The Seven Churches



This is week three of our tour of Revelation,
and we’re going to be in Revelation 2 and 3 today.

There are seven short letters written to seven churches
in the second and third chapters of Revelation.

Rather than reading all of them,
today we’re going to listen to the first letter and the last letter and then reflect briefly on what these two chapters mean.

(2.1-7) “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

And then skip ahead to the end of chapter three:

(3.14-22) “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 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. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Chapters two and three are the place
where we remember that Revelation is a letter.

We just listened to the first and last of seven short letters,
but the entire book of Revelation is a letter.

That’s easy to overlook.

And it’s a letter is written in a particular style.

Like we mentioned last week,
Revelation’s writing style—its genre—
is called first century apocalyptic literature.

We’re all familiar with styles and genres:
drama and science fiction and horror and vampire romance.

(Thankfully that last one seems to be less popular these days.)

Well, Revelation is a particular genre:
it’s a first-century apocalypse.

That’s something important to remember
as we see its wild, cartoonish pictures,
as we hear the way it uses colors and numbers,
as we process its strange scenes and patterns.

But Revelation is also a letter.

[slide #1]
It’s a message from Jesus through a guy named John
to a cluster of churches in the western half of Asia Minor
the present-day country of Turkey.

Jesus sends this message
in a style and genre they would recognize,
but it’s written to particular communities in particular places.

We heard Jesus tell John to write to them
last week in verse 11 of chapter 1.

“I want you to write to seven churches
in a particular corner of the Roman Empire.”

[slide #2]
Geographically, these seven communities are quite close together.

Whomever John recruited to carry this letter for him,
would have taken this letter from one church to the next to the next.

Because all together these seven churches
form a rough patha rough circuit.

You can see Patmos there on the lower left.

You sail into Ephesus,
you hit the bustling sea-port of Smyrna before heading inland,
and traveling to Pergamum and Thyatira and Sardis
and Philadelphia and Laodicea.

Revelation is ancient mail.

That’s easy to lose sight of,
but it’s worth remembering.

Whatever Revelation is
it’s something that these seven churches
would have understood.

Revelation isn’t a coded puzzle
originally meant for comfortable Christians
in the twenty-first century.

Revelation is a stylized letter
originally meant for struggling Christians
in the first century.

Any understanding of Revelation
that sounds like these historic churches
would have no clue what John—what Jesus—is talking about
probably isn’t the best way of understanding Revelation.

This is ancient mail.

If we can’t imagine the original hearers of Revelation
understanding our interpretation of this letter,
then one of two things needs to be rethought.

Either Jesus needs to rethink his way of writing letters
or we need to rethink the way we understand letter.

It’s incredibly likely that the original churches
understood this letter far easier than we do.

We have to do an unbelievable amount of background work
not only to understand the style of this letter
but also the culture and history and language of these churches.

The original hearers of this letter didn’t have to learn Greek
or get a crash course in first-century Greco-Roman culture
or learn brush up on their history to understand this letter.

They were just living it.

The church in Ephesus (v6)
knew who the group called “Nicolaitans” were.

We don’t.

We can make good guesses
that they were teaching that compromises
could be made with Roman culture
so that you could live comfortably and avoid persecution.

But where we have to break our backs
learning history and piecing together and making guesses
they would just have understood.

They were living it.
Those were just the details of their lives.

When we read the Laodicean’s mail,
we have to get a history lesson to learn that
their city was in a great location for economic trade
but their city in a terrible location for water.

They had a city booming with all kinds of business
finance and banking and specialized textiles and clothing.

They were even on the cutting edge of medicine
and known throughout the region as the go-to place
for ophthalmology and eye health.

If your eyes were bothering you,
you wanted Laodicean eye salve.

Verse 17 is totally right:

They considered themselves
rich and almost without need.

But the one thing they didn’t have was good water.

Their neighbors in Hierapolis
had access to therapeutic hot springs,

and their other neighbors in Colossae
had access to clean, cold water,

but the only nearby water for Laodicea
was a small spring of lukewarm lime water.

A mineral water that made people sick.

We have to do background research
to realize that Jesus is saying (v16)
that they’re behaving a lot like
the very water they hate.

The water that makes them nauseous.
The water that isn’t good for much.

They hated that stupid lukewarm water.

And so when Jesus tells them
that they’ve become what they hate—

That they think their rich
but they’re actually pitiful and naked and blind (v17)
and tells them to get gold and clothing and eye salve from him (v18),

All of that landed.
They just understood it.

Those were the details of their lives.

We have to do a ton of work to understand and appreciate
things that the landed immediately for the original hearers.

