To the Church in Ephesus, 1-7
Rev 2:1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands:
Ephesus was the most important of the seven cities (although Pergamum was the official capital of the province of Asia). Due to the silting up of its harbour, the site is now several miles from the sea. It was a religious centre, noted for its cult of Artemis (Acts 19:24ff). Its temple was one of the seven wonders of the world. The Christian church there was established by Paul during a two-year stay (Acts 19:8-9). Timothy lived there for a time, 1 Tim 1:3, and according to tradition John lived there in his old age.
‘The effect of this salutation is to give a picture of Christ as present in the very midst of the churches, a Christ who is intimately concerned with them and cares for them.’ (Morris)
Rev 2:2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.
As Bewes says, they had passed with flying colours the service test ‘your hard work’, the perseverance test – your perseverance’, and the doctrine test – ‘you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not’. It was an impressive record.
Paul had previously warned that the Ephesian church would be troubled by ‘grievous wolves’, Acts 20:29.
Rev 2:3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
‘In these letters praise is regularly given where it fairly can to those churches which are to be rebuked for some failure. Thus there is more praise for Ephesus and Thyatira, which are rebuked, than for Smyrna and Philadelphia which are not.’ (Morris)
Rev 2:4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.
“You have forsaken your first love” – Is it that they have abandoned their love for Christ, or for one another, or for humankind generally? Probably a general abandonment is meant, covering all three. ‘They had completely forsaken their first fine flush of enthusiastic love. They had yielded to the temptation, ever present to Christian, to put all their emphasis o sound teaching. In the process they lost love, without which all else is nothing.’ (Morris)
‘I was reading only the other day of an account of my ceasing to be popular. It was said my chapel was now nearly empty, that nobody went to it. I was exceedingly amused and interested. “Well, if it comes to that,” I said, “I shall not grieve or cry very much. But if it is said the church has left its first love, that is enough to break any honest pastor’s heart.”’ (The Best of Spurgeon, 365)
‘Beware of anything that competes with loyalty to Jesus Christ. The greatest competitor of devotion to Jesus is service for him.’ Oswald Chambers
Rev 2:5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
The remedy is threefold: remember what it is you have lost; make a clean break with evil; do again those works which flowed from the love you had at first.
“I will come to you” – lit. “I am coming to you”, which indicates the swiftness and certainty of the penalty should they not repent.
“Remove your lampstand”– They will cease to be as a church. And its lamp was removed. Both church and city have vanished.
Note Edmund Calamy’s warning:- ‘Let me persuade you to believe that the Gospel is not entailed upon England; England has no letters patent of the Gospel; the Gospel is removable. God took away the ark and forsook Shiloh, and He not only took away the ark, but the temple also. He unchurched the Jews, He unchurched the seven churches of Asia, and we know not how soon He may unchurch us.’
Rev 2:6 But you have this in your favour: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
“The Nicolaitans” – We know nothing for certain about them, apart from what is written here. They might have been similar to the Balaamites (v14) and the followers of Jezebel (v20).
“You hate…which I also hate” – Hatred of what is evil is the corollary of love of what is good.
Rev 2:7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
“He who has an ear, let him hear” – This is a general call to attend to what the Spirit is saying to the churches; the message is for everyone.
“The tree of life” – The way to the tree of life was barred after Adam’s sin, but is now opened up by Christ to his victorious followers.
“The paradise of God”is the bliss of being in the very presence of God. ‘The term paradise is a Persian loan word, denoting especially a park surrounded by a wall. The term was used in the lxx to translate the word ‘garden’ (Eden). In Jewish literature ‘Garden of Eden’ and ‘paradise’ were both used for the dwelling of the righteous in the future life. Jewish teachers therefore spoke of the paradise of Adam, the paradise of the blessed in heaven and the paradise of the righteous in the coming kingdom of God. It is the last of these meanings which is in mind in this promise. Adam and Eve lost access to the tree of life and were driven from the garden (Gn. 3:22–23); the believer who shares his Lord’s victory is promised that both blessings will be restored (see Rev 22:2).’ (NBC)
To the Church in Smyrna, 8-11
Rev 2:8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.
Smyrna was another of the great cities of the province. Its harbour made it a centre for trade. It was any early ally of Rome.
‘The coach tour operators would have been proud to take you round the thriving commercial city of Smyrna. They would have led you, without fail, to the birthplace of Homer, to whom a public statue had been erected. From there you might have paid a visit to the Temple of Cybele. One things you could be sure of – no guide party would ever have taken you to the local Christian church.’ (Bewes)
Rev 2:9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
The church was afflicted and penniless – but rich in the sight of Christ.
Both their afflictions and their poverty may have been caused by the Jews. Certainly, at a later date the Jews featured prominently in the martyrdom of Polycarp at Smyrna.
‘Wonderful as it may seem to some, all the money in the world is worthless in God’s balances, compared to grace! Hard as the saying may sound, I believe that a converted beggar is far more important and honourable in the sight of God than an unconverted king. The one may glitter like the butterfly in the sun for a little season, and be admired by an ignorant world; but his end is darkness and misery forever. The other may crawl through the world like a crushed worm, and be despised by everyone who sees him; but his end is a glorious resurrection and a blessed eternity with Christ. Of him the Lord says, “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!” (Rev 2:9)
King Ahab was ruler over the ten tribes of Israel. Obadiah was nothing more than a servant in his household. Yet who can doubt who was most precious in God’s sight, the servant or the king?
Ridley and Latimer were deposed from all their dignities, cast into prison as criminals, and at length burnt at the stake. Bonner and Gardiner, their persecutors, were raised to the highest point of ecclesiastical greatness, enjoyed large incomes, and died unmolested in their beds. Yet who can doubt which of the two parties was on the Lord’s side?
Baxter, the famous clergyman, was persecuted with savage hostility, and condemned to a long imprisonment by a most unjust judgment. Jeffreys, the Chief Justice who sentenced him, was a man of shameful character without either morality or religion. Baxter was sent to jail and Jeffreys was loaded with honours. Yet who can doubt which was the good man of the two, the Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys or the author of the Christ honoring book, “Saint’s Everlasting Rest”?’ (J.C. Ryle)
“Synagogue of Satan” – ‘This unusual expression means that their assembly for worship does not gather together God’s people but Satan’s.’ (Morris)
Rev 2:10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
“Persecution for ten days” – This indicates that the suffering, though intense, will have a definite limit. ‘Not Satan but God has the last word in this matter.’ (Morris)
“The crown of life” – not a royal crown, but a victory wreath, ‘which would have been specially appropriate in Smyrna, a city famous for its Games.’ (Morris).
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 at all by the second death.
Those facing persecution and possible martyrdom would have been hugely encouraged by these words.
“The second death” is eternal punishment.
To the Church in Pergamum, 12-17
Rev 2:12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.
Pergamum – Situated about 15 miles inland, Pergamum was not an important centre for trade. But it did have a great library, reputed to hold over 200,000 scrolls. It was also an important religious centre, and people came from all around to be healed by the god Ascelpius. It has been described as the ‘Lourdes’ of the ancient world. It was a focus for Caesar-worship.
“The sharp, double-edged sword” – The sword may be regarded as the symbol of human authority (Rom 13:4), and so we are reminded here of a higher power.
Rev 2:13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
“Where Satan has his throne” – This may be a reference to the emperor-cult that centred on Pergamum. The first and most important temple to the deified Augustus was sited there. We are reminded that behind persecution and idolatry lies the evil one.
“Antipas, my faithful witness” – We do not know anything else for sure about Antipas. ‘Witness’ translates ‘martyr’, a word which came to mean one who witnessed by his death.
Rev 2:14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.
The problems at Pergamum are not clear, but seem to involve false teaching and idolatrous practices, leading to immoral behaviour.
Balaam was a prominent pagan prophet, attested outside the Bible. He had found that he could not curse, only bless, the Israelites, Numbers 22-24. After that, the Israelites engaged in sexual immorality with the Moabite women, worshiped their gods and ate their sacrifices, Num 25:1-2. According to Num 31:16 it was Balaam who incited the Moabite women in this. In later Jewish thinking (as in the writings of Philo and Josephus), Balaam had come to be regarded as the archetypal false prophet. See also 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11. In Pergamum, apparently, teachers had followed in Balaam’s footsteps by encouraging believers in licentious behaviour on the ground that they were no longer under the law of Moses.
Rev 2:15 Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
The Nicolaitans – See v6. HSB, after considering various options, concludes: ‘The clue to the real meaning of this term is found in the identification of the Nicolaitans with “the teaching of Balaam” in Rev 2:14-15. Not only is it possible that “Nikolaitan” is a Greek form of “Balaam” (as understood by the rabbis), but, more important, this interpretation fits both the text and the first-century situation.
