Revelation 3 contains the last 3 of the 7 letters to the 7 churches, and more specifically to the pastor or bishop of those churches. James Jordan and other commentators have noted that although these churches are real historical churches in the 1st century, they also represent seven unique periods in redemptive history. So…
- Ephesus = Eden/Garden (tree of life, 2:7)
- Smyrna = Joseph/Abraham-Moses (thrown into prison for a time of testing, 2:10)
- Pergamos = Wilderness/Moses-David (Balaam and Balak, 2:14)
- Thyatira = Kingdom/David-Elijah (Jezebel, 2:20)
- Sardis = Remnant Era/Elijah-Jeremiah (strengthen the things that remain that are about to die, 3:2)
- Philadelphia = Restoration/Daniel-Maccabees (Key of David prophesies by Isaiah, Jeremiah, 3:7)
- Laodicea = Apostasy in Jesus’ day/Macaabees-Jesus (vomit you out of my mouth, 3:16)
So let us summarize each letter and then answer a common question about the timing of these events. And if you have a specific question that I don’t address here, please email me at email@example.com and I’ll do my best to get back to you with a response.
Verses 1-6 are addressed “To the angel of the church in Sardis.”
- Sardis is the worst of the churches as far as spiritual health goes.
- God says he knows the works of this pastor in Sardis, and while he has the reputation for being alive, he is actually dead. He is doing what people think are good works, but in God’s sight they are dead works.
- This idea of dead works appears twice in the book of Hebrews. Hebrews 6:1 says, “Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.”
- And then in Hebrews 9:13-14, “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
- So dead works are works of the flesh. This is all we do in our sinful state, and even after our baptism, there are still sins in our life that we need to repent of, and if we don’t repent, our whole life becomes characterized by dead works. So God is calling this pastor to repent just like pastors are supposed to call the world to repent.
- God says in verse 3, “Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief.
- This language of “coming like a thief” refers to the day of the Lord and Christ’s coming to judge Israel. So just as Babylon fell suddenly to Cyrus of Persia (Daniel 5), Jerusalem who has now become like Babylon (Rev. 17) and is going to fall, and if you were keeping watch, reading the signs of the times, and if you heard Jesus teaching, you would know that this was going to happen. However, if you are not watchful, His coming will catch you by surprise.
- So nations and empires can seem to fall suddenly, but it only seems sudden to those who are not paying attention. If you are wise and watchful, you will know how to prepare. This is what we see in the book of Acts as some Jewish Christians sold their land and property, liquidated their assets, because they knew things were going to get worse over the next 40 years.
- Now despite the dead works of this pastor in Sardis, and his church, Jesus says “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments.”
- It says in Jude 1:22-23, And on some have compassion, making a distinction; 23 but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.
- So Christians are called to hate defiled garments, which are dead works, sinful living, worldliness. And instead they should seek to wash their garments in the blood of lamb so they can walk with Jesus in white. Our clothes represent our works. Revelation 19:8 says of the bride, “the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”
- This is one of those amazing paradoxes that the only way to become clean/white is through the red blood of the Lamb. It’s a great image of how the gospel works.
- Lastly, the reward for those who overcome, is that they will not have their names blotted out of the Book of Life, and Jesus promises to confess their name before His Father.
- Remember the church at Sardis connects with the Remnant Era (Elijah-Jeremiah), where Israel is in exile, they have no temple or priesthood, and yet God says in Zechariah 3 that he will remove the filthy garments of Joshua the high priest.
- Zech. 3:2-5 says, “And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?”
3 Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and was standing before the Angel.
4 Then He answered and spoke to those who stood before Him, saying, “Take away the filthy garments from him.” And to him He said, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes.”
- The holiness and access that only the high-priest in Israel had, is now given to every Christian in Christ. This is one of the great blessings of the new covenant: that the Holy Spirit clothes us, cleanses us, and turns us into living temples for God.
Verses 7-13 are addressed “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia.”
- The church at Philadelphia connects with the Restoration Era (Daniel-Maccabees). So after Ezra-Nehemiah rebuild the temple and Jerusalem, God says that Zerubbabel, who was the governor of the Jews, is his signet ring (that’s how the book of Haggai ends).
- And Zerubbabel is going to be the man who carries on the Davidic lineage which will culminate in Jesus Christ. He is mentioned in both Matthew 1:13 and Luke 3:27 in the genealogy of Jesus.
- So Jesus begins this letter to the pastor in Sardis by declaring, “These things says He who is holy, He who is true, “He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens”
- These are quotations from Isaiah and Jeremiah which prophesy of God’s everlasting covenant with David, and although they are under foreign rule because of their sin, God will keep his promise to set a Davidic king upon the throne. This is why its so important that Jesus is a son of David. Paul begins the book of Romans emphasizing this. “born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the son of God with power according to the Spirit of Holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (Rom. 1:3-4
- It is this Jesus who knows the works of this pastor and his church. And Jesus commends him for remaining faithful despite his little strength. And he promises to make “those who say they are Jews and are not…to come and worship before your feet.”
