The Seven Churches of chapters 2 and 3 are symbolic of the worldwide church but highlight particular issues and sins that might appear in any local church today. In each letter, Jesus greets them by emphasising some aspect of His character or glory. Then he usually pinpoints some sin that offends him and asks them to repent – or else! – and finally he gives a specific promise to those church members who obey him and stand firm against evil. The ultimate threat against a church is to “remove your lampstand from its place”, which symbolises the removal by God of that local church as a light in the darkness, since it is no longer effective and is instead an embarrassment to him. This is not referring to the loss of salvation of individual Christians, but the removal by the Lord of the local / geographical group that purports to witness to him. Let us read through each of these seven letters and identify the reasons for the greeting Jesus gives, the sin that he highlights, the repentance that is necessary, and the promise he makes to the faithful. Can you see any of these things in our/your church today?
The ‘angel’ of the church could mean a human ‘messenger’ or a heavenly ‘messenger’. Since every church usually had a plurality of elders (e.g., Ephesus itself, in Acts 20:17), there did not appear to be one man who fulfilled that role. Each believer has his/her own angel (Matt 18:10; Acts 12:15), it seems; therefore, it would not be any surprise if a local church had a more powerful angelic spirit watching over it and representing it before the Lord.
Jesus is responsible for building his church, which includes local churches, and establishing their presence in a city or region. He is the boss! He delivers his ‘appraisal’ of the state of the Ephesian church: hard-working, persevering, faithful, with high standards and expectation of behaviour and correct doctrines. What church today would not want that kind of commendation from their heavenly master!
But all this has started to occur in an atmosphere of lovelessness. Christians are obedient to Christ, working hard for Christ and suffering on his behalf – yet they don’t really love him or love one another like they used to. Is that a major problem? Yes! Jesus demands instant repentance, and a return to the kinds of things that lovers do. Taking a human analogy, it is as though a husband spent long days away from the home, earning a great deal of money to provide for his wife and family – who rarely saw him. They would justifiably say: “We want you, and not just your hard work and money!”
Failure to repent will mean the very worst thing for a local church: removal of the lampstand – which means that Jesus will no longer permit it to be the ‘light on a hillside’ that he planned for it to be. (Matt 5:14). We must use our spiritual ‘ears’ and listen to the Holy Spirit; those who hear and obey will be rewarded with a place in ‘paradise’ – originally a Persian word for a garden of pleasure. Looking back to Genesis 2, it is a sinless place of perfect harmony between God and mankind.
Modern-day Izmir on the Turkish coast was a key centre of emperor worship. The disciple of John called ‘Polycarp’ was a leader in the Smyrna church and was one of the first Christian martyrs. Perhaps that is why Jesus announced himself as the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. He warns his people that suffering, persecution and death await some of them, with the Jews at the forefront of much of this attack. Behind these attacks is the Devil himself! They are a test of the validity of our faith. But ‘do not be afraid’! The ‘ten days’ of persecution represented a short, limited period – permitted by God. (Hebrews 12:3,7). We just need to be faithful to him and we receive eternal life as the victor’s crown.
Again, there is the need to listen to the Holy Spirit’s prompting – usually through the words of Jesus. The faithful victorious ones will not be harmed by the ‘Second Death’ that the unbelievers will suffer. This phrase represents everlasting punishment – eternal separation from God. It is mentioned in Revelation 20:6; 20:14 and 21:8 too.
This was the ancient capital of Asia Minor, built on a cone-shaped hill and rising over 1,000 feet about the valley around it. An impregnable fortress! It was also Asia’s official centre of emperor worship – doing what Mecca does for the Muslims. Spiritually, it was a fortress for Satan too! Accordingly, it was a very hostile place to be a Christian. Tradition has it that the first martyr in the whole of Asia, Antipas, was slowly roasted to death in a bronze kettle, whilst remaining faithful to Christ until death. The rest of the church there did not run away frightened but remained a faithful witness to the Lord.
Christ’s complaints against them involved tolerating false teachers who advocated a compromise with worldly behaviour and sexual laxity. Just as the Israelites had been led into sexual sin by Balaam, so this church was being led astray by this kind of teaching. The Nicolaitans were another heretical sect who had traded a compromise with the surrounding pagan society in return for tolerance of their Christian beliefs. Eating food sacrificed to idols was one example of this. This distressed Jesus greatly and brought the threat of exposure of their lifestyles by the King of Kings himself.
Those who overcome these temptations and reject the food of idolatry, will receive miraculous spiritual food from God all their earthly lives and an invitation to the heavenly banquet – which is probably what the white stone with the persons new name written on it means.
