REVELATION - CHAPTER 2
A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
Copyright 2000 James Melough
Before beginning our study of the individual letters, it would be helpful to take a moment to look very briefly at the condition of the world in which the lot of each church was cast.
It was a pagan world, ruled by a Rome at the zenith of her power, wielding an iron rod, but for the most part tolerant of the religious practices of the peoples under her sway, provided always, of course, that there was the acknowledgement of Caesar as a God, and that there was acknowledgement of his supremacy over any local king.
That the Church suffered terribly at the hand of Rome is undisputed, but what isn’t always recognized is that the incitement often came from two main sources: the bitter antagonism of the Jews; and the superstition and avarice of the pagan populace. As the Jews compelled a reluctant Pilate to pronounce the death sentence against Christ, so on many an occasion did they also incite governmental action against the Church, when, left to itself, official Rome would have done nothing.
The persecution incited by the pagans among whom the Christians lived, found its impetus in the superstition that was quick to attribute every disaster, e.g., plague, drought, crop-failure, flood, earthquake, etc., to the anger of some offended god. Inasmuch as the Christians refused to worship or even acknowledge these gods, it followed naturally that it was they who were most frequently charged with having offended the gods. The wrath of a superstitious populace often found a convenient vent in the persecution of the hapless Christians living in their midst.
The cupidity of Jew and Gentile alike was another fruitful source of persecution. The goods and property of the persecuted and falsely condemned Christians were usually confiscated, informers against them frequently being given liberal rewards.
As each of the seven letters is examined we shall discuss in more detail the character of life in the city in which each church was located, for many times the full significance of the letters can be understood only against that background.
Others have pointed out that the description of Christ used in each of the seven letters is part of the general description given in chapter one.
Of the seven, Ephesus is the only church whose beginning is recorded in Scripture (Acts 19), and it may well be that that record has been preserved to teach us the basic principles of evangelism. For about two years Paul faithfully and fearlessly preached Christ crucified and risen again, with the result that not only was the Ephesian church founded, but also “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Ac 19:10).
From Scripture and from secular history we learn that Ephesus was a wealthy commercial city, having developed where the principal trade routes converged, making it the chief port of Asia Minor. It was also the chief center for the worship of the goddess Diana, her magnificent temple being one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. One of the principal trades of the city was the making of silver images and shrines to Diana, Demetrius a silversmith, inciting a riot because Paul’s preaching was with such power that the silversmiths feared that the worship of Diana would be abandoned, thus ruining their trade, see Ac 19:23-28. It was also a center for the study of the occult, and the practice of magic, the extent of this Satanic traffic being indicated in that when some of the practitioners were converted, and brought their books together for burning, the value was found to be fifty thousand pieces of silver! (Ac 19:19).
Ephesus means full purposed: a throwing at, and while the second meaning conveys no message that is readily discernible, the first full purposed, is most appropriate to a Church that was characterized in its early days by outstanding love and zeal.
2:1. “Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;”
In this first letter the Lord is described as “He that holdeth the seven stars in His right hand, Who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks,” and in our study of chapter one, we noted that the stars “which are the angels of the seven churches” appear to represent the elders of the churches. The angel of the church of Ephesus therefore represents the elders as a governing body, rather than as individuals, for the New Testament knows nothing of the rule of one elder or minister over any church.
Their being described as angels would point to the need of the elders to guard the flock over which the Holy Spirit has set them, for the angels are frequently seen in the role of guardians. But another reason also suggests itself. The elders in any local church today are not the same as those who have been elders there in the past, or those who will be elders in the future. Time and circumstances bring change, but though the individuals may change, the need for guardianship of the assembly remains, and there is no better way to emphasize that truth than by referring metaphorically to the body of elders as the angel (guardian) of the church over which the Holy Spirit has set them. The men individually pass on to their eternal reward, but the guardianship of the church continues with those raised up by God to take the places of those He has called home. Angel therefore, is a very fitting term to describe that continuing Spirit-directed guardianship of each assembly; and as noted already, sound teaching is the best form of guardianship, for the well-taught flock is unlikely to fall prey to Satan’s wiles.
His walking in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, i.e., in the midst of the seven representative churches, reminds us that He still walks in the midst of the churches taking note, not only of all their activity, but comprehending also the motive impelling that activity. Like the written word which will judge every man in the last day, “... the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (Jn 12:48), and which is “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb 4:12), He Who is the Living Word possesses the same power of discernment.
2:2. “I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:”
The letter begins with the Lord’s warm commendation of their works, labor and patience, their abhorrence of evil, their testing of apostolic claims, and their patient endurance for His sake. Others have drawn attention to a significant omission, however. Paul commended the Thessalonians for, “Your work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope” (1 Th 1:3). There is no mention of faith, love and hope in connection with the Lord’s commendation of the Ephesian church. What is all too common in the Church today, was apparently beginning to manifest itself even in those early days: there may be a great deal of activity, but, divorced from faith, love and hope, it lacks what the Lord values highly. Since any church is but the corporate expression of the lives of its members, we do well to make a personal application of the lesson.
The words “canst not bear” express the thought of aversion to evil, which manifested itself in the expulsion of evildoers from their fellowship, as Paul commanded the Corinthians in 1 Co 5:13, “... put away from among yourselves that wicked person.”
