The Churches: Warnings and Commendations

These messages, in their primary emphasis, are delivered to the “angels” of these seven churches. This means those that have been set apart by Christ to be their messengers, that is, their ministers, elders, bishops, pastor/teachers, all terms that are interchangeable for the same office in its various functions. These admonitions show the variety of circumstances within which pastors must guide their churches to truth and holiness. Churches must bear witness in this world. The warnings isolate mistakes and decline to which all are prone; commendations show strengths that all may have when faithful to revealed truth. In my view, this is not a symbol of church development age by age until the time of the supposed rapture, but addresses real issues in local churches at the time, establishing principles to which all pastors, and through them, all churches should adhere (cf. Hebrews 13:7).. Each set of circumstances includes the instructions, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This shows that the inspiration of Scripture by the Spirit has the same authority as the immediate words of Christ Himself and assures us that everyone whose spiritual ears have been opened can benefit from the local issues addressed in each of these churches in Asia. I will treat these texts in this principial way.

I. How does Christ Appear?

A. Every aspect of the appearance of Christ in 1:12-18 has a particular application in his call to ministers and his watch over the churches.

1. Verse 2:1 – He holds the seven stars in his right hand and he walks among the golden lampstands (1:12, 16). Jesus Himself gave to the church the office and the individuals that are “pastor teachers” (Ephesians 4: 8, 11, 12) and the churches are his for he has promised to build his church (Matthew 16 18; Ephesians 1:22, 23). Both of these references develop a concept of the church universal, the people of God’s own choosing scattered throughout the world and throughout all ages. He will not return until this church is complete. He builds this single, united assembly of true worshippers (John 4:23, 24) by the witness of the local churches that he establishes and to whom he gives all the gifts necessary for their spiritual calling.. When these local churches become unfaithful, he removes that lampstand (See 1:5). Christian history is littered with huge piles of useless, tossed-aside lampstands.

2. Verse 2:8 – “He is the first and the last, he died and came to life.” Cf. 1:17, 18. In his deity, Jesus has life in Himself and can never die nor manifest any permutation. In his incarnation as the Son of God become flesh, as the man that was anointed with the Spirit for the sake of his messianic covenantal assignment, he died, bearing our sins in his own body on the tree, and he came to life, having conquered death and destroyed him that has the present power over those that are spiritually dead and still, in themselves, under the sentence of eternal death. For those in Christ, death is not fearsome for he has overcome it and transformed its effects into the entrance into eternal life.

3. Verse 2:12 – He has the sharp two-edged sword (1:16). The word of God comes from his mouth (Hebrews 4:12), it accomplishes all his purposes (Isaiah 55:11) and within its truth every advance in spiritual growth, knowledge of God, and conformity to Christ is contained. Failure to rely on Scripture, the two-edged sword that proceeds from the mouth of Christ himself, means certain failure and inevitable destruction of a church.

4. Verse 2:18 – Eyes like a flame of fire and feet like burnished bronze (1:14, 15). He is of purer eyes than to behold evil (Habakkuk 1:13), to maintain it in his sight with any degree of approval, for that same purity of vision carries an intrinsic anger against all evil, transgression, and unfaithfulness. With feet of burnished bronze, he is able to meet with power all that oppose him in indestructible purpose without being tainted or thwarted in the least by his dealing with worldly forces. He is not holy but without power, nor powerful without holiness, but invincible for the purpose of holiness. Those that do not repent of heresy or moral evil he will destroy.

5. Verse 3:1 – He has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars, as in 2:1. (1: 4,16). The work of the Holy Spirit, as promised in John 16:12-15, is defined by the work of Christ and he will fully effect all that Christ and the Father have commissioned him to do (John 14:26; 15:26, 27; 16:7). Apart, therefore, from the gifting of the Spirit in accord with the will of Christ, no angel (pastor) can fulfill an edifying, truth-centered work among the churches.

6. Verse 3:7 – He is holy, true, with the final and absolute authority built on infinite wisdom of David’s greater Son. (1:13, 14, 18). None can hinder him in admission to the kingdom or prohibiting entrance to the kingdom, for his authority arises out of his invincible will which is the outflow of his perfectly holy and purely truthful nature.

7. Verse 3:14 – He is the Amen, the faithful and true witness, and the uncreated source of God’s creation. (1:5, 7) In Christ all things are put in their proper place, he consummates everything, for he has created it in accord with the decree of his Father, he controls it as the faithful and true witness both in providence and in redemption, and he brings it to the end as the Amen.

B. No matter what seductions of the world may assault the churches, there is nothing needed for spiritual life in the churches that Christ does not have vested within himself. He gives all things freely to those “who have ears to hear.” Cf. Ephesians 1:3 (“all spiritual blessings”); 2 Peter 1: 3, 4 (“everything that pertains to life and godliness”).

II. What is commended in churches? There is a rhythm to the lists of commendation and condemnation. Ephesus is balanced. Smyrna has only commendation, Pergamum has more warning than commendation; Thyatira received more commendation than warning; To Sardis the message is almost entirely distressing and filled with warning; Philadelphia is wholly positive; and the letter to Laodicea is wholly negative, filled with corrective admonitions with a slight glimmer of hope that Jesus reproves those that he loves.

A. Works consistent with the gospel are commended – 2:2; 2:19; 3:8 –  These are listed as fruit of the Spirit or putting on Christ (Galatians 5 16, 22-26; Colossians 3:12-25)

B. Resistance to moral corruption is commended – 2:2; 3:4. the negative side of “works” has to do with avoiding corruptions. The New Testament is filled with instructions that show how one’s living in this world demonstrates a consistency with God’s original purpose in creation and the righteousness reflected in the work of Christ in redemption (e.g 1 Peter 4:1-5; Colossians 3:4-10)

B. Doctrinal faithfulness is commended – 2:2, 6; 2:9; 2:13; 2:19, 24, 25; 3:8 – Throughout the New Testament, doctrinal truth is seen as foundational  for every aspect of Christian faith and witness. (1 Corinthians 1:17-23; 15:1-14; Galatians 1:6-9; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 John 4:1-6)

C. Patience and perseverance under trial are commended.- 2:2, 3; 2:9; 2:13; 3:10. As in Hebrews 6:10, 11, written earlier to a situation very similar to that experienced by some of the churches to which Jesus was speaking through John, persevering work and ministry done in love and in the face of threat and opposition is highly commendable in the sight of God.

III. What challenges are they confronting?

A. They faced persecution. (2:910; 2:13; 3:10) – The church in Philadelphia is preserved from a trial that is coming on the whole world. This probably refers to a general application of the aggressive policy of Domitian in subduing the empire to a submissive and reverent spirit toward the Emperorship, both his predecessors and himself. Perhaps he died before this effort actually was enforced in Philadelphia.

B. They faced false teaching done by self-assertive teachers. (2:2, 6, 9; 2:14, 15; 2:20, 24) Even in the apostolic age, false teachers sought to usurp both the doctrine and the authority in the churches. Jude wrote that “Certain people have crept in unnoticed, . . . ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 4). This same combination of moral perversion and false doctrine was condemned in the church in Thyatira, “That woman Jezebel, who called herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” 2:20. The so-called “deep things of Satan” (24) were probably teachings of an early kind of Gnosticism that rejected the true humanity of Christ and taught that any act done in the body was morally neutral.  Those that say they are Jews and are not, reflects the apostolic conviction that the Israel of God are the citizens of the new covenant community (Galatians 5:16) who have been circumcised in heart (Philippians 3:3; Romans 2:29) and are justified by faith, not by their supposed works of the law. In 1 John, the apostle wrote in light of the necessity of the churches’ understanding the character and content of apostolic authority, “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6).

C. They faced the immoral influences of the pagan culture around them.

IV. In what way had they not maintained faithfulness? At each point of decline from the purity of faith and love the messenger and through him the church is called on to repent (2:5; 2:16; 2:21, 22; 3:3; 3:19)

A. Their fervent love for God and his truth has diminished, sometimes even to the point of being nauseously lukewarm (2:4; 3:15, 16) Noting is more rational and more fulfilling to the human soul that to love God with all the heat, mind, soul, and strength.

B. Some have tolerated the false teachers.- 2:14, 15, 20 . These false teachings that had infiltrated the church came from those that had developed a philosophical justification for sexual immorality, philosophies and systems of ethics that permeated pagan society, even in the writings of the most prominent philosophical systems and thinkers about jurisprudence. A recent report of the mainline churches that have celebrated the recent decision of SCOTUS shows how current and these warnings remain.

V. Promises are made to “the one who conquers” or “overcomes” (2: 7, 11, 17, 26: 3:5, 12, 21).

A. Eternal life greets those that persevere in faith, truth, love, and holiness. (2:7, 10 (“Tree of life. See also 22:14; 2 Timothy 4:8)

B. All the benefits of the righteous redemption worked by Christ – 2:17 (hidden manna-Jesus is the true bread from heaven; White stone –A mark of approvedness before God as believers are accepted in the Beloved; a new name – They have been given the name of the Savior as the pledge of their acceptance in heaven, the name that is above every name (Philippians 2:9, 10), the name he inherited at the end of his redemptive labors (Hebrews 1:4). See also Revelation 3:12 for three confluent phrases for the image of receiving a new name. Also see 2:28, the morning star, compare 2 Peter 1:19, that is the pure vision of Christ in his holiness that completes the believers’ transformation in holiness. Compare with 1 John 3:2. White Garments in 3:5 refer to the righteous deeds of the saints that arise from their love of the imputed righteousness of Christ (19:8).

C. They will reign with Christ in his kingly rule over the nations – 2:26, 27; 3:21 Compare with Revelation 17:14 and 19:14, 15. Precisely those nations that oppose Christ and his church will Christians rule jointly with Christ. He will give them authority “even as I myself received authority from my Father, . . . as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” This is a fulfillment of Psalm 2:8, 9 combined with Psalm 8.

D. Their salvation and their perseverance therein is secured by the faithful execution of God’s electing grace. (3:5) Even at Sardis, some would persevere, which would be a mark of God’s preserving grace toward them. Even in a church that Jesus had pronounced dead, the little life that remained was on the verge of dying, Jesus will not cast away those whose names were written in the book of life (Compare with Revelation  13:8 and 14:12; 20:15)

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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