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Bible Study: The Book of the Revelation – LESSON 2: THE LETTERS TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES 2:1–3:22 (Part 1)

Calvary Bible Church Bible Study

The Book of the Revelation

 

LESSON 2:  THE LETTERS TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES. 2:1–3:22. (Part 1)

There are seven churches chosen, because in Scripture seven is the number of completion. In these seven letters the Spirit gives a complete picture of the moral and spiritual history of the church (along with other truths), not only for that time, but for the church in general through the intervening years until the establishment of the Millennial Reign. The letters have seven exhortations to hear them, yet they are sadly neglected. The messages have spiritual, historical, and prophetic value. Since chapter 1 dealt with the things John saw—the risen Christ—and chapters 2–3 deal with the things that are, we can see that the outline given in 1:19 is truly being followed.  Each letter has four elements: (1) The manner in which Christ presents Himself; (2) the commendation (or condemnation) He gives; (3) the reward He promises; and (4) the exhortation to hear. The messages refer to distinct, historical churches in the province of Asia; they are timely. They also apply to types of believers in every age; they are timeless.

 

The Letter to the Church of Ephesus. 2:1–7.

vrs     1                  Ephesus was the main center of Grecian culture and heathen idolatry, and was a large and important city on the west coast of Asia Minor where the apostle Paul founded a church.  A number of factors contributed to the prominence that Ephesus enjoyed.  The first was economics. Situated at the mouth of the river Cayster, Ephesus was the most favorable seaport in the province of Asia and the most important trade center west of Tarsus. Today, because of silting from the river, the ruins of the city lie in a swamp 5 to 7 miles inland.  Another factor was size. Although Pergamum was the capital of the province of Asia in Roman times, Ephesus was the largest city in the province, having a population of perhaps 300,000 people.  A third factor was culture. Ephesus contained a theater that seated an estimated 25,000 people. A main thoroughfare, some 105 feet wide, ran from the theater to the harbor, at each end of which stood an impressive gate. The thoroughfare was flanked on each side by rows of columns 50 feet deep. Behind these columns were baths, gymnasiums, and impressive buildings.  The fourth, and perhaps most significant, reason for the prominence of Ephesus was religion. The Temple of Artemis (or Diana, according to her Roman name) at Ephesus ranked as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. As the twin sister of Apollo and the daughter of Zeus, Artemis was known variously as the moon goddess, the goddess of hunting, and the patroness of young girls. The temple at Ephesus housed the image of Artemis that was reputed to have come directly from Zeus (Acts 19:35).  The temple of Artemis in Paul’s day was supported by 127 columns, each of them 197 feet high. The Ephesians took great pride in this grand edifice. During the Roman period, they promoted the worship of Artemis by minting coins with the inscription, “Diana of Ephesus.”  The history of Christianity at Ephesus began about 50 A.D., perhaps as a result of the efforts of Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18). Paul came to Ephesus in about 52 A.D., establishing a resident ministry for the better part of three years (Acts 20:31). During his Ephesian ministry, Paul wrote the letter of 1st Corinthians.  The Book of Acts reports that “all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:10), while Paul taught during the hot midday hours in the lecture hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). Influence from his ministry undoubtedly resulted in the founding of churches in the Lycus River valley at Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colossae.

 

So influential, in fact, was Paul’s ministry at Ephesus that the silversmiths’ league, which fashioned souvenirs of the temple, feared that the preaching of the gospel would undermine the great temple of Artemis (Acts 19:27). As a result, one of the silversmiths, a man named Demetrius, stirred up a riot against Paul.  During his stay in Ephesus, Paul encountered both great opportunities and great dangers. He baptized believers who apparently came to know the gospel through disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1–5), and he countered the strong influence of magic in Ephesus (Acts 19:11–20).

After Paul departed from Ephesus, Timothy remained to combat false teaching (1st  Timothy 1:3; 2nd Timothy 4:3; Acts 20:29). Many traditions testify that the apostle John lived in Ephesus toward the end of the first century.  In his vision (this Revelation), John describes the church of Ephesus as flourishing, although it was troubled with false teachers and had lost its first love.  In the sixth century A.D. the Roman emperor Justinian (A.D. 527–565) raised a magnificent church to John’s memory in this city.

 

Ephesus continued to play a prominent role in the history of the early church. A long line of bishops in the Eastern church lived there.  In 431 A.D. the Council of Ephesus officially condemned the Nestorian heresy, which taught that there were two separate persons, one divine and one human, in the person of Jesus Christ.

 

Christ is seen here in His proper place of guiding, controlling, and ruling over all. His servants are secure, since He holds them firmly in His right hand. Outwardly, everything is in proper order.

