Friday, July 15, 2022

Revelation 3 (I) Seven Churches: Sardis

Picking up from where we left off in Revelation 2 (IV)Seven Churches: Pergamum and Thyatira. we move now to the next letter, the letter to Sardis.

Rev. 3:1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.  

Rev. 3:2 ‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 

Rev. 3:3 ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 

Rev. 3:4 ‘But 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. 3:5 ‘He who overcomes will 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. 3:6 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Having seen the pattern on the first four letters, we should now have a good grasp of how we are going to approach this. The structure of the letters guides us through our understanding, and we begin as always with the name. 

The name of this church is Sardis, and it's not easy to understand the origin of this name. There are those who have proposed that it means the “escaping ones,” others have proposed that it means “remnant.” We're going to let that stand as it is. 

It's a city - in John’s day - from Asia minor. It was the capital of a province called Lydia and it was about 60 miles northeast of Smyrna, which we studied earlier. Sardis was an important commercial center. It had massive temples and really fertile soil, and in its day, it was a strong and fortified city.  

Jesus opens the letter to the church of Sardis with a piece of the larger description of Himself from Chapter one like what He's done with each letter. In this case, He assigns this city this description: the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. The seven stars being, as we know, seven angels. The emphasis here is on seven again, that is, on the whole of the spirit, on the angels of the church, that is, all of the church. It's communicating that Sardis is an authentic church - it has the spirit of God – although it is also a weak church, and in one regard more than any other.

Jesus says, to Sardis, “I know your deeds”, which is to say “I know you don't have any”. He's saying, “You have a name. You are alive. But in terms of deeds, you're dead.” That's the commentary on Sardis.

Sardis has fallen victim to one of the warnings that we know well from the book of James in which he says, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” That's the nature of the faith that existed in Sardis. 

We are saved by our faith alone, but our faith without accompanying works is useless to God. It does nothing for God that we don't serve Him in our works - our faith has become useless to the author and perfecter of our faith, if we do not put it to work. And Jesus says that to this church.

James goes on to say, faith by itself, which is to say, faith without the accompanying works, is dead. That's what Jesus means that when He says, “You have a name that you're alive, but you're actually dead.” 

That is, faith without works is a dead kind of faith. It's still a saving faith, but it's a useless one.

Because they are His, and yet because they don't have works - they're dead in their behavior – this church has a problem that they need to solve. Because faith, being a gift from God to every believer, is intended to produce glory for the One who gave it. 

And the way we're supposed to fulfill that purpose of giving glory to the Father, as Jesus says, is to shine our light before men such that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven. When we lack work, we're not fulfilling the purpose of our faith. Ephesians 2:10, Paul says: 

Eph.2:10 “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand, so that we would walk in them.” 

So, there's not an option here. It’s not up to you or me. That's why Jesus says, “Your deeds have not been found complete.” The church of Sardis has not fulfilled the purpose that the Father had in assigning the faith that He gave, which also tells us that the Father alone is the judge of whether or not our service meets His expectation.

So, this church has become comfortable with faith alone, possessing salvation but with very little interest in spreading it to others. They are an example of a church with creeds, but no deeds. And churches can reach the point where doctrine and belief exist for its own sake. You begin to think that you're merely standing for the truth, believing the truth, teaching the truth, being the bacon of truth, and that’s enough. Those things are necessary.  Yes.  Those things are not sufficient to please Christ, however. 

The Christian walk is supposed to be as much practice as it is theory, and believers are supposed to care about the truth and about getting the Bible right. But if your faith remains an intellectual pursuit, you're doing nothing for the glory of Christ, and that's the concern He has for this church.

Possession of the truth without action becomes cause for convicting us rather than for praising us. Having the truth all by itself and doing nothing with it is the source of conviction. So this Sardis type of church is actually the opposite of Thyatira. They live on opposite ends of a spectrum.

In Thyatira, you had this church that had many great impressive works but their works were divorced from the truth of Scripture and so they lack spiritual power. The whole idea for doing works in the first place - physical works of service in any respect - the whole point of that is for opportunities to share the gospel, to make inroads through relationships so that you can minister not just to the body but to the spirit as well, with the truth that you have to offer. What Thyatira did instead was simply trapping people into a system of religion that polluted their soul with heresy and demonic teachings, and their works then were actually doing no good for the kingdom in that regard. They had works, they didn't have the truth. 

Now you have the church of Sardis holding to the truth of the faith and yet failing to put that truth to work for the benefit of others. So in Sardis, the truth is disconnected from any outward appearance of love of Jesus, which is going to limit the reach of the Gospel. Truly, people are not terribly attracted by a bunch of know-it- all Christians who don't lift a finger to help them. That's not an attractive value proposition to the world. So while Thyatira used works to justify heresy, Sardis was using truth to justify laziness.

So Jesus says to Sardis, “I want you to wake up. I want you to strengthen what remains.” Jesus wants them to come out of that stupor of ignorance and apathy and rediscover the mission of the church, to strengthen what remains, which suggests that some of this church still had a heart for the mission. Jesus says they’ve got a remnant in there that knows what this is all about, and that they are to take that, build on it, and magnify it. And then He says if they don't, they're going to die out. And there is a fundamental truth of church life at work.

Even today, churches serve themselves. When they only care about what is said inside the building, they lose their reason to exist and they eventually die out. When churches take the message outside the walls and seek to share what they have, that tends to promote growth.

And then Jesus gives Sardis the recipe for finding strength. He says, “Remember what you have received.” As a church, Sardis was probably still young enough as a church to remember the day that faith first took hold in that city. They were saved in Sardis because some apostle walked into that city against whatever persecution might have been coming and preached the Gospel and did some kind of works and supported the church in some fashion. And at that moment when that gospel arrived, there was a moment of joy for the city. Tt marked God's forgiveness arriving to the people in that city, and it transformed the whole life of those that came to faith in that city. Surely, they remember that. 

The kindness, the sacrifice of the apostles, good news, the release of guilt, the release of burden, the understanding that this is actually something for me, and I can look forward to an eternity with Christ and it's already done on the cross, there's nothing more to do... If you could remember that, why would you not want someone else to experience that? Why would you want to deny that from someone else - not that you control it - but the point is, why would you withhold that experience someone else brought to you? You're thankful they did, what are you doing about it next?

That's the attitude Jesus wants that person to have. Remember what you received and how you heard it, and if you do that, then you'll have the motivation to go out. If you fail to wake up, Jesus says, then He will be like a thief coming into their stronghold, and the analogy is a really powerful one. A thief in the night does his work when you're asleep, which is the whole point of waking up. You wake up to find everything you valued gone.

And so it would be for this church. They would find themselves an empty house if they didn't wake up to the mission of the church, which is fundamentally accomplished through deeds. The spirit in this case was going to take the mission somewhere else, leaving behind an empty shell, an empty cathedral, an empty choir loft, an empty bunch of creeds, if the church wasn't willing to act on them.  

And then lastly, Jesus gives that little encouragement at the end like He does with all these churches, so that those who are believing in the church don't misunderstand the warnings. This is not about individual salvation. He says in verse four, “There are some who have not soiled their garments for they walk in white and are worthy.”