The reference to their rejection of false apostolic claims informs us that there were impostors then, as there are now. We might ask, however, whether we display their zeal in examining the claims of those who come amongst us purporting to be the Lord’s messengers; nor should we fail to note that the Lord didn’t mince words in describing the impostors: He called them liars.
2:3. “And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast labored, and hast not fainted.”
While unwilling to bear evildoers in their midst, they were willing to bear suffering for Christ’s sake, for that is the basic meaning of the word here, and the mention of patience reminds us of how necessary that virtue is in those who would be successful in the heavenly race. Labor for Christ and His kingdom had also its place in their lives, as it should have also in ours - labor in spreading the Gospel, labor in ministry to the household of faith.
“... hast not fainted” is literally “hast not grown weary.” How easily we grow weary, in spite of the fact that there is no need to do so, for it is written, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isa 40:31), the further assurance being given that “I can do all things through Christ Who strengtheneth me” (Php 4:13).
2:4. “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.”
In spite of much that was commendable, there was also that which merited the Lord’s rebuke, and it is significant that it wasn’t in connection with what we would consider a great sin, but rather, because of a condition to which, it is to be feared, the professing church is indifferent today: they had left their first love. Nor can any amount of busy activity compensate for that lost love, as is made clear in 1 Co 13:1-13.
2:5. “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”
For all her early love and zeal, in spite of moral rectitude, and in spite of her continued busy activity, Ephesus is set before us as a fallen church, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen ....” Before hastening to endorse the condemnation of Ephesus, however, we should remember that the same absolute standard measures also the churches today, and the members who comprise those churches. That standard measures us.
With the condemnation comes the formula for recovery: remember, repent, and do the first works. Nor has the passage of two thousand years changed the formula. It begins with remember, and surely there can be no doubt that what we are to remember is the price of our redemption paid at Calvary. The Lord’s supper, to be eaten on the first day of each week, is the Divinely appointed ordinance to remind us of what it cost to redeem our souls, nor can there be any doubt that Christendom’s relegation of the observance of that ordinance to a less frequent interval, and the changing of its character to a mere ritual, are in no small measure to be blamed for the fact that the professing church today merits the same condemnation, “Thou hast left thy first love.” Nothing preserves the fervency of that first love more than the weekly spiritual return to Calvary, of the local church as a corporate body, to remember, in the Lord’s supper, His sufferings and death. Nothing is better calculated to produce genuine repentance than that weekly spiritual journey back to Calvary.
The fact that they were also to do, would remind us that genuine love for the Lord will express itself in obedient willing service, that love-impelled, and Spirit-directed service being a very different thing from the cold loveless busyness which passes for such service in most of Christendom today.
The exhortation to remember, repent, and do, is accompanied by a threat, “I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” Heaps of crumbling ruins, now six miles inland (due to silting of the harbor), are all that remain to mark the site of this once great city and principal port of Asia Minor. Sadly, the exhortation obviously went unheeded.
As was noted in our study of chapter one, each of the seven churches was intended to be also representative of a stage in the earthly experience of the Church universal, and it is easy to see the analogy between that early Ephesian church, and the beginning of the Church universal. All of the early first-century assemblies bore the character of the church in Ephesus: wherever the early Christians were found, they were marked by deep love for Christ and for one another, and by an unflagging zeal that saw their lives devoted to the spread of the Gospel. They were willing to die for the cause of Christ. In the waning love of the Ephesian church addressed by John at the end of that first century, however, we catch a glimpse of the condition of the Church world-wide at the end of the first century: everywhere love was beginning to languish. Since, however, the character of any local church is but the reflection of the character of those who comprise that fellowship, it is clear that it was the love of individual believers that was growing cold.
Unfortunately this has proved to be also the experience of many a local church since then, and of many an individual believer. The zeal of first love has given place to cold orthodoxy. The early “work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope,” have degenerated into mere work, labor and patience. The Lord’s rebuke of Ephesus is merited today by many a church, and by many of us as individuals.
The remedy, however remains the same, “Remember, repent, and do the first works.”
2:6. “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.”
Following rebuke and warning, comes further commendation. There are two principal schools of interpretation regarding these Nicolaitanes. One is that the name is a combination of two words, “nikao (to conquer),” and “laos (the people).” Adherents of this view hold that they were a group within the Church who advocated the recognition of a distinction between the clergy and the laity. The Lord’s hatred of such a system is easily understood, for any such division of His people is not only completely foreign to the teaching of His Word, but unfavorable also to the development of spiritual gift, apart from which there can be no Scriptural ministry.
The second school maintains that the Nicolaitanes were a licentious group having as their head a debauched deacon, Nicolas of Antioch. Kelly writes of this group, “The essence of Nicolaitanism seems to have been the abuse of grace to the disregard of plain morality.” Again, the anger of the Lord against such abuse of grace is easily understood. The integrity of the life must confirm the profession of the lip.
The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, but its having reference to the rise of the clerical system appears to be the more accurate.
2:7.: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”
The Ephesian letter concludes, as do all the others, with the exhortation, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” The implication is clear. Not all the members of the churches in which the letters would be read, would discern the spiritual import, or yield obedience to what they could understand; nor is it different today. The spiritual significance of these letters is but dimly understood by many of the members of the churches scattered across the earth today, nor is the obedience to what is understood any greater than it was at the end of the first century. That capacity to understand comes only from an ungrieved, unquenched Holy Spirit, that state manifesting itself in an obedient life.
The reward of the overcomer (the true believer as distinct from the mere professor) is “to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” The right forfeited by the disobedience of the first Adam in the earthly paradise, has been recovered by the obedience of the last Adam, His perfect sacrifice making available to all who trust Him, the right to dwell for ever in the heavenly paradise, and to eat there of the tree of life.
Much speculation as to the nature of the tree of life has furnished remarkably little knowledge, but the mystery may be more imagined than real. Just as there is a special food - the written Word which is the revelation of Him Who is the Living Word - for the nurture of the new spiritual life here on earth, so, it would seem, will there be also a special food for that new spiritual life in heaven, that food being portrayed symbolically as the tree of life. Since the believer’s spiritual food - the written Word which is the presentation of Him Who is the living Word - was symbolically portrayed in the manna upon which Israel fed in the desert, there need be nothing surprising about God’s choosing to portray our heavenly food under the figure of a fruit tree. Much more likely, however, is the truth that the Lord Jesus Christ will be the sustainer of the believer’s new life in eternity, as He is now while we are on earth. The tree of life appears to be a figure of the Lord Himself. Eating is synonymous with satisfaction, and only when we see the Lord face to face will be satisfied, as it is written, “I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness” (Ps 17:15).
2:8. “And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;”
As has been noted in our study of the first part of this second chapter, a knowledge of the background will enable us to better understand the spiritual message of the letter, so we’ll take a moment to look briefly at some of the features of the city in which the church was located.
Of all the cities of the ancient world Smyrna was one of the wealthiest and most beautiful. The hill of Pagos, around which it was built, was adorned with a ring of magnificent buildings referred to as “the Crown of Smyrna”; and the patron goddess Cybele (goddess of nature) was also depicted as wearing a crown of crenelated towers. Her worship centered around two great annual festivals, one in the autumn, the other in the spring, in which were celebrated her descent into death, and her resurrection out of that dread realm.
The city itself moreover had had at least two experiences of death and resurrection. Following its destruction by the Lydians c. 600 B.C., it had lain in ruins for four centuries. It was then rebuilt, but was again destroyed, this time by an earthquake, but again it was rebuilt. The city that was the home of the believers to whom John wrote, had literally died and risen again. Resurrection was a topic very familiar to the people of Smyrna.
The name Smyrna means simply myrrh, the spice commonly used in connection with burial, and as Dr. Tatford has pointed out, “Death runs as a minor tone throughout the epistle....” The letter begins, “These things saith the first and the last, which was dead and is alive....” The gaze of the believers in this seemingly indestructible city was to be lifted above the things of earth, to focus upon Him Who is “the first and the last.” He Who addressed them, and us, is the One Who “... is before all things, and by Him all things consist.... the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:17-18). And as He was before all things, so also will He be after all things, for He is God the Son, the Eternal. He who has his eyes fixed on Christ will be little impressed with anything of earth, for as one has written, “The things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”
The city may have died and risen again; its patron deity may have died and risen typically every year, but the One Who addressed the saints in Smyrna is He Who died once to make atonement for sin, and Who now in resurrection glory sits at the Father’s right hand as the Great High Priest, Intercessor, and Forerunner of those who have been given eternal life through belief in His death as their Substitute. The supposed annual resurrection of the mythical Cybele might be the basis of an idolatrous worship, but the one glorious resurrection of Christ is the basis of true worship. The joy accompanying her supposed annual resurrection must give place to the sorrow associated with her annual descent into death. No such cycle of alternating joy and sorrow accompanies the death and resurrection of Christ, for, “this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God.... For by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb 10:12-14).
2:9. “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.”
The Lord had full knowledge of all the Smyrnean saints had suffered for His sake, “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich)....” A proud boast of the Smyrneans was their loyalty to Rome, a fidelity which had brought them honor and riches, but in the midst of Smyrna’s magnificence and wealth, the believers’ faithfulness to Christ had brought them instead tribulation and poverty. The reference to the Jews as “the synagogue of Satan” may indicate that the tribulation and poverty of the believers stemmed in no small measure from Jewish enmity. Tatford writes, “Persecution was coupled, as ever in history, with spoilation of the victims’ possessions. All property was confiscated by the imperial treasury, informers being paid a reward out of the estates of those whom they maliciously betrayed.” The reference to the synagogue as being that of Satan, reminds us that he is the unseen foe instigating every word and deed directed against those who belong to Christ.
The true state of those faithful believers, however, was not to be measured by earthly standards, nor is the true state of any believer ever measured by such an inaccurate barometer. The Lord’s appraisal of their state was “... but thou art rich.” Against all they had lost as a result of their faithfulness to Him, there was laid up in heaven “an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven....” (1 Pe 1:4). And 1 Pe 1:3 declares that this sure hope, not only of the Smyrnean believers, but of all who trust Christ, is related to His resurrection, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to His abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively (living) hope BY THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHRIST FROM THE DEAD.”
The persecutors were Jews, outwardly God’s people, but again, spiritual reality may not be measured by outward appearances. The Lord declared them to be “the synagogue of Satan.” And as it was then, so has it been throughout the entire Church age: counterfeit religion has been the inveterate foe of faith. Satan’s most venomous assaults have come through those professing to be God’s agents. Saul of Tarsus is a case in point. And surely no one needs to be reminded that for centuries, the Roman “church” has piously lifted up - in supposed blessing upon myriads of blinded dupes - hands dripping with the blood of countless martyrs.
2:10. “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
Those persecuted saints weren’t promised respite from suffering, nor are we. The path of the believer was pointed out by the Lord before He Himself endured the ultimate hatred of man at Calvary, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). Better to the believer than promise of preservation from tribulation, is the assurance of the Lord’s presence in it, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world (age)” (Mt 28:20).
“... that ye may be tried (tested).” Here is disclosed the purpose of persecution. It may be Satan’s artifice to frustrate God’s purposes and injure believers, but the sovereignty of God transmutes it into the procedure by which the dross is purged away, that the pure gold of genuine faith may shine forth in undimmed brilliance, “That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Pe 1:7).
“... and ye shall have tribulation ten days.” Clearly this is not to be taken literally. The “days” are obviously periods of time, but since ten is the number of Divine government, the truth being declared is that under the government of God, nothing happens that He does not either direct or permit. This is the believer’s assurance, not only in the midst of trial and persecution, but in every circumstance of life, “... God is faithful, Who will not suffer you to be tempted (tested) above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Co 10:13).
Others have noted, not only that history records ten distinct periods of persecution at the hand of imperial Rome, but that “The tenth, under Diocletian, lasted ten years” (Tatford).
“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” For many of God’s persecuted saints the “way of escape” is the doorway of death, by which they exchange the gibbets of earth for the glory of heaven. Heads severed from earthly bodies for Christ’s sake, will wear a crown eternally. Bodies reduced to ashes at earthly stakes will yet rise incorruptible, glorious, powerful, spiritual.
Visitors to Smyrna looked with wonder on “the Crown of Smyrna,” the diadem of magnificent architecture encircling the brow of Pagos around which the city had been built. That costly crown has long since crumbled away, but the believer is invited to fix his gaze on the imperishable crown of life offered the overcomer by the Lord Who Himself overcame, and is now seated at the Father’s right hand, crowned with glory and honor.
Multitudes from across the Roman world gathered in Smyrna for the annual athletic games, to watch contestants strive for crowns of fading laurel. No such withering prize inspires the believer’s faithful striving. The promise to the Smyrnean saint is the promise to every believer, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
2:11. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.”
As in each of the letters, there is the intimation that not all who heard would heed. And as it was then, so is it today.
“He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death,” is a virtual echo of the warning given by the Lord in the course of His earthly ministry, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28).
God would have His people, not just in Smyrna, but in every place and age, look beyond the boundaries of time, and contemplate the events of life in the light of eternity. Only in that timeless realm will be revealed how many have deprived themselves of abiding riches by refusing to yield up the worthless baubles of earth. How many have postponed death for a few years, but at the cost of their souls, failing to take account of the fact that there is something infinitely worse than the death which can touch only the body. The second death affects also soul and spirit.
The Scriptures themselves define the second death. After the Millennium, the unbelieving dead of all the ages will be raised at the resurrection of death (Jn 5:29), for arraignment at the great white throne. Their judgment there will be, not to determine whether they may enter heaven (their own decision on earth not to trust Christ barred heaven’s gate against them), but to assess the degree of eternal punishment to be endured in the lake of fire. “This is the second death” (Re 20:14).
While certainly the contents of this letter are to be understood first as relating to the suffering of the saints in Smyrna, and then to the suffering of any believer, or any local church at any time or place within the Church age, it is generally recognized that the letter is also prophetic. As we have noted already, the letter to Ephesus had a primary application to the Ephesian church, then to individual believers throughout the Church age, then to local churches everywhere throughout the age, and also a prophetic application to the apostolic age, the first of seven clearly marked stages in the earthly experience of the Church universal. So is it also with the letter to Smyrna. Prophetically it describes the character of the second stage of the Church’s earthly experience: the period of terrible persecution that began in the first century, and ended in 316 A.D. in the reign of Constantine.
2:12. “And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges;”
Pergamos, the ancient capital of Asia, was bequeathed by its king Attalus, to Rome in 133 B.C., from which time it became the Roman administrative center for Asia. The pro-consul residing there was invested with “the right of the sword,” that is, he had authority to pass the death sentence, an authority denied the consuls in cities of lesser importance.
Its claim to greatness lay, not in its commerce, but in its learning, its library of 200,000 scrolls being exceeded in number only by those of Alexandria. It is in fact from Pergamos that we have derived our word parchment, for it was there that the preparation of parchment was developed.
The greatest of its many gods was Aesculapius, the god of medicine, depicted as carrying a staff with a serpent twined around it, that same staff and serpent being the emblem of the medical profession to this day. The magnificent temple of Aesculapius served also as a hospital to which the sick from all parts of the Empire came seeking healing, and such was the fame of the medical school of Pergamos that it likewise drew its students from across the Roman earth.
As might be expected, the serpent’s being the emblem of the god Aesculapius, made the city a center also of serpent worship, and a factor that posed a continual threat to the Christians was that it was also a center of Caesar worship. With the exception of Caligula and Domitian, few of the emperors insisted on being worshiped, but their being viewed as gods by the populace meant that all too often refusal to make this acknowledgement was construed as treason. The Jews enjoyed exemption from this worship, but the Christians did not, a circumstance that frequently encouraged Jew and pagan alike to provoke the persecution of the followers of Christ on the grounds that they were disloyal to Rome.
From this brief background sketch we turn now to the letter itself to discover, that as with the others, the Lord has here also employed local circumstances to lend emphasis to His pronouncements. He begins by introducing Himself as “He which hath the sharp sword with two edges.” The official representative of Rome might have “the right of the sword” judicially, but he could do no more than kill the body. The believers were being encouraged to remember that their Lord is He Who holds the power of life and death over the soul as well as the body.
The description of the sword as having two edges recalls what is written in He 4:12, “The Word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” It is by means of that same Word that He Who is King of kings and Lord of lords will one day judge all men, from the plebeian to the Caesar. “He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (Jn 12:48). The “sword” which is the Word is to be feared more than any sword of earth.
2:13. “I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.”
As He knew the works of His people in Pergamos, so does He know the works of all men everywhere, and at all times. Nothing is hidden from those eyes of fire. That knowledge should impel us to produce works that can bear His scrutiny, for we are reminded that we must all stand before His judgment seat for the review of our works (Ro 14:10).
He knew also their dwelling place, “... where Satan’s seat (throne) is ... where Satan dwelleth.” In spite of much speculation as to what is meant by “Satan’s seat (lit., throne),” the most satisfactory interpretation appears to be that which views it, not as any specific temple, but rather as a reference to the whole city in which there was an unusual concentration of what was Satanic. The reference to “Satan’s throne (rather than seat)” connects immediately with the fact that Pergamos was the center of Roman administration, and Rome, in common with every other earthly kingdom, was simply the expression of Satan’s rule, for the kingdoms of earth have been given him until that day when the hosts of heaven will exult, “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ” (Re 11:15). Nor can we ignore the obvious connection between the serpentine symbol of Aesculapius and the fact that Satan appears throughout Scripture under the same symbol, being described in Re 12:9 as “... that old serpent called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world.”
The Lord commends their faithfulness to His name, and the fearless confession of their faith, the worth of both being measured by what such courageous confession costs. Some, like Antipas, had paid with their lives. Nor was the death they faced an easy one. He for example, is believed to have been placed alive inside a hollow brazen bull, which was then heated red hot, roasting him to death. The cruelty of the enemy however, failed to diminish the courage of the Christians. Spiritual wisdom had taught them that it was better to endure the earthly fire for a little while, than to suffer the flame of the lake of fire eternally.
The meaning of the name Antipas is significant. It is against all: against fatherland. He would stand fearlessly on the side of Christ, though that might place him against all else. Nothing was permitted to come between him and loyalty to his Lord. The record has been preserved to inspire similar courage in us.
2:14. “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.”
It might have been supposed that their fortitude would have been accompanied by every other Christian virtue, but the Lord’s rebuke reminds us how ill-balanced our lives are at best. For all their fearlessness in the presence of an implacable foe, they were guilty of having in their midst some who held “... the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.”
The reference to Balaam and Balac takes us back to Numbers chapters 22-25. Balaam, having failed in his attempt to curse Israel, taught Balac another way to bring them under the wrath of God. Feigned friendship would accomplish what open enmity hadn’t. By inviting the Israelites to their idolatrous feasts, the Moabites soon induced God’s people to join in the worship of their false gods, and in the course of that idolatry, to commit fornication, literally and figuratively. Satan, in the guise of an angel of light, is more to be feared than when he comes as a roaring lion.
In spite of numerous warnings in regard to the eating of meats sacrificed to idols, e.g., Ac 15:28-29; 21:25; 1 Co 8:13; 10:14-22, 27-33, there were apparently some in Pergamos, who if not actually disobeying these commands, nevertheless held the doctrine that there was nothing wrong with eating such meats, their false doctrine impelled perhaps more by the desire to avoid persecution, than to deliberately disobey God. Temple feasts were frequent events, as much social as religious, and one way to avoid unfavorable attention was not to refuse an invitation to such a feast. Better however to offend man than the God of heaven. “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Ro 12:18), but not at the cost of offending God.
The significance of this reference to Balaam will be better understood against the light of the idolatrous practices, not just of Pergamos, but of the whole world in those first centuries of the Christian era. Practically every temple had a cadre of sacred prostitutes, male and female, whose fees swelled the coffers of the cult: thus religion cast the cloak of respectability over immorality in its vilest form. And inasmuch as all of this was practiced in connection with the worship of false gods, the fornication was both figurative and literal.
2:15. “So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.”
The Ephesians were commended for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, but here the Pergamenians are rebuked for having in their midst those who espoused this evil doctrine. (For a discussion of the meaning of Nicolaitanism, see comments on the letter to Ephesus).
2:16. “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”
The call to repentance is accompanied by the warning that failure to deal with this evil will result in the Lord’s coming quickly to “... fight against them (those holding this doctrine), with the sword of my mouth.” This “coming” is not to be construed as a reference to His return to rapture the Church, but rather to a speedy chastisement of the guilty by means not disclosed. Since however, the Word (under the figure of “the sword of my mouth”) was to be the instrument, the implication is that the chastisement would be accomplished by means of, or according to the written Word.
2:17. “He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”
This reminds us again that not all who heard or read the letters would discern the spiritual message, or yield obedience.
The promise to the overcomer that he would be given to eat of the hidden manna, is clearly to those who would not defile themselves by attending the temple feasts and eating the polluted meats offered in sacrifice to idols. They were being assured that a better banquet, furnished with richer fare, awaited them in heaven.
Since eating represents satisfaction, and since the manna is a type of Christ as the Food of His redeemed people, the promise of the hidden manna becomes the assurance of eternal satisfaction, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself being the Source of that satisfaction. It was anticipation of that day that prompted the Psalmist to declare, “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness” (Ps 17:15).
“... and will give him a white stone.” In those days white stones were symbols of good; and black stones, of bad. For example, acquittal or condemnation of a defendant was signified by the jury’s passing a white or black stone to the presiding judge. The white stone promised the overcomer is therefore the assurance that when he enters heaven it will be as one acquitted of all guilt. The same assurance is given in Jude 24-25 where eternal glory, majesty, dominion and power are ascribed to, “Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy.”
“... and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.” In addition to signifying acquittal, these white stones had other uses. For example, they were used by the pagan priests to invite friends or wealthy patrons to the temple feasts, a mark of special favor being to inscribe the stone with a secret name of the temple god, for the exclusive use of that friend or patron, since it was believed that to know the secret name of the god was to have special influence in securing favorable answers to prayers. Transcending the vain expectations of pagan superstition was the Lord’s assurance to His own: they would feast at the table of the God of heaven, not just as guests, but as children at their Father’s table. Nor would their eternal enrichment be at the caprice of a God who existed only in the mind of the deluded votary. The redeemed are “... heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Ro 8:17). The fact that the name on the stone was known only by the recipient may be a symbolic way of expressing the special personal intimacy existing between the Lord and each believer.
In concluding our brief study of this third letter we should note that it is also prophetic. As Ephesus portrays the character of the first-century church; and Smyrna, the character of the church world-wide during the terrible persecution era that ended in 316 A.D., Pergamos points to the succeeding period, i.e., from 316 A.D. till c.500 A.D.
Much marriage, the meaning of Pergamos, is a peculiarly appropriate description of the age which that church portrays, for the decree of Constantine that ended the persecutions and gave respectability to Christianity, resulted in a marriage of Christianity and paganism that accomplished what persecution had failed to do. Balaamism triumphed, for as his advice to Balak had resulted in the seduction of Israel, to their undoing, so did this illicit union of faith and unbelief result in the Church’s committing spiritual fornication. The fire of persecution had simply separated the gold from the dross, true faith from empty profession; but the world’s favor is the fertile soil that promotes the growth of “tares” rather than “wheat.” And so it was in regard to the Church during the two centuries portrayed by Pergamos. That era saw the speedy development of the great harlot church, religious Rome, which became to the true Church an antagonist far more terrible than pagan political Rome had ever thought of being.
Had we but the wisdom to realize it, the world’s favor is far more to be dreaded than its persecution, for eventually it leads to spiritual fornication (unfaithfulness to Christ), which leads to chastisement instead of blessing.
2:18. “And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass;”
Since, as has been noted in our study of the three preceding letters, a knowledge of the local background aids in the understanding of the letters, we’ll take a moment to look at the character of the city of Thyat-ira.
Its importance derived from its once having been a strategic garrison center, and at the time John wrote, a thriving commercial city. Some idea of its commercial importance may be deduced from the assertion of one historian that there were more trade-guilds in Thyatira than in any other Asian city. And as might be expected in a metropolis once associated with the art of war the patron deity was Tyrimnas, portrayed as an equestrian warrior wielding a battle-axe. Among the many products of Thyatira, one of the most important was its famous purple woollen cloth. In Ac 16:14 for example, we read of, “Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira....” Another trade was the manufacture of brassware which included armor and weapons for the Roman legions, and it is significant that we should find the royal color purple associated with a city whose principal god was the warrior Tyrimnas. The theme of sovereign power pervades the Thyatiran epistle.
In this letter the Lord is introduced as “... the Son of God, who hath His eyes like unto a flame of fire, and His feet are like fine brass.” No more appropriate symbols could have been chosen to present Him to a church accustomed to seeing the flame of the forge, and the brass products emerging daily from fire and anvil. Since fire is the Scriptural symbol of God the Holy Spirit, and of the Divine holiness; and brass, of judgment, the two combine here to remind the reader that the Christ Who came once as the Lamb of God to bear away the sin of the world, is the same One Who will return as the Lion of Judah, to judge the nations, and crush His foes beneath His feet.
The application, however, must first be to the Church, for it is written, “... judgment must begin at the house of God; and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1 Pe 4:17-18). The Thyatiran saints were being reminded, as are we, that, “... we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” Ro 14:16. At the Bema nothing will escape those eyes of fire, nor will any deed escape His judgment. Only what survives His scrutiny will remain to be rewarded. There will be revealed then what should be remembered now - “Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
2:19. “I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first.”
The Lord begins by commending their works, love, service, faith, and patience, with special attention focused on the fact that contrary to usual experience, their works had increased rather than decreased.
2:20. “Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.”
The commendation is followed by an ominous “Notwithstanding,” upon which Barclay’s comments are worth noting, “Here is a warning. A church which is crowded with people and which is a hive of energy is not necessarily a real Church. It is possible for a Church to be crowded because its people come to be entertained instead of instructed, and to be soothed instead of confronted with the fact of sin and the offer of salvation; it may be a highly successful Christian club rather than a real Christian congregation” - The Revelation of John, p.104.
The commendation is overshadowed by the condemnation, “... thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.”
That the name Jezebel, meaning unchaste, is figurative rather than literal seems obvious. As the name of the wicked wife of Ahab (1 Ki 16:30), Jezebel remains to this day synonymous with hypocrisy, cunning, treachery, idolatry, hatred of God, merciless persecution of His people, and murder - in short, she remains the feminine personification of evil. Such apparently was the character of a woman in the Thyatiran church; and not in the woman’s place of subjection and silence, but masquerading as a prophetess. And in defiance of God’s command forbidding women to speak or teach in the Church (1 Co 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:11-12), she was doing both. The low spiritual state of the church may be assessed, not only by the fact that she was being permitted to speak and teach, but that she was teaching God’s people, “... to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols,” even though specific legislation against these very sins had been given by God through the elders in Jerusalem, see Ac 15:29.
The subtle nature of her teaching will be better understood against the background of a commercial center whose trade-guilds outnumbered those of any other Asian city. Those guilds were the counterpart of today’s trade unions. Failure to join the guild of your trade was to deny yourself the opportunity to earn a living except by the most menial labor. To join the guild, however, was almost invariably to be associated with idolatry, for a popular part of guild life were the frequent feasts, at which, whether held in private houses, or in one of the pagan temples, the food would be first offered to the god of that particular trade or guild. In addition, the feasts themselves, more often than not, degenerated into drunken orgies accompanied by every form of sexual sin.
It would appear therefore that her teaching was not the promotion of literal outright fornication and idolatry - few would have accepted that - but rather, her urging the believers to laxity that would enable them to go along with all that guild membership involved, and thus avoid both persecution and financial hardship. Hearts less than fully committed to the Lord Jesus Christ would be eager for just such “emancipation” as her heretical teaching offered. To yield even tacit acknowledgement of the guild god, however, was literal idolatry - spiritual fornication.
Our reading of this evil in connection with a church of a distant time and place tends to blind us to the fact that the same danger confronts us today, and that the same pernicious doctrine may in fact be advocated in our own local church, and approved by most of the members, including ourselves. It is an enlightening exercise to scrutinize in the light of Scripture some of the things we may have unthinkingly approved or done. It might shock some of us to discover that a spirit of compromise with the world has made us guilty also of spiritual fornication, and of eating things sacrificed unto idols. Have we, for example, ever sacrificed to Mammon, time, talent, energy, etc., that belong to God? How often do we “burn a pinch of incense” to the goddess Pleasure? How much time and money have we sacrificed to her? How much time have we placed on the altar of the gods Apathy and Ease? And these are only a few of the gods worshipped in Christendom today. A few others we might mention are education, ambition, literature, art, music, sports, theater .... Remember, anything to which we give time, talent, money, energy, etc., that belong to God, is an idol.
It is noteworthy that today, as never before, the spirit behind the women’s lib movement has invaded the professing church, with the result that increasing pressure is being put upon both elders and congregation to abandon God’s standards and accord women positions which God Himself denies them. Women thrusting themselves into such positions are simply declaring the truth that they are Jezebel’s daughters.
2:21. “And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.”
Her fornication was undoubtedly spiritual rather than literal, for it is unlikely that such brazen sin would have been tolerated even in Thyatira, but the metaphor declares the abhorrence with which God views the giving to anyone or anything else the love and loyalty which belong to Him alone. Time given for repentance had yielded no result, leaving God no alternative but to pronounce judgment.
2:22. “Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.”
The bed here is usually taken to be the bed of sickness, meaning that the divine chastisement would take the same form as in Corinth, where disobedience had been visited with sickness and even death, “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Co 11:30). It is uncertain whether “except they repent of their deeds,” offered her extension of time for repentance, or only to “them that commit adultery with her,” though the “she repented not” of verse 21 would seem to exclude her. “... them that commit adultery with her,” is not to be understood as declaring that there was a literal adulterous relationship between her and some in the church, but that she and those who heeded her teaching were guilty of spiritual adultery: they were giving to idols worship what belonged only to God.
Beyond all that is literally true of this evil woman is the fact that she is also a type of the great harlot church that ruled supreme in the Middle Ages, that exists today, and that will pass into the Tribulation after the rapture of the true Church, so that the threat of God to cast “them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation,” in that symbolic contex is to be understood literally. She and the unrepentant in Thyatira would suffer tribulation in the general sense of that word, but the unrepentant harlot church portrayed by that evil woman in the Thyatirian church, will experience the terrible judgments of the coming Tribulation era.
2:23. “And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.”
Her children are usually taken to mean, not her literal offspring, but rather, those who were of like evil character, and who wholeheartedly endorsed her blasphemous teaching. This threat too, it would seem, should be taken literally, both with regard to those in Thyatira almost two thousand years ago, and with regard to the harlot church in the Tribulation.
God’s chastisement of this wicked woman and her followers was designed to teach “all the churches,” throughout the whole Church age, that the God with Whom they have to deal is, “He which searcheth the reins and hearts,” and Who, “... will give unto every one of you according to your works.” We, no less than the individuals and churches existing then, are to heed that warning, and live accordingly. The reins are literally the kidneys, for the ancients believed the kidneys to be the seat of the emotions, as they also believed the heart to be the seat of the intellect. The reference therefore to reins and hearts is literally to emotions and intellect: in other words, God judges the motive as well as the deed, and He judges according to each man’s intelligence of spiritual things. There is responsibility proportionate to light given.
2:24. “But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden.
Two groups were being admonished, and since the letter was addressed to “... the angel of the church in Thyatira,” the “you” must refer to “the angel,” who, we have noted already, seems to represent the elders as a corporate body. “The rest,” of course, were those who rejected the teaching of this Jezebel.
“... which have not known the depths of Satan,” Interpreters are disagreed as to the meaning of this statement, but the explanation that seems most valid is that suggested by Dr. Morris who writes, “... it seems probable that they held that to triumph over Satan it is necessary to know Satan’s works.... there were some ... who seem to have held that the one important thing is to keep the soul pure whatever the body may do. They did not hesitate to engage in grossly sensual practices maintaining that these concerned only their bodies, but that their souls were pure,” Revelation - An Introduction and Commentary, p.73. Such a doctrine is a contradiction of Paul’s exhortation, “... present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy....” (Ro 12:1), and is exactly what might be expected of this evil woman who was leading the saints astray.
“... I will put upon you none other burden.” Since the edict of the Council of Jerusalem, Ac 15:29, imposed upon Gentile believers no other legal obligation than, “That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication....” it would appear that the “none other burden,” may refer to that same injunction, particularly in view of the fact that Jezebel’s teaching was designed to “deliver” them from just that very “burden.”
2:25. “But that which ye have already hold fast till I come.”
Great exploits were not expected of that little faithful remnant living, not only in the midst of Satan’s external opposition exercised through the men of the world, but also in the midst of internal opposition from the compromising majority in the church where they should have found support and comfort. The Lord required only that they, “... hold fast ... till I come.” He Who can be “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb 4:15), will never lay upon His own any burden greater than that for which His grace is sufficient.
2:26. “And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:”
This looks on to the day of the Lord’s victorious return to establish His millennial kingdom. The true believers, not just from Thyatira, but from the whole Church age, having been raptured seven years before the inauguration of that kingdom, will return with Him then to reign. This promise was particularly appropriate to believers living in a city whose patron god was the all-conquering Tyrimnas, and where they saw daily, in the soldiers quartered in their garrison city, the tangible evidence of the might of a hostile world.
2:27. “And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father.”
Christ pointed them to the day when He, and they with Him, shall rule the nations with a rod of iron, after He has broken the might of those nations, “the vessels of a potter,” declaring how puny that might is in comparison to His. That hope remains the encouragement to faithfulness on the part of His own today, as it will also be to the redeemed of the coming Tribulation age.
2:28. “And I will give him the morning star.”
Of greater value to the believer, however, than the prospect of ruling over the nations, is this closing promise, “I will give him the morning star.” Re 22:16 identifies “the morning star” - it is Christ Himself. Transcending all the blessedness of our future state will be that we will then have Him, with nothing of earth to mar or hinder our communion.
2:29. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”
In concluding this brief study of the Thyatiran letter it remains only to note the prophetic aspect. Like the others, this church represents a stage in the earthly experience of the Church universal, namely the Middle Ages, c. 500 A.D. to c. 1,500 A.D.
There are two suggested meanings of Thyatira, odor of affliction and continual sacrifice, meanings which indicate how accurately this particular church portrays the Church universal in the Middle Ages. During that dark era, the harlot Roman church, represented here by Jezebel, not only compelled her own members to yield a continual sacrifice of their persons and goods, thus making her fabulously rich, but at the same time so persecuted the true Church that the odor of their affliction rose up before God continually.
The power represented by the warrior god Tyrimnas was the power wielded by the great false church (Rome), which to this day remains a temporal sovereignty, exercising far greater political influence among the nations than most people are aware of. During the thousand years of the dark Middle Ages her power was absolute. The kings of Europe reigned only by Papal permission. In the coming Tribulation era there will be again the same unification of religious and political power, the great harlot church ruling supreme during the first three and a half years of that era, at which time the Roman beast emperor will seize her power and wealth, and continue her merciless persecution of believers for the final three and a half years, the final destruction of the whole terrible system occurring when Christ returns, judges the nations, and establishs His millennial kingdom.