The Letters To The Seven Churches

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Aangeleverd door: It’s Me

The Letters To The Seven Churches

Recently I wrote about the hermeneutical principle of trusting what the Bible plainly says – in other words, a literal interpretation of Scripture and letting Scripture interpret Scripture.  It is my belief that if Christians adhered to this principle there would be few if any divisions in the Church.  Approaching Scripture with a certain humility is also important.  We should tremble at God’s Word, not act as though we are the masters of it.  Don’t assume you’ve figured it all out because none of us have.  The strongest evidence I see demonstrating that someone knows the Scriptures inside and out is that they can clearly articulate the Gospel of Grace, are producing good works, and are exercising the fruits of the Spirit (especially love, gentleness, and self-control).  Their ego diminishes with time as their life is poured out like a drink offering (John 3:30Philippians 2:17).

Yet often I encounter Christians who are haughty and convinced of their own superior understanding.  Their speech is argumentative, provoking, and hateful and whether intentionally or not, they sow discord, create fear and mistrust, and cause people to abandon their hope.

With this in mind, I wanted to address a few interpretive problems that are cropping up lately in regards to the letters to the Seven Churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3) and how trusting what the Bible plainly says can solve them, or, at the very least, bring us to a deeper understanding of the message God was trying to convey.

There is a common thread of interpretation regarding Jesus’ letters to these seven churches (Revelation 2-3) among those Christians who reject or doubt the Gospel.  They use the passage’s focus on deeds to call into question the Gospel itself, or, they say that this passage has no applicability to the Church (a sort of hyper-dispensationalism).  There is so much going on in Revelation 2-3 it would take an entire commentary just to unpack it all, so I dare not expound on everything, but I want to show you three things that are often missed:

1. The Gospel is not foreign to the book of Revelation.  As a matter of fact, it is clearly articulated just five verses in:

And from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.  To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.

Here we see Jesus’ death and resurrection clearly stated, but most importantly, we see the propitiatory nature of Jesus’ death emphasized.  Your sins have been forgiven through faith because of Christ’s blood.  It isn’t enough that Jesus died and rose again, but He died for your sins (Isaiah 53:5Matthew 20:28John 1:293:16-18Romans 3:251 Corinthians 15:3Galatians 1:4Hebrews 10:121 Peter 2:24).  Don’t forget this because it’s the Gospel.  Don’t let anyone steal this hope from you.  This is the foundation Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15.

Side note: It seems that most interpretive problems with Revelation occur when people allegorize it without warrant and neglect the book’s very first chapter.  For example, full and partial preterism can largely be ruled out by the very first verse (see Revelation 1:1; and also Revelation 1:3194:1).  Yet preterism remains a “scholarly” favorite.  Not because of a faithful adherence to God’s Word, but because of textual criticism, allegorical license, and professing oneself to be wise, in my humble opinion.

2. The Gospel is the central theme in the letters to all seven churches and many Christians completely miss this.  To each of the seven churches it is said that the one who overcomes will obtain the promised reward (Revelation 2:71117263:51221).  However, the passage itself does not define what it means to overcome.  We now have a dilemma.

The natural mind interprets “overcome” as a challenge to perform or do better, but that would be a critical exegetical error.  Under no conditions may we allow our own fears and emotions to interpret Scripture.  Scripture must speak for itself because the heart is deceitful above all else (Jeremiah 17:9) yet God’s Word is truth (Psalm 119:160John 17:17).  The lawless and legalist alike interpret Scripture through an emotional or fleshly lens and that doesn’t do anyone any good.  If we stumble upon something ambiguous in Scripture the answer is not to assume a meaning, but to first see if some other Scripture contains the answer.  So then, does Scripture define this word for us?

The Greek word used for “overcome” or “conquer” in each of the aforementioned seven verses is nikaó, which means “I conquer, am victorious, overcome, prevail” and as a matter of fact this exact word is defined for us elsewhere in the Bible by the author of the book of Revelation himself and in very explicit terms.  John tells us whowhy, and how:

Who overcomes (nikaó) the world?  Answer: Jesus.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.

Why do we overcome (nikaó) the world?  Answer: Jesus.

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

How do we overcome (nikaó) the world?  Answer: Faith in Jesus.

