Revelation chapter 2
Jesus’ Letters to Ephesus & Smyrna
Introduction for Revelation 2 & 3
Revelation 2 & 3 gives us the second major division of the Book of Revelation---“the things that are.” (Remember, present tense. The next division in the Book of Revelation is “the things which shall be thereafter”, being the 3rd division, from chapters 4-22.) J. Vernon McGee in his “Introduction to chapters 2 and 3” gives us a very sound Biblical explanation of how we should view these seven letters to the seven churches. I will quote him directly, as he really hits the interpretive ‘nail on the head.’
“These seven letters have a threefold interpretation and application:
1. Contemporary---they had a direct message to the local churches of John’s day. I intend to take you to the location of these seven churches in these next two chapters. I have visited the sites of these churches several times, and I want to visit them again and again, because it is such a thrill and because it brings me closer to the Bible. You can get closer to the Bible by visiting these seven churches than you can by walking through the land of Israel. The ruins have an obvious message. John was writing to churches that he knew all about. In The Letters to the Seven Churches Sir William Ramsey said, “The man who wrote these seven letters to the seven churches had been there, and he knew the local conditions.”
2. Composite---each one is a composite picture of the Church. There is something that is applicable to all churches in all ages in each message to each individual church. In other words, when you read the message to the church in Pergamum, there is a message for your church and a message for you personally.
3. Chronological---the panoramic history of the Church is given in these seven letters, from Pentecost to the Parousia, from the Upper Room to the upper air [some believe “from Pentecost to the Rapture”, others believe “from Pentecost to the 2nd coming of Jesus Christ”]. There are seven distinct periods of Church history. Ephesus represents the apostolic church; Laodocia represents the apostate church. This prophetic picture is largely fulfilled and is now Church history, which makes these chapters extremely remarkable. [i.e. what he is saying is that here in Revelation 2 & 3 we have a God-given outline for Church history, with clues given by Jesus Christ in each and every letter of how to identify a Church era, and where to locate it on the map. That is pretty stunning, or as he says “remarkable.”]
Now let me call your attention to the well-defined and definite format which the Lord Jesus used in each one of the letters to the seven churches.
1. There was some feature of the glorified Christ (whom John saw in chapter 1) that was emphasized in addressing each church. A particular thing was emphasized for a particular purpose, of course.
2. The letters are addressed to the angel of each church. As I have mentioned, it is my understanding, that the angel is just a human messenger whom we would designate as the pastor of the church. [It is my opinion, based on the translators choice, that the word is really meant to mean “angel”, and I gave my reasons for that in the section on Revelation 1.]
3. He begins by stating to each, “I know thy works,” although there has been some question about that in regard to a couple of the letters.
4. He first gives a word of commendation, and then He gives a word of condemnation. That is His method, but the exceptions should be noted. There is no word of condemnation to Smyrna or Philadelphia. Smyrna was the martyr church, and He is not about to condemn that church. Philadelphia was the missionary church that was getting out His Word, and He didn’t condemn it. He has no word of commendation for Laodocia, the apostate church.
5. Each letter concludes with the warning, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith.” In this second major division of the book of Revelation we see things that are, that is, church related things. Each of the seven letters is a message which the Lord Jesus sent to a particular church.” [J. Vernon McGee, THRU THE BIBLE. Vol. V, p. 898, par. 3-12]
Church era’s, true or false?
Some do not believe that the seven letters to the seven churches also apply to the various eras of God’s Christian Church down through the ages. But in Jesus Christ’s letter to the 6th church, the church at Philadelphia, a direct reference is made to the tribulation coming upon the earth during their time. Now the actual church congregation in the city of Philadelphia is long gone, the great population that was in the area left due to earthquakes. Also later when Tamerlane and the other great pagan leaders came out of the East, all those who were left were slaughtered. So the original church at Philadelphia which received the Revelation scroll from John is no longer in existence. The two churches that Jesus did not condemn, Smyrna and Philadelphia, as far as being inhabited towns though, are still in existence. Today Philadelphia is a prosperous little Turkish town, and Smyrna is the modern-day city of Izmir, a seaport city. So then, Jesus’ words to the church at Philadelphia must then be to an era Philadelphia would come to represent, because Jesus said to them in verse 10 of Revelation 3, “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.” In context with what follows in Revelation chapters 6-19, that would refer to the great tribulation. The tribulation hasn’t happened yet, but will some day, maybe not too far down the road. The church era this applies to will be living and serving Jesus when this time of tribulation “which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.” So that, to me makes these letters represent church eras, as well as advice to the individual churches they were written to, as well as applying to individuals within all these seven eras. So why in the world would Jesus promise to protect a prosperous little Turkish town which is Muslim in religious practice. Just doesn’t fit. He has to be talking about a church era which would be referred to as Philadelphia.
