Bible Study on Revelation - 1/4
The Book of Revelation was written about 95 AD in a time of great trouble. The Emperor Domitian was persecuting the church, and had exiled and killed many Christians. John had been exiled to the Island of Patmos. From there he writes this letter of encouragement to the churches of Asia Minor.
The central theme is a call to Christians to stand firm in their faith, even though threatened with suffering and death. It is necessary for John to write in a style that the Roman authorities will not understand, should the letter get into the wrong hands. Thus his message is cloaked in symbolic language, which needs 'revealing'. There are three layers of revelation throughout the book. There is an uncovering of:
- Language. Apocalyptic literature seeks to put spiritual realities into human language and, using symbolism and picture language, speaks of things that cannot be fully understood in this life.
- God's power in persecution. John's proclamation is of God's victory, and the sharing of that victory in history by God's faithful people.
- God's ultimate victory. Apocalyptic literature always has an eschatological element, a pointing to the last days, to the goal of all God's purposes which include his ultimate victory over Satan and all evil.
There are two great dangers when reading apocalyptic literature:
- Reading the book outside its historical context, for much of the imagery refers to conditions at the time of the Emperor Domitian. Be warned, for instance, against trying to forecast the date of the end of the world from the numbers in Revelation.
- Limiting the book to its historical context. God has a message for us now about the cosmic spiritual warfare between God and Satan in which we are involved. Revelation enables us to understand and experience his victory for ourselves.
Introduction to the Letters to the Seven Churches
Revelation chapters 2-3
These letters appear at first to be much easier to understand than the subsequent part of the book. This is because they refer to the behaviour of the churches, rather than to the fate of the enemies of God, and therefore do not need to be encrypted in apocalyptic language. However, many of the references will not be clear to us unless we know something of the background and life of the churches to which they refer. Jesus intends to show us what kind of church he condemns and what kind he approves, how to please the Lord and what to avoid. Of the seven churches only two escape reproof (Smyrna and Philadelphia), and of these only Philadelphia is wholly approved. Although this letter was written to specific churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century, what Jesus says is applicable to every age and generation. We are still living in the same in-between time, between Christ's ascension to heaven and his return in glory, and we need to hear his rebukes and receive his praise (see Rev 1:3).
The Church at Ephesus (2:1-7)
Whilst Pergamum was the official capital of the province of Asia, Ephesus was by far the greatest city in the province, claiming as its proud title 'The first and greatest metropolis in Asia'. It was the centre of the worship of Artemis or Diana of the Ephesians (Acts 19:28), where the crowd are incited to shout against Paul's preaching with the words, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians". The Temple of Diana was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was a notorious centre of pagan worship; and Paul stayed there longer than in any other city (Acts 20:31). Timothy is called to stay in Ephesus to make sure that false teachers did not teach false doctrines (1 Timothy 1:3) and it is here that we find Aquila, Priscilla and Apollos (Acts 18:19,24,26.)
Paul was very close to the Ephesian elders, as his farewell address in Acts 20:17-38 shows. So they had a good foundation in the faith - but some had been led astray by false teaching from early days. Let's look at what Jesus has to say to this church.
John begins (v.1) with two descriptions of the glorified Christ which occur in Chapter 1. Christ holds the churches as they can be in his hand. The word 'holds' (Gk. kratein) is a strong word meaning 'has complete control over'. They are secure in the hand of Jesus - if they are willing to be in that place of submission. A bit of Greek grammar will help us here! kratein + the genitive case in Greek means 'to take hold of with your hand' (eg. a lectern: because I cannot get it all in my hand I take hold of it). But kratein + the accusative case means 'to hold the whole object in your hand' (eg. I can get my wedding ring totally in my hand). Here it is kratein + the accusative: Christ holds the church in his hand. He wants to be able to enfold the whole church, to enclose it in every aspect of its being, in his hand - a tremendous picture.
He also walks among the churches as they are. He is in the midst of the candlesticks - but longs for the candles to become stars, and be in his hand rather than at his feet!
In vss. 2 and 3 Christ begins with affirmation. Whenever you go to a new church, either as a minister or a member, first find the positive things and affirm them. As you talk to others about your church, before you have a grumble - what are the positive things? What can you really thank God for? Share those things first. It is much easier to see the negative and criticise it, but Christ first praises what is praiseworthy.
He praises three things: 'Work' which results from faith; 'Labour' - Paul claims that he 'laboured' more than all (see 1 Cor.15:10); and 'Patience' - one of the aspects of love in 1 Cor 13:7 is that love 'endures all things' and this is the same word. The church at Ephesus has endured much with patience, and Christ praises them for it.
