False Impression; False Self-Estimation (Rev 3:1-6): To the Church in Sardis

Revelation 3:1-6; Key Verse: Rev 3:1b (Exodus 32:15-35)

"I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead."

When Jesus speaks to the seven churches in Asia Minor, he usually commends these struggling churches before giving them a word of rebuke. Not so with the church in Sardis. (The city of Sardis is located some 50 miles to the east of Smyrna and just to the north of Philadelphia.) This congregation receives only a stern rebuke. "Wake up" (Rev 3:2). Jesus warns them, or else he will suddenly come upon them in judgment (Rev 3:3). Although the church in Sardis thinks it is alive, in reality it is near death (Rev 3:1b). This congregation has stopped preaching the gospel in order to make peace with the world. It is no longer a faithful witness to God's saving mercy in Jesus Christ. Therefore, this church must wake up and repent, or else face the wrath of Jesus Christ who is the Lord of his church (Rev 3:1a).

Using the template and pattern for all 7 churches, an overview of the church in Sardis may be:
  1. The Church: Dead (Rev 3:1b).
  2. The Christ: The Judge who knows our real condition (Rev 3:1a).
  3. The Commendation: NONE.
  4. The Condemnation: False impression of being alive (Rev 3:1).
  5. The Command: Wake up! (Rev 3:2)
  6. The Consummation: "I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life" (Rev 3:5).
God is limitless, knows all, omnipresent, and almighty. "To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars" (Rev 3:1a). By referring back to the vision of the resurrected Christ (Rev 1:20), Jesus begins his rebuke of this congregation by reminding the church in Sardis that he alone "holds the seven spirits"–a reference to the Holy Spirit, God's one Spirit who limitless, knowing all, present everywhere, and almighty. In Revelation 5 John will see the Spirit symbolized as the Lamb's seven eyes, which "are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth" (Rev 5:6; Zech 3:9; 4:10). Not only does Jesus know the true condition of each of his churches through the presence of his Holy Spirit, but the reference to Jesus holding "the seven stars" indicates that he holds the very future of this congregation in his hand as well. Therefore, while the Christians in Sardis may think of themselves in a certain light, Jesus knows the truth about them, which is about to be exposed.

Dead and unaware, while thinking she is alive. Christ's knowledge of the true state of affairs is made immediately clear when Jesus says to them, "I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead" (Rev 3:1b). The church in Sardis has a very positive and favorable reputation, not only in the eyes of its own members, but perhaps, in the estimation of neighboring churches as well. But appearances can be deceiving. The reality is that despite this church's reputation for life and vitality, the church in Sardis is not alive at all. In fact, it is dead. What is worse is that this church is not even aware of its true condition. Because of this grandiose over-estimation of itself, the church in Sardis is indifferent about its true condition. Its reputation for life has gotten in the way of any honest self-evaluation. Just as king Croesus once thought the city to be completely safe from attack, so too, the church in Sardis thinks it is alive. But the Lord of the church knows it is not.

Indifferent to the worldliness around her. This deplorable condition explains why this church receives no commendation, and only a strong and direct imperative: "Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God" (Rev 3:2). The problem facing this church is that its members have become so lethargic or indifferent to the worldliness around them that they that they might as well be dead. To demonstrate a proper level of watchfulness, the Christians in Sardis must strengthen that which is about to die, their faith in Christ.

No longer a faithful witness to the gospel. The meaning of this exhortation to become watchful by strengthening that which remains, but is about to die, is explained a bit further in the final clause of verse 2: "I have not found your deeds complete." At the very least, this implies that the church in Sardis began in faithfulness to Christ and for a time, served as a faithful witness of the gospel to those around them. But something happened which has not only impeded this church's progress, but has virtually snuffed out this congregation's witness to those around them. Thus, their deeds–that which remains, and which hasn't yet died but is about to–are not yet complete. These Christians have not brought what was begun to its fruition. What was started, was never finished. The situation is such that while this church has apparently gained human approval (and has the appearance of life), it has not gained God's approval and is about to die.

Witnessing to the gospel no longer taught or expected. Nothing is mentioned about this congregation being persecuted or suffering because of their confession of the Lordship of Christ. While Sardis was not filled with pagan temples or guilds to the same degree as some of the other cities, the city was nevertheless every bit as pagan as the rest of Asia Minor. The fact that these Christians were lethargic to the point of death, seems to indicate that this particular congregation had somehow made peace with the paganism around them. This would explain the lack of suffering and the lack of persecution. The reference to being dead or near death, apparently, stems from the fact that this congregation had ceased to be a witness to the gospel of Christ–a fault which seems to center in the teaching and preaching conducted here. Indeed, when Jesus rebukes this church, he refers back to the opening vision of "the seven spirits...and the seven stars," all indicative of the church's witness to those non-Christians around them. It seems that this church compromised with the surrounding culture so badly, that it ceased to proclaim the gospel to those within as well as outside the church. What looked like signs of life and success–probably good attendance and material blessing–could not disguise the fact that this church had failed to be a light in the darkness. This church was dying, if not already dead.

What is the solution to this situation? "Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent" (Rev 3:3a). Like the church in Ephesus, Jesus exhorts this church to go back to doing those things it had done at the beginning (Rev 2:5), when it was first established in the city. Three specific things are prescribed.
  1. "Remember what you have received and heard" when the church was first founded, i.e. the message of the gospel. This was the message that gave them birth and established their witness to the pagans around them.
  2. "Hold it (the gospel) fast." Most references in the NT speak of the gospel as something which is believed (Rom 1:5; Jn 6:29). So here, John must mean something along the lines of behaving in accordance with the gospel's gracious promises. Those who say they trust in Jesus for their salvation, must live like it, in distinction from the paganism around them. In other words, Christians in this church are to live out what had been taught to them earlier. They are to believe the gospel, i.e., the Christian faith. They are to live lives of gratitude before God and reject the worldly influences they have apparently tolerated. They are to once again become witnesses of Christ to those around them.
  3. "Repent." They must immediately change their minds about their present course. They must wake up and realize their precarious situation, acknowledge and confess their sinful behavior. If they do not do what Christ prescribes, their fate (which is in his hand) is sealed. "If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you" (Rev 3:3b).
Jesus' return would be like a burglar's intrusion. The reference to Jesus coming like a thief echoes his words in the parable of the thief, recorded in the Olivet Discourse in Mt 24:42-44. Jesus also warned that his return would surprise the unwary like a burglar's intrusion (Lk 12:39-40), while those awaiting the master's unpredictable arrival will receive the master's good pleasure and hospitality (Lk 12:35-38). His "thief in the night" simile permeates NT teaching (1 Th 5:2-4; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 16:5). Since we cannot predict the time of Jesus' coming, those not living in constant preparedness will be caught off guard. While some take this to be a reference to our Lord's second advent, more likely, Jesus is referring to an historical visitation of Christ upon this congregation before the end of the age. This means that if this congregation does not repent of their false estimation of themselves and realize to degree of their compromise with the spirit of the age, Jesus will bring this congregation to an end, perhaps similar to the threat of the removal of his lampstand as in the letter to the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:5).

A promise to the true believers in the church. Jesus says, "Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes" (Rev 3:4a). This is a reference to the fact that some of the members of this church have not given into pagan influences. They have not stained their garments (the imputed righteousness they received in Christ) by participating in secular practices such as sexual immorality or pagan feasting. Those who remain faithful, who have not compromised their confession of faith, are given the following promise by Jesus. "They will walk with me, dressed in white,
for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels" (Rev 3:4b-5).

The link between purity in the present and white robes in the future shows that the life motivated by hope is shaped by the goal for which we wait. Because victors hope for white wedding garments, they strive for purity here and now. "We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure" (1 Jn 3:2-3).

