This Tuesday, we will be studying Revelation 3. This chapter contains Jesus’s oracles to the final three of the seven churches – Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Each of these cities is located on the road from the port of Smyrna to the city of Colossae.
The Church at Sardis:
The fifth church addressed by Christ’s oracle is the congregation in the city of Sardis. Sardis is located inland from Smyrna on the primary road from the port to inland Asia Minor. Since the time of the Persians in the 6th century BC through Greek and Roman conquests, Sardis was the capital city of this part of Asia Minor. Its business was politics, the manufacturing of wool products, and the minting of gold coins.
This letter opens with Jesus being described as “he who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” The “seven spirits” are found in Revelation 1:4 and are the spirits of God who stand before God’s throne. The “seven stars” are found in Revelation 1:16, 20 and are the seven angels who oversee the seven churches of the oracle. In other words, Christ speaks as the one who administers the pneuma – the spirit, the breath, and the life – that is in heaven and on the earth.
The church is described as being dead. It is asleep. Their reputation is one of being alive, but the reality is that their souls are dead. Their works are incomplete, imperfect, and inadequate. They are, as Jesus once said, like white-washed tombs. Matthew 23:27.
Jesus commends the church for its past deeds and commends the few who are not spiritually dead. And he warns the others to remember what they once were and to return to that state. He who rules over the pneuma in heaven and on earth wants to breathe life back into this congregation.
The promise is that for those who return, Christ will confess their name before the Father (Matt. 10:32-33) and they will have their names written in the Book of Life. The Book of Life is an ancient near eastern concept where the gods would keep an active ledger on the lives of the living so that they would know who to bless and who to curse. The first mention of the book is in Exodus 32:32-33 where Moses pleads with God not to erase his name from the book, and God responds that only those that worshiped the golden calf will have their names removed. The book of life is also referenced in Psalm 69:28, Malachi 3:16-18, and Daniel 12:1. Both Jesus (Luke 10:20) and Paul (Phil. 4:3) will also refer to the book of life. Rabbi Akiva, a great Jewish scholar who wrote about the same time as the composition of Revelation, explains that “three books are opened in heaven on Rosh Ha-Shanah, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed in the Book of Life, the thoroughly wicked in the Book of Death, while the fate of the intermediate is suspended until the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)” It is this intermediate book that John appears to have in mind.
The Church at Philadelphia:
Philadelphia was a small town located between Sardis and Laodicea. It suffered a great earthquake in 17 AD and was given special tax breaks and support by the Roman emperors to aid in the rebuilding effort.
The letter opens with Jesus being described as the “holy one, the true one” and with a quote from Isaiah 22:22: “And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” In other words, Jesus is God (Holy and True) and he has the ultimate sovereign power to open and shut the gates of heaven.
Like the Church at Smyrna, the church at Philadelphia is also contenting with “false Jews” from the “Synagogue of Satan.” Generally, these two terms are seen as John calling Jews who have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah as false Jews and the followers of Satan. (See, 1 John 2:22). John, like all the apostles, was thoroughly Jewish and saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures and as the Jewish Messiah (or Christ). By this time, Jesus’ followers have been thrown out of the synagogues. But, as the oracle says, it is Christ himself who holds the keys and the power to open and to shut and to include and to exclude.
Also, like Smyrna, there is no condemnation for the Philadelphians. However, unlike Smyrna, there will also be no further persecution of the church at Philadelphia. There is only praise for this church for their patient endurance and encouragement for this church to hold fast to what they have.
The concluding promise to the church is that they will be made a pillar in God’s sanctuary. They who have been kicked out of the local synagogue will be the very pillars upon which the eternal synagogue will rest. A pillar can not be removed from a building. The promise is that they will have security in their God to never be removed again.
The Church at Laodicea:
The city of Laodicea was a wealthy trading center in Asia Minor located between Philadelphia and Colossae. It had a sizable Jewish population and was an early Christian community. The Laodiceans are mentioned in the farewell instructions in Colossians. Col. 4:15-16. Like the city, the church at Laodicea is also very rich and prosperous. (v.17). The Laodiceans will be the only church not to receive any commendation in the oracle.
The letter opens with Jesus being described as the Amen (Gk: “Truly” or “so be it”), the faithful and true witness/martyr, and the beginning of creation. The Greek word for beginning is arche which also has the sense of ruler (See, Rom. 8:38, Eph. 6:12, Col. 1:16, 2:15). This is a letter of judgment from the one, faithful, and true ruler from the beginning of time.
The condemnation is that the Laodiceans are “lukewarm.” We can look at this condemnation in two ways. First, is that if the Laodiceans were hot towards Jesus (like the Philadelphians for example) then that would be good. However, even if they were cold towards Jesus, then they could be made more aware of their circumstances and need for repentance. Unfortunately, they are in the middle, neither hot nor cold, and therefore the most difficult of the people to reach.
Another way of looking at being lukewarm is to think of tea or coffee. Both drinks are good either hot or iced, but at room temperature, a consumer will, like Jesus to the church, want to spew them out of their mouth. In this interpretation, Laodicea is not a middle-of-the-road church, but rather one that has become so accommodating and enmeshed in the surrounding wealthy culture that they are like lukewarm tea or coffee – not fit for consumption.
The oracle implores this monetarily rich but spiritually poor church to buy from Jesus gold refined in fire, pure white garments, and eye medicine. These are items for which Laodicea is known for – gold, wool, and ointment. Christ, however, has a more spiritual meaning to his command. He assures them, however, that they are only being rebuked and chastised because of his love for them.
The only true solution to their condition is to start over and once more reinvite Jesus into their assembly. The promise is that those who hear Jesus’s voice will let him back into their assembly, and he will eat with them. Hearing Jesus’ voice goes back to the Good Shephard teaching of John 10 where Jesus speaks of his sheep hearing his voice. The Greek word used for the word “eat” is deipneo (eat, dine, sup) and is used in only three places in Scripture, two of which refer exclusively to the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:20, 1 Cor. 11:25). The promise is that when we let Jesus back into the church he will be found in the Eucharistic celebration.
Dinner is at 6:30. The menu is Memorial Day pork picnic. Discussion about 7:15. Hope to you here!
Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another; the Lord heeded and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and thought on his name. “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.Malachi 3:16-18