Christ’s Letters for Our Churches - Part 1
Do you ever wonder what Christ would say to us, his churches?
What things would He point out that we need to improve, or what praise and encouragements would Christ give?
We don’t have a letter addressed to us specifically. But in Revelation 2-3 we find precious letters from Christ, seven messages that He directs his apostle John to write and send. Each goes to a different church in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
These letters were written to specific churches, at specific places, at a specific moment in history. But God’s Word is enduring and it has a powerful ability meet us where we are. So Jesus’ seven letters also speak to our churches today about much that is essential and helpful. Taking a broad survey of these chapters in this article and the next, we will draw out seven points from these seven letters.
1. Christ Addresses the Leaders
A first thing to highlight is that these letters are written to the leaders of the churches. That is how each one begins: “To the angel of the church of…”
Now, the term “angel” has been interpreted in different ways. Some commentators have suggested it means something like the “guardian angel” of each church. Others say it means something like the general spirit or ethos of these different congregations.
The explanation I favour is that this word refers to the leader or bishop in each of these seven churches. This interpretation builds on the meaning of the word “angel,” for in Greek, “angel” literally means “messenger,” a person who brings word on behalf of someone else. This means that it is the preacher or pastor in each church who is being addressed by Jesus. As the leader of the believers in a given city, he has to relay this message to Christ’s people. Jesus says, “To my messenger in Ephesus, say these things. Get him to tell my believers the following…”
If the seven letters are for the leaders, these chapters in Revelation have a particular weight for the office bearers among Christ’s people. Certainly the whole congregation should read these words, but also—and especially—their leaders should take them to heart. For they are on the front line, those whom Ezekiel calls the “watchmen on the walls,” or whom Paul calls “overseers.” The ascended Christ has assigned to them the spiritual care of his people.
It is a rich honour, being allowed to work for the Lord. But it’s also a grave responsibility. For when Jesus speaks to the leaders of his churches, He doesn’t just say, “Good job, keep it up. I appreciate what you’re doing.” He also says, “There’s a problem in your congregation. It’s not getting better, so I might need to take action against you.”
The leaders of the church are held to account because it’s up to them to tend to Christ’s people, to nurture them in the gospel, and to defend them against the attacks of the devil. When elders and deacons and ministers read these letters as leaders, they should feel their strength and sting. The responsibility sits heavy on our shoulders, which means we probably also have a sense of inadequacy and failure in this work. For the weak men who lead, that is a reality. But the Lord gives encouragement too.
2. Christ Writes to Local Churches
These letters were sent to local churches in Asia Minor in the first century, to people who were living in particular circumstances at a particular period in history. With a few examples, let’s see what kind of cities these believers were living in.
· Ephesus: This was a wealthy city, one of the leading cities of the Roman Empire. It was a place with many cultural highlights. It would have been a very comfortable place for believers to reside and earn a living. Yet for a believer wanting to be faithful to Christ, Ephesian wealth and prestige came with real hazards.
· Smyrna: Not as big a city as Ephesus, Smyrna was nevertheless prominent. Smyrna’s unique feature was its devotion to the cult of the emperor. In the days of the Roman Empire, the practice arose of venerating whomever was Caesar at the time. Roman cities vied for the privilege of erecting a temple to Caesar, and Smyrna was one of the first. You can imagine how a Christian in Smyrna might be faced with questions of loyalty. Is Caesar the Lord and King? Or is Jesus the Lord?
· Thyatira: Compared to some of the other congregations, this one was situated in an insignificant city. Thyatira was small, without natural advantages, just a place “on the way to somewhere else.” If Ephesus and Smyrna were like New York or Sydney, then Thyatira was like Smalltown or Littleville. But smallness doesn’t mean we get a free pass from the devil. The church in Thyatira had a dire challenge in the person of “Jezebel” (Rev 2:20). We don’t know who she was, perhaps a pagan priestess or a fortune teller, but she was causing people to forsake loyalty to Christ by seducing them with sexual immorality.
