Tag: Epistles

Revelation — A letter to seven (real) churches

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2021. If you’d prefer to listen to this (Spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 38 minutes.

Imagine getting a letter like the book of Revelation in your mailbox — or read out at your church one Sunday. In the last post/sermon I suggested Revelation is a mix of three genres — it’s an apocalypse — which means an unveiling; it starts by pointing a lens at heaven, and then looking at the world and its events from a heavenly perspective. It’s a prophecy — John positions himself as someone bringing a word from God — Father, Son, and Spirit. It’s a letter to seven real churches in the province of Asia — but because the number seven to signifies completeness, it’s also a letter to all the churches (Revelation 1:4); to every church Jesus represents in the heavenly realm as the Son of Man — the Priest King — who walks among the (seven) lampstands (Revelation 1:12-13, 20).

The book opens with seven meta-letters within the letter (Revelation 2-3). These seven letters follow a common structure. Each mini letter opens with this reference to the angel of the church in — and then the gap is filled in with the city from Asia Minor — modern-day Turkey and surrounds; these are all significant regional centres within this province (Revelation 2:1, 8, 12, 18, 3:1, 7, 14). There are two ways you can read “angel” — it literally just means messenger — it could be addressed to the human leaders who would pass on these messages to each church, except that chapter 1 has just said that the seven stars held in the hands of Jesus are the seven angels of the seven churches, and given us this picture that they might be spiritual beings lined up in the heavens to act on behalf of the churches (Revelation 1:20), that said, for a long, long time I just read this as “messenger” — and you should feel welcome to do that if you don’t want to go down a rabbit hole where these are spiritual beings who have some sort of relationship with each church. This spiritual being is addressed on behalf of the churches, which is interesting because the contents of each letter speaks directly to the earthly life and behaviour of the humans in the churches.

There’s more to the formula. In each letter to each church, John grounds what he has to say by pointing his lens not at the church, not at its problems, but at Jesus picking up descriptors of Jesus from his vision in chapter 1.

When he speaks to Ephesus it’s to remind them that Jesus is the Priest King walking with his church (Revelation 1:13, 16, 2:1).

To Smyrna it’s that Jesus is the Living One — the First and Last — who died and rose (Revelation 1:17-18, 2:8).

To Pergamamum it’s that Jesus wields a heavenly double-edged sword (Revelation 1:16, 2:12).

To Thyatira it’s this picture of the glorious Son of God who is just like God — eyes blazing and burnished feet (Revelation 1:14-15, 2:18).

With Sardis, John does something a little different. He pictures Jesus not just holding the seven stars that are seven angels — but the seven spirits — which we saw last week is a picture of the Holy Spirit before the throne of God. Jesus is the one who spiritually unites the church to God’s Spirit (Revelation 1:4, 16, 3:1).

With Philadelphia, well, now he goes off script a bit. He pictures Jesus as the one who opens and shuts doors that no one else can with “the Key of David” (Revelation 3:7). The figure in Revelation 1 held different keys; the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18).

Finally, in Laodicea, it’s Jesus the “faithful and true witness;” the ruler not just of the kings of the earth, but all God’s creation (Revelation 1:5, 3:14).

The lens becomes more expansive, but John is also showing each church an aspect of Jesus’s rule — his dominion — the way he triumphs over the beastly powers threatening to steal their hearts. He shows them things about Jesus that are particularly relevant to each church’s situation. But then the lens is turned onto the churches, and we get Jesus’ vision of the churches. He “knows” (Revelation 2:2, 2:9). He “sees.” In a creepy horror movie vibe, for Pergamum, he “knows where they live” (Revelation 2:13). This refrain is repeated (Revelation 2:19, 3:1, 8, 16); “I know…” Jesus knows and is about to unveil some key things in each church.

There’s a pattern within this set of seven churches; the first and last are in big trouble. They’ve utterly compromised and need to repent to avoid sharing the same judgment we’ll see dished out to the beast; their lamps will be removed, while the second and the sixth churches have got things pretty together. They just need to hang on. The third, fourth, and fifth churches are a mixed bag — in danger of losing their light if the compromisers in their midst aren’t brought to repentance, or if their bad influence spreads. Five out of the seven churches are unhealthy so they are called to repent.

Let’s have a look at the diagnosis of these churches; and the things that pull the church away from Jesus.

Ephesus has forsaken its first love (Revelation 2:4-5). It’s at risk of losing its lampstand. Just like the lamp of Israel’s temple was removed; they’ll be exiled, and no longer God’s priestly people.

Smyrna is holding on. They’re facing persecution from not just the Romans, but the Jews, those who because they have rejected Jesus, their king, because they teamed with Rome to crucify God’s anointed one. They’re now not the house of God, but the house — or synagogue — of Satan (Revelation 2:9-10). This isn’t about Jewish people — John, himself, is Jewish — it’s about the political and religious system of the first century that failed to hear the words of the prophets, failed to recognise the coming king; failed by turning to Rome to remove the threat Jesus posed to their earthly kingdoms and so now have had God’s kingdom pulled from their grasp.

And so the same people who made Jesus suffer are now persecuting his church, and the church in Smyrna is wearing the cost. Pergamum is experiencing the same pressure; they’re like the home city of Satan, where he has his throne (Revelation 2:13), but they’re holding on. And we know “Satan lives in their city” in this apocalyptic sense because faithful witnesses to Jesus, like Antipas, are being executed. That’s a pointer to things being not ok. But it’s not all good in the church. There are compromisers; people standing in the tradition of the Old Testament character Balaam — the guy with the donkey — who tried to convince Israelites they could be God’s people while worshiping foreign idols and joining in their religious approach to food and sex (Numbers 22-24, Revelation 2:14-15). It seems the Nicolaitans might be a group doing that too — the name “Nicholaus” means “conquerer”, and it’s possible there are some people saying you can be fully Roman and fully Christian; citizens of both kings. Worshippers of both gods. And Jesus says no.

The church in Thyatira has the same issue; there are compromisers in their midst. Here Jesus throws back to another Old Testament character — Jezebel — another false teacher who led Israel to destruction through idolatrous worship (1 Kings 16). There’s a modern-day Jezebel in their church doing the same thing; luring Christians away from Jesus through false worship, calling them to give their hearts and their bodies to someone else while seeking heavenly pleasure on earth (Revelation 2:20).

Sardis looks alive but is dead (Revelation 3:1). It’s like a whitewashed tomb. While the other two churches have some bad eggs amongst the good, Sardis has some faithful people, amongst the bad (Revelation 3:4). The rest have to learn from them what it is to be pure — to worship Jesus — to be clothed in white and worthy (Revelation 3:5). The point here’s they should become like them — repenting — so they don’t worship their way out of the kingdom of God and into the kingdom of the beast, and worse, into the judgment of Jesus.

Philadelphia is another church facing persecution from the Jews, but Jesus promises them vindication if they just keep holding on and not denying his name (Revelation 3:8-9).

But Laodicea. It’s in trouble. The citizens in this incredibly wealthy city are comfortable. Rich. They don’t feel like they need anything because they are materially sorted. But the spiritual reality — when the heavenly lens is applied; they’re wretched. Poor. Blind. And naked (Revelation 3:16-17).

They need to see things God’s way and store up heavenly treasures — to be dressed in heavenly clothing. There’s an interesting throwback to Genesis 2 and 3 here with the idea of shameful nakedness, where to be restored to God is to not be naked, but clothed in the glorious white clothes we see heavenly creatures wearing, and that we see Jesus wearing. The Laodiceans need to see the world differently; to see Jesus differently; to stop being lukewarm and get their stuff together.

The lens being turned on all these seven churches — it’s a lens being turned on God’s church — isn’t it? We know by looking. Looking not at other churches “out there,” though there are plenty that aren’t healthy. Looking not at others in this room. But by turning and applying this lens to ourselves — our own lives. We know that there are times we want to go with the flow of the world; to avoid hard things by joining the world, not holding on to the name of Jesus like we should. We know that we want to worship and give our lives to all sorts of other little gods for the sake of their little promises of pleasure and comfort. Sex… Food… Parties… Money… Power. Not just at a national level, but in the workplace, or in our relationships.

What do you think Jesus would write to us?

To the church in ______?

To our gathering — and to you — if we were unveiled. What would Jesus say to the 21st century Australian church?

Jesus knows where we live. He knows when we live. He knows the pressures we are facing. He knows what beastly regimes are pulling the strings of our hearts to tempt us to renounce his name.

He knows.

He knows what you’re watching that is forming your imagination — whether that’s the news you’re consuming that shapes your vision of people and events, or the entertainment that shapes your vision of the good life and feeds your desires, and your fantasies.

