Read the Passage: Revelation 2-3
Reminder: Revelation is structured around seven parallel sections, each describing the time between Jesus’ first and second comings. These sections can be delineated into chapters 1–3, 4–7, 8–11, 12–14, 15–16, 17–19, and 20–22.
The Seven Churches – The seven churches mentioned in Rev. 2–3 were real churches, but are also paradigmatic for seven types of churches throughout history. Note that each of these congregations likely began as a result of Paul’s missionary efforts. Jesus’ address to these churches follows a similar six-component pattern: salutation, self-designation, commendation/condemnation, warning, exhortation, promise. Observe that there is no commendation to the church in Laodicia and no condemnation to churches in Smyrna or Philadelphia. As we study these two chapters, keep in mind the fact that the conditions within and around these churches is present in churches throughout all ages.
Ephesus: The Loveless Church (2:1–7) – Paul had begun this church on his second missionary journey, and had ministered there for three full years (cf. Acts 18:19–20; 19–20). This was also the church at which John had ministered for several decades, Timothy had pastored, Apollos had preached to, and Aquila and Priscilla had served. Jesus praises these believers for their intolerance of false teachers, as they apparently had heeded Paul’s warning in Acts 20:29–30. Yet, their sound theology had become cold, mechanical orthodoxy. Possibly, Nicolas was an apostate deacon who taught sexual self-indulgence (cf. Acts 6:5). Observe that whereas Ephesus had resisted such false teachings, the church at Pergamos had evidently accepted them (cf. Rev. 2:15).
Smyrna: The Persecuted Church (2:8–11) – Smyrna was a cultural and commercial center, known for its loyalty to Rome. History records that there was a large Jewish community in Smyrna. The pastor of this church at this time was a man named Polycarp, who was a disciple of John. He would later become a martyr at the age of 86 at the hands of the Roman authorities. Here Jesus comforts these believers by telling them He is aware of their situation. Christ also reminds this congregation about their spiritual treasure in Him. The mention of tribulation for ten days in this passage (cf. Rev. 2:10) is a reference to believers’ trials being of a relatively short, definite, and fixed duration. From this teaching we can conclude that God is sovereign over trials.
Pergamos: The Compromising Church (2:12–17) – Pergamos was the capital city of the Roman province of Asia. As such, it was the seat of Roman government in Asia Minor, as well as home to many pagan altars. Christians were persecuted in Pergamos for failure to worship Caesar, including a man named Antipas, who was likely the pastor of this church. The believers in Pergamos had erred in compromising with the culture, elevating personal liberty above love of neighbors, and being sexually immoral. Note that the “hidden manna” (Rev. 2:17) promised in this passage is Jesus Himself (cf. John 6:33), while the “white stone” (Rev. 2:17) refers to the permanent purity that comes with being imputed with the righteousness of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17–21; Rev. 3:12; 19:12).
Thyatira: The Corrupt Church (2:18–29) – Thyatira was a city located between Pergamos and Sardis, in the middle of a large plain. It served as a military outpost in defense of the capital city of Pergamos. Thyatira was also a center of commerce—recall that Lydia was from Thyatira (cf. Acts 16:14). History records that this city had many trade guilds that expected members to participate in worship, feasts, and drunken orgies. A woman in this church named Jezebel—a name associated with immorality throughout Scripture (cf. 1 Ki. 17–19)—was encouraging believers to participate in the immoral activities of the trade guilds. In this passage Jesus confronts the church for failing to confront Jezebel. Note that the “morning star” in this passage refers to Christ (cf. 2 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 22:16).
Sardis: The Dead Church (3:1–6) – Sardis was located on a 1,500 foot hill with sheer cliffs and only one access road. Understandably, its inhabitants were arrogant and over-confident in their own security. Twice in history, in 549 BC and in 218 BC, Sardis was successfully attacked when skilled enemy climbers ascended its cliffs at night. Jesus threatens a similar night-time attack because of the deadness of the church. Along with the city itself, which was decaying due to its limited and confined real estate, this church had become dead. Surely this church had forms of worship, but there was no substance. It was likely a peaceful church, but its peace was the peace of a cemetery. Nevertheless, this passage notes that there were a few believers left in Sardis.
Philadelphia: The Faithful Church (3:7–13) – Like the congregation in Smyrna, who were also being persecuted by the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9; 3:9), so Jesus gives no word of condemnation to the believers in Philadelphia. Though history records that this church was small, Jesus had “set before [them] an open door” (Rev. 3:8) of ministry. Indeed, despite the rejection and persecution they were experiencing, Christ promised victory and preservation for the church in Philadelphia. The reference to being kept from “the hour of trial which shall come upon the world” (Rev. 3:10) is best understood as a reference to salvation from eternal judgment, similar to what Jesus had promised to the faithful Christians who were in Sardis (cf. Rev. 3:5; Isa. 43:1–2).
Laodicia: The Lukewarm Church (3:14–22) – Laodicea is the only church to which Jesus gives no commendation. observe that Laodicea was an extremely wealthy city, as it was at the crossroads of three highways and became a center of commercial trade. A medical college was nearby Laodicea that was well-known for curing eye problems. Yet, ironically, the inhabitants of this city—even many in the church—were proud and conceited; thus, they were blind and unable to see their own sin. Jesus tells the believers in this worldly city that they are “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). As God had done through Isaiah in the Old Testament (cf. Isa. 55:1–2), so here Jesus invites the Laodiceans to come to Him in order to receive real wealth.
- Have you been part of a church in the past that is similar to one of the churches John describes in Rev. 2–3? If so, what happened to the church?
- What does the refrain in these two chapters about having “an ear to hear” mean? Do unbelievers have an ear to hear? Do most believers have an ear to hear?
- What is the biblical model for confronting sin? What can we learn from Jesus’ pattern in Rev. 2–3 of commending before confronting?
- What types of things cause faithful churches to go astray? Do first century temptations of believers differ much from modern-day temptations?
- How can we discern when it is best to be long-suffering and patient in regard to immaturity and sin, and when it is better to confront sin in others’ lives?