The Letters to the Seven Churches

Introduction to the Book of Revelation

Author: The apostle John.

Date Written: Between ad 90 and 96.

Title: This book is so named because it is the “revelation” of Jesus Christ as given to the Apostle John. It is also called the Apocalypse, which means “unveiling.”

Background: John is exiled by the Roman government to Patmos, a small island off the coast of Greece, for preaching the Word of God. His exile is only part of an intense period of persecution against the church, which follows the Roman emperor Domitian’s proclamation that he should be worshiped as deity. While on Patmos, John receives this revelation about Jesus Christ from God the Father. An angel helps John to understand the vision. Whereas the first book of the Bible—Genesis—tells of the beginning of sin and Satan’s triumph, the last book of the Bible—Revelation—tells of sin’s end and Satan’s defeat. A special blessing is promised to all who read, hear, and obey this book. But also a special curse is promised to those who add to or take away from these words. John also wrote the fourth Gospel and the three letters that bear his name.

Where Written: On the island of Patmos, in the Aegean Sea.

To Whom: To seven churches in Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

Content: Revelation is lavish in colorful descriptions of the visions that proclaim for us the last days before Christ’s return and the ushering in of the new heaven and new earth. The fact that it may at first seem too complex is no reason to avoid this book, for it is a full disclosure of the prophetic events that await every person, whether dead or alive. Revelation makes known what is to come: the series of devastations to be poured out on the earth; the mark of the beast, 666 (13:18); the climactic battle of Armageddon; the binding of Satan; the reign of the Lord; the great white throne of judgment; and the nature of the eternal city of God. Prophecies concerning Jesus Christ are fulfilled, and a concluding call to his lordship assures us that he will soon return.

Key Words: “Revelation”; “Jesus Christ”; “Seven.” This book is a thorough “revelation” of the total person of “Jesus Christ”: his glory, power, and wisdom; his judgment, kingdom, and grace; and the Lamb of God from Alpha to Omega. Several numbers have significant symbolism in Revelation, but the number “seven” is dominant throughout with seven letters, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven signs, seven plagues, seven dooms, and seven new things. Themes: • The end of earthly life is only the beginning of eternal life. • Christians will spend eternity with God in the new Jerusalem. • Unbelievers will spend eternity with Satan in the lake of fire. • God desires that everyone trust in his Son for redemption—today!



1. Introduction. (1:1-7)

2. Christ’s revelation of himself to John. (1:8-20)

3. Letters to the seven churches. (2:1–3:22)

4. The throne in heaven. (4:1–5:14)

5. The seven seals. (6:1–8:5)

6. The seven trumpets. (8:6–11:19)

7. The seven explanatory prophecies.(12:1–14:20)

8. The seven bowls of wrath. (15:1–16:21)

9. The overthrow of Babylon. (17:1–19:5)

10. Prophecies concerning the second coming of Christ. (19:6-21)

11. Prophecies concerning the millennium. (20:1-6)

12. The rebellion and Satan’s final doom. (20:7-15)

13. The new heaven, new earth, and new Jerusalem. (21:1–22:6)

14. The coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.(22:7-21)


The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary

Revelation, Book of

The final book of the Bible is known by its opening line: “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1 ESV, NRSV, KJV). This phrase could indicate a “revelation about Jesus Christ” (the main character), or a “revelation from Jesus Christ” (the primary giver of the message to John; so NIV), or, as many believe, some of both. In powerful language and vivid imagery, Revelation presents the conclusion to God’s grand story of salvation, in which he defeats evil, reverses the curse of sin, restores creation, and lives forever among his people. Although the details are often difficult to understand, the main idea of Revelation is clear: God is in control and will successfully accomplish his purposes. In the end, God wins. As a transformative vision, Revelation empowers its readers/listeners to persevere faithfully in a fallen world until their Lord returns.