One of the most glorious promises in the entire book of Revelation. Sinners have their filthy garments removed and replaced by spotless white garments provided to them by Christ himself. Those who walk with Christ by faith do indeed overcome. They are counted as worthy. They are given white garments which reflect Christ's perfect righteousness and that purity being worked in them through the indwelling Holy Spirit. What is more, Jesus promises never to remove their names from the book of life. He will acknowledge all of his people before the father. He has made them to be a kingdom of priests, redeeming them through the shedding of his precious blood. None of them will slip through his hands.

Plunging into idolatry after swearing an oath before God. The warning Jesus gives contains several loud echoes from the OT. Exodus 32, and the account of Moses coming down off Mountain Sinai only to find Israel celebrating around the golden calf. God had just revealed his holy law. The people had already sworn the oath of covenant ratification, saying "we will do everything the Lord has commanded." Now when Moses comes down the mountain and returns to the people, he finds them singing and dancing around an idol. Their behavior risks making Israel a laughing stock among the nations. Israel's witness to the nations around her of God's covenantal blessing is compromised by such actions. For such idolatry, the Lord orders the death of some 3,000 people, to be cut down by the sword.

Moses pleads for his people. It is in his office as covenant mediator, that Moses pleads for the people of Israel before the Lord. "Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written" (Ex 32:31). This book was the so-called book of the census in which the twelve tribes of Israel and their respective inheritances were recorded. Because of Israel's great sin against God, those who participated in the worship of the golden calf are summarily eased from the book, eliminating them from receiving the promised inheritance. Indeed the Lord declares: "Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book" (Ex 32:33). These individuals and their children are thereby removed from the covenant and its blessings.

How can the mere appearance of one's name in the book of life counterbalance the damning evidence contained in the books of our deeds (Rev 20:12)? This book belongs to the Lamb who has been slain in sacrifice for those listed in it (Rev 13:8). Because of this Jesus is able to assert that his victors' names will never be erased from the book. Only for those whose names are in this book will the last judgment mean joyful vindication rather than shameful destruction (Rev 20:15), and only these may enter the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:27), for their robes are whitened by the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14). The Book of Life contains the names of all of the elect, all those whom God has chosen to save in the person of his Son. These are the people for whom Christ has died, who are called to faith and who are reckoned as righteous. But like Israel in the desert of Sinai, those professing and so-called Christians in Sardis who have made peace with the spirit of this age, and who have engaged in idolatrous behavior, have completely compromised their witness to unbelievers, just as Israel had done. Their state is so bad that Jesus describes them as dead. These people receive no such promise from Christ. They were never numbered among the elect and although they profess faith in Christ, they are not his. Like those in Israel whose names were blotted out of the book of the census, those in the church in Sardis who fail to repent will discover that their names were never written in the Book of Life.

What can we to learn from Sardis? Our God is a jealous God who will not tolerate people who name the name of Christ but who also engage in
spiritual adultery, idolatry and who participate in pagan religious practices. Christ's church is to be a light to the world, not a place where Christians make peace with the spirit of the age. Whenever a church–or a denomination for that matter–becomes like the church in Sardis, avoids preaching the gospel because of the scandal of the cross, and thinks of itself as alive when in actuality it is quite dead, that church risks coming under the judgment of Christ himself. For Jesus founded his church upon the preaching of the gospel. His church is that place where all those he has redeemed come to hear his word, to be comforted by the fact that our names are written in the Book of Life never to be erased, and to hear the glorious promise that in Christ we are worthy, in Christ we overcome, in Christ we wear white garments of his perfect righteousness.

Without these things, we are not a church. We are dead. But with these things clearly before, we are a light to a fallen world which lives in darkness. "Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches." Amen!

What impression do you give to others, and what is your self-estimation of yourself?

  1. What do"the seven spirits of God" refer to (Rev 3:1; 1:7; Isa 11:2-5; Zech 4:2, 10)? What about "the seven stars" (Rev 1:20)?
  2. Why is there no commendation for the church at Sardis (Rev 3:2)? Why is the church "dead?" What did Jesus see that caused him to say this (Rev 3:4)? Have you ever been spiritually dead? What was that time in your life like?
  3. What does it mean to "wake up" or "strengthen" (Rev 3:2; 16:15; Mt 24:42-43; 25:13; Mk 13:34-35, 37; Lk 12:37; Col 4:2; 1 Th 5:6, 10; 1 Pet 5:8)? How can you wake up if you find yourself asleep or on the verge of death (Ps 139:23-24)? What are "the things" that remain which Jesus calls the church to strengthen? Why? How important are "completed" works (John 17:4; 19:30; Rev 21:6)?
  4. What are they to "remember"? "Repent" (Rev 3:3a)? What is the "it" they are to "keep?" What are the consequences (Rev 3:3b)? What does it mean to have "unsoiled" garments (Rev 3:4; 19:8; 22:14; Jas 1:27; Jude 23)? Are we ever "worthy" of salvation (Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:4-7)?
  5. What is the "book of Life" (Rev 3:5)? How do you know that your name is in the book of Life and will never be erased? Will God erase the names of believers who don't overcome? Why or why not (1 Cor 9:27; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:17, 26; 3:12, 21)?
  6. What does "confess" mean (Mt 7:23; 10:32-33; Jn 9:22; 12:42; Rom 10:9; 1 Tim 6:12; Tit 1:16; Heb 13:15; 1 John 2:23; 4:2-3, 15; 2 John 7)?
  1. Johnson, Dennis E. Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Pillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company. 2001.
  2. Sermons on the Book of Revelation. Kim Riddlebarger, Sr. Pastor, Christ Reformed Church. Anaheim.
  3. The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:1-20).
  4. Christian, Listen Up! (Rev 2:1-3:22).
  5. Discernment Without Love (Rev 2:1-7): To the Church in Ephesus.
  6. The Riches of Poverty (Rev 2:8-11): To the Church in Smyrna.
  7. Remaining True to Jesus Yet Compromising and Defiled (Rev 2:12-17): To the Church in Pergamum.
  8. Love Without Discernment (Rev 2:18-29): To the Church in Thyatira.
  9. Keeping God's Word With Little Strength (Rev 3:7-13): To the Church in Philadelphia.
  10. The Poverty of Riches (Rev 3:14-22): To the Church in Laodicea.


Love Without Discernment (Rev 2:18-29): To the Church in Thyatira

Revelation 2:18-29; Key Verse: Rev 2:25, 28 (1 Kings 16:29-33)

"...hold on to what you have until I come." "I will also give the morning star."

Loving more but tolerating false teaching. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Jesus commends the Ephesians for persevering in sound doctrine (Rev 2:2-3). But Jesus also rebukes the Ephesian church for losing their first love (Rev 2:4)–their love for the brethren. The church in Thyatira has the opposite problem. Indeed, Jesus commends the congregation in Thyatira because their love for their their fellow Christians has actually increased over time (Rev 2:19). But Jesus also rebukes this church for tolerating false teaching within their midst (Rev 2:20). Unlike Ephesus that shows discernment without love, the Christians of Thyatira are loving, but they are not discerning.

Costly to confess Christ. The city of Thyatira is quite unlike the earlier cities we have seen–Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum--which were all large cities and important centers of commerce. Thyatira was not. All three of the former cities were dominated by various forms of paganism. The Christians of Ephesus lived in the shadow of the temple of Diana and were immersed in a culture which was dominated by the worship of Diana. The cities of Smyrna and Pergamum were not only filed with pagan temples of every sort, but were also centers of emperor worship. Christians found themselves facing death and imprisonment at the hands of the beast–the Satanically empowered Roman government–which attempted to force Christians to confess that "Caesar is Lord" (at the point of a sword), which is to take the mark of the beast. Otherwise, they were not allowed to buy and sell or to participate in the commercial and cultural life of the city (Rev 13:7, 16-17). It truly cost Christians living in Smyrna and Pergamum something to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and that Caesar is not.