John identifies the teaching of Balaam with two problems: “eating food sacrificed to idols” and “sexual immorality.” The early church constantly struggled with compromises with paganism, as we see in Paul’s long discussion in 1 Cor 8-10, as well as in the conclusions reached in Acts 15:20,29. Both of these centre on food offered to idols, Paul’s conclusion being that one could eat such food if purchased in the marketplace, but one should not go to a meal in a pagan temple. Following this Pauline rule, however, would cut one off from membership in trade guilds, patriotic celebrations(including ceremonies honouring the emperor, considered essential to good citizenship, although not taken seriously by the upper classes as religious events) and many family celebrations. We can easily see the pressure to rationalize and thereby develop a compromise.
The issue of sexual immorality is more difficult, for it is also mentioned in Rev 2:20,22, in the case of Jezebel (an Old Testament code word for a New Testament woman leader of the church in Thyatira, indicating her spirit and God’s evaluation, rather than the woman’s actual name). On the one hand, sexual immorality was a problem in the early church, as Paul’s discussions show (1 Cor 5:16:12-20; compare Heb 13:4). In the middle of a pagan society that accepted the use of prostitutes (although wives were expected to remain faithful), it was difficult to remain obedient on this point and relatively easy to compromise. On the other hand, “sexual immorality” was used in the Old Testament for involvement with pagan deities. For example, the Old Testament Jezebel was not to our knowledge physically immoral-she was likely faithful to Ahab all her life-but she did lead Israel into Baal worship. Since Israel was God’s “bride,” such involvement with other Gods was called “adultery” or “sexual immorality.”
Furthermore, the line between the two meanings of “immorality” was difficult to draw. Sexual immorality was involved in the Peor incident (connected to Balaam, Nu 25:1-18), but the biggest issue was that the women were Moabites or Midianites, pagan women, and they led the men to eat feasts associated with their Gods and then to worship the Gods themselves. In other words, the sexual immorality was wrong because it was associated with the worship of other Gods, a commonplace in the pagan world in which many temples had prostitutes in them through whom a man could become “joined” to the God.
If, then, John is taking the Old Testament examples as the basis for his discussion, the sexual immorality is figurative, standing for their worship of other deities, which was implied in their attending feasts in idol temples. If, on the other hand, he is using the Old Testament examples loosely, he may be indicating two related problems, attending feasts in idol temples and engaging in extramarital sexual intercourse, probably with prostitutes. The difference between the two explanations is narrow. Both types of problems are condemned elsewhere in the New Testament, however one may interpret this particular passage.
The Nicolaitans, then, appear to be a group that corrupted God’s people by suggesting compromise with the culture of the day. Rather than worship God and him alone, they suggested that it was appropriate to engage in patriotic ceremonies (such as feasts associated with the worship of the emperor) and other cultural institutions (for example, trade guilds, something like our modern unions or professional associations, and their worship). It is possible that either as part of these ceremonies or as a separate area of compromise they also permitted the use of prostitutes(perhaps as an accepted part of the “business ethic” of their day).Jesus (who is speaking through John) was not impressed. In fact, he threatened judgment on the church.
While the exact issues are different, similar compromises face the church today. Each society has its own “idols” that it expects all its citizens to worship, whether those idols be the government itself or some values or practices of the society. These “idols” are the places at which the values of the society conflict with total allegiance to Christ. Furthermore, the Nicolaitans are still with us under a variety of names, for there are always people who in the name of being “realistic” or under any number of other theological justifications counsel compromise with the dominant culture. This passage warns us that Jesus will not “buy” these justifications. He demands nothing less than total loyalty to his own person and directions. Anything less than this will put those who compromise in danger of his judgment.’
Rev 2:16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
“The sword of my mouth” is the word of Christ.
Rev 2:17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
“The hidden manna” – ‘The believe who overcomes will receive celestial food not available to the world (cf. Jn 4:31-33).’ (Morris)
“A white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” – The significance of this white stone is unclear. It may refer to the stones of the Urim and Thummim, which God has used as a means of giving guidance in earlier days (Ex 28:30). But ‘name’ stands for ‘character’ and so it means that ‘God had given to the overcomer a new character which no-one knew except himself. It was not public property. It was a little secret between him and God.’ (Morris)
In this expression, ‘it is possible to hear an echo of the Jacob story. The new name is the name of the victor himself, who through perseverance wins the victory. For no one else but the overcomer can know the personal transforming power of fidelity to Christ in the struggle to be true to the faith and to the Savior.’ (G.F. Hawthorne, in ISBE [2nd ed] art. ‘Name’)
‘If we will all be perfect saints in heaven, where will individuality be? Billions of carbon copies of God seems dull.