 

vrs     2–3              “I know thy works … labor … patience.”  In each letter it is indicated that Christ has absolute knowledge of what transpires in each local congregation. Deeds, toil, and perseverance are all virtues. Moreover, the Ephesians put to the test those claiming apostolic authority. The apostles were dying, and perhaps John was the only one left. The Ephesians kept their doctrine pure.  Further commendation is stated in verse 6, because the Ephesians hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans (literally, “conquerors of the people”); an early heretical sect made up of followers of Nicolas, who was possibly the deacon of Acts 6:5. The group is mentioned explicitly only in the  Revelation, where it is equated with a group holding “the doctrine of Balaam,” who taught Israel “to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.”

 

Balaam was responsible for the cohabitation of the men of Israel with the women of Moab (Numbers 25:1–2; 31:16). Therefore, the error of this group was more in the moral realm rather than doctrinal.  If the “Jezebel” of Revelation 2:20–23 was a teacher of this sect, as many believe, their sexual laxity was indeed strong.  Most likely, they were a group of anti-law practitioners who supported a freedom that became self-indulgence (see Romans 6:1-4, 1st Corinthians 6:12-20).  It may have been the same heresy condemned in 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11. Some early church leaders believed the Nicolaitans later became a Gnostic sect.

 

vrs     4                  In spite of all the commendable qualities of this church, there was one vital lack: they had left their first love.  Their hearts were drifting away from Christ. The first love is marked by its all-engrossing quality, fervency, and constancy. It can be seen in the words of Philippians 1:21. The first danger sign for any believer is to grow cold toward Christ. A church may have great zeal and activity, soundness of doctrine and practice, yet have its first love for Christ on the decline. It is subtle. Love looks for love, and meticulous care with doctrine and discipline will not take its place. Loss of first love can be so easily followed by evils in doctrine and practice. Christ will have all the believer’s love or none (Luke 10:38–42).

 

vrs     5-6               The church is commanded to repent or suffer removal. This does not mean that individuals lose their salvation, but the local church as a group can forfeit its position and privilege of light-bearing and witness.   In current times, Ephesus is a city now wrapped in the mantle of Islam. The light of the church has indeed been removed, and it has no witness whatsoever.

 

vrs     7                  He that hath an ear. It is clear that the message and warning of this church were for all in that day, but the admonition is pertinent to all believers today. The paradise of God expresses the blessedness of heaven. Possibly, Ephesus had tried to make her Paradise here on earth and so allowed her love to grow cold (Colossians 3:1–2).

 

 

The Letter to the Church of Smyrna. 2:8–11.

vrs     8                  The letter to Smyrna is the shortest of the letters.  Smyrna was originally an Ionian settlement that passed into decline in the process of time. Rebuilt by Alexander the Great and Antigonus I, it became immediately wealthy and famous. It was about forty miles north of Ephesus. In some respects, it was the rival of Ephesus. Because of its natural and commercial situation, its wealth, commerce, and splendid buildings, it was called “the beautiful.”  It was not far behind Ephesus in idolatry. This city is not named in the Acts or the epistles of Paul; so it is not known when the gospel was first preached there. The Roman imperial laws against Christianity were strenuously enforced in Smyrna. The persecutions of believers in Asia Minor were centered here.  Polycarp, friend of John and the last disciple who knew the apostle personally, is said to have been slain here in 168 A.D..  Christ’s eternal nature and deity are expressed in absolute terms. The infinite Savior is supreme before all things and all time. He is also the last as the goal of all things (Romans 11:36). His great triumph over death is next stated. He has destroyed death and its power. How important that Christ should be revealed in this light to the suffering and persecuted church. It was the period of the Roman persecutions of the church which lasted for two centuries. Smyrna means “myrrh,” which must be crushed to give forth its fragrance. In the martyr age the church yielded a sweet fragrance to God (2nd Corinthians 2:14–16).

 

vrs     9                  The Lord informs them that He knows their works, and tribulation (Greek  “thlipsis”, a word that conveys the idea of pressing grapes until the juice comes forth). Christ has gone to the utmost depths of suffering and death. He sometimes permits trials in order to rekindle lost first love (Psalm 119:67). Furthermore, He knows their poverty (2nd Corinthians 8:9); they had, like Hebrew believers of a former time (Hebrews 10:34), suffered the loss of everything.  Confiscation of goods attended and followed persecution. But they are reminded that though poor in worldly goods, they were rich in faith (1st Corinthians 3:21–23). The risen Christ informs them that He knows the reviling of the synagogue of Satan. The reference is not to the Jewish nation in general. What is meant is the legalizing, Judaizing movement of the early Christian era, which stemmed from a Pharisaical drive to replace faith and relationship with God with outward formalism and sterile obedience. It was found in Galatianism, which made its appearance in the apostolic and post-apostolic age, because men tried to dilute the grace of God with legalism and ceremonialism. Satan’s synagogue is in opposition here to the true church of God. Satan attacked this church from without by persecution and from within by perversion of doctrine. The evil had evidently not made inroads into this church, for there is no censure or command to repent.

