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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
Revelation 3



Other Authors
Verses 1-22

To SARDIS THE LORD presented Himself as the One who not only had the seven stars, as before mentioned, but also the seven Spirits of God. This is a fresh feature. In Revelation 1:4 they were said to be “before His throne,” but now we learn they are in the possession of Christ. The fulness of spiritual power for the government of the earth, according to Isaiah 11:2, is His. And not only power but vitality also; which was much to the point in dealing with this church which was dead, in spite of having a name to live. Death characterized their general state, yet there were things amongst them not dead, though ready to die, and these could be strengthened if they were watchful.

We cannot doubt that here we have, from the prophetic view-point, a remarkable delineation of that political type of Protestantism that sprang out of the Reformation. That the Reformation was on the whole a powerful work of the Spirit of God we entirely believe, yet we cannot but recognize that from its beginning it was weakened by a large element of worldly politics entering into it, coupled with much reliance upon earthly potentates, and even the force of arms. In result the worldly element largely strangled the spiritual, and in result the works of Sardis were not found “perfect [or complete] before God.” Earnest men of God laboured in it, but their works were arrested and never reached completeness. They had “received and heard” a good deal more than they ever translated into their works.

Sardis is called upon to remember these things that had been committed to them, to hold them fast, and to repent; that is, to judge themselves in the light of them, and this of course would lead to a fuller acknowledgement in their works of all they had received. If they did not thus wake up from among the dead and become watchful, they would have to face the coming of the Lord just as the world will. Sunk in spiritual death as the world, they would be treated like the world. But this remark shows that Sardis also will continue to the second coming.

Verse Revelation 3:4 indicates that alliance with the world means defilement. But there were a few in Sardis who had escaped this, and the promise to them seems to identify them with the overcomers of the next verse. Again here the virtue of the overcomer seems to be negative, but when the defilements of the world are the general thing it is no small thing to keep clear of it, and the Lord owns it. Their purity shall be manifested in a coming day; their names shall stand in the book of life, and be confessed before God the Father.

We do most certainly need an ear to hear these things, for a political Protestantism surrounds us and we are more likely to be affected by it than by the corrupt Romish system. Are we not conscious that, the flesh being in each of us, there is a continuous downward drag in favour of religion of a type that the world understands and even patronizes? To overcome in Sardis must mean spiritual vitality, and purity as well.

To Philadelphia the Lord presents Himself in characters which are new, as far as this book is concerned. He is marked by that intrinsic holiness which repudiates all evil, the truth that exposes all unreality, and He has the key that controls every door. The reference clearly is to Isaiah 22:20-23, where Eliakim is in some sense a type of the coming Messiah. Like Smyrna the Philadelphian Church was faced by opposition, and to know the Lord in these ways would be at once a challenge and a support: a challenge as they thought on His holiness and truth; a support as they realized that all was under His control.

The Lord knew their works, and like all the rest Philadelphia is judged on that basis. Not the creed we profess but the works we do is the crucial point. Indeed the works we do give the best index to what we really believe. Knowing their works, the Lord credited them with a little strength, with the keeping of His word and non-denial of His name. We may remember that in the farewell discourse to His disciples (John 14:1-31) the Lord emphasized both His Name and His Word. They were left with access to the Father in His Name, and His commandments and His word were given them to be kept.

As the dispensation of law drew towards its close Malachi was inspired to call upon the godly in Israel to remember all the statutes and judgments given through Moses, and in Luke 1:1-80 we find a pious couple “walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” As the prophetic view of the Church draws to its dose similar things come into evidence. But even so, the Lord does not credit Philadelphia with strength that is great. He says, “a little strength,” which we do well to remember. To keep His word, as far as it is known, and not to deny His name is not the maximum but the minimum to be expected of those who really love Him.

