John’s Revelation describes (among other things) the conflict that believers will have in this age before Christ’s return. He depicts that conflict as a battle between them and a great dragon, representing Satan. John reveals that the battle will be won by Christ. Christ will return and depose the great dragon from his usurped place in heaven.
And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. …”
Here, John explains that there will be three key elements to the church’s endurance, which will overcome the dragon. Those key elements can be described this way: 1) the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, 2) the things proclaimed by the church as Christ’s voice on the earth and 3) the courage and selfless devotion of the church in the face of demonic opposition.
The first of these three key elements is what Christ did for us on Calvary’s cross. It cannot be changed, and its results are ours to enjoy. We know that whatever happens to us in this life, another awaits us at Christ’s return, because the sin that would keep us from eternal life has been atoned for. The tree of life is once again available for redeemed humanity to partake in. What’s more, any victory we might experience over the devil in this life is contingent on that victory already accomplished.
The latter two elements in the success of the church in enduring Satan’s attacks are conditional. Believers must have the courage to deny themselves and follow Christ wherever he leads, even if we too must go to our deaths. Believers must also take up the task of testifying to the existence and significance of Christ. We overcome the enemy by testifying of Christ. We, the church, must be the current earthly voice of our risen Lord.
The church has not exhibited an unbroken succession of centuries dedicated to the high ideals established for her in Scripture. Rather, the current earthly voice of God has often struggled with Satanically orchestrated political antagonism from without and religious apostasy from within. The marks of the true church have not always been evident, but have never been completely hidden. One place where the Bible shows that reality is Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in the second and third chapters of Revelation.
Letters from Jesus
John was the last of the apostles who had trained under Jesus and witnessed his resurrection. He had been instrumental in establishing a number of churches throughout the Roman province of Asia Minor. The Roman emperor had banished John to the island of Patmos, but allowed people to visit him. These visitors could bring messages from the churches to their elder, John, and receive messages that they could bring back to the churches. The Greek word for messenger is ἄγγελος, so our English Bibles usually refer to these messengers as “angels.” But, they were not. They were human messengers, and often Jesus condemned their sins as well as those of the churches they served. These letters to the churches described the state of the church in general in the late first century, but they also serve as a pretty good description of the church in general down through the ages.
A survey of these letters can give believers a good glimpse at the kind of struggles that await us as we seek to be Christ’s earthly voice in this age of conflict. Jesus has some very high praise to give to some who were victorious in the conflict (in the first century), and some severe warnings to those who did not quite measure up to that aspiration. Readers today are left to determine which category they should be placed in.
Ephesus – the orthodox voice
The letter to Ephesus begins, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.”
The salutation reflects back on the vision of Jesus revealed in 1:12-16, where our Lord is pictured holding stars in his hand, and walking among seven lampstands. Revelation 1:20 leaves no question as to what these images stand for: “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels [messengers] of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” Both lampstands and stars are images that suggest the shedding of light, which is often used in the Bible for the passing on of knowledge. As believers, the messengers were responsible to take the message of Jesus, the light of the world, to the world. The churches they represented had the same responsibility, because all believers are also the light of the world. Jesus stands amid the lamp-stands, ready to remove any church that refuses to remain lit with the knowledge of the gospel.
It can be reasonably assumed that Ephesus had remained orthodox. They were continuing to teach the gospel message, unadulterated, in spite of challenges they had faced. This is actually encouraging news, because the city of Ephesus was known for its paganism, and Paul warned Timothy that he would have to confront false teachers as he ministered there. Jesus commended them for their endurance under this pressure to paganize. He told them, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” He also commended them because they “hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which [he] also” hated. It is not clear whether this refers back to those who falsely claimed apostleship or another group. Regardless, it is clear that Ephesus had a reputation of remaining orthodox in spite of the challenge of false teachings.
