The second and third chapters of the Revelation provide the setting for the whole of the Revelation. In setting forth the historical context, they also serve to introduce the subject-theme to be dealt with in the Revelation. Both of these, the setting and the subject, are established within a structured sequence of epistolary exhortations to seven churches. It behooves us, therefore, to consider the setting subject and structure of what Jesus Christ has to say to the churches as recorded in the second and third chapters of Revelation.
The stage for the great panoramic picture-show must be set. Otherwise we will not understand the context of all the action that is portrayed. In chapters two and three of Revelation, Jesus tells John to write to seven churches and directs him what to write. Thereby He establishes the historical setting, the exegetical setting and the theological setting for the whole of the Revelation.
The historical setting is important. The time when this was written was in the last decade of the first century A.D., about 95 A.D. The location was in Asia (also called Asia Minor) on the east side of the Aegean Sea, on the west side of what is now Turkey. There were numerous churches in the communities of this region, but Jesus instructs John to write to seven of them,which probably indicates that these seven were indicative and representative of all churches in that region and elsewhere.
The apostle John was well-acquainted with these churches and the Christian people who comprised them. He had probably been ministering in this region for 20-25 years prior to his banishment to the isle of Patmos, that as a punitive consequence for his testimony to Jesus Christ. The risen Lord Jesus, of course, was even more aware of what was happening in those churches, and it is He who addresses them and exposes them. John becomes the secretary, the amanuensis, but he is aware of, and familiar with, what Jesus is referring to.
As they neared the end of the first century, the churches of Asia Minor had sufficient time to be tempted by the tempter to pervert the gospel of the dynamic life of the risen Lord Jesus into static and self-oriented forms. There had been plenty of time to “religionize,” to revert to man’s activity instead of Christ’s activity.
By noting the historical setting of the writing of the Revelation in the latter part of the first century, and directed toward particular historical churches in Asia Minor, we do not want to imply that the entirety of its intent and application was only, or even primarily, for these first-century Christians. The Revelation is “rooted” in that historical setting, but not “trapped” there. The message of the Revelation is for all Christians in all churches in all ages.
The exegetical setting provided by chapters two and three of Revelation is also important. By providing the historical and theological setting in these early chapters, it is incumbent upon any legitimate exegete of the Revelation to maintain continuity with that setting and subject throughout his/her exegesis, inorder to maintain a consistent and valid interpretation of the book. Chapters two and three are a springboard for understanding the rest of the Revelation. If continuity with the setting and subject of chapters two and three is not maintained, the interpreter will inevitably end up with a detached, disconnected and disjointed understanding of the Revelation, divorced from its context and interpreted “out of context.”
When such discontinuity is employed the Revelation becomes a segmented series of “revelations,” as it is often mistakenly referred to. These “revelations” are then interpreted as
referring to time periods divided by thousands of years. The preterist interpretation, for example, tends to “trap” the intent of the majority of the Revelation back in the first century, and then jump ahead thousands of years to apply the final chapters to the future. The historicist school of interpretation divides the Revelation into application for successive periods of Western church history. The futurist interpretation makes a big division between chapters three and four, recognizing the first-century historical setting of chapters two and three, but interpreting chapter four and following as referring to the future tribulation period and beyond, creating a gap which extends to almost two millennia now. Continuity with the exegetical setting and subject do not seem to be maintained in these interpretations.
The Revelation is an indivisible unity. The same unified Revelation that Jesus Christ gave to John which had a consistent message applicable to the first century Christians, is the same unified and consistent message applicable to Christians in every age and location.
Chapters two and three provide the historical setting and the theological subject of the conflict between the dynamic of Christianity and religious attitudes and methods. Chapters four and following are then parabolically placed alongside to picturethe spiritual conflict that continues to take place in the “enigma of the interim” between the first and second physical comings of Jesus Christ to earth. Christians of all time are reminded of the triumph of Jesus Christ over all of Satan’s schemes by His “finished work” of redemption and restoration, as they look forward to the consummation of that victory made evident to all in the future at the end of time. This is the basis of the Christocentric-Triumphalist interpretation that we are employing in this study.
The subject-theme established in chapters two and three might also be referred to as the “theological setting” for the Revelation. It has been previously mentioned within the discussion of the historical setting that the issue within those seven historical churches in Asia Minor was the tendency to revert to religion instead relying completely on the life of Christ.