Now, a white garment in the Bible is a picture of salvation, and you can see that clearly in verse five in the same letter (remember, symbols are often defined in their own context) – Jesus says that those who overcome - which we know from 1 John is a terminology for the believer – are those who wear white (or we would say, pure garments). So the white garment is a picture of those who are saved, and we know that from elsewhere too. Paul says in Galatians 3 verse 27 he says: 

Gal. 3:27 “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” 

The idea here is simple. Our atonement is given to us by the blood of Christ.  We are washed in the blood of Christ.  We are clothed in the righteousness of Christ by our faith. So “clothed” have that symbology. 

Now, conversely, the Bible keeps that metaphor going one step further when it talks about an unbeliever. An unbeliever is someone who has no garment. They are naked, lacking the clothing. That is the picture of those who do not have the atonement of Christ. They have not put on Christ. They have not been covered. Their sin has not been covered. Their shame in their nakedness is still expose. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:2,

2Cor. 5:2 “For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, 

2Cor. 5:3 inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. 

2Cor. 5:4 For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.”  

“To be naked”, metaphorically means to be exposed, to have our sin exposed to God. “To be clothed” means to have it covered by the righteousness of Christ.

So, white garments represent the covering you receive when you believe, while nakedness is the picture of someone who is not believing. So, what does it mean when Jesus says, “There are a few in the church of Sardis who have not soiled their white garments.” Well, in this context, they have garments.  They are clothed. They're not naked. So they're clearly believers.

But what does it mean that they've soiled that garment?

Well, it would have to mean that the testimony of that believer has been negatively impacted. Remember, this person, having been clothed, has received salvation. The soiling there must be about how he/she is seen.

Jesus says in verse four, “They are worthy to walk with me if they have not soiled their garments” In other words, they're walking well with Him.

So, the condition of the garment speaks to the condition of your witness to how you appear as a Christian. We get confirmation of this interpretation later in the book. So, the immediate context drives us there, and a later context in this book gives this confirmation. In Revelation 19:7, we read this: 

Rev. 19:7 “Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.” 

Who's the bride of Christ? The Church. Going on, it says:

Rev. 19:8 “It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” 

So, Revelation 19 says that a garment that is bright and clean represents righteous acts of the saints. Conversely, a soiled garment represents the lack thereof. So, in this case, Jesus is saying that Sardis has only a few that have a testimony of righteous acts. The vast majority of the congregation have soiled their life - soiled their garments - by not living up to what is expected. 

Now don't let the imagery confuse you. We're not talking about salvation here – they’ve got a garment. They are in heaven. But you don't want to go in looking dirty. You want to go in looking cleaner.

And then Jesus ends by reminding the church that those who overcome, He will not erase their names from the Book of life, and He will confess them before His Father, who is in heaven. 

Now, that phrase, “I will not erase your name from the Book of Life” causes confusion and some concerns for some people. Like many controversies, it's really just the lack of appreciation of the original text.

The Book of Life is the Bible's term for the heavenly roll in which is recorded the names of every human being who has been saved, and the Bible uses this term in several places in the New Testament and in Psalms as well. Elsewhere in Revelation, we are told that the Lord has recorded the names of those saved in this book, from before the foundations of the earth.

What that tells us is that the contents of that book are not determined by events that take place on the earth. Because the book and its contents were set before there was an earth.  It existed before the earth did. So the list is done, the names in the book, and they have been there since before anybody was alive.

But now, you have Jesus talking about “erasing”.

And in Psalm 69, after saying that the righteous (meaning “believers”) are recorded in the book, the psalmist goes on to say, “God, please blot out the names of the unrighteous from your book.”

And that brings this question back into the foreground - does that mean they're there first, and then you can erase them? How do you understand these two comments? 

Well, here's the short answer. First, names are not taken out of the book. To understand why that's true here, you have to know that it is a common technique in Jewish writing to emphasize a certain truth by negating its opposite. It's a poetic style. 

So, in the Psalm, the writer says the unrighteous should be blotted out of the book. That's a way of saying they will not be found in the book. You affirm something by negating the opposite.

Similarly, Jesus says a believer will always be found in the Book of Life by saying, “I will not erase your name.” He's not saying He might, or that it was even a possibility. He's just affirming, “You will be there because I'm telling you I'm not going to erase your name.” So, it’s a style in Jewish writing. You affirm something by negating its opposite. Don't let that lead you to think that the opposite was ever a possibility.

So what is the prophetic interpretation of this church period? Where in history are we? We know this follows Thyatira. And Thyatira is the period of the church age that we said corresponds to the Roman Catholic Church, and as such, historically, it's not hard to guess where we are going. 

Because what put an end to the hegemony of the Catholic Church was the Reformation, on the rise of Protestantism. The name kind of closes in on that because the name Sardis has been proposed to mean “escaping” or perhaps “remnant”, as in a group escaping out of apostasy, a remnant coming out of a heretical institution, and the spirit itself shifting from one institution to a new institution. That’s why Jesus starts the letter by saying the seven spirits talk to Sardis. It's a way of saying, the spirit of God, starting in 1517, was no longer abiding in the Catholic Church. It was now abiding in a new institution in place of that. It had moved on as Christ said it would. 

So, the Reformation was the true church at that point, and it's easy to see why it brought a recommitment to biblical truth. It brought back proper doctrine, according to Scripture. Most importantly, it brought back the true gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, the solas of the Reformation.

And during this movement, most of the worst heresies of the Catholic Church were eliminated as part of the Reformation, although they did retain some practices simply out of tradition. Clergy, laity distinctions, infant baptisms, among others, were traditions that stuck from the Catholic Church, even though they were not biblical. But one of the often-overlooked consequences of the Reformation, was the one that Jesus cared the most about, it appears, and that is the abandonment of evangelism, and the diminished emphasis on works of charity.

You may have never studied the Reformation, you might have assumed that was just such a wonderful period of church revival, and there's nothing negative about it. But that's not exactly true. 

And perhaps because Catholicism preached a salvation by works of the gospel - and they used social works of various kinds eg. schools, hospitals and the like as a means of promulgating that false gospel – because that had been the history, it would appear as though the reformers took an opposite approach.

That is to say, they emphasized God's sovereignty, and they emphasized biblical doctrines, but they did so at the expense of seeking the lost and encouraging personal works in faith.

In fact, Martin Luther was so put off by talk of good works that he doubted the inspired credentials of the letter of James. When he translated the Bible into German, he put the letter of James in an appendix. He took it out of the New Testament canon because he had so little confidence in its inspired source, because James said, “Faith without works is dead”, and Catholics had used that to defend their bad theology.

And so Luther went the other way and said works should not be part of the conversation when it comes to Christianity. So, out of the Reformation you get this culture that's alive, but in name only. They have reflexively turned against Catholicism's emphasis on good works.

And when the church stops preaching the importance of serving Christ and good works, what do you get? Lazy Christians.

It’s not going to be easy for a Christian to find motivation to work when their own theology is telling them it doesn't matter. We produce believers with soiled garments, so to speak. They have not completed their works in the Father's eyes. 

So, did the judgment that Jesus promised to this church come to pass? Did they wake up or did the thief come?

