Revelation 2 & 3 Intro
Sermon preached on May 1, 2011 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2011. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at http://www.cantonnewlife.org/.
Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.
Have you ever heard a story about how sometimes identical twins have a mysterious connection between them? By that I don't mean things like story of two twin sisters who had been separated at birth and when re-united some thirty years later found out they had both married men with the same first name and also called their sons by the same first names. There are lots of stories like that. Twins sometimes appear to know the other's thoughts, by speaking simultaneously or finishing each other's sentences. Twins are sometimes known for liking the same products, food etc. Even though they're apart, twins will later find that they performed the same actions while they're apart—such as buying the same item, ordering the same meal in a restaurant, or picking up the phone to make a call at the exact same moment. I recently read one story of two identical twins, who were having a video chat. One lived here in the states and the other lives in Belgium. As they were chatting they found out that they had purchased the exact same pair of pants, in the same color, from the same store, on the same day. Things like that can be explained by genetics or maybe even by the fact that the pants were on sale.
The mysterious connections I'm referring to are the anecdotal stories that indicate a strong and mysterious connection between certain twins—even though the twins may be separated by miles. For example, when one twin hurts herself, the other twin feels pain. Others accounts tell of a very strong emotional connection—so that when one is in trouble, the other, no matter where he is, reports being overcoming by a sensation of 'something being terribly wrong'.
I'm not sure what to make of such stories, whether there is something to them or if they are just weird coincidences. I tend to be a bit skeptical but I don't totally discount them.
Such connections seem very strange to us. The vast majority of us don't experience connections like that. We're individuals. We think as individuals. We live in a very individualistic society. Our society encourages this. It has even permeated the church. So often many of us think of Christianity in individualistic terms. As individuals we tend to think of our own personal growth in Christ and, although we wouldn't say it consciously, deep down we perhaps believe that essentially that's all that matters—how I'm doing spiritually. We tend to neglect or minimize passages like 1 Corinthians 12:21–22 which compares the church of Christ to the human body and shows that we all need each other. It says,
"The eye cannot say to the hand,
'I don't need you!'
And the head cannot say to the feet,
'I don't need you!'"
But do we really believe that? Do we really sacrifice ourselves for others, for their spiritual welfare? Do we really take seriously 1 Corinthians 12:25-26, which says of the church,
"there should be no division in the body,
but that its parts should have
equal concern for each other.
If one part suffers,
every part suffers with it;
if one part is honored,
every part rejoices with it."
Those of you who watched the royal wedding of William and Kate on Friday, heard Dr. Richard Chartres, Lord Bishop of London, tell them that even in marriage,
"It is… very hard to wean ourselves away from self-centeredness."
That's not just true in marriage—it's that way in the church too. It's very hard for us to get out of the individualistic mindset. I heard someone once changed churches and he said it was because,
"I spiritually outgrew my old church."
Hmm. If that was true, is it okay to just casually leave behind those who haven't attained such spiritual heights? Do we look at a church solely from a viewpoint of what it gives us?
Do you ever think about your responsibility for other Christians in this congregation? Do you consider your responsibility for the way things are in our congregation?
This morning we're introducing the letters to the seven churches and there are three important things from these letters that show us that we need to take them seriously and make sure that we do our duty to our congregation. Two of these things relate to how the letters begin and end. Each letter begins the same way,
"To the angel of the church in ____ write:"
And near the end of each letter we have the words,
"He who has an ear,
let him hear what the Spirit
says to the churches."
The third thing is found in verse 20 of chapter 1. It says,
"The mystery of the seven stars
that you saw in my right hand
and of the seven golden lampstands is this:
The seven stars are
the angels of the seven churches,
and the seven lampstands
are the seven churches."
Let's look at these three things and the implications they have for us.
First of all, we see that
these letters are written to the angels of the churches.
Who are these angels? The Greek word that is translated 'angel' in the New Testament basically means, 'messenger'. Sometimes it refers to a human messenger. Mark 1:2 says,
"I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way…"
The messenger spoken about there was John the Baptist. Thus some understand the angels of the churches to be the pastors of the churches. In some ways that seems to fit. Pastors are leaders in the churches and it seems natural for the letters to be addressed to them.
