Letter to the church Intro
July 13, 2008
One letter, seven churches. Most of us are familiar with the Revelation of John, the last book in the New Testament, or at least we think we are. We’ve breezed through it pausing on the sensational bits, dragons, beasts with seven heads and ten horns and locust the size of Volkswagens. But for most of us what we know about the Revelation is actually what we know about the Left Behind Series or the Late Great Planet Earth. However the Revelation was originally addressed to a group of believers who didn’t have Tim LaHaye or Hal Lindsay to guide them or confuse them, whatever the case may be.
Two comments that you might find interesting, one person wrote about the Revelation saying “There are as many riddles in the Revelation as there are words.” While another wrote “The study of the Revelation either finds or leaves a man mad.”
So let’s start with a little background to the book of the Revelation. The book itself tells us that the author was someone by the name of John. Now tradition tells us that it was the Apostle John but there is no biblical evidence of that, all we know is that the authors name was John. Those who are in the know tell us that there is a good chance that the book was written by someone whose first language was not Greek. William Barclay the writer of the Daily Study Bible commentaries wrote this about the Greek that was used here “It is vivid, powerful, and pictorial; but from the point of view of grammar it is easily the worst Greek in the New Testament. He makes mistakes which no schoolboy who knew Greek could make.” But then again someone reading my writing before it gets proof read would deduce that English wasn’t my native tongue.
However whoever John was he wrote in a style that is often called Apocalyptic literature. Which comes from the Greek word which means the unveiling. And Apocalyptical writings were very popular especially between the Old and New Testaments. The Jewish people had been living under the rule of occupying armies for five hundred years and they looked ahead to the day that the Messiah would deliver his people. And the Revelation borrows from much of that literature in style but the message of the Revelation is very Christ centred.
Scholars place the writing of the Revelation somewhere around 90 – 95 about 60 years after the death and resurrection of Christ. The letter was written from a small Island in the Mediterranean Sea called Patmos; we are told by John that he was there because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, which traditional has been accepted to mean that he had been exiled to the Island because of his faith. So Patmos was a penal colony situated in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and the Isle of Crete.
If I pull up a map here we can see where the Isle of Patmos is actually located and here is a picture of Patmos today. It looks fairly pleasant, a small island ten miles long and five miles wide but listen to the Words of Sir William Ramsay, “John’s banishment would be preceded by scourging, marked by perpetual fetters, scanty clothing, insufficient food, sleep on the bare ground, a dark prison and work under the lash of the military overseer.” Pretty rugged conditions for a man probably in his nineties, no matter how pretty the view. And even if he wasn’t forced into hard labour, it was still exile, far from his home, family and friends.
It was the time the Emperor Domitian who was the first emperor to insist on emperor worship. That is he actually believed that he was a god and insisted that he be worshipped as such by all his subjects. Each year you would be required to appear at the temple and offer a pinch of incense and utter the words “Caesar is Lord.” Well for the Christians that posed a bit of a problem because they believed that only Jesus is Lord, and so they refused to obey the edict. Domitian responded by having those who refused to call him God executed, imprisoned or exiled. And it would appear that John had been exiled probably from 90 until 96 the death of Domitian
And so this rocky, barren island becomes the backdrop for the vision that John records as the Revelation, the influence of the sea can be seen throughout the book with the word sea or ocean being used twenty five times in different analogies. At times as you read through the book you can almost hear the crash of waves in the background.
And so John tells us in Revelation 1:10-11 It was the Lord’s Day, and I was worshiping in the Spirit. Suddenly, I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet blast. It said, “Write in a book everything you see, and send it to the seven churches in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” Couple of points here, no one has really completely established what was meant by worshipping in the Spirit, some would contend that John was in some mystical trance like state but others would say that he was simply enjoying private worship. The term the Lord’s Day would imply that it was the first day of the week, that is Sunday. And John was worshipping, perhaps he had been singing a piece by Hillsongs Jerusalem, maybe he had been reading his scriptures or meditating on the goodness of God, we don’t know what it was specifically that for John entailed worshipping in the Spirit, but we do know that he was in a position spiritually to be open and receptive to what Jesus would have him hear, it was almost like he had a epiphany.
And part of what he learned from the Lord was that this vision was to be addressed to seven specific churches located in the following cities, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The churches are said to be in Asia and when the letter was written that did not mean the continent of Asia instead it was the
Roman province of Asia which is now in what we know as Turkey.
