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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
Revelation 2

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-29

CHAPTERS 2 AND 3— “the things which are”—may be read in three ways. First, as a record of the state of seven churches in the Province of

Asia as the first century drew to its close. By then all the Apostles, save the aged John, were gone, and their shepherd care no longer available. Various dangers were discerned and uncovered by the Lord, and various declensions, defections and defilements exposed. Of the seven only two churches, the first and the seventh, are alluded to elsewhere in Scripture. Ephesus was perhaps the crown of Paul’s labours, and hence the Lord’s verdict on it, 25 or 30 years after his death, is a searching lesson for our hearts.

We have two allusions to Laodicea in Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians, but these are enough to show he had some anxiety as to their state even then, and in that Epistle he ministered just the truth that might have preserved them. If the Laodicean saints had received the Colossian unfolding of the supreme excellence of Christ, the Head of His body, the church, He would have become “all, and in all” to them. Then Christ would not have represented Himself as standing outside their door and knocking, as in Revelation 3:1-22. Here again is something that should search us through and through.

But secondly, we may read the two chapters as giving us an exposure of conditions that may be found reproduced in local assemblies of saints that exist today. As we go through the seven addresses we may well see our own collective state as in a mirror, and learn our Lord’s verdict as to it, and discover the corrective and remedy.

Then thirdly, since the whole of this book is a prophecy, as we saw in its opening verses, we have in the seven churches an unfolding of the historic course of the professing church, viewed as a body in which the light of God was to be maintained during the time of Christ’s personal absence from the world. The church was to be the candlestick or light-bearer, till the moment when Christ should arise to execute judgment and assert the Divine authority in the earth. The number seven bears the significance of spiritual completeness, and in the seven addresses the complete history is surveyed. As we go through them let us consider them in all three ways.

To Ephesus the Lord presented Himself as the One who upholds the responsible angels, whilst critically surveying all the churches. Nothing escapes His eye. To Ephesus, as to each church, He says, “I know.” Now in Ephesus He knew much that was good and commendable—works, labour, hatred of evil, careful testing of pretensions, endurance, care and zeal for the Lord’s Name. But one great thing He had against them; they had left their first love. In our Authorized Version the insertion of “somewhat” weakens the sense. It is, “I have against thee that thou hast left thy first love.” This fundamental defect quite spoilt the otherwise favourable picture.

For, what did it mean? This: that while the mechanism was still moving with fair regularity the mainspring was seriously weakened. It was with the church as it had been with Jerusalem, indicated in Jeremiah 2:2. The church, too, had lost the love of her espousals, which had for a brief moment carried her even into a wilderness for love of her Lord. And if love for the great Head wanes the love that circulates amongst the members of His body cannot remain unimpaired. No outward zeal or activity or care can compensate for this inward loss. It is such a fall as jeopardizes everything, and demands nothing short of real and deep repentance, as verse Revelation 2:5 indicates.

If “first love” be recovered, the “first works” will naturally follow. These may look to human eyes exactly the same as the works mentioned in verse Revelation 2:2, but to His eyes they are very different. He estimates everything according to the motive that lies behind. The mainspring is of all importance to Him. So much so, that if first love be permanently impaired the ability to shine departs and the candlestick is removed.

This is the state of things that was developing as the last of the Apostles departed. If present day assemblies of saints are judged thus, what candlesticks will remain? There are not too many characterized by even the outward zeal described in verses Revelation 2:2-3; but what is revealed if the mainspring be uncovered? A searching question indeed! Does not the word “Repent” sound loudly in our ears? It should do so, inasmuch as all who have ears to hear are called upon to hear the Spirit’s messages to the churches. What is said particularly to one church through its angel is of importance to all true saints at any time.

It is worthy of note that the message, though spoken by “One like unto the Son of Man,” is also “what the Spirit saith.” What the Lord says the Spirit says—the Lord objectively to John, and the Spirit subjectively through John, for he was “in the Spirit” (Revelation 1:10) on this occasion. It was all “the word of God” (Revelation 1:2). Thus the unity of the Divine Persons is manifest.

In verse Revelation 2:7 we have overcoming mentioned for the first time. The word thus translated occurs 17 times in the book. Even in the Ephesus condition of things overcoming was a necessity, and there is given the incentive of eating of the tree of life in the midst of the Paradise of God. Man never ate of the tree of life in Eden. The overcoming here must be the retaining, or the returning to “first love.” As John’s Epistle shows, there is the most intimate connection between love and life. Apart from the love of God we should have had no life at all. Having life, it manifests itself in love flowing from us both towards God and our brethren. To eat of the real Tree of life (Revelation 22:2), of which Eden’s tree was only a figure, is to be as filled with the life of Divine love as a creature can possibly be.

This overcoming was what was needed by saints at Ephesus as the first century closed. It was needed by saints generally in the earliest stages of church history. It is needed by us today.

