How teachable are you? We all like to think that we are fairly teachable and are fairly objective, and we know that when it comes to our own life we might not be quite as objective as we think we are, but every now and then we are brought up short by some evaluation and it causes us to think about how objective we are about our own life, in fact how teachable we are. We just get so set in our ways and our habit patterns that when something comes along to evaluate or causes an evaluation that are we really open to that? Take, for example, a situation where a close intimate friend may say to you something like, "You know, a true friend is someone who not only tells you what you would like to hear or gives you compliments, but will on occasion tell you things you might not want to hear but you need to hear." When they begin the next sentence by saying, "Now it is important that I am honest with you," what is going on inside your soul. For many of us we start to tighten up a little bit, we don't know what is going to come. We might have our stomach turn over, we might get tense, break out in a sweat. We all respond in different ways to personal criticism. This is not talking about the negative, destructive type of criticism, but rather the positive evaluation from perhaps an employer, perhaps a co-worker, a friend, someone whom we trust and have a solid relationship with who is honestly going to tell us something that perhaps we are not willing to face and sometimes we need to hear. If you are normal you tend to tighten up a little with that. Scripture tells us in Proverbs 27:6, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy." Too often we think that a friend is just going to tell us the good things, pat us on the back and make sure we feel good. Sometimes it is that way in marriage. Sometimes we have to face difficult things about ourselves. We have to look into our own lives and realize that we are sinners and we have some flaws and failures that we really need to work on, that is, under the filling ministry of God the Holy Spirit and the use of the Word. It is a test always of our objectivity, our genuine humility, and our teachability.
When we come to Revelation chapters two and three we see an evaluation of seven congregations. What must the reaction have been among those church members when they saw these evaluations, especially in the negative churches. One of the frustrating things is that almost every congregation thinks they have it together. Notice that these seven reports deal with the congregations, not just the individuals. There will be a congregational evaluation. It is interesting that this suggests that not only are we going to be evaluated at the judgment seat of Christ in terms of our own individual spiritual life but the congregation will also be held accountable for how the congregation as a whole responded to doctrine and the teaching of God's Word.
We now want to give an overview of these seven churches. One of the things that happens so frequently when we study a book or a topic is that we get so focused on the minutia of the topic or the details of each individual verse that sometimes we lose the forest for the trees. So every now and then we need to stand back and instead of focusing on the exegesis of one verse or a couple of verses and take whole section. We want to look at the whole map, as it were, not just the minor details of Ephesus or Sardis. We want to look at the overall view here and get a sense of what is happening in these two chapters.
The Lord Jesus Christ singles out seven congregations that He is going to address. These congregations are located in Asia Minor on the western shore of what is now modern Turkey. The question we should as is why does the Lord Jesus Christ single out these seven churches. In Asia Minor there were somewhere between 500 and a thousand villages or towns. Some of them were quite large. Ephesus, for example, had a population at this time of about 250,000. Smyrna was the second largest city in Asia Minor. But Philadelphia and Laodicea were somewhat smaller. So these churches weren't chosen because of their size, because of the size or significance of their cities, they are chosen for other reasons. Furthermore, there were numerous churches in this area. In Acts chapter nineteen we are told that when Paul spent his two years in Ephesus that he sent out missionaries from Ephesus and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ was heard throughout Asia. So many churches were established in that period from about 52 AD to 54-55. In fact it had been forty years since Christianity came to this part of the Roman empire and there was probably more than more congregation in these towns. So what we have is an evaluation of where they are succeeding in their Christian life and there they are failing.
Why these seven churches? They are not chosen by geography, by size, or even their significance in the province of Asia. Some people try to suggest that these churches represent different stages in the history of Christianity. When it is looked at in details this kind of analysis breaks down. But what we do see here is that each of these congregations is chosen because they represent different trends in church history. They represent the different strengths and weaknesses that are to be found in any congregation, in any country, in any culture, down through the 2000+ years of church history. So when we look at this we ought to look at these evaluation reports in terms of our own personal spiritual life and our own individual congregations.
Just in terms of an overview we look at each of these epistles and they have seen characteristics, or sections. Each begins with a commission. There is an address at the beginning: "To the angel of the church at Ephesus." It indicates something specific about each of these congregations. The letters are addressed to the angel, and for the most part they use a second person singular pronoun, "you." The "you" isn't talking about the angel because the angel isn't guilty of these failures, he is not the one who is committing any of these praiseworthy items, so obviously it is given to the angel as a critique sheet but it is addressed to the congregation. And it deals with specifics; it is very personal. It deals with where they are succeeding and where they are failing in the spiritual life. So each deals with a historical situation in a historical church.
