To the Church in Sardis, 1-6

Rev 3:1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.

“Sardis” – A prosperous commercial centre, but at this time somewhat in decline.  The church there was in decline too.  ‘The catchwords of their earlier better days were still remembered; they knew the right words and phrases – but it was all a hollow sham.’ (Bewes)

“You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” – ‘To be a Christian is the great thing, not to seem one.’ (Jerome)

Rev 3:2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.

Rev 3:3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

‘There is a way back from dead formalism – for a church or for an individual.  It is the way taken by the Prodigal Son of our Lord’s parable.  Remember…repent.  Can you remember those early days of enthusiasm for the things of God, for the Chruch, for prayer and the Bible?  Let the memory trigger you into turning around in repentance.  It means a U-turn.’ (Bewes)

‘The Acropolis of Sardis was built on a jutting spur of rock that was held to be impregnable. When Cyrus was besieging it, he offered a special reward to any who could find a way in. A certain soldier, Hyeroeades by name, was watching one day and saw a soldier in the Sardian garrison drop his helmet accidentally over the battlements. He saw him climb down after it and marked his path. That night he led a band up the cliffs by that very path and when they reached the top they found it quite unguarded; so they entered in and captured the citadel, which had been counted too safe. Life is a chancy business; we must be ever on the watch.’ (DSB)

Rev 3:4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.

Rev 3:5 He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.

The book of life

G.W. Hawthorne notes that ‘expressions such as “your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20), “whose names are in the book of life” (Phil. 4:3), “whose name has not been written … in the book of life” (Rev. 13:8), and “I will not blot his name out of the book of life” (Rev. 3:5), crop up several times within the NT. The figure is taken from the OT (cf. Isa. 4:3; Ezk. 13:9; Dan. 12:1), or from the secular world where a criminal’s name was removed from the civic register to take from him all rights of citizenship.’

Hawthorne appears to offer tentative support for a doctrine of conditional immortality when he adds: ‘If one could argue from these statements that all names have been recorded in the book of life, thereby assuring existence for each person, and if one might also argue that for some reason, e.g., wilful disobedience to God’s commands, deliberate refusal to accept Christ as Savior and Lord, etc., one’s name could be removed from this divine register, “blotted out,” then one might argue that that person would cease to exist, for his name would no longer exist.’

ISBE (2nd ed.), art ‘name’

Rev 3:6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

To the Church in Philadelphia, 7-13

Rev 3:7 “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no-one can shut, and what he shuts no-one can open.

“The church in Philadelphia” – ‘Philadelphia housed temples of Artemis, Helios, Zeus, Dionysus and Aphrodite. A third-century inscription from the Jewish synagogue there has been recovered. The church in Philadelphia, like the church in Smyrna, had apparently been expelled from the Jewish community; the background resembles that for the Fourth Gospel.’ (NT Background Commentary)

‘In 1681, a London widow named Jane Lead took over the Philadelphian Society, a mystical, millenarian group that regarded itself as “the Germ of the commencement of the sole true Church, Virgin Bride of Jesus Christ, whose members, dispersed among the diverse Religions of the World, are soon to appear and unite with them, in order to form this pure and holy Church, such as the church of Philadelphia was at the birth of Christianity” (Schwartz 1980:4648). Even today there are preachers who regard the seven churches in Revelation as a kind of chronological portrait of the Christian church through the centuries. They seize upon the church at Philadelphia as a model for the true church-usually their own small but faithful congregation, in contrast to the mainstream but apostate “church at Laodicea”!’ (IVP Commentary)

“The key of David” – ‘Behind this there is an Old Testament picture. Hezekiah had a faithful steward called Eliakim, who was over all his house and who alone could admit to the presence of the king. Isaiah heard God say of this faithful Eliakim: “and I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” (Isa 22:22) It is this picture which is in John’s mind. Jesus alone has authority to admit to the new Jerusalem, the new city of David. As the Te Deum has it: “Thou didst open the kingdom of Heaven to all believers.” He is the new and living way into the presence of God.’ (DSB)

‘These verses clearly allude to Isa 22:22, which speaks of one who had David’s key to open and shut, indicating full authorization to rule the house. To Jewish Christians excluded from the synagogue, this was Jesus’ encouragement that he who rightly ruled the house of David now acknowledged them as his own people.’ (NT Background Commentary) According to this view, the key of David symbolises authority.