Well, for the first 100 years after the Reformation, the church was dominated by a handful of state Churches. You had Lutherans in Germany, Anglicans in England, Presbyterians in Scotland, and so on. Catholics were still in France. So in these early stages of the Reformation, you still had a state church in each area. They just started to change in terms of which religion went with which state. In 1648, about 100 years after the Reformation, there was that 30-year war between Protestants and Catholics, and it ended with something called the Peace of Westphalia. And that treaty established, among other things, the modern basis of Europe. And the Peace of Westphalia also required that every citizen of the respective countries had the right to practice Christianity in any form they wanted.

So, among the many tenets of the Peace of Westphalia, no longer does someone have to stay in the state religion if they don't want to. And it protected Christian expression in greater forms. And as a result, Protestant faiths began to emerge in many different stripes. The works of faith were reignited in a new generation of reformed churches, birthed out of the Peace of Westphalia, which now woke up to challenge the historic power of those state churches. And where you see the reformed churches still asleep, they have slowly died out.

But where do these newer versions of Protestantism crop up? The Pilgrims, the Anabaptists and so on, they became a new movement, and that new movement went out from Europe to the rest of the world.

Jesus said, “Wake up and make use of what's left or you’re going to have the thief come and take what you have.”. And that is exactly what happened to mainline Protestantism in Western Europe, and that's what gives rise to the next church.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Revelation 2 (IV) Seven Churches: Pergamum and Thyatira

Picking up from Smyrna, we’re now in the time period of AD 313, represented by Pergamum. Revelation Chapter 2 verse 12: 

Rev.2:12 And the angel to the Church of Pergamum write: ‘The One who has the sharp two -edged sword says this:

Rev.2:13 I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 

Rev.2:14 But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality. 

Rev.2:15 ‘So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 

Rev.2:16 ‘Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth. 

Rev.2:17 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.’

The name Pergamum comes from two Greek words, pergos and gamos. And Pergos means a tower or a citadel or a powerful fortress. And Gamos means matrimony, marriage, and sexual union. So the two words together could roughly be translated “married to a powerful institution or fortress”. Pergamum was a powerful city in its day - it had been for many centuries - and it was the seat of authority for the Roman province. 

The governor of Asia lived in this city, and as governor, he held something called the “right of the sword”. Under Roman law, that meant that he had the authority to decide when to apply capital punishment against a criminal. So he could decide who lived and died in criminal matters. 

The city was a preeminent center of artistic and intellectual power in the region. It had a library that rivaled the one in Alexandria. It was steeped in Hellenistic or Greek culture. It included many pagan temples and monuments and featured an altar to the god, Zeus, and Zeus is the father of Dionysus. And they also had an Augustan temple that was famous for being the centre for cult worship. 

They had a school of medicine. That school of medicine was founded in the fourth century BC, and it was famous as a place of healing. So they didn't just train doctors, people came there to be healed. 

The imagery that Christ uses to describe Himself to this church is that of the one with the two-edged sword. Now, two-edged swords is a phrase of that day that had a very specific meaning. It was a sword that was used almost exclusively to execute criminals, as in the “right of the sword”. So as such, it became a representation of the seat of government. The government and its ability to put people to death was a big part of Roman society. And having a two-edged sword was a way of saying, “I have the power of government to take your life.” Paul says in Romans 13: 4:

Rom.13:4 for [Government] is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; ” 

- referring to the power of the government to take lives. 

So when Jesus describes Himself to this church in this way - the one with a two-edged sword coming out of His mouth - it's a way of saying, “I’m the one who judges. I’m the one who corrects.” And the church, therefore, must be making some serious mistakes because Jesus is basically threatening to bring justice to them. But first, before He gets into that, He acknowledges they've done some good things also. Verse 13, He says: “I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is.”

The city was dominated, as we said, by pagan worship.  So it was in a very evil setting in that regard, but in particular, the city was home to a satanic cult that worshipped a snake idol , and that snake idol, being a picture of Satan from the Bible, may be what Jesus is referring to here. 

So spiritually speaking, they're working in a very dark, very challenging place. And yet, in spite of that, He says they're standing firm in the face of persecution. And then He cites this example of a man named Antipas, His witness. That name means against all. And it could mean that this is a guy who was a witness against the pagan ungodliness of the city, against Satan’s worship. And as a result, he was martyred in that city. Despite his martyrdom, it looks like the church was willing to stand firm in their confession. That's all very good. But that's where the good news ends for this church. 

Now He goes on to His complaints against them in verse 14. He says some of that church were holding to the teaching of Balaam, and He mentions Balaam’s history here as the one who worked with Balak back in Numbers. The person is not necessarily a literal character in Pergamum. Jesus makes the point of this being a Balaam like the one of Balak. 

In the story of Numbers 22, Balaam was a prophet of God, a true believer if we would say it that way today. And yet as a believer and a prophet of God, he was also a corrupt and greedy man. And when one of Israel's enemies, the king named Balak, offered this greedy prophet money in order to curse Israel, the prophet agreed to that deal. And as he tries to carry out this plan, the Lord prevents Balaam from speaking the curses that he tried to speak against Israel. 

Now in the New Testament, Peter and Jude both refer back to Balaam, using a phrase “the way of Balaam” to refer to any believer who trades faithfulness to God and His Word for money. So anyone who follows after the way of Balaam is someone who places stumbling blocks before the people of God because of their greedy motives. They get enriched by their greedy style of false preaching. The error of Balaam, the Bible says, is loving money so much that you turn to a form of spiritual prostitution.

In Pergamum, these Balaams, whoever they were, were teaching the church - according to what Jesus says here - to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of sexual immorality. Jesus says those teachings were stumbling blocks before His people, and it's really easy to see how that would happen. Because whenever someone tells us it's okay to do something that we’d like to do, that's not usually something we'll argue against very strongly. So when a teacher in a church were to tell us that God is okay with us engaging in sexual immorality or doing something else that we shouldn't do, we like that, especially if we respect the person or think they seem to know what they're talking about.

We like it so much, in fact, that we will typically move our attention to that person and away from anyone who would tell us otherwise. And the Bible calls that tickling ears. Tickling is something that if you did it to a child, for example, they would laugh. But as soon as you stop, they stop laughing. So in that sense, their laughter is counterfeit joy. It’s stimulated from the outside; it's not coming from the inside. So tickling of ears means I've stimulated you from the outside to approximate the feeling that you should get when you're stimulated on the inside spiritually by good teaching. And like a lot of other mindless activities, it's the kind of teaching that you forget the moment you walk outside the door. That's if you're lucky. If you're not so lucky, you might actually believe it, and live by it.

So this tickling of ears always revolves around these same three behaviors below that Jesus gave us: 

First, a shepherd who cares more about his or her earthly comfort than they do about your eternal future. Number two, a teaching that they give that encourages believers to follow after their lusts. And then, thirdly, a congregation that is more interested in satisfying the desires of the flesh than receiving spiritual blessing in eternity. 

You get those three combinations together, and you have a false movement in the church that grows like wildfire. Notice in verse 14, the Lord says there are ‘some’ in the church who hold to this pattern of false teaching. And that’s somewhat encouraging. It would suggest that not all have taken over in this false teaching. Some, He says, are going after Balaam. And He adds, some are going after the Nicolaitans. 

