John: Essential Messages

In the previous issue we reviewed the opening of the book of Revelation and the messages that John was commissioned to write to seven specific congregations in the late-first-century Roman province of Asia. Christ’s followers in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum faced problems of their own and of society’s making. They were shown what they must do to overcome their failings and continue to make spiritual progress. Collectively the seven churches stand as a symbol of the Church through time, and the messages to them provide continuing essential instruction. The remaining four were Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.

Thyatira: Tolerating Immorality

The message from Jesus Christ to Thyatira was again specific to the problems the city posed for His followers. According to legend, Thyatira, about 35 miles or 55–60 kilometers inland from Pergamum, was first established as a center for the worship of the sun god Apollo Tyrimnaeus. It passed through Macedonian, Seleucid and Pergamene hands until Pergamum and its possessions were gifted to Rome in 133 B.C.E.

Today all that can be seen of the ancient city are a few scattered ruins in the center of modern-day Akhisar. But from inscriptions discovered, it was a wealthy city with many trade guilds under the patronage of various pagan deities. The guilds were therefore much more religious in practice than might be assumed. Their feasts were held in local pagan temples. According to the Word Biblical Commentary, the associations’ members were “clothiers, bakers, tanners, potters, linen workers, wool merchants, slave traders, shoemakers, dyers, and copper smiths.”

The dyers guild was especially successful. A follower of Jesus who came from Thyatira was a woman named Lydia. She was a seller of purple dye or purple cloth and was associated with Paul’s ministry in Philippi (Acts 16:14–15, 40).

Bronze workers formed another guild. This may explain partly a reference in the letter. To the angel of the church in Thyatira, John was to write: “The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (Revelation 2:18). Christ is referred to here as “the Son of God”—the only place this title occurs in Revelation. It is therefore significant and may be stated for emphasis to a city that engaged heavily in the imperial cult and viewed the emperor as a son of god and also as the sun god in the flesh. This Son of God shone more brightly than the local sun god and guild patron.

Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding the church in Thyatira, they earned Christ’s commendation for “your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first” (verse 19). However, like other churches in the province of Asia, they were corrected for certain problems: “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (verse 20). The Thyatiran church had been seduced into following some of the practices of the pagan society around them, specifically listening to Gnostic false teaching and giving themselves sexual license—becoming permissive. It seems that they were plagued by a particular kind of seduction involving temple sex and food offered to idols. Literally or figuratively, this deception was related to one named Jezebel, perhaps a guild leader and no doubt viewed as a counterpart of the infamous idolatrous queen of ancient Israel (1 Kings 18–21; 2 Kings 9).

The message to the Thyatiran church is clear, and it demonstrates that sometimes Christ speaks very plainly: “I gave [Jezebel] time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:21–23). This is a very powerful passage. Jesus Christ is concerned about hearts and minds, about private and public standards. But He is always fair, just and merciful. He simply wants to see repentance and behavioral change.

There were some in Thyatira who did not fall under His judgment. They had not compromised, and the statement to them highlights another potential problem: “But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come” (verses 24–25). The phrase “the deep things of Satan” is probably a reference to the Gnostic idea that in order for a person to overcome Satan, he or she had to experience evil deeply. The Gnostics believed that since the body was made of matter and was therefore evil, breaking spiritual laws was of no consequence. This led to much licentiousness and an “anything goes” mentality—much like we see in society today.

Hold on to what you have until I come. To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations.”

Revelation 2:25–26, New International Version

The message to the Thyatiran church closes with a familiar promise of purposeful eternal life: “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (verses 26–29).

The form of compromise here was permissiveness in personal life, attempting to mingle society’s ways with the worship of God.

Sardis: As Good as Dead

Sardis, about 40 miles or 65 kilometers southeast of Thyatira, was an ancient city of wealth and commerce, the capital of the Lydian kingdom and home to the legendary King Croesus. Its wealth came from the gold found in its River Pactolus and from its textiles. The world’s first coinage, made from a gold-silver alloy, was introduced at Sardis. At the intersection of various trade routes, it was also the end of the fifth-century-B.C.E. Royal Road from Susa. The Persians, the Greeks, the Seleucids, the Pergamenes and the Romans ruled Sardis in succession. Parts of the Ionic temple to Artemis of Seleucid times can still be seen, as well as what remains of the acropolis of Croesus. After an earthquake destroyed much of the city in 17 C.E., it was rebuilt with help from the emperors Tiberius and Claudius.

With an estimated population of 60–100,000, Sardis was home to a large Jewish community in the time of the early Church. It is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures as “Sepharad” (see Obadiah 20) and may have become a place for Jewish émigrés in the centuries following the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that there were sufficient wealthy Jews there in his time to send temple tax to Jerusalem. Therefore it would have been a natural place for the apostles’ teaching to take root. As we have noted earlier, it was Paul’s custom to try to address those in the synagogues first, since they were literate in the Scriptures.

I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die.”

Revelation 3:1–2, English Standard Version

Christ’s message to the church in Sardis begins: “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Here was a group of believers who were thought to be alive and vigorous, and yet by God’s standards they were as good as dead. Again, the lesson is clear: Christ’s followers are supposed to exhibit their faith by doing, by consistently living a way of life. There has to be more than just a show of righteousness. True followers have to demonstrate their belief by action, both toward God and toward their fellow human beings.

The message to the church here is again very strong: “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (verses 2–3).

There were, of course, some, as in any congregation, who were faithful to their belief. And Christ did not forget them. The One whose eyes were like a flame of fire could recognize His faithful servants: “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (verse 4).

And then follows the promise of eternal life for the active and committed follower of Christ: “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (verses 5–6).