The address to the angel of the church in Smyrna is the briefest of the seven. Four verses contain the whole of it. This is remarkable, since it shares with Philadelphia the distinction of receiving from the Lord no word of censure or blame. On the contrary, it receives a word of commendation.

Tribulation and even martyrdom characterized the outward circumstances of the church in Smyrna, and the Lord presented Himself to them in a character that exactly suited this. He is the first, and therefore none can forestall Him, so as to hinder. He is the last, and hence none but He can have the final word in any matter. Moreover He became dead and lived, and this guarantees that He wields the power of resurrection on behalf of those who belong to Him. If the Smyrnean saints apprehended Him in this way, they must have been greatly fortified against their approaching tribulations.

Having presented Himself thus, the Lord again said, “I know.” Tribulation and poverty marked them to the outward eye. They must therefore have been most unattractive to any who could not penetrate beneath the surface. To the all-seeing eye of the Lord it was far otherwise, and His surprising verdict was, “but thou art rich.” So we have here the exact opposite of what presently He says to Laodicea, who claimed to be rich, and in His eyes was miserably poor. Thus it is that the Spirit speaks to the churches, and if we have an ear to hear we shall be profited. All through the church’s history times of poverty and tribulation have been accompanied by spiritual enrichment: times of affluence and ease by spiritual impoverishment. Thus too it is today.

They had to face also opposition of a religious sort. There were those who falsely called themselves Jews; that is, claimed to have an earthly religious standing before God, as the people that He acknowledged in the world. Saying that they were this, they naturally assumed that worldly prosperity and possessions would be theirs, and they would repudiate those in poverty and trouble. Consequently they slandered and reviled—for this seems to be the force of “blasphemy” here—those who were true saints of God. The One who has eyes as a flame of fire discerns their true character and exposes them. They were not Jews, but they were a synagogue, a word which signifies “a bringing together”—a “synagogue of Satan.” They were probably people of the Judaizing type that so persistently opposed the Apostle Paul, only now further advanced in their evil, coming together as a party, and wholly disowned by the Lord.

In Ephesus there were those that said they were apostles. Here we find those that said they were Jews. Before we finish the seven churches we shall find others who claim to be somewhat, but in each case we shall hear the Lord utterly disallow their claim. This making of claims is a natural proclivity of the flesh, so we may very easily be betrayed into it in our day. Let us carefully avoid it.

Verse Revelation 2:10 shows that behind the world that persecuted, and the self-assertive “Jews” that reviled them, lay the power of the devil. He is the great instigator of the opposition that comes from both the pagan world and the religious world, persecuting even to prison and to death. But the One who wields the power of resurrection places Himself behind these saints in their tribulation and poverty, exhorting them to faithfulness, even unto death, and holding before their eyes a crown of life. The power of death is the devil’s great weapon: the power of resurrection life is in the hands of Christ.

The “ten days” of tribulation doubtless had reference to some definite but limited period of trial that lay before the church in Smyrna as the first century drew to its close. From the extended prophetic point of view the reference would be to the successive outbursts of persecution during the first few centuries, which are said to have numbered ten, and ended under the Emperor Diocletian. These persecutions had the effect, under God’s governmental hand, of checking the downward trend in the church and preventing the inrush of worldliness that later engulfed it, stimulating “first love” rather than extinguishing it. This accounts for no reproof being administered to the church in Smyrna. The much-needed lesson for us is that tribulation is the normal thing for Christians, if they are disentangled from the world, even as Paul states in 2 Timothy 3:12. The “Great Tribulation” is another thing altogether.

The promise to the overcomer also has special reference to that which lay before them. Many of them might be hurt of the first death, the death of the body, but none of them would be touched of the second death, which would come in due season on their adversaries. This fact was to encourage the martyrs then, and doubtless has done so with the martyrs through the ages.

There is a tendency sometimes to regard the various promises to the overcomers as being special and exclusive to them. This promise in verse Revelation 2:11 would show that it is not so, for no true believer will be hurt of the second death. They are rather to be regarded as the Lord promising with special emphasis things calculated to act as an incentive and encouragement, though they may be shared wholly or in measure by all the saints.

To Pergamos the Lord presented Himself as the One who has the all-discerning, all-powerful word of God, that pierces and divides asunder all that is entangled and indistinguishable to the eyes of men. The church at Pergamos at that time, and the saints in the Pergamos stage of the church’s history, needed to know Him in that light, since alliance with the world was being taught and consolidated in their midst. Nor do we need such knowledge less in our day, when alliance with the world is accepted as the proper thing with so large a part of Christendom.