Now remember we talked about this group in our study of the letter of Ephesus. This is a group of people who were teaching that the church should begin to observe distinctions between members of the church, and in that way, they wanted to establish orders within the church - orders of priests, orders of other clergy - creating these separate groups of people who were held in higher regard and seen as having special distinction or special authority. And that's a corrupting, unbiblical view of the body. That's where you get the idea that only some believers are priests, when the Bible says all believers are priests.

Overtime, that teaching, both the teaching of Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans, distanced the believers from Jesus, corrupting and stumbling them, and getting them to think God was behind it, that God approves of it. And as the church moves farther and farther from Scripture and into those fleshly practices, eventually, Jesus, with His hands on the wheel, is not going to ignore it. And so He steers the church back.

He says, in verse 16, the church is either going to repent or He's going to come and make war with them with the sword of His mouth. That would suggest - based on what a double-edged sword is used for - cutting off the church. He's not talking about literally killing individuals per se. He's speaking to the church, much like He did with Ephesus, “I'll take your lamp stand.” To this church, similarly, He's saying, “If this doesn't get fixed, I've got a sword here, I'm just going to cut this church off.”

And it seems this time it’s even more specific than that given the nature of the problem. The nature of the problem is in the leadership. So when He talks about cutting off the church, it’s possible that that's directed at the leadership primarily - cutting off the head, cutting off the leadership of the church. 

Finally, the Lord says to the believers in the church that there is no cause for personal alarm. No matter how corrupted the church gets, no matter what they do in response, the individual believer is an overcomer, He says at the end, and that person will receive hidden manna and a white stone with a new name.

These are great symbols. They encourage the believer because hidden manna was intended to contrast with meat sacrificed to idols, part of the immorality that they're engaged in. So while the church might be convinced by false teachers to chase after the desires of the flesh, if the believer in his or her soul knew that that was wrong and withheld, there was manna awaiting for them.

And then secondly, the white stone. This one is of particular interest, given the nature of what was going on in that city. Remember, there's a school of medicine in Pergamum. When patients came to that school of medicine to be treated, based on the Greek history of the time, there was a ritual of coming in the front door of this medical center. As you came in, you were going to worship, and then you received whatever the treatment was. And then as you come out the back of this building, there was a collection of white stones and you would pick one up and you would write your name on it and you'd write what you've been healed of, and then these stones were left as a testimony in this long line.

Now, you might ask, how do you know you've been healed? You just got the treatment two seconds earlier. But never mind about that. We want the next guy walking in to see the long line of stones.  

Jesus says to this church, “I'm going to give you a stone, and you're going to write your name on this stone, and it's going to be a lasting memorial to your spiritual healing, all the way to eternity.” Here, again, it’s “I've got better things for you than they do. Don't get wrapped up in what the world's trying to give you.”

Now, how does this letter compare to the third period of the church? Well, this church begins, as we know, after the second one, which is the church of persecution. So if this is a church that is different from the church of persecution, we should naturally ask what stopped the persecution so as to allow a new period to start? What event stopped persecution in the church?

And there's a very clear one in history, and it corresponds to AD 313. That’s when Emperor Constantine experienced a vision on the battlefield. And as a result of his vision, he declared that Christianity would be the official religion of the Roman Empire and at that moment, persecution stopped, in 313. 

In that moment, the church was interestingly married to a powerful institution, Pergamum. And persecution stopped, but new problems quickly emerged for the church. Since Constantine ordered the church to be a state religion, what that meant was everyone had to participate in the church. Every Roman citizen immediately became Christian by order of Caesar, and every child was immediately considered Christian. 

So infant baptism began in AD 313, and mass conversions were the order of the day. How many of those forced converts were truly believers in Jesus Christ? We can't know, but we can be certain that many were not. 

Instantly what the church did was open its doors to millions of Romans who brought pagan practices and doctrines into that institution. They brought unbiblical ideas like temple priests, and statues of idols that you would pray to, infant baptism, and various other mystical influences. 

And in those times, those influences of Roman pagan culture began to crowd out biblical influences. So the church is still there, and the gospel was still being preached to some degree. But now that message was competing with pagan voices. Constantine and the rest of the Roman authorities became the Balaams, as it were, by which Satan could now set stumbling blocks before all those believers. 

And the Roman political authority began to infiltrate the church and create a perfect environment for distinctions and rank to ultimately emerged, the Nicolaitan’s heresy, in other words. And because every Roman citizen was automatically considered Christian, the institution became largely unbelieving, in terms of its constitution.

And as hundreds of thousands of pagans assembled in the church, what you get out of that is worship of idols, cult practices and heresy. And Jesus says He is coming with a sword to end it. And end it, He did, because that church had married the Roman Empire. But Jesus isn't going to end the church, obviously. The church has more history left to go.

So what did Jesus end instead?

The Roman empire.

The western side of the Roman Empire was overrun by German hordes, and as a result, fractured into provincial areas controlled by church leaders.

So that was the Church of Constantine, beginning around 313 and going until about 600 AD which leads us to the end of the Roman Empire. So Jesus brought an end to the institutional government side of the church so as to cut it free from this constant infiltration of pagan influences coming out of Roman society, effectively putting an end to Roman society in its truest form. 

We move now to the next letter.  Revelation 2:18:

Rev.2:18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: The son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and in His feet are like burnished bronze, says this: 

Rev.2:19 I know your deeds, and your love and faith and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first. 

Rev.2:20 ‘But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. 

Rev.2:21 ’I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality. 

Rev.2:22 ‘Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. 

Rev.2:23 ‘And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each of you according to your deeds. 

Rev.2:24 ‘But I say to you, the rest who are in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not known the deep things of Satan, as they call them- I place no other burden on you. 

Rev.2:25 ‘Nevertheless, what you have, hold fast until I come. 

Rev.2:26 ‘He who overcomes and he keeps My deeds until the end, TO HIM I WILL GIVE AUTHORITY OVER THE NATIONS; 


Rev.2:28 and I will give him the morning star. 

Rev.2:29 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches.’” 

This is another city in Asia Minor. The name Thyatira - its meaning is a bit of a mystery. There are suggestions out there that it means unending sacrifice or perpetual sacrifice. Strong's concordance, though, suggests that it means the “odor of affliction”, which seems a more apt description, and we’ll find out why.

So Thyatira was the Roman city of its province again. It was full of pagan worship. It had a principal deity of Apollo. Apollo was said to be the son of Zeus. And he was worshipped alongside his father Apollo. So you had gods who were sons of gods in their way of seeing things.

Thyatira had more craft and trade unions than any other cities in that region. And so like Smyrna, you had the same kind of problem there. If you were Christian and you didn't want to participate in the trade union, you had trouble finding work. And during regular guild meetings, they did this meat sacrifice to idols ritual that you had to participate in and you had to eat the meat and engage in an orgy with temple prostitutes afterward. This is considered part of how you got involved in a union. It’s easy to imagine that that would be wildly popular with the Union guys, but not with the Christians. 

