In our last article, we learned that Revelation 1:20 is the lens through which we must read the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3. We learned furthermore, that “the seven stars” which are “the angels of the seven churches” are indicative of the office of the ministry of the Word.
Now we come to “the seven lampstands” which are “the seven churches.” How are we to understand this?
Some have maintained that what we have in Revelation 2–3 is seven successive and chronological periods through which the church must pass. In other words, what we have is the history of the church divided into seven sections. Is this the way in which we are to understand the seven letters to the seven churches? William Hendriksen steers us in the right direction when he writes, “The notion that these seven churches describe seven successive periods of Church history hardly needs refutation ... It should be clear to every student of the Bible that there is not one atom of evidence in all the sacred writings which in any way corroborates this thoroughly arbitrary method of cutting up the history of the Church and assigning the resulting pieces to the respective epistles of Revelation 2 and 3. The epistles describe conditions which occur not in one par-ticular age of Church history, but again and again.”
The internal evidence also points us in this direction. Near the end of each letter, we find the phrase, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Each letter is relevant for the church universal. We have, then, in Revelation 2–3 a composite picture of the church in the world from the time of Christ’s first coming to the time of His return.
The picture that is given us is a very realistic picture. One commentator has written, “We see no idealized picture but the mixture of faith and unfaith, responsibility and irresponsibility, which always characterize the church in this world.” Another commentator writes: “The seven churches fall into three groups. The first and the last are in danger of losing their very identity as a Christian church. Therefore, they are exhorted to repent in order to prevent their judgment and to inherit the promises …. The churches addressed in the three central letters have to varying degrees some who have remained faithful and others who are compromising with pagan culture …. These churches are exhorted to purge the elements of compromise from their midst in order to avert judgment … and to inherit the promises …. The second and sixth letters are written to churches which have proved themselves faithful and loyal to Christ’s name even in the face of persecu-tion from both Jews and pagans …. They are to endure with the hope that they will inherit the promises of eternal salvation … The significance of this is that the Christian church as whole is perceived as being in poor condition, since not only are the healthy churches in a minority but the churches in the worst condition form the … boundaries of the letters and the churches with serious problems form the very core of the presentation.”
The Judge of the Church
We are given a most sobering picture here. In fact, in the very middle of the center letter we find the only statement that is explicitly written to all the churches: chapter 2:23, “…all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts…” All the churches shall know that Christ will judge the church. Christ knows the mind of the church. Christ knows the heart of the church. Christ stands as the judge of the church. At the end of the day, it matters not what man may think of the church. It matters not what our neighbors think of the church. It matters not what the world thinks of the church. In fact, it doesn’t really even matter what you think of the church, or what I think of the church. At the end of the day, all that ultimately matters is what Christ thinks of the church. And that is a most sobering thought.
The great question of Revelation 2 and 3 is the great issue presented to us in the seven letters to the seven churches: how is the church to live in the midst of the world?
The Response of the Church
The church is to live in the midst of the world with her eyes fixed on Christ. That is why the vision of Christ is given to us at the very outset of the book! There is to be an identification between Christ and the Church. Note that each of the seven letters begins with a description of Christ taken from the vision in chapter 1. To the church in Ephesus we read, “These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands” (2:1). To the church in Smyrna we read, “These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life” (2:8). To the church in Pergamos we read, “These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword” (2:12). To the church in Thyatira we read: “These things says the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire” (2:18). To the church in Sardis we read: “These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars” (3:1). To the church in Philadelphia we read: “These things says He who is holy, He who is true, ‘He who has the key of David’” (3:7). To the church in Laodicea we read: “These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God” (3:14). Each of these elements are taken from the vision of Christ in chapter 1. There is to be, then, an identification between Christ and His Church. The Church must keep her eyes fixed on Christ, even reflecting Christ in her present life.
Recall that the church is pictured here in terms of lampstands. The lampstand in the Old Testament tabernacle was lit each evening. It would burn through the darkness of the night. It was a light shining in the darkness. The light that emanated from that lampstand illuminated the way to the Holy of Holies, to the presence of God. That is to be the witness of the Church. She is called to light the way to the presence of God. In the midst of a dark world, the church is called to proclaim Christ as the Light of the World.
The Warning to the Church
There is then in these letters a great warning to the church: she must remain faithful to her calling. For not only does the message of God’s Word bring a division between the Church and the World, it also brings a division between the true Church and the false church. Indeed, already now that division - that separation - is taking place. Christ warns the church in Ephesus that if they do not repent, He will come to them quickly and remove their lampstand (2:5). Christ warns the church in Pergamos that if they do not repent, He will come to them quickly and fight against them with the sword of His mouth (2:16). Christ warns the church in Thyatira of great tribulation (2:22). Christ warns the church in Sardis that if they do not repent and watch, He will come to them as thief in the night (3:3). Christ warns the church in Laodicea, that if they do not repent, He will vomit them out of His mouth (3:15).
These warnings are given to us!
The church in the world always faces the danger of becoming like the world: a little compromise here, a little compromise there - all in an effort to make our life in this world a little more comfortable! The warning that is given to the church in Revelation is this: the one who compromises will not overcome those who seek a middle way will not overcome - those who have compromised with the world will not overcome - they will, in fact, lose their lampstand.
The warnings are real; we are not immune from such things. Remember that this section of Revelation, like the other sections, covers the time period from Christ’s first coming to His return. In other words, it covers the time period in which we now live. As long as the church is in the world the dangers of compromise are real. As long as the church is in the world the danger of becoming like the world is real. As long as the church is in the world, the warnings must be heard.
The Promise to the Church
But let us not forget the promises that are held out to those who overcome: “To him who overcomes, I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God” (2:7). “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death” (2:11). “To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it” (2:17). “And he who overcomes and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations … as I also have received from My Father; and I will give him the morning star” (2:26-28). “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels” (3:5). “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name” (3:12). “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (3:21).
The kingdom of Satan rises against the church. The dangers are real. The persecutions are real. The warnings are real. But so are the promises! Let us hold fast the foundation that is laid in the Word of God - let us hold fast to Christ – keeping our eyes fixed on Him that in Him, we may overcome. And may God grant us grace that we may have ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan. He is also the President of the Board of Reformed Fellowship.