Confessing both Christ and Caesar as Lord. In addition to living under such difficult circumstances because of the paganism which was rampant in these cities, Christians were slandered by certain Jews who were secularized to the point that while they continued to worship YHWH, they also were willing to confess the divinity of Caesar in order to conduct their business and participate in the cultural affairs of the city. As a result of all of this persecution and slander, the Christians in Smyrna were forced to live in abject poverty. Many were arrested and imprisoned. And even though Satan persecuted them to the point of death, Jesus promises to give them the crown of life (Rev 2:10).

Resisting Caesar but not pagan influences. The Christians in Pergamum likewise refused to abandon Jesus Christ and confess the divinity of Caesar. One Christian who lived in Pergamum, a certain Antipas, had already been put to death (Rev 2:13b). But the Christians in Pergamum also faced another, more subtle enemy in addition to the persecution of the Beast. Members of the Pergamum church were taken in by false teachers, the Nicolaitans, who followed the example of the secularized Jews and had managed to seduce a number of Christians into thinking that they could confess Jesus as Lord and then participate in various pagan practices which were so prevalent throughout the city–a city which was so filled with pagan influences that Jesus identifies Pergamum as that place where Satan lives and has established his throne (Rev 2:13a).

To the victor go the spoils. For tolerating these Nicolaitans, the Pergamum church was rebuked by Jesus, who threatens to come to them in judgment using his two-edged sword of truth (Rev 2:12, 16). For all those who overcome, Christ promises them the hidden manna–the promise of the gospel signed and sealed in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper–as well as a white stone which links believers to Jesus Christ who rides the white horse of judgment. To possess the white stone with one's hidden name is to be known by Christ and to receive eternal life from him who judges all men (Rev 2:17).

Facing the temptation of paganism. But the situation in Thyatira is different from that facing Christians elsewhere. Now known as Akhisar, Thyatira was a very insignificant place when compared with the wealth and status of other three cities. Dennis Johnson says, "the longest and most difficult of the seven letters is addressed to the least known, least important, and least remarkable of the cities." Although the city of Thyatira was insignificant in many ways, the church there was not. What Jesus says to the Christians in Thyatira, he also says to us. The same temptation to make peace with paganism that these Christians faced, is same temptation Christians elsewhere face.

Using the template and pattern for all 7 churches, an overview of the church in Thyatira may be:

  1. The Church: Immoral (Rev 2:20).
  2. The Christ: The Heart Searcher "whose eyes are like blazing fire" (Rev 2:18) and "who searches hearts and minds" (Rev 2:23).
  3. The Commendation: Loving more now than before (Rev 2:19).
  4. The Condemnation: Embracing false teaching regarding sexual immorality and idolatry (Rev 2:20).
  5. The Command: Hold on (Rev 2:25).
  6. The Consummation: "I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule" (Rev 2:26-27).
Transcendent glory and purifying power. "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" (Rev 2:18). Why the reference to our Lord's eyes of blazing fire and to his feet of burnished bronze? The most obvious reason to refer to the appearance of our Lord's feet as though they were bronze is probably the presence of a thriving bronze industry in the city. The Greek word for bronze used here is unique to the NT–it appears no where else in Greek literature. Those who gazed into a bronze smelter and saw the molten metal inside may understand a great deal about the glory of the risen Christ who is the Son of God. The image points us to Christ's transcendent glory and purifying power.

God can preserve his people. While our Lord's words here echo Psalm 2 and Daniel 7, there is also another important echo here from the OT. When we add the image of a furnace with molten metal to the image of our Lord's eyes like blazing fire, there is a strong allusion to Daniel 3, when Daniel tells us of one who looked like a "son of the gods" walking in the blazing furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo. This should remind the Thyatirans that even as Jesus preserved these three young Hebrew men in the midst of a Babylonian furnace, so too, he will preserve the Thyatirans in the midst of their troubles as well. Jesus is a Savior who knows full well how to preserve his people when they suffer persecution at the hands of God's enemies.

I love your love, but... Jesus first commends this congregation for a number of good things: "I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first" (Rev 219). They were doing the very things the Ephesian church was not. Their deeds of love are self-evident and through these deeds they manifest their great faith in the son of God. Over time, their works of mercy and charity for the brethren have actually grown. Unlike the Ephesians who needed to do those things they did at the beginning (Rev 2:5), the Christians in Thyatira were actually doing more now than they did at first. They were growing in their love for each other. For this, Jesus commends them. But a rebuke will now follow. It were as though Jesus were saying to this church, "I love your love, but hate your tolerance."

Provoking God to anger. "Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols" (Rev 2:20). As in Pergamum, Jesus refers to an incident in the OT to inform this church about the precise nature of their sins. Jezebel was the princess of Sidon and the wife of Ahab during the time the people of Israel were seduced into the worship of Baal. "In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned in Samaria over Israel twenty-two years. Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him" (1 Ki 16:29-33).

Leading Christians to idolatry. Jezebel is barely mentioned in 1 Kings with Ahab receiving all the blame. But 2 Ki 9:22, 30-37 says that Jezebel was the source of the "witchcraft and idolatry" present in Ahab's family. Her fate is spelled out. She was killed when her servants threw her down from a window and her body was eaten by dogs. Therefore, the story of Jezebel is symbolic of what someone, a woman, was actually teaching in the Thyatiran congregation. This woman was leading Christ's people into the arms of the harlot, even as the original Jezebel deceived Israel into the worship of Baal.

Satan's subtle seduction. The Jezebel of Thyatira fancied herself as a prophetess of sorts–claiming to reveal the secret things of God through means of predictive prophecy. Likely, she was actively encouraging the Thyatirans to participate in paganism, probably that associated with the local trade guilds. These pagan practices involved sexual immorality and eating meat sacrificed to idols, which is probably a reference to eating certain foods within the context of pagan feasts. If Satan cannot conquer Christ's church through the sheer power of the Beast, he will attempt to do so through the introduction of destructive false teaching, depicted throughout Revelation as seduction by the harlot, whose end is depicted in Rev 18:9-11 when Babylon the Great is destroyed.

God's kindness and patience spurned. But even the midst of Jezebel's grievous sin, we still see God's graciousness on display. Jesus says "I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling" (Rev 2:21). Through whatever means–perhaps the preaching of the word, or through the leadership of the church–Jesus warned this woman Jezebel about the consequences of her actions. But Jezebel had not seen that God's patience and kindness should produce not complacency but repentance (Rom 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9). Yet she will not repent. She is still encouraging Christians to compromise. Not only will Jezebel not repent, the Thyatiran church has not cast her out, or spoke hard truth to her in love (Eph 4:15). Therefore, Christ warns this congregation in no uncertain terms that he will come to them in judgment.

Punishment to all who commit adultery. Jesus declares, "So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead" (Rev 2:22). As the harlot's fall would cast her llovers into grief (Rev 18:9-11), so Jezebel's fall will entail tribulation for her paramours. Not only does Jesus threaten to bring sickness and suffering upon this woman, he will also punish all those who commit spiritual adultery with her as well. Just as the original Jezebel was cast from her own window and killed, so too, Jesus threatens to bring death upon this woman and upon all those who continue to follow her now that they have been duly warned.

God searches hearts and minds. This threat of temporal punishment is not an isolated case in the NT. There are other such warnings. God struck Ananias and his wife Sapphira dead, because they lied to the Holy Spirit (Ac 5:1-11). In 1 Corinthians 11, we are warned of God's judgment upon all those who do not discern Christ's body in the Lord's Supper. Here there is the threat of temporal punishment for disobedient Christians who commit spiritual adultery. God does not do this because he is cruel or because he is a tyrant. He does it to protect the purity and sanctity of his church. Jesus himself says to the Thyatirans: "Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds" (Rev 2:23). This echoes God's word to Jeremiah: "I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve" (Jer 17:10). God will do what it takes to prepare a spotless and radiant bride for his Son. He will protect the church by whatever means he deems appropriate.