 

vrs     10                It is interesting that there is no word that the Smyrnans would escape their suffering. But even more, they are told their trials would be increased. They were tortured, exposed to wild bulls and lions that tore them to pieces. In the Roman Empire, imprisonment was not a form of punishment as today, because the government was not willing to support a multitude of prisoners. A man in prison was either awaiting his trial or death. As for the ten days, there were ten persecutions from Nero to Diocletian (312 A.D.). They were under Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Antoninus, Severus, Maximian, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian. Too, Diocletian’s persecution lasted ten years.  They are encouraged to be thou faithful unto death, not just as long as they lived, but even if it cost them their lives. The call speaks not of extensiveness, but of intensity. In the Old Testament saints were delivered from death (Job 2:6; Daniel 3:19–30; 6:16–24), but in the New Testament they triumph over death. Their hope was to be dependent on the Lord. The reward was to be a crown of life. Christ Himself, faithful until death, was crowned with life on resurrection morning. Believers may be rewarded with one or more of five crowns (2:10; 4:4; 2nd Timothy 4:8; James 1:12; 1st Peter 5:4).

 

vrs     11                The second death is eternal death in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:6 and 14, 21:8). It is the portion of all the unsaved. Notice how well this promise is suited to those who were threatened with the first death.

 

 

The Letter to the Church of Pergamos. 2:12–17.

vrs     12                Pergamos lay to the north of Smyrna and was considered one of the finest cities of Asia. It had little or no commerce but was remarkable for its learning, refinement, and science, especially medicine. A number of kings made this their royal residence.  Its famous library, second only to that of Alexandria, consisted of 200,000 books. Ephesus and Smyrna were evil cities, but Pergamos was especially so in its idolatry. Here was to be found the renowned temple of Aesculapius in which the most prominent object was the wreathed serpent. The early science of medicine was identified with the worship of Satan who usurped the place and dignity of Christ, for they called Aesculapius the Preserver and Savior.  As Ephesus was the church of departed love and Smyrna the church of fiery persecutions, so Pergamos (meaning marriage) was the church of worldly alliance.  Christ is revealed as the One which hath the sharp sword with two edges. This is undoubtedly the Word of God (John 5:22, 27; Hebrews 4:12). Since this church is tolerating error, it needs to have the measuring rule of God’s Word brought into action.

 

vrs     13                Satan’s throne speaks of his usurped world power. He is identified in Scripture as the prince of this world (Matthew 4:8–9; 2nd Corinthians 4:4). In the first centuries of the church Satan tried to destroy the church by persecution. In the next centuries he tried to ruin her testimony by patronage without and false principles within. The Roman Emperor Constantine’s attitude (he was the Emperor who supposedly became a Christian and declared Christianity to be the official state religion) toward the church brought into it many who were pagan at heart. Gibbon, in his famous work on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, stated: “The salvation of the common people was purchased at an easy rate, if it be true that in one year 12,000 men were baptized at Rome, besides a proportional number of women and children, and that a white garment with twenty pieces of gold had been promised by the emperor to every convert.”  In many cases, heathens were won over by adoption of pagan rites and festivals as parts of Christian worship. The union of church and state has wrought havoc wherever introduced, as attested in ancient times and to this day.  The commendation of Antipas (literally, “against all”), my faithful martyr, is explicit indeed. He is unknown to us, but God knows all His faithful witnesses.

 

 

vrs     14-15           In Ephesus there was one cause of censure; here Christ has several.  Pergamos was one of the fulfillment’s of Paul’s warning in Acts 20:29–30. Notice the decline from Ephesus where the deeds of the Nicolaitans were hated, to Pergamos where their teaching was held and tolerated. It appears that the teaching of Balaam and that of the Nicolaitans are distinct, but they have the same disastrous results. Numbers 25:1–9 gives a clear picture of the union of church and state. Balaam taught Balak how to draw Israel away from their position of separation (Numbers 23:9).

 

vrs     16                “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly.” The church was called upon to exercise its discipline. The coming mentioned is a judicial visitation in speedy judgment according to the Word of God.