But, Jesus did have a warning for these stalwarts of orthodoxy. He told them:
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. …”
His complaint was not that the church in Ephesus had abandoned the truth, but that they had abandoned the work. They were theologically accurate but missiologically flawed. They had stopped doing the things that they were still teaching. Jesus warned them that if they did not turn back and do the things that they had originally done — their first love — they were in danger of being replaced.
Love does more than just say “I love you.” Love proves itself by works. Faith that does not work is dead faith.
If Ephesus passes this test and goes back to practicing what it preaches, Jesus promises them this: “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Readers will remember that the Garden of Eden had two prominent trees in its midst — one forbidden, one not. The forbidden tree was that of the knowledge of good and evil. After eating of this tree, our ancestors were banished from the garden so that they would not have the opportunity to partake of the tree of life and live forever. God prevented humanity from having immortality because immortality would be a curse in our fallen, sinful condition. Jesus promises the Ephesians that if they continued to do the works of the gospel, as well as proclaim its truth, they would have access to the tree of eternal life. In the final vision of Revelation, we discover that this tree will be present in the New Jerusalem.
At many times throughout its history, the church of Jesus Christ has resembled the church at Ephesus. We have often gone to war with ourselves over doctrine rather than obey his teachings about loving one another. We have acted like the Pharisees, whom Jesus said would “travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, [they] make him twice as much a child of hell as [themselves].” Good theology is important, but it can never be the only goal. We were commanded to make disciples, not merely converts. A convert knows, a disciple does.
Smyrna – the tested voice
Jesus introduces himself to the church at Smyrna as “the first and the last, who died and came to life.” He is the first of the children of Adam who would be raised from the dead, and the last of the children of Adam who would ever need to fear death, because now he has the keys to death and Hades (the grave). Death is a prison that we all await, but we need not fear it because Christ came before us, conquered death and has a set of shiny keys dangling from his belt. No one need ever fear death again because he can rescue us from it. He will do that by raising us from the dead when he returns.
If anyone needed to keep that picture before them, it was the believers in Smyrna. Notice how what Jesus says to them is sandwiched by the word “tribulation.” He says:
“I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.”
Believers in Smyrna were about to undergo severe trial, persecution, accusation, imprisonment and would be threatened with death itself.
As a missionary, I have at times struggled with just what to say to people who are putting their lives on the line by preaching the gospel in a hostile culture. I want to encourage believers to keep being salt and light in their contexts. At the same time, I have questioned my own motives, wondering how vocal I would be if I lived in a nation that forcefully opposed that voice.
Jesus told the believers in Smyrna to be “faithful unto death” and promised to “give [them] the crown of life.” Their ordeal of testing was likened to an Olympic game, in which the winning contestants would have undergone great testing, but would emerge from it victorious, wearing a crown. The crown would be the same thing that Jesus had promised the victorious church at Ephesus: life itself. To wear the crown of life is the same thing as taking from the tree of life: it is to be raised from the dead when Christ returns. In the end, that is the only victory that matters.
The believers at Smyrna could also take solace in the fact that Jesus promised their time of testing to be limited. What those ten days of testing were, we can only speculate. We do know that at least some would pass the test. Some would live to see the time of testing completed and gain victory over the apostate Jewish community by surviving their attacks. Others would gain victory by martyrdom, as all of the other apostles besides John had already done. In either case, Jesus warned that this time of testing was coming, and urged the believers in Smyrna to be like their brothers in Ephesus, who had been famous for their endurance.
The church of Jesus Christ has never known a time when not put to the test. Although some speak of “the tribulation” as if it is some special event that will happen in history, Jesus told his disciples that in the world they (and we who follow them) would have tribulation. He spoke of some professing Christians whose lives have no root, who fall away in time of testing. The sad fact is, many who claim to trust in Christ will give in to the temptation to abandon that faith if it is challenged. The voice becomes the voice of the accused and incarcerated. It is then that we need to hear the encouragement of the apostle Paul:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A voice that keeps proclaiming the gospel of life in the midst of threats of its own death is an authentic voice. There can be no suggestion that this voice is being sounded out of ulterior motives. The gallows and chopping block have a way of purifying the church. It is no wonder that history records many of these times of testing. While it is improper for Christians to pray for persecution, it is quite possible that without it, the earthly voice of Christ might have been muted.