Genre. Revelation is best understood in light of its literary genre and its historical context. The literary genre of Revelation—letter, prophecy, and apocalyptic literature—explains much of the strangeness of the book. The entire book is a single letter to seven churches in Asia Minor (note the letter greeting in 1:4–5 and the benediction in 22:21). John is commanded to write what he sees and send it to the seven churches (1:11). A letter to seven churches is in reality a letter to the whole church, since the number “seven” symbolizes wholeness or completeness in Revelation. NT letters were intended to be read aloud to the gathering of Christians, and the same is true of Revelation. The book opens with a blessing on the one who reads the letter aloud and on those who listen (1:3) and closes with a stern warning to anyone (reader or listener) who changes the book (22:18–19). Like other NT letters, Revelation also addresses a specific situation. For this reason, any approach to Revelation that ignores the situation faced by the seven churches will fail to grasp its central message. Many say that the message of Revelation extends beyond the first century, but it certainly does not ignore its first audience.

Revelation is also a letter that is prophetic. In both the opening (1:3) and the closing (22:7, 10, 18–19), the book is described as a “prophecy” (cf. 19:10). In 22:9 the angel identifies John as a prophet: “I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets.” As a prophetic book in line with OT prophetic books, Revelation contains both prediction about the future and proclamation about God’s will for the present, with emphasis falling on the latter.

Finally, Revelation is a prophetic letter that is apocalyptic. In the opening phrase, “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” the term “revelation” is a translation of the Greek term apokalypsis, meaning “to unveil” or “to reveal” what has been hidden. Most believe that apocalyptic literature grew out of Hebrew prophecy. The OT books of Daniel and Zechariah are often associated with apocalyptic literature, and there were many Jewish apocalypses written during the time between the Testaments (e.g., 1–2 Enoch, 2–3 Baruch, 4 Ezra).

In apocalyptic literature there is a revelation from God to some well-known human figure through a heavenly intermediary. God promises to intervene in human history, to defeat evil, and to establish his rightful rule. Such is the case with Revelation, which assumes a situation where God’s people are threatened by hostile powers. God is portrayed as sovereign, and he promises to intervene soon to destroy evil. Through bizarre visions and imagery common to apocalyptic literature, those who hear Revelation are transported to another world for much-needed heavenly perspective. As the hearers move outside their hopeless circumstances and see God winning the war against evil, their perspective is reshaped, and they are empowered to persevere faithfully. They are simultaneously called to live holy and blameless lives as they worship the one, true God.

Historical context. Along with understanding the literary genre of Revelation, one must grasp its historical context in order to read the book responsibly. Revelation itself describes a historical situation where some Christians are suffering for their faith with the real possibility that the suffering could become more intense and widespread. John himself has been exiled to the island of Patmos because of his witness for Jesus (1:9). Antipas, a Christian in Pergamum, has been put to death for his faith (2:13). In his message to the church at Smyrna, Jesus indicates that they should not be surprised by what they are about to suffer (2:10). The book also includes several references to pagan powers shedding the blood of God’s people (6:10; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2). Revelation addresses a situation in which pagan political power has formed a partnership with false religion. Those who claim to follow Christ are facing mounting pressure to conform to this ungodly partnership at the expense of loyalty to Christ.

The two primary possibilities for the date of Revelation are a time shortly after the death of Nero (AD 68–69) or a date near the end of Domitian’s reign (AD 95). Although there is solid evidence for both dates, the majority opinion at present favors a date during the reign of Domitian, when persecution threatened to spread across the Roman Empire. The imperial cult (i.e., the worship of the Roman emperor) was a powerful force to be reckoned with primarily because it united religious, political, social, and economic elements into a single force. As chapters 2–3 indicate, not every Christian was remaining faithful in this difficult environment. Some were compromising in order to avoid religious or economic persecution. Revelation has a pointed message for those who are standing strong as well as for those who are compromising, and this central message ties into the overall purpose of the book.



The overall purpose of Revelation is to comfort those who are facing persecution and to warn those who are compromising with the world system. During times of oppression, the righteous suffer and the wicked seem to prosper. This raises the question “Who is Lord?” Revelation says that Jesus is Lord in spite of how things appear, and he will return soon to establish his eternal kingdom. Those facing persecution find hope through a renewed perspective, and those who are compromising are warned to repent. Revelation’s goal is to transform the audience to follow Jesus faithfully.