We have before observed that Smyrna and Philadelphia are the. two churches out of the seven to whom no word of rebuke is administered: we now notice that both had to face the same kind of religious opposition. Those who are the synagogue of Satan, falsely claiming to be Jews, reappear. In Paul’s day Satan was transforming himself into an angel of light, so it is no new thing for him to assume a religious garb. Smyrna was fortified against the revilings of these people, and Philadelphia is encouraged by the assurance that a time of vindication will surely come when the love of the Lord will be manifested. The true Philadelphian can have the assurance and enjoyment of that love, while waiting for the day when it will come to light in a public way.

This leads to what we have in verse Revelation 3:10. The day of vindication and manifestation is future, both for the Lord and His saints. The present is the day of His patience and of theirs, for He is not publicly interfering at present with the course of man’s days. For the moment He has accepted the rejection which was meted out to Him, and He sits at the Father’s right hand in patience, till the hour strikes when He is to take the kingdom. The word of His patience has reached us, and we are to keep it by attuning our spirits and our whole manner of life to it. This the Philadelphian saints had done, and they are encouraged by the assurance that the Lord would differentiate between them and “them that dwell upon the earth,” or “the earth-dwellers.” These are a class of people that appear several times in this book—people akin to those who “mind earthly things,” of whom Paul warns the Philippian saints. The Christian is called to be a “heaven-dweller,” the exact opposite of this.

These earth-dwellers are of the world, and so they will have to face the governmental wrath of God which is coming on the world. From that the Philadelphian is to be exempted altogether. He will be kept not only out of the tribulation, but even out of the hour of it; that is, out of the limited period of time in which it falls. The great event described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 will take place—the first movement in connection with the Second Advent—and of that Advent verse Revelation 3:11 speaks.

The Lord acknowledges, then, that Philadelphia did have certain things in possession. His injunction to them is, Hold it fast! They were not a people of great strength, who might go from one conquest to another; or of great possessions, who might be steadily acquiring fresh stores of light and understanding. They were to hold fast what they had. No small task this! How frequently in the history of the church do we see Christians being robbed of what once they had under cover of the enticement to spend all their energies in the pursuit of new things. It was in this way that the earliest heresies were introduced, as we see in 2 John 1:9; where the true reading seems to be “goes forward,” and not “transgresseth.” Those

Gnostics did not abide in the doctrine of Christ under pretence of going on to more developed understanding.

The promise to the overcomer is couched in figurative terms. A pillar speaks of support, and on pillars inscriptions were made. The overcomer who had but little strength here, and was outside the synagogue of those who said they were Jews, is to be a pillar of strength in the temple of God and go no more out. He is to be descriptive of God, of the city of God, and of Christ Himself. Not until we get to Revelation 21:1-27 shall we find the city of God described, but it is evidently a symbol of the Church as the centre of heavenly administration. The fourfold repetition of “My God,” in this verse is very striking. God is known to us as “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and He is “the Father of glory” (Ephesians 1:17). In our verse that glory is in view, and we are associated with Christ, and through Him with God.

It is evident from verse Revelation 3:11 that what Philadelphia represents from the prophetic point of view goes on to the coming of the Lord. We believe that since each of the last four churches run on to His coming, they represent four phases or states which have developed in the order given, and which persist to the end. The Thyatiran phase can be definitely located in the Romish system and the daughter systems springing out of it. Equally Sardis can be located in the political and national Protestantism that in later centuries was severed from the greater abominations of Rome. Philadelphia follows, but indicates a phase which cannot be located in just the same way. We cannot point to any body of believers, or group, which so displays the features we have been considering, that we can point to them and say, There is what Philadelphia represented. Many years ago now, certain believers did begin to think and say that they were Philadelphia, when one much wiser than themselves warned them that such claims would only eventuate in their becoming like Laodicea.

Equally of Laodicea we have to state that it does not describe some visible body that we can name, but rather it describes the sad phase or state which is to become very pronounced at the close of the story. During the past two hundred years there has been a gracious work of reviving in the professing church, which has brought to pass in not a few quarters such a measure of faithfulness and devotion as Philadelphia indicates, and God grant that we—writer and readers—may be amongst them. But within the last century this has been damaged by a stealthy counter-movement of the enemy, the feature of which has been the glorifying of man and the powers of his mind. It has blossomed forth in the so-called “higher criticism,” which in its turn has led to that attitude to the whole faith of Christ which is summed up in the term “modernism.” Men are so lifted up in their fancied sufficiency that they feel competent to criticise the Word of God rather than allow the Word to criticise them. They have a highly inflated opinion of themselves.