These are the characteristics of the Ephesian church. See if you can find three similar words of praise that Christ would say to your own church, and share them as words from the Lord at the next Church Council or General Church Meeting. People will be surprised!
The church at Ephesus has also tested those who said they were apostles and found them to be liars. Who are they? Jesus warned about 'wolves in sheep's clothing' (Matthew 7:15). In his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders, Paul has warned them that savage wolves would invade the flock (Acts 20:29). There are sometimes strong personalities in churches; they often seek positions of leadership, they may even be ministers, local preachers or stewards - who base their teaching not on the Word of God, but on what they think is right or what people want to hear. And because they are strong personalities and are very convincing, many are carried along by their teaching. They are a danger to the church, for they are liars! Because someone speaks with authority, do not automatically believe them: is it scriptural? Does the Spirit witness that this is a man or woman of God? Has it the ring of truth? Is the Spirit within us unsettled?
Jesus again repeats praise for their patience and persistence, here in the face of these false teachers. We need to persist for the truth in the church, and that has never been more necessary than now.
In vss. 4 and 5 the little word 'but' occurs (as also in 2:14, to Pergamum and in 2:20 to Thyatira). In each case Christ says, 'But I have something against you!' The church at Ephesus has lost its first love. Is this the love they had originally for the Lord, or the love they used to have for one another? We are not told, but it is probably both; for if you lose your love for the Lord, you lose your love for one another, and if you cease to love one another, you cease to love the Lord as you should! Heresy hunting can kill love, and the very thing they have been praised for may have precipitated a critical spirit among them. If we are looking for heretics, we can become suspicious of one another. I wonder also if the church at Ephesus had grown to the point where it had become impersonal, and lost its loving intimacy. Sometimes small churches can have a love that is lacking in larger churches and, if they are outward looking, can really be channels of the love of Jesus.
Anyway, in Ephesus something had gone wrong. They had once been a loving church, but now, things were different, and Christ held it against them. So he says four things to them: 'Remember' what it was like to love the Lord and one another - a call to corporate repentance. It saddens me when a church recognises it has gone wrong, that there are party factions pulling in different directions, and they seek reconciliation without repentance. They effectively put a plaster over a wound, but the evil is still there inside. There can be no Christian reconciliation without repentance before God and to one another. So Christ says to the church at Ephesus 'Repent' - admit your fault - and together come before the Lord and in his name before one another. I long to see churches on their knees in repentance before God; then things can begin to happen! Next, Christ says 'Do'. Repentance is not meant to lead to despair, but to new action in the power of the Spirit - to love as you once loved the Lord and one another. No one has truly repented unless his behaviour changes as a result! 'Or I will remove you' - that church will cease to be his church any longer. There can be no greater warning to the church than this - a loveless church will become a Christless church. The candlestick will be taken away. There may still be a building there, and even a group of people meeting for activities, but the candlestick will have gone, and they will not be his church any longer!
In v.6 we come to another 'but' - and this time a positive one. 'But you have this in your favour. You hate the practices of Nicolaitans, which I also hate'. These Nicolaitans are named, but their sin is not defined. We meet them again in Pergamum (see 2:15), where they seem to be linked with those who hold the teaching of Balaam, which is connected with eating things sacrificed to idols and with fornication. There were groups in the Early Church who said, 'Because we are not under law, but under grace, we can do what we like and still be Christians'. They even said 'Let us sin that grace may abound', to which Paul replies in Romans 6:1 'God forbid'. It is possible that the Nicolaitans followed Nicolas of Antioch, one of the seven deacons mentioned in Acts 6:5, who became a heretic and taught this antinomian (against the law) heresy. The Nicolaitans wanted to compromise with the world and be free from all restraints - but Christ hates it, and is glad that his church at Ephesus hates it too. Notice that Christ hates 'the practices' of the Nicolaitans, not the Nicolaitans themselves. The Nicolaitan heresy is the most dangerous of all heresies, because if its teaching is successful the world will change Christianity, instead of Christianity changing the world.
In v.7 there is a wonderful promise made to the 'overcomers': they will 'eat of the tree of life'. This may refer to the tree of life in Genesis 2:9 from which those who ate might live for ever. It also refers to Revelation 22:2 and14 - the tree which brings healing to the nations at the end time. Perhaps there is also a reference to Christ's death on the 'tree' of the cross, through which we have eternal life. Either way, those who overcome will share the eternal life that Jesus gives.