Satan's so-called deep secrets of sexual and spiritual adultery. There is yet another theological problem mentioned in this church stemming from Jezebel's influence. Jesus says, "Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan's so-called deep secrets" (Rev 2:24), With these words Jesus acknowledges that there are faithful people in this church who have not listened to this woman and because they have not listened to her have not learned Satan's deep secrets. This so-called "deep secrets of Satan" is probably a metaphor playing upon the familiar phrase the "deep things of God," which this Jezebel probably claimed to be revealing to the Thyatirans through her self-proclaimed prophetic office. Perhaps among the deep things disseminated was the insight that bodily behavior is spiritually insignificant, so that those in the know could participate in idolatrous feasts, and even their sensual excesses, with spiritual impunity. They need not suffer loss by refraining from the guilds' immoral and idolatrous celebrations! She advocated an adultery that was sexual and spiritual. Her siren song sounds sweet, but in her chalice is the blood of Jesus' witnesses (Rev 17:6). Such a Jezebel was more dangerous to Jesus' servants that a military oppressor, because her secrets drive a wedge between God's people and the Lord. She was practicing a kind of proto-gnosticism and was revealing "secret knowledge" to people through her prophecies. But in actuality she was not revealing the deep things of God–she was revealing the deep things of Satan that led people astray, hence John's reference to the Satan's so-called deep secrets. But to those who have not been taken in by this woman's deception, Jesus says: "I will not impose any other burden on you. Only hold on to what you have until I come" (Rev 2:24b-25). Jesus' yoke is easy and his burden is light. All he now asks of his faithful is to hold on to the gospel until he comes at the end of the age.

One day those who overcome will rule with Christ. As in each of these letters, Jesus ends this letter with a final word of exhortation: "To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations–`He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery'– just as I have received authority from my Father" (Rev 2:26-27; 19:15). To those who persevere in the faith, they are now promised that Christ himself will share with them his messianic authority. Just as Jesus rules over the nations, so too, all those who are his will reign with him. To those Christians who lived in this small backwater town, and who may have felt powerless in the face of such deeply entrenched paganism, they should be greatly encouraged with the promise that they will receive one of the greatest privileges of all–ruling with Christ.

The greatest treasure of all. Not only to rule with Jesus, for he gives them something much better. "I will also give him the morning star" (Rev 2:28). In Num 24:17, Balaam saw a star emerging from Jacob, one who would ride forth from Israel and crush the Moabites. This star pointed ahead to a warrior-king, who will identify himself later in Revelation. In Rev 22:16, Jesus says, "I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star." Therefore, Jesus not only promises this struggling church that they will reign with him, but that they will be given a deeper joy, the greatest treasure of all, himself.

Application. Jesus warns us not to tolerate people who claim to reveal secret things, and attempt to lead us into making unholy compromises with paganism, whether it be to get a job or because of a desire to participate in cultural and civic activities. While we must always be willing to make sacrifices in such situations and be willing to receive the scorn for being followers of Christ, let us never forget what Jesus promises us. Jesus alone possesses all authority. He will crush his enemies and all who hate him and persecute his church. He also gives us nothing less than himself as the morning star. We need no secret knowledge or prophecies. With Christ in our midst through word and Spirit we have everything that we need. "Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev 2:29). Amen!

Do you long for the morning star more than for any other "deep secrets"?

  1. How might this vision of Jesus alter your perspective of who He is (Rev 2:18)?
  2. Is "love" something you feel or do (Rev 2:19)? Can you feel without doing and call it love? Can you do without feeling and call it love? What is "faith?" An attitude? A belief? A feeling? Is our "service" to each other or service to the world? How are you doing in the discipline of "perseverance?" How would God rate us in these four areas (1 to 10)? How could we do better in our weakest area and our strongest area?
  3. Who was "Jezebel" (1 Ki 16:31-33; 2 Ki 9:22)? What sins did Jezebel's false teaching lead people into (Rev 2:20-21)? What are examples of false beliefs or teachings today? How important is orthodox teaching? Does God care that we believe and behave right?
  4. Why does God blame the church for this woman's false teaching (Rev 2:20)? What should they have done? What would you do if your pastor (elder) started teaching things you knew were not congruent with the Bible? What did God threaten to do about Jezebel (Rev 2:22-23)? What did He do first (Rev 2:21)? What does this teach us about God? Was God gracious forever? Should you always be Mister Nice Guy? When should you not be Mister Nice Guy?
  5. What are "Satan's so-called deep secrets" (Rev 2:24)? What does it mean to "hold fast" (Rev 2:25)? Are your small group members holding fast to what they possess? What are you doing to ensure that each member perseveres until Jesus comes?
  6. What does Rev 2:26-27 teach about what we will be doing in heaven? How is this different from the notion of playing harps and singing in the choir? What does "I will give him the morning star" mean (Rev 2:28; 22:16; 2 Pet 1:19)?
  1. Johnson, Dennis E. Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Pillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company. 2001.
  2. Sermons on the Book of Revelation. Kim Riddlebarger, Sr. Pastor, Christ Reformed Church. Anaheim.
  3. The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:1-20).
  4. Christian, Listen Up! (Rev 2:1-3:22).
  5. Discernment Without Love (Rev 2:1-7): To the Church in Ephesus.
  6. The Riches of Poverty (Rev 2:8-11): To the Church in Smyrna.
  7. Remaining True to Jesus Yet Compromising and Defiled (Rev 2:12-17): To the Church in Pergamum.
  8. Keeping God's Word With Little Strength (Rev 3:7-13): To the Church in Philadelphia.
  9. The Poverty of Riches (Rev 3:14-22): To the Church in Laodicea.

Remaining True to Jesus Yet Compromising and Defiled (Rev 2:12-17): To the Church in Pergamum

Revelation 2:12-17; Key Verse: Rev 2:13a, 14a (See Num 25:1-9; 31:16)

"I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me...Nevertheless, I have a few things against you..."

Like the church in Smyrna, the church in Pergamum faces intense persecution from the God-hating Roman empire and their fellow Jews. But the church in Pergamum also faces an enemy from within, a seductress who entices God's people to commit spiritual adultery.

Ephesus: Sound doctrine must be accompanied by love. The first letter addressed to the church in Ephesus was commended by our Lord for faithfully persevering in true doctrine and for driving certain false apostles out of the congregation (Rev 2:2). They are also commended for hating the teaching of the Nicolaitans (Rev 2:6), who were a heretical sect who sought to synthesize Christianity and paganism and who are singled again out for rebuke in Pergamum (Rev 2:15). But while given great praise for their faithfulness and perseverance in sound doctrine, they are given a very stern rebuke for losing their first love (Rev 2:4)–which is not a reference to their love for Christ, but a reference to their love for each other. Unless they repent and go back to doing those things which they did at the beginning (
acts of mercy and charity which characterize the apostolic church in the opening chapters of Acts), Jesus will remove his lampstand from them, effectively removing his blessing and the effectiveness of the church's witness to the city (Rev 2:5). Works of charity and mercy (love) must go hand in hand with perseverance in sound doctrine.

Smyrna: Persecution followed by a great reward. The second letter was written to the church in Smyrna. Their circumstances are quite similar to those facing the church in Pergamum. Their congregation lived in a city with a sizable, but apparently, secularized Jewish population. In addition, the city was devoted to emperor worship, among the most devout found throughout the entire Roman empire. The Jews of Smyrna made peace with emperor worship–proclaiming allegiance to both YHWH and Caesar–but the Smyrnan Christians did not. Barred from the marketplace for refusing to pay homage to the emperor and slandered by the Jews (Rev 2:9b), the Christians in Smyrna lived in abject poverty (Rev 2:9a). Refusing to confess "Caesar is Lord" in order to buy and sell–which is to take the Mark of the Beast (Rev 13:7, 16-17)–the Smyrnan Christians paid dearly for their confession, "Jesus Christ is Lord." Many Christians were imprisoned. Many more would die at the hands of the Roman Beast. But Jesus makes a promise to his persecuted church in Rev 2:10-11, which is the warning of impending persecution and death, and does not sound like much of a promise. Yet the fact is that the Smyrnans will face persecution for a very short time–ten days–and by persevering, they will receive the crown of life (Rev 20:4). This is one of the great paradoxes in redemptive history–Satan loses the most ground when his wrath against God and his people is the greatest!

Betrayed by fellow countrymen. Pergamum is 60 miles north of Smyrna and about 15 miles inland. Like Smyrna, Pergamum was a city where Caesar was also worshiped as "a god" making this a very difficult place for a Christian to profess that "Jesus Christ is Lord." The Jews in Pergamum regarded Christians as "Nazarenes," a seditious sect who were to be shunned because they would not attend the pagan feasts or honor the Greek and Roman deities in the marketplace. It was the refusal to call Caesar "Lord" which prompted the Romans to have Christians arrested. As in Smyrna, the Jews were only too happy to help the Romans identify them. Christians in Pergamum faced the full wrath of the Satanically empowered beast, who "
was given power to wage war against God's holy people and to conquer them" (Rev 13:7).

Using the template and pattern for all 7 churches, an overview of the church in Pergamum may be:
  1. The Church: Defiled (Rev 2:14-15).
  2. The Christ: The Warrior Lord "who has the sharp, double-edged sword" (Rev 2:12).
  3. The Commendation: Remaining true to Jesus' name amid Satan's attacks (Rev 2:13).
  4. The Condemnation: Embracing false teaching regarding sexual immorality and idolatry (Rev 2:14-15).
  5. The Command: Repent (Rev 2:16).
  6. The Consummation: Given "a white stone with a new name written on it" (Rev 2:17).
The sword is coming to bring judgment. "To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword" (Rev 2:12). The image of a sword dominates the entire letter. The sword is symbolic of Christ coming to this church in his kingly office for the purpose of bringing judgment upon his enemies. The sword symbolizes Christ's judicial power–the power to judge all things according to the truth of God's word (Heb 4:12)–and it warns the apostates within the church of Christ's impending judgment upon them.

The sword is used against Christians. The sword is also symbolic of something else. Roman governors were granted the "power of the sword" by the emperor in order to put to death those Christians who refused to acknowledge the divinity of Caesar. While the Satanically inspired beast–the Roman empire–wields the sword against Christians and wages war upon them, Christ uses the same symbol to remind his church of just who it is who wields the real sword of justice and power. The message is clear: All of those who persecute Christ's people with the sword in this life will themselves face the judgment of Jesus Christ in the next. The ancient proverb is true: Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. But this warning is also aimed at those individuals who seduce Christ's people through false doctrine. They too will face his sword of judgment. Jesus is a jealous bridegroom who will do everything in his power to protect his bride.

Faithful to Jesus amid Satan's persecution. This must be kept in mind when Jesus says to the church in Pergamum: "I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives" (Rev 2:13). As the Lord of his church, Jesus knows exactly what the Christians in Pergamum are facing. The city is dominated by paganism and emperor worship. In fact, the cities' most prominent landmark was a large hill upon which the temple of Zeus stood and which dominated the cities' skyline. This is where Satan lives. This is where he has placed his throne! But despite the deeply rooted paganism, the Christians in Pergamum have remained faithful to their Lord even though one of their own, a man named Antipas, was put to death in this very city dominated by Satan himself.

Resisting the sword but succumbing to false teaching regarding idolatry and sex. This persecuted church has faced the Roman sword and yet remained faithful to her Lord. Nevertheless Jesus does have a strong word of rebuke for the Pergamum church. This church has become far too tolerant of false teaching and compromise: "Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans" (Rev 2:14-15). These doctrinal errors are so grievous that Jesus threatens to "come to them soon and fight against them with the sword of his mouth" (Rev 2:16). For tolerating such heresy, Jesus commands the Pergamum church to repent, lest he come in judgment.

Denying Christ by compromise. The issue is similar to what Christians faced in Smyrna with a difference. The Christians in Pergamum have faithfully resisted the powerful external pressure put upon them by the local Roman government to deny Christ, even after the Satanically inspired beast put some of their own number to death (Rev 2:13). But a number of these same Christians are slowly but surely being seduced by false teachers in the congregation who are leading them away from Christ through deceptive means. These false teachers do not force believers to deny Christ at the point of a sword. Instead, they entice believers to deny Christ using more subtle means. How?

Balaam's enticing teaching. The group singled out for rebuke hold to the teaching of Balaam (Numbers 22-25). Through the means of his deceitful counsel, Balaam deceived Israel into worshiping idols and committing immorality bringing the nation under the wrath of God (Num 25:1-9; 31:16): "While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD's anger burned against them. The LORD said to Moses, `Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the LORD's fierce anger may turn away from Israel.' So Moses said to Israel's judges, `Each of you must put to death those of your men who have joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor.' Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman's body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000."

Not flagrantly nor formally denying God yet denying God. In this account, Israel never denied YHWH in so many words. Rather, many in Israel began worshiping Baal without ever formally denying YHWH. But anyway you look at it, this is a denial of YHWH, because YHWH alone is God and he will not share his glory with any other. As a result of Israel's spiritual adultery, God not only brought judgment upon a couple caught flagrante delicto (Latin: "in blazing offence) but some 24,000 Israelites died from a plague God sent upon the people. The summary comment in Num 31:16 says, "They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD's people."

Refusing to deny Christ, yet engaging in idolatry and sex with the world. Therefore, when we read in the NT that Christ threatens the church in Pergamum with the sword for tolerating the Nicolaitans, what provokes our Lord's righteous ire must be false doctrine similar to that of Balaam. Here Christians would absolutely refuse to deny Christ at the point of a Roman sword. But at the same time, they thought nothing whatsoever wrong with participating in certain pagan practices with their non-Christian friends, family and business associates outside the church. Just as in the days of Balaam when citizens of Israel worshiped YHWH and Baal at Peor, so here in Pergamum, Christians were being led away from Christ by those in their midst who were teaching that it is perfectly acceptable to worship Jesus and at the same time to participate in certain pagan ceremonies and sexual practices which dominated the civic and cultural life of Pergamum.

Flee idolatry and immorality. That the Nicolaitans were not denying Christ directly, but doing so implicitly can be seen when Jesus warns this church about eating meat sacrificed to idols, as well as reminding them that Christians must avoid all sexual immortality, especially when these things are directly connected to paganism. These are very prominent themes throughout the NT even though they seem foreign to us so many years removed. Paul too speaks about sexual issues (1 Cor 5:1-13; 6:12-7:41) and on food offered to idols (1 Cor 8:1-11:1). Although the food's having been offered to idols doesn't defile it (1 Cor 8:4-7; 10:25-26), the social context can turn the innocent act of eating into serious sin, either by sending mixed signals (1 Cor 8:7-13; 10:23-33) or even by sharing "the table of demons" at banquets in honor of pagan deities (1 Cor 10:14-22). With respect to meat offered to idols, Paul issued the terse command, "Flee idolatry" (1 Cor 10:14), just as he commanded, "Flee immorality" (1 Cor 6:18). Dabbling with idolatry or immorality denies that we belong to Jesus, our jealous husband who tolerates no rivals (1 Cor 6:13, 19-20; 10:22). This matter is also addressed at the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, when the leaders of the church affirmed with one voice the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone, while at the same time insisting that Gentiles avoid eating meat used in pagan sacrifices and sexual immorality. What is in view here is not vegetarianism or celibacy. God is not against meat or sex. What is in view is the fact that Christians cannot eat meat which was left over from pagan sacrifices and rituals, and then sold in the marketplace at a discounted price. For a Christian to eat such meat is, in effect, to sanction or condone the pagan practice of animal sacrifice and bloody fertility rites. Paul calls this sharing the table with demons. While Christians are to avoid all sexual relations outside of marriage, this is especially a serious matter in places like Pergamum where so many people were involved in temple prostitution or participated in drunken feasts and orgies and directly tied to the civic, cultural and commercial life of the city.

Tempted to marry outside the church for various benefits. In order to conduct business, Christians were invited to pagan feasts where ungodly things took place. Since it was possible to improve one's social standing or business prospects by marrying someone whose family was well-connected, Christians were tempted to marry outside the church so as to avoid the stigma and persecution associated with being a follower of Christ. As the Israelites indulged themselves with Moabite women, so too, the Christians in Pergamum saw nothing wrong with being sexually involved with pagans or joining with them in pagan religious practices. Tor this, Jesus will come to them with the sword of judgment.

Not denying Christ yet loose with regards to idolatry and sex. The principle for the church in Pergamum as well as the application for us today is simple. Christians cannot worship Christ and at the same time participate in pagan or non-Christian religious practices. We have but one master, Jesus Christ. We serve him only. To participate in paganism in any form is to deny Jesus Christ and invoke his wrath. Indeed, what Satan has not been able to accomplish through the sheer power of the Beast, he has able to do through the seduction of the church. Christians in this congregation saw nothing wrong whatsoever with worshiping Christ on the Lord's day and then participating in the ceremonies of pagan religions later in the week. Furthermore, the biblical sexual ethic was being obliterated by a pagan sexuality in which professing Christians were marrying outside the church, or participating in sexual activity directly tied to paganism.

Repent or some purifying judgment would ensure. This is a very serious matter. Jesus commands, "Repent therefore!" (Rev 2:16a) This repentance would mean exercising church discipline, refusing to tolerate Nocolaitan teaching. The church and its leaders must confront the Nocolaitans, as Paul instructed Timothy (2 Tim 2:25-26). If they do not, "I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth" (Rev 2:16b). Not all the promises and threats of Jesus' coming in Revelation refer to the second coming. Here Jesus will "soon come" (since he already walks among the lampstands) by intervening in the church's life through his providential control of events and the work of his Spirit to call the Nicolaitans to account. When the Corintian church abused the Lord's Supper, the result was illness and death in the congregation. Those providential instruments of discipline were motivated by Christ's love and directed to their good, "so that we may not be condemned with the world" (1 Cor 11:30-32). Some similar visitation of purifying judgment would sweep through then church at Pergamum, unless church discipline and repentance ensured. "Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev 2:17a).

Jesus sustains those who overcome with "manna." "To the one who is victorious (To him who overcomes), I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it" (Rev 2:17b). To those who overcome by remaining faithful to Christ, Jesus promises them to eat from the hidden manna–a reference, perhaps, to the manna which is preserved in the Most Holy place in the tabernacle. In the wilderness, Moses had shown that the manna pointed beyond itself (Deut 8:3; Mt 4:4). Jesus announced that the manna pointed to his sacrificed body as the "bread from heaven" (Jn 6:32-35, 48-51), which nourishes his people.

The eternal blessing and reward of a new name. Those who overcome will be given "a white stone with a new name." The white stone points to the climax of the church's pilgrimage. It may symbolize purity and comfort to those who had fallen victim to sexual immorality. But the name that the stone bears is more important. The name which appears upon it is known only to the one who receives it, even as Jesus Christ, the rider of the White Horse of judgment has a name known only to himself (Rev 19:12-13). The name is a shared secret between the Lord and the recipient, blending mystery and disclosure. The victor's "new name" could be his transformed identity in Christ, as the renaming of Abram to Abraham and of Simon to Peter signaled their transformation by God's power and grace. To the one who holds fast his name (Rev 2:13) Jesus gives a new name, to mark us as his property and to reshape our identity to fit his perfection (Rom 8:29). The white stone with the new name therefore binds the recipient to the Savior, who one day will come with his sword to execute judgment upon those nations who have persecuted Christ's people, as well as judging all those who seek to lead Christ's people away from him through the seduction of spiritual adultery. Those with the white stone need never fear the sword of justice, for they are Christ's and he knows those who are his! Amen.

Can you remain true to Jesus without compromising and becoming defiled?

  1. Why does Jesus refer to himself as the One "who has the sharp two-edged sword" (Rev 2:12; 1:16; 2:16; 6:8; 19:15, 21)? What is this "sword" (Heb 4:12)? How does this indicate the theme of this letter?
  2. What does it mean that Pergamum is "where Satan's throne is" (Rev 2:13a)? What is the church commended for (Rev 2:13b)?
  3. What does Jesus "have against" this church? Who are "Balaam" and "Balak" (Rev 2:14; Num 25:1-2; 31:16)? What sins do they tempt us to commit? What biblical truths are you tempted to compromise? How are the "Nicolaitans" related to Balaam and Balak (Rev 2:15)?
  4. What does Jesus command the church to do (Rev 2:16)? Is this "coming" Christ's second coming or a coming in judgment (1 Cor 11:30-32)? How will Christ "make war" against these believers? Why will He do this?
  5. What is the "hidden manna,""white stone," and "new name" that the overcomer receives (Rev 2:17)?
  1. Johnson, Dennis E. Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Pillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company. 2001.
  2. Sermons on the Book of Revelation. Kim Riddlebarger, Sr. Pastor, Christ Reformed Church. Anaheim.
  3. The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:1-20).
  4. Christian, Listen Up! (Rev 2:1-3:22).
  5. Discernment Without Love (Rev 2:1-7): To the Church in Ephesus.
  6. The Riches of Poverty (Rev 2:8-11): To the Church in Smyrna.
  7. Keeping God's Word With Little Strength (Rev 3:7-13): To the Church in Philadelphia.
  8. The Poverty of Riches (Rev 3:14-22): To the Church in Laodicea.


The Poverty of Riches (Rev 3:14-22): To the Church in Laodicea

Revelation 3:14-22; Key Verse: Rev 3:16

"So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth."

What a completely inaccurate self-assessment. The church in Laodicea thinks of itself as wealthy, very well-off, and without any apparent needs (Rev 3:17a). But the reality is far different. While this congregation may have an exalted opinion of itself, Jesus describes this church in completely different terms: "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked" (Rev 3:17b). This church is lukewarm and is about to be spit out of Christ's mouth (Rev 3:16). This is the only church about which Jesus has nothing good to say. Sardis also received no word of praise, though they had a few undefiled Christians (Rev 3:4). To Laodicea Jesus must express his love in unmitigated reproof and discipline (Rev 3:19).

Ease, wealth and no threats. As in Sardis, so in Laodicea Jesus mentions no coercion or seduction from pagan idolatry, imperial cult, or synagogue. Nor does he identify a particular theological or ethical threat from within. But Laodicea's boast in its wealth reveals how thoroughly seduced this church has been by the harlot Babylon, who enriches the earth's merchants with her immoral wealth (Rev 18:3) and boasts, "
I sit enthroned as queen. I am not a widow; I will never mourn" (Rev 18:7). What Jesus finds repugnant--as repugnant as the city's tepid, polluted, nauseating water sources (Rev 3:16)--is the church's superficial complacency, resting on the delusion that fiscal affluence will insulate it from need. Laodicea's hallucinations of wealth are symptoms of potentially terminal "affluenza." [This is an array of psychological maladies such as isolation, boredom, passivity and lack of motivation engendered in adults, teenagers and children by the possession of great wealth. It is an unhappy condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.]

