Introduction to the Seven Letters
Before we get started this morning I need to make a confession… I love the church! I really do! I love getting to the building early on Sunday morning. I enjoy taking the time to make sure everything is clean and in working order. I love watching as people begin to fill the sanctuary with the bustle of activity and interaction. I love hearing God’s people worship and the solemnness that fills this place when we collectively open and study His Word.
I love felt-boards, puppets, Superbook videos, and the crafts that teach our kids about Jesus! I love hearing the little ones sing songs about how much Jesus loves them or how Zacchaeus was a wee little man. I love watching as the kids emerge from their classrooms after the service to show off their psychedelic, multi-colored, outside-the-lines masterpiece portraits of Jesus or some other Biblical scene to their parents.
I love when I have the opportunity to pray for those in need and I love to watch you pray for one another. I love to see people commune with Jesus by coming to the Lord’s Table or when they take that all important step in their Christian experience by being baptized.
I love seeing people use their God-given talent in the service of Jesus. I’m so encouraged to see people come to church looking to serve and not just be served. I love hearing the exciting stories of missionaries and the work of Jesus taking place in foreign lands.
I love seeing people build and enjoy relationships across a diversity of age, race, gender, and general interests. I enjoy potlucks and picnics or the opportunities to gather with a Band of my Brothers to shoot guns on a Saturday morning or draft our fantasy football teams! I so appreciate the opportunities my wife has to get out of a house full of boys and spend time with her sisters! I love Vacation Bible School, community outreaches, youth group and youth events… summer retreats and conferences.
Beyond all of these things I mostly love watching lives being transformed by the Gospel… Seeing broken lives or marriages made whole! Watching as people find satisfaction by digging into His Word or being empowered and refreshed through a fresh filling of His Spirit.
I love witnessing that “ah-ha” moment when the light bulb goes off and a person finally understands grace. There really is nothing better than seeing a person finally freed from the burden of self-imposed expectations. I love introducing people to Jesus!
For those of you who don’t know my story church-life is honestly all I’ve ever known! Some 35 years ago in September of 1980 my Dad started a Calvary Chapel in Stone Mountain when there were maybe a handful of Calvary churches this side of the Rockies. His heart was to bring to the Bible-belt a Bible-driven church that taught expositionally and cut out all the traditional religiosity by allowing people to come just as they were. Three years later on May 29, 1983 I not only became an Adams, but an honorary member of Calvary.
Church has always been an essential staple in my life. In many ways it was so foundational and central that most of my fondest childhood memories are connected to a little building on 2nd Street or their current property off of McDaniel’s Bridge Road.
Honestly, when a church is operating as she was designed to operate there really is nothing like it in the world! (It’s why after Bible College I dedicated my life to her service!)
In his book “Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands” Paul Tripp wrote, “The church is not a theological classroom. It is a conversion, confession, repentance, reconciliation, forgiveness and sanctification center, where flawed people place their faith in Christ, gather to know and love him better, and learn to love others as he designed.”
And yet, as many of us know all to well, the sad reality is that the church often falls short of her mandate to represents Jesus. A recent study found that 87% of millennials view Christians as “judgmental” and 85% as “hypocritical.” What a sad inditement of the church!
Beyond on our own personal experiences church history presents many dark moments: inquisitions, crusades, indulgences, heresy, institutionalism, intolerance, salem witch trials, dissenters being burned at the stake, democide, slavery, persecution of gays, restriction of contraception, abortion bombings, sexual abuse by catholic priests, etc.
Because of my 32 years growing up in the church I’ve witnessed first hand how nasty and disappointing church-life can be when people loose sight of the calling and design of God for the church. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say many of you have at some point experienced pain and disillusionment caused in part by the church.
Not to get overly personal, but I’ve seen my mom cry herself to sleep over the hurtful things people in the church have said about my Dad, her role in the ministry, or even her kids. I’ve seen how vial, unfair, and downright mean people can be to the pastor’s family or for that matter one another. I’ve seen both my parents struggle with the loneliness of the ministry and the difficult task of developing real friendships. I’ve seen the emotional effects of betrayal when your intentions are impugned, you’re calling is questioned, or your leadership challenged by those who claim to be trusted confidants.