JESUS CHIRST’S LETTER TO THE CHURCH AT EPHESUS,
The Apostolic Church
As a direct result of the ministries of Paul and John, coupled to the two Jewish-Roman Wars there was a very large population of Judeo-Christians in the region we call Asia Minor, which today is modern-day Turkey. This region is where the seven literal churches Jesus told John to write to resided, literally. As far as the 7 Church Era’s are concerned, the first and second and the early part of the 3rd Era (Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamos) existed in Asia Minor up to around 325AD and slightly beyond). Jesus’ letter to the Apostolic Church is found in Revelation 2:1-7, “Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” In a sense, the Bible tells us more about the Ephesian era of the Church than any other of the seven Church era’s. For the others, one has to dive into secular history, and due to a lot of that history being destroyed by the rival church, much is left to “best-guess”, which historians know is the case with a lot of ancient histories. But the Bible records more about this era than any other. The Book of Acts and all the Epistles of Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John were written to and about churches in the first era of the Christian Church. Without the written works of the Ephesus era we wouldn’t have a New Testament. The Book of Acts records the first half, a very active half of the Ephesus era of the Church, which lasts up until the death of Paul and the first Roman-Jewish War in 70AD. Then after that you find John having moved (with Mary the mother of Jesus) up to the city of Ephesus, where they lived. John died around 100AD, which marks the end of the Ephesus era of the Church. It is a stunning era of very active evangelism in which most if not all of the apostles took part in. Two major branches of the body of Christ developed in the Ephesus era, under Paul and Peter. These two branches were the Gentile and Jewish branches of the body of Christ, Paul being the apostle to the Gentiles, and Peter being called in Galatians ‘the apostle of the circumcision’, which was the Church in Judea, mainly. By the time of the first Roman-Jewish War in Judea and Jerusalem, most if not all the apostles are dead except for John, who moved up to the city of Ephesus with Mary. (My parents visited Ephesus, and the tour guides pointed out a house they believe was Mary’s, but that is just legend. May be true, may not be.) His extensive preaching of the whole Word of God gets John in trouble (as it usually does for anyone, even today), and the Roman Emperor Domitian and his predecessor exiles John to the Isle of Patmos for ten years, 86AD to 96AD (when Domitian dies, which I assume is when John is released). It is on this remote rocky island that John receives the vision from Jesus which John wrote down as “The Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (that’s it’s full title).
Where Jesus Christ is now, what his job is
Revelation 2:1, “Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks…” Jesus walks in the midst of the seven candlesticks, judging the various revivals or era’s of the Church. And we should be careful and remember, Jesus is still judging the Church, the whole body of Christ, either directly or through his appointed leaders. To see this aspect of judgment we need look no further than the Epistles of Paul (especially 1st and 2nd Corinthians), Peter, James, Jude and John. Their written judgments still apply to us today if you are willing to heed them, for they are written for the whole Church. (When I write Church, with a capital “C”, I mean the whole Body of Christ. I do not mean the Catholic Church.)
The seven praises, commendations Jesus has for the Ephesus era
Revelation 2:2-3, “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.” Jesus lists seven words of praise for this church, and the era it represents.
1. “I know thy works…” After you are saved, Jesus wants good works. Evangelism is one of those. Reaching out to the poor and needy is another good work that can and does go hand in hand with effective evangelism (i.e. all to be done in the name of Jesus Christ, like Samaritan’s Purse does). Serving the brethren within the Church, building them up in the Lord, nourishing the body of Christ, is another good work. Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace have you been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus [for what reason?] for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Titus 1:16, “They profess to know God, but in works they deny him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.” There’s a difference Biblically speaking between good works, and works of the flesh, or those done with selfish intent.
2. “I know they…labour” The word labour implies weariness from the effort and energy they expended in the performance of their good works. They were hard workers in the Gospel.
