Revelation: the last book of the Bible. It’s always left me scratching my head. So I was really excited when my mom suggested we listen to Chip Ingram’s Revelation series together. I think one section of it that many people are familiar with are the letters to the seven churches, probably because it shares actionable guidance that makes sense without understanding the greater context of the book.
But the thing is, this section does sit in the context of the book. If the messages to the churches were intended to be stand-alone, I think God would have separated them out. So why are they included in Revelation? I like the explanation Chip provided: in looking at the greater context of the book–a message of what is to come–the messages to these seven churches provide us with a preview of how we’ll be evaluated.
An Outline of End Times
Chip started by sharing a big-picture outline of end times provided by the Bible:
After the Church Age, Jesus will come back again in the clouds. This is when believers will be caught up with him (the Rapture) and Tribulation will begin.
Tribulation will last for seven years. God will judge and provide opportunities for people to believe, and there will be a big battle at the end of it. Then, at the end of the battle, Jesus will come back for the second advent (the second coming).
During this second advent, Jesus will rule the earth for 1,000 years, during which Satan will be bound.
After 1,000 years, there will be one last battle and Satan will be cast into the lake of fire. Then all of us will face final judgment at the great white throne, and the New Heaven and New Earth (eternity) will begin.
The Bible is very clear that Jesus is coming back for his church at any moment. Before his ascension, Jesus shared multiple parables to help us understand that we need to be ready now–it’s not something we want to procrastinate on.
In Revelation 2–3, the letters to the seven churches, it’s like Jesus is telling us what’s on the test so we can see a preview of how they’re doing so we can see how we’ll be evaluated, too.
The Seven Churches
John was tasked with the mission of sharing these messages with seven specific churches. They were all along a trade route; after they were read, the messages were circulated around to all the churches.
The messages were written around 95 A.D. The church had been going for about six decades with two or three emperors. At the time they were written, Domitian was in power and the church was facing a great deal of persecution.
Each letter followed a similar structure:
- Commission: “To the angel of the church at ___ write:”
- Character: This corresponds to the issue they need to address.
- Commendation: Something they’re doing well.
- Condemnation: Something they’re not doing well.
- Correction: How they need to improve.
- Call: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” This is a call for all of us. Are we actually internalizing what we’re hearing?
- Challenge: Those that overcome will receive a reward. It may not be now, in this life, but as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Later, in Revelation 22, God also promises that he will reward us. Chip summarized it by saying that there’s nothing any of us will go through or have been through that Jesus hasn’t been through. Our high priest has been tempted and gone through trials in every way. He understands. He wants us to get his perspective and allow him to go through it with us.
Church in Ephesus
The main problem in this church: they’ve lost their first love. They’re doing all the right things, including hating the practice of the Nicolaitans, but their hearts aren’t in the right place. Just like Jesus told us, we’re supposed to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
This is a good reminder that it’s not just about what we do, but about our motivation and heart behind it. It’s about giving all of ourselves to God. He isn’t telling us this because he’s narcissistic. He knows it’s good for us.
You may go through the same motions time and time again, but when your heart is in it, there’s so much more joy and satisfaction. One way I’m learning to do this is by slowing down and not hurrying so much. I’m trying to take time to enjoy the ways God has blessed me. This helps me focus on the heart of the task at hand, rather than just trying to jump from one thing to the next in an effort to be as productive as possible. It won’t ever all get done, but if I prioritize loving God first, He’ll carry me through everything else and help me see which things really are the most important to prioritize.
Church in Smyrna
Are you willing to stand up and alone for Jesus when it equals rejection, loss, and suffering? Are you giving into the peer pressure of the culture? Those are some hard questions.
This church was going through a lot of suffering. God said he knows it’s hard and they’ll suffer, but this isn’t the end. “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”
I have no idea what it’s like to go through that sort of suffering. I’ve never lived in a place where believers face that sort of persecution. But I do live in a culture where the church is starting to be seen in a negative light; where I’ve wondered how much I should say about my faith in certain contexts, knowing it could come with hard consequences.
I try to regularly pray for guidance. I ask that if I need to be bold in what I say about Him and His word, that He gives me the courage and words–that He speaks through me. I also try to remember what Jesus said in John 16:33:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
I really liked the context Chris Christensen gave about the meaning of the word tribulation in the Bible Study Podcast:
A lot of newer translations will use the word “trouble,” and that is a weak word and a poor translation of the word that is used in the Greek. The Greek word literally means to press or to crush…a little context here: when you are in the first century in you’re eating, you’re mostly eating bread, and the way you get bread is you grow wheat, and then the first thing you do is you thresh it…you take the grain and you need to separate it from the chaff, the outer husk. And the way they would do it is they would spread it on the threshing floor and they would drag over it a heavy threshing sledge that would crush the grain and break open the husk, so that it would blow away. The name of that heavy Roman threshing sledge is a tribulum, from which we get the word tribulation. So when Jesus says that in this world you will have tribulation, in this world you will feel crushed or pressed, in this world at times it will be crushing, it’s a little little more than, “In this world you will have troubles.”
I thought that provided a lot of depth to this verse. Everyone has trouble, but tribulation is more than that. We’re going to feel crushed under the pressure of the world surrounding us. But Jesus already overcame it. And we can turn to him for strength. In fact, turning to him when we feel weak allows us to see his supernatural power at work in us and through us.
Church in Pergamum
This church is in a tough environment given the culture surrounding them. And they’ve remained true to God’s name, despite persecution. The problem is they’re tolerating sexual immorality and following the practices of the Nicolaitans. God tells them there are devastating consequences to this type of sin.
We live in a culture that’s increasingly telling us to “do what feels right” and sex is just a physical need like eating. But God tells us sexual sin is different than other types of sin. And if you look around, you can see that the consequences of sexual sin impact so many more than yourself. It rips apart marriages, destroys families, warps the mind, and more.
Sex is a wonderful, intimate gift, but we need to be on guard against the way the world twists and turns it into something destructive.
Church in Thyatira
This church was located in a city surrounded by a lot of guilds and unions. They’re loving each other and serving each other, but they’re also being misled by allowing false teaching in the church.
If you don’t know the Bible, it can be hard to spot false teaching. I know the Bible seems big and confusing, but the best way to start learning it is to start spending time in it. I’ve noticed when I regularly set aside time to try to focus on it a little bit each day, it sticks in my head better throughout the day, and helps me think more critically about the messages I hear, giving me a clearer lens to filter them through.
I’ve gone through seasons of my life where I’ve read my Bible regularly and seasons where I haven’t. As a busy mom, it’s hard to find the time! I know some moms that like to wake up before their kids so they can spend time reading, but I’m enough of a night owl that I have a hard time seeing ways to maintain that kind of schedule. Instead, I’ve tried to build a few times a day to nourish my soul with biblical teaching:
- During my first break at work, I read from Truth For Life’s Daily Devotional New Testament (which usually takes 5–10 minutes).
- During my lunch break I take a walk and listen to a podcast from one of several preachers I trust to preach the Bible soundly (about 25 minutes).
- After the kids go to bed, I do study another passage of the Bible (about 10–20 minutes). Right now it’s Priscilla Shirer’s Elijah study that I’m going through with some women from my church. After that I’ll go back to Chasing David with my mom. Acts Odyssey was another one I really enjoyed.
Some days I’m able to do all three, some days I don’t get to any of them, but carving out specific times in my schedule, I’m able to see how God is increasing my biblical literacy over time and continuing to mold me into a better mom, wife, worker, and woman.
I love the prayer Chip suggested based on this church’s letter: “Lord, wake me up with a passion for you!”
Church in Sardis
It’s sooooo easy to just go through the motions. We get into routines and just do what we’ve always done. Routine isn’t always bad. But when it becomes thoughtless habit, it can become a problem.
The church in Sardis was steeped in tradition. They had a reputation of being alive, but they were spiritually dead. They didn’t even know they needed to be woken up!
I feel like I’ve been there, too. I’ve been caught up in focusing on my to-do list and going through the motions of doing what I always do, without making an effort to pursue God.
Why is it so important to continually pursue God? I really liked an escalator analogy I heard recently (I wish I could remember where–I think it was the Brant & Sherri Oddcast). The idea is that life is an escalator, always pulling us down. When we’re pursuing God, we’re climbing up the down escalator. We’re able to move up higher, but we have to keep moving. If we stop and become complacent, we naturally start moving down without trying–and often without even realizing it!
Church in Philadelphia
This letter actually doesn’t include any constructive criticism. In it, God uses imagery from their cultural context to say that when everything else falls apart, you’ve stayed with me and I’ll make it worth your while. Sometimes the greatest thing you can do is patient endurance.
One question Chip asked that I feel like applies to me is, “Are you asking for God’s help?” He pointed out that when we don’t ask for God’s help, we’re essentially saying “I can handle this.” But the prayer of a righteous (wo)man accomplishes much.
When I’m tired and my kids are out of control, am I asking God for help? When I have a big meeting at work I’m nervous about, am I praying about it? What about when my husband and I have a decision to make? Are we asking God for guidance? Sometimes yes, I do ask God for help. Other times I don’t. One of my prayers is that God continues to help me remember to turn to him first.
Church in Laodicea
This letter points out how much this church is struggling. They’re deceived, disgustingly self-sufficient. Their passion is the world’s passion. They have the right information, but no passion for God; they profess but don’t possess. Their lifestyles don’t match up with the words they’re proclaiming.
Chip pointed out some hard questions to ask yourself:
- Is Jesus the number one passion in your life?
- Is there a lifestyle produced out of your relationship with Christ that results in a passion for truth and love for others, and a passion for holiness?
- Are you falling victim to cultural christianity, rather than a personal relationship with Christ?
To Those Who Overcome
We’re all going to struggle. Ultimately, these letters help us see ourselves for who we are, to help us continue to put our trust in Jesus. We don’t know when Jesus will return, but through these letters we can see areas to continue to work on.
I know it can seem like an overwhelming list of impossible standards, but I think it’s helpful to view it through the lens of hope: God is showing us what to focus on so we can continue to grow closer to him and fulfill the purposes he designed us for!