03. The Seven Churches
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Revelation 2-3 are the place where we remember that John has written a letter. That might be easy to overlook. Last chapter we recognized that John is writing in a particular style: the genre we call “first-century apocalyptic.” That’s how he writes. But what he writes is a letter.
When John turned “to see the voice” speaking to him (1v12), he caught glimpse of all-powerful, unstoppable Jesus (1v13-20). But what the voice actually told him was to write a letter to seven local churches (1v10-11).
Seven personalized letters comprise the second and third chapters of Revelation reminding us that the entire book’s strange, apocalyptic language was originally heard by people of another place, another time, another language.
Revelation is ancient mail.
Ancient mail from Jesus through an angel and guy named John to a cluster of local Jesus communities in the western half of Asia Minor—the present-day country of Turkey.
Revelation as ancient mail is worth remembering as we see wild, cartoonish characters, as we hear patterned uses of colors and numbers, as we’re overwhelmed with strange scenes. This book is a letter—a letter written in a style and genre that those in the first-century would would recognize.
Jesus tells John, “I want you to write to seven churches in a particular corner of the Roman Empire.” These seven communities are geographically close together and form a rough path or circuit.
Whomever John recruited to carry this letter for him would have carried this letter from one church on to the next (and on to the next). They would have sailed from Patmos into Ephesus and then hit the bustling sea-port of Smyrna before heading inland and hitting the towns of Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
Revelation is ancient mail.
That’s easy to lose sight of, but it’s worth remembering.
Whatever Revelation is, it’s something that these seven churches would have (mostly!) understood. Jesus didn’t send a coded puzzle originally meant for comfortable Christians in the twenty-first century. Jesus sent a stylized letter originally meant for struggling Christians in the first century. If we can’t imagine the original hearers of Revelation understanding our interpretation of this letter, then our interpretation probably needs to be rethought.
We need to rethink our reading skills. The unlikely alternative is Jesus needs to rethink his writing skills… Jesus started writing to local, historic communities but got a bit carried away talking in code about the threat of the Soviets or Red China. I find that unlikely… Jesus probably knows how to write a focused letter.
In fact, it’s far more probable that the original churches understood this letter with far more ease than we do. An incredible amount of work has to happen before all of us can read this letter—it has to be translated (or we have to learn Koine Greek). After that, we undertake the monumental task of learning about apocalyptic literature, studying Greco-Roman culture, reading up on history, etc, etc.
The original hearers of this letter just heard it.
They didn’t have to learn a new language or get a crash course in first-century Greco-Roman culture or brush up on their history to understand this letter. They were simply living it.
The church in Ephesus knew who the group called “Nicolaitans” were (2v6). We don’t. (That’s letting the cat out of the scholarly bag.) That’s an example of a detail we’ll never decode with certainty. We can make really good guesses. It’s likely they were a group within the church advocating seemingly small compromises with Roman culture to avoid persecution and live comfortably.
But where we have to break our backs to piece together cultural and historical clues, they just heard the letter. Where we have to make guesses, they just understood. They were living it. Where we hear ancient riddles, they heard current events. Where we hear tantalizing puzzles, they heard everyday details—the sometimes boring, everyday details of their lives.
For example, when we read the Laodicean’s mail, it takes a history lesson to know their city was in a great location for economic trade but a terrible location for water. Their city boomed with all kinds of business—finance and banking and specialized textiles and clothing. They were even on the cutting edge of medicine and known throughout the region as the go-to place for ophthalmology and eye health.
Can I interest you in some Laodicean eye salve?
Seriously, it was a hot commodity.
They considered themselves rich and almost without need (3v17) save for that problem of no good water. Their neighbors in Hierapolis had access to therapeutic hot springs. And their other neighbors in Colossae had access to clean, cold water. But the only nearby water for Laodicea was a small spring of lukewarm lime water.
Doesn’t that sound nice and disgusting? All their wealth and they can’t quench their thirst. They’re stuck with a spring of mineral water that makes you sick.
My point is this: we have to do a bunch of background research to realize a point that landed immediately for them. Jesus is saying that they’re behaving a lot like the very water they hate (3v16):
“You’ve become like what you hate— that stupid lukewarm water. That water that makes you nauseous. That water that isn’t good for anything.”
Their wealth has blinded them to the truth: they’re actually pitiful and naked and blind needing true riches and true clothing and true eye salve from Jesus (3v17-18).
All of it landed. They understood it. Those were the sometimes boring, frequently infuriating, everyday details of their lives. And we have to do a ton of work to understand and appreciate those details that the landed immediately for the original hearers.
The book of Revelation is ancient mail, and we need to approach it that way. When we read all of Revelation, we need to remember God is speaking to more than us. In the first century, God spoke through this document to seven historic communities. And if we’re reading the book in a way that they couldn’t possibly understand (e.g. in a way that only relates to twenty-first century Western Christians), we’re probably not reading it the best way.
But this ancient mail isn’t written only to first-century Christians in Asia Minor. We know this because Jesus has chosen the number of his communities carefully. John is writing to seven churches, and seven is a loaded, symbolic number in Revelation.
We mentioned it in a footnote in chapter one, but it’s worth saying explicitly here: Revelation frequently uses numbers to classify more than to count. They name quality more often than quantity. By choosing to write to “seven churches” John chooses a symbolic number as complete as the days of creation.
And by writing to seven historic churches, John clues us in that his letter addresses MORE than just these historic churches. Jesus is addressing the whole church—the complete church—in this letter. Wherever people are following Jesus, whenever people are following Jesus—the full and complete church—those are the people to whom Revelation speaks.
That includes us.
There are untold lessons to be gleaned from these seven personalized letters that precede Revelation’s main narrative. We can and should talk about our calling to sometimes counter-cultural allegiance to Jesus. We can and should talk about welcoming the Spirit of Jesus to shape us even when its painful and costly. But all of those potential lessons form one big lesson—one big pattern—one constellation of lessons—that we ought to name:
The local church
is at the heart
of how Jesus saves.
We find the central importance of the church not only in the book of Revelation but throughout all of the New Testament. The witness of early Christians never presents us with a privatized, atomized, individualistic faith. As true as it is that Jesus cares about and relates to each one of us individually and personally, the early church placed very little emphasis on having “personal relationship with Jesus.” Rather, what was central to the earliest Christians was participation in the people of God.
They insisted that God is accomplishing the rescue/healing/salvation of the world in and through Jesus. And Jesus works this rescue/healing/salvation most directly through a particular group of people…
The question is this:
Do you want to be a part of that people?
Will you allow the Spirit of God to include you in this?
Are you willing to be grafted into the people of God?
It’s incredibly common today to hear a lot of people say “I like Jesus but I don’t really care for the church.” And even we who perhaps count ourselves devout Christians, committed to serving a local church quietly buy into this mindset by thinking things like:
“The really important thing is my internal, private, personal relationship with God. My reading the Bible, my prayer time, my singing worship in the car, my feelings and experiences, my helping the poor, my personal choices and morality.
“But vulnerable, committed service to and with a particular local Jesus community…? Well, that’s like an optional kind of club. I mean, I do it… but it’s not central. It’s an awkward extra—like a Christian club that I’m sometimes involved in.”
This kind of thinking is completely foreign to earliest Christians.
Jesus doesn’t address individual Christians here in Revelation. Jesus addresses communities in Revelation, not individuals. The lampstands shining light into the world are Churches not Christians. Not even particular superstar Christians like Tim Tebow or Martin Luther King Jr.—take your pick—not even they are THE light of the world. It’s the Church—in all its local expressions—that illuminates the world.
The working out of salvation happens in community, not in isolation.
This does not mean that we need to be around people all the time. I test as an introvert on personality profiles, and I love quiet stretches of introspection, studying Scripture, sitting in solitude, embracing silence, being quiet in the presence of Jesus.
But the life of God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is an eternal dance of love. We often need solitude, silence, and reflection to reorient our hearts, to recalibrate our souls, to wake up to the truth of the divine dance.
But if we stay in solitude we sink into selfish isolation—and salvation does not happen in isolation. It cannot. Being drawn into the life of God means being drawn more deeply into love. Love means relationship. And the theater where loving relationship is to be embodied and performed is called the church.
The book of Revelation begins with a grand vision of Christ telling John not to be afraid (ch1), and Revelation ends with a grand vision of heaven transforming the world (ch21-22). Those are bookends of the good news found in Revelation. We recognize our smallness—that we can’t save the world or even ourselves—but Jesus is strong and coming to save.
But sandwiched between the grand vision of Love himself and the vision of Love coming to remake the world, we find something we wouldn’t expect. We find the seemingly unimportant, obviously imperfect, frequently infuriating, dull, petty, boring local church.
The local church is something we would rather skip past.
Eugene Peterson puts it this way:
We want a Christ who is pure goodness, beauty, and truth. We prefer to worship him under a caress of a stunning sunset, or with the inspiring tonalities of a soaring symphony, or by means of a penetrating poetry. We would like to put as much distance as possible between our worship of Christ and the indifferent hymn singing and fussy moralism which somehow always get into the church. We are ardent after God but cool towards the church. It is not irreligion or indifference that keeps many away from the church, but just the opposite: the church is perceived and experienced as a carcinogenic pollutant in the air of religion. Many people, wanting to nurture faith in God, instead of entering the company of saints who look and act a lot more like sinners, take a long walk on an ocean beach or hike a high mountain or immerse themselves in Dostoyevsky or Stravinsky or Georgia O’Keeffe.
But to all this aspiring asceticism the Gospel says No: “Write to the seven churches.” We would prefer to go directly from the awesome vision of Christ (Rev. 1) to the glorious ecstasies of heaven (Rev. 4, 5) and then on to the grand victorious battles against dragon wickedness (Rev. 12-14) but we can’t do it. The church has to be negotiated first. The only way from Christ to heaven and the battles against sin is through the church.
I think Peterson is spot-on in this observation.
The gateway from the grand vision of all-powerful, unstoppable Jesus in Revelation 1 leading into a narrative of conflict that leads to the grand vision of unthinkable, unspeakable cosmic salvation in Revelation 21-22—the gateway to the world’s salvation is through the church.
The local church
is at the heart
of how Jesus saves.
This isn’t just true about the macro-level of Revelation—we also see this reflected on the micro-level of each letter. All seven of the personalized letters embody this structure. Every single one begins by reaching backward to embrace the vision of all-powerful, unstoppable Jesus.1 And every single one ends by reaching forward to anticipate the future of heaven transforming the world.2
From the macro-level to the micro-level, John aims for us to recognize the vital importance of living together as a local Jesus community. All the individual churches are given different visions and experiences of a complete vision of Jesus. And all of them anticipate varying parts of God’s restoration of all things. The differences between them, however, do not divide them. Each is the place where individual Christians participate in the Kingdom bigger than we can imagine. At the grandest and smallest of levels, the local church is the heart where Jesus is at work.
The boring details and often stupid, sinful life of the local church is where Jesus is at work until his kingdom comes on earth as it is heaven. That’s what we see in all seven of these letters… Jesus at work. In varying degrees and ways, we find Jesus affirming, correcting, challenging.
Notice that Jesus is not correcting or challenging “the world” or “people in general.” Revelation—with all its encouragement and warning—is addressed to the Church. When Jesus calls out that he stands at the door and knocks, he’s talking to the church.3 Despite the way this verse is often used at church altar-calls, Jesus is not talking to non-Christians. We as the local church are often in danger of shutting Jesus out. Jesus wants the church to let him in.
Jesus yearns to come in, be with, and dine with us together. Jesus desires for us (together!) to become obedient to life instead of death. The primary place where Jesus works out his salvation is in us (together!) as a community—as the local church.
Jesus talks to us together, saves us together, disciplines us together.
And Jesus disciples for the exact same reason I discipline my daughter when she crawls over to an electrical socket or plays with wires (a rather frequent occurrence in our house).
Jesus disciplines us because he loves us.4
He doesn’t want us to choose electrical sockets—doesn’t want us wandering into death.
Jesus wants us fully and forever alive.
And it’s in the boring details of—and the often stupid, sinful life of—the local church that we find Jesus promising to make this happen.
The earliest Christians understood that the Church isn’t an awkward optional Christian club. They recognized that the local church is at the heart of how Jesus saves the world. And even how Jesus saves us as individuals.
Those of us who want the spiritual life tend to want it “pure” and “untainted.” We see the boringness or ugliness of the local church and think, “That can’t be it… that can’t be where Jesus is at work.” We quietly assume the local church to be something like a pollutant. It’s a problem. An awkward optional thing that’s frequently “in the way” of a spiritual life more pure and powerful.
But what if the local church is not in the way of spiritual formation?
What if the local church is the way to spiritual formation?
The local church is vital because it’s real.
I confess that my desire to feel spiritual often outweighs my desire to actually be Christlike. I’d rather hike in the mountains, listen to music, read poetry, and talk about spirituality at a coffee shop or on a mountain trail. I’d rather do this with people who are like me and I’d like to feel spiritual while I’m doing it.
I want to feel spiritual.
And being involved with people as the local church doesn’t always feel spiritual. Who am I kidding? It’s often ugly. It’s frequently infuriating. It’s almost always boring. There are dumb details that we’d rather not deal with. Interacting with people doesn’t feel spiritual. And worse, it often exposes my blind spots and parts of me I’d rather ignore.
But the local church is the place where Jesus promises to be at work.
The ugly, boring, dumb details of the local church—of actually participating in other people’s lives—people who aren’t like us and whom we wouldn’t naturally gravitate towards—that’s the primary place where the Spirit works to make us Christlike.That’s the primary place where Jesus begins to strip us of our selfishness and make us like himself. It doesn’t always feel spiritual, but I’m not sure where I got the idea that it should.
The local church is vital because it’s real. It’s where our real lives are exposed, and it’s where Jesus draws us into life that’s even more real.
The seven personalized letters of chapters 2-3 remind us that Revelation is not about escaping the world into an imagery world of ideas or theology or the future. Instead, Jesus addresses us—together—in the boring everyday details of our life together as the local church, promising the real world of our lives to be the theater of his salvation.
The local church is the gateway to everything else in Revelation. And that’s because the local church is always at the heart of how Jesus saves.
May you teach me to hear that your voice is speaking to more than me. May I hear what your Spirit says to the churches. May I be built together with others as the local church. May we together glimpse a vision Jesus that trains us for his never-ending kingdom of love. May I realize that the boring, ugly, dumb details are how you make us like Jesus even when the church doesn’t feel spiritual.
- In the letters to Ephesus and Laodicea, we find Jesus walking among his lampstands holding their essence (2v1) and also Jesus as the faithful and true witness/martyr (3v14). The other five occurrences can be found in 2:8, 2:12, 2:18, 3:1, and 3:7.
- Ephesus hears promise of the tree of life (2.7) while Laodicea hears promise of sharing a throne with Jesus (3.21). The other five occurrences are found in 2.10-11, 2:17, 2:26-28, 3:5, and 3:12.
- Rev 3.20.
- Rev 3.19.