All things at Pergamos were naked and open, and the sharp sword could divide and analyse, so again we have the words, “I know.” The seat of Satan may have been an allusion to a particularly Satanic form of idolatry practised in ancient Pergamos, but viewing this church as prophetically indicating the third stage in the church’s history, we see in it an allusion to the world system of which Satan is the god and prince. The church had begun to dwell in the world system; that is, to find its home there. This opened the door to the evils mentioned in verses Revelation 2:14-15.

Even so, the name and the faith of Christ had not been given up, but was still held fast, and there were some amongst them who were so true to both that they incurred the violent hostility of the world, even unto martyrdom. Antipas is named and designated, “faithful,” which was high commendation indeed. His name is doubtless intended to speak to us, since translated into English it signifies, “against all.” The saint who by reason of his faithfulness finds all the world against him is an Antipas indeed.

But while they had faithful witnesses among them, they also had, without definite repudiation, those who held the doctrine of Balaam, and of the Nicolaitans. We are given here a summary of Balaam’s teaching, for the full details of which we have to turn to Numbers 25:1-9; coupled with 31: 16. Balaam remained in the background but prompted Balac to cast the stumbling block, enticing to idolatry and fornication, two things that are always joined together in the heathen world. The former is the most fundamental of all sins against God; the latter is against mankind as well as God. Both sins are seen amongst the heathen in their grossest forms, but in a more spiritualized way flourish in Christendom.

In 2 Peter we read of “the way of Balaam... who loved the wages of unrighteousness.” In Jude, of “the error of Balaam,” and in this, as well as in his way, he set an example that has been followed by many to their destruction. But here we have his doctrine; that is, a system of teaching which maintains that alliance with the world is quite the proper thing for the people of God. There seems to be no certain knowledge as to the Nicolaitans, either as regards their deeds, denounced to Ephesus, or their doctrine, denounced here. Their name, however, is a compound of two Greek words, which translated mean, “Conquerors of the people”; so this may be intended to indicate that type of teaching which exalts a priestly caste, leading to that spiritual enslavement of the people which has risen to its heights in the Romish system. How bad priestly rule can become is borne witness to in Jeremiah 5:31, and this when there were earthly priests, instituted of God. How much worse and hateful to God is it today!

In Pergamos neither of these evils were full blown in such fashion that the whole church was characterized by them. It was that they had in their midst those who held these things; it does not go so far as to say that they taught them. The Lord’s words evidently imply that the church should not tolerate in its midst those who hold things so fundamentally evil as these. A solemn thought for us today. Again the word is “Repent,” and if that word is not heeded the Lord will take action and use the sharp sword with two edges against the teachers of evil. He will deal with them if the church fails to deal with them. May we be among those who-have ears to hear the Spirit’s voice in this.

There will be found some who overcome in this state of things, and the promise to them makes reference first, to the Old Testament, and then to a custom common in those days. The hidden manna was that deposited in the ark and so hidden from human eyes. It was typical of the graces of the humbled Christ, so beautiful in the Divine estimation but hidden from the eyes of men. The overcomer should feed upon, and thus have communion in, that which is the very delight of God, whereas communion with the world was becoming characteristic of the church in Pergamos. The white stone was given in those days as a token of acquittal. The overcomer should have not only this, but in it a new name, known only to himself and the One who gave it; a token therefore that the Lord owned them as His, in view of communion with Himself. So we may say that the overcomer is promised communion with both the Father and the Son.

Let us all accept the solemn fact that communion with God and communion with the world are antagonistic and mutually exclusive. We cannot have both. It must be one or the other.

To Thyatira the Lord presented Himself as the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire and feet like fine brass. This is remarkable inasmuch as in the vision of Revelation 1 John saw these features as characterizing One like the Son of Man. But if, as we believe, the church in Thyatira represents prophetically the period which witnessed the rise to power and ascendancy of the Romish hierarchy, how much to the point is this change of designation. Rome admits that He is the Son of God, yet lays all the emphasis on His being the Son of Mary, so much so that ultimately Mary becomes the more prominent. But no, the Son of God is He who has the eyes that penetrate and discern all things, and the feet that will crush all evil. And again we have that word, “I know.”

He knew even in Thyatira things that were good; not only works but love, faith, service, patience. Moreover their last works were more than the first—they increased as time went on. Though things were very dark, as succeeding verses show, the eyes as a flame of fire discerned the good, where perhaps we should have seen none. An instructive thought for us today, for when things are really bad we are too apt to condemn wholesale without exception.

But on the other hand, having acknowledged the good, the Lord does unsparingly condemn the bad. In verse Revelation 2:20, the words, “a few things” should not be there. Their permitting the activities of Jezebel was a matter of great gravity. We have no doubt that the Thyatiran saints at the end of the first century would have at once known to what, or to whom, the Lord made allusion. Viewed prophetically, the symbolism exactly fits the Romish hierarchy. Note the four points following.