Why seven? Why not 3 or 10 or 4? We don’t know why these churches were picked there were certainly more churches in the area then these specific ones, and there have been several theories about why the letter was addressed to these individual churches. It has been suggested that John may have had a special relationship to these distinct churches. Maybe he had preached there, or knew the pastors or some of the members and so they would be more receptive to the letter he sent.
Others have suggested that seven is the number of completeness and therefore the seven churches represent all churches. Certainly the number seven figures very heavily in the book of Revelation it is mentioned over thirty times. There are seven years, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven angels, seven bowls and seven plagues. So maybe he just thought that seven churches would be appropriate, kind of fit the pattern. These may have been the largest churches in the area and so perhaps the letters were sent there and then distributed to other smaller churches.
If we pull up a map of the area where these churches were we discover that they are or were located here: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Almost a circle, certainly a circular route. In a day and age without email, fax machines or even a postal service it would be unrealistic to think the letter would be sent to every church and so these seven were chosen. Why? You can put that on your God questions for when you get to heaven.
It has been suggested that not only do the letters apply to the seven specific individual historical churches but also to a wider range. There are some who would suggest that each of the churches represents a period in church history. Ephesus describes the early church, Smyrna the persecuted Church, Pergamum the Popularized Church, Thyatira the Dark Ages, Sardis the Reformation Period, Philadelphia the Revived Church, and Laodicea the lukewarm church of today.
Now if it’s not confusing enough with the historical meaning and the church age meaning there is one other way that we can view these churches and that is indicative of various churches today. That is that we can find churches here and now that mirror each of these seven situations, there are churches just like Ephesus or Sardis or Laodicea. Over the next little while we are going to look at each of the seven churches, were they were historically how the letter applied to that particular situation, how that might be an analogy of a particular period in church history and what warnings and advice we can find there for Cornerstone Wesleyan Church in 2008.
Louise read from Revelation chapter 1 earlier in the service and this is the last verse that she read, remember these are the words of Christ: Revelation 1:20 This is the meaning of the mystery of the seven stars you saw in my right hand and the seven gold lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. I had a professor at college who used to say “Well that’s clear as mud and covers the ground.” I’m glad that Jesus cleared that up for us, but we need to understand these two things before we can move on to the individual churches. The clarification that Jesus gives goes back to Revelation 1:12-13 When I turned to see who was speaking to me, I saw seven gold lampstands. And standing in the middle of the lampstands was someone like the Son of Man. He was wearing a long robe with a gold sash across his chest. And then in Revelation 1:16 He held seven stars in his right hand. . . Now Jesus is explaining to John what it was that he was seeing.
1) The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches.
John saw Jesus holding seven stars in his hand and Jesus tells him these stars represent the angels of the seven churches. Which may have clarified it for John but doesn’t do a whole lot for us. John probably said “Ah” and we say “Huh?”
There are at least four possibilities for who these angels are. In it’s simplest sense the word angel in the Greek simply means messenger. But in most cases when the word was used it meant a heavenly messenger, what we would think of as an Angel, white robes big wings, the whole shooting match. But other times it meant messenger and there are some who would suggest that these seven angels were human messengers who had gathered to take John’s message to their respective churches. Early Fed-Ex guys. Now linguistically it makes sense, to the seven messengers of the seven churches, but when we get into the letters themselves is it would appear that whoever the angels were they were more then simply messengers.
2) In all the other instances in the Revelation the word angel means angel, a heavenly being, and with that in mind there have been some who have suggested that perhaps these were guardian angels who protected the individual churches. Some early scholars actually believed that these angels would be held accountable if a church went wrong. And if that is true that each church has it’s own angel to guide and protect it then some angels need to be slapped. The problem is that even though it is the angel who is mentioned in the opening of each letter it is obviously the members of the church who are being addressed.
3) Both Greeks and Jews believed that every earthly thing had a heavenly counterpart and so it is suggested that the angel being addressed is the Ideal of the church, the way it’s supposed to be.
4) It has been suggested that the angels of the church were actually their human overseers or dare I say; Pastors, and that the letters were addressed to their spiritual shepherds. What do you think, how would I look with wings? This particular view is backed up by Malachi 2:7 “The words of a priest’s lips should preserve knowledge of God, and people should go to him for instruction, for the priest is the messenger of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. In the Greek Old Testament the word used for messenger is the same word that used here for angels.