Those Christians in the first century, and many Christians in every age since then, have understood the spiritual victory won by Jesus Christ in His death, burial, resurrection, ascension and Pentecostal outpouring. They have looked forward with hope to the ultimate consummation of that victory as promised. But now, in the present, in the “enigma of the interim” between His first and second physical advents, how is the victorious reign of Jesus Christ played out? The victory does not often appear evident. By most appearances “man-made religion” (Col. 2:23) seems to predominate, even among those who verbalize identification with Jesus as Christians. With self-established statistical “success” factors, religion employs “power-plays” and ploys that are not energized by the power of the risen Christ.
By the end of the first century Satan had already infiltrated the churches with his counterfeit religion. He diabolically masquerades as an “angel of light” (II Cor. 11:13-15), aligning with what is relatively “good,” and encouraging Christians to fight against the “bad” and the “evil.” What he solicits Christians to engage in is contrary to and a counterfeit of the dynamic life and activity of Jesus Christ, and is therefore the working of anti-Christ,” which John informs us in his epistle is “already in the world” (I John 2:18,22; 4:3). Religion is anti-Christ.The Christians of Asia in the first century were bombarded with religion. There was a whole pantheon of mythological Greek gods. Numerous temples were constructed in all of the cities: temples to Artemis, goddess of the moon; temples to Cybele, goddess of nature; temples to Zeus, the chief of gods; temples to Dionysus, god of wine; temples to Aesculapius, god of healing; etc. Alongside these Greek religious temples were temples of Roman emperor worship, the religion of Dea Roma.The Roman emperors (some more than others) desired to be worshipped and to have people bow down and declare “Caesar is lord.” Temples to particular emperors such as Augustus and Tiberius were constructed in some of the cities. In addition to these there were local religious cults which developed in these cities. Religion was a favorite hobby in this region. This area was a breeding ground for new religions. Trade guilds, superstitions, anything could be made into a religion. If that were not enough, they also had the synagogues of the Jewish religion. By the end of the first-century it was well established that Christianity was not to be identified with Judaism. The Christians of this area were living in a “religious swamp,” all the while trying to maintain that Christianity was not another religion, but that it was the vital dynamic of the life of the risen Lord Jesus who had conquered all evil and sin and death.
It certainly did not look that way by outward appearances! “If Jesus is the victor, then what is all this spiritual conflict and all this religion that we see?” “What kind of war is this where we do not even seem to fight on the same plane?” Paul told the Ephesians, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenlies” (Eph. 6:12). Christians are to “stand firm” in Christ (Eph. 6:13), not using the overt power procedures of the world, but trusting that God is working by His grace through the risen Lord Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. After several decades (and for us, after many centuries), some of these Christians were surely beginning to wonder, “Is Christianity really just another religion of man?” “Is this fledgling Christian enterprise just a dying cause? Is it going to die out like a flash in the pan?” Some of them knew it was a “dying cause,” for they were dying physically as martyrs for their faith in Jesus Christ.
Satan was right there to tempt them to revert to his religious attitudes and methods. “Everybody’s doing it, you know!” The effectiveness of his diabolic solicitations is revealed as the living Lord Jesus exposes how the various churches had lapsed into religious practice.
The historical and theological setting in which the Revelation was written allows the Revelation to be applicable to Christians in every age. Jesus Christ, through the apostle John, encourages the Christians of Asia in the first century, and the Christians of every location in every time:
(1) to remember the victory of Jesus Christ in His death, burial, resurrection, ascension and Pentecostal outpouring.
(2) to resist the temptation to succumb to religion for (as will be pictured) such is involvement with the religious Beast rather than the Lamb, Jesus Christ; such is connection with the religious Harlot rather than the Bride; such is to dwell in religion. Babylon instead of the New Jerusalem.
(3) to repent of any and all occasions of thus lapsing into religion and failing to live by the dynamic of the life of Jesus Christ, as all of the churches addressed seem to have done.
(4) to reaffirm the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ of the consummation of Christ’s triumph made evident to all for eternity when Christ comes again.
It is imperative to a proper understanding of the Revelation to have a well-established foundation of understanding of the setting and the subject that are laid out here in chapters two and three.
There is a uniform structure to these letters in which the setting and subject is set forth. As Jesus dictates to John what he should write to the churches, He employs a repetitive structure:
(1) The first feature of each passage in chapters two and three is the commission Jesus gives to John to write a letter to a church at a particular address.These were local churches in seven communities of Asia Minor. They were not the only churches, but they were representative of all the churches that existed then and all the churches that have existed throughout church history, and indicative of how religion infiltrates the churches of Jesus Christ.