The book of Revelation is ancient mail,
and we need to approach it that way.

When we read all of Revelationnot just chapters two and three
we need to remember God is speaking to more than us.

Originally God was speaking
to seven historic communities.

If we’re reading the book in a way that they couldn’t understand—in a way that only relates to twenty-first century Americans—we’re probably not reading it right.

But this ancient mail isn’t written only
to first-century Christians in Asia Minor.

Jesus has chosen his communities carefully.

John is writing to seven churches.

That’s a loaded, symbolic number in Revelation.

It’s a number representing
wholeness and completeness.

John is giving us a clue
that Revelation is addressed to MORE
than just these historic churches.

Jesus is addressing the whole church—the complete church.

Wherever people are following Jesus,
whenever people are following Jesus,
those are the people to whom Revelation speaks.

I think there’s a lot that we can learn from the way
that Jesus addresses these seven historic communities

we could spend weeks or months reflecting on just these two chapters—
but we’re going to limit ourselves just to saying one thing:

[slide #3]
The Church
is at the heart
of how Jesus saves.

The importance of the church is central
not only the book of Revelation
but to the earliest Christians in general.

All of their writings—the entire New Testament
they never present us with a privatized faith.

As true as it is that
Jesus cares about and relates to
each one of us individually and personally

the early church placed very little emphasis on
having “personal relationship with Jesus.”

What was central to the earliest Christians
was participation in the people of God.

They insisted that
God is saving the world
through a particular group of people.

Do you want to be a part of that people?

Will you allow the Spirit of God
to include you in—to graft you into
this group of people?

Today it’s incredibly common
to hear a lot of people say that
they like Jesus but they don’t like the church.

Even people who are devout Christians
and involved in some kind of local church
will say this sort of thing.

The really important thing
is my “personal relationship” with God.

My reading the Bible, my prayer time,
my times of worship, my helping the poor,
my personal choices and morality.

But as far as participating in the local church goes…
that’s a like an optional kind of club.

The church is like a awkward kind of Christian club
that I sometimes attend… but it’s not really central.

But this kind of thinking is completely foreign
to earliest Christians and the New Testament.

Jesus doesn’t address
individual Christians
here in Revelation.

[slide #4]
The lampstands
shining light into the world

are Churches not Christians.

The lampstands
not individuals.

Not even particular superstar Christians
like Tim Tebow or Martin Luther King Jr.—

not even they are THE light of the world.

It’s the Church—in all its local expressions—
is the light of the world.

The book of Revelation begins with a grand vision of Christ
and ends with a grand vision of heaven transforming the world.

That’s the good news—
that’s the gospel.

That we can’t save ourselves—
we can’t save the world—
but we trust that Jesus will.

But sandwiched between the grand vision of Love himself
and the vision of Love coming to remake the world
we find something we wouldn’t expect.

We find the seemingly unimportant,
obviously imperfect,
dull, petty, boring,
local church.

The local church?

That’s something we would rather skip past.

Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

[slide #5]
We want a Christ who is pure goodness, beauty, and truth. We prefer to worship him under a caress of a stunning sunset, or with the inspiring tonalities of a soaring symphony, or by means of a penetrating poetry. We would like to put as much distance as possible between our worship of Christ and the indifferent hymn singing and fussy moralism which somehow always get into the church. We are ardent after God but cool towards the church. It is not irreligion or indifference that keeps many away from the church, but just the opposite: the church is perceived and experienced as a carcinogenic pollutant in the air of religion. Many people, wanting to nurture faith in God, instead of entering the company of saints who look and act a lot more like sinners, take a long walk on an ocean beach or hike a high mountain or immerse themselves in Dostoyevsky or Stravinsky or Georgia O’Keeffe.

But to all this aspiring asceticism the Gospel says No: “Write to the seven churches.” We would prefer to go directly from the awesome vision of Christ (Rev. 1) to the glorious ecstasies of heaven (Rev. 4, 5) and then on to the grand victorious battles against dragon wickedness (Rev. 12-14) but we can’t do it. The church has to be negotiated first. The only way from Christ to heaven and the battles against sin is through the church.

I think Peterson is spot-on in this observation.

The gateway from
the grand vision of all-powerful, unstoppable Jesus
in first chapter of Revelation

that leads to the great battles ultimately leading
to the grand vision of unthinkable, cosmic salvation
in last two chapters of Revelation—

that gateway is through the church.

And this isn’t just true
about the macro structure of Revelation—
we also see this reflected on the micro-level of each letter.

We only read two of these letters
but the pattern is the same in every single one.

