Author Archives: Jon Paulien

The Message to Thyatira Is Different (Churches 5)

As mentioned earlier, the churches of Revelation as a whole exhibit spiritual decline. That is also clearly manifested within the messages to Ephesus, Pergamum and Sardis. Ephesus has left its first love (Rev 2:4). Pergamum is in the process of compromise away from the faithfulness of Smyrna. Sardis is a church that still has a great name, but the reality is now far from its reputation (Rev 3:1-4).

The message to Thyatira goes against the grain of the other messages in several ways. First of all, it is twice as long as the other six messages, a full twelve verses in contrast to the four to nine verses of the other messages (average length is six and a half verses). This doubling of length is fitting to Thyatira’s role at the center of the chiasm.

Second, it is the only church whose faithful members merit the title of “remnant” (the “rest” [Greek: loipois] in Thyatira– Rev 2:24, KJV). The remnant of Thyatira are the faithful ones who are not following after “Jezebel.” This faithful remnant is encouraged to hold fast until Jesus comes.

Third, Thyatira is the only church that as a whole is described as improving spiritually. Jesus says that their “latter works exceed the first” (Rev 2:19, ESV). This encouragement is offered before any mention of a faithful remnant (2:24). While all the other churches are either in decline or holding steady, Thyatira was already improving when Jesus came to deliver His message to the church. Placed at the center of the chiasm of the seven churches, this positive message means that all the churches are capable of the changes Jesus calls them to. While Satan accuses in order to discourage and distract, Jesus and the Holy Spirit rebukes in order to encourage and to heal.

Christianity’s Greatest Advance and Its Contemporary Consequences (Churches 4)

Seventh-day Adventists and many others in the course of Christian history have applied the message to Philadelphia to the great revival of Protestantism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This great revival motivated the church to carry the gospel to the whole world. It resulted in the greatest expansion of Christianity throughout the world since the time of Pentecost.

But there was a dark side to this expansion which has become evident today. Missionary endeavors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries too often rode on the back of the West’s colonial expansion in the economic and political realms. The wealth and educational advantages that came along with co-operation with the colonial powers created a major temporal advantage for Christian mission. Resisting Christian evangelism under those circumstances was like trying to swim against the tide.

As a result, many non-Christian peoples today see Christianity as a self-serving tool of Western imperialism rather than a humble, self-effacing movement that seeks to improve the lives of others. This attitude is increasingly found even in the more “Christian” parts of the world. Christianity as a whole is on the defensive today. In this context manipulation or political involvement of any kind on the part of the church plays into the negative stereotypes that have arisen. The gospel message can no longer rely on political, economic or social support for its success. It has been thrown back to Jesus’ original plan of “power made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Encouragement in Trouble (Churches 3)

When you look at the seven churches as a whole, two things stand out. First, from beginning to end they seem to be in a state of decline. Second, the rebukes from Jesus become more and more serious. The churches at Ephesus and Smyrna are faithful churches, the only blot on their record is that Ephesus has a deficiency of love. But as you go through the churches things seem to decline from Pergamum through Sardis until you get to Laodicea, where Jesus cannot think of anything good to say about the church. While the message to Philadelphia is a positive one, the church is much weaker than Smyrna.

A similar pattern can be observed in the rebukes offered by Jesus to the churches. In the message to Ephesus, there is a threat that Jesus will take a closer look at them. This is the very beginning stages of a discipline process. Laodicea, on the other hand, is in such serious condition it makes Jesus feel like vomiting. This is a serious picture.

But these observations combine with an observation that is the most encouraging part of the messages to the seven churches. There is a steady expansion in the weight of promises that Jesus makes to the churches. The first church gets one promise: The tree of life. The second church gets two: The crown of life and deliverance from the second death. The third church gets three promises: the hidden manna, the white stone, and a new name. The fourth church gets four promises, the fifth church gets five, and the sixth church gets six. Each of the first six churches gets more promises than the church before, and the seventh church, Laodicea, gets the promise to end all promises, the overcomers there will sit with Jesus on His throne.

So here is an amazing pattern. As the condition of the churches declines, and as the rebukes of Jesus become more and more severe, the promises of Jesus likewise abound more and more. The worse things get, the greater the grace and power that God exerts. The spiritual implications of these observations are self-evident. The deeper the problems a person may have in life, the more powerful is the grace of Jesus Christ. This message speaks as powerfully for us today as it did in ancient times.

The Chiasm of the Seven Churches (Churches 2)

Although the book of Revelation is written in Greek, the structure of the messages to the seven churches exhibits a literary form that is grounded in Hebrew logic. In western thinking A + B = C. The various pieces of a logical argument are working toward a conclusion. But in Hebrew logic A + B = A enhanced. The logic of the argument ends where it begins and the point of the whole argument lies in the middle. This literary form is called chiasm (from the Greek letter X [pronounced “key”]).

Writers produce chiasms when they reason full-circle back to the beginning point of an argument. The first point parallels the last point. The second point parallels the next to last point, and so on, with the climax at the center rather than the end. It is, perhaps, not coincidental that the form of the seven-branched lampstand in the tabernacle is analogous to a literary chiasm. Arms of the lampstand branch off from the center in both directions. In a seven-branched candlestick the middle branch is the fourth from either end with three side branches on each side of the middle, corresponding to each other.

The letter to Smyrna (second) has many similarities with the letter to the Philadelphians (sixth), both are very positive messages. The letters to Pergamum (third) and Sardis (fifth) are both to churches in steep decline. The message to Thyatira (the fourth and middle church) is twice as long as the others and is different from all the others (I will have more to say about Thyatira in a later post in this series). While it is, perhaps, a little less obvious than with the other parallels, this means that the first and last letters (to Ephesus and Laodicea) are also parallel. This tells us that Laodicea, like Ephesus, suffers from a deficiency of love.

In the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Bowman pictures a giant seven-branched candlestick standing on the Island of Patmos, backlit by a western sun. In his illustration, the shadow of the candlestick falls on Asia Minor with the seven points of light shadowed roughly in the locations of the seven cities of Revelation. Just as the seven-branched lampstand was the only source of light in the Hebrew tabernacle and temple, this picture would encourage the churches to shine the light of God’s truth into their respective neighborhoods.

Overall Themes in the Seven Churches (Churches 1)

Chapters two and three of the book of Revelation describe seven letters or messages from Jesus for the seven churches of Roman Asia. These messages introduce the following overall themes:

1. The Chiasm of the Seven Churches. The seven churches are structured in a typical Hebrew style (see commentary below for details).
2. Encouragement in Trouble. The messages to the seven churches exhibit both spiritual decline and a corresponding increase in the number and weight of promises made to each church.
3. Christianity’s Greatest Advance and Its Contemporary Consequences. The message to Philadelphia forecasts a time of great missionary advance. But that advance included aspects that have put Christianity on the defensive today.
4. The Message to Thyatira Is Different. The churches as a whole exhibit spiritual decline. That is also manifest locally in the messages to Ephesus, Pergamum and Sardis. But the message to Thyatira goes against the grain in a couple of ways.
5. Laodicea and the Final Era of Earth’s History. Evidence from the text supports the idea that Laodicea represents the church at the close of Christian history.

The messages to the seven churches have a common structure, similar in form to ancient letters. 1) Jesus addresses each church by name. 2) He then introduces Himself to each church, using characteristics drawn from chapter one. 3) He offers an analysis of the strengths and/or weaknesses of each church. 4) Jesus provides counsel suitable to His analysis of each church. 5) An appeal is made to listen to the Spirit. 6) Each message concludes with a promise or promises to those in each church who overcome. In messages four through seven (beginning with Thyatira), numbers five and six are reversed.

A Couple of Spiritual Lessons From Rev. 1:12-20 (Vision 6)

1. Why is the gracious, forgiving Jesus, who washed the feet of His disciples, portrayed in such a spectacular and frightening way in Revelation 1:12-16? While the appearance of Jesus frightened John to his core, fear was not the response Jesus desired (Rev. 1:17-18). Like an elementary-school teacher in the classroom, God sometimes has to earn our respect before we will take His graciousness seriously. But to truly know God is to love Him. The Father is just like Jesus (John 14:9).

2. When Jesus meets people where they are, how far is He willing to go? In coming to John as the First and the Last (Rev. 1:17), Jesus assumes a title claimed by Yahweh in the Old Testament (Isa. 44:6; 48:12). He is everything the Jews of His time were looking for. But there is more. Revelation 1:17-18 presents Jesus as the fulfillment of (Gentile) pagan longings as well. In Asia Minor there was a Greek goddess named Hekate who exhibited many similarities with the picture of Jesus here in Revelation 1:17-18. She was called the first and the last, the beginning and the end. She was the goddess of revelation. She held the keys to heaven and hell. She could travel to and from these realms and report what she experienced there. She was also known as “Saviour” and used angels to mediate her messages.

Jesus, therefore, offers the reader everything that the worshipers of Hekate were looking for. This is a surprising extension of the principle that God meets people where they are (see also 1 Cor 9:19-22). Revelation teaches us that Jesus loves us and meets us just where we are. And as we come to Jesus, He will also lead us to where we need to go.

Interpreting the Seven Messages to the Seven Churches (Vision 5)

The messages to the seven churches are not apocalyptic in style like Daniel 7 or Revelation 12. They are “prophetic letters.” They are more like the letters of Paul or Matthew 24 than they are like Daniel 2. So their primary message was for seven actual churches in Asia Minor, the ones that originally received them (Rev 1:4, 11). By extension, as one would for one of Paul’s letters, these messages have value for all those who read them (Rev 1:3; 2:7, 11, 17, 29, etc.).

There is, however, a case to be made to see these seven messages as prophetic of the condition of the church from the time of John to the Second Coming of Jesus. There are several evidences to support this. 1) There were, for example, more than seven churches in Asia Minor at the time John wrote. From the letters of Paul we know that there was a church at Colossae, only a few miles from Laodicea. The letters of Ignatius (a church leader who wrote around 110 AD) go to some of the churches mentioned in Revelation but also to the nearby cities of Magnesia and Tralles. So the choice of seven churches itself seems to have meaning above and beyond the immediate situation.

2) The spiritual conditions in those churches parallel the spiritual conditions of Christianity in different historical periods from the time of John until today. In other words, embedded in these messages to seven historical churches was a grand survey of the major developments of Christian history. The church began strong in the apostolic age (Ephesus), and then went through a period of persecution (Smyrna) followed by compromise and accommodation to the Roman world (Pergamum and Thyatira). The Reformation (latter part of Thyatira) was followed by the spiritually dry period of Protestant orthodoxy (Sardis) and then a second Reformation and worldwide missionary endeavor (Philadelphia). The church today seems relatively indifferent to the claims of Christ in the New Testament (Laodicea). So the broad themes of the seven church messages parallel the broad sweep of Christian history from John’s day to our time.

3) The message to Laodicea parallels John’s appeal to the last generation in Revelation 16:15. The appeal to the world at the time of the battle of Armageddon contains a combination of four major words found elsewhere in the Bible only in Revelation 3:17-18 (seeing, nakedness, shame and garments). So Laodicea is the recipient of God’s last gospel call, placing it in some sense at the end of Christian history in John’s mind.

4) A number of features of the message to Philadelphia seem to imply the nearness of Jesus’ return in way more dramatic that other references in the seven church messages. For example, “I am coming soon” in Revelation 3:11, echoes end-time uses of the same phrase in Revelation 11:14 and 22: 7, 12, 20. So the letter to Philadelphia seems to have special significance as Christians near the end of the era.

All four evidences support and extended meaning for the seven church messages in Revelation 2 and 3, a meaning that goes beyond the original situation and includes implications for the larger trend of Christian history.

John’s Own Outline of Revelation (Vision 4)

The author of Revelation often embeds clues about the organization and key ideas of the book in the transition texts. One of those transition texts is Revelation 1:19. In this text he lays out the plan of the whole book. It begins, “Write, therefore, what you have seen” (my translation). This sentence parallels verse 11, “Write what you see.” Verse 11 is present tense and verse 19 is past tense (Greek aorist indicative). This means the entire vision of Revelation was seen by John between the command in verse 11 and the command in verse 19. Having seen the vision, he is told to write it out and begins that process in verse 19.

What has John seen? Two things: “The things which are” and “the things which are about to happen after these things” (Rev. 1:19, my translation). So the book of Revelation will include both things current at the time of the seven churches, and things which were yet to come from their perspective. One part of John’s vision focuses particularly on the time in which John lived, and one part focuses on events that will follow after John’s time. For our purposes, the key question is, How do we know when John is addressing his time and place and when he is addressing the things which would happen after his day?

In Revelation 4:1 (my translation) Jesus says to John, “Come up here, and I will show you the things which these things must happen after.” This is a nearly exact parallel to Revelation 1:19. So beginning with Revelation 4:1, the rest of Revelation focuses primarily on John’s future. While there are flashbacks to the cross (Rev 5:6; 12:11), to the enthronement of Jesus (Rev. 5:6-14), and even events before creation (Rev. 12:4), the primary focus from chapter four to the end of the book on is events future from John’s day.

What, then, are “the things which are” in Revelation 1:19? Evidently, everything between 1:19 and 4:1, namely the messages to the seven churches. While the seven messages have powerful implications for the whole Christian era, their primary focus is on the situation of those seven churches, and on the messages that Jesus brings to them. Unlike most of the book of Revelation, the messages to the seven churches are not an apocalyptic prediction of future events, they read more like the letters of Paul or Matthew 24. As such they are applicable directly to the original readers and also to readers throughout the Christian era (see Rev. 1:3). As such, they can also be applied to the various eras of church history, with which they fit fairly well.

Careful attention to Revelation 1:19 shows how key texts of Revelation can help readers see the structure in John’s mind and in the mind of the One who gave him the vision.

Jesus Meets the Churches Where They Are (Vision 3)

Jesus appears on the scene of Revelation in spectacular fashion (Rev. 1:12-20). The same Jesus is in close relationship with the seven churches (1:20). He knows each of them intimately (Rev. 2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15). And He introduces Himself to each church with one, two or three characteristics from the earlier vision.

The message to Ephesus (Rev. 2:1), for example, describes Jesus as the one who holds the seven stars in His hand (Rev. 1:20) and walks among the seven golden lampstands (1:12-13). In the message to Smyrna (2:8), Jesus is the first and the last, the one who died came to life (1:17-18). In the letter to Pergamum, He approaches with a sharp, two-edged sword (1:16). So it goes throughout the seven church letters.

Here’s the interesting thing. Jesus presents Himself differently to each of the seven churches. No two churches get the same picture of Jesus. Each church gets only a portion of the many characteristics in chapter one. He knows each church intimately and on that basis meets each church where they are. No individual church, therefore, has the full picture of Jesus. He is able to adapt to each church’s particular needs and circumstances. And if no church and no Christian has the full picture of Jesus, then we all have reason to be humble. We are all learners. And we all have something to teach each other.

There is a corollary to this observation. If one were to ask which of the seven churches has the RIGHT picture of Jesus, how would you answer? It is a trick question. It is Jesus who presents Himself to each church. Each church has a true or right picture of Jesus. That means that there is more than one RIGHT way to think. Each of the churches knows something right about Jesus, but they all need each other in order to have the full picture.

This doesn’t mean that all pictures of Jesus or God are right. There is such a thing as a wrong picture, a deceptive picture of Jesus. But just because two people disagree about Jesus doesn’t by itself prove that one or both of them are wrong. They may simply be seeing from a different angle or their perception of truth is limited by their training and experience up to that point.

Many church fights are grounded in the perception that there is only ONE right way to think. If that is true and I am right, then you must be wrong! But when godly people study the Word and listen to the Spirit, they come to a perception of the truth. It may be limited and expressed in their own language and culture, but it expresses a facet of truth that others need to hear. Witnessing should not be limited to outsiders, we all need to hear one another to learn and to grow. When you realize that there is more than one right way to think, it makes you more open to the work of the Spirit in others.

The Lord’s Day (Vision 2)

The introductory vision of Revelation (Rev. 1:12-18) centers on a glorious picture of Jesus. He is the Son of Man (1:13), the one who died and is alive forevermore (1:18). Based on Daniel 10:5-6 and a number of other OT texts, this vision portrays the kind of Jesus who was seen only at the Transfiguration during His earthly ministry. The characteristics of Jesus in the vision are repeated throughout the seven messages of chapters two and three. The vision is like the stage backdrop to the first act of a play. The envelope of verses 11 and 19 make it clear that John received the vision of the entire book between those two verses.

In addition to the vision of Jesus (1:12-18) this section of Revelation also addresses the location and time when John received the vision (1:9-11). John received the vision on “the Lord’s Day.” That phrase has received a lot of attention from scholars of Revelation.

The most popular view of Revelation 1:10 among commentators is that the “Lord’s Day” of Revelation 1:10 is Sunday, the first day of the week. The strength of this view is that later Church Fathers used the phrase with reference to Sunday, and the Latin equivalent, dominus dies, became one of the names for Sunday in the Latin Church. But all clear references to Sunday as “the Lord’s Day” are much later than Revelation and thus cannot serve as evidence for the meaning when John wrote.

The best explanation for the Lord’s Day in Revelation 1:10 is that John was referring to the seventh-day Sabbath. While the exact phrase “the Lord’s Day” (kuriakê hemêra) is never used elsewhere in the New Testament or in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, many strong equivalents refer to the seventh-day Sabbath. The seventh day is “a Sabbath to the Lord (kuriô) your God” (Exod 20:10; Deut 5:14). “The Lord” (kurios) often refers to the seventh day as “my Sabbath” (ta sabbata mou– Exod 31:12-13; Lev 19:3, 30; 26:2; Isa 56:4-6; Ezek 20:12-13, 16, 20-21, 24; 22:3-8; 23:36-38; 44:12-24). In the Hebrew of Isaiah 58:13 Yahweh calls the Sabbath “My holy day.” And finally, all three Synoptic Gospels (Matt 12:8; Mark 2:27-28; Luke 6:5) quote Jesus as saying “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath (kurios tou sabbatou). It would be strange, therefore, if John used the phrase “the Lord’s Day” for any other day of the week than the one we call Saturday.