In Revelation 2-3 we get an inside look on Jesus speaking words of truth to his churches. For the most part, these are not nice or polite words. In fact, some of them are quite harsh.
I’d really encourage you to sit down and read through these seven letters. (It won’t take that long, I promise.)
Did you notice anything interesting about the way Jesus is talked about in the opening statement of each letter? Look at a few of them, and then look back at John’s vision of Jesus in chapter 1. Do you see the connections?
Here are the opening descriptions of Jesus in these letters.
And here is another look back at John’s initial vision of Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s kind of cool.
The same Jesus of John’s vision—the one that freaks us out and at the same time calms our nerves—is the Jesus who addresses these churches by name.
One more thing I want to point out. The same two words follow each of these greetings identifying this Jesus as the same one in John’s earlier vision: “I know.”
Probably most of us have know something about the church that has frustrated or disturbed us or pissed us off. We have seen things that we just knew were unacceptable and demanded addressing. Perhaps some of us have said those things. Others of us chose not to speak, but instead to give up on the church altogether. Still others have decided to stay put and do the best they could, trying to silence the fiery voices within.
No matter what is going on in our churches, Jesus knows – the good, the bad, and the embarrassing. Let’s talk today about the latter two categories. Whatever problem you’ve identified, whatever scandal you’ve uncovered, whatever sin you’ve exposed, Jesus saw it first.
So what are you angry about or dissatisfied with in regard to the church? How do you think the church needs to change? What have you seen that just isn’t okay?
Whatever it is, remember that Jesus saw it first. He knows.
It is important for us to start with Jesus because seeing what’s wrong with someone or something else can be empowering in the worst kind of way. It can give us a false sense of superiority and build in us a deceptively self-righteous refusal to listen to anyone who doesn’t see what we see.
The other reason this is important is that Jesus doesn’t just sit tight on his knowledge. He’s doing something about it. You very well might be an agent of the change you long for, but you must do so as one through whom Jesus is renewing his church (even calling it to repentance), not some sort of self-appointed vigilante.
Obviously the same is true of your life as an individual. Whatever is troubling or discouraging you, Jesus knows. When we are tired and hurting, he knows. When we are tempted to give in, he knows. When we are angry and rebellious, he knows. When we are trying our best to follow him, he knows. Whatever is going on in your life, Jesus knows, and he is not sitting still about it.
Living what we learn
After these greetings, Jesus talks to his churches about what is going on in their lives together. Again, both the good and the bad. Tomorrow we’ll take a closer look at the letters to Pergamum and Laodicea, so for now let’s get a bird’s eye view of all seven. Let’s do a little inventory of their contents, a little list-making if you will.
What are some of the things these followers of Jesus were commended for? What were they doing well? They worked hard and persevered, enduring in faithfulness to Jesus in the face of cultural seduction and at times persecution, even to the point of death. They were characterized by love, faith, and service, and they persevered in spite of having little strength. They tested every message and refused to listen to false prophets who wrongly claimed to speak God’s word.
In what ways were they being unfaithful to Jesus? They forsook their first love and held to the teaching of false prophets who, like many from Israel’s past, led them away from faithfulness to God. Some churches with a solid reputation for being alive were actually dead. Others were lukewarm and trusted in wealth to cover up their lack of authentic faithfulness.
Jesus’ message to the former was clear: Hang in there, remain faithful, endure. And to the latter his words were quick to the point: Repent. Turn from your compromising ways or you will miss out on the blessings of God’s kingdom.
What changes might Jesus be calling us – the church in 21st century America (or wherever you are) – to make? In what ways have we missed or ignored or denied Jesus’ vision of life in God’s kingdom? We will continue to have our eyes opened in this regard as we walk through the book of Revelation.
One last question for now: What promises did Jesus offer those who remained faithful to him? The right to eat from the tree of life, the paradise of God; protection from the pain of the “second death”; the hidden manna with which God sustains his people; a white stone with their name on it, representing their secure place in God’s family; authority over the nations and the morning star; an eternal place in the book of life; made into a pillar in God’s temple, being marked by God’s name and the name of new creation; the right to sit with him on the throne.
We need to know that the same promises (and even more) are still on offer. Jesus knows that life is hard. His was too (Hebrews 5.7-9; 12.1-3). He also knows that obedience is worth it. And he hopes that we will stick around long enough to find this out for ourselves. May we have ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.