He knows what you’re browsing online — the stuff you want to buy to bring happiness. The people and their naked bodies you want to consume thinking a little sexual immorality won’t hurt. That nobody is getting hurt. That there’s nothing beastly here. That you can have a foot in both camps and give your heart to both God and your fantasies.

He knows what you’re spending your money on as you buy your own little Laodicean kingdoms. He knows how we store up wealth for ourselves and build our own little castles — our own little heavens — our own little dragon piles of treasure that we won’t share with others.

He knows who we’ll include or exclude from our communities as we use power — where we might turn into little synagogues of Satan by seeing Jesus’ victory only occurring for people like us, so we build little church communities of comfort and create cultures and behaviours and set ourselves up as judges who won’t let others in.

He knows the little values we hold that don’t come from him, but from human cultures and practices that we put up as barriers; the idea that people have to be, or look, or dress a certain way before they can be welcome here.

We might think we’re afflicted and impoverished — and we might think this reminder that we are spiritually rich — in Christ — is for us. But we’re not. Mostly. Some of us — this is true — that we’re in poverty.

But many of us are profoundly wealthy. Rich. Caught up in capitalism and consumerism and individualism as beastly empires we don’t want to walk away from. Living without needs — just with wants and a beastly empire that tries to tell us — with its impressive propaganda machine — that uses algorithms to tell us our wants are needs.

But we’re blind.

And the dangers in these warnings for the churches pulled off the rails by the world — they’re not just dangers when Nero is stomping around with an army.

They’re dangers when Bezos and Musk and our billionaire pinup boys are sending wealthy people into space, and getting us into electric cars using batteries made from resources pulled from the world’s poorest countries while exploiting their workers. They’re dangers for us.

When we love all this stuff — it pulls us away from loving God.

We’re in just as much danger of being pulled away from faithfulness to God in an individual era of sexual liberty — where we want sex with a swipe right, or simulated stimulation as we project our wildest fantasies into a search bar and have them projected back to us by our screens; or even just sex where we consume others like objects, without the deep covenant commitment to mutuality and service of one another in the context of marriage.

In (an earlier series on the wisdom literature that I may eventually post) we saw that sex outside of marriage isn’t God’s design. It’s not wise, it’s not what will produce flourishing. Sex that we pursue for ourselves, or to wilfully satisfy some other person, outside of marriage – sexual immorality — is also idolatrous disobedience that’ll pull us from God. Even if our sexual immorality isn’t in idol temples, like the first century, it still has the same impact on our hearts. The world bombards us with idolatrous messages about sex — and we want to believe them.

We want to be like the first century citizen hanging out at a pagan temple, enjoying some idol food and some sexual debauchery while also claiming to follow Jesus.

Heaven on earth.

A foot in both camps.

It’s not on.

For so many churches — and so many of us — we might have a reputation for being alive — but when we try to have it both ways — serving the beauty and the beast — we’re dead (Revelation 3:1).

Just like the beast.

And the cost of lukewarmness — what you get when you try to live in both worlds, which means you’re not actually worshiping Jesus; it’s serious.

Jesus will spit you out (Revelation 3:16-17).

You can’t serve both God and Money.
You can’t serve both Jesus and Caesar.
You can’t worship Jesus and Satan.
And Jesus knows.

He knows not just the behaviors we are pulled away by, but where they are pulling us.
He knows the empires that tempt us to bow the knee in order to secure their benefits.

One way to think of empires or kingdoms is to think of them as systems.

Where have we bought into the systems — the isms — of our day that aren’t the system built on the rule of Jesus? What are the isms that claim your allegiance?

This is what idols do. They create isms. Systems. As people join together in worship.

Capitalism. The worship of money. The idea that security and happiness come from amassing wealth; that greed is good. That perpetual growth is sustainable and desirable. We tend not to critique that. You won’t find many Christian lobby groups pushing for the end of systemic greed. We’re often too busy talking about sex.

And yet sex is a god too — especially one tied to hedonism — the worship of pleasure, and individualism, where we decide we are the gods of our own little kingdoms and others exist to serve us. Where nobody defines or owns me but me. Where I don’t belong to anybody so I don’t answer to anybody, so I’ll chase what I want, have sex how I want to have sex, live how I want to live.