Looking at the letter. There’s the description of Christ taken from Chapter 1, the one that emphasizes “eyes of fire, feet glowing like bronze in a furnace” - those symbols have very consistent meaning in the scripture.  Eyes of fire means all-seeing, a piercing discernment, Jesus knows it all literally. Nothing is hidden from Him. And feet of glowing bronze represent fires of judgment, the testing of metal in fire to know if it's pure.

So you put the two together and you’ve got Jesus with perfect discernment about everything, and the authority to judge it righteously, and that suggests a not so encouraging letter for yet another church. And in fact we’re going to find that the circumstances in this church are closely connected to those in the church of Pergamum.

But let’s look at the positives first. Verse 19. Jesus says the church in Thyatira is a church known for its good works and for its love for one another. In fact, this church, interestingly, has increased in good works over time. That would suggest they're getting better organized, and are more active in the work of the church. More people are being fed, being housed, being taught. More people are receiving good ministry in some form., They work hard, they're pious.

Jesus has asked His church to do good works before men - that is part of our call as Christians. But we also know those good works cannot be divorced from the core mission of the church, which is to share the Gospel. So saving souls, through the preaching of the Gospel, that's ultimately and actually the best measure of the church's obedience. Those other things are just means to that end.

And so we preach the good news properly. But if you're going to do that, you have to know what the good news is. You are going to have to need good doctrines driving that good teaching and witnessing. And that's the problem here. You have a church here that has lost sight of that mission. And the degree of critique that follows here is quite extraordinary. This is a negative letter from verse 20 onward and it is lengthy in its condemnation, lengthier than any other group, save one. 

Jesus says, at the beginning, “This is what I have against you. You tolerate the woman, Jezebel.” Now, the name is probably familiar. Jezebel was a Phoenician wife of a king in the northern kingdom of Israel, a king called Ahab. Ahab was a weak leader, and his wife, Jezebel, was famous for being able to persuade that weak husband and godless man to commit all manner of immorality in the northern kingdom of Israel. And so as a result, her name has become eponymous for any evil hearted, manipulative woman who leads a weak man to do her bidding.

Just like Balaam in Pergamum, Jezebel serves as a type here to refer to the kind of ungodly influence that was taking place. So you have women apparently acting in ways to corrupt the church in Thyatira. Maybe it's men who are doing it, we're not sure. And here again, people are influenced to eat meat, sacrifice to idols and engage in immorality, etc. Clearly, this is wrong. Paul had already told the church in the letter he wrote to Corinth much earlier that that’s not appropriate behavior. The Jezebel type has been given time to repent, yet she didn't want to cease her immorality, calling herself a prophetess, telling people she hears from God and that they should listen to her. 

So, like Pergamum, the church of Thyatira has been infiltrated by a false influence that's leading believers astray. But here's the difference - in Pergamum, it was Balaam, a believer, motivated by greed, leading people away by false teaching. Here in Thyatira, it is a Jezebel, an unbeliever, with an evil heart, seeking to do the enemy’s will by leading people into false teaching.

So it shows a progression. The church has moved now from having believers who are leading people astray to unbelievers who have so much influence in the church that they're now in charge of the teaching, which is the natural outgrowth of centuries of having the church be part of the union of government, so that it's now seeing generation after generation of unbelievers grow up in the church and actually becoming leaders in that church. Because it's just an institution or culture at that point. It didn’t depend on true confessions. They were in it when they were born. So the Lord says, “I've been waiting for her to repent. She won't do it.” So then He says, “My piercing judgment will come after a time of trial and testing.” 

Verse 22, Jesus says He's going to throw the false leader on a bed of sickness and all that followed with her were going to go through a tribulation until they repent. And a result of that bed of sickness is going to be that many of her children, likely referring to her followers, are going to die by pestilence.

Now in the day of this letter, you can imagine that something like this probably literally happened in the city of Thyatira.  And since this letter was circulated among all the churches just like all the other six were - that's what Jesus meant by “all the churches will know” - when this illness comes upon the church in Thyatira, people will see this and they will know He will be the one who searches the minds and hearts. It will be evidence to the rest of the church that Jesus is still running His church and He isn’t going to put up with this forever. He knows what's going on, down to a person, and He deals with it.  

By now, with that devastating judgment, Jesus now reassures them at the end that those who do not hold to this teaching, He’s not demanding anything more of them than what they are already suffering under. He says just stand firm in what they believe. And as such, He says they will have a future that they can expect, of having the rod of ruling that Jesus will share with those who serve with Him and of having the Morning Star, which is a reference to Jesus Himself. “You will have Me. You will have rule with Me in the kingdom. Don't worry, nothing that has happened to you in that church or nothing I do to that church can stop your eternal future.”  

That final assurance that we love to see at the end. 

Now, how do we relate this to the period of prophetic history that we've talked about? How does this fourth period of the church relate to history?

This letter corresponds to the period of history in which the church was dominated by the Roman Catholic institution. That institution, the Roman Catholic Church, rose out of the ashes of the Roman Empire itself.

Remember, the church period that preceded this one, Pergamum, is the period in which the church and empire were married together. They were one institution, for all intents and purposes.

But when the Roman empire began to dissolve around 600 AD, it disintegrated in a series of stages. First, the West and the East, and then over time it's kind of fractured and combined again and fractured again, as Daniel said it would.

So, Rome was the headquarters of the western side of the Roman Empire.

Constantinople, present day Istanbul, was the capital for the eastern side of the Roman Empire.

Fast forward 1500 years, and you've got what we now have in Europe and in the Middle East - this fracturing of what was left of the Roman Empire.

But when it first started to fall apart, there's a power vacuum. And what filled that power vacuum? Well, there was no unifying government at that time who could step in and replace the Roman Empire as a dominant world government.

So what did step in?

The Roman Catholic Church. It became the government that linked all of these separate regions together and ruled them all.

The church went from being in bed with the powerful government to BECOMING the powerful government. 

So during Thyatira, the church is the government - for all intents and purposes - for Europe. Popes battled opponents, kings were deposed and crowned, crusades were ordered. This is when the Popes were running the show, for the most part.

The church ruled the world, except it wasn't ruling it spiritually very well. Even still, the works of the church began to expand. That is to say, it ruled politically, and its leaders made whatever compromises that they needed to, in order to consolidate and increase power.

But that expansion of the church in a formal sense meant that without a government, it took over responsibility for social services. The Roman Catholic Church was the church providing food, housing, care of all kinds for the average citizen in most places, within this realm, consistent with what Jesus said. He acknowledged their work. It did have that side to it. But conversion in that time was not a matter of faith. It was a matter of political necessity. 

Crusades forced people into the church at the point of a sword. And after centuries of unbelievers being forced into the church from birth, now you have the leadership being unbelieving, and so they're teaching deep things of Satan. Jesus says things that led believers into false practices that practically obscured the Gospel from the rank and file church.

Notably, during this period of church history, the Catholic Church introduced many spiritual heresies and immoralities that still persist today. Chief among them, justification by works rather than by faith alone, worship of idols and images, the celibacy of priests (which is that Nicolaitan heresy again), confessing sins to an intercessor rather than to Christ himself; purgatory, indulgences, penance, worship of Mary. All of that came out of this period of the church's history, reflecting what Jesus himself has said was so troubling. 