3. “I know thy patience” Patience is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. This implies they were full of God’s Holy Spirit as they laboured in their good works.
4. “How thou canst not bear them that are evil.” They didn’t make light of sin or sinners in their midst. Paul showed in his letters that this applies to not putting up with sin when it is discovered within the church, as he shows in 1st Corinthians 5:1-7. This does not imply or give the churches the right to hate or condemn those in the outside world, who are not yet called or saved. Some churches seriously ere in this regards and bring condemnation down upon the whole body of Christ. Jesus will end up judging the world, our job is to preach the Gospel in love, not with condemnation or in a spirit of hatred. The balance there is to love the sinner and hate the sin, in any event.
5. Thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars.” This just means they tested everyone who came into their midst claiming to be ‘an apostle’, saying they were some big spiritual leader. Usually someone who really is someone in the spiritual sense, is very humble and not blowing their own trumpet before them. The apostle John was like that, he was called the apostle of love, very humble. The only time John got riled, it would seem, was when he was fighting Gnosticism and those false brethren who were trying to bring this heresy into the churches under his authority.
6. “Hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured.” This speaks to me of their endurance and longsuffering in evangelizing, i.e. “for my name’s sake”---and not denying the name of Christ. Today in the United States a concerted effort is underway at every level of government, going into every level of public schools as well, to silence anyone who would publicly name or even mention the name of Jesus Christ. We as Christians must refuse to be muzzled like that. Those in the city of Ephesus, a major commerce and trade city in the Roman empire, as well as applying to the whole Ephesian era, would not do that, they would not hold back proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ. We can learn something from them here, can’t we.
7. “And hast not fainted.” I’m going to quote J. Vernon McGee here on this one. “What does he mean here? Earlier he said that they had grown weary, and now he says they have not grown weary. Well, this is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith. I can illustrate it by what Dwight L. Moody once said when he came home exhausted after a campaign and his family begged him not to go to the next campaign. He said to them, “I grow weary in the work, but not of the work.” There is a lot of difference. You can get weary in the work of Christ, but it is tragic if yet get weary of the work of Christ.” [“THRU THE BIBLE, Vol. V, p. 901, col. 2, par. 7] These seven praises Jesus had both for the church of God at the city of Ephesus, and they also apply to the whole Ephesus era, which in time-span went from 31 or 32 AD (bit of controversy on which year it actually occurred on) to 100AD or the death of John. That is the first half of Jesus Christ’s letter to the church at Ephesus, containing the seven praises he has for that church and era. Now comes one condemnation for that church and era.
The one condemnation Jesus has for the Ephesus era
Revelation 2:4, “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” Do you remember that first love you had for Jesus Christ when God first called you and you became saved? I do. And in the trials and tribulations of this world, I find, as time goes on, we all lose that flush of first love for Jesus. The literal Greek has “Thou art leaving thy best love.” It is in the present tense. This implies that they had not yet departed from their first love, but that they were in the process of doing so. Maybe the attractions of the world were starting to draw them away from their intense love of Jesus Christ. He’s warning them to go back to that love.
Revelation 2:5, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” Jesus immediately offers the solution, telling them what they need to do to correct the problem that was developing in their midst. Memory can be a beautiful thing. If a marriage is growing stale, cold, marriage counselors often advise the struggling couple to strive to remember that period of time when they were courting, and the time when they were first married. Do you remember when you were first saved or converted? What did Jesus mean to you back then? Do you remember how excited you were as you learned what the Bible really meant, truths you had never understood before, truths that revealed the real Jesus to you, who he was and is? Jesus in verse 5 says “repent, and do the first works.” When you were first converted did you have one hour of Bible study and one hour of prayer a day, or maybe more? I remember I did, without any effort. When you were courting your wife or husband, or just married, how much time did you spend together? It was a lot of time, wasn’t it? That’s what Jesus is talking about here. And as you read through these seven letters, these messages can apply to any one of us at any time. Has your love for Jesus and the things of Jesus grown cold? Jesus has just told you what you can do about it. Spend more time with him in prayer, in studying his Word, going to all the church activities, Bible studies, prayer-meetings, evangelistic activities. Go back to your first works, and your first love for Jesus. That’s what “repent” means in context with verse 5 of Revelation 2.