There are five main theories about how Revelation should be interpreted: preterist, historicist, futurist, idealist, and eclectic. The preterist theory views Revelation as relating only to the time in which John lived rather than to any future period. John communicates to first-century readers how God plans to deliver them from the wickedness of the Roman Empire. The historicist theory argues that Revelation gives an overview of the major movements of church history from the first century until the return of Christ. The futurist theory claims that most of Revelation (usually chaps. 4–22) deals with a future time just before the end of history. The idealist theory maintains that Revelation is a symbolic portrayal of the ongoing conflict between good and evil. Revelation offers timeless spiritual truths to encourage Christians of all ages. The eclectic theory combines the strengths of several of the other theories (e.g., a message to the original audience, a timeless spiritual message, and some future fulfillment), while avoiding their weaknesses.

Revelation 2–3 contains messages to seven churches of Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The messages come from the glorified Jesus who walks among these churches (1:12–13, 20). A map of the seven churches shows they are addressed in the order in which a letter carrier would have arrived, beginning with Ephesus and moving clockwise. The seven messages follow a similar literary pattern: command to an angel to write; description of Jesus; a commendation of the church’s good works; an accusation against the church; an exhortation followed by a warning and/or word of encouragement; an admonition to hear what the Spirit says; and a promise to those who overcome. These messages reflect the twin dangers faced by the church—persecution and compromise. Every church except Smyrna and Philadelphia appear to have serious problems. While a few are proving faithful and are facing persecution as a result, many churches are in danger of losing their influence and identity because of compromise. Each church is challenged to “overcome,” a prominent theme in Revelation. Jesus gives each church a difficult but clear choice: listen to his voice and persevere in obedience or cave in to the surrounding culture but face God’s judgment. Each letter closes with the prophetic admonition to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

In Revelation 2–3, Christ lays bare the true spiritual condition of John’s seven churches. In a dramatic reversal of the Old Testament expectations concerning Daniel’s Son of Man, the Son does not put God’s enemies on trial (as he does in Dan. 7:10–12, 26–27) but rather God’s people (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 12:5–11). Some historicist and futurist interpreters have tried to link the seven churches with successive periods of church history (e.g., Ephesus is the apostolic age, Smyrna the second- and third-century church, Pergamum the Constantinian era, Thyatira the medieval church, etc.), but such attempts ignore how closely each letter is situated within the geographical and cultural location of its first-century hearers.


The Letters to the Seven Churches

The Letter to Ephesus

2 “Write to the angel of the church in Ephesus: “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands says: 2  I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. 3  You also possess endurance and have tolerated many things because of My name and have not grown weary. 4  But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. 5  Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent. 6  Yet you do have this: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7  “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in d God's paradise.

The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary

2:1–7: The letter to Ephesus. Ephesus, whose harbor, roads, location, wealth, and special privileges with Rome made it an axis of trade in the Mediterranean, was the most cosmopolitan of the seven cities. Home to the imperial cult, it boasted magnificent temples dedicated to the emperors Domitian and Hadrian. It was also the site for one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Artemision, the temple of Artemis (goddess of the hunt and fertility). The Artemision was famous for its size, with a platform spanning over one hundred thousand square feet, and for its tree shrine at the center. The temple functioned as a place of asylum for fleeing criminals and symbolized abundant life. It also served as a bank that could receive huge monetary deposits. On the surface, the Ephesian church appeared as zealous and productive as the city. In 2:2–3, Christ commends the Ephesian believers for their works, intensive labor, and perseverance. Under fire from several fronts (2:2, 6), they did not stumble or grow weary in their ministry. Yet Christ has one thing against them: they have abandoned “the love [they] had at first” (2:4; cf. Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16:8). There is a sense of tragic irony as Christ walks intimately among the churches (2:1) yet is lost in the busyness of the Ephesian congregation. Three verbs, each in the form of a command, unveil the process by which Christians recapture their first love: remember, repent, and do (the first things). “Remember from where you have fallen,” says Christ (2:5a NASB). The first step toward restoration is to remember the starting point where one’s heart began to drift from God. Reconciliation involves remembering correctly how the offender has hurt the offended, since the wrongdoer must confess the offense and seek forgiveness. Second, one must repent and completely turn away from the pattern of behavior that hurt the offended. Last, the forgiven should do the kind of good works that characterized the love he or she first shared with the forgiver (2:5b). There are no shortcuts to repentance, and sometimes the initial task of remembering accurately when one’s faith began to stray can be a Herculean feat since time and sin distort a person’s memory (cf. Num. 11:18–20; 14:2–4). But if the Ephesians do not repent, they will lose the light of their witness (2:5b). If they repent, Christ will give them the right to eat from the Tree of Life in the paradise of God (2:7). This final image not only points to paradise regained (Gen. 2:8–15) but also directly challenges the Artemis cult. The true refuge for the sinner is not the tree of Artemis but the cross. The common word for “tree” in Greek is dendron, but 2:7 uses xylon, referring to cut wood, things made of wood, or a nonliving tree. So the “tree of life” in 2:7 is literally the “dead wood of life,” or the cross (e.g., “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree [xylon],” Gal. 3:13 NASB, NRSV [= Deut. 21:23]; cf. Acts 10:39; 1 Pet. 2:24). What a powerful invitation! Return to the cross and regain your first love.