This is the seventh and final letter addressed by Jesus Christ to his churches in western Asia Minor, the letter to the church in Laodicea. With this letter we come to the end of John's opening vision of the resurrected Christ which began in Rev 1:12 and which ends in chapter three with Jesus' words of encouragement, admonition and rebuke to those congregations struggling to remain faithful in the face of paganism, persecution from the state, as well as from those Jews who lived in significant numbers in several of these cities.

Using the template and pattern for all 7 churches, an overview of the church in Laodicea may be:
  1. The Church: Lukewarm (Rev 3:16).
  2. The Christ: The True Witness tells the truth (Rev 3:14).
  3. The Commendation: NONE.
  4. The Condemnation: Lukewarm, wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked (Rev 3:16-17).
  5. The Command: Buy gold, clothes, salve (Rev 3:18).
  6. The Consummation: "I will give the right to sit with me on my throne" (Rev 3:21).
Successful by worldly standards, but... Laodicea is a city located some 40 miles south of Philadelphia and some 100 miles or so to the east of Ephesus. Given its material wealth and prosperity it is very likely that this church had grown complacent, self-satisfied, and self-reliant. By worldly standards, this church was a huge success. It is probably well-attended and had lots of money (Rev 3:17a). By Christ's standards, however, this church is absolutely poor and wretched (Rev 3:17b). It has lost interest in the gospel and in Christ. This church thinks it has everything it needs without them–therefore, it has nothing.

As with each of the 7 letters, Jesus instructs, "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" (Rev 3:14). This directive makes it clear that Jesus who is Lord of his church, possesses full authority over his individual congregations, and therefore when he speaks to his churches, he does so in this capacity. It is also quite significant that Jesus speaks of himself here as "the Amen" and "the faithful and true witness," especially when the congregation to whom he is writing has such a false estimation of
their own standing before God. Each of these terms overlaps with the others and together they serve to remind the hearer that Jesus is God's word of "Amen," the faithful witness, that One who alone testifies about the true condition of things on earth before his Father in heaven. The point is that
even as Jesus was a faithful witness to Israel when testifying about his Father during his earthly ministry, so now, after his resurrection from the dead, Jesus is a faithful witness to his heavenly father when testifying about the condition of this church. He sees what the Laodiceans do not.

Jesus shames the self-reliant to turn to his inexhaustible resources as the eternity of God. According to the NIV, Jesus is "the ruler of God's creation." A better translation may be the ESV: "the beginning of God's creation" (Col 1:15, 18; Prov 8:22). In Revelation "the beginning" with its complement "the end" expresses the eternity of God, who stands sovereign over history's whole span as "the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" (Rev 22:13; 21:6). Jesus calls himself "the beginning" to shame their self-reliance and to turn them to his inexhaustible resources. The idea is also that in Christ's resurrection from the dead, the new creation has already begun. Through Christ's conquest of the grave, even now God is removing the curse by breaking the power of sin and death through Christ's sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection. To a church such as that in Laodicea–which trusts in itself, its money and its success–Jesus is confronting them with the truth that he alone can bring true spiritual renewal–"the new creation." He alone can undo the effects of sin. He alone will raise the dead. The Laodiceans must therefore look to him, in whom creation is renewed, rather than rely on temporal and worldly things as they have been doing.

Seduction by the world. Jesus reminds this particular congregation that as the faithful witness he knows their true condition. "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!" (Rev 3:15) Anyone living in Laodicea and who was familiar with the lukewarm and tepid water which came through the cities' aqueduct would have immediately grasped what Jesus was saying. Jesus knows the true state of affairs of this church. The Laodiceans may think of themselves as wealthy and without need. These are the same sentiments echoed by the Harlot in Revelation 18, who has enriched the world's merchants with her wealth, all the while seducing them into unbelief (Rev 18:3, 7). In reality, this church is just like the tepid and bitter water the people of Laodicea were forced to drink on a daily basis.

Being lukewarm is the result of compromising with the world. This explains why Jesus warns this church about its lukewarm condition, as well as why he so pointedly tells them that it would be better if they were either hot or cold. If the church becomes cold, it will see the gospel as a kind of refreshing spring like that which watered the city of Colosse to the east. If the church becomes hot, it will see the gospel as having medicinal value like the springs of Hierapolis to the north. To remain lukewarm then, is a metaphor for continuing to compromise with the spirit of the age in order to attain material success, rather than seeking to please God by remaining faithful to the gospel, which is to be hot or cold.

Complacency is highly offensive to God. What Jesus is talking about is like one who drinks flat Coke at room temperature. "So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth" (Rev 3:16). The complacency toward the things of God and the interest shown in things of this world has rendered this church nothing but a bitter and disgusting taste in our Lord's mouth. So, unless this church repents, the Lord will spit them from his mouth. How can such a congregation be an effective witness to those around them? They cannot. They have compromised to the point that they no longer offend anyone and in the process, sadly, have become an offense to the Lord of the church. They may be a success in the world's eyes, but they are a failure in Christ's estimation.

Equating material blessing with God's favor. They were completely self-deceived and utterly complacent. Perhaps even the adjective "lazy" applies, because of their wealth and success. Jesus then describes this congregation's self-assessment before pointing out to them the very stark reality of their situation: "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" (Rev 3:17). From this description of their true condition, it is clear that because of their success in terms of their wealth and prosperity, this church thinks that it has no needs. Its members have equated material blessing with God's favor. Since they have acquired great wealth and have no apparent material need, they mistakenly assume that they are pleasing God by their conduct.

Thinking one is rich when they are poor. This assertion by Jesus about thinking of themselves as rich when the reality is that they are poor, is based upon some very loud echoes from the OT, especially from those passages where Israel had come to believe that the nation's economic prosperity was supposedly evidence of its healthy spiritual condition. There are a number of instances in the OT where the Jews mistakenly assumed that material prosperity was proof that the nation had been faithful to the covenant, even though material prosperity was seen at the time as a human accomplishment instead of a great blessing from God. The reality was far different from the appearance for Israel even as it is for the church in Laodicea.

The rich think that wealth covers their sin. A place where this same idea can be found is Hosea 12:1-14, where Ephraim had become overly confident because of Israel's wealth. According to Hosea's prophecy, "Ephraim" who is Manasseh's brother, but in Hosea's prophecy, is symbolic of the nation of Israel as a whole, "feeds on the wind; he pursues the east wind all day and multiplies lies and violence. He makes a treaty with Assyria and sends olive oil to Egypt. The LORD has a charge to bring against Judah; he will punish Jacob according to his ways and repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he grasped his brother's heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor. He found him at Bethel and talked with him there—the LORD God Almighty, the LORD is his name of renown! But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always. The merchant uses dishonest scales; he loves to defraud. Ephraim boasts, 'I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin'" (Hos 12:1-8).

Seemingly having everything but in reality having nothing. Just like the church in Laodicea, "Ephraim boasts, `I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin.'. . . But Ephraim has bitterly provoked God to anger; his Lord will leave upon him the guilt of his bloodshed and will repay him for his contempt." As Israel [Ephraim] had become a merchant with no problems with dishonest gain while defrauding her neighbors for the sake of earning a greater profit, so too, the church in Laodicea boasts of its wealth, thinking that its money will cover up its sins. Jesus, however, now exposes the truth. This church is not rich and without need. In fact, it is "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked." What is worse, is the fact that the members of this church have not the slightest clue as to their true condition. These people have compromised with the spirit of the age to the point where they are blind to their true condition. Yes, in the eyes of the world, they have prospered greatly. But the economic gains and well-being this compromise has produced obscures the fact that what was lost in the process is the real treasure–the gospel! Not having the gospel means that in Christ's eyes, this church has nothing. It is wretched.

Material prosperity is ultimately worthless. It is with this deplorable condition in mind that in Rev 3:18 Jesus now instructs this church as how to rectify their situation: "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." Being "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked," the remedy which Christ prescribes for this church must come as a shock to them. They must to come to their senses and give up trusting in their own material prosperity which is ultimately worthless. They must look to Christ, whose ability to supply them with what they truly need is inexhaustible.