I’ve witnessed firsthand the disappointment that occurs when an elder or fellow pastor falls into a sin that discredits them from the ministry. I’ve seen and experienced the pain when someone you’ve invested so much time and energy into unexpectedly decides you’re no longer good enough choosing instead to attend another church.
And this doesn’t include the friends who’ve fallen from the faith or stepped back into a lifestyle of sin, the gossip and slander that has ruined lives, or the legalistic tendencies that have caused genuine Christ-followers to question the essence of the Gospel.
You see while it’s true church-life can provide the world a taste of heaven it’s also a reality she can just as easily sour people to the things of God when she falls short of her calling. Barna found that 37% of unchurched Americans cite “painful experiences with the church or people within the church” as the reason they no longer attend.
And it’s this pressing reality why I cannot stress enough how important it is that we as a church operate as Jesus designed for when we don’t people get hurt, our witness is tarnished, and souls are lost in the process!
Which leads me to a question we should all consider this morning… What do we do when the church fails to live up to her mandate? What do we do when we get hurt? Do we give up on her, criticize her, or demean her? Or do we seek to be part of the solution?
In an article posted in “Relevant Magazine” titled, “The Wrong way to Criticize the Church” Jared LaFitte wrote, “As long as the Church is made up of sinners in need of grace, we'll have issues. And we need mature, wise, careful voices to speak to our issues. But there's a difference between looking for ways to make the Church better and looking for things to complain about. Mature, humble criticism is selfless and redemptive; immature criticism is usually self-focused and doesn't generally lead to change. Humble criticism means noticing a problem and articulating solutions instead of looking for problems and wallowing in anger. It means being temporarily disappointed without being permanently disillusioned. When I feel tempted toward being jaded, I have to catch myself. I can offer criticism, but I can't allow myself to be constantly jaded about the evangelical subculture—because I'm part of it. As much as I feel tempted to criticize it, I am it. I've sinned and broken promises and lived in inconsistent ways, just like the Christians I can be cynical about. What right would I have to be jaded and leave the Church over one issue when I fail in another?”
Please understand a component of Christianity many people overlook… Loving the church is not an option! Honestly, it’s simply a truth that if you genuinely love Jesus then you’re going to love the things He loves… And He loves His church! She’s His bride!
Which is important for while you can be upset with the church and even find yourself frustrated by the church if you love her you’ll refuse to give up for “love suffers long… bears all things and endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13) It’s why in 1 Peter 4:8 we’re told to “above all things have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins.”
Friends, keep in mind a “go it alone, I don’t need the church, I’d prefer my faith to be private” form of Christianity does not exist and is not an option for the Christ-follower. For better or worse because you are the church you’re either a continuation of the problem or you’re part of the solution, but there is no escaping personal responsibility for how the church operates!
I’m encouraged knowing that Jesus seemed to understand His church would struggle to operate as He intended. I mean while it’s true Jesus said He would “build His church so that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18) it’s also a reality He handed off the day to day operations to a group of sinners. Problems are unavoidable!
Which is why I find the first three chapters of the book of Revelation so important… Knowing the church would go through struggles, in a book known for its end-times prophecy, Jesus first reminds the church of her purpose in the world… provides the church a fresh revelation of Himself (which includes His present activity)… Before finally speaking to the church about several issues that can easily limit her effectiveness.
If we want to be the type of church that is a blessing to the world around us and not a curse we need to always keep our purpose in focus, our eyes fixed on the resurrected Jesus, and our ears and hearts open to receive the words He has for His church!
Revelation 1:9-11, “I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,” and, “What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”
Set the Scene:
Why is John on the Island of Patmos?
What happened to John while he was there?
A: Jesus appeared and instructed him to “write in a book” the things he was about to “see” and “send it to the seven churches which are in Asia.” In verse 19 the instructions are specified… “Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.”
