Three churches to go
Dear Sardis1 “Write this.
TO: The angel of the Sardis church.
This is a message from the Boss. He’s the one who gives orders to God’s seven spirits and the seven stars. I know about the work you do to help others. I also know people think you’re a thriving church. They’re wrong. You’re a dead church.
2 Snap out of it. Start by focusing on what little life you have left in you. Strengthen yourself there before that shrivels up and dies, too. What little you’ve done isn’t enough as far as God is concerned. 3 Remember what you’ve been taught. Obey those teachings. Stop ignoring them. If you don’t snap out of it and get busy, I’m coming there. I’ll come like a robber—you’ll have no idea when it’s going to happen.
4 There are a few folks left in Sardis who aren’t walking around in dirty clothes. They will walk with me in white clothes because they deserve it. 5 Those who win their spiritual battle with this world will get to wear white clothes in the next. Their names get written into the Book of Life, and I’ll never erase them. I’ll tell the Father and his angels that these are the names of my people. 6 You’ve got ears. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
Dear Philadelphia7 "Write this.
TO: The angel of the Philadelphia church.
This is a message from the one who is holy and truthful. I have David’s key. If I open a door, it stays open; no one is going to shut it. And if I shut a door, it stays shut; no one is going to open it. 8 I know about the work you do to help others. Listen to me, I’ve opened a door for you that no one can shut. I know you’re a not big powerhouse of a church yet. But you’re a devoted church. You’ve followed my teachings and you don’t deny it when people link you to my name.
9 Look, I’m going to make those Jews from Satan’s synagogue bow at your feet. I’ll show them how much I love you. Those people aren’t really Jews. They’re liars and frauds who only say they’re Jewish. 10 You’ve held onto the faith, as I taught you to do. For that, I’ll spare you from the trouble that’s going to hit the entire world.
11 I’ll be there soon. Hang on. Keep the faith. Don’t let anyone deprive you of the crown that’s waiting for you. 12 Those who win their spiritual battle with this world are going to become pillars in God’s temple. I guarantee it. Those people will never have to leave God’s presence. I’m going to write God’s name on them so everyone knows they belong to him. I’m going to make sure everyone knows that those spiritual winners are in the right place, too. I’ll write on them the name of God’s city: New Jerusalem, which God will send down from heaven. I’ll write my name on them, too, so everyone knows I claim them. 13 You’ve got ears. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
Dear Laodicea14 “Write this.
TO: The angel of the Laodicea church.
This is a message from one who is truthful, a reliable witness to what he has seen, and the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know about the work you’ve done there. I also know that you’re neither fired up nor stone-cold dead. I’d prefer either one of those, compared to what you are.
16 You’re stuck in the middle. You’re not hot. You’re not cold. You’re so grossly lukewarm that I’m about to vomit you out of my kingdom. 17 You brag, “I’m prosperous and downright rich. I don’t need a thing.” Church, you have no idea you’re a miserable loser. You’re poor, blind, and naked. And you’re too ignorant to know it.
18 Take my advice. Invest in me. Buy some of my gold that has been refined in fire. Then you really will be rich. Buy some of my white clothes to cover yourself. Buy some of my eye salve so you can see. 19 When someone I love does something wrong, I call them out for it and hold them accountable by disciplining them. So, take me seriously and stop messing around.
20 Just so you know, I’m standing here at your door and knocking. If any of you hear me and open the door, I’ll come into your home and we can eat together. 21 Those who win their spiritual battle with this world have a privilege waiting for them. I’m saving them a place with me on my throne, just as my Father saved a place for me on his throne after I won my battle. 22 You’ve got ears. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
Sardis was a city located on a main road in western Turkey. An earthquake destroyed it in AD 17, about 30 years before Paul converted to Christianity. Emperor Tiberius led the rebuilding by donating from imperial funds 10 million sesterces. That was equal to 2.5 million denarii. A denarius as the going wage for a day’s labor. So it would have paid a year’s salary for 8,000 workers. The site is a ruins that tourists visit.
Asia was a Roman province in what is now central and western Turkey. The seven churches John addresses are some of the most influential and strategically located in the region. Why John singled out seven is up for debate. Some have said seven symbolized completion because God rested on the seventh day after creating the universe. And because of this, “seven” was a symbolic way of referring to churches everywhere. But the number was also linked to divine power and authority, and could provide symbolic support for John’s claim that the message came from God, through Jesus.
Some scholars say the seven stars are angels on earth, just as the seven spirits are God’s top angels in heaven. The seven angels on earth are each assigned to watch over one of the seven churches John is addressing. If that interpretation is correct, John’s letter seems to begin by saying that what’s coming is coming from the one who has absolute authority, from earth to heaven.
“Dirty clothes” would resonate with people of faith in Sardis for at least two reasons. First, the town was famous for producing wool. Second, “dirty” implies “ritually unclean,” and unfit to worship God. Jews who were ritually unclean weren’t allowed to worship in the Jerusalem Temple until they had gone through cleansing rituals, which often involved washing and then waiting for a day or more. It also suggests the image of someone standing in the presence of God with filthy clothes instead of clean clothes, as though they have no respect for God and aren’t fit to be in the same room with him.
Most Bible experts seem to agree that the Book of Life isn’t a celestial book. It’s a metaphor, a way of identifying people devoted to God. This word picture may have begun centuries earlier, when palace scribes kept records of the king’s enemies and his loyal servants. Kings generally rewarded the loyal souls with life and other perks. People who betrayed the king weren’t so lucky.
Philadelphia, was an agricultural town in what is now western Turkey. It’s the city of Alasehir today. When Turks today hear the name, they associate it with raisins produced from local vineyards. Mineral springs are popular, too.
This seems to suggest Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 22:22 about a key of David that locks and unlocks doors. The description seems to work as a metaphor that says Jesus has the divine authority, predicted long ago, to tell the church what to do.
This is the verse that some Christians say supports the theory that Jesus will come and take Christians away in what they call the Rapture. Some Christians teach that this will happen before he unleashes plagues and disasters known as The Great Tribulation. This presumption is part of a style of interpreting Revelation that’s called dispensationalism, an approach widely disregarded among Bible scholars. Dispensationalists divide history, the present, and the future into categories that they say helps them make sense of otherwise obscure Bible sayings. In this verse, John is quoting Jesus saying that some kind of testing (not necessarily The Great Tribulation) is coming and that only the church at Philly (not all Christians) will get to skip it. And “skip it” or “spared from it” doesn’t necessarily involve a Rapture that airlifts all believers off the planet and into heaven. Dispensationalists usually teach that people should read Revelation’s descriptions literally and not as images loaded with metaphor. They teach that there will be a Great Tribulation of wars and plagues, but that Jesus will Rapture the church away before that happens. They look for supporting clues as they read Revelation and other books of prophecy. Revelation 3:10 is one such verse.
Laodicea was a financial center and home to a lot of rich folks, some of whom may have attended the local church meetings. People of Laodicea also produced healthcare products. So it might seem odd for them to get a letter telling them to buy some decent clothes and eye salve. Jesus seems to be telling the church to stop focusing so much on building their earthly assets and start investing for the long term—for eternal life.
More literally “The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, and the Beginning of God’s creation.” “Amen” may point back to Isaiah 65:16 and its reference to the God of Truth/Amen. “Faithful and true” also describes the rider on the white horse (Revelation 19:11). The word “beginning” can mean Jesus existed before Creation, or he ruled it, or he started the work of Creation. It could also refer to something Paul wrote about Jesus to the neighboring church at Colossae: “When it comes to everything in Creation, he comes first” (Colossians 1:15).
More literally, “vomit you out of my mouth.” It’s a graphic way of expressing God’s rejection of the people in this church.
It could sound like Jesus wants to share more than a meal. He might want to share a life.
Jesus said his people get their names “written into the Book of Life” (3:5). Really? A book? What about a computer? How do you react to the idea that when we show up on Judgment Day, we might have to stand there hoping our name is written in the Book of Life?
Jesus starts his letter to the church of Philadelphia with an odd and jarring statement: “If I open a door, it stays open; no one is going to shut it. And if I shut a door, it stays shut; no one is going to open it” (3:7). It sounds like he’s saying, “I’m the Boss. If I say jump, you ask ‘How high.’” What do you think might be behind this?
Jesus told the church at Philadelphia, “I’ll be there soon” (3:11). Oops. Was Jesus a no-show? Or did he get the date of the Second Coming wrong? Which of the following best reflects your thoughts on the matter?
- Above my pay grade.
- Maybe God adjusted the date because of humanity’s reaction to Jesus. He changed the date of King Hezekiah’s death—giving him 15 more years of life—in response to the king’s prayer (Isaiah 38:5).
- Jesus was fully divine, but fully human as well. What human doesn’t get a date wrong from time to time.
- I don’t know, but it looks like he got it wrong.
- Maybe his coming meant something other than the Second Coming.
Jesus seems to reserve his harshest words for a wishy-washy congregation in Laodicea. “You’re not hot. You’re not cold. You’re so grossly lukewarm that I’m about to vomit you out of my kingdom” (3:16). What’s so terrible about taking the middle road?
LIFE APPLICATION. Jesus is coming down hard on the church at Sardis. He tells them, “People think you’re a thriving church. They’re wrong. You’re a dead church. Snap out of it” (3:1). What killed them? Laziness, it seems: “I know about the work you do to help others…What little you’ve done isn’t enough as far as God is concerned” (3:1-2). What are some of the projects you think Jesus would expect to see on the to-do list of a thriving church?
LIFE APPLICATION. Jesus said the Jews who were pressuring Christians in Philadelphia came from “Satan’s synagogue” (3:9). What does it take to warrant criticism like that? What would you expect a church to look like today if Jesus called it “Satan’s sanctuary”?