Commentary on Revelation 2:1-17.
The communication to seven churches of the Roman province Asia is just what it appears to be: seven letters addressed to seven real churches, blessing them and warning them. All the fantasies of theologians through the years attempting to make these churches into church “ages” have failed. These seven churches, however, do represent problems and principles by which the Church universal has been edified in every age, and so it will be until Jesus comes. These congregations were chosen because churches like them will always exist. They exist today. Loveless, persecuted, compromising churches. Corrupt, dead, faithful churches. And the lukewarm church. They’re around, like the poor, “always with us.”
In the above sense, the seven churches of John are no different than the seven churches to which Paul wrote letters: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, Thessalonica. Thankfully, no one -that I have read- tries to weave tales about the mysterious epochs that those letters represent. They are simply congregations that had problems and graces worthy of our consideration. It can be argued, as it is by some, that most of the New Testament was written in response to difficulties that arose in that early church. The Spirit-sent responses serve as the basis for the normalizing of the Christian Church of all time.
The letters follow a set format of five parts:
1) Address of destination: “To the angel of the church of ______, write.”
2) Personal description of Jesus as He relates to this particular Church.
3) The condition of the church as viewed by the Only One who can truly know it. Seven times God says, “I know your works.” Seven times He proceeds to prove that fact.
4) Then comes a recommended course of action. Five of the seven are told to repent! The other two are comforted and blessed.
5) Finally comes the promise to the overcomers, the obedient, coupled to an invitation: “He
that has ears, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
Within that context of sameness, let us look at the letter’s variations:
Ephesus. (2:1-7) Jesus is seen here (2:1-2) as the One Who knows all about them, the One from Whom they can hide nothing. Most persons looking at the Ephesian Church probably praised it, based on the very catalogue of good things that Jesus saw, too.( 2:2-3). But Jesus knows their need and addresses it.
The city of Ephesus was the largest and most prosperous of the seven addressed. As Paul discovered (Acts 18), its prominence was further enhanced by its devotion to the goddess Diana. Nevertheless the Gospel prospered greatly here, after the initial struggles. Following Paul’s work there, Timothy ministered to the dynamic church. Later still John himself was an elder in this congregation. One can only speculate what went through John’s heart as he sees his own people being rebuked so in the Spirit’s words. The great love of God which permeated the congregation at one time, due to the ministry of 40 years of work by Paul, Timothy and the apostle of love, is now fallen from its first intensity (2:4-5). Though this is the “only” charge against it, the sentence is clear: repent, or else!
Here we are introduced (2:6) to the Nicolaitans. It would seem that their identity must remain one of the unsolved mysteries of Revelation. In verses 14-15, speaking to the church at Pergamos, there is a possible link to the teachers of the “doctrine of Balaam”, those in the early days and our own who put stumbling blocks in front of God’s people, such as sexual issues and participating in the idolatry of this world. And, based on the name, some have speculated that they were followers of one Nicolas. Did the deacon of Acts 6 fall away, or is there another Nicolas?
Since this party is no longer with us, it is just as well that we do not know who they were. One thing is certain: the Ephesians knew who they were, and knew how to hate their deeds. The lesson for us is clear. Hate what God hates. Enemies of God are our enemies. With David we can pray the prayers of vengeance on these enemies. However, in Christ, there is the balance of mercy, whereby we pray that those enemies will not remain inimical to God. It would seem that the Church at Ephesus had left behind its compassion for the lost. Without this, it is fit to be removed.
Overcomers in this church are promised greater things than the prosperity of Ephesus can produce: nourishment from the tree of life in Paradise itself (2:7). The “stick” of having the lampstand removed from its place coupled to the “carrot” of eternal pleasure ought to be enough to entice the true believer to carry on to the end.
Smyrna. (2:8-11). Here they are again. We’ve met John already. Now here is a whole church full of suffering saints, pastored by an appointee of the apostle John named Polycarp, one who was burned alive for his faith. Christians suffer. Christians die at the hands of antichrists. We simply must see and believe this. And the greatest encouragement given is that if we overcome, that is, stay faithful until death, we will not be hurt by the second death. (2:10-11) In fact, Jesus’ personal i.d. here is “the One Who was dead, and came to life.” (2:8)
The “synagogue of Satan” is mentioned here (2:9) and in 3:9, and seems to refer to Jews who, as the ones mentioned by Paul in Romans 2:17, want to claim the blessings of being Jewish, but take no delight in that which is Israel’s true glory, the Messiah. Any congregation of people, Jewish or so-called “Christian” who openly deny the Person and work of Jesus are in Satan’s camp.