So just as the original Jezebel introduced false practices in her day by manipulating a weak leader, well, so did the church do so in this period. You had the Jezebel of Thyatira, the Catholic Church, gaining its authority first by marrying a government and then when that government got weak, it became the government to manipulate the world.

Obviously, Jesus didn't stand for this, and He wasn't going to let it stay on forever, although He gave this period of the church a long time to repent. And when you look at how it actually fell apart and how He actually executed judgement, it's going to make the hair on your back stand up.

So, as Jesus promised, the Thyatira church, which began in AD600 at the end of Pergamum, continued for a long time, about 1000 years, as He allowed time for it to repent. It was cantered in the Eastern Orthodox Church of Constantinople and the Roman Catholic Church of Rome. By the 13th century, almost near the end of this period, the effects of Jezebel had already influenced the entire Christian world and were well established and entrenched in what we now see as the Catholic Church. 

When Jesus moved to reverse it - to cut it off, as He said He would - in the late 13th century, He brought that judgment of terrible pestilence exactly as He said He would. We know it today as the black plague.

Interestingly, the black plague began in two cities, roughly at the same time. You guess right - in Constantinople and Rome.

It first appeared at the dawn of the 14th century in Constantinople, and as a result, 40% of that city died. The stench was everywhere, according to ancient reports. Just as the name Thyatira suggests - the odor of affliction.

The disease spread by cargo ships to Rome, which then became the center of the outbreak for Western Europe. By the mid 14th century, all Europe was infected, and it killed as much as 60% of Europe's population. 

And as a result, it severely weakened the Catholic Church in Europe, because priests and monks were often those pressed into service, caring for the sick. And so they often got sick themselves, and it wiped out the priesthood in Europe at that time in history.

It left the church's leadership devastated, and the fear of disease led people to shun mass out of fear that they caught the disease in the church. So attendance plummeted, and the financial hit the church took brought it almost to the end of itself. One of the lesser known effects of the black plague was that it helped give rise to the Reformation.  

As the church leadership weakened, the church’s hold over society and government weakened, and that allowed freer thinking to rise up. Ultimately, it gave Martin Luther the opportunity to challenge authority with the church.

And so we marked the end of the time of Thyatira with the fulfillment of Jesus's judgment of pestilence and with the result being the start of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. And we will look at that in Revelation 3

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Revelation 2 (III) Seven Churches: Smyrna

We pick up from where we left off in Revelation 2 (II) Seven Churches: Ephesus, and we are diving right into the second letter, the letter to the church in Smyrna:

Rev. 2:8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: 

Rev. 2:9 ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you were rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 

Rev. 2:10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 

Rev. 2:11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’ 

And that’s our second letter. Now, remember, when we opened up with the letter to Ephesus, we realized how structured these letters are. They have little piece parts, and these parts are similar across all the letters that help us break them down and make sense of them. And it always starts with the name. The name of each of these cities has meaning, and the meaning relates to what's said about that church. So in this case, the name of the city, Smyrna, is a transliteration of a Greek word, Smyrna. And that word is simply the word for myrrh - the spice, myrrh. Myrrh ‘s a natural gum resin, it is used typically in the Middle East, historically, as a fragrant ointment. In the time of Christ, it was most commonly associated with burial and death because it was the primary embalming substance for a dead body. So today, Smyrna is called Izmir, in the nation of Turkey, and it's a thriving city. But in Jesus’ day it was just another Roman city in the province full of pagan temples, most notably a temple to the Emperor Tiberius, and that made this town the heart of emperor worship in Asia Minor, and as such, it became a place of early persecution for Christians. 

Roman law at the time prohibited any other religion other than Emperor worship. They only made one exception. The only exception was for the Jewish religion, because Jews were famous for being stubborn and unable to be controlled or forced to do anything they didn't want to do. And so, rather than put up with Jewish rebellion at all times, they just gave an exception to the Jews. The Jews could retain their unique form of worship, but everyone else had to worship the emperor. Now, for a time in the first century, the Romans considered Christianity just an offshoot of Judaism. So Christianity enjoyed that same protection, at least for a time. But by the end of the first century, the church had become predominantly Gentile. And as a result, the Romans had come to see the church as distinct from Jewish religion and, therefore, a threat to the Roman Empire. Furthermore, you have the Jews themselves rejecting Christians and persecuting Christians. So they allied with the Romans against Christianity and persecution became a normal thing in the church. 

So Smyrna, it would seem, was on the forefront of this shift toward persecution, a transition from tolerating Christianity to going after and persecuting believers. Looking at the letter, we see Smyrna’s record of persecution reflected here in Jesus' words to the church. And He begins right up front with the description of Himself. He says He is the first, the last, the one who was dead and has come to life. What an appropriate aspect of His description to attribute to this particular church. 

Remember that in each of the letters, Jesus takes an element of His description from chapter 1 and assigns it to each of the seven churches, and the one that He picks for each church is meaningful to what's going on in that church. And here you see the connection obviously. You have a church destined for persecution in martyrdom, and so it only makes sense that Jesus would point out to them that death will not be the end of them. That is to say, Jesus died also. So He knows what it feels like to face physical death. But He says, “I also rose again. So I know that death does not have power over you. It did not have power over me. And as one of mine, it will not have power over you either, that is, death is not the end of you.” And so He  promises those who believe in Him that they will have the same transformation He had. So just as He faced death obediently, so should Christians know that death should not be an impediment to our obedience. 

And then from there Jesus moves to acknowledging that the church is suffering. He says, “I know you have tribulation, I know you have poverty.” Now the tribulation that they're suffering through here is probably as a result of Jewish persecution at this point in history when this letter was written. There had been persecution by the Romans, certainly, but historically - to that point at the end of the first century - the Jews had primarily been the ones bringing suffering and poverty to the church there.

Now, most manual labor trades in Rome were tightly controlled by powerful trade unions, and the way it would work is a membership in a union was a requirement if you want to work in your trade in a given region, for example. And the unions that were formed in Rome under Roman authority would have pagan gods that they worshipped as a part of their trade.

And if you were in that union and part of that trade, you were expected to engage in ritual religious sacrifice for that god, eat the meat sacrifice to that idol, do whatever their rituals required. And if you were a Christian who was in that trade and you refused to participate in that pagan worship, then you would usually be set out of the union. And if you weren't in the union, you couldn't work. And if you can't work, that's a recipe for poverty. 

So poverty in the early church was common as a result of this, and Christ, acknowledging their troubles, blames this on the Jews, who, He says, are not really Jews, but were rather instruments of the devil. A synagogue of Satan, He calls them.

Jesus’ words give us a clear indication of how He views those who are of Jewish background and yet have not recognized Him as Messiah. That is to say, they are Jewish by birth - as Jesus says, they are Jews in name only. In Romans 2:28 Paul said: 

Rom. 2:28 “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 

Rom.2:29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not for men, but from God.” 

