Between now and Pentecost, our second reading each Sunday will be from the Revelation of John. I have received a few questions concerning this book, so I though it might be a good opportunity to offer a sermon series on this topic.
To begin with, I am going to ask you to forget the common understanding of this writing as found in such things as the Left Behind series. Premillennial Dispensationalism is a modern theological interpretation of the end times (aka eschatology) that was put forth by John Nelson Darby, an 19th century Anglo-Irish preacher and Bible translator and furthered by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield with his reference Bible that came out in 1909.
The Revelation functions as three different literary genre’s simultaneously. First, it is a letter, what we call a circulatory letter. It was intended to be read aloud, probably as part of the worship service, initially for the benefit of seven churches in seven specific cities in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea much like Paul’s Epistles. One of the churches named is actually one that Paul wrote to himself. Second, it is prophecy in the Old Testament understanding like the book of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Prophets pointed out what was happening in the present and then warned of the consequences of what they saw, but also gave the people hope in the midst of disaster. Thirdly, it is apocalyptic. It deals with things at a cosmic level and talks about the ultimate reality in a very coded language like the book of Daniel. How do we know this? The opening statement is that this is “the apocalypsis of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1 The word in Greek means to lay bare, to make a full disclosure, revealed truth, revelation. It is only in English that the word has come to mean disaster, calamity, or total destruction. In Rev 1:30 John, the author says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” And finally, John devotes all of chapters 2 and 3 to specific issues at each of the seven churches for which this Apocalypse is written.
It is hard to know for sure when Revelation was written. There is evidence to suggest that it was prior to the destruction of the temple and perhaps during Nero’s persecution of Christians in 64 AD. There is other evidence to suggest that is was written after Nero’s death and possibly during the persecutions by Domitian in the late 80’s early 90’s. We know it was written for Christians living in Asia Minor, what we now call Turkey, during a time of persecution.
John, the author of the Revelation, is believed to be a Palestinian Jew based upon his Greek grammar who has had an on-going prophetic relationship, perhaps as an itinerant preacher in the area, with the seven churches he names. Tradition attributes all of the John writings to the apostle, but scholars suggest that is unlikely. This John is on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” and he considers himself “your brother who share with you in Jesus, the persecution and the kingdom” (Rev 1:9). It is probable that he has been exiled there for being a Christian.
He opens his letter with the somewhat traditional greetings (it is the only New Testament work that makes the opening greeting from Jesus, himself) and then two prophetic oracles. “Look! He is coming in the clouds… (Rev 1: 7) which alludes to the book of Daniel and announces the second coming of Christ and “I am the Alpha and Omega…” (Rev 1:8) which declares the sovereignty of God. Then he begins to tell us about his vision.
John states, “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind ma a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, To Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” (Rev 1: 10-11)
This morning I would like to look at the message to each of these seven churches and see if there is anything in the messages to them that would have meaning for us.
Ephesus was a large and important city both to Rome and to the early Christians. They are commended for their “works, your toil and your patient endurance” (Rev 2: 2) They have exposed false prophets. They are “enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my (Jesus) name” (Rev 2: 3) But they have “abandoned the love they had at first.” (Rev 2: 4) They are warned that if they continue Jesus will “remove your lampstand from its place.” Their light will go out. Have we lost the passion we knew when we first recognized Jesus as the Christ? Are we in danger of our light going out?
Smyrna was an important religious center for Rome. This church is told “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.” (Rev 2:9) Jesus knows their spiritual wealth despite their material poverty. To them he says “do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Jesus knows that some of them will be put in prison and some of them will die for their faith, but he reminds them “whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.” (Rev 2:11) We are fortunate. Most of us have never and will probably never face that kind of persecution. For that we should be grateful and acknowledge our blessing.
Pergamum was another large city where there was a temple to Zeus. Jesus tells them he knows where they are living (right next to a pagan temple) and yet they remained faithful. Tradition says that James was beheaded by Herod in Jerusalem, but John, speaking for Jesus talks of a “faithful one, who was killed among you” during the days of Herod Antipas. Was he referring to James or another? Not sure but they have seen serious persecution. Jesus, though John also warns the people of this church that some are putting a stumbling block before others by eating food sacrificed to idols and being sexually immoral. They are warned that Jesus will come and judge them by the words of his mouth, but that those who persevere in doing what is right will get manna (bread of heaven) and a white stone with a new name. This is a promise of care and protection if you follow in the right path.
Thyatira was a town between Pergamum and Ephesus. Jesus says, “I know you works – your love, faith, service and patience endurance. I know your last works are greater than the first.” (Rev 2:19) they are not like Ephesus which has grown weary and lost that first love. But – “your tolerate that woman Jezebel” (Rev 2:20) Jezebel was a wicked queen of ancient Israel who was guilty of deception and murder for monetary gain. John, speaking for Jesus claims there is a woman in this church that is claiming to be a prophetess, but is luring people into sin – idolatry and sexual misconduct. Further, she has been called to repentance, but refuses to do so. Do we have sins that we refuse to confront? What impact might they be having on the people around us? Jesus says to those who ignore this woman and refuse to be corrupted, Jesus promised “the morning star.” In other words, he gives himself.
Sardis was an ancient city. Jesus, through John says, “you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.” (Rev 3: 1) Jesus tells them to wake up or they will be asleep and lying in dirty clothes (unprepared) when he returns. Have we fallen asleep? Have we become lax in our care of our spirits and would Jesus find them dirty when he returns.
Philadelphia – the name of the city means brotherly love. Jesus says, “I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut. I know you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and not denied my name.” Here is a small, powerless group of people that Jesus has just told that they will be given enormous power for the purpose of building God’s kingdom. Their promise if they continue is that their name will be written on a pillar of the temple in the new Jerusalem. Everyone throughout eternity will know who they are. Do we ever feel powerless? If so, remember who has our back and is supporting us.
Finally, Laodicea – Jesus says, “I know your works; you are neither cold or hot…I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:15) Jesus says they describe themselves as rich, prosperous, in need of nothing, but Jesus sees them as “wretched pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev: 3 17). Jesus tells them to buy from him gold refined by fire and white robes to hide their nakedness, and salve for their eyes. Jesus is offering them healing if they will only seek him. It is here in this passage that we get, “ I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Have we become blind to our own condition. Have we forgotten how to show hospitality to Christ and to accept the healing he offers us.
These are important reminders. These were written to real Christian churches where Paul the apostle walked and the early church thrived. Christianity however faded there and now there are very few Christians left in the area. What lessons can we learn from John’s Revelation to these seven churches?