In our study of Revelation chapter three, we continue with our look at God's letters to the early church and discuss their relevance to the church of today.
'To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.'
Sardis (located in what is now the southwestern part of Turkey) was the chief city of the Lydian Empire and was famous for arts and crafts. It was the first city to produce gold and silver coins and one of its kings (Croesus) is famous for his wealth as well as his pride. It is also known for one of the largest synagogues excavated from that period therefore it would have looked like a thriving place of worship to God. The church in the city was not persecuted because they were the perfect model of an inoffensive church (they did not even attempt to affect the city around them). Jesus begins the letter to this church by reminding them that he has all power and that it is His message that counts. He then reminds them that, by that power, He knows all of their deeds and that He sees the truth about them and not just what is presented to the outside world. They had a reputation of being Christians but they were not lead by the Holy Spirit. It is sad to say but many of the "churches" of today are the same way as they are lead by men instead of the Spirit of God. It is usually very easy to spot them as they have the fanciest of buildings and a large staff of "pastors" but they do not serve the people around them as Jesus did. They attend the latest leadership training seminar and try the latest program for church growth instead of simply praying and listening for God's leadership. They look good on the outside but inside they are dead.
'Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.'
In verse 1, Jesus identified the majority of the people in the church at Sardis as being dead referring to the fact that they do not have the Spirit of God living in them. In this verse, Jesus addresses the second group of people in this church which are those who are asleep. He tells them to "Wake up!" as they are not being influenced by the city around them but they are basically sleepwalking in their walk with the Lord. They attend the services and perform the regular routine worship, but they are not living out their faith. He warns them that this is a dangerous place to be as their faith is "about to die". The same can be said of many in the local churches today as they show up on Sunday and go through the routine but do not live their faith.
'Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.'
In the first part of this verse, Jesus is calling the group of believers in Sardis to remember that we are called to be disciples. When we accept Jesus as our Savior, he also becomes our Lord and we are to be his disciples. A disciple is one who follows the teachings of the master. On our own, we cannot closely follow Jesus but we have also been given a gift called the Holy Spirit to give us the power to follow. Jesus is calling them and us as well to let the very Spirit of God help us and lead us. In the last part of the verse, Jesus reminds them that he is coming back to judge everyone and everything.
'Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.'
Now, Jesus introduces us to the third group of people in the church at Sardis. These are the Christians who walk the talk. They are alive and active in their following of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. God is in control of their lives and so they are promised white clothes that represent purity. Since they have walked with God on the earth, they will "walk with me".
'He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'
What a wonderful passage of hope these verses provide. After all that Jesus says to the church in Sardis about those that are not being obedient, he now offers hope. If they, and we, will turn back to God (repent) and allow him to lead, the relationship will be restored and we will have a place with the Father in heaven. Once again, the letter to the church is concluded with the plea for all of the church to hear and listen. The passage speaks of blotting out names from the book of life and we are reminded that each one of us was created to be with God forever. The only way to have your name blotted out of the book of life is to reject Jesus Christ and his grace.
'To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.'
Now, Jesus addresses the small group of believers at Philadelphia. The city, whose name means brotherly love, was an outpost for the spreading of Greek culture. The city was located in a rich agricultural area where grapes were the major product and the city became a center of Dionysiac worship (they worshiped the Greek god of the grape harvest). Jesus introduces himself as the one with authority (key of David). The Hebrew word for key is maphteah and it means "an opener or that which shuts". In the ancient days these keys were very large and made of wood. They were carried on the shoulder of officials and so became a symbol of authority. (see Isaiah 22:20-22)
'I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.'
In the first part of this verse, Jesus is assuring the church that he knows about their struggles and that he is in control. The door refers not only to the fact that Jesus is the door to salvation but also that he has made a way for this church to share the message with those around them. In spite of all the difficulties, he has provided a way for them to reach the lost around them. That same promise is for us today, even in the most oppressive places, God has made a way for the people to hear the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. In the last part of the verse, he says they have little strength but he is not talking about physical power. Jesus is referring to the fact that this was a small church in number of believers but he is reminding them that he is in control and he knows they are being faithful. He says that they have "kept my word" as he is talking about the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and Jesus' last instructions to the disciples. It seems that in many churches of today, unlike this church in Philadelphia, they concentrate on the number of their attendees and plan to reach the world around them when they get big enough. With the church in Philadelphia, we see that it is not the number of people that counts but going through the doors that God opens to reach those around us.
'I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars- I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.'
What a promise Jesus gives to this church and to us! There were pretenders around this church just as there are today. They pretend to be Christians but it is all talk and saying the right words but the actions do not match the title. Around this church in Philadelphia, there were those that took part in the massive parties associated with the worship of the Greek god of the grape harvest but then claimed to be Christians. Their actions did not match their words. The same type of thing is happening in the churches of today. The promise here is that they will be revealed as false and will publicly bear witness that we are God's children.
'Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.'
Jesus gives this church (and us as well) another promise which is that we will not be a part of the "hour of trial". This is often referred to as the tribulation period and there is much debate surrounding this period of time. Jesus tells us here that it is a period of time to "test those who live on the earth". He does not go into detail here but we have the promise that, if we "endure patiently" we will be kept from this time. This church was already facing their test in their every day walk and were found to be true to Jesus Christ. We each need to examine our lives and see if we are facing trials but enduring patiently as this group of believers were.
'I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.'
The first part of this verse contains a promise for us as Christians but it has been a stumbling block for many that do not believe in Jesus Christ. As Jesus says he is "coming soon", many have said that it has been so long since the Bible was written that it can no longer be "soon". The problem with this way of thinking is that we are trying to fit God into our understanding of time. We compare the "soon" with our relatively small amount of time here on earth while Jesus compares it with all of time into eternity. In the second part of the verse Jesus simply asks his children to hold onto their faith. The part "so that no one will take your crown" has also been a stumbling block as many understand this as saying that you can lose your salvation. We are told elsewhere in the Bible that, if it appears that someone has strayed from the faith, they never truly had the faith. There are many crowns (rewards) mentioned in the Bible and here Jesus is simply telling the people to trust in him and to keep trying to reach the world around them. The crown that is referred to will be the rewards in heaven for being a faithful servant.
'Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'
Jesus ends the letter to this church with more promises and it is good to note that, in the whole letter, he did not have anything against this church. (This church and the one in Smyrna are the only two.) The promise of making them "a pillar in the temple" is a reminder of the pillars that Solomon had built and named at the entrance to the temple (see 1 Kings 7). All of the promises in this passage refer to the relationship between the believer and God as being permanent. The promise here is that, if we hold on to Jesus and overcome this world, we will be with God forever in the new world (the new Jerusalem). You hear much talk today about the struggle for Jerusalem between the Jews, Muslims, and Christians but this passage, as well as others, tells us that we are not to worry about the Jerusalem of today as God is going to renew and restore the city in his time. Once again, Jesus ends the letter with a plea for all people to listen (and to act) to what the Spirit is saying.
'To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!'
As we come to the last of the letters to the seven churches, Jesus introduces himself as Lord ("ruler of God's creation"). Laodicea was a thriving city with a garment industry, banking/money exchange, and a medical center for illnesses of the eyes. The city received water from a hot spring through an aqueduct but, as the water travelled to the city, it cooled off. This lukewarm water was not refreshing to drink nor was it hot enough for a warm bath. Jesus compares the Christians in the city to this water. We may ask ourselves why Jesus would rather have them cold than lukewarm and the answer is simply that if they put all of their trust in the law (cold), they will soon find that they cannot be saved by obedience to that law. When they try to mix grace and the law (lukewarm), then they negate both and without total grace it is impossible to be saved.
'So, because you are lukewarm- neither hot nor cold- I am about to spit you out of my mouth.'
This verse should make each of us stop and evaluate ourselves. It may seem that Jesus is saying that these people are going to lose their salvation but in fact he is not. The fact is that, since they were lukewarm, they never had a saving faith in Jesus Christ. These believers were trying to mix grace (hot) and law (cold) and so they did not have the ability for the law to get them to the point of seeing salvation through the grace of God.
'You say,"I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing." But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.'
The church here in Laodicea didn't see a problem. They went about their lives trusting in their own efforts. Although they believed in God, they did not have the relationship with him where they saw him at work in their daily lives. This church probably most describes our world today as everyone goes around in their own little world trusting in their own efforts.
'I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.'
Jesus is asking the church to put their trust in him. Although he tells them to "buy from me" these things, he is not talking about them giving money. The price for the things he offers is faith in him.
'Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.'
Jesus explains that the reason he is giving the church this message is that he loves them. Once again, he calls them to repent. He explains that all they have to do is let him in. The picture here is of a close relationship as Jesus promises that, if they allow him in, they will eat together. The same promise is for us today. Jesus calls us to have that same close relationship with him but it starts with repentance as he says in the first part of this passage.
'To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'
What a promise Jesus gives in this passage as he tells the church that we will sit down with him on his throne. When he says "to him who overcomes" he is talking about overcoming self reliance and accepting the gift of salvation through him. This church (and many in our world today) were stuck on themselves and what they accomplished. Jesus is reminding them that overcoming is only possible through him. When he talks about sitting on the throne, he is talking about the time when we will rule and reign with him. Once again, the letter is ended with a plea for the church to listen to the Holy Spirit.