 

vrs     17                Manna (lit., What is it?) in the Old Testament was not hidden. For 12,500 mornings the Lord rained this bread from heaven for His people. It was later preserved (Exodus 16:33; Hebrews 9:4). Notice the contrast between the hidden manna (type of Christ, John 6) and the public glory of union with the world. To go to the place of separation with Christ, the hidden manna, is greater gain than consorting with the world. The white stone is a mark of Middle Eastern hospitality, representing an invitation that was exchanged between true friends.  To be able to present the stone guaranteed immediate entrance and hospitality from the one who originally gave it.  The “new name” written on the stone reflects our change of family and status because we have been given the “adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4-7).  We are made “joint-heirs” with Christ (Romans 8:14-17), and have been brought into God’s family .  Our “new name” reflects this change, and would be something similar to, “Your earthly name, son of God, son of Judah (or Levi)” since you have been made a king (Judah) and a priest (Levi).  The tribal identification is important because the gates of the New Jerusalem are identified by the 12 tribes of Israel (Revelation 21:12).  Which gate will you enter by?  The most important part of this name change is our transfer from the “world’s family” (see John 8:38-44) to the family of God.

 

The Letter to the Church of Thyatira. 2:18–29.

vrs     18                Thyatira lay southeast of Pergamos. Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamos were more noted than Thyatira, which, nevertheless, has an interest of its own. The city is first mentioned in connection with Paul’s missionary labors in Europe. His first convert on that continent was a woman of Thyatira, Lydia, a seller of purple, a commodity for which the city was famous (Acts 16:14). The city was founded by Seleucid I, the first of the Seleucid dynasty (early fourth century B.C.), although it had been inhabited before that time. It came to be a garrison city and military post because of its unfavorable natural condition—an open valley with great sloping hills of moderate elevation—which had to be strengthened in the interest of security. It is the longest of all the letters. It marks the beginning of the second group of letters in which the moral history goes on to the second coming of Christ. In this and the following letters the call to hear comes after the promise. The title the Son of God is used only here in the Revelation.  Thyatira, which means continual sacrifice, is the church of clerical domination.  When anyone is permitted to usurp the place of Christ, the emphasis must be placed on Him as Son of God, rather than the son of Mary. The title is meant to convey power and authority. The Savior is revealed as searching, penetrating, and judging. His eyes like unto a flame of fire discern evil, for He cannot tolerate it. His feet are like fine brass indicates that He stamps out evil with judgment (as a parallel, Isaiah 63:1–6).

 

vrs     19                This church has much evil in it, but Christ looks first at what can be commended. These are the strongest words of commendation addressed to any of the churches; Faith, patience, and works.

 

vrs     20                That woman Jezebel (1st Kings 19–21) was the wife of Ahab and the source of idolatry in Israel. Balaam attacked Israel from without; she, from within. Recall that she was a stranger in Israel; she was responsible for the worst idolatry in the nation, and she persecuted the servants of God.  “Which calleth herself (never called of God) a prophetess”, claiming infallibility in setting forth doctrine and new revelation from God.  This church leads people astray by her teaching; it points them away from divine authority to man’s. But there is still a remnant of the faithful bond servants of Christ. As a counterpart of Jezebel of old, there is a godless consorting with the world and an intricate system of worship of idols.

 

vrs     21                “Space to repent … she repented not.”  In His grace and forbearance God gave this church time to repent. Godly men called upon the church to repent, but she refused to do so. Therefore, there is no call to repent in this letter. Only judgment remains. This church remains apart from the truth of God until she is joined with all the systems of religious evil of the world.

 

vrs     22                “Except they repent of their deeds.”  In this portion there are three groups: Jezebel, those who dabble with her system (perhaps from a spirit of tolerance or unity), and her children, i.e., her adherents. Notice that her judgment is in the very place of her corruption.

 

vrs     23                “I will give unto every one of you according to your works.” The lesson given is both individual (to Thyatira) and general (to all the churches).

 

vrs     24                The rest in Thyatira are evidently a godly remnant who did not follow the corruption’s of the church, but rather denounced its unbiblical ways. In compassion, the Lord would lay none other burden on them; they were suffering much for the truth.

 

vrs     25                “Hold fast till I come.”  Since there is no hope that the corrupt church will repent, the godly in her can only look for the coming of the Lord in faithful holding to the truth.

 

vrs     26                “He that overcometh.”  Those who refuse the advantages of the world, which the ungodly prematurely enjoy, will yet enter into the ample privileges provided for them by Christ (2nd Timothy 2:12). Theirs will be a blessed portion in the coming kingdom of Christ on earth.

 

vrs     27                “Even as I received of my Father.”  Since this is not usurped authority, it will be enjoyed and will endure (Psalm 2:7–9).

 

vrs     28                The morning star (2nd Peter 1:19; Revelation 22:16).

 

vrs     29                He that hath an ear. The message to this church, as all the rest, has an application to all believers at all times.