The Church Militant
John was the last of the 12 apostles to die. As well as writing the Gospel and the epistles that bear his name, he also wrote Revelation, which contributes much to our understanding of the great controversy. For now, though, we shall concentrate only on his description of the seven churches. We shall study them from the perspective of the original recipients, in order to enable us to glean as much from his words as possible.
One thing that stands out is that Jesus personalizes His approach to each church. They all have different needs, and He meets them all.
One challenge is that these churches are shown to be struggling with their identity, just as we are today. Are their members clearly lining up with Jesus and His calling to them toward witnessing to a dying world, or are they straddling both sides, trying to look like Christians but then privately being more comfortable with the powers of darkness? Though we see ourselves as the last of these churches, it will be clear that however different the circumstances, in many ways we face some of the same challenges that the churches faced through the ages.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, March 19.
In Revelation 2:1, Jesus is pictured holding the seven stars and walking among the lampstands as He addresses the church at Ephesus. These symbols point to significant realities. The lampstands are the churches, and the seven stars are angels tasked with caring for the churches (Rev. 1:20). In other words, there is a close connection between the churches and the throne of God in heaven. The churches have a crucial part to play in the great controversy.
The message to Ephesus begins with a description of its character. Jesus is fully aware of its strengths and weaknesses. He commends them for their activities, their patient perseverance, and their intolerance toward false teachers in their midst (Rev. 2:2, 3, 6), a clear warning that false doctrine should not be tolerated in the church. It seems that the church at Ephesus, originally enlisted by God in the struggle against darkness, has suffered a counterattack by Satan. It came in the form of false apostles, followers of Nicolas—perhaps one of the original seven deacons (Acts 6:5) but who had evidently formed a breakaway movement. Whatever their heresy, Jesus hated it (Rev. 2:6).
The trouble with the Ephesian church was that it had left its “first love” (Rev. 2:4). This is very similar to the language of the Old Testament prophets who likened the apostasy of Israel to a person chasing after illicit lovers (for example, Hos. 2:13).
The situation may look hopeless, but Jesus specializes in redeeming hopeless situations. First of all, He encourages His people to remember from where they have fallen and to get back to what they were doing in the first place (Rev. 2:5). This is not a call to turn the clock back to “the good old days”; rather, it is a case of using past experience to guide them into the future.
Read Revelation 2:8–17. The church members at Smyrna are also known for their hard work; yet, they don’t have much to show for it, maybe as a result of a “synagogue of Satan” in their midst (Rev. 2:9). Similarly, the members at Pergamum seem to be clinging to their faith, even though “the throne of Satan” is among them (Rev. 2:13). Thus, the reality of the great controversy is seen here, as well.
The church at Smyrna is warned of tough times ahead, including prison and maybe even death (Rev. 2:10). In Pergamum someone already had been killed for his faith (Rev. 2:13). It is important to note that the hard times have a time limit; that is, evil is not allowed to continue beyond a certain point (Rev. 2:10).
Of concern is that God has “a few things” against the church in Pergamum (Rev. 2:14–16). Apparently they are tolerating people in their midst who “hold [to] the doctrine of Balaam” and to “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans” (Rev. 2:14, 15, NKJV).
“Nicolas and Balaam seem to be parallel terms; Nicolas is a compound Greek word (nika-o and laos) and means ‘the one who conquers the people.’ Balaam can be derived from two Hebrew words—am (‘people’) and baal (from bela, ‘to destroy’ or ‘to swallow’), meaning ‘destruction of people.’ ”—Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2002), p. 111. Jesus warns the whole church that if their heresy continues, He will come in person and fight against them with the sword in His mouth (Rev. 2:16).
Yet, even amid these warnings, Jesus gives both churches great encouragement (Rev. 2:11, 17).
The introduction of Jesus to the church at Thyatira (Rev. 2:18) reveals an increasingly trying and perplexing time for the people of God. The metaphors of fiery eyes and feet of polished brass or bronze not only appear in Revelation 1:14, 15 but are also found originally in Daniel 10, where Daniel sees One whose eyes are like “torches of fire” and His feet “like burnished bronze” (Dan. 10:6, NKJV). Later at the end of time, Christ will arise and rescue His people. When the situation is darkest for God's people, God Himself will directly step in to deliver those whose names are found written in the book of life (Dan. 12:1).
Jesus is introduced similarly to the church in Sardis as the One who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars (Rev. 3:1, 5:6). Here again is a Savior who is both actively involved behind the scenes and enlisting the powers of heaven to ensure the safety of His church.
The description of these two churches is of deep concern. In Thyatira, although things are improving (Rev. 2:19), they have been like Israel at the time of Queen Jezebel. Similarly, in Sardis, the people are spiritually dead (Rev. 3:1).