Once again, this plain and direct letter contains strong correction. The Church members in Sardis were to overcome spiritual lethargy—their form of compromise. But there was also encouragement for the congregation. Christ reminded them of the incredible future that lay ahead of them. But they had to play their part.

Philadelphia: Faithfully Committed

Philadelphia, some 28 miles (45 kilometers) southeast of Sardis, was commercially significant as a wine-producing community located at the foot of Asia’s central high plateau. The city’s name means “brotherly love,” possibly so called because Attalus II of Pergamum, whose fraternal loyalty earned him the epithet “Philadelphus,” dedicated the city to his brother King Eumenes in the mid-second century B.C.E. Another claim is that the Egyptian Ptolemy Philadelphus founded the city after he took possession of territories in Asia Minor in the previous century. What is known for sure is that the Romans granted the city relief from taxation and gave aid when it suffered the devastating earthquake of 17 C.E. In gratitude, the local leaders added “Neocaesarea” to the city’s name. Later, in John’s time, it became Philadelphia Flavia in honor of the emperor Vespasian (69–79) of the Flavian line.

To the church in Philadelphia, Christ instructed John to write: “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (verses 7–8).

This is signifying that when Jesus Christ makes a decision, it has power, it has finality, and no man can interfere with that decision. The congregation lacked the outward appearance of spiritual power. Yet they were humble, and they had a faithful commitment to Christ’s way of life. But they, too, faced problems. It seems that in this city there was a group of Jews who claimed to be religious and were not. They persecuted the followers of Christ: “Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” (verses 9–10).

The Philadelphians would ultimately triumph over their persecutors. This is a promise with applications to believers in all ages. It assures us of God’s involvement in our security, physical or spiritual, no matter the circumstances. Here we are told that the faithful will be kept from a time of great difficulty. The true follower who is faithful and is overcoming personal problems in life will have divine help in times of trouble. A committed believer lives each day as if it could be the last. This is one meaning of the concluding thoughts to Philadelphians: they will ultimately gain eternal life. “I am coming soon,” says Christ. “Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, 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 from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (verses 11–13).

The followers of Christ at Philadelphia pleased God with their patience, their humility and their willingness to obey. Therefore they were promised an even closer relationship with God in His new world. They were encouraged not to compromise in the face of religious persecution.

Laodicea: Neither Hot nor Cold

Laodicea, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) southeast of Philadelphia and 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Ephesus, was well known for the production of beautiful black wool, for banking and for the practice of medical arts. Because of the region’s volcanic and seismic activity, at nearby Hierapolis there was a Roman spa resort with hot thermal baths. Neighboring Colossae had cold water springs. About 30 years earlier, the apostle Paul had ministered to congregations in all three locations. By the time of John’s writing of Revelation, Laodicea was the church for which the greatest correction was reserved. It seems that Laodicea’s water supply was lukewarm. The seven letters come to a climax with a terrible warning for the compromising believer who is spiritually neither hot nor cold.

To the church in Laodicea, John was to write: “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (verses 14–16). Lukewarmness is a symbol for the compromise that comes with spiritual pride, or self-sufficiency. And that is plainly not a characteristic that Jesus Christ wants to see in His followers.

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.”

Revelation 3:17, New International Version

Laodicea was also a prosperous city—in part because it was at the junction of ancient trade routes. But wealth caused problems for Laodicea: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (verse 17). Laodicea’s self-sufficiency masked an underlying spiritual poverty. But there was an antidote: “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see” (verse 18).

The commodities spoken of here would have been well known to any Laodicean. Gold was a familiar item. But spiritual treasure—an uncompromising commitment to Christ, tested under difficult circumstances—would have been hard to find among the lax followers in Laodicea. Christ’s recommendation that the Laodiceans put on white clothes (the symbol of righteousness)—as opposed to their famous black woolen cloth—was a reminder of their spiritual nakedness.

Finally, Christ prescribed an ointment cure for the eyes, so that the Laodiceans could see spiritually. It is thought that the city made an eye salve, but the Laodicean church needed its spiritual vision healed more than it needed a physical remedy. Christ expresses His love and concern with these words: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (verses 19–20).

The message is clear: spiritual self-sufficiency needs correction. The faithful are going to respond to such advice and change, and Jesus Christ is always willing to help. The letter to the Laodicean church ends with a remarkable invitation and the promise of limitless life: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (verse 21).

Seven Messages, One Point

What John set down in the first section of Revelation is the preface for all that follows. The messages to the seven churches—and to the Church through time—are about resisting various pressures to compromise in a world that is not God’s and will not be His until all that is described in the expansive remainder of the book comes about. Compromise can be the result of personal negligence (Ephesus), putting allegiance to humans ahead of loyalty to God (Smyrna), sexual immorality and idolatry (Pergamum), permissiveness (Thyatira), spiritual lethargy (Sardis), religious persecution (Philadelphia), or self-sufficiency (Laodicea).

These are timeless human conditions. Followers need God’s help to avoid compromise in any of these categories just as much as those in first-century Asia needed it. The overall message is obvious: whatever the form of the compromise, it is wrong and unacceptable to Jesus Christ and will not enable the follower to stand when difficult times come.

John’s account of what he saw and was told to write now moves to the panorama of human history that must unfold as the present age comes to its climax. Though we cannot know exactly when this era of human self-government will end, nor the precise moment of Jesus Christ’s return, the Apocalypse does unveil the kind of world that will precede His coming. It also teaches those who have ears to hear, how they must distance themselves from the way of man—typified by the “government of Caesar”—and anticipate, by their way of living, the coming sovereignty of God and His Son.

In the next issue, the culmination of the book of Revelation.