First, it is the woman Jezebel. Every attentive reader of Scripture knows that Jezebel was not a man. Then, why emphasize that she was a woman? Because in Scripture symbolism a woman is again and again used to represent a system, while a man may represent the energy that actuates it. As the Middle Ages drew on there was witnessed the development of the Romish system in all its enslaving power.

Second, the name Jezebel carries our thoughts back to the dark ages in Israel’s history when Ahab ruled nominally, but sold himself to work wickedness under his wife’s influence. Jezebel was a complete outsider who entrenched herself in Israel, and became the determined opponent and persecutor of the true saints of God.

Third, she called herself a prophetess. In Ahab’s day she did it by taking hundreds of false prophets under her protection. Rome had done it by claiming to be the only authorized exponent of the word of God. Their slogan became, and still is, “Hear the Church,” but for all practical purposes this has always meant, hear the college of cardinals with the Pope at their head; that is, hear the Romish hierarchy—hear Jezebel! They claim to be the only teaching authority.

Fourth, the whole drift of their teaching is in the direction of spiritual fornication and idolatry, which means utter worldliness. What was beginning in Pergamos became rampant, and acknowledged as the proper thing, in Thyatira. In the four or five centuries that preceded the Reformation the Popes and the whole papal system practised and gloried in worldly abominations of the most pronounced and outrageous sort. Repentance was necessary, and ample time for it was granted without avail. History records how many were the centuries during which Romish abominations increased. Time to repent was certainly given.

But judgment, though lingering for long, will not slumber for ever. It is not exactly the church in Thyatira that is threatened, but Jezebel, and also her children; that is, the lesser but similar systems that have sprung from her. Jezebel and her paramours shall be flung into great tribulation: her children smitten with spiritual death. It does not specifically say, the great tribulation, though we should judge that what Jezebel represents will develop into the mystical Babylon of Revelation 17:1-18, and be destroyed during the great tribulation period. The judgment when it comes will be final.

But meanwhile the Lord so deals, both with the parent and the children, as to manifest to all the churches that He is the Searcher of all hearts. His governmental judgments take their course before He acts finally and for ever.

The closing words of verse Revelation 2:23 are really an encouragement. The evil system will be dealt with, yet each soul will be judged on an individual basis. According to their works will each be recompensed. The individual is not lost in the mass. In the case of Thyatira it leads to the discovery of a remnant that is for God, as the following verses reveal.

In the church at Thyatira there comes into view “the rest;” that is, a remnant who can be distinguished from the mass. The words, “unto you” in verse Revelation 2:24 lack authority and only obscure the sense. The Lord now addresses Himself directly to this remnant, who are marked by negative virtues rather than positive, rather like the seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal. These had not endorsed Jezebel’s doctrine and, being simple, had not known the depths of Satan that were in it.

So in this New Testament Jezebel, the counterpart of the woman with “painted... face and tired... head,” of 2 Kings 9:30, who mixed heathenism with Israel’s pure religion, the depths of Satan were to be found! This need not surprise us, however, for at the end, when she changes her character somewhat, and in Revelation 17:1-18 and Revelation 18:1-24 comes forth as the woman with Babylon on her forehead, the enormous evils that are in her come to the surface. In the days of Thyatira they were still in the depths. Though there were found God-fearing saints who had never seen these evil things, the eyes like a flame of fire searched all those depths. What a revelation it is!

It is lovely to see the Lord treating these true but undiscerning saints with a compassion far beyond anything that their better instructed brethren would be likely to show them. He only lays upon them this; that what they had they should hold fast till He comes. This is the first mention of His coming in these addresses to the churches, and it clearly indicates that viewed from the prophetic standpoint, that which Thyatira indicates goes on to the end.

If they held fast what they had till His coming, they would also keep His works “to the end,” and thus be overcomers, as verse Revelation 2:26 says. The promise to such is very significant. An itching desire to obtain power over the nations has characterized the Romish system ever since it came into existence, and in the course of the centuries there have been times when it attained to a partial success, though never wholly achieving it. Now in this very thing the Thyatiran overcomer shall share in the coming day. The Lord will take this power from His Father, and He will delegate it to His saints, who are to judge the world, as we read in 1 Corinthians 6:2. What Rome has tried to grab before the time for its own glory shall be theirs by the gift of God. And further, “the morning star” should be given to them, which we understand as an allusion to the first move which the Lord will make in connection with His second advent—His coming into the air for His own. That will be as the harbinger of the coming day.

In this fourth church, and in the remaining churches, the call to the one who has an ear to hear comes at the end, after the special word to the overcomer. Viewing things prophetically, this is significant. It indicates that from this point those who have ears to hear will only be found in the smaller circle of the overcomers. The enormities of the Jezebel system are so pronounced that the whole professing church is no longer addressed. The footing lost is not regained; not even when Philadelphia comes into review.

 


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Revelation 2:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/revelation-2.html. 1947.

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