Jesus addresses each letter to the “angel” of the church in each location. What is the meaning of this angel? Does every congregation of the church of Jesus Christ have a guardian angel? Sometimes the Greek word angelos simply means
“messenger.” Was Jesus addressing the preacher of each church; the “messenger” who delivered the message? Was He addressing the leadership of elders or bishops ? Previous reference has been made to “seven Spirits” (1:4), which referred to the fullness of the work of the Holy Spirit, and to “seven stars” (1:16) which are subsequently identified as “the angels of the seven churches” (1:20). As our identity as Christians in the church of Jesus Christ is based on our spiritual union with the Spirit of Christ, and the Holy Spirit is the spiritual messenger to our individual hearts, and to the leadership of the local congregation, perhaps the risen Lord Jesus is addressing the Holy Spirit in each church. The Holy Spirit becomes the spiritual “messenger” to Whom we are to listen in order to hear the revelation of Jesus Christ. Such an interpretation emphasizes the ontological association of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, with each individual Christian and with the collective congregation of Christians in the local church. Such an emphasis was a needed message for the Christians of the first century and for Christians ever since then, as it is contrary to religious tendencies.
(2) Second, Jesus declares a particular facet of His personal Identity to each congregation. His self-designation of identity appears to be specifically tailor-made for that particular congregation, to reveal that He is the necessary remedy to their particular religionizing tendencies. The ontological presence of the risen Lord Jesus serves as the divine reality that overcomes religion in every form. Taking the assertion that Jesus makes to each congregation concerning who He is, it is possible to note the contradictory religious tendency that may have been present in that church.
(3) In each of the letters, Jesus then makes some observations about the situation that existed in that particular church. In every case these observations begin with Jesus saying, “I know...” this or that about you. The all-knowing, omniscient, risen Lord Jesus knows the situation in every church, in every part of His Body. No Christian and no congregation escapes His attention or “pulls the wool over His eyes.” He knows even the
motivation of everything we do.
What Jesus knows about the particular church sometimes elicits praise and commendation. His knowledge of the situation sometimes brings His expression of sympathy. In several cases Jesus’ supernatural knowledge brings forth a censure that exposes their religious perversion.
(4) Fourth, Jesus makes some specific charges against the churches, often by noting, “I have this against you...” In so doing He usually exposes their particular religionizing tendencies. The charges seem to be imbedded within the observations and commands to the churches at Sardis and Laodicea. Two of the churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, do not have specific charges brought against them, but this does not mean that they are not just as guilty of reverting to Christ-less religion.The religionizing of these two churches is exposed in the other comments Jesus makes to them.
(5) The fifth thing Jesus does in each letter to the seven churches is to issue a particular command (or series of commands) to the people of the church being addressed. These commands call upon the Christians in the churches to “wake up” (3:2) from their apathy, to “remember” (2:5; 3:3) all they have received in Jesus Christ, to “be faithful” (2:10) in persevering, to “hold fast” (2:25; 3:11) to the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. In other words, the Christians in the churches are commanded to “repent” (2:5,16,21,22; 3:3,17). They are not merely encouraged to have remorse or regret and consider changing their ways. The only appropriate response to God in light of the sin of failing to allow Jesus to be all and do all as the living Lord in the life of a Christian is repentance. Repentance is a “change of mind (metanoia) that leads to a change of action.” The “change of mind” is the recognition that “I can’t; only Christ can” live the Christian life. The “change of action” is then to allow for that Christ-function, the outworking of the saving life of Jesus Christ in and through our behavior. This is one of the basic objectives of the Revelation, to call Christians in all the churches in every age to repentance for the sin of religiosity, the substitution of man’s actions instead of God’s action.
Of all the writers of the new covenant literature in the New Testament, John seems to have seen most clearly that man’s spiritual condition and behavioral expression are to be viewed in the polarized dichotomy of an either/or. In his first epistle he explains that “the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious” (I John 3:10). In his gospel he records Jesus telling the Jewish religionists that they were “of their father, the devil” (John 8:44); their father was not of the God of Abraham as they religiously claimed. John saw clearly that all men are identified either with God or the devil. They function either by Christ or by Satan. They are either for Christ or against Him (Matt. 12:30). They are either “sons of God” or “worshippers of the Beast,” participating and living either in Babylon or the New Jerusalem, related and interacting either with the Harlot or with the Bride, as John uses the images later in the Revelation. We participate in either Christianity or religion either/or! That is why religion cannot be tolerated in the church of Jesus Christ. We must not be fraternizing with the enemy, and employing his techniques and tactic.
(6) The sixth element of each letter is the call to discernment. In every case Jesus says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Jesus wants Christians to listen, to be spiritually attuned, to what He, the Spirit of Christ, is directing in their lives, so as to be all and do all in them.