Traditionally it has been this last view that most scholars have accepted that the seven angels were the bishops or pastors of these seven churches. Which of course has some serious implications for Pastors. You see each of you is responsible for your individual behaviour and obedience as a believer. However as the overseer of Cornerstone Wesleyan Church as your pastor dare I say as your angel not only am I responsible for my obedience and behaviour but I’m also responsible for your collective obedience and behaviour. And you wonder why I get testy once in awhile.
Because the seven stars were held in the right hand of Jesus that would indicate that the Pastor’s primary responsibility is not to the congregation as a whole and not to any one member of the congregation in particular but to God. In 2008 the role of Pastor does not have the respect in the community or even the church that it had a generation ago, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less important. My role in this church is to serve and speak for God. Psalm 105:15 “Do not touch my chosen people, and do not hurt my prophets.” But enough of that.
2. The seven lampstands are the seven churches. How do I know that? Because in Revelation 1:20 it says the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Let’s go back for a minute to Revelation 1:12-13 When I turned to see who was speaking to me, I saw seven gold lampstands. And standing in the middle of the lampstands was someone like the Son of Man. He was wearing a long robe with a gold sash across his chest.
Three things we need to take note of: First of all the lampstands were gold they were not iron or brass or even silver, they were gold. And while that may not mean much to us outside of an economic statement today it had a much different connotation 2000 years ago. The context of Gold when this letter was written was not only of worth but also of purity. Do not write off the church. Society has declared the church to be irrelevant and some believers feel that they don’t need the church that they can worship alone. But God in his infinite wisdom choose to use this vessel that we sometimes see as imperfect as being his instrument of change for the world. In John’s vision he did not see Jesus surrounded by individual believers all worshipping God in their own way, he saw Jesus in the centre of the churches. Remember the scriptures call the church the Bride of Christ and listen to Ephesians 5:27 He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault. And no that is not a description of the church today, as long as the church is made up of people it will have spots and blemishes, but the ultimate plan is for it to be perfect. By the way if you ever find a perfect church, don’t go to it would be a shame to ruin it.
Every once in awhile I run into believers who worship at home, don’t go to church just do the home thing, and when you ask them they say “I haven’t been able to find the right church.” Ok, well maybe the problem isn’t the church.
The second thing we need to see here is not only was it gold it was a gold lampstand. Do you know what a lampstand is? It’s a stand for a lamp. The church is not a lamp, it is a lamp stand. The light does not come from the stand it comes from the lamp. Now there are two ways that we can view this and they are both valid. Jesus said in John 8:12 Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” And so there are those who say, correctly, that the light that shines from the church must be Jesus. That when a church no longer preaches Jesus as the son of God who was born of a virgin, died on a cross and was resurrected on the third day offering forgiveness to those who seek it, then they are no longer the Church, they have no light in themselves.
And there are those who would say look at John 9:5 Jesus said But while I am here in the world, I am the light of the world.”And then in Matthew 5:14 Jesus says “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. And so there are those who say, correctly, that Jesus left believers to be light to the world. And that the light that shines from the church is from individual believers and that it is our responsibility to shine that light. And either way when the light, whether it comes from Christ or Christians is removed then the lampstand is no longer of any use.
The third thing about lampstands is about lampstands. Within the frame work of the scriptures when the word lampstand was used Jews immediately thought of one thing. The Menorah. It’s described in Exodus 25:31-32 “Make a lampstand of pure, hammered gold. Make the entire lampstand and its decorations of one piece—the base, center stem, lamp cups, buds, and petals. Make it with six branches going out from the center stem, three on each side. And it would have looked something like this.
The revelation is not talking about the seven lamps that make up the lampstand. Instead it is talking about seven individual lampstands. Each lampstand has a unity, it is connected to itself. Within the church there needs to be a unity, we as a body need to be united. But there is no physical connection between the seven lampstands, the unity for all of them combined comes from Christ who is in the centre. You understand that there needs to be unity within the individual lampstand, that’s us Cornerstone Wesleyan Church, and there needs to be unity within the church as a whole, that’s us as Cornerstone Wesleyan Church and Hammonds Plains Christian Church, and Sackville Wesleyan, and the Vineyard and Emmanuel Baptist.
And so there must be unity in the lampstand and unity with the lampstands.
Over the next eight weeks we will be looking at these letters and what they are saying to us, the people of Cornerstone today.