Chapter 3

Introduction

The messages to the seven churches began in chapter 2 with the messages to the first four churches. Here in chapter 3, they continue and conclude with the messages to the final three churches.

Commentary

Message #5 – Sardis

1“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this:

‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 3‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. 6‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

v1 He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars – Christ, referring back to Rev 1:4 (applied to the Lord God) and Rev 1:16.  This emphasizes the fullness of his deity and authority over the churches (see verse 5).

v1 you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead – While appearing to be alive, this is a dead church, and it receives no positive comments at all. Possibly, this church appeared to be alive (and thought they were alive) because they observed various religious rituals and customs. However, they were in fact dead, indicating that their hearts were far from God.

Jesus used a similar “deadness” metaphor when He described the Jewish religious leaders as “whitewashed tombs”, which were beautiful on the outside, but dead on the inside (Matt 23:27). The religious leaders were very concerned with outward appearances as they followed through with strict adherence to legal details, and they made a show of their giving and prayers. However, on the inside they were motivated by pride and they neglected the more important matters of justice and mercy (Matt 23:23). A dead church is much like the dead Judaism practiced by those leaders.

v3 remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent – It’s not that this church lacked the truth — they just need to take those truths to heart (the meaning of keep it). Of course, the same could be said for the religious leaders who Jesus criticized: They had the same scripture that Jesus used, but they only observed it outwardly for the sake of appearances.

v3 I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you – A dead church is in danger of being just as terrified and shocked by Christ’s return as unbelievers are — implying that they are really no different. The Bible teaches that we Christians are to expect Christ’s return, so that His coming is not like that of a thief to us (1 Thes 5:2,4).

v4 you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments – One might say this is “damning with faint praise”, and yet there is hope that where the truth is known, there can be true followers, even within a dead church. Similarly, there were a few members of the Jewish religious leadership who listened to Jesus and became his followers, such as Nicodemus (John 3:1-2), Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38), later many priests (Acts 6:7), and of course the Apostle Paul (Acts 26:4-7).

v5 He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life – White garments represent righteousness, or “cleanness” before God (Rev 7:9; Rev 19:8), and notice that it is something given to us by God. All who are given this righteousness are represented in the book of life, and thus spared eternal condemnation, as we see when Christ returns (Rev 20:15).

Lesson of Sardis to churches: Know the truth, but also take it to heart. If the expression of your faith is more about rituals and appearances than it is about a changed heart, then wake up.

Message #6 – Philadelphia

7“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this:

8‘I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name. 9‘Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you. 10‘Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. 11‘I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12‘He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name. 13‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

v7 He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens – Each of these seven messages start out by identifying the source as Christ. In each of the other six messages, this identification is accomplished by referring back to an attribute of Christ that was mentioned in chapter 1. However, the phrase “key of David” used here does not occur in chapter 1. Instead, Christ identified Himself by saying: “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Rev 1:18). The implication is that the key of David and the keys of Death and Hades are related. How is that?

Holding a key implies authority to open a door, and a door may be opened either to enter or to leave.

  • Holding the key to death and Hades means that Christ has authority to allow his followers to leave the abode of death.
  • Holding the key of David means that Christ has authority to allow his followers to enter the kingdom of God, which is now in heaven and shall come to earth when the Great Promise is fulfilled.

With this understanding, we can see that (1) leaving death and (2) entering the kingdom of eternal life are just two sides of the same door. This means that the key to the kingdom mentioned in verse 7 and the key to death and Hades in Rev 1:18 are the same key. This is confirmed in the next verse, which continues the metaphor by referring to a single door.

Christ is worthy to hold the key to the kingdom because (1) He is the heir to David’s throne, and (2) He earned it with His death and resurrection, with which he purchased people for his kingdom. We will see this clearly in chapter 5, where the angels declare: “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth“. (Rev 5:9-10).

v8 I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut – The “open door” is refers back to the key in verse 7. That is, Christ not only holds the key to the kingdom of God (the key of David), but He has used it to open the door of the kingdom to us. This picture represents a promise to all who are faithful, represented by this faithful church in Philadelphia.

v8 because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name – A strong commendation for their faithfulness amid times of difficulty. Philadelphia joins Smyrna as the only churches to receive favorable comments from Christ without any criticism.

v9 the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie – The persecutions faced by this church seems very similar to that of Smyrna.

v9 make them know that I have loved you – One day, the truth will be known and believed by all people, whether they be saved or condemned.

v10 Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth – The exact meaning of this verse has been the subject of much debate. Some see it as a reference to the rapture (where the saints are taken out of the world prior to the tribulation). Here are some things that are clear:

