Have you ever received a love letter — one that was honest? Probably not. Love letters usually express deep affection and extol the virtues of another.
Jesus sent seven such letters to churches mentioned in Revelation. In them He made numerous observations, revealing honesty about His people’s spiritual condition and readiness for His return. Jesus’ comments are harsh in places, but they can be seen as love letters because of the covenant between Him and the church, compared in Scripture to that of a groom and his bride.
Some years after Jesus ascended to heaven, Apostle John was exiled on the island of Patmos. There, in vision, Jesus dictated to him seven love letters addressed to the churches in Asia Minor. He is coming back for His bride, who “has made herself ready” and is clothed in fine linen (Revelation 19:7, 8). Therefore, these letters tell us everything about how we are to live as the church, anticipating the return of Christ.
Church, good and bad
Reading Revelation 2 and 3 is like reading someone else’s mail. In doing so, we gain important and compelling insight into Jesus’ will and the risk factors that can beset the very nature of church life, even to the point where Jesus regarded His church as hardly authentic or recognizable. We might better appreciate the exhortations as Jesus reached out to the emerging first century churches of God. What endearing similarities do we bear to those who pioneered in faith? What were they commended and criticized for? What were their strengths and assets, their weaknesses and liabilities? What might we learn from them?
Ephesus (2:1-7). The church at Ephesus was known for her toil and patience. Believers there could not bear evil and hated the false teachings of the Nicolaitans, but they had abandoned their first love. Thus, they are sadly remembered as being the loveless church. Imagine that with Jesus’ love for His bride, He had to contend with this lovelessness! Despite it, for those who overcame, Jesus promised the tree of life.
Smyrna (2:8-11). The church at Smyrna was known for her tribulation and poverty, slander by false religion, suffering, imprisonment, and death. Jesus gave no rebuke or correction. Instead, aware of their suffering, Jesus promised the overcomer that they will not be hurt by the second death.
Pergamum (2:12-17). Believers in Pergamum existed in a climate where Satan’s throne was. They were commended for holding fast to Jesus’ name, keeping the faith. Ironically, embedded in the church were the teachings of Balaam, inferring idolatry and sexual immorality. And unlike the church in Ephesus, some embraced the false teachings of the Nicolaitan doctrine. To those who overcame, Jesus promised a new name.
Thyatira (2:18-29). The church at Thyatira was commended for her works, love, faith, service, and patient endurance. Yet she tolerated a prophetess with a Jezebel spirit that led to seduction, idolatry, and the deep things of Satan. Even to these who overcame, Jesus promised authority over the nations and “the morning star.”
Sardis (3:1-6). The Sardis church had a reputation of being alive, but was dead. Consider a part of the body of Christ ready to die! Surely the Groom wants a bride alive and vibrant and responsive. Thus, the call to repent. To the overcomer is the promise to be clothed in white garments and to have their name written in the book of life. Jesus promised to confess their name before the Father and His angels.
Philadelphia (3:7-13). This church was known for her works. Hers was an “open door,” and she was noted for her “little power.” Still, believers in this church had not denied Jesus’ name and, like Smyrna, patiently endured through trouble with false religion (the “synagogue of Satan”). Jesus promised to keep them from worldwide trials. The overcomer would be “a pillar in the temple of my God” and would be given “my own new name.”
Laodicea (3:14-22). Finally, the church at Laodicea was sadly known for being lukewarm. Though she considered herself rich and prosperous, Jesus described her as “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” What a damning appraisal for the bride of Christ! Jesus invited these believers to find riches in Him, to dress in white, and be healed so they could see. We see Jesus knocking — from the outside! Would anyone open the door? Philadelphia had an open door; in Laodicea the door was closed. Yet to those who overcame, Jesus promised to share His throne with them.
Ears to hear
All seven churches received the recurring admonition “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). We do well to follow the same admonition.
Some have viewed the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 as symbolic of seven eras of church history: Ephesus as the first century church, Laodicea being the church prior to Christ’s return. Maybe; maybe not. Others see these congregations as representative of Christianity at any given time in history.
Regardless of how we view the churches, within any Christian community are those who pray and those who do not; those who read their Bibles and those who think they know what it says. There are those who know Jesus and those who don’t; those who are judgmental and those who extend grace. Jesus’ wheat and tares parable comes to mind. Some look like Christians; others are.
The commendations and corrections directed to these first century churches should be a clarion call for us today. What would Jesus commend us for? In what area would He correct us? What specific promise might He make to us, now, collectively?
Are we a loving people — loving the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength? Are we alive, full of our first love? Or do we just put on a good act? Are we faithful? Is our door to Jesus always open, or is it conspicuously closed? Do we have genuine fellowship with Him? Are we hot and alive, or lukewarm and dead? Do we tolerate, or even embrace, false, unbiblical teachings?
The marriage supper of the Lamb will bring Christ and His bride together as one forever. Now is the time to examine how His bride is doing. Is the church beautiful, radiant, and dressed in white? Or is she still stained by sin, self, and Satan?
In the end
When we reread Jesus’ letters to the seven churches, they are not like the usual love letters a groom writes to his bride. They are full of honesty, revealing sins and failures. The good news is that all ends well. Revelation describes an outcome that is powerfully reassuring:
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready . . . “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (19:7, 9).
Jesus’ words for the church bear His heartfelt, candid, honest conviction, designed to move every heart and soul to repentance and renewed faith. Note three elements of Jesus’ appraisal: encouragement, correction, and promises, all underlined with a call to really, really listen.
The past seventy or so years have provided fertile ground for broader Christianity to flourish. In many places the church has bloomed and grown to reflect her Lord and Savior. But in other places, Christianity has become lukewarm and tolerant of evil, complicit and silent in the face of wickedness, with public idolatry and sexual sin. All of this adds to unbelievers’ distaste of Christianity.
Whatever the culture has become, the church must be like her Lord Jesus Christ. The call is to repent, to change. Thankfully, in almost every faith community, now as well as two thousand years ago, holy and faithful people are triumphing in the name of Jesus while enduring terrible trials. “[You] have not denied my name” is Jesus’ powerful affirmation of His bride’s testimony and identity (3:8).
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (18:8). That question applies to us as well. Will the Son of Man find us living in faith? Will the Groom find His faithful bride, dressed in fine linen, resplendent and radiant? We can be confident that if we are obedient, we will be “worthy to stand before the Son of Man” on that glorious day.
The love letters written millennia ago have served their purpose. The next step in our faith journey is receiving the wedding invitations: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).