The sense is that these messages for each church—for all Christians. This means that the attitudes and conduct described dominate the group accused or complimented by Christ, but they also exist in the other groups as well. Otherwise, the advice to whoever hears would not apply.
In other words, the Ephesian attitude might also be in Smyrna, Pergamos, Laodicea, Philadelphia, etc., but it dominated the church in Ephesus. The attitude that dominated in Smyrna would also describe, though with less accuracy, one or more of the other groups. The same would be true of Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
All the messages apply to all of the churches. All the messages apply to each of us as individuals, and it is a matter of "if the shoes fits, wear it." That is God's approach here. We are to live by every word of God. It is only under this principle that we can apply these messages.
John W. Ritenbaugh
What Is the Work of God Now? (Part 4)
Apparently, a certain number of people today fit the Smyrnan category: They have no major flaws worth mentioning. They are not self-righteous, for that would be pointed out as a major flaw, as said of Laodicea. The Laodicean church is wealthy in physical goods and assumes spiritual wealth, but this is a false self-assessment. Smyrna is apparently of little material wealth, but rich spiritually, as Christ attests (Revelation 2:9).
However, Christ commands those of Smyrna to overcome just like the others if they will be in the Kingdom of God. No one is without sin (Romans 3:23), so Smyrna must grow in faith, love, and obedience like the rest. Some in Smyrna will be tried in tribulation and persecution—jailed and tried to the point of death. Some of them may even die as martyrs! As Christ says, He will prune even a good branch that it might bear more fruit (John 15:2).
The Seven Churches: Smyrna
We can see what most concerns Christ—what is most important to Him—at the end, when the pressures will be more intense than they have ever been in the history of man, when Satan is lining up all of his forces, all of his armies, all of his weaponry. The Devil will mount a persecution against God's people to such an extent that the whole earth will be thrown into convulsions, the likes of which this world has never seen!
Christ, like any good leader who sees what is coming, will take steps to prepare His people. He will focus their attention on what is most important to survive and grow during that period. This is why He talks about what He does to the churches in the messages in Revelation 2 and 3.
The word translated as "overcomes" can just as easily and correctly be—and is perhaps better—translated "conquers." We are involved in a war against Satan and his demons, against a world he designed and built through men, and against ourselves, who carry with us the self-centered nature, habits, and attitudes of Satan and his system. Thus, Christ's concern for us as we approach the end is whether we are carrying through in the warfare, continuing in well doing, and enduring to the end, because Satan is bringing about every pressure to make us surrender.
Loyalty is not a quality that we Americans and Canadians are endowed with to any great degree. Our cultures tend to stress individuality—doing our own thing. This lack of loyalty in America and Canada perhaps shows more clearly in divorce and infidelity than anywhere else. Loyalty's synonym is "faithful." It means "faithful in allegiance to one's lawful sovereign; to be faithful to a private person to whom fidelity is due; or faithful to a cause." It means to be steadfast in affection, to adhere to the performance of duty, to be conscientious, to give firm resistance to any temptation to desert or betray. Can we see what the works are Christ is so concerned about?
This is why every message says, "I know your works!" (Revelation 2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15). He does not say, "I know your profession" or "I know your desires." Neither does He say, "I know your sincerity" or "I know your wishes." He says, "I know your works"! Why? Because works prove what a person is doing with his knowledge, time, and energies.
Titus 1:16 says, "They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified." Notice that they "profess" to know God. Christ says, "I see what you are doing. I know your works." Why are works so important? They prove where our heart is! They prove our loyalty! They prove whether we are conscientious and faithful. They prove whether there is fidelity to Jesus Christ—whether we are steadfast in our affection for the One we are going to marry.
Many believe that we do not have to qualify for the Kingdom of God. It is true that works cannot justify us; they cannot wipe out our sins. However, it does not follow that, because they cannot save us, they are of no importance. Recall that James uses Abraham, the father of the faithful—the father of the loyal, the conscientious—as the illustration that faith without works is dead! Living faith works! Jesus says, "I know your works"!
Revelation 2 and 3 are an examination of our works because Christ wants to see whether we believe Him! Living faith exhibits itself in works! It is a test of our faith. If we are faithful, we will be working: overcoming Satan, the world, and our self-centeredness. That is what works accomplish.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Revelation 2-3 and Works
Jesus Christ encourages each of the churches to overcome, clearly implying that success within God's purpose is tied to it. God did not create us and call us into His purpose for failure. The Greek term for "overcome" here is nikáo (Strong's #3528), which means "to subdue, to conquer, to prevail, to get the victory."
Jesus indicates that Christian life is challenging. The Bible does not view the worship of God as a passing activity on which a person spends a few hours one day a week. Rather, it shows the worship of God to be a full-time responsibility, a work requiring dedication and discipline. God calls upon each of us to be "a worker who does not need to be ashamed" (II Timothy 2:15). Sin impedes proper worship.