Revelation 1:12-20, “Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength.
And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death. Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this. The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.”
Before specifically addressing each of these seven churches with a series of seven letters the first thing Jesus does is to subtly remind the church of her purpose in the world. Did you notice the very first thing that catches John’s attention? We’re told as he “turned to see the voice” he saw “seven golden lampstands.” (vs. 12)
Old Testament Context: In the inner chambers of the tabernacle and later the temple light was provided by what was known as the golden Menorah. Details for the creation and maintenance of Menorah by the High Priest are found in Exodus 25:31-40.
Old Testament Symbolism: The golden Menorah served to illustrate how the nation of Israel had been called and commissioned to be God’s light of revelation unto the world.
What’s interesting is that what John sees in his vision was not the Menorah (which had one stand with seven branches), but instead “seven” individual “golden lampstands.” In order to avoid any confusion as to what these “seven golden lampstands” represented, in verse 20, Jesus tells John “the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
While each “lampstand” served the same purpose of providing light, unlike the Menorah, the lamps themselves were all independent from one another. One commentator explains the difference, “God had but one church of the Jews, but many among the Gentiles.”
The symbolism of the “lampstands” is significant because Jesus is reminding these seven churches that their foundational purpose was be a vessel whereby the flame fueled by the oil of the Spirit would shine His light unto a dark world.
British theologian Adam Clarke made this important observation, “A lamp is not light in itself, it is only the instrument of dispensing light, and it must receive both oil and fire before it can dispense any; so no Church has in itself either grace or glory, it must receive all from Christ its head, else it can dispense neither light nor life.”
Following a reminder to these seven churches as to their purpose in the world, Jesus then provides a fresh revelation of Himself including His present activity. Notice what immediately diverts John’s attention away from these lampstands… Revelation 1:13 he tells us, “In the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band.”
Check out John’s continued description:
“His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow…” His wisdom and purity.
“His eyes were like a flame of fire…” His penetrating understanding and judgment.
“His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace…” His stability and strength.
“His voice as the sound of many waters…” His power and majesty.
“He had in His right hand seven stars…” According to verse 20 Jesus tells John “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches.” Though this could be referring to an actual angel the word simply means “messenger.” Possibly the pastor of the church. Note: The “right hand” represented authority. In a sense Jesus holds the pastors of His church in his hand of authority meaning not only are they positioned by Jesus to be in a place of authority, but they’re also being heald to account by His authority.
“Out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword…” In the Greek this “two-edged sword” was a heavy sword that was only used for combat… It was an offensive weapon!
“His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength.” Speaks of the glory and majesty of the transformed Jesus. Examples: Transfiguration and Saul’s conversion.
Charles Spurgeon spoke to this point… “What do you see in Christ's right hand? Seven stars; yet how insignificant they appear when you get a sight of his face! Who can see seven stars, or, for the matter of that, seventy thousand stars, when the sun shineth in his strength? How sweet it is, when the Lord himself is so present in a congregation that the preacher, whoever he may be, is altogether forgotten!”
Beyond these things Jesus introduces Himself to John and these seven churches as “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last… He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.” He also mentions that He has “the keys of Hades and of Death.”
You can’t help but notice how different this revelation is from the Jesus we see in the Gospels! In Isaiah 53:2 we’re told of His earthly incarnation that “He had no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him;” and yet, everything about this description of the resurrected Christ is not only impressive but radicle.
What we have being described by John presents a Jesus who is awesome, righteous, majestic, powerful, and to some degree unapproachable. Consider that John (Jesus’ closest earthly friend) was so overwhelmed he writes, “when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead.”
David Guzik observes why this description of Jesus is so important for the church. He writes, “In our modern pictures of Jesus, we like to think of Him as He was, not Jesus as He is.” I can’t overemphasize how important it is that we not only keep our purpose as a church in focus, but that we never ever loose sight of who it actually is we follow!