In other words, they may have been born of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they may have Jewish roots - that much is true - but as Jesus said to the pharisees, they may call Abraham their father, but they're not doing the deeds of Abraham. Abraham believed in the promise of a coming Messiah, sight unseen, and here these Jews of Jesus’ day did not even believe in the Messiah when He stood before them in person. They didn't do the deeds of Abraham in that respect.

So the Lord says He knows these people for who they truly are. That is, they may be Jewish physically, but they're not His spiritually. And, truly, there are really only two kinds of people in the world - you are either of God by faith in Christ, or you are of your father, the devil. You are either Christian, or you're not. There's no in between, and there's no third choice.

And so these Jews, who call themselves the people of God by birth, He says, they are a synagogue of Satan. Why? Because every unbeliever is of their father, the devil, until such a day as they're born again into the family of God.

The Bible says that children of God is a term for the believer, not for humanity. It's kind of vogue to say we're all children of God, but that's an unbiblical statement. We're all children of Adam. We're all children of the devil until such days we are born again. And then we become part of the family of God by faith. So, as John says, in 1 John 2: 22: 

1 John 2:22 Who is a liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. 

1 John 2:23 Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. 

It all comes down to what you believe about Jesus. So Jesus says He knows the true heart of those who persecute them. And that was probably meant as an encouragement, in a way, because as the church might have been persecuted by Jews, if they knew their Bible, they would have understood how He viewed the people of God, how He viewed Israel in general, and they might have questioned how God's own people, that is the nation of Israel, could be persecuting those who were following after Messiah. And He says it is because these Jews don't have Him truly in them.

So Jesus says He knows that they have this persecution and He knows that they have this poverty. But notice what He did not say though. He didn't say He’s going to take it away from them.

Isn’t that interesting? He actually says at one point that they are rich, denying their poverty.

But then again, how is that true?

He says that they're suffering and tribulation is not something He’s going to remove because it is earning for them Christ’s approval, and as a result of His approval, treasure in heaven.

In that sense, Jesus’ saying, they are actually rich. They may be poor on earth, they may be enduring trials, it might end badly in terms of martyrdom, but if they turn it into a good witness, if they put it to work for the sake of Christ glory, then He says they will be rewarded.

And that's based not only on what He's saying here, but also on the Scriptures generally. 

When the Bible talks about the reward for the believer, that is, being rich, as Jesus puts it here, it's not about something that you'll find on earth, because the rewards that come to the believer do not come in this life. They are given to us after we resurrect, and that is far preferable to receiving it here and now. If we receive it now, it's very short lived and a rather skimpy reward.

What you expect to see on the other side of your resurrection, though, is eternal and weighty, Paul says. So what Christ is reminding this church is to have eyes for eternity. That is, see your life and the circumstances under which you are experiencing it right now, from an eternal perspective.

What is the eternal perspective?

Well, don't get caught up in what you have here, or what you're losing here, be that physical thing, comfort things or even your own life. Those who want to save their lives will lose it. You can't have it all. If you're caught up in what you can obtain here, or in avoiding some unpleasant experience here and now, then you're sacrificing something. On the other hand, if you endure them, if you turn them to a witness, if you let God use it as ministry as He will, then you're earning treasure in heaven. Matthew in 5:11 reports Jesus’ words this way: 

Matt. 5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 

Matt.5:12 “Rejoice and be glad for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”. 

Notice in verse 10, Jesus tells the church how to make the most of these circumstances. In other words, if they want to turn this persecution and poverty into a reward, here's what they ought to do. They should not fear the situation, that is, even as they face death for their faith, they should not let fear take hold. Fearing death is an impediment to pleasing Christ. Fearing death, that is, having an unnatural, overriding fear of death as a Christian gets in the way of obedience. Fear of death causes you to make bad choices, selfish choices, choices that are the opposite of faith.

Think for a moment about the time and effort we put in trying to look like we're not dying. Who are we fooling? That fear is ultimately pointless, since, of course, we know that death is coming and it's not a bad thing. Do you realize if someone dies, let's say, sooner than you expected, they cut in line for the Kingdom? Most of us certainly don't think of death that way - it's certainly a painful experience - but a Christian understanding of death should change your attitude leading into it. Doesn't mean you have to embrace it, but it certainly does mean you should not fear it such that it would become an impediment to doing what Christ asks of you. 

So in this case, the church in Smyrna could not let fear drive that response to their circumstances. But instead, Jesus says, “Enter into your suffering with confidence.” And this is so contrary to modern preaching. You keep waiting for Jesus to say, “I'll stop it, I'll solve it, I won't let it happen. Far be it for me to let anything bad happen to a Christian!” And that is nonsense. Right?  

Martyrdom is a high honor in the church, and it brings a great reward. Now martyrdom is not something you seek. It's something that comes to you. But the point is that it is a false teaching to suggest that God's primary concern for the believer now on earth is your happiness. No, it’s your holiness.

And often what brings greatest holiness is trial, tribulation, suffering, deprivation, things that bring you to the end of yourself. And in that moment, you discover who you are in Christ.

So they are going to endure tribulation. They're going to endure poverty. But the Lord isn't going to remove these things. Instead, He tells them, “Endure them with your witness intact.”

Jesus' goal for the church was not their earthly comfort or lengthening their life. His goal was that they would have a good witness in the face of those things, and as such, they would maximize their eternal reward. That was His goal. And He warns them in advance of what's going to happen. He says, prison awaits, and then, after a short time, death is going to come.

Now Roman prisons in that day were not a place of confinement. The Romans had no incentive to house prisoners for long periods of time. After all, why would you want to give free food and clothing to criminals? It didn’t make sense to the Romans. So they would conduct swift trials, and usually the punishment would follow immediately afterward. Now, if it was a lesser sentence or a lesser crime, then you'd be fined, or scourged or some other torture, and then they let you go. And if it was a serious crime, they just killed you. And that was the end of it.

Therefore, the deadline of 10 days that Jesus gives them here, this idea that they'll only be in prison a short time, that's very consistent with the Roman justice system. It might have been the time necessary for a verdict to be rendered for sentence to be carried out, maybe the time it took for them to be transported to some amphitheater to be fed to the lions. This is about what the time would have been.

But the number 10 has a symbolic meaning in the Scriptures, and Jesus is using the number 10 here probably to hint at the opportunity for testimony. Because the number 10 is the number in the Bible for testimony. 

And so He's indicating through that number, “You're going to have a time of testimony, 10 days. And in that time of testimony, make the most of it.” The coming persecution is going to lead to death, but Jesus is telling them, make the most of that. Be blessed as a result of it. Jesus Himself promised this in Matthew 5:10 when He said: 

Matt.5:10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. 

So, the key Jesus says to these believers in Smyrna, is face your trial faithfully. Now here's where we get a moment of understanding that may not have been something you've heard in the past. Sometimes we hear this ‘be faithful’ comment, and we think of it in the simplest terms. Faith, that is, be someone who has faith in Jesus, as opposed to perhaps someone who does not have faith in Jesus. And we move it into a salvatic context before we even think about it.