The Letter to Smyrna

8  “Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna: “The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life, says: 9  I know your affliction and poverty, yet you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a • synagogue of Satan. 10  Don't be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will have affliction for 10 days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown g of life. 11  “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death.

The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary

2:8–11: The letter to Smyrna. Smyrna was a large port city known for its architectural achievements and aesthetic appeal. Its coins read: “Smyrna, first in Asia . . . for its beauty and splendor.” Smyrna was known for its magnificent buildings and numerous temples (including one to the imperial cult). When viewed from a distance, Smyrna looked like a crown resting on the summit of a hill (Aelius Aristides, Orations 21.437; 22.443). In the sixth century BC, the city had been destroyed by the king of Lydia but was later rebuilt to its former glory in 290 BC. Because of its death and rebirth, Smyrna was likened to the legendary phoenix, which dies in flame and reincarnates from its ashes. In contrast to the beauty of Smyrna, its faux resurrection, and its crowning summit, Christ appears as the truly beautiful and glorious one, the true resurrection (2:8), and the bestower of an imperishable crown for the faithful (2:11). As the one who orchestrates history from first to last, Christ addresses a church under pressure and reassures them that their faith is not in vain. The tribulation of the church in Smyrna originated from vicious slander (2:9) by the local Jewish community, who had rejected the Nazarene sect as heretical (cf. Acts 25:5) and advised the city’s officials to suppress the Christian movement. In doing so, the Jews were unwittingly becoming instruments of evil, a “synagogue of Satan.” The fact that Christ addresses this group as “those who say they are Jews” and yet “are not” foreshadows the final parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity in the second century. Instead of offering immediate relief, Christ actually warns them that their situation will worsen. Many early Christians experienced exclusion from the trade guilds, property loss, and poverty. Some will be thrown into prison, while others will suffer a martyr’s death (2:10). The apostolic father Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was executed in this city by fire and sword (Martyrdom of Polycarp 4.1–3). Christians should not be surprised if their obedience leads to further persecution (cf. 2 Tim. 3:12). Yet the residents of Smyrna are actually abundantly rich in their present faith toward God (cf. Luke 12:21; James 2:5). A “crown of life” or athlete’s laurel (Greek stephanos), which was a symbol of endurance and honor, awaits all those who finish the race of life with faithfulness (cf. 2 Tim. 4:7).


The Letter to Pergamum

12  “Write to the angel of the church in Pergamum: “The One who has the sharp, double-edged sword says: 13  I know where you live — where Satan's throne is! And you are holding on to My name and did not deny your faith in Me, even in the days of Antipas, My faithful witness who was killed among you, where Satan lives. 14  But I have a few things against you. You have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to place a stumbling block in front of the Israelites: to eat meat sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality. 15  In the same way, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16  Therefore repent! Otherwise, I will come to you quickly and fight against them with the sword of My mouth. 17  “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it.

The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary

2:12–17: The letter to Pergamum. Pergamum was situated on a plateau some one thousand feet above the Caicus River valley and stood prominently in the expanse of the Mysian hills. The city was known for its great libraries, parchment materials, large theater, and many shrines (including the ones to Zeus, Athena, Asclepius, Hygeia, and Apollo). The temple of the Sebastoi (Greek for “the venerated ones,” referring to Augustus Caesar and his successors) in Pergamum was the first imperial temple erected in Asia Minor (29 BC). Of the three greatest cities in Roman Asia (i.e., Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum; Dio Chrysostom, Orations 34.48), the imperial cult was the most influential in Pergamum. Every five years or so, the Pergamene games were held in honor of the imperial family. It was a circus of epic proportions. The restored and reconstructed Altar to Zeus from Pergamum (second century BC). This altar may be what John refers to in Revelation 2:13. A Christian living in Pergamum could not avoid participating in the festivals or eating idol food without severe repercussions. Believers who refused to promote the imperial cult were ostracized from the trade guilds and even experienced confiscation of property, prison, and possibly death. Pergamum was one of the few cities that received from Rome the “right of the sword,” enabling it to execute criminals at its discretion. The anonymous Antipas, whom Christ praises as “my faithful witness” (2:13), was the first of the Christian martyrs in this city. Next John identifies someone in the church as the false prophet Balaam (2:14; cf. Num. 22:5–24:25). According to Jewish legend, Balaam advised King Balak to send Moabite women into the Israelite camp to seduce them into idolatry (Num. 25:1–5). Similarly, Christians who eat idol food (2:14), particularly during the cultic feasts, are guilty of the same spiritual adultery as Israel (2:14; cf. Jer. 3:6–9; Ezek. 23:35–38; Hos. 2:1–14). Those who teach idol food’s permissibility are guilty of the same kind of false prophecy as Balaam (cf. Jude 11; 2 Pet. 2:15–16). The Balaam sect at Pergamum was probably a local manifestation of the wider Nicolaitan movement (2:15; cf. 2:6). It is possible they justified their participation in the imperial festivals on the theological basis that an idol is nothing (cf. 1 Cor. 8:4) and thus cultic feasting was harmless (cf. 1 Cor. 10:19–22). Christ’s appearance as one “who has the sharp, double-edged sword” (2:12; cf. 1:16) is a direct challenge to “the right of sword” exercised by Pergamum. No one has the authority to judge God’s people except Christ (2:16). As judge, Christ warns the Balaam group that he will wage war against them with the sword of God’s word (2:16b). He also calls all the house churches to repent (2:16a) for their corporate sin of neglect. To those who overcome, Christ promises manna (Exod. 16:12–31) and will sustain them through their desertlike circumstances (2:17; cf. Deut. 8:3). The white stone was a pebble cast as a vote of acquittal during a trial. This stone is also an admission pass to a special feast: the eschatological wedding banquet with Christ (Rev. 19:7–9; cf. Matt. 22:11–13).


The Letter to Thyatira

18  “Write to the angel of the church in Thyatira: “The Son of God, the One whose eyes are like a fiery flame and whose feet are like fine bronze, says: 19  I know your works — your love, faithfulness, service, and endurance. Your last works are greater than the first. 20  But I have this against you: You tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and teaches and deceives My slaves to commit sexual immorality and to eat meat sacrificed to idols. 21  I gave her time to repent, but she does not want to repent of her sexual immorality. 22  Look! I will throw her into a sickbed and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her practices. 23  I will kill her children with the plague. Then all the churches will know that I am the One who examines minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you according to your works. 24  I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who haven't known the deep things of Satan — as they say — I do not put any other burden on you. 25  But hold on to what you have until I come. 26  The one who is victorious and keeps My works to the end: I will give him authority over the nations —27 and he will shepherd them with an iron scepter; he will shatter them like pottery just as I have received this from My Father. 28  I will also give him the morning star. 29  “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.

