In Revelation 1-3, Jesus addresses seven churches in Asia Minor with both commendations as well as condemnations for the deeds of the churches. I believe that these were actual churches that existed when the Apostle John wrote Revelation.
Today, these insights from the Lord serve as a useful guide for all subsequent generations of church history, written so that we clearly know just what Jesus expects from the church. Each of the seven churches represents conditions that are typical of contemporary churches today. The verses in Revelation Chapters 2-3 provide a great opportunity to see exactly what Jesus, the true leader of the churches, uses as criteria for their evaluation. Incidentally, keep all the following points in mind as you think about the "prosperity gospel," "emergent church," "purpose-driven," and "seeker-friendly" movements prevalent today. I believe that Jesus would address each of these modern movements with very strong rebukes. These popular movements each avoid preaching the true gospel, the need for repentance from sin, and the atoning blood sacrifice of the cross of Christ. They are in error in attempting to accommodate a postmodern belief system. They do not show believers any reasons for Christians to be different from the non-believing culture. They remove the focus of being faithful to the gospel as originally commanded by Christ. As a result, they stand in danger of Jesus' strong condemnation.
Notice that with the exceptions of the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia (which receive no rebukes from Jesus), the messages to the churches usually begin with a commendation, followed by rebukes each prefaced by the words, "But I have this against you..." Let's take a very brief look at these assessments of the early churches:
Jesus first addresses the church at Ephesus and commends their...
deeds and toil and perseverance, and that [they] cannot endure evil men, and [they] put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not and [they] found them to be false; and [they] have perseverance and have endured for My name's sake, and have not grown weary. Revelation 2:2:3
The Ephesians had obeyed Paul's words when he told them to "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock...I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock" (Acts 20:28, 29). The Ephesians refused to tolerate false apostles and teachings. Jesus then rebukes them: "But I have this against you, that you have left your first love." He then said that he "will remove your lamp stand out of its place — unless you repent" (Revelation 2:4-5). This is a warning and an instruction to correct their errors. Perhaps the tendency was to become so hardened in battling false teachers that they became hardened and unloving. Jesus is teaching the church that they must continue to shun evil doers and simultaneously love our neighbors.
Jesus next addresses the church at Smyrna, the first church that receives only commendation, without rebuke. The church at Smyrna was small, poor, and persecuted by wealthy pagans and non-Christians known for their wickedness and opposition to the gospel. Jesus sees the church at Smyrna as spiritually rich in light of their perseverance and trials, and He promises them the crown of life. Here, then, was a model church of overcomers who were living in ways pleasing to Jesus.
Next is the church in Pergamum, a center of the cult of emperor worship, known for various pagan gods. Thus Jesus says: "I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith..." The church was commended for holding fast and not denying the name of Christ and for its martyr who stood up for the faith. This church existed in a hostile, pagan environment, but Jesus still corrected them: "But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to feat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality." This church had Christians who confessed the faith and resisted the world, but also some who lived like pagans living for pleasure. In other words, they also tolerated things they should not have been tolerating.
Thyatira was a wealthy city of commerce with many in trades who held common meals dedicated to pagan deities. These events often resulted in licentious behavior. If Christians in Thyatira didn't resist the public pressure to condone these practices, they would compromise the purity of their faith. Verse 2:18 shows the stern response Jesus had for the church in Thyatira: "To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze." The church receives a brief commendation followed by a lengthy rebuke. The commendation is "I know your deeds, and your love and faith, and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first" (Revelation 2:19). What follows is the rebuke that their sinful acts were linked to the pagans, involving themselves in their feasts that led to immorality. Jesus requires Christians to lay aside everything for His sake, to take up their cross and follow Him. The church of Thyatira were enjoying their relationship with the world, (metaphorically) integrating Baal worship
and a relationship with Jezebel
, who led them astray. Jezebel hated the prophets who pointed out her sin. Finally, those in Thyatira who were a faithful remnant were commended: "But I say to you, the rest who are in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not known the deep things of Satan, as they call them — I place no other burden on you" (Revelation 2:24). The remnant were to refuse to participate in the pagan feasts or seek the deeper spiritual knowledge
claimed by the pagans. Then their faith, love, and service would be praiseworthy.
Jesus calls the Church at Sardis "dead":
I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. Revelation 3:1b-2
There is no indication that this church was under persecution or that she embraced false doctrine. However, they were all too content with their peaceful situation and failed to reach out to others with the gospel. If she had, there might have been more signs of hostility from the pagan world. Jesus reminded them:
Remember therefore what you have received and head and keep it, and repent. If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you. Revelation 3:3
I think of the phrase, "Don't make me come down there!" Here was a church of nominal Christianity with prosperity and the externals of religion, but no spiritual life or power.
Jesus did not rebuke the church at Philadelphia, a church that was under Jewish persecution. He commended them, saying, "They have kept my word" and "not denied My name." They actively confessed Christ and His gospel in the face of persecution. This church was small and poor, but they were using the keys of the kingdom.
The Church at Laodicea is the one Jesus speaks of as being "lukewarm," and the church where Jesus is said to be standing at the door and knocking. Here was a church that received no commendation, but only rebuke. Seemingly successful, they were a self-deluded church:
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Revelation 3:15-16
This was a particularly graphic description because Laodicea did not have a suitable water supply like those nearby cities that either had hot mineral springs or cold pure waters. Instead, their water was lukewarm and said to only serve as a means of inducing vomiting. Jesus spoke to their real needs, not their perceived needs. They were spiritually naked and spiritually blind but did not know it. True Christianity is centered about the person and work of Christ. In Laodicea, the Lord was virtually excluded from their midst, and Christ asked to be brought back in:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him and he with Me. Revelation 3:20
There are promises to the seven churches in Revelation to overcomers. The promises have to do with eternal life, escaping punishment, and ruling with Christ. Jesus commends perseverance, being faithful, and having love for one another, and He rejects and hates false doctrine. The churches are warned not to tolerate false doctrine or to compromise with pagan culture. They are not to focus on self-satisfaction. What is not important is church size or church growth. This is the opposite of what the Purpose Driven Church is all about. Churches today are getting a lot of bad advice from the contemporary church. They would do well to read Revelation and measure themselves according to these passages.