This individualism, combined with capitalism, creates a sort of consumerism where we believe the things we buy, the objects we possess, will deliver heaven for us. But we turn people into possessions and use power – whatever power we can, whether it is purchasing power or social capital – to make others do what we want, regardless of the cost to them. We consume media and use technology without considering what that media is doing to us – our brains, imaginations, our hearts, let alone what it is doing to those on our screens – their bodies, their mental and spiritual health.

This behavior is beastly.

So is racism. It is not just the idea that you, as an individual, treat other people differently based on their race, but also that you fail to recognize how different groups benefit from the historic and ongoing mistreatment of various ethnic groups. It is not just Australia’s history regarding the dispossession of our First Nations people, or the stolen generation and how our government systemically traumatized whole groups of people, but also how inherited wealth compounds while inherited dispossession does the same, creating a gap that needs to be closed, possibly requiring sacrifices from us.

And it is not just our First Nations people. One thing COVID-19 has revealed is the inequality in our system. Workers on the frontlines in vulnerable places, such as aged care, or working as security guards in hotel quarantine, or delivering our comforts to us in our suburban homes, are often migrant workers. They work for low salaries, live in high-density housing, making them more susceptible to a transmissible virus than the middle class.

Sexism is also a problem. It is the idea that one sex is superior to the other, ingrained in our society where might makes right. Men can use their physical strength to dominate women, whether it’s related to patriarchy and its impact at home, on sex, on sexual violence, or in the workplace, or even in the management of churches. Strong men can impose their strength on others in a room, not with an explicit threat of violence, but just in the way that domineering personalities get rewarded so that narcissism produces success.

Nationalism, especially Christian nationalism, is problematic too. It is the idea that everyone should act like they are part of the kingdom of Jesus, even if they are not, and we sometimes pursue this by acting politically just like those around us.

All sorts of -isms have captured the church in our age. All of these are forces, systems of sin, synagogues of Satan, used by him to pull us from God, and into exile, through false worship. We need an unveiling. We need to be exposed. We need to repent. This is Jesus’ call to 5 of the 7 churches (Revelation 2:5, 16, 22, 3:3, 19).

Repent – turn from false gods; from the things that pull you away from Jesus. Turn back to the glorious one we meet in chapter 1, and faithfully hold on (Revelation 2:10, 25, 3:11). Cling to him. Worship him. This is his message to his faithful people. Citizens of his kingdom.

Stay the course. Remain faithful. Do not be lured by the bright lights, the false gods, the counterfeit gospels, or the threat of harm. Trust the one we meet in chapter 1 to deliver you, even as you step back from the beastly world and its glamorous promises. Remember chapter 1 – those who hear and take to heart what is written to the church, from God, are blessed (Revelation 1:3).

Each letter concludes with a call to listen. To hear (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22) and so to be blessed if they hear what Jesus is saying. What they hear is to worship Jesus, not false gods. What they hear is to stop thinking you can have one foot in Caesar’s world; the material world; the beastly world following the beastly pattern of grasping hold of the things that tempt you; a life of consuming or devouring. You can’t have one foot there and one foot in God’s world — the kingdom of Heaven.

You have to choose.

And the choice is not just about pointing the lens at Jesus in the past. In each letter the lens is pointed forward to the hope that Jesus brings as the living, resurrected, king who will make all things new.

Each church gets a promise for what life with God will look like if they stay the course—and each picture— each little vignette — is a scene from the end of the book and John’s vision of the New Creation; that vision of God’s blessing; the benefits of his victory overflowing to those who share in the victory of the king; those who repent and turn to him as king—worshipping him—and then hang on and so become victorious (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26, 3:5, 12, 21).

For Ephesus, it is a promise they will eat from the tree of life; a picture not just from the Garden of Eden, but the new Eden that God will bring (Revelation 2:7, 22:2).

For Smyrna—those who repent will not be hurt by the second death—which Revelation 21 says is the fate that awaits those who are lured by false worship—idolaters and those who are disobedient—destruction and death in a lake of fire (Revelation 2:11, 21:8).

For Pergammum. Well. This one comes out of nowhere a bit. In fact, just about every bit of this verse (Revelation 2:17), with its reference to “hidden manna” and “white stones” and “new names” has been unpacked and debated and packed up again and filed in the too hard basket. Obviously, the manna is a reference to the wilderness wanderings and God’s heavenly provision in times of suffering — and so there is a promise of heavenly provision — a feed — and people do see this as a nod to the wedding supper of the lamb at the end of the book. But the white stone is just weird. I have read 20 theories and am convinced by none of them, or all of them. The symbolism is lost on me, and maybe it is a dead metaphor. It could be a Roman meal ticket — you would sometimes get a stone as a ticket for a temple banquet. It could be a jury stone, where you would be found guilty or innocent in a vote given using white or black stones. It could be a jewel — it kind of means ‘bright stone’ — and a reference to a part of the priestly garment. It could be a nod to the stones Israel painted white — with lime — in Joshua when they entered the promised land.