But the problem with that understanding is that in the New Testament the word that is translated 'angel' almost always refers to actual angels. My estimate is that in over 95 per cent of its occurrences refers to 'angels'. G. K. Beale points out that in the visionary portion of Revelation, this term refers without exception to heavenly angels (p. 217). So if we're not going to understand it as referring to actual angels, we have to have a good reason for doing so. I don't think that reason exists.
The only reason I can think of for not believing it refers to actual angels is because 5 of the 7 the letters to the angels are critical. Is God critical of the angels and the job they're doing? No, of course not. God is not criticizing the angels, but the churches which they are responsible for. A church can have the best possible pastor and yet be full of defects. We see in the Old Testament, of Israel under Moses. God criticized the people of Israel and he delivered these criticisms through Moses, who, most of the time, was without blame. So it is here.
Thus we are to understand that the angels referenced in Revelation 2 & 3 are actual angels. The messages go both to heavenly angels and to the corresponding churches on earth. Vern Poythress writes, (Revelation, p. 85)
"Specific angels have evidently been given responsibility with respect to specific churches, in a manner analogous to the attachment of heavenly 'princes' to specific nations in Daniel 10:12-11:1."
There are two lessons we can draw from this.
First, it shows us that we are not in this battle alone. God's help comes to us through angels.
G. K. Beale writes, (Revelation, p. 218)
"The… reason for addressing the churches through their representative angels is to remind the church… that they have heavenly help and protection in their struggle not to be conformed to their pagan environment."
We are not alone. God will never abandon us nor forsake us. In our trials and troubles there are unseen angels around us, just like, the hills were full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha when he was in Dothan. (2 Kings 6:17) God's power is with us. We have divine help. God sends His angels to help and protect us.
Secondly, addressing the churches through the angels shows us that
there is already a heavenly aspect to our existence.
G. K. Beale writes, (Revelation, p. 218)
"The… reason for addressing the churches through their representative angels is to remind the church that already a dimension of their existence is heavenly, that their real home is not with the unbelieving 'earth dwellers'… And one of the purposes of the church meeting on earth in its weekly gatherings… is to be reminded of its heavenly existence and identity by modeling its worship and liturgy on the angels' and heavenly church's worship of the exalted Lamb."
It's very important that we see this. Our church life on earth is to model, to a certain extent, the worship and the light bearing testimony of what occurs in heaven. Vern Poythress writes, (p. 85)
"God's heavenly presence is the power center for the entire universe. The heavenly and earthly realms therefore interlock, and situations and processes in heaven have correspondences in mysterious fashion to processes on earth. Thus, the same messages go both to heavenly angels and to corresponding churches on earth."
We know that with certain things, like the Old Testament sanctuary, were patterned on what is in heaven. For example, in Hebrews 9 we are brought back to the Mosaic Law. We read how Moses sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and everything used in the ceremonies because the law required that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, for without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
Then comes the really interesting part. Hebrews 9 continues, (Hebrews 9:23–26)
"It was necessary, then,
for the copies of the heavenly things
to be purified with these sacrifices,
but the heavenly things themselves
with better sacrifices than these.
For Christ did not enter a man-made
sanctuary that was only a copy
of the true one;
he entered heaven itself,
now to appear for us in God's presence.
Nor did he enter heaven to offer
himself again and again,
the way the high priest enters
the Most Holy Place every year
with blood that is not his own.
Then Christ would have had to suffer
many times since the creation of the world.
But now he has appeared once for all
at the end of the ages
to do away with sin
by the sacrifice of himself."
The tabernacle on earth was but a copy of the heavenly tabernacle. The earthly tabernacle reflected the perfect heavenly tabernacle.
What did the lampstand in the Old Testament tabernacle stand for? The lampstand simultaneously had a connection in two directions. On the one hand, as we see from Revelation 1:20—the lampstand looked forward to the churches of the New Testament and their role of giving light. Vern Poythress writes, (p. 77)
"The lampstands symbolize the churches in their light-bearing or witness-bearing function (v. 20; cf. Matt. 5:14-16. The churches are the reality to which the symbolic lampstands in the tabernacle and the temple pointed forward."