The reasons for the use of such strong terms does not become directly apparent until the New Testament, where Jesus and the apostles give specific instructions to individual Christians on avoiding sin at all costs. The Bible's writers see us in a battle for our very lives! In whatever context it appears throughout Scripture, sin is viewed as failure—as succumbing, not overcoming. Each time we sin, we suffer a defeat in life's overall purpose.
Besides defeat, Isaiah 59:1-2 provides us with another reason why sin is perceived so dreadfully: "Behold, the LORD's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear."
This second reason is in no way secondary in importance; it is in every way equal to or greater than the sense of failure. Sin creates estrangement from God. This is extremely important because our relationship with Him is the source of our power to succeed. He created us to have an everlasting relationship with Him in peaceful and productive harmony.
God does not sin because sin destroys relationships. As sinners, we would not fit within a non-sinning relationship. Despite human reasoning to the contrary, whether the relationship is with fellow humans or with God, sin always works to produce separation. A continuing life of sin destroys any hope of oneness. It never makes matters better; it never heals. Lasting success and sound relationships are never achieved through sin.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Sin, Christians, and the Fear of God
Smyrna is the only one of the seven to receive no criticism whatsoever from Christ! Philadelphia does not receive harsh criticism, but Christ says it has "a little [spiritual] strength," while He mentions nothing at all negative about Smyrna.
The Seven Churches: Smyrna
This letter to Smyrna is unique in that it contains no criticism or rebuke. The one to Philadelphia runs a close second in this regard: It contains more praise, but also a slightly negative aspect when Jesus says that they have but a little strength (Revelation 3:7-13). Smyrna's letter contains neither as much praise on the one hand, nor the slightly negative observation on the other.
The letter is also unique in its length, containing just four verses. (In contrast, the letter to Thyatira spans twelve verses.) It is so brief that it almost appears abrupt. Jesus gives neither a lengthy admonition to repent, nor much praise. To use a military metaphor, it resembles a commander's final instructions to his company of Special Forces. They are already focused and disciplined, aware of what is expected of them, wholeheartedly committed to their duty, and willing to go to their deaths for their cause, if need be. Unlike new recruits or infantry misfits who continually have to be reminded of the basics, these are seasoned veterans. This letter is from the Captain of their salvation to a unit that knows its marching orders and has been following them faithfully. Little needs to be added.
The letter to Smyrna also has death as a recurring theme. Death is directly mentioned three times in these four verses, and the name Smyrna contains a probable fourth reference as well. Jesus Christ refers to His own death, points to their death as a finish line, and also mentions the second death. While He is not warning that their deaths are imminent, these references combine to produce a sober message.
Smyrna means "myrrh," a highly valued spice. Many of its uses in Scripture fit with what we know of the church at Smyrna. For example, myrrh was a primary ingredient in the holy anointing oil that God commanded Moses to make (Exodus 30:22-33), which was used to consecrate the Tabernacle, the Ark, two of the altars, all of the utensils, as well as Aaron and his sons. In Smyrna, we likewise see a people who are set apart and consecrated, whose lives are dedicated in service to God despite the cost.
A second use is found in the book of Esther, where the eligible maidens were prepared for twelve months before they were sent to meet the king (Esther 2:12-13). For the first six months of their preparation, they were purified with the oil of myrrh. Looking at this spiritually, myrrh could represent purification before being able to meet the King of kings, Jesus Christ. From what we read of Smyrna, this also parallels their situation.
A third use of myrrh helps to understand why it is linked with death. In Mark's account of the crucifixion, Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23). Easton's Bible Dictionary points out that the Jews commonly did this for prisoners because it would render them insensible during their torture. The myrrh used in this concoction is thought to be a species that had many of the characteristics of opium. Here, then, myrrh was a drug given to dull the senses of those who were condemned to death—and Jesus rejected it. Considering Christ's letter to Smyrna in this light, we see a people who may not all actually be condemned to death, but who are still admonished to be faithful until death. Christ set the example of this, rejecting the option of compromise that would have eased His sacrifice.
A fourth use of myrrh also refers to death, as myrrh is a spice used for embalming bodies. More specifically, Nicodemus used it to prepare Christ's body for burial (John 19:39). For this reason, myrrh is often associated with bitter circumstances. Realizing what the people of Smyrna were going through, it is fitting that their name would mean myrrh.
After addressing His letter to the "church of myrrh," Jesus draws attention to the fact that He was dead but "came to life" (Revelation 2:8). In doing this, He encourages them by highlighting His own experience. To this church of bitter circumstances, He says, in essence, "I was martyred too, just as some of you will be. But I was resurrected, and now live eternally." He reminds them that He has overcome death, and that it is not the end (I Corinthians 15:50-57).