Pergamum – the compromised voice
Jesus introduces himself to the messenger from Pergamum by again referring back to the vision that John had just seen of him. He describes himself as “him who has the sharp two-edged sword.” In the vision, Jesus is not holding that sword. It is coming out of his mouth.
In the Old Testament, God’s people were pictured as wielding two-edged swords, executing his vengeance on his enemies. Fathers warned their sons to stay away from forbidden women because, although their lips seemed to drip honey and their speech was as smooth as oil, in the end they would prove to be as bitter as wormwood and as “sharp as a two-edged sword.” The common denominator in these two references is that of impending judgment.
In the New Testament, apart from the two references in Revelation, the two-edged sword appears in a passage from Hebrews:
So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
The church at Pergamum is in danger of some kind of heresy — some kind of compromise. They live in a place so well-known for its evil that Satan himself is said to live there. A church living in such a place is bound to be tempted to contextualize a bit too much.
Jesus identifies two different teachings that were prevalent in Pergamum. First, he spoke of the “the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.” Most of us remember this prophet for his tendency to speak to animals. Jesus reminds his readers of another incident in Balaam’s life, when he tricked the Israelites into sinning. Pergamum apparently had some prophets who were leading the church astray.
The second group Jesus refers to as “some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Jesus had commended the Ephesians for hating the works of the Nicolaitans, but did not explain what those works were. Both the Ephesians and the believers in Pergamum knew full well what the Nicolaitans were teaching. While the Ephesian Christians had been able to resist their influence, the church at Pergamum had not. They had been compromised by, not one, but two heresies.
It is possible that the reference to the two-edged sword is a clue to the nature of the problem at Pergamum. The author of Hebrews spoke of the grace of God as a new Sabbath rest for the people of God. Believers can trust in God’s completed work through Christ and rest in his grace, with no need to prove their worthiness by works of their own. Christ is our high priest, interceding for us, and because of his atonement, we can now enter into God’s presence by his merit, not our own. Probably the heresies being propagated in Pergamum were adding some kind of works for personal merit to grace.
Jesus commands the church at Pergamum to repent. This is significant because Jesus has not charged the entire church of heresy. He had merely stated that some within the church were holding the teaching of Balaam, and some (others) the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Yet, Jesus warns that he is coming soon and will actively “war against” those heretics “with the sword of [his] mouth.” He promises to actively intervene in the affairs of this congregation and execute his vengeance on those who have fallen away from grace. The implication is that if the whole church does not repent and rid itself of these heresies, the whole church is in danger of losing its lampstand.
The church in history has — at times — sought to eradicate itself of heretics. Many have turned away from religion altogether because of stories of hangings, drowning, torture, burnings and beheadings in the name of eradicating heretics. It sickens people to know that such things have been done in the name of Christ, and rightfully so. Jesus has never commanded such action. His one command in the face of heresy — so evident here — can be summed up in one word: repent. The problem is not that such teachings exist. The problem in Pergamum was that the congregation was allowing them to exist within it. A church that repents of false teachings, disassociating herself from them, is a church that overcomes this test.
Jesus promises that those who overcome this test will be given some of the hidden manna, and “a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” These references probably also identified the particular teachings Jesus was warning against. He wanted the believers to realize that the promises of these false teachers were false. Throughout its history, the church has been inundated by esoteric teachings which promised some secret blessing to their adherents. By speaking out against this kind of thing at Pergamum, Jesus is warning us all against falling for that kind of deception. The true gospel is not a secret. It is a message for everyone.
Thyatira – the seduced voice
The problems in Thyatira are very similar to those in Pergamum. False teachings have entered into the congregation and threaten to cause the church to lose its identity as a source of the gospel. In Thyatira, however, the false teachings appear to come from a leader within the church itself. Jesus names her “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants.” This woman has apparently gained some kind of position of authority within the group of churches and is passing her false teachings on to other leaders within the congregations. In the Old Testament, Jezebel was the queen of King Ahab and a powerful woman who forced her pagan religion upon the Israelites. She took advantage of her position of authority to introduce syncretism and impurity into Israel. The New Testament Jezebel was doing the same thing.
Jesus introduces himself to the messenger from Thyatira as “the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” Unlike Jezebel, whose power was in her impurity and her ability to make others impure, Christ’s power is in his purity. He will invade the churches at Thyatira, first throwing Jezebel onto a sickbed and giving her followers tribulation, unless they repent of her works. He will then strike her children dead, so that “all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
The members of the churches at Thyatira were, in one way, opposite of those at Ephesus. Ephesus had been commended for defending the truth, but criticized for not following their orthodoxy through with appropriate works. Jesus told the believers at Thyatira, “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.” He does not call on this church to repent. He did call on Jezebel to repent, and she refuses to do so. He will visit those who have been seduced by her. To the rest, he simply encourages them to “hold fast” what they have.
Sardis – the sleeping voice
Jesus told the messenger from Sardis that he was a dead man. He said, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” This was a church that was going through the motions, but was asleep to its own existence and calling. Jesus commands them to wake up, and warns that if they do not, he will come against them suddenly, like a thief.
Philadelphia – the faithful voice
The only church that Jesus has no criticism for is that at Philadelphia. Instead, he tells them, “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” The churches and believers who remain faithful in spite of the challenges they face will become pillars in the temple of God, residents of the New Jerusalem.
Laodicea – the lukewarm voice
Jesus condemned the seventh church because they were like lukewarm water, neither cold nor hot. Since they had the things they needed in life, they felt no compulsion to be radical with their religion. They were just there. It is to this group that Jesus presents himself as a visitor, knocking at the door. That relationship that the church in Laodicea assumed they had was possible, but they had to pursue it. Taking it for granted was producing a tepid faith, and remaining in that lukewarm state would be disastrous.
Ears and shoes
To each messenger and church Jesus repeated this same advice: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” The advice is similar to the common expression “if the shoe fits, wear it.” Jesus challenges all churches and all believers of all ages to consider the plight of these seven churches in first century Asia Minor. The challenges they faced as they attempted to be Christ’s earthly voice are the same challenges we face. The church must not be distracted or sidetracked. The testimony must continue. The voice must not be allowed to be silenced.
By Rev. Jefferson Vann
(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)
 Revelation 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14.
 Revelation 2:1.
 Psalm 43:3; Daniel 2:22; John 12:35.
 John 8:12; 9:5-6.
 Matthew 5:14.
 1 Timothy 1:7; 2 Timothy 4:3.
 Revelation 2:2-3.
 Revelation 2:6.
 Revelation 2:4-5.
 James 2:17, 26.
 Revelation 2:7.
 Genesis 3:22.
 Revelation 22:2, 14, 19.
 Matthew 23:15.
 Revelation 2:8.
 Revelation 1:17-18.
 Revelation 2:9-10.
 Revelation 2:10.
 Revelation 2:2-3.
 John 16:33.
 Luke 8:13.
 Romans 8:35-39.
 Revelation 2:12.
 Revelation 1:16.
 Psalm 149:6.
 Proverbs 5:3-4.
 Hebrews 4:9-16.
 Revelation 2:14.
 Revelation 2:15.
 Revelation 2:16.
 Revelation 2:17.
 Revelation 2:20.
 Revelation 2:18.
 Revelation 2:23.
 Revelation 2:19.
 Revelation 2:25.
 Revelation 3:1.
 Revelation 3:2-3.
 Revelation 3:10.
 Revelation 3:12.
 Revelation 3:16.
 Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22.