Another commendation from Jesus
Revelation 2:6, “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” “Nicholaitans” a compound Greek word, “Nikao” ‘to conquer’, and ‘laos’, ‘the people’. Some scholars believe it was referring to a priestly order that was forming in an attempt to rule over the believers for their own profit (and that would be for money and power, of course, as it always has been, common motive). Another explanation some scholars embrace is that there was a man named Nicholas of Antioch, and he apostatized from the Gospel truth and formed an Antinomian Gnostic cult, that taught that one must indulge in sin in order to understand it. This interpretation bears some historic weight, as John wrote 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John to refute Gnostic teachings, which had ripped into some of the churches under John’s authority in Asia Minor. John’s influence and efforts must have paid off, because Jesus is commending them for hating these false teachings. What is Gnosticism (which by the way is alive and well)? Log onto http://www.unityinchrist.com/misc/whyorthodoxy.html. It is believed that this is the most accurate interpretation about who the Nicholaitans were.
Revelation 2:7, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” Not everyone can understand the Bible, the Word of God. Only the ones God calls and draws to Jesus, and then receive God’s Holy Spirit have this ability to spiritually discern what God’s Word, the Bible means (read John 6:44; John chapters 14 & 16). “the Spirit” in this sentence refers to the Holy Spirit, who is the teacher of the Church, given to believers to teach them (cf. John chapters 14 & 16).
“To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life,” This cross-references to Revelation 22:1-2 and the New Jerusalem where the Tree of Life and its fruit are described, and is available to all. But in Revelation 22, all who are alive are immortal, the immortal sons and daughters of God. So this ‘eating of the tree of life’ is being used as a metaphor for receiving eternal life.
“which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” The paradise of God will be more thoroughly explained in Revelation 21 and 22. It is expressly for the immortal sons and daughters of God.
JESUS CHRIST’S LETTER TO THE CHURCH IN SMYRNA
The Suffering Church Era
Revelation 2:8-11, “And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” Smyrna means myrrh and is a spice used in funerals and burials. It is very expensive. It was used in Jesus’ burial. Smyrna is still in existence, now under the Turkish name of Izmir. It is a commercial city, with a large population. It is a coastal city with a beautiful harbor, and was one of the loveliest cities in Asia Minor back in 100AD. Originally it was a Hittite city going back to the Hittite empire in 2000BC. Alexander the Great then built it into a beautiful city as he was conquering the Persian Empire in the 300s BC. It was called the crown city, and was the home of music, with a music center. Polycarp, the disciple of John was the ‘bishop of Smyrna’, and was burned alive during the reign of Marcus Arelius, somewhere around 155AD it is believed. Smyrna means “suffering”. In his letter to them and the church at Philadelphia Jesus had no word of condemnation for them. It’s an interesting fact of archaeology that Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only two cities of the seven which have had a continuous existence. The time-span of the Smyrna era covers the period from about 100AD (the death of John) to about 325AD. This letter is one of the shortest of the seven letters and everything Jesus has to say is full of praise.
Revelation 2:8, “And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive…” is an identifying message for this martyr church. Now because there was a lot of martyrdom within this era of the Church, people might assume it was small in number, but as a result of Paul’s and then John’s evangelism it had grown large in number, and then large due to their own evangelistic efforts, due to a very interesting set of circumstances or events that occurred within the Roman Empire around 155AD and then again around 255AD. They were making a big impact evangelistically by the way they responded to these two similar events which took place in the Roman world. But don’t forget, this was being done in an active part of the Roman empire, this era of the Church existed in an active part of the Roman empire that was very hostile to Christians. Let’s look at a modern example to get the picture. Christian evangelism within today’s Muslim world is growing, and so is the number of Muslim converts to Christ and Christianity. But what happens when those Christians are discovered in those Muslim nations? They’re martyred, killed, on the spot. Look at Dafur in southern Sudan if you need an example. Remember how I explained that elements of each Church era can be found within all of them? In a very real sense, martyred Muslim Christians, or any Christians who are martyred for their belief and stand in Christ are part of the Smyrna era, in a very real sense. Jesus has absolutely no words of condemnation for any of them.
Jesus Christ’s seven praises, commendations for Smyrna
1. “I know thy works, and tribulation” “Works” is not in the best manuscripts, but considering some recent historic discoveries coming from that period in Church history they had a whole lot of good works. “tribulation”, I just explained what type they had in the previous paragraph. They were a very active group of Christians in an empire filled with hostile non-Christians and pagans.