To Laodicea the Lord presents Himself in a threefold way. Not only are all the promises of God amen in Him; that is, they are steadfast and carried to their completion in Him; but He Himself is “the Amen.” He takes it to Himself as a title, reminding us of the way in which Jehovah speaks of Himself twice in Isaiah 65:16, as “the God of truth,” literally, “the God of Amen.” The Jehovah, in whom all is made verity, is the Jesus of the New Testament; and significantly the word verily, so often upon His lips, is really the word, Amen.

Connected with this, He is the faithful and true Witness. What He is, that He declares. The Church has been left in the place of witness, as is shown by each church in these chapters being represented by a candlestick; but alas, the adjectives faithful and true cannot be applied here. That in which the churches have failed—which failure is most pronounced in Laodicea—is found in its perfection in Him.

Thirdly, He is the beginning of the creation of God. Apart from Him therefore nothing of that creation can be known, and, as we shall see, in Laodicea He is standing outside. What part can they have then in that creation?

They have no part, as is evident, and that because two things characterized them. They were indifferent as to Christ, and inflated by self-conceit as to themselves. These are two very ominous features which should occasion much heart-searching with all of us. They abound in Christendom as it exists today, and we may very easily catch the infection of them.

Neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm, is the verdict. Some centuries ago men felt deeply about the things of God. We cannot approve the violence both in speech and act that so often marked their controversies, yet we can admire their strong convictions. The present tendency is in exactly the opposite direction. Convictions are shallow. Everything can be tolerated; anything condoned. No heat is generated; no zeal displayed.

Lukewarmness is fashionable. Men may teach what they please as to Christ, and it does not matter.

It is always the case that those who think much of Christ think little of themselves, while those who think little of Christ think much of themselves. Thus it was with Laodicea. They felt themselves to be rich, and making advances in wealth, and thus to be self-sufficient, having need of nothing. The wealth of which they boasted was not gold or silver but doubtless of a more intellectual sort. Modernism is the fashionable thing today, which claims to be the latest and most advanced thing in religious thought, and far in advance of the cruder notions of earlier days. The taint of this has crept into circles where in days gone by it would have been wholly refused.

Laodicea not only felt this and thought this of themselves, but they boldly said it. They claimed it and proclaimed it. This in its turn proclaimed their own folly and obtuseness, and their claim is decisively rejected by the One who knew all their works. Smyrna claimed nothing, but the Lord knew their poverty and yet declared them to be rich. Laodicea claimed to be rich and is told its poverty in scathing terms—wretched, miserable, poor, blind, naked. The language is most emphatic for the definite article precedes the adjectives—the wretched... That means that they were all these things in a pre-eminent sense.

Here is an illustration of that great word, “Not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth” (2 Corinthians 10:18). Let us take good heed to it.

Though the claims of the Laodicean church are so decisively rejected, and its true state so unsparingly exposed, the grace of the Lord still lingers. In verses Revelation 3:18-20 it finds expression in a three-fold way.

First, there is the Lord’s counsel to the church through the angel. There was still available for them “gold tried in the fire,” “white raiment” and “eye-salve.” They had been boasting in their riches, of which gold is the symbol, but their fancied wealth had not yet faced the fire. When their “goods” went up in smoke, their pretensions would peraish. But fire only refines true gold, while it consumes all the gaudy human things that glitter. They needed a righteousness which was divine in its origin, when the vain things of their own imaginings would be seen by them in their worthlessness.

Later in this book “white linen” is used as the symbol of “the righteousnesses of saints.” Only the saint, who stand in righteousness before God, as justified in Christ, can produce these acts of righteousness in daily life. The Laodiceans, pleased with themselves and their acts, might imagine themselves to be well clothed, but in reality they were naked. Raiment of a sort they might have: the white raiment they had not.

