A few years ago I wrote a post about the book of Revelation in which I drew this conclusion: “Revelation is a rich book because it shows us more about who God is than it does about what will happen someday.” I think that’s an accurate evaluation. A lot of the “someday” portion of Revelation is couched in picture language, and Biblical scholars don’t agree about their meaning.
But there’s a short section at the beginning of John’s vision that was quite contemporary to him. In these chapters Jesus comes to John and tells him to write “the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.”
It is “the things which are” that I’m interested in because I wonder if they are not also the things which will take place.
Jesus delivered specific messages to angels apparently assigned to particular churches existent at the time of John’s writing: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
I find it curious that only these seven churches are addressed. What about the church in Corinth or the one in Antioch? Why these seven? Were they unique?
The symbol Jesus used for them was a golden lampstand. Was the idea that these were golden somehow significant. I don’t know that any Bible scholar can tell us. However, we do know from various places in Scripture that believers are to be light to the world. So the image of a lampstand for a church certainly seems fitting.
In addition, the particular messages which Jesus delivered to the various churches, while uniquely fitted to each unique body, seem universal in their application. What He said to one church would seem to apply to any church with similar qualities or circumstances or failings.
So when Jesus delivers a message to the angel of the church in Ephesus and tells John to write it down, He would seem to be delivering the same message down through the church age to any body of believers who share the matters he addressed.
His message to this first church contained six parts: an explication, a confrontation, an admonition, a warning, a commendation, and a promise.
First Jesus gave an analysis of the church. This is what was true about the believers in Ephesus: there were things they’d done, work they’d performed. They’d persevered, which implied things weren’t always easy.
They also didn’t tolerate evil men. Instead, they tested those who put themselves forth as teachers. They held fast, endured, and don’t grow weary because of one thing: the name of Christ Jesus.
That’s a pretty fair evaluation. I wonder how the Church in America would stack up in these areas. Do we have a record of things accomplished and work we’ve performed? I suspect so. Have we persevered when things weren’t always easy? That’s harder to say because the church in America has had very little adversity.
Do we tolerate evil men? Sadly, our record there is spotty at best. We have tolerated evil men—false teachers and cult leaders who often got their start within the church. Perhaps this toleration is because we haven’t tested those claiming a position of leadership as we should have. Ironic, since we have God’s written word. We aren’t forced to rely upon hearsay or occasional letters or itinerant preachers sent from the apostles. Instead, all we have to do is test what a teacher says by comparing it to the Bible.
Finally, do we hold to our faith without growing weary because of the name of Jesus Christ? Or do we become disappointed with God when things don’t go our way? Do we complain and grumble when God doesn’t seem to answer our prayers?
In an examination of our over all condition, I’m not sure the Church in America would stack up all that well against the church in Ephesus.
On the other hand, Jesus admonished the believers in Ephesus for something that may be all to similar to the condition of believers in America: “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4).
Loving God first would seem to be the point here. Loving Him so that nothing else came ahead of Him. This confrontation seems like another way of saying, you’ve allowed idols to steal away your affection. I can think of a few idols the American Church has bowed to—ease, traditions, our nation, our families, to name a few.
Jesus next gave the church in Ephesus an admonition: remember what you used to do, repent, and get back to doing what you had been doing.
The Church in America used to evangelize and share with their neighbors, feed the poor and take the lead in things like establishing universities and leading the fight against slavery. The Church in America read their Bibles and went to prayer meetings. God was important and obeying His word was important.
Do we need to repent and get back to doing what we did before?
Jesus next warned the Ephesian believers—if you don’t repent, Jesus would remove their lampstand, their witness, from that place. This, remember, was the church Paul wrote to about putting on the armor of God, repeatedly telling them to stand firm. And what’s the condition of the church in Ephesus today?
Then His praise: they hated deeds Jesus also hated. These deeds are those of the mysterious Nicolaitans. I’ve not heard a pastor yet who claims to know who these people were. Apparently there’s no record of them outside the Bible, and there’s no other explanation of them or their deeds. But there really doesn’t need to be. Whatever they did, it was something Jesus hated. Scripture gives us plenty of things that would fall into that category.
So the question: are we tepid about things God hates or are we white-hot angry about the things He hates. If we’re unsure what God hates, we can start with this list from Proverbs:
Pride and arrogance and the evil way
And the perverted mouth, I hate (8:13b).
Or how about this one:
Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD (12:22a)
I’m not so sure Jesus would commend the Church in America for hating deeds He hates.
Jesus ended His message with a promise:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’ (Rev. 2:7)
“To him who overcomes” seems directed to individuals rather than to the Church collectively. The promise is familiar. Eating of the tree of life harkens back to the Garden where God walked and talked with the man and woman He had made and found to be very good. It evokes the image of the feast in the parable Jesus told. It alludes to eternal life, and this promise is certainly for any in the American Church who “overcome.”
There isn’t much of a context clue to explain what “overcomes” means, but there are clear passages that deal with God granting eternal life, the most well-known being John 3:16.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
I surmise, then, that “overcoming” is tied with believing in Jesus. There are lots of “professing Christians” in America today who don’t believe in Jesus as the Bible reveals Him. But the true Church? Well, belief in Jesus is really the dividing point, isn’t it.