Jesus is encouraging obedience, the “obedience of faith.”Obedience in the new covenant means to “listen under,” derived from the Greek word hupakouo. We are to “listen under” the guiding direction of the Spirit of Christ, and respond with faith which allows for the receptivity of His activity in our behavior.
To the original disciples in the Upper Room, Jesus indicated that He would send the Holy Spirit, and “the Holy Spirit will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said...” (John 14:26; cf. I John 2:27); “the Spirit will guide you into all truth...He will take of Mine and disclose it to you...He will glorify Me” (John 16:13-15). Paul explained to the Corinthians that we “have received...the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God...taught by the Spirit...spiritually appraised”
(I Cor. 2:12-14).
Jesus calls Christians to be spiritually discerning, particularly to the Satanic subtlety of allowing religion to be substituted for, and to usurp the vital dynamic of the life of Jesus Christ in Christians. Frankly, there is not much discernment among Christians today! Most Christians cannot even tell the difference between Christianity and religion.
Note also that Jesus tells the Christians in each church to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (plural). They are not just to listen to the particular message directed at the revealing of their own religiosity, but to listen to all that the Spirit says to all the churches, so as to be discerning about other forms of religion also. As the seven churches are representative of all churches in every age, this is a call for all Christians to be spiritually discerning concerning the radical difference between religion and Christianity.
(7) Finally, Jesus makes a promise(or promises) to each church addressed, based on their willingness to identify with Him, the Overcomer (John 16:33), and thus to “overcome the Evil One” (I John 2:13) and to overcome the temptation to succumb to Satan’s seditious substitute of religion. Even in the promises Jesus reveals that He knows what the real need of each church is, and He seeks to counter their particular propensity for religiosity by promising what they really need.
What we really need, of course, has been provided in Jesus Christ Himself. We do not need anything more. All the promises of God are affirmed and fulfilled in Jesus Christ (II Cor. 1:20). Although we have the promises of God in Jesus Christ and can participate in the spiritual realities of those promises presently, there is also a “not yet” unhindered experience of those realities for which we hope and expectantly await in the future. The verbs used in most of the promises to the churches are in the future tense.
The contingency for full participation in the promises is the obedient faithfulness which repents of looking to and relying upon anything other than Jesus Christ for our sufficiency of living and for the operation of the church. In such repentance we will overcome the temptation to revert to religion and will depend upon Jesus Christ alone as the King who reigns within us (Luke 17:21) and within His church.
"I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if any man eats of this bread, he shall live forever" (John 48-51). Our spiritually sustaining nourishment for living as Christians is to be found in Jesus Christ alone. Religion often offers a substitute diet whereby people can get "fed" on a particular creedal doctrines and supposedly orthodox expositions of
Scripture. Christians must never settle for anything less than the sustaining of the "hidden manna," the "bread of life," the dynamic provision of the life of Jesus Christ by His Spirit. The fulfillment of this promise of spiritual nourishment and sustenance is experienced only by those who partake only of Jesus Christ.
What is the white stone with a new name written on it, which Jesus promises? Where as religion extends "stones instead of sustenance" (Matt. 7:9), and they always attempt to "make a name for themselves," Jesus promises faithful Christians godly character bearing the name of Christ. The prophet said we would "be called by a new name" (Isa. 62:2; 65:15). Indeed we are ! We are called Christ-ones, Christians, and no one understands what that means unless they have received the life of Jesus Christ into their spirit. A Christian is not an individual who has "got religion," or "joined a church" or repeated a creed, or said "the sinners prayer" or been baptized in water. Rather, a Christian is a person who has received the Spirit of Christ into their spirit (Rom.8:9), and then lives by that indwelling Christ-life, manifesting the character of God in their behavior to the glory of God. That is what Jesus wanted to see in the Christians of the churches of Revelations and in Christians of every location in every age.
Few things are better organized than religious programs and activities, and there is little life in them. A church may be very busy and very active, and it will appear to undiscerning people that such a church is really "alive," but despite the frenetic activity of performance and productivity that church might be very "dead," because they are not deriving what they do from the life of Jesus Christ.
Life is in Jesus Christ alone. Jesus said "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25); "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6). Paul explained that "for me to live is Christ" (Phil. 1:21); "Christ is our life" (Col. 3:4). Unless our activity, whether individually or collectively, is the "manifestation of the life of Jesus" (II Cor. 4:10,11), then it is not the expression of life. Activities that are not derived from the life of Jesus Christ are but the expression of "dead works" (Heb.9:14); they "bring forth death" (James 1:15). Religious activities may appear to be so "alive" with enthusiasm and excitement, but if they are not activated by the life and character of Jesus Christ Himself by His Spirit, they are a "dead loss." Religion propagates a pseudo-life that appears to be "alive," but is actually dead because it is devoid of the divine life of God in Christ. Lifeless religion is so deceiving because the undiscerning think it is alive, when it is really dead.