The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary

2:18–29: The letter to Thyatira. Thyatira, unlike the other cities of Asia Minor, lay on almost level ground and was bordered by rising hills. Its landscape and location made the city vulnerable to constant invasion, but its exporting business prospered because of the various roads that ran through the city and connected it to the Greek East. The first Christian convert in Macedonia—Lydia, a merchant of purple linens—was originally from Thyatira (Acts 16:14–15). Thyatira’s guild of dyers was prominent, along with its clothiers, linen workers, and coppersmiths. It is possible that the Greek word roughly rendered “burnished bronze” (the term does not translate easily into English) may have referred to a special metal alloy of copper and a silverlike zinc produced only in Thyatira. This metal is used to describe the luminous quality of the divine Son of Man (2:18). To a church whose city had a history of reconquest, Christ describes himself as “the Son of God” (2:18; cf. 2 Sam. 7:12–16; Ps. 110:1–2), the conquering Davidic king who would crush all of Israel’s enemies with an iron rod (2:26–28; cf. Ps. 2:8–9). The Thyatiran believers also faced the same temptation to participate in cultic feasts (2:14). A false prophetess whom John pejoratively calls Jezebel deceived the church into idolatrous behavior (2:20). Jezebel in the Old Testament was the infamous wife of King Ahab, who promoted Baal worship, murdered God’s prophets, and persecuted Elijah (2 Kings 9:22; 1 Kings 18–21). The Jezebel of Thyatira was a leader (probably a patroness of a house church) who shared “Satan’s so-called deep secrets” (a wordplay on her claim that she taught the deep things of God; 2:24; cf. 1 Cor. 2:10; 8:1, 4) and taught the permissibility of idol food. To Jezebel and her disciples (2:23; cf. 1 Cor. 4:7), Christ warns that he will throw her and those who are spiritually united with her onto a sickbed (2:22; cf. Matt. 9:2). He will strike them with a deadly disease leading to death unless they repent (2:22–23; cf. 1 Cor. 11:29–30; Acts 5:3–10). But Christ also tells the faithful in Thyatira to repent. In one of the most theologically striking texts of all seven letters, he warns the church, “You are forgiving [Greek aphiēmi] the woman Jezebel,” when she should not be forgiven (2:20; both the NIV and NRSV translate the Greek verb as “you tolerate,” but “you are forgiving” is to be preferred). With words reminiscent of the Johannine commission, “If you forgive [Greek aphiēmi] the sins of any, they are forgiven” (John 20:23 ESV), Christ calls the church to the priestly duty of discerning whether members have truly repented (2:21–22). It is the church’s duty not to forgive until they take sin seriously (cf. Matt. 18:15–18). The one who searches the heart cannot be fooled by shallow repentance but will instead judge all according to their works (2:23). But to those who persevere, the son of David will share the right to rule the nations with him (2:27–28; cf. Ps. 2:9; Isa. 14:12).


The Letter to Sardis

3 “Write to the angel of the church in Sardis: “The One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars says: I know your works; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead. 2  Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die, for I have not found your works complete before My God. 3  Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. But if you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come against you. 4  But you have a few people in Sardis who have not defiled their clothes, and they will walk with Me in white, because they are worthy. 5  In the same way, the victor will be dressed in white clothes, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before My Father and before His angels. 6  “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.

The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary

3:1–6: The letter to Sardis. The city of Sardis had a reputation for wealth that exceeded its reality. According to an early Greek legend, King Midas washed off the cursed touch that turned everything into gold by bathing in the Pactolus River, which ran through Sardis. Sardis in its early history prospered through gold deposits discovered in the river. During the Roman era, however, Sardis became prosperous through its textile industry, its important trade routes, and its fertile plains. It had at least two temples on site, one to Augustus and the other to Artemis. In AD 17, Sardis suffered from a sudden earthquake, called the greatest disaster in local memory by Pliny the Elder (Natural History 2.86). With help from the emperors Tiberius and Claudius, Sardis was rebuilt. It quickly regained part of its former prosperity and sought the right to renew the imperial cult. To the church in Sardis, Christ appears as the divine judge, the Son of Man, holding the seven spirits and stars (Rev. 1:12–16). Perhaps to outsiders the church looked like the epitome of success. But when Christ lifts the veil, John is horrified to see a congregation that is on the brink of spiritual death (3:1). Their works always fall short of genuine sacrifice (3:3). Though Sardis was known for its booming garment and textile trade, these believers wear soiled clothing (3:4), a poignant symbol of moral compromise with their surrounding culture. Christ warns them to wake up, strengthen what little faith remains, remember what they first heard, and obey (3:3–4). If they do not heed this warning, when the Son of Man returns (cf. Matt. 24:42–44; 1 Thess. 5:1–6), they will be caught off guard (as they were when the earthquake hit in AD 17) and shocked to find themselves on the wrong side of eternity. But to the faithful, Christ promises to dress them gloriously in white (a symbol of purity and victory) and never to blot out their names from the book of life (a heavenly register; see Exod. 32:32–33).


