JESUS AND HIS CHURCH – [3] Revelation 2 and 3 – Who Jesus is

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015

Introductory comments
We saw in an earlier study that although these letters are addressed to seven specific churches that existed at the time, they are relevant to all churches in all places in all ages. They are Jesus’ message to us today in the twenty-first century wherever we are living all over the world.

[Let us also note that each letter begins by telling us that these are the words of Jesus, and ends by telling us that what was said is ‘what the Spirit’ says. In this incidental way we have yet another indication of the essential unity and synergy of the Trinity.]

Jesus’ letters to the seven churches have a number of common elements. There are exceptions, but generally speaking these elements are:

  1. Jesus describes himself. Most of these descriptions are taken from the vision in 1:12-18.
  2. Jesus states what he knows about the church. Which leads to either or both of the next two:
  3. Jesus commends the church. This often relates to their perseverance in the presence of temptation, persecution and/or false teaching.
  4. Jesus rebukes and warns the church. This relates to failure to stand strong in faith against temptation, persecution and/or false teaching.
  5. A promise to ‘he who overcomes’. Most of these promises appear to be the same as salvation.
  6. A command, identical in each letter, to hear what the Spirit says to the churches

Research task:

On a separate sheet of paper, or in a spreadsheet, construct an 8 X 6 table with the names of the churches in the top cell of columns 2 to 8, and the following headings in the left hand cell of rows 2 to 6: Jesus, Facts about the Church, Praise, Rebuke, Reward.

Study Revelation 2 and 3. Write the relevant information into your table.

[As we study these letters we need to consider what Jesus is saying to his church today. Although each letter is relevant to its specific church, each letter also contains the command ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’. The letters were never intended to be specific to that local church. All of them are for all seven churches, and also for every church in every age.]

The letters are addressed to the churches via ‘the angel of the church’ in each of the seven towns. These ‘angels’, which I understand to be the pastors/leaders of the churches, are represented by the ‘seven stars’ that Jesus holds in his right hand [1:16,20]. As mentioned previously ‘seven’ is the number of perfection. Seven angels of seven churches is a reference to the perfection of the church.

This perfection has two points of application:

[1] The numeric perfection: All of God’s ‘elect’ will be saved – the full quota of those whom he has chosen in Christ before the creation of the world [Ephesians 1:4]. Not one of them will be lost. While the concept of election somehow offends our human perception of ‘fairness’, it does not seem to bother God at all. Wherever he refers to it in the Scripture it is in the context of reassuring his people of the security of their salvation. It is never meant to disturb us. Rather, it is meant to encourage and comfort us. So here, in the seven stars of these seven churches [seven golden lampstands] indicating perfection, we are once again in touch with God’s assurance to all who truly believe. By his mention of election God is saying to us: you are mine and therefore you are safe. I will not lose one of you.

[2] The moral or spiritual perfection. Although in these letters the present imperfection of the church is obvious, yet there is another dimension that soars above this imperfection: that in Christ and because of Christ the Church and each individual member of the Church is even now, by God’s grace, perfect. The eternal reality of the pure and spotless Bride of Christ already exists. This perfection is the result of the sacrificial death of Christ [Ephesians 5:25-27]. It is spoken of several times in Revelation under the symbol of ‘white’ clothing.

As we read these letters to the churches we will see much evidence of their imperfection, which is indicative of the imperfection of the church of all ages. We see them struggling not only against physical persecution and the threat of death, but also against the presence of false teaching and against moral failure. While in the context of persecution they need comfort and reassurance from the risen Christ, in the context of false teaching and moral temptations they need a strong recall to their original faith and obedience. The exalted, risen Christ speaks with both comfort and rebuke to the church he loves and for which he died.

As we study these letters we will also become concerned by the possibility of rejection of the church that they appear to express. History tells us that some of these churches did not survive. And it is here that we need to remember to make a couple of essential distinctions:

[1] that there is a difference between an individual believer and a local ‘church’. The salvation of genuine individual believer is secure. The permanence of a local church is not.

[2] that there is a difference between the ‘church visible’ and the ‘church invisible’. The physically visible ‘church’, like Jesus’ group of disciples, contains both genuine and non-genuine believers. The ‘invisible church’, comprised only of those who are genuine believers from all ages and all places, contains only genuine believers.

The serious warnings we find in these letters have three purposes:

[1] to warn genuine believers against the pressure to give in and give up, in a similar way to the warnings in Hebrews.

[2] to strengthen those genuine believers whose faith and commitment, like that of Peter at Jesus’ trial, is suffering a temporary and superficial hiccough.

[3] to challenge those who are non-genuine to repent and truly believe.

 

JESUS’ SELF-DESCRIPTIONS

Jesus describes himself in a different way in each letter; most of these descriptions are taken from the vision John saw in 1:12-18.

For personal study:

If you want to dig more deeply into the practical significance of these descriptions, look at the condition of the church addressed. The self-descriptions are relevant to the condition of the church. For example, to the church at Smyrna, where there was nothing to rebuke, and where they were being persecuted‘to the point of death’, Jesus identifies himself as ‘the First and the Last, who died and came to life again’. What a grand assurance for this church suffering so greatly!

1. He holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands [2:1].
This description is both reassuring and challenging.

Jesus ‘holds’ – the verb used – krateo – is a much stronger word than ekho in 1:16. Krateo means ‘hold fast’ or ‘hold strongly’. Jesus holds ‘the seven stars’ strongly in his grasp.

The ‘seven stars’ [see 1:16,20] are most likely the leaders/pastors of the churches.

‘in his right hand’. The symbol of the ‘right hand’ of the Lord has a long Old Testament history of significance. It speaks of salvation, security, power and authority. It also speaks of judgment upon the enemies of both God and his people.

Check these verses that describe the power and impact of the Lord’s right hand:
Exodus 15:6-8,11,12
Psalm 20:6,7
Psalm 28:10
Psalm 63:8-10
Psalm 98:1-3
Psalm 118:15,16
Psalm 138:7,8
Psalm 139:10
Isaiah 41:10

The leaders of the churches, and therefore the churches, are grasped firmly and securely in this powerful right hand of the Lord Jesus.

‘… and walks among’ the seven golden lampstands. Previously Jesus was described as simply ‘among’ the lampstands [1:13]. Now we are told that he ‘walks’ among them. Much of Revelation shows us visions of Jesus far removed from us – in the presence of God, being praised by the angels, or in cosmic conflict with the enemy – but here we see Jesus living and walking among us, in the midst of us, not just on a visit, but continually, constantly. He is the one ‘who walks among’ his people here on earth. He is still ‘Immanuel’ – God with us. This is the concept of Jesus that he wants us to take with us right through this book, and right through our lives: that he is here with us. He as not left us to fend for ourselves. Nor has he left us to do as we please, without boundaries, without checks. He is living and active among his people. He knows our strengths, our weaknesses, our problems, our pressures.

Check these verses that speak of Jesus’ continuing presence among his people:
Matthew 18:20
Matthew 28:20
John 14:18,23

2. ‘… he who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again’ [2:8]
This description is totally reassuring.

As we have seen previously, Jesus is the source of all things and the goal of all things. He existed at the beginning and he will be there at the ‘end’, and at all points in between. The whole of existence is encompassed by him. Nothing was before him, and there is nothing beyond him. The whole universe is his. In the midst of the trials, tragedy and trauma of present human life he is here saying ‘this is not all there is, this is not the life you were created for, nor is it the life you were saved for. Do not define yourself by the present realities, the present tensions, the present suffering: define yourself by me: I am your origin. I am your goal. I am the one who gives you your identity and your purpose. You are here because of me. You are here for me. In me you are fulfilled. In me you find your true worth and your eternal future. Yes. This present life is tough. But it is not the last thing: I am the last. Yes. Death threatens. But it does not have the last say: I am the last, and I have conquered death: I have died and have come to life.

Because I live, you also will live. Because I died and have come to life, you also, even if you die, will come to life.

When we combine this description with the previous one, we can hear the Lord Jesus adding ‘And you are in my right hand … no one can snatch you out of my hand … no one and nothing … neither life, nor death … can separate you from my love. Remember that. Remember that when you are suffering.’ [John 11:26; Romans 8:31-39].