Originally a military outpost, it was famous for its ‘masonic’ trade guilds. The church itself was doing rather well and growing in every sense. But there was again an ‘Achilles Heel’ in the church: a woman who claimed to have a powerful prophetic ministry, but who led the people astray with a toxic mix of sexual immorality and idolatry (which is a kind of spiritual adultery). Her teaching, later found in the Gnostic teachings too, was that to defeat Satan, you had to enter his ‘stronghold’ and experience evil deeply. Jesus completely disagreed and intended to punish her and her disciples with severe physical pain unless they quickly repented. He knows and searches hearts and minds; nothing is hidden from his eyes.
For those who have kept themselves pure from all this, they simply need to ‘hold on’ until Jesus returns. Remember that this was a church under extreme persecution and awaiting rescue; “Just hold on” is perhaps not the main message that Jesus would say to the Western churches today!
If we do remain faithful, we will give us authority to rule over the nations and to judge them. The imagery of the potter with his iron rod, smashing those imperfect examples of his work in order to protect his reputation, is used of Jesus too in Psalm 2:9. Jesus himself is the ‘Morning Star’ – and if we are faithful, he is our reward!
ZECHARIAH 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14
When times are tough, what you need to hear are promises of future blessing: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there” (Zechariah 8:4). It is not that old age and infirmity are goals to be sought, but that by reaching these ripe years, there will be no more untimely deaths of infants, children and young men and women. Isaiah 65:20 echoes this: “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be considered accursed”. As far as God is concerned, that is a simple task to accomplish; he will create a curtain of peace around the city and will guard it from armed attack and the plague.
The great temple that the people are being encouraged to build, will attract back many thousands of God’s people from the far-flung corners of the earth. By analogy, as we give everything in seeking to have God’s Kingdom built in our generation and in our locality, we will grow and be added to by the grace of God. And he will add all other blessings too and meet all our physical needs. Furthermore, many powerful and influential people in society will flock to us to seek the wisdom and will of God – which they perceive we have close access to. (Zechariah 8:20-23.)
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. This is quoted in Mathew 21:5 and John 12:15, as referring to Jesus, the King of the Jews. Riding on a donkey was not a demeaning act – since the kings of Israel (2 Samuel 16:2) all rode on them – but it did signify a peaceful attitude by the rider, as opposed to entering a city on a war horse. There will, in any case, be no need for the latter, since God will “…take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10). Jesus, the Prince of Peace, entered Jerusalem in peace.
“Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime; it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms. He gives showers of rain to all people, and plants of the field to everyone” (10:1). So why do it? If it is springtime, won’t it rain in any case? This is a vital lesson to us all in our prayer lives: just because we expect something to occur ‘naturally’ (whatever that means!), it is still important to ask the Lord for it. A realisation of this practice suddenly means that our prayer life will be rather more wide-ranging than we had previously thought. Do you want to get paid at the end of the month? Do you want your job to be secure? Do you want to become pregnant? Is it important to you that your marriage relationship stays healthy and increases in joy? Then ask God for the obvious! Or one day he will say to you: “You do not have because you do not ask God”. (James 4:2)
Then the Lord complains via Zechariah (yes, even God complains sometimes!) about the attitude and behaviour of his people, his ‘flock’. “The flock detested me and I grew weary of them and said: ‘I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish. Let those who are left eat one another’s flesh’.” (11:8-9). God then asked for his ‘pay’ and was given thirty pieces of silver; these he threw to the potter. Matthew 26:14 and 27:3 refer to Christ being betrayed for thirty pieces of silver by his own people who rejected him; Judas was the precise instrument in their hands.
“Godly sorrow produces repentance that leads to life” (2 Corinthians 7:10). In Zechariah 12:10, we see this in action: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son…”. This is one of the most graphic foreshadowings of Calvary and is partially quoted in John 19:37. This spirit of godly sorrow then culminated at Pentecost with the cry of the crowd to Peter: “What shall we do to be saved!”. His reply: “Repent and be baptized…”. Then, in Zechariah’s prophecy (13:1): “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity. On that day I will banish the names of the idols from the land, and they will be remembered no more”. (See also Ezekiel 36:25.)
“Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered…” – this verse looks forward to the death of Christ too and was quoted by Jesus just before his arrest (Matthew 26:31).
In the final chapter (14) a detailed vision of the Day of the Lord is laid out. God will entice the warring nations to surround Jerusalem and begin to attack it. Then Jesus will himself descend from heaven – landing on the Mount of Olives (from where he ascended in Luke 24) and causing a great earthquake. Angels will rain down to earth too. The enemy armies will be destroyed in the great battle by a plague that seems to resemble a nuclear explosion. It will be a day of neither sunlight nor darkness, neither hot nor cold and there will be no night at the end of it. Just as in Ezekiel, living water will flow from the temple both to the Dead Sea, but also into the Mediterranean.
The Lord will be at last King over the whole earth. And everything will be ‘Holy to the Lord’! Why wait until then!