  1. The promise is made to those who “have kept the word of My perseverance“, which are those who remain faithful while patiently enduring trials.
  2. The promise involves being kept from the hour of trial, which is not necessarily the same as being kept out of the world.
  3. This is not a promise that the faithful will kept be from facing persecution. On the contrary, Revelation (and the rest of the Bible) stresses that the faithful will face persecution, and we are commanded to endure and persevere through it. How else can we explain that the faithful church in Smyrna was told to be faithful unto death?
  4. The hour of trial that is coming to the whole world is best understood as the great tribulation (coming up later in Revelation). The Greek word translated as “trial” is peirasmos which may be understood as temptation and testing. For example, Jesus used it in the Lord’s prayer “lead us not into temptation” (Matt 6:13). In Gethsemane, Jesus told his disciples not to “enter into temptation” (Matt 26:31). In His parable of the soils, the rocky soil represents those who believe for a time, but “fall away in a time of testing(Luke 8:13). This word was also used to describe the temptation of Christ by Satan (Luke 4:13).
  5. The Greek word translated as “keep” is tereo, which means more than the English word “keep”. It can convey the idea of guarding, observing, or preserving (as used in Matt 28:20; Matt 27:36; Eph 4:3; 1 Thes 5:23).

Given that this promise is made to those who faithfully endure in times of difficulty, I think it is best seen (with fewest assumptions) as a promise of assurance. It is a promise that God will guard their faith from failing even under the worst persecution ever — the Satanic persecution in the great tribulation. In this manner, we can be like Christ, who faced Satan’s temptations (Luke 4) but did not succumb to them. A promise of assurance would fit hand-in-glove with the opening statement in v8: I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.

v12 He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God – Fantastic promises of eternal life in communion with God in the new kingdom of God that will reign on earth. We see this new Jerusalem in Rev 21:10.

v12 and My new name – In the culmination of all things, there will be a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem — and it is revealed that we shall know Jesus Christ our savior by a new name, revealing a new relationship of greater intimacy and privilege than ever before. This new name was also mentioned in Rev 2:17, and we will see it mentioned again at Christ’s return (Rev 19:12).

Lesson of Philadelphia to churches: We are to persevere through temptations, but we can do so with assurance because it is not accomplished by our strength, but a strength that is a gift from God.

Message #7 – Laodicea

14“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this:

15‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. 16‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. 17‘Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, 18I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. 20‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. 21‘He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. 22‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

v14 the faithful and true Witness – Christ, referring back to Rev 1:5, and emphasizing the absolute reliability of His testimony.

v15 you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot – The meaning of cold and hot is a debated point. I think the simplest understanding comes from the observation that water is most useful if it is either cold or hot. If cold, it is a refreshing drink or cooling rinse. If hot, it is a soothing beverage and pleasant for bathing. This sets us a good analogy for the church, as discussed in the next verse.

v16 because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth – If allowed, cold or hot water will drift toward the surrounding temperature due to exposure, and when it gets there, it’s called “lukewarm”. At that point, it has lost much of its usefulness precisely because it has lost its difference from its surroundings.

Likewise, the Church is called to be different from the world (Rom 12:2; 1 Pet 1:14), and it is useful for God’s purposes only because it is different. But when a church drifts toward conformity to the surrounding world, it loses its usefulness to God, and He “spits it out” (the same idea as in Luke 14:34-35). Based on this understanding, a lukewarm church is a worldly church, and this is exactly the rebuke that this church of Laodicea receives, as the next verse shows.

v17 you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked – The people of this church see themselves as rich and fulfilled. However, it obviously isn’t because they have laid up their treasure in heaven. The treasure they desire and evidently possess is temporal worldly treasure. But such treasure does them no eternal good, and so by God’s accounting, they are miserably poor.

This church (along with Sardis) receives no real commendation.

v18 I advise you … buy from Me gold … and white garments … and eye salve … – Christ, using different metaphors, tells them to seek things that have eternal value: purity (likened to gold), righteousness (white garments), and the ability to perceive truth (seeing clearly).

v19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline – Echoing the promises made to Israel in Deut 8:5 and Prov 3:12. Just as God on several occasions brought severe discipline upon His beloved people Israel when they disobeyed, he will also discipline his church when they go astray. He does so to produce purity, all for the sake of the ones He loves (1 Cor 11:32).

v20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock – This famous verse depicts Christ standing outside of His church hoping that someone inside will hear Him knocking and let him in! I see this as a sharp rebuke. At the same time, it is manifest graciousness that instead of destroying or abandoning this church, he remains, extending His offer of communion and eternal peace and victory.

v21 He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne – Those who overcome shall follow in Christ’s footsteps, all the way to the throne of God as Christ did. Again, we see the fulfillment of this in Rev 20:4,6 and Rev 22:5 following the arrival of Christ’s kingdom on earth.

Lesson of Laodicea to churches: Do not be conformed to the world. We are to be holy, which means to be set apart as dedicated to God. If the world can see this distinction in the things we value and the manner in which we conduct our lives, then we can be useful for God’s purposes.

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