If you have time study these for more about Jesus’ reversal of death:
Romans 5:12-21
Romans 6:1-11
Ephesians 1:18 – 2:7
Colossians 3:1-4

Even though we are not yet removed from physical death we are already and forever far beyond the reach of spiritual death – because Jesus, in whom God has hidden us, has died and come to life again.

3. ‘… him who has the sharp, double-edged sword’ [2:12]
This description seems to be a challenge and a warning.

It is this sword that comes out of his mouth with which he fights against false teachers and those who follow them [2:16]. This is not a physical sword, but the Word of God. We have looked at it very briefly in a previous study on Revelation 1:16. In Hebrews 4:12 we read that the Word of God ‘is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.’ In Ephesians 6:17 we learn that ‘the sword of the Spirit, is the word of God’. In Revelation 19:15 we are told that it is the sharp sword that comes out of the mouth of the Lord Jesus Christ that strikes down the nations, and in 19:21, that all who followed ‘the beast’ to war against the Lord were ‘killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse’.

There is a popular expectation that the ‘last battle’, sometimes referred to as ‘Armageddon’, will be a physical battle, a physical war bigger than has ever been known before. But hidden among all the talk of wars and armies and death and bloodshed in Revelation we have this simple but contradictory element: that when Jesus comes he will destroy his enemies with the sword that comes out of his mouth. By his word the whole universe was created and is sustained; by his word his enemies will be destroyed.  

Revisit the Old Testament references under B.1 [5] in the previous study.

Jesus told his Jewish antagonists that it was his words that would stand in judgment over them on the last day [John 12:48]. His words, the truth that he is and the truth that he taught, determine the rightness or wrongness of everyone’s beliefs and everyone’s teaching. Our response to his words determines our eternal destiny [Mark 8:38].

4. ‘…the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze’ [2:18].
This description is also a challenge and a warning.

Most of this description is repeated from John’s vision of Christ [1:14,15]. This blazing radiance calls to mind the vision of ‘a figure like that of a man’ seen by Ezekiel [Ezekiel 1:25-28], and Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days [Daniel 7:9-10]. Just as John identified Jesus with Isaiah’s vision of God in Isaiah 6:1-4 [see John 12:41], so here Jesus identifies himself with Daniel and Ezekiel’s visions of God. In this context Jesus states that he is ‘the Son of God’. All that God is, he is. So great is his brightness, his light, that nothing can escape his knowledge, nothing can be hidden from him.  He ‘searches the hearts and minds’ [Revelation 2:23].

Check these references. What do they teach you about Jesus’ knowledge of your heart and mind?
Matthew 7:21-23
John 2:24,25
John 6:64-70
John 13:10,11
John 13:36

5. ‘… him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars’ [3:1]
This description is a challenge and a warning.

The ‘seven spirits before the throne’ were mentioned in 1:4. Now Jesus states that he ‘holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars’. In 4:5 we read of seven lamps before the throne, ‘which are the seven spirits of God’, and in 5:6 we read that the ‘seven eyes’ of the Lamb are ‘the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth’.

What does it all mean?

[1] The ‘seven spirits’ and ‘the seven spirits of God’ are references to the Holy Spirit. The number ‘seven’ symbolizes the perfection of the Holy Spirit. It does not mean that that God has seven spirits.

[2] The ‘seven lamps’ is another way of referring to the ‘seven spirits’, and therefore is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The symbol of ‘lamps’ refers to the teaching, enlightening action of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is ‘the Spirit of truth’.

[3] ‘… before the throne’ is symbolic of the identity and relationship of the Spirit. The throne is the throne of God. The Spirit is right there where God is, because he is the Spirit of God.

[4] Jesus ‘holds’ the seven spirits of God, that is the Spirit, because the Spirit is his Spirit. Because of the unity and synergy of the Trinity the Holy Spirit is just as much the Spirit of Jesus as he is the Spirit of God. Jesus, by his Spirit, is present in all who believe in him [John 14:15-23]. It is, in addition, Jesus who baptises with the Spirit all those who believe in him [John 1:33] - it is Jesus who, together with the Father, gave his church the firstfruits of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, fulfilling its symbolism, sealing believers as his, and guaranteeing their salvation [Ephesians 1:13,14; 2Corinthians 1:22; 5:5]. It is Jesus who, when he returned to the Father also gave the gifts of the Spirit to his church, to equip the church for works of service and, bringing them to unity and maturity in the faith, enabling them to recognize and resist false teaching [Ephesians 4:7-16].

[5] The seven stars are, as already explained by Jesus in 1:20, the ‘angels/messengers’ of the churches. There is some debate among scholars about who or what is Jesus’ intended meaning. I am taking the ‘angels/messengers’ to mean the leaders/pastors of the churches.

[6] We will look at the ‘seven eyes’ of the Lamb, which also are the ‘seven spirits’, in context when we come to Revelation 5.
Given that here in 3:1 Jesus states that he holds both the Holy Spirit [the ‘seven spirits of God’] and the pastor/leaders of the churches [the ‘seven stars’] it is reasonable to consider that by this description he is referring to his work that the Holy Spirit does in and through the church. The Holy Spirit instructs the church [John 14:26], and the Holy Spirit convicts the world through the church [John 16:7-11]. The Holy Spirit is grieved by the sin of the church [Ephesians 4:30], and his transforming ministry in the church [2Corinthians 3:18] is stifled when the church holds the word of God in contempt [1Thessalonians 5:19,20].

6. ‘… him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open’ [3:7]
This description is reassuring. ‘Holy’ refers to his divine identity. ‘True’ to his complete faithfulness and trustworthiness [compare ‘’the faithful witness’ in 1:5]. As the one who ‘holds the key of David’ [see Isaiah 22:22] he has the authority to give or deny access to the city of David, the new Jerusalem, which symbolizes the church, the people of God. His decision is final and absolute: what he shuts no one can open; what he opens no one can shut. No one and nothing can exclude from his church and from his kingdom those whom he has included. Note verse 8: ‘I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut’.

7. ‘… the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation’ [3:14]
This description is challenging.

Jesus has already stated that he is ‘the First and the Last’ [1:17]. In a previous study we have looked at length at the concept that Jesus is the ‘Last’ – the eschatos. Now he says he is the ‘Amen’. He is the sure and final word, the sure and final revelation, the sure and final affirmation of all that God is and all that God does. In him all the promises of God are brought surely and faithfully to their intended goal [2Corinthians 1:19,20]. He has faithfully and surely brought God’s eternal purpose to pass [John 19:30]. He is the one who has inaugurated the kingdom of God by his incarnation, death and resurrection, and he is the one who will soon bring it to its final consummation, as he is about to make known to John in subsequent visions recorded in Revelation.

He is ‘the faithful and true witness’ – he is ‘the Light of the world’ [John 8:12] who rescues those who believe in him from the darkness of ignorance and error; he is the one who has made God known [John 3:18]; he is the only way to know the Father [John 14:6-9; Matthew 11:27]. He came and gave us understanding so that we may know the true God, and by that knowledge be redeemed from our false concepts of God and have eternal life [1John 5:20,21]. What he says about God, what he reveals about God is true. To ignore his witness is to choose darkness and error; to ignore his witness is to reject the only true God.

He is ‘the ruler of God’s creation’ – all power and authority in heaven and on earth is in his hands [Matthew 28:18; John 5:21-23,27-29]. He is the head of all things [Ephesians 1:20-22] and in all things he has pre-eminence [Colossians 1:18]. He is the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth [Revelation 1:5]. To him every knee must bow [Philippians 2:9-11]. Such a powerful figure cannot be ignored: in his hands are life and death; his judgement everyone must face. There is nowhere in the entire universe where his rule does not reach.

Questions for you:
These self-descriptions of Jesus are extremely strong and powerful. How would being confronted by this Jesus impact you:

[1] if you were feeling weak, overwhelmed or in danger because of persecution caused by your faith?

[2] if you were being pressured by, or had embraced, false teaching?

[3] if you were giving in to moral temptations?

[4] if you felt like you were the only one remaining faithful to Jesus?

[5] if you were the leader, or on the leadership team of a church like any of these?