2. “and poverty, (but thou art rich)” This church and the era named for it was not made up of wealthy people, but poorer classes of people. Paul’s statement in 1st Corinthians 1:26-29 comes to mind here, “For you know your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things what are, that no flesh should glory in his presence.” “(but thou art rich)” is Jesus’ way of saying they were spiritually rich, spiritually wealthy. And when you read that new historic evidence about what form of evangelism this Smyrna era undertook, you will see how Paul’s statement in 1st Corinthians 1:26-29 really came true through these amazing people. I will provide the link to it soon. Be sure to read all the way through it.
3. “the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.” It is hard to find a true historic context to this verse. Asia Minor had a lot of wealthy Jews involved in commerce. Smyrna was a city of culture, as well as a commercial port city, with a lovely harbor, and many of the wealthy Jews involved in commerce there may have syncretized with the Roman pagan society and dropt their belief in the literal accuracy of the Old Testament, the Torah. This may be a reference to them, and the fact that these Jews may have been giving the Church some form of heat or persecution due to their evangelism amongst the Jews, which in Paul’s time took place right in their synagogues. Who knows, but that is my guess. As a serious history buff, I have come to realize that at times, history is ‘best guess’, and there’s nothing we can do about it until the Lord returns and shows us what really took place. At the resurrection to immortality, we’ll be able to ask the people of the Smyrna church and era what is meant by Jesus’ saying about this synagogue of Satan. For now, best guess is all we have. That’s my guess and J. Vernon McGee’s as well. The churches in Asia Minor were predominantly Judeo-Christian as a lot of recent historic works have started to reveal, at least up until 325AD. More on that later.
4. “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer.” Jesus said this to encourage them. It is hard to imagine this statement would encourage anyone about to die or be tortured. But Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is full of examples where believers were praising God as they died. Now that’s not normal. But apparently the Holy Spirit within them, and even us, can work such miracles to encourage within those who are dying for their testimony of Jesus Christ and their obedience to him. Jesus’ encouragement here, then, was far from being mere hollow words on a page.
5. “behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried…” Satan is the one who is really responsible for the suffering of the saints in Smyrna and its era from 100AD to 325AD. Satan used the Roman government and its emperors as his tool of destruction. It is a truth that will surface later in the Book of Revelation, as we’ll see.
6. “Ye shall have tribulation ten days.” History tells us, and this goes back into the middle of the Ephesian era, that there were ten intense periods of persecution, brought on by ten Roman emperors. They are:
Nero (64-68AD): Paul beheaded during this time
Domitian (95-96AD): John exiled on the Isle of Patmos
Trajan (104-117AD): Ignatius burned at the stake
Marcus Aurelius (161-180AD): Polycarp martyred 155AD-161(?)
Diocletian (303-313AD): worst emperor of them all.
7. “Be thou faithful unto death.” History shows us they were faithful unto death. And history also shows the Smyrna era had great works, two massive plagues hit the whole Roman Empire, each one decimating an estimated one quarter of the population of the Roman Empire. One occurred around 155AD and the other around 255AD. Many Gentiles became believers in Asia Minor, and these were pagan Gentiles, not the “God-fearers” Paul had first evangelized to. This history about these two great works of the Smyrna era can be found at http://www.unityinchrist.com/LegacyOfLove.htm Be sure to read it.
8. “He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” The whole letter is written to a persecuted, suffering era of the Church, body of Christ, an era that experienced a lot of death. Jesus’ final encouragement is this, “He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” i.e. ‘Immortal, everlasting life will by yours, hell, the second death is not even an option where you’re concerned.’
There is an early church history section on this website that covers the time-span of both the Ephesus and Smyrna era’s combined, from Pentecost (31AD or 32AD) to around 325AD. It is at: http://www.unityinchrist.com/history2/index3.htm. Be sure to read it. It is full of recent historical facts and discoveries about the Church, the body of Christ during the time-span of these two era’s which started on the Day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1-43). Did a remnant survive from the Smyrna era in the area of Asia Minor? That will be the subject of the next letter of Jesus Christ to the seven churches in Asia Minor. Be sure to keep reading, as this gets real interesting. But before you do, be sure to read the history articles that can be accessed through the hypertext links above. They give some very important historic evidence to the validity of the next section.
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