God's purpose is to have the fruit of His character to be expressed in the behavior of His people unto His own glory, and the failure to allow for such is a misuse of humanity.
Satan can so subtly deceive them into religious practices, rather than living out the life of Jesus Christ. Peter advised Christians to "be watching" because "your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (I Peter 5:8). Jesus told His disciples, "Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). Paul encouraged us to "Be watching, stand firm in the faith..." (I Cor. 16:13). We are to be "on watch" against ungodly forces, and the religious methodologies that Satan inspires.
Paul exhorted the Thessalonian Christians to "comfort and strengthen their hearts in every good work and word" (I Thess. 2:17), and then turned around and wrote, "The Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen you" (I Thess. 3:3). So it is that Jesus is not asking the Christians to do anything that He is not willing to do in them, if they are willing in faith. "The Lord of all grace...will establish you" (I Peter 5:10; Rom. 16:25).
A command of Jesus to Christians is to "remember what you have received and heard" (Rev 3:3).What had they received and heard which they are now to remember? Had they received an ideological belief-system, or a morality code, or membership in an organization, or a ticket to heaven? No, that is what religion offers.These Christians had received Jesus Christ by faith not according to the basic principles of the world (John 1:12; Col. 2:6-8), and heard His call upon their lives. They were to "remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead" (II Tim. 2:8).
Complacent and self-sufficient thinking has to be exchanged for the recognition that only the activity of Christ in you was pleasing to God. Whenever religion has permeated the life of a church there must be repentance to reverse the direction of the church and allow them to return to faith.
"But," Jesus observes, "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" (Rev 3:4). In almost every church situation there are the "faithful few," who have continued to walk in the purity of Christ, "hating the garment polluted by the flesh" (Jude 23) and "keeping themselves unstained by the world"(James 1:27). When we become Christians we "put on the new man" (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10) and are clothed in His righteousness, holiness, love, joy, peace, etc. Whenever we revert to the practice of religion we are clothed instead with self-effort, self-justification and self-adulation. Such behavioral garments are soiled, stained and polluted by the satanic motivation of the flesh in conjunction with his world-system.
Those who repudiate such soiled garments of religion are promised by the Lord Jesus Christ that they "will walk with Him in white, for they are worthy" (Rev 3:4). They will allow the purity of Christ's character of godliness and holiness to be expressed in their behavior. It is not that they are "worthy" because of any meritorious action on their own part, but they are "worthy" because they are relying on the "Worthy One," Jesus Christ, to be operative in them. Only thus can any Christian "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work" (Col. 1:10), "walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls us into His kingdom and glory" (I Thess. 2:12), "walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called" (Eph. 4:1), and be "considered worthy of the kingdom of God..." (II Thess. 1:5).
Religion often considers "worthiness" to be based on natural talents and the performance of service and contribution. A person is then considered "worthy" of being considered for a higher position in the church and "worthy" of being honored before men. They know nothing of the
"worthiness" that is derived only from the "Worthy One" living in and acting through the Christian.
The promise of Jesus to the church at Sardis and all Christians is continued with a three-part promise: "He who overcomes shall 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" (Rev 3:5).
Christians who overcome the temptation to revert to religion by maintaining their association with the Overcomer (John 16:33) will be clothed in "white garments," representing the purity of the character of Christ. Religion, on the other hand, concerns itself with external activity and clothing rather than the character of Christ. Pre-occupied with ecclesiastical robes and garments and with people wearing "Sunday-go-to-meeting" clothes, religion inevitably emphasizes the external rather than the internal. Jesus is concerned that we be clothed internally with His character.
All of what Jesus promises can only transpire by our listening carefully with spiritual discernment to what Jesus is saying by His Spirit. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev 3:6). Such "listening under" the Spirit of Christ will issue forth in obedience that glorifies God as the life of Jesus Christ is lived out through us.
Grace to you and peace, -
This is a typical salutation from Christian letters of that day, as can be seen throughout the letters of Paul. "Grace" is more than a wish for God's graciousness and mercy. In Christian usage it is God's activity by the risen Lord Jesus, in accord with His character. It is the operative dynamic of Christianity, in contrast to the human performance of "religion," with its "works" of self-effort. "Peace" is likewise more than just a "shalom" greeting. Christ is our peace, as He provides the functionality of God at work in man and among men. It is the "peace of God that surpasses all comprehension" (Phil. 4:7), in contrast to the frustration of "religion."