Come to Christ, the true riches. The true prosperity of the messianic age is depicted by the prophet Isaiah who writes, "Come, all you who are thirsty; come to the waters, and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without cost" (Isa 55:1). This transaction is not a conventional purchase, for only those who cannot pay may partake. Everthing we need must be the free gift of the Ruler/Beginning of God's creation In Christ are found all of the riches and treasures of heaven. This treasure is freely offered to us, if we humbly receive it with the empty hands of faith.

Forgetting that true riches comes from the righteousness of Christ. What the Laodiceans truly need is to participate in the new creation through faith in Christ's victory over death and the grave. What they truly need is to be clothed the righteousness of Christ, which he alone has earned for them through the refiner's fire of the cross and the empty tomb and which covers the shameful nakedness (the unrighteousness) of those in this church who have forgotten all about what constitutes the true riches of which Christ is speaking. But the imagery of refining by fire also suggest that the Laodiceans must be purified themselves by removing all those pagan influences from their midst which have lead to their complacency. Therefore, they must clothe themselves with Christ and purify themselves from the influences of the spirit of the age. Furthermore, these people need the salve of the Law and the gospel to open their eyes so that they might see their true condition–wretched, not rich–come to their senses, and repent, before it is too late.

Punishment does not mean being cruel or unloving; a final word before the judgment. Indeed, Jesus is Lord of his church and he will punish all those who do not repent. But this does not mean Jesus is cruel or unloving. On the contrary, Jesus says, "those whom I love I rebuke and discipline" (Rev 3:19a). If Christ cared nothing for his people, he would simply leave this church in its wretched condition and come to them in judgment without any final word of warning. But Paul says that it is God's kindness which leads sinners to repentance (Rom 2:4). Since Jesus loves his people, he rebukes and disciplines them. So, says Jesus to this disobedient and apathetic church, "be earnest, and repent" (Rev 3:19b). These are words of love from the Lord of his church. For they constitute a final word of warning before he brings down his judgment upon this congregation.

Inviting poor dead Christians to fellowship with Christ. That this is the case can be seen in the very next verse when the warning to repent is followed by an amazing invitation to those who do so. "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 him, and he with me" (Rev 3:20). It is truly an act of grace for Jesus to invite the members of this church to renew their fellowship with him which they claim to enjoy, but which in reality is all but gone.

An invitation to Christians, not non-Christians. This verse is frequently misquoted, as though the context was an evangelistic one: Jesus stands outside the door of the human heart waiting for the person to open the door of their heart to him if only they will accept Christ as their personal savior. But the fact of the matter is that this letter is written to Christians in the church of Laodicea who need to be reminded that their relationship with Christ must be renewed or face the judgment of Christ. In fact, this verse echoes an ancient canticle (song) of a bridegroom who stands outside the door of the bedchamber, knocking, waiting for his wife to admit him. Likewise Christ is asking this church to invite him in so that his relationship with this church might be renewed in all of its fullness. Indeed, having accepted Christ's gracious invitation, Christ will dine with his people, which is most likely a reference to the fellowship of the savior with his people expressed in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. But this invitation must be heeded immediately because Christ is even now standing at the door of this church, knocking, waiting for his people to repent and invite him in to renew their fellowship.

As is the case in all of these letters, to those who repent, heed Christ's warnings and continue to hold fast to that which has been revealed in the gospel, Jesus promises them that they will overcome. Jesus says, "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne" (Rev 3:20; NIV 1984). The 2011 NIV says, "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." Those who acknowledge that Christ is the faithful witness, and that his testimony about this congregation's spiritual condition is indeed true, Jesus will grant to them the right to rule in his messianic kingdom, a kingdom which dawned at his coming, continues to conquer unbelief despite the opposition from the beast, and a kingdom which will be fully realized at the end of the age, when Jesus returns to judge the world, raise the dead and make all things new.

What is the application? The success of a church cannot be measured by its size, its property and buildings, or its wealth. It must be measured by its faithfulness to the gospel. While the world sees success in terms of numbers, programs, buildings, endowments and bank accounts, such things often times breed complacency and compromise. Indeed the church in Laodicea was able to obtain such wealth only by compromising the gospel message it proclaimed so as to make peace with the prosperous unbelievers around them. Only then did the church in Laodicea prosper. But it was a false success and led them into their lukewarm and pitiful condition.

Seek not success but faithfulness to the gospel. What Christ asks of us as his people is that we seek not success, but that we seek to be faithful to the gospel which he has entrusted to us. Although all good things come from our Father's hand and God may indeed choose to bless certain churches with great prosperity, let us never mistakenly assume that the presence of wealth is the sign that we are being faithful to the will of God. That must be measured by the things we have seen throughout these seven letters:
  • whether or not a church preaches the gospel (Rev 3:18),
  • whether or not a church drives out false teachers from its midst (Rev 2:2, 14-15),
  • whether or not a church loves the brethren, not forsaking its first love (Rev 2:4), and
  • whether or not its members will refuse to take the mark of the beast by acknowledging someone other than Christ is Lord, even if that act costs us our lives or our livelihoods (Rev 3:8, 12).
This is what Christ expects of us as he walks in our midst, and as we seek to be a witness of the gospel to those around us. If we do these things, we will overcome and receive all of those glorious things Christ has promised to his people. So on each Lord's day, once again we open the door and invite our savior into our midst through his word and sacraments, so that we can dine with him and renew our fellowship with the Lord of the church.

"Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev 3:22).

Are you rich in Christ or do you wish for the riches of the world?

  1. What is significant about Christ's three titles that span His entire career (Rev 3:14; 22:13; 21:6; Jn 1:2-4; Col 1:15-18; Heb 1:2)?
  2. Is there any commendation in this letter? Why or why not? Is there any mention of persecution or trial? What does this suggest? Why does God prefer that we are either "cold or hot" (Rev 3:15)? Why would God want us "cold?"
  3. Why is lukewarmness so distasteful to God (Rev 3:16)? Could you describe a time in your life when you were lukewarm toward God? What is the appeal of being lukewarm? Why do people sometimes live lukewarm lives? How can you avoid lukewarmness?
  4. Rev 3:17 says that the Laodiceans think they are rich when they are, in fact, poor. What dangerous mindset develops as a result of wealth? What does this have to do with being lukewarm?
  5. Why does Jesus advise believers to "buy from Me gold refined by fire" (Rev 3:18)? How is refined gold used in the Bible (Job 23:10; Prov 27:21; Mal 3:2-3; Zech 13:9; 1 Pet 1:6-9)? What might be the purpose of "eye salve" (John 14:26; 1 Cor 2:14-16)?
  6. How does God treat those he loves (Rev 3:19; Prov 3:11-12; 13:24; Heb 12:5-6)? Is God all cookies and smiles? Give an everyday example. How does Rev 3:20 relate to being lukewarm? What is God's remedy for the tepid soul? Is this verse a call to salvation or fellowship?
  7. Although Jesus' sternest rebukes and condemnation are directed toward Laodicea, he reserves for her the most glorious and precious promises given to any of the seven churches (Rev 3:21). What is so significant about reigning with Christ (2 Tim 2:12; Phil 2:6-11)?


  1. Johnson, Dennis E. Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Pillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company. 2001.
  2. Sermons on the Book of Revelation. Kim Riddlebarger, Sr. Pastor, Christ Reformed Church. Anaheim.
  3. The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:1-20).
  4. Christian, Listen Up! (Rev 2:1-3:22).
  5. Discernment Without Love (Rev 2:1-7): To the Church in Ephesus.
  6. The Riches of Poverty (Rev 2:8-11): To the Church in Smyrna.
  7. Keeping God's Word With Little Strength (Rev 3:7-13): To the Church in Philadelphia.