But salvation is not the issue here. Faith in this context doesn't refer to whether you're saved or not. These believers are saved. That's why He's talking to them about being faithful. Nothing can change their eternal destiny. Paul said in Romans 8 verse 38: 

Rom. 8:38 “I'm convinced that neither death nor life nor angels “

And he goes on from there. And if you look at the list he gives in Romans 8:38 and 39. Nothing is not there. Anything that could happen in your life is there. Life, he says, cannot cut you off from Christ. Anything that could happen in death - because of an angel or a demon or because of some power - death cannot touch you. All those things are all on the list. None of those things can separate you from the love of Christ. Nothing in your life, nothing in your death, that pretty much covers it.

And so the point is, there is nothing here that's going to interrupt your relationship with Christ. Being faithful in this context means your behavior, your holding to your witness, because we're all humans, and if I put you in enough pressure under enough harm, and your mind is not focused on what the Scriptures have to say about your eternal reward, about what's at risk, about what you're dying for, if that's not on the top of your mind as Scripture wants it to be, then I can get you to say anything.

I can get you to recant Christ, I can get you to pledge your allegiance to some pagan god if it gets you out of immense torture. But none of those things mean that you have been severed from Christ. If our connection to Christ was that tenuous, God help all of us. A bad day, and where are we then?  

What you experienced coming to faith is being born again. Your spirit changed. You can't go backward from that. No more than a butterfly can go back into a cocoon. Now the issue is how do you live in that newness of life. John through Jesus' words here says in this context: “I want you to remain faithful. I want you to consider how this affects your eternal reward. I don't want you to think in short term.” And that’s probably why He said they had 10 days. If they didn't know how long it might last, they might have a harder time holding out in their faithfulness. That was designed to help them understand 10 days versus eternity.

If they made the right choices, they would receive an eternal reward. And He says that reward would be the crown of life. Now, naturally, we wonder what the crown of life is.

If you're tempted to conclude that the crown of life means salvation itself, well, the only reason you might even make that assumption is because of the word ‘life’ there. But if you make that assumption, first of all, you're not following the rules of interpretation that we discussed at the very onset of this study, and secondly, as a result of that bad interpretation, you paint yourself into an unbiblical corner that can't be supported by Scripture generally. 

First of all, the rules of interpretation. The crown here is obviously a symbol. It's a symbol and we, in order to understand the symbol, need to go to how that symbol is used in the Bible. Remember that was the rule. You go look at it in its context. If it's not defined in the context, you go out of the context to the rest of the book. If it's not defined elsewhere in the book, you go backward in the Bible till you find other instances of that same symbol. And if you do that, what you find is there are numbers of mentions of crowns in the New Testament.  And in every single case, the mention of the word crowns, “Stefanos” in Greek, is always in reference to an award or a reward that you receive because you EARNED it.

So, a crown is something you get from God for good performance every time it's mentioned. And the use of the crown symbol then, in this case, means that it's being associated with something that comes out of good works that takes it completely out of a salvatic context because we all know or should know that the Bible is consistent from the beginning all the way to the end that salvation is not of works, but by faith alone.

So knowing that we know He cannot be saying to them, “Hold the line in your behavior so that you can keep your salvation” - that is an unbiblical mindset. In 2 Timothy, Paul talks about this same thing. This is one of those examples of prior uses of the word ‘crown’. In 2 Timothy 4:7, he says:

2Tim.4:7 I have fought the good fight. I have fought the good fight. I finished the course. I've kept the faith; 

Now there you go, there's the same word again in the same sense, "I have kept faith" meaning, "I have kept my behavior in the right place. I have kept the work up. I've done what He's asked me to do, kept the faith." Then, he says this:

2Tim 4:8 And in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day;  but also to all who have loved His appearing”. 

He's referencing a crown, a reward for his faithful service, having run the course to the end. So the consistent meaning of this symbol is one of reward for service that precludes us from saying this is about salvation. So Jesus is saying to them, “Stay with this for 10 days and you have a reward coming.”

Furthermore, we know the Bible says salvation can never be earned. So then when you say that this is not salvation, this has got to be rewards for work, and it comes as a function of service.

The next thing you might ask is, “Well, what good is a crown?”

Well, crowns are symbolic representations of your eternal reward, not the substance of it. Your reward in heaven, according to Scripture, is not a crown. It will be an inheritance in the land on earth when you return with Christ, and it'll be a role in the government.

But those things are not yours at first because you're not on earth at first. To die now, is to be absent in the body and present with the Lord in Heaven. You're up there. You're not down here for a while. While you're up there, what does your reward look like up there? A crown. It is a token. It is representative of what you will have when you return.

And the crown of life is the symbolic reward for any who suffer persecution or martyrdom faithfully. How do we know that? Well, James confirms that for us. In James 1: 12 he says:

James 1:12 Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him”. 

So Paul tells us that our performance and serving Christ determines which crown we receive. He says in 1 Corinthians 9:24: 

1Cor.9:24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in a way that you may win. 

1Cor.9:25 Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” 

That analogy about only one person winning – that doesn't mean only one of us will win the crown or that we’re competing with each other. No, you are competing with yourself. Yourself, that is your fleshly desires, for what this world offers is competing with your spiritual appreciation of what Christ wants, and they will always be the opposite. So you're running a race. Run it well to the end, but run in such a way so that you might win.

So Smyrna was told this is what they would face. 

Finally, the letter ends with a promise that those who overcome will not be hurt by the second death. Remember, we said that each letter ends with an assurance or an encouragement to the believers in that church that tells them that no matter what is going on in that church, no matter what else was said, and no matter whatever future that church might have, nonetheless, they will always be with Christ.

Jesus says, “You've overcome and you will be with me in paradise.” Or in this case, as He says, that they will have this opportunity for salvation. It's not going to be dependent on their behavior. So He says, they will be overcomers. 1 John 5:4 says:

1John 5:4 Whatever is born of God. “Whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith”, (notice, not your behavior, but your faith.) 

1John 5:5 Who is the one who overcomes the world? He who believes that Jesus is the son of God”. 

So those who were saved will not be harmed.

We’ll finish this letter with the prophetic content, that is, we need to understand how to fill this out now for the Church of Smyrna.

What is the prophetic value of the letter?

Well, we know that Smyrna is the church of persecution or death. And we know that's reflective of the history of the church after the first century.

Following the first century, the church entered a period of persecution under Roman opposition.

That systematic persecution of the church waxed and waned for about 200 years. And that was the normative experience of the church in the second period of its existence. It begins more or less with Emperor Domitian, around AD 96, continuing till the fourth century.

Interestingly, in those 200 years, there were 10 Roman Caesars who engaged in persecution against the church. 

So prophetically it would seem as though the 10 days of waiting might be also an illusion to the 10 periods of Roman persecution.

And then the history of the church following the Apostolic Age just mirrors everything we've learned in this letter. And so it makes perfect sense to see this letter as a continuation of this pattern.

So what are the dates?

For Smyrna we started at around AD 96, and we’ll round up to 100, and we go to the next defining moment.

And what would we pick as our next defining moment? Where would Smyrna end as a period in church history?

Well, it only makes sense that you'd look at the next letter and see what's true about that next period and see what's changed and then look in history to see where that change took place.

The date, upfront, is AD 313, but we’ll find out what that date’s about in Revelation 2: 12, and we’ll cover that in Revelation 2 (IV)