Jesus may have been meek and mild, but now He’s strong and mighty. Jesus may have presented Himself as a Suffering Servant, but now He’s the King of Kings. The Lamb of God sacrificed for our sins has now become the Lion of the Tribe of Judah!
Alexander the Great once said of the critical importance of leadership, “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.”
Notice from John’s vision where Jesus is! He sees Jesus is “in the midst of the seven lampstands.” This is significant! Even when the church proves to be dysfunctional as many of these seven were, because of His love for His church He has not bailed on her or given up!
Don’t miss another important implication we can draw from this point… If you want to find Jesus the best place to look for Him is in His church. It’s where He hangs out!
Also notice what Jesus is doing? Based upon John’s initial description of Jesus as “One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band” who is “in the midst of the seven lampstands” we can assume Jesus is fulfilling the role of High Priest by tending to the lamps.
11 times in Hebrews Jesus is referred to in His resurrected role as our “High Priest.” This is significant for it means Jesus is not only “in the midst” of His church, but that He’s tending to the lamps themselves so that they can continue to shine brightly.
As High Priest this not only requires Jesus honestly evaluate each lamp, but that He act when necessary (add oil, trim the wicks, replace the lamp if need be).
Understand… Before Jesus said anything to these seven churches (which He’ll now do through a series of seven letters) He wanted to first remind them of their purpose and to make sure they understood Who it was that would be doing the speaking.
Not only does Jesus have the authority to evaluate, criticize, and address any issues within His church that are of concern to Him, but out of His love for each of these seven churches and His role as their High Priest it was His prerogative to do so!
In order to unpack the fullness of what Jesus is seeking to communicate through these seven letters understand there are three ways each letter should be viewed:
Backdrop: Jesus is writing to a local church located in each of these seven cities! In addition to the entire book being sent to seven actual churches, Jesus will address each letter to a church located in a specific city. Aside from this the substance of each letter will include distinct references to issues and circumstances particular to a group of believers living in those cities towards the end of the 1st century.
Context: Jesus is writing to the universal church with each of these letters being specifically applied to different periods and movements within church history! When it comes to Biblical numerology it’s not an accident Jesus wrote to seven churches. All throughout Scripture the number seven signified completion. Example: Seven days = A complete week. Note: This would explain why Jesus only wrote to seven churches when there were twelve in the area and many more significant.
Beyond this… The structuring of verse 19 (which provides a very specific outline for the revelation itself) seemingly supports the position that in addressing seven local churches Jesus was prophetically addressing His church as a whole.
Application: Jesus is writing to our church (and more specifically to each of us individually) using these seven letters to highlight various pitfalls we need to caution against if we’re wanting to be the church He’s called us to be! As we get into our study you will notice that each of these letters closes with the same admonition… “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Though each letter is addressed to a local church it’s clear the message was intended for a much larger audience (“to the churches”) with the application of being intended for each individual hearer. Note: A church does not have an ear to hear with!
As we begin to work our way through these letters you will notice they all follow the same general pattern. Each letter will be addressed to the “angel of the church of…” and will close with the admonition, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Between these bookends at some point in each letter Jesus will commend what He finds commendable (exception is Sardis and Laodicea), condemn what He finds condemnable (exception is Smyrna and Philadelphia), emphasize a relevant aspect of His person, before providing the necessary instruction and warnings.
While it’s true Jesus is speaking to an actual church and in a larger sense a segment of the universal church, our purpose in spending the next seven weeks looking at each of these “Seven Letters” is to internalize “what the Spirit is saying to our church.”
I hope you love the church. I hope you love the people Jesus loves! And if you don’t because you’ve been burned in the past it is my honest prayer your time at Calvary316 will renew that love… That our church will provide everyone who walks through that door a taste of what heaven will be like… That we can be the church as Jesus intended the church to be!
In conclusion… May we (both individually and corporately) keep our purpose in focus, our eyes fixed on the resurrected Jesus, and our ears open to receive and apply the things Jesus wants to share with our church though these seven letters!