David C. Grabbe
Smyrna: Faithful Until Death
Note that each of these congregations—those in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea—was located in a Gentile city, and in all probability, each congregation's membership was primarily Gentile. It is quite likely that in each congregation the Jews were a minority.
Recall that the Romans ravaged Jerusalem in AD 70, and its Christians had to flee to Pella to save their lives. It is highly probable that none of these congregations had any communication with any survivor of the first congregation in Jerusalem. All of the apostles except John were dead, and he had been banished to Patmos. This circumstance was far different from the one in which the church was founded.
Were these Gentile congregations still part of the true church? Were they free of flaws and perfect in their character, attitudes, and doctrines? Would such a negative judgment eliminate them from being a true assembly?
Consider these further factors: Revelation 2:4 commends the congregation in Ephesus for doctrinal vigilance but castigates it for leaving its first love. Revelation 2:9-11 shows Christ commending Smyrna for being spiritually rich, but He also admonishes them to overcome. Despite His commendation, they are not a finished product.
Revelation 2:13-15 praises those in Pergamos for not denying their faith, but its members are doctrinally divided, and they permit heresy to continue. Revelation 2:19-20 presents Thyatira as growing in good works, but its members tolerate heresy and are guilty of sexual immorality.
Revelation 3:1, 4 exposes Sardis as spiritually dead, though it contains a few who remain undefiled, indicating that its members have virtually lost their faith and are capable only of dead works. Revelation 3:8, 11-12 reports that those in Philadelphia are faithfully enduring, but Christ admonishes them to hold fast and overcome. Finally, Revelation 3:15, 19 judges Laodicea as spiritually bankrupt and gives it no commendation at all. The congregation is strongly advised to be zealous and repent.
What does a composite picture of these congregations reveal?
1. All seven of them are admonished to repent, hold fast, or remain faithful.
2. Only two of them, Smyrna and Philadelphia, receive strong commendations and no listing of their sins and other shortcomings.
3. Two of them, Pergamos and Thyatira, receive a lesser commendation and fairly strong rebukes for sexual immorality and allowing deceivers into the congregation.
4. Two of them, Sardis and Laodicea, receive strong rebukes and no commendations.
In terms of a true church in a single corporate body, what do we see? Only sixty years or so following Christ's resurrection, we have a mixed bag as regards overall stability and righteousness.
Even so, is any one of them not a true congregation, an assembly of truly called-out ones? Does Christ in any way say that even one of them was no longer part of His church, His body of people? Not in the least. There are, however, warnings that, if they did not repent, some within their fellowship might not be within the Body of Christ in the future. Two things are sure:
1. Some of these congregations are clearly spiritually better than the others.
2. Some of them are decidedly awful, even though, using carnal judgment, they may outwardly appear good.
Since Revelation is an end-time book, the overview given in Revelation 2 and 3 is especially significant at this time. It is forecasting what things will be like just before Christ returns, and He uses these first-century congregations to illustrate His forecast for our time.
Remember that God is judging us individually within each group. An attitude that we should not allow to grow in us is to think that we are the only ones who retain a true-church identity. The other side of that same concept is that, even if we agree that others are still part of the true church, we are still better than they are—indeed, everybody else is Laodicean by comparison.
This unmistakably holier-than-you attitude is extremely destructive to true brotherhood and proper fellowship and unity. Luke 18:9-14 records this teaching of Christ concerning self-righteousness and its effects on these matters. Those who elevate themselves in their judgment of themselves as compared to their fellow members bring on themselves this condemnation. God does not justify them when they make this kind of judgment.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Is There a True Church?
When Christ says, "He who has an ear to hear let him hear what the spirit says to the churches," that is what the Greek literally says. But what it most closely approximates in the English is, "Now, think through what I have said."
This phrase only appears a couple of other times in the Bible—three times in Mark and once in Luke. But it appears almost twice that many times in just two chapters of the book of Revelation. If God says something once, we need to pay attention to it. If He repeats it even one or two times more, then what He has to say, He is drawing attention to, and it is very important! But, if He says it seven times in the course of two chapters, then He is intensifying what He says considerably.
Revelation 2 and 3, when combined with Christ's discourses in the Olivet Prophecy (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) shows Christ's concern regarding what His people should be focusing on just prior to the end. His vision of the times we live in was clear enough to foresee that we would have more distractions to grab our attention than at any other time in the history of man. He could see that the ease and rapidity of communication would attract our senses, and it would be difficult for us to keep ourselves focused on our prime concern.