Every single letter begins by
reaching backward
and borrowing from
the first chapter’s vision of Jesus,

and every single letter ends
by reaching forward and anticipating
the last two chapters’ vision of heaven coming to earth.

In the two letters we read today,
we caught refractions and reflections

of the vision of Christ already given in chapter one.

(2.1) That Jesus walks among his lampstands holding their essence.
(3.14) That Jesus is the faithful and true witness.

If we had read all the letters in between Ephesus and Laodicea, we would glimpsed more reflections:

Pergamum sees the sharp, two-edged sword from the mouth (2.12),
Thyatria sees the eyes of fire and the Iron Man feet (2.18),
Sardis sees the seven Spirits of God (3.1).

Every single church sees and hears and experiences
bits and pieces from that complete vision of Jesus.

Every single letter reaches backward into that vision.

But then every letter also reaches forward
and anticipates the coming reality of God restoring all things.

(2.7) Ephesus hears promise of the tree of life.
(3.21) Laodicea hears promise of sharing a throne with Jesus.

These are echoes of something coming
at the end of history and the end of Revelation.

And the pattern holds true with all the other churches.

Smyrna hears of a “crown of life” and escaping the “second death” (2.10-11).
Philadelphia hears of a New Jerusalem coming down from heaven (3.12).

At the grandest and smallest of levels,
the local church is the heart where Jesus is at work.

The boring details
and the often stupid, sinful life of the local church
is where Jesus is at work

until his kingdom comes on earth as it is heaven.

That’s what we see in all seven of these letters.

Jesus at work.

In varying degrees and ways,
we find Jesus affirming and correcting and challenging.

Notice—Jesus is not
correcting and challenging
the world
or people in general.

No—it’s the Church
that Jesus affirms
and corrects and challenges.

Jesus says (3.20) that he stands at the door and knocks.

And despite the way this verse is often used,
Jesus isn’t talking to non-Christians.

Jesus wants the Church to let him in.

He wants to come in
and be with and dine with us—
with the people who bear his name.

He wants ustogetherto learn to obey him.

Us—together—as a community—the local church—
we are the primary place
where Jesus is at work.

The place where Jesus
guides and corrects and disciplines.

And Jesus disciplines us
for the exact same reason that I discipline Daphne
when she crawls over to an electrical socket and plays with wires.

Jesus disciplines us
because he loves us

He doesn’t want us to choose electrical sockets.
He doesn’t want us wandering into death.

Jesus wants us fully and forever alive.

And it’s in the boring details
and the often stupid, sinful life of the local church
that we find Jesus promising to make this happen.

The earliest Christians understood
that the Church isn’t an
awkward optional Christian club.

They saw that the Church is in the middle of
the Church is at the heart of
how Jesus saves.

How Jesus saves the world.

And even how Jesus saves us—
as individuals.

I think Eugene Peterson is right…
those of us who want the spiritual life
tend to want it pure and untainted.

But then we see the boringness
or the ugliness of the local church
and think, “That can’t be it…
that can’t be where Jesus is at work.”

We quietly think of the local church
as something like a pollutant
like a problem.

The local church becomes
this awkward optional thing

that’s often “in the way” of a spiritual life
that’s more pure.

[slide #6]
But what if the local church
is not in the way of
spiritual formation?

What if the local church is
precisely the way to
spiritual formation?

The local church
is important
because it’s real.

I think we often want to feel spiritual
more than we want to actually be Christlike.

Being involved in a local church
in the lives of the people around us
doesn’t always feel spiritual or special or sublime.

It’s often ugly.
It’s almost always boring.

There are dumb details
that we’d rather not deal with.

We’d rather hike in the mountains
or listen to music or read poetry
or talk about God at a coffee shop
or over a round of golf with people who are like us
and feel spiritual while we’re doing it.

When we come into the local church,
it often doesn’t feel spiritual.

But this—this is the place
where Jesus promises to be at work.

The ugly, boring,
dumb details of the local church—
of actually participating in other people’s lives—

people who aren’t like us,
people who wouldn’t normally be our friends
that’s the primary place where Jesus makes us like him.

But that’s the primary place
where the Spirit slowly—patiently—
begins to strip us of our selfishness
and make us like Christ.

The local church
is important
because it’s real.

It’s where real life happens
and it’s where Jesus really changes us.

These chapters remind us that
the local church is the gateway
to everything else.

The church
is at the heart of
how Jesus saves.

So may we hear what the Spirit says to the churches,

may the Father build us together
as his church in Westminster,

may we together glimpse a vision Jesus
that trains us for his never-ending kingdom of love,

and may the Spirit use
the boring, ugly, dumb details to make us Christlike
even when the church doesn’t feel spiritual.

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