Last Sunday, while eating lunch, I received a message from someone who watched last week’s sermon online. From the message, I gathered that somehow, he was listening to my sermon, while sitting in his megachurch, listening to that pastor’s sermon. Here is what the message said, “Pastor Kevin, while you were preaching on kingdom issues, I was sitting in my large church listening to a sermon on time management. While there was good info in that sermon, I’m trying to process which sermon is of greater importance and significance.” I responded by telling him that, in the past, I had preached on time management as well.
As a pastor, one of the greatest struggles you have each week is determining what you will preach on Sunday. Do you want to be practical or do you want to be theological? Do you want to deal with “felt needs,” or do you want to address “social ills?” Is your goal to make people feel better, or is it to challenge them to a deeper walk with Christ? Do you have to choose between the two? Why can’t a sermon do both?
When I think about such things, the words of the Apostle Paul come to mind: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:2-3).
Lately, God has been leading me to read and study the seven churches addressed in Revelation chapters two and three. The truth is, the entire Revelation of John was written to these seven churches, not just the two chapters, but all twenty-two of them. John specifically states, “To the seven churches in the province of Asia” (Revelation 1:4). These churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, where all located in modern day Turkey. That, in itself, is interesting. The Church started in Jerusalem, yet no church in Jerusalem is mentioned in Revelation. In fact, Jerusalem is the problem in Revelation! Instead, Jesus addressed churches that are hundreds of miles away from Jerusalem. Far too often, these churches are overlooked in studying Revelation because people want to get to all the mysterious things in later chapters, without realizing you cannot understand, and interpret, John’s vision without first understanding the historical context of these specific seven churches to which the entire revelation was given. I am convinced these churches have a lot to teach us about following Jesus in the twenty-first century. But it will not easy, and the lessons learned may not make you feel better. Most of the lessons are not pleasant, and they have nothing to do with how to use your time more wisely so you can be a success.
The big idea, throughout our study over the next several weeks is, radical churches produce radical disciples. And that is what we need! Radical, revolutionary, fully committed followers of Jesus. Why? Because like the churches in Asia, there are difficult days coming, days when it will not be easy to follow Jesus. Days where you are going to have to decide if following Jesus is worth losing your job, or being put in prison, or maybe even dying. History has a way of repeating itself.
History Repeats Itself
The first three Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all record a teaching of Jesus referred to as “The Olivet Discourse” (Matthew 24:1-25:46, Mark 13, and Luke 21). Jesus words in this sermon are full of warnings and judgements and condemnation. In essence, Jesus is preaching that there is a day of reckoning coming. Be prepared! Most biblical scholars agree that Jesus’ prophecy in His teaching was primarily about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that took place in 70 A.D. Wrapped within the primary prophetic fulfillment are prophecies about His Second Coming and the end of the world. But Jesus’ audience would have only understood it in the context of prophecies against Jerusalem, and that these prophecies would be fulfilled soon, not thousands of years from then.
John, the last Gospel to be written, does not mention The Olivet Discourse. The speculation is that John knew about Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, and so he used his gospel to fill in the gaps and tell other stories. Thus, he felt no need to repeat the Olivet Discourse. That is, until he finds himself alone on the prison island of Patmos, punished for his preaching about Christ (Revelation 1:9). While exiled, he writes, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea’” (Revelation 1:10-11). In a sense, then, Revelation is John’s Olivet Discourse. In it is a prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. Within that immediate prophecy are prophecies about Jesus’ return and the end of the world. But first and foremost, Revelation is about seven churches, in seven cities, who are about to experience hell on earth. The only way they will survive is if these radical churches start producing radical disciples.
Sometime around 66 A.D., a tax collector named Gessius Flores, who loved money and hated Jews, seized silver from the Jerusalem Temple because tax revenues out of Jerusalem were low. The Jews rebelled against him and so he sent Roman soldiers into Jerusalem that massacred 3,600 citizens. In retaliation to the massacre, the Temple stopped their daily sacrifices to Caesar, and the Jews in Jerusalem began killing all Roman troops who refused to leave the city. The Roman governor then sent 20,000 troops to besiege Jerusalem. The troops stayed for six months, and then left, defeated. Emperor Nero then attacked Jerusalem, but died before victory had been won. Over time, Jerusalem became isolated from the rest of the nation, and factions arose within the city on how to continue to fight. As the siege wore on, plague and starvation killed thousands more of the city’s residents.