Not that it would be difficult for us to keep focused on the outworking of prophecy. The book of Revelation is devoted to prophecy, and just about every Christian seems to be concerned with it, as everybody wants to have insight into what is going to happen. We want to have advanced news because it piques our interest. Perhaps some vanity is involved because we want to know before somebody else does so that we might have the privilege of telling them what we understand about prophecy.
But this, giving us insight into the future, was probably not Christ's primary reason for inspiring the book of Revelation. Something else is exceedingly more important, and most of it is contained in chapters 2 and 3, right at the beginning of the book. The most important part of Christ's revelation is contained in the letters to the seven churches.
In this confusing world, what is difficult is keeping our personal life focused, yet it is a responsibility each one of us has before God. No one else can do it for us. Individually, we must make the choices about what we will do with our time and energies. This is what Revelation 2 and 3 is concerned with.
This phrase is a solemn warning that what is addressed in one letter may also apply to the others in other congregations not affected by the attitude dominating their congregation. In other words, a person might have an Ephesian problem while attending a Sardis congregation.
In this way, each letter is written to each member of the body of Christ. And if the description fits, then we are to make the changes Christ commands.
What does Christ say in the letters? We also need to consider what He does not say because it is relevant to this period of time we live in. For instance, there is no mention, either positive or negative, of preaching the gospel. This omission can help us see its relevant importance compared to what Christ did say. Remember, these scriptures do not stand alone. Preaching the gospel is part of the church's responsibility, and it should not be minimized. However, it is not even directly implied in these two chapters.
Instead, Revelation 2 and 3 is a ringing call for things far more important to salvation, reward, witnessing effectively for Him, and making disciples.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Revelation 2-3 and Works
Jesus promises that, if we are overcoming—overcoming the pulls of the flesh, overcoming the temptations of this world, overcoming the influence of Satan—the second death will have no power over us. The second death is the final fate of those who have died once, been resurrected in the second resurrection, and given the opportunity to know the Father and the Son, but who then demonstrate through their decisions and conduct that they do not want to live eternally with them.
Faithful members of God's church may experience the first death—even violently—but the second death will not harm them because they will be given immortality, which God alone has at this point (see I Corinthians 15:53-54, I Timothy 6:15-16, II Timothy 1:10). This promise corresponds to Revelation 20:6: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (see also Revelation 20:11-15 and 21:7-8 for more details about the second death). Thus, a letter with the theme of death ends with the promise of life.
David C. Grabbe
Smyrna: Faithful Until Death
While the Bible speaks often of death, one death in particular, the “second death,” mankind knows little of. The phrase “second death” is found only in the book of Revelation, the first time in the letter to the church at Smyrna: “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:11).
This verse does not tell us much about the second death, only that the way to avoid it is to overcome faithfully. Revelation 20:6 provides a little more detail: “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.”
Just as overcomers will not be hurt by the second death, the same holds true for those who rise in the first resurrection. Popular Christianity maintains that the soul departs to its destination immediately after death, but the Bible teaches that nothing happens until or unless a resurrection occurs. In the grave there is no thought, no consciousness, and unless God resurrects someone by placing his or her spirit into another living body, that is the end of the story (see Ecclesiastes 3:19-20; 9:2-5, 10; Psalm 146:4).
The first resurrection, one to immortality for those in Christ (see I Corinthians 15:50-54; I Thessalonians 4:13-17), occurs at His return. It is also the “better resurrection” for which the heroes of faith qualified because they did not accept deliverance (Hebrews 11:35). Those in the first resurrection are raised with incorruptible, spirit bodies. These saints have been given immortality by God—there is no longer any fear of death; it is swallowed up in victory.
David C. Grabbe
What Is the Second Death?
Consider that this is Christ's message to His church just before the end, and this is what is most important for His people as we approach the end. Doctrine is mentioned seven times. Is that interesting in light of the times in which we live? We are seeing a major part of the church going haywire on doctrine! Is there something in the letter to Thyatira that mentions things that are happening in that group?
The letters contain at least eleven warnings to these seven churches but also at least twelve promises. Christ mentions faith, patience, conduct, and doctrine. But the two greatest, related concerns for His church at the end are works (Revelation 2:2,9,13,19; 3:1,8, 15) and overcoming (Revelation 2:7,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21).
Today, an awful lot of people are interested in church government at this time. It is not even mentioned by Christ! There are people who are interested in rituals, sacraments, and ceremonies, of which would be things like baptism or the Passover. But nothing in the seven letters alludes to these things. Nor is there anything in them about preaching the gospel around the world. These things have their place, but what we see is Christ's concern with doctrine, conduct, warnings to repent, and promises of reward.
Now these things that are not mentioned are less important than faith, repentance, and holiness, all of which directly impact on doctrine, conduct, and receiving the promises. All of these are bracketed between His statements about works and overcoming.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Revelation 2-3 and Works
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Revelation 2:11: