shows there are some faithful ones in Thyatira, whose works, love, service, faith and patience are to be commended even though they are linked with what must be condemned. It is wonderful that the Lord Jesus knows how to take forth the precious from the vile, for in spite of that which He must reprove, it is heartwarming to see the Son of God fully recognizing and approving the virtues of verse 19; and in fact adding "works" a second time, saying that these last are more than the first. It seems that as the evil condition grew worse, the faith of the godly grew brighter in contrast, with resulting good works.
But the Lord cannot justify their remaining where they were. He thus solemnly reproves the fact that they allow "that woman Jezebel" (v. 20) to teach and seduce His servants. No more wicked woman could have been chosen as a symbol of this imposing religious system. She takes her place as the teacher, calling herself a prophetess, but even the true Church is not the teacher, nor is any church-system. The Man Christ Jesus is the Teacher through His Word, and the Church is responsible to be subject. But His Word is both ignored and contradicted by the edicts of the Roman system. By this means Rome has kept countless thousands in bondage, teaching God's servants to commit fornication, that is, to engage in associations that are evil, and to identify themselves with idolatry such as the worship of Mary and of the "saints." The first is corruption in regard to others; the second is a grave insult to God and to Christ.
Roman Catholic edicts are not really made by "the church"-by all the people who compose it-but by a select council of cardinals who call themselves "The Church" and who use the pope as their "infallible" mouthpiece. What tremendous power a few men can hold over the spiritually ignorant masses of deceived adherents!
Verse 21 indicates that God would allow this evil system a long history to give her time to repent. But how can she repent when she is intent on justifying herself? The Lord Himself will cast her eventually into a bed of great tribulation (rather than a bed of sensual lust), along with those who were guilty of willingly identifying themselves with her, unless they should repent of her deeds (v 22- NASB). This involves her final awesome judgment shown in Revelation 17:16 to Revelation 18:24. The true Church will be caught up to be with the Lord before the great tribulation, but the false church will find that tribulation an uncomfortable bed! Notice that the Lord holds the individual responsible for associating with her and requires repentance on that person's part because of the deeds of the system. God requires not merely anger against the system, but repentance because of one's association with it.
"And I will kill her children with death" (v. 23), He says. True believers, even though linked with her, are not her children. This judgment shows to all the assemblies the fact that The Lord searches and discerns the motives and hearts of men, and is not deceived by their outward appearances. He will render to everyone according to their works: nothing will escape His eyes.
The Lord distinguishes some to whom He now speaks: "the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine and who have not known the depths of Satan, as they call them" (v. 24). Thank God for those in Thyatira who do not subscribe to the destructive doctrines of Rome. Their faithful hearts are better than their associations. They do not realize that the system is characterized by "the depths of Satan." The Lord will put no other burden on them: He will not press them beyond the limit of their understanding. However, He does admonish them to hold fast what they have until He comes (v. 25). Here is the first promise of His coming (the Rapture) made to the seven churches, which indicates that, while the first three conditions (Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamos) have passed, Thyatira and the three following church-conditions will continue until the Lord's coming. Further, in these last four cases, the promise to the overcomer precedes the call to him who has an ear, while in the first three cases it is the reverse, because He is now separating the faithful from the general condition of Thyatira, practically giving up the mass of professing Christianity to its unholy state.
This is a solemn warning today for any local testimony that claims to be Christian. We may all take it seriously to heart, that if seriously corrupt conditions are allowed in any Christian company, with people willingly bowing to the rules of men rather than to the Word of God, then we can only expect the Lord to give up that local witness.
The overcomer (v.26) will be given authority over the nations, the very thing that Rome is determined to have now, but for which the believer waits the manifestation (or appearing) of Christ and His millennial rule with a rod of iron. Also He will give him "the morning star" (v. 28) which speaks of Himself coming for His own before the great day of His manifestation (Revelation 22:16), before the rising of "the Sun of Righteousness" (Malachi 4:2). This promise is a special encouragement to be enjoyed before the time of ruling the nations.
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Revelation 2". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany