GOD’S PEOPLE IN CITIES
Part I: Overview
Focus of the Lesson: Rev. 3:21.
Study Focus: Messages two through seven to the seven churches of Revelation (Rev. 2:8 – 3:22).
Introduction: This lesson first pairs the messages to Smyrna and Philadelphia. The messages to Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea are then examined in the order they appear in the text.
Lesson Themes: The lesson and the focus passage introduce the following 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 forecast 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 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.
Life Application. The inclusion of Jezebel in the message to Thyatira invites the participants to reflect on the role of the four women in Revelation. Seventh-day Adventists are also invited to apply the message to Laodicea to themselves.
Part II. Commentary
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.
Main Themes of Lesson 3 Elaborated:
1. The Chiasm of the Seven Churches. The structure of the seven churches exhibits a literary form that is grounded in Hebrew logic. In western thinking A + B = C. But in Hebrew logic A + B = A enhanced. 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.
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 (see theme 4 below). 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.
2. Encouragement in Trouble. When you look at the seven churches as a whole, they seem to be in a state of decline and the rebukes from Jesus become more and more serious. The churches at Ephesus and Smyrna are faithful churches, only 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 positive, the church is much weaker than Smyrna. In the message to Ephesus, there is a threat that Jesus will take a closer look at them. Laodicea makes Jesus feel like vomiting. This is a serious picture.
But this leads in to the most encouraging part of the messages to the seven 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: hidden manna, white stone, new name. The fourth church gets four, the fifth church gets five, the sixth church gets six. Each church gets more promises than the church before, and the seventh church, Laodicea, gets the promise to end all promises, to sit with Jesus on His throne.
As the condition of the churches declines, as the rebukes of Jesus become more severe, the promises of Jesus abound more and more. The worse things get, the greater the grace and power that God exerts. The deeper the problems you 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.
3. Christianity’s Greatest Advance and Its Contemporary Consequences. The lesson brings out that the message to Philadelphia applies to the great revival of Protestantism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This motivated the church to carry the gospel to the whole world. It resulted in the greatest expansion of Christianity since the time of Pentecost.
But there was a dark side to this expansion. Missionary endeavors too often rode on the back of the West’s colonial expansion in the economic and political realms. 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 and economic support for its success. It has been thrown back to Jesus’ original plan of “power made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
4. The Message to Thyatira Is Different. As mentioned earlier, the churches of Rev. as a whole exhibit spiritual decline. That is also clearly manifested in the messages to Ephesus, Pergamum and Sardis. But the message to Thyatira goes against the grain in several ways. First of all, it is twice as long as the other six messages. This is fitting to its 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).
Third, it is the only church that is getting better. Jesus says that their “latter works exceed the first” (Rev 2:19, ESV). 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 rebuke in order to encourage and to heal.
5. Laodicea and the Final Era of Earth’s History. Seventh-day Adventists have often seen the message to Laodicea as applying particularly to the church at the end of time. The best evidence for this is the connection between Rev. 3:18 and Rev. 16:15. No other text in the Bible contains the four major words found in both of these passages. Both verses have the Greek words for “seeing” (Greek: blepô), “clothing” (Greek: himation), “shame” (Greek: aischunê, aschêmosunê) and “nakedness” (Greek: gumnotês, gumnos). This is a striking parallel. In the midst of the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:14-16) there is a call to end-time watchfulness in the language of Laodicea (Rev. 16:15, cf. 3:18). This is striking evidence that Laodicea represents the final church of earth’s history.
Part III: Life Application
1. How many women are portrayed in the Book of Revelation and what is their role in the message of the book? There are four women portrayed in Revelation. Two are positive figures and two are negative. The first is Jezebel, the leader of the opposition to the faithful ones in Thyatira (Rev. 2:20-23). The second is the godly woman of Revelation 12 (Rev. 12:1-2, 5-6, 14-17). The third is prostitute Babylon (Rev. 17:1-7, 16). The fourth is the bride of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-8). All four are ultimately associated with the church, either positively or negatively. Jezebel, the opponent of Thyatira anticipates prostitute Babylon, who is dressed like the High Priest (Rev 17:4). If the first part of Thyatira represents the medieval church, then the two images are very closely related. Opposition to Christ often wears a Christian face.
Similarly, the woman of Rev. 12 represents the faithful people of God throughout history. The bride of the Lamb (Rev. 19) represents the faithful of God at the end of history. So it stands to reason that Babylon (Rev. 17-18) represents opposition to God from within the church at the end of time. “Woman” in Rev. represents both the best and the worst of human interaction with God.
2. How should Seventh-day Adventists apply the message of Rev. 3:18-21 to themselves? What is there in the text for all of us to learn? Gold can express the value we have in God’s eyes. White raiment represents the righteousness of Christ that is given to us. Eye salve represents the spiritual discernment that helps us clearly see our need for Christ.
Although Jesus disciplines as needed (Rev. 3:19), He never forces anyone to follow Him. He gently invites and leaves the decision to us (3:20). And He holds out the promise to end all promises to us. If we identify with His death and resurrection (Rev. 3:21; 5:5-6), we will participate in His throne. As expressed by the gold tried in the fire, God sees infinite value in us.
3. What encouragement can we take from an awareness that many ancient Christians remained faithful to God in the midst of godless cities?