Today’s reading comprises the first three letters of Jesus to the churches in Asia Minor, now known as Turkey. We start at Ephesus, on the western coast and then travel north to Smyrna and finally further north to Pergamum. The general pattern of the letters (including the next four in tomorrow’s reading) is a command to write to the angel of the church; a description of Jesus; a pinpoint assessment of what the church is doing well; an equally acute summary of where the church is failing; an exhortation followed by a warning or encouragement; an instruction to hear what the Spirit says; and a promise to those who overcome. The letters to Smyrna (2:8-11) and Philadelphia (3:7-13) differ in that they contain no rebuke.
The seven letters reveal to us that Jesus knows each one of his churches really well. He identifies strengths and commends good practice but he also keenly exposes shortcomings. As we read on, we see that the messages to the churches are as relevant today as they were then, a strong wake-up call to us all to examine our commitment to Jesus and our impact on and involvement in the church.
The church at Ephesus is praised for their toil, patient endurance, intolerance of those who are evil and capacity to see through false apostles. They were enduring patiently (this must have been significant as Jesus repeats it from verse 2), bearing up for Jesus name and had not grown weary. They also hated the behaviour of the Nicolaitans (believers who compromised their faith in order to engage in the sinful practices of Ephesian society). So far, so good! The rebuke for this church, though, was that it had lost its passion and abandoned the works they did when they first became believers. Jesus warns that unless they repent, he will remove the church from its place! The promise for ‘the one who conquers’, that is those who repent of growing cold and recommit to works born out of love for Jesus, is that they will live forever in heaven (eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God – verse 7b).
The church at Smyrna is reassured that Jesus sees their tribulation and poverty (although he counters that they are in fact rich – the difference between a worldly and eternal perspective possibly) and the slander of people claiming to be Jews, but in fact representing Satan rather than God. His main message is that, despite the testing to come within the given time frame, as long as they are ‘faithful unto death’, he will give them the prize of life – the victor’s crown. Here, the promise for the ‘one who conquers’ is that they will not endure the pain of the second death, the one where unbelievers are separated from God once and for all.
The church at Pergamum is commended for its faith, in the city infamous as the one ‘where the great throne of Satan is located’ because of the four idolatrous cults operating there. Those at Pergamum were affirmed for holding fast to Jesus’ name and not denying him even when Antipas was martyred. The reproof for them was that they had allowed immorality and idolatry to infiltrate the church at the cost of leading believers astray. They needed to repent, without which those who had adopted the immoral practices would have ‘war’ waged against them by the Word of God, Jesus’ sharp two-edged sword that separates the truth from the lie by cutting one from the other. The promise to the Pergamum church is that ‘the one who conquers’ will be given hidden manna and a white stone with a brand-new name on it, known only to him/her.
These three letters make for quite difficult reading in many ways, because we can see Jesus’ passion for the purity and holiness of his churches and we can also recognise and identify with the human failings within them. We can get so many things right and yet still get so many things wrong! Jesus doesn’t want us to get disheartened, though. He gives us opportunity to repent and tells us of the glorious reward that awaits ‘the one who conquers’. We are all charged with the responsibility of ‘conquering’ – of keeping on the right track, for the good of the church – by remembering our first love and following Jesus’ ways exclusively, even if that means dying for our faith. Each letter says ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’. Let’s steep ourselves in God’s word and presence, be sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, focus on purity and holiness and help one another to grow in Christ so that together we can look forward with expectancy to the whole church being ‘the one who conquers’.