And then the name could be their name — a new name for individuals — it could be a new name for God’s people, or it could be a new name for God, or a new function of that name. The “known only to the one who receives it” could be about the name only being known by the person who gets the extra-special new name, or it could be about the people who get the rocks will know this new bit of information from God.

I am inclined to think that some clearer bits about names from the surrounding passage help give us a picture of the significance of this promise—not only that God knows our names, and has written them in the book of life (Revelation 3:5). And that Jesus will write God’s name and the name of the city — which will come down from heaven like manna, and his own new name on us (Revelation 3:12). So I think it is a new name for Jesus connected with a new reality of life of provision in God’s new Eden

And there is another scene later in the book where Jesus is presented as a warrior king defeating Satan and his beastly minions — with a name written on him that nobody knows but himself — and then we are told his name — his name is the Word of God; the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:12-13, 16). Now. We do know this name because we are in churches that have been reading this book for two thousand years, but this was an unveiling moment. This is another put the lens on Jesus moment. This means I think there is a pulling through of an image from the end of the book here in the letter to Pergammum too, where the at-this-point-in-the-letter-unknown name of Jesus is written on the foreheads of those who will dwell with him forever (Revelation 2:17, 22:4). Whatever the symbolism that we lose in the dead metaphor, the meaning is connected to God providing for us because his name is written on us, so that we are his and he is ours. It is this name rather than the name of the beast marking the faithful churches who have not denied the name of Jesus.

For Thyatira, it is a promise that they will rule with the king of kings and lord of lords, as part of the victory of Jesus and the vindication of God’s people against all those who persecuted him—a promise that we will be given the morning star—which is another potentially weird image, but something Jesus uses to describe himself right at the end of the book (Revelation 2:26-28, 22:16). The iron sceptre image comes from the Old Testament, but also gets picked up as the absolute victory of Jesus is described—with his army dressed in white, in chapter 19 (Revelation 19:15).

For Sardis, it is the promise that we will be this army — but also the bride of the lamb — those at the wedding feast who are dressed in white (Revelation 3:5, 19:7-8), and those whose names are in the book of life (Revelation 21:27).

In the letter to Philadelphia, it is a promise that the church will be part of the eternal temple of God — part of the building — never leaving God’s presence, with his name on us, as the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven (Revelation 3:12, 21:2).

The image of the father and son sharing a throne is all through the book — and here Jesus promises that his faithful people — those united with him so that we share in his victory, will share in his rule. We will be part of the royal family, not just servants who are more like slaves, but worshippers who will be with the God we love, and who loves us and gives us abundant life (Revelation 3:21, 22:3).

In each letter to the seven churches John puts the lens on Jesus — his vision of the victorious King of Kings who rules from heaven from chapter 1, then he puts the lens on the churches to show how destructive worshipping other gods or living in other empires can be because they are tools of Satan and his beasts, then on the future secured by the certain victory of Jesus and our share in the kingdom he creates. For John, this is a victory already won by Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection, and his ascension. John is inviting his readers to overcome whatever temptation we might feel to worship other kings and gods; whatever temptation we might feel to become beastly, and to listen to Jesus. These letters to the seven churches are letters to those churches—but they are also a letter to us.

All seven churches got to read what John said to each of them; so did all the churches this letter circulated to, and we know it circulated pretty widely because we are reading it today. Each letter ends with the call for “whoever has ears, let them hear” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22).


Are you listening?

Are you hearing?

This is God speaking, through John, to his church.

If we — those of us in God’s church — hear his words and take them to heart; if we are prompted to worship; to repent — which means to turn from false kingdoms, false gods, false isms — by turning to Jesus and his kingdom, if we hang on to him then we will receive a place in his kingdom. The kingdom of the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus who gave his life for ours, and gives God’s Spirit to us so we share in God’s life. If we cling to him, then he clings to us and we receive the blessings secured by his victory — the new creation, where there is no more curse.

Jesus asks us to choose.

Will you turn from false gods and worship him with your whole heart? Your whole life?