Later, around 70 A.D., under the guidance of Titus, the Romans employed new war machines that hurled boulders against the city walls. In addition to this, battering rams assaulted the fortifications. Jewish defenders fought all day and struggled to rebuild the walls at night. But it was a losing battle. Jerusalem fell, and the Temple was destroyed, in 70 A.D., on the exact same day that Nebuchadnezzar, and the Babylonian army, destroyed the city and Temple in 586 B.C.
Emperor Nero was notorious for persecuting the first Christians. He fed them to the lions in the Roman coliseum, and burned them alive as torches to light the streets of Rome at night. It was Nero who beheaded the Apostle Paul. It is highly possible that it was also Nero who sent John to Patmos. Nero died in 68 A.D.
John’s revelation, then, was about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. The island of Patmos was some sixty miles off the coast of the port-city of Ephesus. From Rome, on their way to destroy Jerusalem, the Roman Army would sail across the Mediterranean Sea and land at the Port of Ephesus. From Ephesus, as they marched toward Jerusalem, they would follow the roads along the trade route that would take them through the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. Along the way, they would torture, kill, and imprison, both Christians and Jews, living in those cities. In his vision, John saw all of this, and wrote Revelation as a warning to all the Christians to prepare themselves for persecution, and the ultimate fall of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Seven Lessons from Seven Churches:
With that as a background, let’s turn our attention to Revelation 1:1-20. As we read, along the way, I will stop and point out seven lessons from these seven churches. The first lesson is: God is sovereign, and Jesus is God (Revelation 1:1-8). We must never forget this. God is a multiplicity! He is one Being, three Essences. He is made up of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we read these first eight verses, notice the titles given to Jesus.
“The revelation of Jesus Christ…
The word “revelation” means “unveiling.” Thus, the Book of Revelation, first and foremost, was written to unveil, or reveal, Jesus Christ. Here is the second lesson: Jesus desires to reveal Himself to us. He wants to know us and wants us to know Him. What a great source of strength this should be to us! The God of the universe, wants to be our friend! God became man so we could have a personal relationship with Him.
Let’s start over:
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (Revelation 1:1-3).
Remember, Revelation was written to seven real churches that are about to experience real persecution. They are dark days ahead. It will be extremely important for John’s readers to remember God is sovereign and in control, even when things seem out of control. John is clear, that what is about to happen will happen soon. He warns them to listen because, “the time is near” (v. 3). Here is the third lesson: The same God that is sovereign in the good times is still sovereign in the bad times. God knows what He is doing, even when we don’t understand.
Here is lesson four: The way to handle the bad times (as well as the good times) is by reading God’s Word (especially the prophets) and taking God’s Word to heart. The temptation is to run away from God in bad times. The temptation is to question God, asking, “Why me? Why is this happening to me?” In reality, the bad times are the time to press into God even more. The way to press into Him is by reading His Word, especially the prophets. It’s that simple!
“John. To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
‘Look, he is coming with the clouds,’ and ‘every eye will see him, even those who pierced him’; and all peoples on earth ‘will mourn because of him.’ So shall it be! Amen.
‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.’
John’s Vision of Christ
I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.’
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance” (Revelation 1:4-16).
John’s revelation parallel’s the writings of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. All three of them prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. Now John is prophesying about another destruction of Jerusalem. The “seven golden lampstands” represent the seven churches, and the “seven stars” represent the pastors of the seven churches. In the middle of the lampstands, in the middle of the churches, holding the stars in His hand, is Jesus Christ Himself! Thus, the fifth lesson: Jesus is Personally watching over every local church, regardless of size, geographical location, money, influence, or faithfulness. We will see this truth lived out in the letters to the seven churches. Regardless of their spiritual condition, Jesus was still, right there, in the middle of them. Even when we are faithless, He remains faithful. What is Jesus doing in the middle of the churches? That’s lesson six: Jesus is present in His churches protecting them and providing for them; and He holds every pastor in His right hand.
Back to Revelation:
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:17-20).
Another word for “angels” is messenger. As we shall see, John was to write a letter to each “angel” of each church. Thus, the clearest interpretation is that “angels” or “messengers” refers to the pastors who will each receive the letter and read it to their churches. Here is the seventh, and final lesson: Our first response to God should always be worship. You see this all through scripture. When people encounter God, they fall to their knees in worship. We worship God, not because of what He has done for us, but because He is God. He is holy. He is awesome. He is sovereign. He deserves our praise. He is “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5). He is the Alpha and the Omega…who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (v. 8). He is the “First and the Last…the Living One…(He) was dead, and behold…(He is)…alive for ever and ever! (And He holds)…the keys to death and Hades” (v. 18). He deserves our worship.