And, worst of all, they were so blind that they did not see their own desperate need. When on earth the Lord had said, “The light of the body is the eye... when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. Take heed, therefore, that the light which is in thee be not darkness” (Luke 11:34, Luke 11:35). A sad illustration of that is before us. They doubtless boasted of being rich in “light” amongst their other possessions, but in reality they were full of darkness; blind as to themselves and as to the Lord, and thus needing the eyesalve.

The Lord’s counsel is, “Buy of Me” these necessary things. He is the only Source of them, and in speaking thus He was using the figure which occurs in Isaiah 55:1-13, at the mouth of Jehovah, where every thirsty one is invited to buy without money or price. Absence of thirst was the trouble at Laodicea, yet that did not alter the fact that all they needed was to be obtained from the Lord on the same gracious terms. In the New Testament Jesus speaks in just the same absolute way as Jehovah did in the Old.

Second, the rebuking and chastenings of the Lord are an expression of His grace. This is a point which comes to light in Scripture from the early days of Job, yet it is one very easily overlooked, if we get infected by the spirit of self-satisfaction, such as characterized Laodicea. There was a minority who were like that “afflicted and poor people,” of whom we read in Zephaniah 3:12. These are in contrast with “them that rejoice in thy pride” and are “haughty,” spoken of in the previous verse. The majority at Laodicea were of this haughty type, yet they did not come under the rebukings and chastenings as did the minority. It is thus in our day, which is very Laodicean in character.

Because of this the haughty majority may feel themselves greatly fortified in their position. They may point out that the minority never seem to prosper as they do, but always to be in trouble, and under the governmental hand of God. It looks therefore as if the minority is disapproved, and by contrast they are the approved ones. Did we ignore the uniform teaching of

Scripture we might think so too. But the reverse is the fact. The discipline comes on “as many as I love,” that it may stir them to zeal and repentance. A zealous man is one moved to warmth of desire, the very opposite of lukewarmness. Repentance is the opposite of the self-satisfaction, which characterizes the haughty. The spirit of Laodicea is very strong in this our day, so it behoves us to pay much attention to these solemn words of our Lord.

Verse Revelation 3:18, then, is counsel to the haughty majority; verse Revelation 3:19 is discipline for the poor minority. But between the two a certain number may be found that it would be difficult to classify. They are not rooted in pride as the former, nor can they be distinctly identified with those who are Christ’s and loved by Him. So, third, there is for such this gracious invitation and offer. The Lord is outside the door but knocking. He is excluded from that which professes to be His own church! What a tragic situation, and what a descent from that departure from first love, which was seen in Ephesus! The final end of this will be utter repudiation. At His second Advent there will be a fulfilment of the word, “I will spue thee out of my mouth,” for they will be wholly nauseous to Him. While He lingers, some may be found who have ears to hear His voice as He knocks and calls. For such there is hope in His grace.

The invitation is very inclusive. “If any man:” nothing could be wider than that. The only limitation is the having ears to hear His voice, and consequently a readiness to open the door to Him. This done, He will enter to commune with us in our small circumstances; and then lift us to commune with Him in His large circle of pleasure. This is a mighty privilege indeed! Let us be sure that we embrace His offer and enjoy it. It is also a strong evangelistic appeal for the last days, when so many are Christian as regards outward profession and yet lack all reality and life.

There will be those who overcome even in Laodicea. Repentance and reality will mark such, the result of hearing the Lord’s voice, and they will be associated with Him in His throne. He overcame—in His case over all the power of evil that assailed Him from without—and is associated with His Father in His throne. Those who hear His voice, while He is in the outside place as regards a lukewarm church, will be associated with Him in the inside place in the day that is to come.

The last verse of the chapter must remind us once more that what the Spirit says to each church is not for that church alone, but for everyone who has an ear to hear. Judgment begins at the house of God, and the state of each church is severally scrutinized, yet the Lord’s pronouncement as to each sheds valuable light which shines for all. What is necessary correction for one church is wholesome for all, if they have ears to hear. What is local is thus happily blended with what is universal.


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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Revelation 3:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

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Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020
the First Week of Advent
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