We could comment on the local situation behind each of the letters, but striking is how Jesus addresses his office bearers and believers exactly where they are. These aren’t form letters, something like a mass email, but they are personal. Not one church is exactly like the next.
That is true among our churches too. Believers living in given town or city can each identify local circumstances, problems particular to us, or opportunities uniquely ours. Maybe it’s because of where we are located geographically. Or there is an ongoing challenge rooted in what the congregation has endured in the past. Or we are impacted in a powerful way by the culture, the ebbs and flows of the economy, or other trends of the time.
These seven letters show how much local conditions can vary, even within a limited geographical area. The churches in Asia Minor weren’t far from each other; Pergamos and Laodicea were the furthest apart, at about 320 kilometers distant.
Today too churches can be relatively close together, yet quite different. And Jesus shows how the leaders and members in each place must respond to these conditions. To be sure, the seven churches had the benefit of Jesus’ infallible perspective on what was happening in and around them.
But it is no less important for us to know as clearly as we can: What are the challenges that we face here? What specific pressures from society are being felt? What particular temptations confront the young people and the older people in our congregation? In what ways are our weakness being exposed? And then how do we help one another to address these things?
3. The Glorious Letter-writer
Each of these letters is sent to a church by the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a reassuring truth in itself: Jesus takes a close interest in his people. He hasn’t ascended into heaven and forgotten about us. And the way in which the ascended Christ introduces himself is an encouragement the people and her leaders. Seven times He introduces himself differently, mentioning another aspect of his glory as King and Saviour.
· To Ephesus, Jesus says that He “holds the seven stars in his right hand” (2:1). The stars are the “angels” of the churches (1:20)—the messengers—and they’re in his hand. Which means that even at this moment, Christ grips us firmly. Despite our weakness and failing, He holds us fast. Even as Satan prowls around, even as false teachers spread their lies, or worldly opposition increases, Christ protects his own.
· To Sardis, Christ reveals that “He…has the seven spirits of God” (3:1). We know that God has one Spirit, his Holy Spirit, so we can translate this: “the seven-fold Spirit of God.” This is the Spirit in fullness, with his immense range of divine power ready to work. A church might be struggling, it might be almost dead—like Sardis was—but Christ by his Almighty seven-fold Spirit has every ability to make her alive! On our side we have the divine agent of lasting change.
· To the church in Philadelphia, Jesus says that He “has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens” (3:7). Christ is the exalted Lord and Son of David, the King sitting in power and glory. His church will use the keys of the kingdom, but it is ultimately Christ the King who holds the keys. He alone can open hearts through the preaching and bring about repentance through the exercise of discipline. In all our labours, we are reassured that the results are up to him.
There is a convicting lesson in how Christ points to himself in each letter. No matter the message He sends to a church—whether it’s encouraging in tone, or rebuking—Jesus begins with what his people most need to hear about: him! That He is King, that He is the Saviour, mighty and gracious, just and merciful. In our worship and also in our work in the church, we must keep this Christ-focus.
Leaders and regular church members alike probably tend to drop man-made solutions onto people. Someone confesses to you their problem or their struggle, and you might quickly give an answer: “Well, you need to do this. Have you tried that? Oh, and put in more effort.” And there is a place for giving sound, practical direction, along with exhortation. But first we must remember who our life is from, and who it is for: Christ Jesus, the glorious Saviour and King. It is Christ alone who can give a person or a church the ability to change, or to forgive, or to heal.
And so, sound encouragement in the church always begins by reminding people about the supremacy of Christ. Instead of quickly giving answers, we need to point people to their Redeemer, the glorious One who is disclosed to us in the Scriptures, the One who has all power, dominion, grace, and wisdom. Nothing will change if we don’t stand in awe of the greatness of Christ. Nothing will change if we don’t firmly believe that everything we need is found in him alone.
Next time we hope to consider four more lessons from Christ’s letters for the churches today.