Rev 3:8 I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no-one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

“An open door” – This is suggestive of opportunity.

‘Unless this statement refers to free entrance into the messianic kingdom (after having been excommunicated from the local synagogue, Rev 3:9), it may mean that Christ opens up a good opportunity for missionary activity (cf. 1 Cor 16:9) even though the church has “little power” and has to endure conflict, perhaps referring to the strategic location at the juncture of trade routes leading to Mysia, Lydia and Phrygia. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.’ (DLNT)

‘Preachers who claim this promise for their congregations tend to interpret the open door as a door to mission or evangelism, as in Acts 14:27. W. M. Ramsay (1904:391-400) called Philadelphia a “missionary city” because of its strategic location for the spread of Greek culture eastward into Lydia and Phrygia. Yet the open door in the message to Philadelphia is more likely a door into heaven (see 4:1) or into the temple of God or into the new Jerusalem (see Rev 3:12) than a door for evangelism. The open door is simply a guarantee of salvation or eternal life, like the promises to the “overcomers” in all seven messages. Another way of saying it is that I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.’ (Rev 3:10) (IVP Commentary)

‘What is the meaning of this open door?

(i) It may be the door of missionary opportunity. Writing to the Corinthians of the work which lies ahead of him, Paul says: “For a wide door for effective work has opened to me.” (1 Cor 16:9) When he came to Troas, a door was opened to him by the Lord. (2 Cor 2:12) he asks the Colossians to pray that a door of utterance may be opened for him. (Col 4:3) When he came back to Antioch he told how God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. (Ac 14:27)

This meaning is particularly appropriate for Philadelphia. We have seen how it was a border town, standing where the boundaries of Lydia, Mysia and Phrygia met, and founded to be a missionary of Greek language and culture to the barbarous peoples beyond. It was on the road of the imperial postal service, which left the coast at Troas, came to Philadelphia via Pergamum, Thyatira and Sardis, and joined the great road out to Phrygia. The armies of Caesar travelled that road; the caravans of the merchant-men travelled it; and now it was beckoning the missionaries of Christ.

Two things emerge here. (a) There is a door of missionary opportunity before every man and he need not go overseas to find it. Within the home, within the circle in which we move, within the parish in which we reside, there are those to be won for Christ. To use that door of opportunity is at once our privilege and our responsibility. (b) In the way of Christ the reward of work well done is more work to do. Philadelphia had proved faithful and the reward for her fidelity was still more work to do for Christ.

(ii) It has been suggested that the door which is set before the Philadelphians is none other than Jesus himself. “I am the door,” said Jesus. (Jn 10:7,9)

(iii) It has been suggested that the door is the door to the Messianic community. With Jesus Christ the new kingdom of David was inaugurated; and, just as in the ancient kingdom Eliakim had the keys to admit to the royal presence, so Jesus is the door to admit to the kingdom of God.

(iv) Apart from all these things, for any man the door of prayer is always open. That is a door which no man can ever shut and it is one which Jesus opened when he assured men of the seeking love of God the Father.’ (DSB)

Rev 3:9 I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.

“The synagogue of Satan” – ‘From the reference to the “synagogue of Satan” in Rev 3:9 we should probably infer persecution, as the fuller context suggests: “I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie-behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and learn that I have loved you.” (Rev 3:8-9) This assurance strongly implies that the Christians understood themselves as the true Jews. What we have here is an intramural controversy involving Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews, with the former claiming to be the righteous remnant, the twelve thousand preserved from each of the twelve tribes. (Rev 7:4-8; 14:1-3) The non-Christian Jews were stronger (probably in social and political standing, as well as in numbers) and were persecuting those who had believed the Christian message. These Christian Jews, who “have but little power,” regarded their persecutors as not really Jews but apostates.’ (DLNT)

Rev 3:10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.

Rev 3:11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.

‘Trench makes a list of people in the Bible who lost their place to someone else because they had shown that they were not fit to hold it. Esau lost his place to Jacob (Gen 25:34; Gen 27:36). Reuben, unstable as water, lost his place to Judah (Gen 49:4, 8). Saul lost his place to David (1 Sam 16:1, 1 Sam 16:13). Shebna lost his place to Eliakim (Isa 22:15-25). Joab and Abiathar lost their places to Benaiah and Zadok (1 Ki 2:25). Judas lost his place to Matthias (Ac 1:25-26). The Jews lost their place to the Gentiles (Rom 11:11).’ (DSB)

Rev 3:12 Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.

Pillar – Symbolic of permanence, a quality which, in a city of earthquakes such a Philadelphia, would have been highly valued.

“My new name” – This is ‘Christ’s own new name—not that of the overcomer [cp. Rev 2:17]. It symbolizes the full revelation of Christ’s character that awaits the second advent (cf. Rev. 19:12). Like the new commandment, which is really an old commandment newly understood (1 Jn. 2:7f), so Christ’s new name is in reality His former name(s) newly understood in the light of the freshness of His resurrection and return.’ (G.W. Hawthorne, ISBE [2nd ed.]. art. ‘Name’)

Rev 3:13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

To the Church in Laodicea, 14-22

Rev 3:14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.

‘Laodicea became important only in Roman times. It was capital of the Cibryatic convention, which included at least twenty-five towns. It was also the wealthiest Phrygian city, and especially prosperous in this period. It was ten miles west of Colosse and six miles south of Hierapolis. Zeus was the city’s patron deity, but Laodiceans also had temples for Apollo, Asclepius (the healing deity), Hades, Hera, Athena, Serapis, Dionysus and other deities. Many Jewish people lived in Phrygia.’ (NT Background Commentary)

The Amen – Jesus Christ is the affirmation of God’s truth.

The rulerarche – lit. ‘the first’ (i.e. the first in rank, rather than in time); just as the Roman emperor was given the title of ‘the first’ (among Roman citizens). Another possible translation is ‘origin’ (NRSV).

Rev 3:15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!

It is mistaken to suppose that the meaning of this saying is that it is better to be ‘cold-hearted’ towards God than ‘luke-warm’ towards him; that out-and-out atheism, say, is better than complacent agnosticism.  There may be some truth in such assertions, but it is not the truth of this passage.  Both hot and cold water are good: hot water for bathing, and cold water for drinking.  But lukewarm water is good for nothing.  See this article by Stanley E. Porter.

vv 15-16. ‘Cold water (and sometimes spiced hot water) was preferred for drinking, and hot water for bathing, but Laodicea lacked a natural water supply. Water piped in from hot springs six miles to the south, like any cold water that could have been procured from the mountains, would be lukewarm by the time it reached Laodicea. Although water could be heated, the natural lukewarmness of local water (in contrast with the hot water available at nearby Hierapolis) was undoubtedly a standard complaint of local residents, most of whom had an otherwise comfortable lifestyle. (Their imported water was also full of sediment, though better, said the geographer Strabo, than the water of Hierapolis.) Jesus says: “Were you hot [i.e., for bathing] or cold [i.e., for drinking], you would be useful; but as it is, I feel toward you the way you feel toward your water supply-you make me sick.”’ (NT Background Commentary)

Rev 3:16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

‘The point of the rebuke is not lack of zeal or enthusiasm. If it were, “lukewarm” would at least have been better than “cold”! The point is rather the utter worthlessness of what the congregation has done and is doing.’ (IVP Commentary)

Note the danger of self-delusion. What we think of ourselves, and what Christ thinks of us, may be very different.

‘In my senior year of ministerial studies, I preached part-time in a small local church. Six months passed and none of my professors had come to hear me. Finally, my faculty advisor agreed to attend one Sunday.

After the service, he shook my hand and said, “That was a very warm sermon.”

My delight was short-lived as he continued. “You know what the definition of warm is, don’t you?” he asked.