But the lampstand also had a heavenward reference. The earthly furniture of the tabernacle had corresponding originals in heaven. For example, Hebrews 6:19-20 mentions the curtain in heaven. We read,
"It enters the inner sanctuary
behind the curtain,
who went before us,
has entered on our behalf.
He has become a high priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek."
The Old Testament lampstand gave light and part of the heavenly lampstand was undoubtedly to show the light of God's glory. The churches on earth have that responsibility today. And just as the church on earth is to be a light to the world—showing it God's glory, so too the heavenly lampstand basks in God's glory and light. Herman Hoeksema writes, (Behold, He Cometh! p. 47)
"we must bear in mind the relation of these seven churches to the seven golden candlesticks in the vision of 1:9-20. The latter are symbolic of the church from an ideal viewpoint, perfect and holy, as it has its light and life in Christ…"
There is a heavenly aspect to the church's existence. The churches on earth are to become more like our heavenly counterparts—the heavenly ideal.
This means we have an awesome responsibility to show the world the glory of God. Our church is a lampstand to reflect His heavenly light and glory.
Secondly, what the messages to the churches show us is that
we must listen to what God says, not only as individuals, but as a congregation.
In some ways we need to stop thinking individualistically and start thinking corporately—of the group, of the good of the church as a whole. God repeats, over and over—
"He who has an ear,
let him hear what the Spirit
says to the churches."
Individualistic thinking—what does that look like? It can be like this.
"I'm not going to go to church every week. I'm going to go once a month or once every six weeks. I'll still read my Bible and pray and I have Christian friends that I hang out with, so that's not going to hurt me very much, if at all."
That's how some people think and it's so individualistic. Another instance would be thinking like this,
"I'm just going to be a spectator when I come to church. The people that get criticized in church are the people that do things, like try to use their spiritual gifts. I've been burned in the past by trying to do things in the church. Now I'm going to take a back seat, try to get some good things out of it so I can be a better Christian. That's what I'm going to do."
But we shouldn't always think as individualistically. We need to think in terms of our effect on the group. One example of corporate or congregational thinking would be:
what would the church be like if everyone were exactly like me?
Think about that. If everyone was exactly like you, what would our church be like?
If someone is a Christian who only comes to church once a month, or every six weeks, and everyone was exactly like him, what would that mean? Well, that would mean that we would only worship God every month or six weeks. It would mean that most weeks I would show up here and there would be no one to preach to. I'd be here alone.
Or think about what it would be like if everyone had the attitude that he or she was not going to use their spiritual gifts, but just be a spectator. What would our services be like? There would be no readings, no music, no preaching, no prayers, no encouragement for those who were downcast, no giving of offerings, etc., etc.
Now that's just one example of congregational thinking. We see many others in Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul urges the Corinthian Christians to think of the good of the church instead of thinking individualistically. He rebukes them for going to the secular law courts and tells them, (1 Corinthians 6:7)
"Why not rather be wronged?
Why not rather be cheated?"
We also see in in Paul's treatment of the weaker brother in Romans 14. In our church life, we're often to stop thinking as individuals and think of what's best for the group.
I could give more examples, but the point is—
what are you like that needs to change in order that our congregation can grow and become mature and be more pleasing and useful to Jesus?
You don't need to think about the people who don't come to church often or the people that don't use their spiritual gifts—what about you? To a great extent you're responsible for what this church is like, for whether Jesus is pleased with us. Are you hearing what the Spirit says to the churches? Are you changing things in your life so that our congregation can be more pleasing to our Savior? What behavior and attitudes are you exhibiting that is hurting our congregation? We can all change things so that our congregation will become better. What do you need to change? He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Thirdly, our text shows us what our mission as a church is. All of these letters have a common theme and show us that
we need to be faithful—in loving, witnessing and obeying Jesus.
How do you judge the health of a church?
I mentioned a few weeks ago how church growth is not one of the criteria that is mentioned in Revelation 2 or 3. It's not that growth isn't important—it is. It is something that is to be desired. What Christian doesn't want to see Christ's kingdom expanded and Jesus glorified by people coming to Christ?