For everyone born of God overcomes the world.  This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world?  Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

So the Scriptural answer to the question “how does someone overcome the world?” is through faith in Jesus Christ, which is the Gospel (i.e., Christianity 101; see hereherehereherehere, and here).  Notice especially the repetitious nature of 1 John 5:4-5: “overcomes…even our faith…overcomes…believes”.  It couldn’t be any clearer.  No amount of good deeds, law keeping, or right living will overcome the world.  The only way you can overcome the world is by trusting in the efficacy of the meritorious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Just to leave absolutely no doubt about the connection between overcoming and Jesus’ blood, the book of Revelation connects them directly:

And they overcame [nikaó] him because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony; and they loved not their life even unto death.

The sevenfold repetition in Revelation 2-3 of “he who overcomes” is a clear reminder that regardless of whether or not someone identifies with the Christian religion, the only people getting in Heaven’s door are those who trust in Christ alone for salvation.  The way is narrow.

3. It is a critical mistake to assume that everyone spoken of in Revelation 2-3 was a Believer.  These letters were written to local churches.  Local churches are composed of both Believers and unbelievers and this was just as true then as it is today.  Please recognize the difference between the big ‘C’ Church (the Body of Christ) and a little ‘c’ church.  They overlap, but are not the same thing (Acts 20:302 Corinthians 11:13-141 John 2:19).  Not everyone who calls themself a Christian actually believes the Gospel.  There are many who have never acknowledged their personal need for Christ.  There are many who believe Jesus is just one of many ways to Heaven.  There are also many who mistakenly believe that good people go to Heaven and don’t recognize the propitiatory nature of salvation.

With this in mind, notice the points that are made to the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22):

First, the community there is told their works are neither cold nor hot.  A certain mixture is in view and the only salvation-negating mixture that Scripture describes is believing that you are saved by both grace and works (Romans 11:6Galatians 5:1-12).

I spent years assuming as most Christians do that “cold” and “hot” here were symbols of “bad” and “good”.  In other words, “you evil Laodiceans better amend your wicked ways and start living better!”  However, unless we want to assume that Jesus was just throwing out a pointed zinger in Revelation 3:15 then we have a real problem with that interpretation:

I wish that you were cold or hot.

We don’t have license to simply assume Jesus was using a bit of satire and didn’t really mean what He said.  He made an emphatic statement that the Laodiceans were in real danger because they were neither cold nor hot.  Jesus said that He wanted them to be one or the other, which is why these words are not metaphors for good vs. bad, passionate vs. apathetic, or in vs. out.  The message is clear: keep the entire law perfectly (Leviticus 18:5Matthew 5:48James 2:10), which no one can do (Romans 3:20John 7:19), or acknowledge your desperate need that only God can satisfy and let Jesus in!

The Gospel is not a message about bad people becoming good nor is Christianity just pointless do-goodism.  It is a message of dead people being made alive again (Luke 15:32John 5:24).  Goodness is just an effect of dead people who have been brought back to life.  The Laodiceans’ problem was not that they weren’t good enough because a dozen Scriptures state quite emphatically that no one is good enough (that would necessarily include the uncondemned Philadelphians).  Their problem was that they were just flirting with Christianity from the outside.  They never placed their faith in Christ for salvation because they didn’t realize their need.

These Laodiceans were a prime example of those who have a form of godliness, but deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5).  The power they needed was the Gospel:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Second, Jesus says He will spit this church out of His mouth.  Liquid in the mouth is not part of the body.  It is in the body, but not of it.  Isn’t that self-evident?

Third, the specific sin of Laodicea is outlined in verse 17 and it indicates an unawareness or rejection of the Gospel:

For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,’ not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

I’ve seen some Christians of late wantonly applying this verse to modern prosperity doctrine, and there might be some outside application to that situation, but this Scripture was first and foremost written to self-identified Christians who were not aware of their personal need for Christ.  These kinds of Christians number in the millions.  They think they are right with God because they are good citizens or because they outwardly obey the Ten Commandments or because they attend church or have wealth or skills in the service of God.  They are completely fooled and deluded.  They don’t recognize their inherent childlike need for what only God can provide (Genesis 8:211 Kings 8:46Psalm 14:153:1143:2Ecclesiastes 7:20Isaiah 64:6Romans 3:9-1123James 3:21 John 1:8-2:1).

Jesus tells the Laodicean church:

I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.

This is what many legalists so plainly miss.  Jesus doesn’t tell them to stop doing something or to make provision for themselves.  He pleads with them to take the provisions that only He provides.  This idea of clothing your nakedness with the garments that God provides is central to the Gospel message and it goes all the way back to Genesis (see Jeff’s excellent article on this topic here).  Jesus pleads with the Laodiceans to let Him in because they were never saved to begin with:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

If you still read this letter as a plea to give more, perform better, clean yourself up, or stop smoking then you are indubitably missing the point.