Despite all these issues, Jesus encourages the churches. He acknowledges many in Thyatira “ ‘who have not known the depths of Satan’ ” and encourages them to “ ‘hold fast . . . till I come’ ” (Rev. 2:24, 25, NKJV). There are also “a few” in Sardis “who have not defiled their garments” (Rev. 3:4, NKJV).
It is to these faithful ones that Jesus promises special blessing. He promises to give Thyatira the “morning star” (Rev. 2:28), which He later identifies as Himself (Rev. 22:16), and to Sardis He promises an assured place in heaven and that He will confess their names “before My Father and before His angels” (Rev. 3:5, NKJV).
The church is commended for keeping Christ’s word and for not denying His name, even though their strength appears to be quite weak (Rev. 3:8). Jesus makes an intriguing promise that members of the synagogue of Satan will soon come and pay homage to the Philadelphians (Rev. 3:9). This is taken from Isaiah 60:14, describing the oppressors of God’s people prostrating themselves in submission, in direct contrast to all the harsh treatment that they had previously given to God’s people. From this we may understand that the synagogue of Satan had been making life difficult for the early Christians. As we have seen, some of the previous churches struggled with those who were teaching error and causing problems—one of the ways that Satan works against the churches. Philadelphia, it seems, is the one who finally rids the church of this source of evil.
It seems apparent that the Philadelphian church had passed through times as equally tough as the previous churches, but their attitude seems to have been different. This is the first church that Jesus doesn’t specifically point out a failing that they need to work on. Their faith and their cooperation with God has been noticed and appreciated by the Savior, again despite their “little strength” (Rev. 3:8, NKJV).
The promises to the overcomer from this church include being made a pillar in God’s temple so that they no longer need to float in and out (Rev. 3:12). With the new names they are given, they are fully identified as belonging to God, maybe because they had already been identifying with God in all aspects of their lives previously.
Laodicea also gets some descriptions of Jesus: “ ‘the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness,’ ” and “ ‘the Beginning of the creation of God’ ” (Rev. 3:14, NKJV). These descriptions are key aspects of the divinity of Christ. The “Amen” is a reference to Isaiah 65:16, where the word Amen is translated “the God of truth” and is linked to the covenant. Jesus is the great covenant-keeping God, the God who keeps His promises of salvation and restoration. Jesus is also the Faithful Witness who testifies to His people about what God is really like (Rev. 1:5, 22:16, John 1:18, 14:8–10). He is also the Creator (Col. 1:16, 17).
After these first texts tell who Jesus really is, it is necessary to clarify who this church really is. In other words, we can really only know ourselves if we know God first. The people at this church have been fooling themselves to the point that what they think about themselves is the opposite of what they really are (Rev. 3:17). Jesus then pleads with them to take the necessary steps in order to have the clarity of vision needed to see things as they really are and, also, to be changed as they need to be changed (Rev. 3:18).
The alternative is divine judgment—in two phases. First, it may be necessary for a little old-fashioned parental discipline (Rev. 3:19); next, there is the possibility of God “spewing them” from His mouth, like a mouthful of putrid water (Rev. 3:16).
To this church that is so close to being cast out from the presence of God, the greatest promises are given. Jesus wants to linger over a meal with them (Rev. 3:20)—something reserved only for close friends. Then He promises them the opportunity to sit with Him on His throne (Rev. 3:21).
It is interesting to trace through the seven churches the developing phenomenon of God’s people growing cold and moving away from Him. How does this happen? It seems that although the battle has been won, some people are still persistently hanging on to evil and to the powers of darkness. There’s no question that as we look through the history of these churches, we can see the great controversy being made manifest and being expressed there. And thus, it will continue until the second coming of Jesus.
Further Thought: Thursday’s study touched on the divinity of Christ. Why is that so important? Ellen G. White wrote: “Since the divine law is as sacred as God Himself, only one equal with God could make atonement for its transgression. None but Christ could redeem fallen man from the curse of the law, and bring him again into harmony with Heaven. Christ would take upon Himself the guilt and shame of sin— sin so offensive to a holy God that it must separate the Father and His Son. Christ would reach to the depths of misery to rescue the ruined race.”—God’s Amazing Grace, p. 42. It’s simple logic: the law is as sacred as God; so, only a Being as sacred as God could make atonement for transgression of the law. Angels, though sinless, are not as sacred as their Creator, for how could anything created be as sacred as who created it? No wonder, then, that again and again Scripture teaches that Christ is God Himself. The sacrifice of Christ, in a sense, centers around the sacredness of God’s law. It was because of the law, or, more precisely, because of the transgression of the law, that Jesus—if we were to be saved—would have to die for us. Indeed, the severity of sin can be seen best in the infinite sacrifice needed to atone for it; that severity itself speaks to the very sacredness of the law itself. If the law is so holy that only the sacrifice of God Himself could answer its claims, then we have all the proof we need of just how exalted the law is.