- That is, God is going to make the Judaizers who were persecuting the church in Philadelphia to bow down and honor these Christians.
- In verse 10, Jesus continues his commendation saying that because this pastor has persevered in the midst of persecution, he is going to be rewarded by being spared from the judgment coming upon the whole world.
- So sometimes, the reward for our perseverance is deliverance, God preserves us from great tribulation. However, sometimes, we are like the church in Smyrna, whose reward for their perseverance is martyrdom with a crown of life coming after.
- Jesus says this judgment and tribulation is coming quickly and so this pastor must hold fast to his crown, that is his authority and rulership with Christ, perhaps his office as pastor. Don’t resign, don’t step down from leadership, stand firm and Jesus says, “I will make you a pillar in the temple of My God.”
Verses 14-22 are addressed “To the angel of the church of the Laodiceans.”
- Jesus rebukes this pastor at Laodicea for being lukewarm. He is neither cold nor hot and so Jesus is going to vomit him out of his mouth.
- This idea of being vomited out of Jesus mouth comes from a number of OT passages where sinful nations are vomited out of the land (Lev. 18, Lev. 20). Peter Leithart points out that when the great fish vomits Jonah out of the sea and onto the land, it is the image of a reverse exile. A promise that one day Israel will return to the land, which they eventually do. However here in Revelation, Jesus is the land, and he is going to vomit lukewarm Christians out of himself if they do repent. That is, they are going to be excommunicated from his body. This contrasts with the promise he gives to those who repent in verse 20, that he will come and dine with those who are zealous.
- Regardless of our geographic location, Jesus is the dwelling place of the church, and if we are lukewarm, he will kick us out of himself. When pastors and churches are unfaithful, God disciplines them, suspends them from the Lord’s Supper, and eventually removes them from the body completely. That is the threat hanging over Laodicea.
- This pastor in Laodicea thinks he is rich, wealthy, and self-sufficient, but Jesus says that he is actually wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
- To prove this, Jesus challenges him to buy gold, white garments, and oil from Him. Something this pastor will be unable to do except by repenting.
- Jesus says he is rebuking and chastening him because he loves him (vs. 19, As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.)
- And the image of repentance here is one where Jesus is standing at the door knocking, and we are to hear his voice, open the door, and let him in.
- This is not really a reference to conversion where an unbeliever allows Jesus into his heart, it is primarily a reference to the hospitality of communion, table fellowship.
- This pastor and church thinks that they are rich and wealthy, but they lack the real presence of Christ in communion. Just as Paul tells the Corinthians who are sinning, “it is not the Lord’s Supper that you take,” so also Jesus is calling this church to repent, so that Christ’s presence in communion can be restored.
- Those who overcome, Jesus says will sit with Him on his throne. And then the chapter ends with this refrain “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
- A lot there for us to ponder and apply to ourselves and our churches.
Alright, let’s go back now and answer just one question from verse 3.
Q1. When did Jesus come “as a thief?” (vs. 3)
- Jesus says throughout the gospels that he is going to come like a thief, with the application being you need to be ready at all times for this coming in judgment upon Jerusalem.
- Passages that describe this coming include: Matthew 24:43, Mark 13:32-37, and Luke 12:39, Luke 21:34-38. Also 1 Thess. 5, 2 Peter 3, and Revelation 16.
- Some people think that this coming like a thief refers to the second coming at the end of history, but I think that is wrong for a number of reasons.
- 1. The context of the gospel passages refers to Christ’s destruction of Jerusalem. You can go back to our eschatology series for more on that.
- 2. This command to “be watchful” for the coming of the Lord appears also 1 Thess. 5 and 2 Peter 3, and it makes no sense for God to give these commands to 1st century church if His coming like a thief was going to come thousands of years off in the future. People who believe in a perpetual immanence of Christ’s coming are doing violence to the text.
- 3. The coming of Jesus Christ is described in the book of revelation itself. In Revelation 16:15-16, Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.” And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon.
- And then Revelation 18:21-24 sets up the fall of Babylon/Jerusalem with the same images we find in the gospels. For example, Matthew 24 warns of the coming of the thief to break into the house (the house is the temple of the Jews). And then Matthew 25 gives us the parable of the ten virgins who had oil and lamps preparing for the bridegroom. Revelation 18 says of Jerusalem, “The light of a lamp shall not shine in you anymore, and the voice of bridegroom and bride shall not be heard in you anymore.” And then the next chapter, Revelation 19 describes Christ’s coming on a white horse, robe dipped in blood, to destroy the beast and false prophet and the enemies of God.
- So I believe Revelation itself describes Christ’s coming like a thief upon those who are not watchful, that’s what the whole book is leading up to.
- 4. A fourth and final reason that Christ’s coming as thief must refer to this 1st century judgment, is that Psalm 110, Daniel 2, Isaiah 9, 1 Corinthians 15, and other places describe Christ’s kingdom as one that perpetually increases until it fills the whole world. And so history ends with a completely Christianized world, not with it being burned in fire. That burning up of the old world described by 2 Peter 3 took place as Christ dismantled the cosmos in the 1st century.