There is some aspect of the character of Christ that is emphasized, usually part of the description of the vision that we saw in chapter one. For example, in the epistle to the Ephesians it begins, "These things said he who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands." The very first epistle emphasizes the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Priest-Judge who walking in the midst of His church, working to purify His bride. So there is a citation of specific attributes of Jesus Christ at the beginning of each one of these letters.
There is a section of commendation in five of them. Two of them are congregations that are so carnal, so screwed up, that there is no commendation, just condemnation. So there is a praise for specifics in the spiritual life, certain attributes and qualities in the spiritual life of the congregation that are praised.
There is a condemnation, a warning about certain spiritual flaws and failures in the life of the congregation, compromises that if not corrected will eventually destroy the effectiveness of that congregation.
There is a correction, usually in the challenge to repent, which means a change of mind; or remember, hold fast—there is a challenge to correct certain failures and flaws in their spiritual life.
There is a call, a challenge to obey. Usually it is expressed this way: "He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." In other words, listen and apply. When we see that word "hear" in Scripture it is not merely having our eardrums vibrated, it has to do with listening with a view toward application. We are not hear for just an academic exercise just to learn all kinds of interesting things about what the Bible says, the challenge is to change our thinking, to change the way we think about all of our life, to change the way we think about reality. This is one of the reasons we spent so much time talking about angels, because one we understand how all of our lives and the life of the church fits into this broad spectrum of the angelic conflict then it ought to change how we think about what is going on every day in our life. Our career choices, our relationship choices, how we spend our money, how we spend our time; all of these things are taught in the Scripture and it is to be part of our spiritual life that fits into this pattern of our testimony in the overall angelic conflict.
There is a challenge. There is a personal promise of a reward at the end in each one of these "to those who overcome," i.e. those who respond to the correction, those who respond to the condemnation and are truly teachable and show genuine humility, even though they may not like hearing what the Lord Jesus Christ says to them, even though he is stepping all over their toes. Even though we might not like what the Scriptures say, if we are teachable we will sit there and says, "I don't like it, but it is right and I need to do something about it," not in the energy of the flesh but under the filling ministry of God the Holy Spirit.
There are seven letters and churches. As we begin to go over these we will realize that they are not all quite the same. For example, the letter to the Ephesians has only one negative but there are eight positive characteristics that are praised. Then we come to Smyrna. There is nothing negative said about Smyrna, in fact there are two churches, Philadelphia and Smyrna, that have no negative qualities. Smyrna has four positive attributes that are emphasized. Then when we come to Pergamum it has two negatives and only one positive. Thyatira has five positives and one negative, but that negative is serious and significant. Sardis has two negatives and no positives, but those two negatives are rather broad and are detailed. The Philadelphian church has four positives and no negatives. The Laodicean church has two negatives and no positives.
We need to think about this because here we have a situation where some of these folks knew each other. They traveled around, they were merchants who went from one city to another. In fact, it is very likely that there were folks in the Ephesian church who were related to the church at Philadelphia and Laodicea. They did business with people in the Smyrna church. It would be tempting to sit in judgment on another congregation. It would be tempting to get involved in mental attitude sins and judging those other congregations, and you can't do it. We have to focus on our own spiritual life, our own congregation, and not become distracted by somebody else's congregation or what we perceive to be the flaws and failures of another group.
What we see in these seven epistles is the Lord Jesus Christ emphasizing what is going to be evaluated at the bema seat. In each one of these he begins with the statement, "I know your works." This is really a general overall statement. It is a generic terms and if we go to other passages in Scripture the idea of works is really application. It is not talking about how many Sunday school classes we have taught or how many times we have gone to Bible class, etc. it is talking about application: "I know your application."
Then He gets into specifics. "I know your labor." This is in the Ephesian church. This has to do with what you are doing, how intense you are and your own application of doctrine and whether it is a priority or not. He knows where the doctrine is and where doctrine is on your scale of values, and how far you are working at applying doctrine.
The third characteristic is "patience," a bad translation, it should be "endurance." This is what Paul emphasizes in Romans chapter five, what James emphasizes in James chapter one, that when we encounter various trials we do it to develop endurance, endurance in applying doctrine. No matter how much pressure there is, no matter how difficult it becomes to apply the Word and how easy it might be to succumb to the sin nature, you endure, you hang in there in the midst of trials.
They are also praised for not enduring evil people. They didn't just sit there in their pews emphasizing privacy when they knew there was some serious evil going on in the congregation. They also evaluated apostolic claims to make sure that they met the standard. They had patience, which is the Greek word BASTAZO [bastazw] which means to carry a burden, and it is related to the idea of endurance. Even though you might have a burdensome responsibility in life and it is burdensome because you are applying doctrine, it is a responsibility. It may be to take care of elderly, ill parents, which may become quite burdensome at times; but you know that is your responsibility as a believer to honor your father and your mother, so you accept and carry that responsibility. That is the idea.
Another characteristic that is praised is that they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans. Essentially this was a system of doctrine that was antinomian. The Ephesian church was praised because they hated the application of these antinomians. Smyrna is praised because they endured adversity. They were also praised because they would be imprisoned for the faith and would endure these adverse circumstances. They were praised for the fact that they were in Tribulation and poverty. The word there for "poverty" wasn't the normal word for poor but it suggests that their wealth was stolen under persecution. Now they have nothing, nevertheless they are holding firm in the faith.
Other congregations were praised because they held fast to Christ's name. That is, they didn't give up on the deity or the humanity of Christ. They had correct doctrine when it came to Christology. This resonates today because one of the greatest assaults that we are facing today is that Jesus wasn't really God. So we have to stand firm in our Christology. Others are praised because they didn't deny the faith, even in persecution. They didn't compromise. Others in these epistles are praised for their service, because they are willing to help with whatever it takes around the church. Others are praised for their faith, that is, they have solid doctrine, they study the Word as their priority. This is a check list. How do we stack up when we evaluate our own lives? Others are praised for their obedient application of doctrine. They are not just learning so they can fill up doctrinal notebooks, they are learning so that it changes how they think and how they live.
Then we come to the next section dealing with condemnations. The Ephesians church is praised for many things, but then the Lord says, "Nevertheless I have somewhat against you, because you have left your first love." This is a danger for all of us. We end up emphasizing the truth so much, and making sure we have our doctrine right and are applying doctrine, then somehow we can easily lose that love that we once had for the savior. When we first are saved and we realize the grace of God in our lives there is an excitement and enthusiasm there and we realize how marvelous our salvation is, and we begin to fall in love with the savior and make doctrine a priority. But then some years later it is easy to get distracted by the details of life, and we no longer have that passion to make doctrine number one in our life.
Others are condemned because they compromise doctrinally—the doctrine of Balaam, the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. They all seem to involve the same things: antinomianism. The doctrine of Balaam involved anti-Semitism, sexual licentiousness and idolatry. They were willing to go along with the culture around them, willing to continue to let certain practices in their pre-Christian life continue in their post-salvation experience simply so they wouldn't stand out in a crowd. Others are condemned because they have a good reputation but nevertheless they are dead. The Lord Jesus Christ says, "I know you have a good reputation for good works, but you are dead." They are carnal. Operating on human good and religion. Everything looks good on the outside but, nevertheless, they are living in carnality. Then we have the Laodicean church which was said to be lukewarm. They are spiritually useless and are not going anywhere.
Others are condemned because they are self-deceived and self-satisfied. They are convinced that they have got it all together, but they don't. They are spiritually bankrupt but are not humble enough to recognize it.
Then there are corrections in each of these epistles, a challenge to "remember your first love." Don't forget that initial passion you had to know the truth and to make the Word a part of your life. "Be faithful until death." No matter how tough it gets, no matter what the persecution may be, no matter how horrendous the torture, be faithful until death.
There is a correction to repent of doctrinal compromise and antinomianism, to change your thinking. They are challenged to repent of sexual licentiousness, and challenged to be watchful, to be alert in their own spiritual life. Furthermore, they are told to strengthen their spiritual life. We can only strengthen our spiritual life by learning doctrine and the filling ministry of God the Holy Spirit and applying what we learn. They are challenged to remember what Christ did for them, and the grace that was given to them at salvation, to hold fast to truth of God's Word.
Finally, there is a challenge. In the challenge we are told there are certain rewards. Some are told that if they overcome they will eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God, special privilege in heaven. Others are promised the crown of life and that they won't be hurt by the second death. Another is told that if they overcome they will be given hidden manna to eat, some sort of special privilege in heaven. They also will be given a white stone with a new name—special privilege, special rank. Others are given the rank of morning star which was given to the Lord Jesus Christ. Others will have their name honored and spoken before God the Father and before the Holy Spirit. Others will have their name inscribed on a pillar in the temple as a memorial to their spiritual growth in time. Others will have the name of God written on them. Others are promised that if they overcome they will sit on the throne with Jesus and they will rule with Him. This is our challenge.
How do we respond? How do we respond when we take a hard look at how each of these short epistles, instead of thinking that this applies to some congregation 2000 years ago, we take this check list and in the privacy of our own souls, standing before the Lord, we evaluate our own growth?