Smyrna competed with Ephesus and Pergamum for the title “first city of Asia”. But included in its growing power was the resultant faithfulness to Rome and Rome’s religion, expressed in emperor worship. The church’s rejection of this devotion brought on the persecution alluded to in the letter. The comfort given by the Spirit is that, although believers are not promised exemption from the first death, the second death will not be an issue. (2:11)
Pergamos (2:12-17). Pergamos is said to be the place of “Satan’s throne.” (2:13) Here, Satan actually “dwells”. Halley (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 24th edition, p. 704) explains:
” Pergamum was a seat of Emperor Worship, where incense was offered before the statue of the Emperor as to God… also, an altar to Jupiter. And a Temple of Esculapius, a healing god, worshiped in the form of a serpent, one of the names of Satan. Besides these, it was also a stronghold of Balaamite and Nicolaitan Teachers. Thus, as a notorious center of heathenism and wickedness, it was called ‘Satan’s Throne’ “
And, Pergamos was the capital city of this province known as Asia.
Talk of a dwelling place for Satan is in antithesis to the reality of a future time when God Himself will dwell with us, Throne and all, as described later (21: 3, 22:3). Here in Pergamos, further, is more talk of Christians dying the martyr’s death, as will be spoken of in greater detail in chapters 6 and 7. These deaths come about because of refusal to participate in the falseness going on around the believers.
The “doctrine” or teaching, of Balaam (2:14) is that line of thinking whereby evil (worshiping idols) is mixed with good (sacrificing, eating). Balaam himself was a study in this “mixture.” He was a man for all seasons, for all religions, for all philosophies. His bottom line was not prophet but profit. His tribe has increased and is with us still in the Church. The first 16 verses of chapter 31 of Numbers will explain the incident to which the Lord is referring, and how it all ties in with sexual immorality.
As to the Nicolaitans, see under Ephesus.
Also in this passage is a mention of a local situation that seems to have an end-time fulfillment. Follow the logic: Jesus says to the church here that unrepentant sinners are going to have to deal with the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth. (2:16) That is even the way He introduces Himself to this Church (2:12). This seems to be a reference to the events of chapter 19 detailing the coming of Jesus. Chapter 3 contains a similar description, where Jesus promises the (local) church of Philadelphia that they will be kept from the tribulation because of their perseverance. In both churches, an end-of-the-world scenario is placed before a church living far from that end.
I am sure that passages such as these are what helped give rise to the church-age theories. Yet I also believe there is a better understanding of what is being said, one that fits with other Scriptures that are more defining by nature. We all know that the early church lived in the daily expectation of the return of Christ. It is an attitude that should be with us still. The time is even now “at hand”. Unrepentant sinners, as in Pergamos, even today are called upon to repent, or deal with a living God. And faithful believers today, as in Philadelphia, will be kept from the wrath of God, to which we were not appointed. That is not to say, however, that Christians will be exempt from all tribulation (trouble).
What is hidden manna? (2:17). When the Israelites first saw the bread from Heaven, they said “What is it?” In Hebrew they were saying words that sound very much like our English word manna. Now at the other end of the Book we are confronted with some new “manna” in our future, and we,like them, want to know what it is. Good question. Commendable curiosity. Keep asking! Keep looking forward to it. We know for sure that when it comes to us it will be delicious, abundant, delightful.
As to the white stone also promised, Matthew Henry’s Revelation commentary suggests that it was an ancient custom to give those acquitted at a trial, a white stone, as opposed to a black one for those condemned. This may or may not be the case on that day, but there is a ring of truth to it. Then comes the new name written on the stone, which speaks of our adoption, also per Henry. At birth we are given our parents’ name but if we are “adopted” we are given a “new name”. So it was with us, adopted into the family of God, given His own special name. See also 3:12, where we read that the very name of God will be written on us, along with the name of the City, and a special new name of the Lord, according to 19:12. We will certainly be well identified in that day when He claims us for His own, puts His “brand” on us and says, “This is mine.” (See Hebrews 12:23 regarding our “registration” and Romans 8:15, 23 about “adoption.”)