Before I could respond, he answered, “Not so hot.”’ (Bill Smith)

‘We have all been inoculated with Christianity, and are never likely to take it seriously now! You put some of the virus of some dreadful illness into a man’s arm, and there is a little itchiness, some scratchiness, a slight discomfort—disagreeable, no doubt, but not the fever of the real disease, the turning and the tossing, and the ebbing strength. And we have all been inoculated with Christianity, more or less. We are on Christ’s side, we wish him well, we hope that He will win, and we are even prepared to do something for Him, provided, of course, that He is reasonable, and does not make too much of an upset among our cozy comforts and our customary ways. But there is not the passion of zeal, and the burning enthusiasm, and the eagerness of self-sacrifice, of the real faith that changes character and wins the world.’ (A. J. Gossip, From the Edge of the Crowd)

Rev 3:17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.

“I am rich…”

One by one He took them from me, all the things I valued most;
‘Til I was empty-handed, every glittering toy was lost.
And I walked earth’s highways, grieving, in my rags and poverty.
Until I heard His voice inviting, “Lift those empty hands to Me!”
Then I turned my hands toward heaven, And He filled them with a store
Of His own transcendent riches, ‘Till they could contain no more.
And at last I comprehended with my stupid mind, and dull,
That God cannot pour His riches into hands already full.

— Unknown

2 Pet 1:3-11; James 1:5-6.

“I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing” – The Roman historian Tacitus writes that when it fell victim to a major earthquake in AD60, it refused an offer of aid from emperor Nero!

‘Laodicea was situated on the bank of the River Lycus. Its position at the junction of three imperial roads traversing Asia Minor favoured its development as a wealthy commercial and administrative centre. Three facts known throughout the Roman world about the city throw light on this letter: it was a banking centre, whose banks even Cicero recommended for exchanging money; it manufactured clothing and woollen carpets, made especially from the glossy black wool of sheep reared locally; and it had a medical school and produced medicines, notably an eye ointment made from a pulverized rock in the area. The stern characterization of the church’s spiritual life (17) and the call for its repentance (18) are both couched in terms of these three activities of the city.’ (NBC)

‘[1.] They were poor, really poor, when they said and thought they were rich; they had no provision for their souls to live upon; their souls were starving in the midst of their abundance; they were vastly in debt to the justice of God, and had nothing to pay off the least part of the debt. [2.] They were blind; they could not see their state, nor their way, nor their danger; they could not see into themselves; they could not look before them; they were blind, and yet they thought they saw; the very light that was in them was darkness, and then how great must that darkness be! They could not see Christ, though evidently set forth, and crucified, before their eyes. They could not see God by faith, though always present in them. They could not see death, though it was just before them. They could not look into eternity, though they stood upon the very brink of it continually. [3.] They were naked, without clothing and without house and harbour for their souls. They were without clothing, had neither the garment of justification nor that of sanctification. Their nakedness both of guilt and pollution had no covering. They lay always exposed to sin and shame. Their righteousnesses were but filthy rags; they were rags, and would not cover them, filthy rags, and would defile them. And they were naked, without house or harbour, for they were without God, and he has been the dwelling-place of his people in all ages; in him alone the soul of man can find rest, and safety, and all suitable accommodations. The riches of the body will not enrich the soul; the sight of the body will not enlighten the soul; the most convenient house for the body will not afford rest nor safety to the soul. The soul is a different thing from the body, and must have accommodation suitable to its nature, or else in the midst of bodily prosperity it will be wretched and miserable.’ (MHC)

‘Billy Graham tells the story of how he and his wife were once invited to the home of some wealthy socialites. They had gathered together a large group of their neighboring vacationers for a party, and asked me if I would say a few words. I explained the gospel simply and briefly, reminding them that pleasure and possessions are not lasting — that only the person who knows Jesus Christ as Savior can know true happiness. As I concluded, one attractive woman known for her casual morals and high life style, young and smartly dressed, laughed gaily. “But, Billy,” she protested, “What about those of us who are perfectly happy?” From God’s point of view, that woman was spiritually wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked, as the years ahead were soon to prove. Christ says to people like her as well, “Repent!”’ – Billy Graham, Approaching Hoofbeats, p. 47.

Rev 3:18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

‘Laodicea was a prosperous banking center; proud of its wealth, it refused Roman disaster relief after the earthquake of A.D. 60, rebuilding from its own resources. It was also known for its textiles (especially wool) and for its medical school and production of ear medicine and undoubtedly the highly reputed Phrygian eye salve. Everything in which Laodicea could have confidence outwardly, its church, which reflected its culture, lacked spiritually. Although Greeks did not share Palestinian Jews’ moral abhorrence of nudity, everyone except Cynic sages agreed that the lack of clothing described here, that of poverty (here spiritual), was undesirable. Phrygian “eye salve” (KJV, NASB) was apparently not an ointment per se but was probably powdered and smeared on to the eyelids (contrast Tobit 6:8). On white garments cf. Revelation 3:4; here it may be a stark contrast with Laodicea’s famous “black wool.”’ (NT Background Commentary)

The remedies mentioned relate to the last three maladies mentioned in v17 – poor, blind, naked.

“I counsel you” – The Lord Jesus continues to give good counsel to those who have turned their backs on him.

‘We have a God who is content to give advice to his creatures. I can never read this verse without being strangely moved. He is the great God of the expanding universe. He has countless galaxies of stars at his fingertips. The heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain him. He is the Creator and sustainer of all things, the Lord God Almighty. He has the right to issue orders for us to obey. He prefers to give advice which we need not heed. He could command, he chooses to counsel. He respects the freedom with which he has ennobled us.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 254)

“Buy” – Strange instruction to those who are poor! But see Isa 55:1 (“Buy…without money and without cost”).

Rev 3:19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.

Rev 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

TNIV translates: ‘I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.’ It has been noted that ‘the TNIV mistranslates the masculine singular pronoun autos, substituting plural pronouns, thus losing the teaching that Jesus has fellowship with the individual believer. This type of change was made frequently (e.g., Luke 9:23, John 14:23, Romans 14:7).’

When no-one answered the front door, the vicar, knowing that somebody was at home, left his visiting-card with the scripture Revelation 3:20 on the back: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.’  Next Sunday when people were leaving the church, a lady handed him her own card on which she had written: ‘Genesis 3:10 – I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and hid myself.’

Although the letter to the Laodiceans is addressed to a church, it is a church which is only marginally Christian. This beautiful invitation is also a powerful indictment of any congregation which in its pretended self-sufficiency is actually Christless. Note, however, that the words of this verse are addressed to individuals within the church (“If anyone…”).

‘Jesus Christ says he is standing knocking at the door of our lives, waiting.  Notice that he is standing at the door, not pushing it; speaking to us, not shouting…He could put his shoulder to the door; her prefers to put his hand to the knocker.  He could command us to open to him; instead, he merely invites us to do so.  He will not force an entry into anybody’s life.  He says (verse 18) “I counsel you…”  He could issue orders; he is content to give advice.  Such are his condescension and humility, and the freedom he has given us.’ (Stott, Basic Christianity, 124)

‘Here observe, [1.] Christ is graciously pleased by his word and Spirit to come to the door of the heart of sinners; he draws near to them in a way of mercy, ready to make them a kind visit. [2.] He finds this door shut against him; the heart of man is by nature shut up against Christ by ignorance, unbelief, sinful prejudices. [3.] When he finds the heart shut, he does not immediately withdraw, but he waits to be gracious, even till his head be filled with the dew. [4.] He uses all proper means to awaken sinners, and to cause them to open to him: he calls by his word, he knocks by the impulses of his Spirit upon their conscience. [5.] Those who open to him shall enjoy his presence, to their great comfort and advantage. He will sup with them; he will accept of what is good in them; he will eat his pleasant fruit; and he will bring the best part of the entertainment with him. If what he finds would make but a poor feast, what he brings will make up the deficiency: he will give fresh supplies of graces and comforts, and thereby stir up fresh actings of faith, and love, and delight; and in all this Christ and his repenting people will enjoy pleasant communion with each other. Alas! what do careless obstinate sinners lose by refusing to open the door of the heart to Christ!’ (MHC)

Rev 3:21 To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.

Rev 3:22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”