But contrary to what some in the church growth movement imply—growth isn't everything, it's not even the main thing. Many today will tell you that if your church isn't growing that there's something radically wrong and that your congregation is going downhill and headed for disaster and that if you're not dead already it soon will be. They will tell you that what we need to do is look at the big, successful mega-churches and use their methods to attract more people. They will tell you that we need to be seeker sensitive in order to grow and be pleasing to Jesus.
But Jesus didn't tell the other six churches to emulate Laodicea. The church at Laodicea was rich and didn't need a thing. It considered itself successful. I suspect that it was even a growing church and well respected in that city. But Jesus has different criteria by which He measures life in the churches, and that evaluation is very different than what some of the people in the churches thought. For example, Jesus said to the church in Laodicea, (Revelation 3:17–18)
"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.
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."
The Christians in Laodicea had it all wrong. They thought they were doing great but they weren't. To the church in Sardis, Jesus said, (Revelation 3:1–2)
"I know your deeds;
you have a reputation of being alive,
but you are dead.
Strengthen what remains
and is about to die,
for I have not found your deeds
complete in the sight of my God."
They had a reputation for being alive, but they were dead. Things with them were just the opposite of what they thought. Again, what Jesus thought was just the opposite of how other people characterized them.
What criteria did Jesus use to judge the churches in Revelation 2 and 3? It was faithfulness—in loving, in witnessing for and in obeying Jesus.
Ephesus left their first love. That was bad. They exposed false apostles—that was good. Pergamum stayed faithful in spite of persecution. Thyatira showed love and faith. That was good. But they tolerated Jezebel. That was bad. It's things like that that we see in the seven churches. It's about love, faithfulness, obedience, witness.
The primary role of candlesticks is to give light. Exodus 27:21 tells us that Aaron and his sons were responsible for keep them burning before the Lord in the Tent of Meeting from evening till morning. We are to show God's light to this dark world. Vern Poythress writes, (p. 77)
"Christ walks among the churches as Lord and Shepherd, just as God's cloud of glory condescended to dwell in the tabernacle and the temple, which had their lampstands (Ex. 25:31-40; 1 Kings 7:49). God's character of light (1 John 1.5) is supremely manifested in Christ… but is also reflected in various ways in his creation; in fiery angels… in natural light… in the temple lampstands, in the churches, and in individuals."
G. K. Beale, who has written one of the best commentaries available on Revelation, says this about his commentary. (p. 227)
"One of the contributions of this commentary is to show that all of the letters deal generally with the issue of witnessing for Christ in the midst of a pagan culture."
Vern Poythress, in his great little commentary on Revelation says of the seven churches, (p. 83)
"all the churches are caught up in a universal calling to faithfulness and endurance until the promises reach their fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem."
It's all about faithfulness—in obeying, in witnessing, in loving. Faithful churches are healthy churches. Faithful churches are pleasing to God. Faithful churches honor Jesus.
The world today, and perhaps the big and successful, growing churches would look down on a (perhaps) little church like Smyrna. They would say that it was dying, and it was dying because it was doing everything wrong. Yet Jesus said to the church in Smyrna, (Revelation 2:9)
"I know your afflictions and your poverty
—yet you are rich!"
He didn't have one criticism of it because they were being faithful to Him.
Christians, be careful how you define a healthy, dynamic, rich church. You need to use the criteria that Jesus uses, biblical criteria and not the criteria of the world.
Lastly, for those of you who are not Christians, what you should realize is that
you're not part of the church and therefore none of the promises to the churches apply to you.
Christians in Ephesus were told, (Revelation 2:7)
"To him who overcomes,
I will give the right to eat
from the tree of life,
which is in the paradise of God."
Christians in Smyrna were told, (Revelation 2:11)
"He who overcomes
will not be hurt at all
by the second death."
Christians in Sardis were told, (Revelation 3:5)
"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."
Christians in Laodicea were told, (Revelation 3:21)
"To him who overcomes,
I will give the right to sit
with me on my throne…"
You will miss out on these promises unless you embrace Jesus. Don't miss out. Go to Jesus today. Ask Him to save you—to forgive and cleanse you from your sins. May God give you grace to do so.