The two final churches

People like to know. Absence of knowledge is both uncomfortable and disengaging. Where are we going, how long will it take, what route will we take, and what will I need for the journey?  Imagine you’re about to travel and you had no answers to any of these questions! The remarkable thing is that God wants us to know something of the future. The bible devotes a sizable part of its content to ‘things to come’. God wants us to know. Sadly it’s become unfashionable amongst Christians to be concerned about these parts of the bible – too controversial! God wants us to know about future things not because it’s intriguing or intellectually stimulating, he wants us to know because it’s good for us in the here and now. Because knowing something of the course of future events helps us to live more effectively in the present. Knowing that Jesus may come back at any time is an encouragement to live godly lives, knowing that he holds the future gives us confidence that he will see us through the present and knowing that he will judge the world gives us an incentive to bring the gospel to the lost. Revelation is a key component in God’s desire to inform us of what is to come.

As we read the body of Revelation we see terrible judgements inflicted on the world. In spite of this, Jesus tells John not to be afraid – and if we believe in Jesus neither should we.

As we have seen, Revelation is directed to seven churches which were real churches at the end of the first century AD. The messages from Jesus to these churches in chapters 2 and 3 was for sure specific to the seven existing churches but these messages also serve as helpful messages in a generic sense to all churches throughout history. We have also noted that the sequence of the churches seems to correlate with the history of the church up to the present day.

  1. Philadelphia

This is the sixth church in the series and it is one of only two churches (the other being Smyrna) that receive commendation and little or no rebuke.

Jesus is introduced in this message as the one who is holy and true and who holds the key of David. The descriptions of holy and true are descriptions used in the Old Testament to describe God. Jesus and the Father are indeed one. He holds the key of David. God spoke specifically to David through the prophet Nathan and said “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7:16). It is of note that when the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary he said (of the baby that was to be born of her, a descendent of David): “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:32). Jesus has the key of the throne of David: a right to rule in the domain of this world. Jesus has the ability to open doors in this world. He may not yet have taken his throne to begin his righteous reign, but he has the right to reign (the key) and that right gives him the authority to open doors. Jesus placed an open door before the Philadelphian church. This church had little strength, but with the strength they had they had kept God’s word and had not denied his name. It seems that the open door was placed before them in response to their faithfulness. In the progression of the church in history this church correlates with the missionary church of around the 1700-1900 period. This was the time when John and Charles Wesley preached to remarkable effect, it was the time of Jonathan Edwards and CH Spurgeon and the time of great missionary work through men such as Hudson Taylor.

You may remember that Jesus spoke to the second church, Smyrna of those who claimed to be Jews but were not. In the phase of church history represented by the Smyrnian church there arose a somewhat anti-Semitic view that claimed all of the promises given to Israel exclusively for the church. This view necessitated large parts of the Old Testament to be re-interpreted as allegories for the church. This view had undermined the bible story-line of God’s plans for the rescue of mankind as well as the establishment of his kingdom. Haman had tried to physically annihilate the Jews in the 400s BC (he wasn’t the last to try), but since then many in the Christian church have attempted to annihilate the Jews spiritually! Verse 9 of this message to the church in Philadelphia seems to indicate that there is something of a reversal in fortunes of those who ‘claim to be Jews though they are not.’ Interestingly it is the 1700–1900 AD period of church history that the truths relating to God’s covenants with Israel were rediscovered by believers who simply read the bible without the baggage of centuries of tradition that had revised the bible message. This may seem something of an academic issue, but if God’s promises to Abraham can be so readily transferred and altered doesn’t this make God’s promises worthless? How could we ever know what God means if we could so easily re-interpret what he says? Jesus describes those who claim to be Jews but are not as of the synagogue of Satan.

The promise to the Philadelphian church is that since they have endured with patience that they will be kept from ‘the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world.’  As we shall see as we progress in our study of Revelation this world will undergo a period of dramatic and frightening judgement. There is good evidence that God’s plan is to catch up all true believers to heaven before that period begins (see for example 1 Thessalonians 5 – this is a blessed hope). Thus the believers in the Philadelphian church (and in fact in all churches) will not be subject to this period of trial and testing. Jesus did not tell John ‘do not be afraid’ for nothing.

Jesus next states that he is coming soon. I suspect that this means that from God’s perspective there are no prophesied events in the way before he comes. We can expect an ‘any moment’ return. As we wait for the day that will take us from this world to escape the judgement period, the injunction is to ‘hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.’ As we live faithful lives in the present time there will come a time when our work will be tested. Rewards will be given to those who are faithful. Hold on or else your reward will not be granted says Jesus. What exactly were the Philadelphians to hold on to? There were to hold on to four things: Christ’s word (v 8), Christ’s name (v 8), Christ’s patience (v 10) and Christ’s coming (v 11).

The promise to the Philadelphian believers is that they would become pillars in God’s temple. Written on these pillars will be the name of God and of his city. In Solomon’s temple there were two large pillars at the entrance. They had names too: Jachin meaning established and Boaz meaning strength. For believers they will have three names: God’s name which speaks of our relationship to him as his sons, the name of his eternal city Jerusalem which speaks of our eternal citizenship and finally ‘my new name’. We are not told what this new name is, but it is associated with the Lord Jesus and it further identifies us with him. 

Let’s have ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches!

  • Laodicea

Jesus is introduced as the ‘the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.’ This church is one we seem to most easily remember: it’s the worst of the lot – the lukewarm church. As we survey the history of God’s representatives in this world the record is one of repeated failure! Israel didn’t exactly do a great job and when the church became God’s agent on earth it hardly offered any improvement! In spite of this, Jesus is the faithful and true witness. We may fail to be effective witnesses, but he will never fail!

This church was neither hot nor cold but lukewarm. Jesus wishes they were one or the other! As a result of this, Jesus would ‘spit you out of my mouth’. That’s pretty dramatic and graphic language – and sounds like a sort of rejection. You will have noticed as we study these churches that each is an identifiable organisation but there seems to be a mixture of true believers (those who are victorious) and those who are in the church organisation but who have never placed their faith in Jesus. If the established and visible Christian church of our day was to have all true believers removed, what would it look like? Sadly much of it would remain unchanged. It seems that it is this visible organisation (excluding true believers) that Jesus spits out! Since this is the final church in the series, this church emptied of true believers is exposed to the coming judgement on this world.

So what does Jesus know of this church? They claimed to be rich, having acquired wealth and in did not need a thing. Laodicea was indeed a city of great wealth. The city was known as a banking centre and some have described it as one of the wealthiest cities in the world. We might equate it with modern day city of London. Jesus rightly said that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Sadly this church had allowed its wealth to dominate its thinking. Rich materially, but spiritually Jesus described Laodicea as  wretched, pitiful, blind and naked. Our world seems to have become similarly obsessed with wealth. Our politicians talk a lot about wealth but very little about morality, our role models seem to be the ‘super rich.’ But Jesus invites us to take another look at wealth and see the spiritual depravity that often accompanies it. Tough words from Jesus: but there is always room for change. Jesus graciously offers refined gold so that they may become rich, white clothes to wear so that they can cover their nakedness and eye ointment to enable them to see. Gold speaks of the precious righteousness of God – Jesus paid the price and we are offered these riches without charge. The white clothes seem also to speak of being clothed in God’s righteousness and the ointment enables us to see the truth. Jesus reminds the Laodiceans that those whom God loves are those whom he will rebuke and discipline. He does this to effect change – repentance. Jesus wanted the Laodiceans to have a change of mind and a change in direction, it was not too late.

We have noted that the last four churches have some mention of the return of the Lord. If we think for a moment about the idea that the churches represent a historical series of the church down through the ages we could then consider that some form of each of the final 4 churches will be in existence at the return of the Lord. The church in Thyatira were told to hold on until I come, the church in Sardis were told that he will come like a thief, the church in Philadelphia were told that he was coming soon. The Laodicean church were told ‘Here I am!’. The tragedy is that Jesus has arrived but the door to the church is locked! Jesus is left knocking on the door. Even with this sad picture in mind Jesus still graciously offers hope: ‘if anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’. The invitation is to individuals, perhaps in this church there are literally just a few who will hear and will accept the invitation. One writer said of this ‘His invitation is to the evening meal, the last call for dinner. It is an invitation to come to Him before the night of the great tribulation’. Have you heard his knocking? Will you invite him in?

Finally the promise to those who believe and are counted as victorious, they are given a right to ‘sit with me on my throne’. Later in Revelation we will read these words ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever’. Satan wanted to grab what was not his: a right to rule, but here we are hopeless sinners granted a place with Christ to reign in his eternal kingdom! I have reached the age (50 something!) when retirement has become a real topic of conversation amongst my colleagues. We talk about the merits of the governments changes to the law on pensions and the merits of annuities over ‘draw down’, sometimes the conversation will include what one might do in retirement: go sailing, go on a world cruise etc. But what a different perspective for the believer as we contemplate reigning in Christ’s eternal kingdom! Are you ready? Or are you lukewarm as you take more interest in temporal wealth and early riches? Let’s indeed ‘hear what the Spirit says to the churches’.