Reply A: Copies of each other are dull; copies of God are infinitely interesting. God is like a diamond with infinitely diverse facets. Each of the blessed reflects a different facet.
Reply B: Even now, the saints are the truest individuals. “How drearily alike are the great tyrants and sinners; how gloriously different the saints!” (C. S. Lewis).
Reply C: Lewis also explains how this comes about. Sanctity, letting God rule your soul and life, is like salt: it brings out the individual flavour of each of the different foods it flavours. It makes fish fishier, steak steakier and eggs eggier. It makes Augustine more Augustinian and Thomas more Thomistic, Teresa more Teresian and Mary more Marian.
Reply D: Rev 2:17 says: “To everyone who conquers I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Our heavenly individuality is so real that only God knows its secret. Quoting Lewis again:
What can be more a man’s own than this new name which even in eternity remains a secret between God and him? And what shall we take this secrecy to mean? Surely, that each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the Divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created? If he had no use for all these differences, I do not see why he should have created more souls than one. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it-made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand. (The Problem of Pain, Re. 10)’
(Handbook of Apologetics)
To the Church in Thyatira, 18-29
Rev 2:18 “To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.
Morris remarks: ‘The longest of the seven letters is written to the church in the smallest and least important town!’ Today, we know less about this town that any of the others, making the interpretation of the letter rather difficult.
Thyatira was a noted centre for trade. Lydia, a ‘seller of purple’, came from this town (Acts 16:14).
Rev 2:19 I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
This is a notable list of positive qualities. Thyatira had certainly not fallen away, as had Ephesus.
Rev 2:20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
“That woman Jezebel” – Clearly a symbolic name, for Ahab’s wife became a bye-word for evil.
She “calls herself a prophetess” – but her teaching is false, leading God’s people into evil practices (these have already been mentioned in v14).
“The eating of food sacrificed to idols” – this is the problem dealt with by Paul in 1 Cor 8. ‘The strong trade guilds in this city would have made it very difficult for any Christian to earn his living without belonging to a guild. But membership involved attending at guild banquets, and this in turn meant eating meat which had first been sacrificed to an idol. What was the Christian to do? If he did not conform he was out of a job’ (Morris). Then the meals themselves had probably degenerated into moral laxity. It would have been tempting to accept the teaching of a ‘prophetess’ who reassured them that it was possible to maintain their Christian profession while countenancing such practices.
Morris comments further: ‘Every generation of Christians must face the question, “How far should I accept and adopt contemporary standards and practices?” On the one hand, the Christian must not deny his faith. On the other, he must not deny his membership of society…Christians in fact live in the same world as their neighbours, and face the same problems. They must find Christian solutions.’
‘Tolerance’ is prized above almost everything else in our day. But, according to Christ, some forms of tolerance are positively evil.
Rev 2:21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.
Rev 2:22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways.
“Those who commit adultery with her” – Those who accepted ‘Jezebel’s’ false teaching. Since immorality is involved, however, the literal meaning is not far away.
To “repent of her ways” is to follow Christ’s way instead.
Rev 2:23 I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.
“Then all the churches will know” – God’s dealings with one church are to be noted and taken to heart by other churches.
Rev 2:24 Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you):
“Satan’s so-called deep secrets” – Not everything that seems profound is either true or good. It may, in fact, be the opposite.
“I will not impose any other burden on you” – Possibly an allusion to the apostolic decree in Act Acts 15:28f.
Rev 2:25 Only hold on to what you have until I come.
Rev 2:26 To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—
“Him who overcomes and does my will to the end” – This reminds us that ‘the Christian life is not a battle but a campaign.’ (Morris)
“Authority over the nations” – ‘a dazzling prospect but one which demanded great faith from a tiny church.’ (Morris)
Rev 2:27 ‘He will rule them with an iron sceptre; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’— just as I have received authority from my Father.
“Rule” – lit. ‘shepherd’. ‘We usually think of the shepherd in terms of kindness and tender care. But the shepherd was an autocrat. His power over his flock was absolute, and it is this aspect of the shepherd’s life that is in view.’ (Morris)
The verse quotes from Psa 2, a Messianic psalm. Believers will share in the Messianic reign of Christ.
Rev 2:28 I will also give him the morning star.
“I will…give him the morning star” – Cf. Rev 22:16. According to 2 Pet the place where this morning star rises is in our hearts. Since Christ himself is the ‘bright and morning start’, it may be that it is his presence which is meant here. ‘The ultimate reward of the Christian is to be with his Lord.’ (Morris)
Rev 2:29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.