The Letter to Philadelphia

7  “Write to the angel of the church in Philadelphia: “The Holy One, the True One, the One who has the key of David, who opens and no one will close, and closes and no one opens says: 8  I know your works. Because you have limited strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name, look, I have placed before you an open door that no one is able to close. 9  Take note! I will make those from the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying — note this — I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and they will know that I have loved you. 10  Because you have kept My command to endure, I will also keep you from the hour of testing that is going to come over the whole world to test those who live on the earth. 11  I am coming quickly. Hold on to what you have, so that no one takes your crown. 12  The victor: I will make him a pillar in the sanctuary of My God, and he will never go out again. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God — the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God — and My new name. 13  “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.

The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary

3:7–13: The letter to Philadelphia. Legend has it that Philadelphia was named after two rulers of the Attalid dynasty, the brothers Eumenes II and Attalus II Philadelphus. Philadelphia was known as the “gate” or “door” because it stood at the juncture of two major road systems. One road ran north from Ephesus and through a pass above the Cogamis Valley, while the other road ran east of Philadelphia through the Phrygian province. Philadelphia experienced the benefits and burdens of living in a volcanic area called the Katakaumenē (literally “burned over”), which provided rich, fertile soil for the city’s large vineyards but because of frequent tremors also sent citizens fleeing from the city. Philadelphia, along with Sardis and Laodicea, experienced the infamous earthquake of AD 17 that leveled all three urban centers. When Philadelphia was rebuilt with Roman aid, the city was renamed “Neocaesarea” to honor the imperial family, and later “Philadelphia Flavia” to honor the Flavian emperor Vespasian. The Philadelphian church had “little strength” (3:8a). Nevertheless, a church that seems weak to the outside world is where God can display his glory (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26–29; 2 Cor. 12:8–10). As in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8–11), the church at Philadelphia was experiencing hostilities from the Jewish synagogue (3:9) but did not deny Jesus’s name (3:8b). Because of their perseverance (3:10) and works (3:8a), the holy and true one gives three promises. First, Christ tells the Philadelphians that the door to the church’s mission and ministry (cf. 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3) will stay open. No one can shut it. Second, he promises to vindicate the church before the Jewish community (3:9; cf. Isa. 60:14; Rom. 11:11). Last, the one who holds the keys to David’s kingdom (3:7; cf. Isa. 22:2) promises them a place in David’s new city, the New Jerusalem (3:12; cf. 21:2, 10; Jer. 3:17). Unlike the earthly Philadelphia, whose name changed twice, the heavenly Jerusalem and its citizens have a permanent name (i.e., the name of God) and with it the assurance that they belong to Christ. Believers will be a pillar in the portico of God’s eschatological temple, which no earthquake can shake (cf. Ezek. 40:49), and they will receive the power to remain steadfast (3:12; cf. 1 Cor. 15:48). 


The Letter to Laodicea

14  “Write to the angel of the church in Laodicea: “The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Originator, of God's creation says: 15  I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. 16  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth. 17  Because you say, ‘I'm rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,' and you don't know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, 18  I advise you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see. 19  As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be committed and repent. 20  Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me. 21  The victor: I will give him the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I also won the victory and sat down with My Father on His throne. 22  “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”

The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary

3:14–22: The letter to Laodicea. The city of Laodicea, compared with Hierapolis and Colossae, was the most prominent of the three cities in the Lycus River valley. A trade route that connected Laodicea with Ephesus, along with lesser roads north to Hierapolis and east to Colossae, allowed for a prosperous exporting business. The city was a central hub between the three regions of Lydia, Phrygia, and Caria. Laodicea’s textile industry was known for a fine, dark wool. The city was also a banking center, exchanging Roman coinage, gold, and other items of deposit for local currency. Laodicea was so wealthy that when the infamous earthquake of AD 17 struck, it was the only city that refused Roman aid. It was home to a medical school that prized among its other healing drugs an ointment for burns. Laodicea receives a scathing rebuke from Christ, who attacks these points of civic pride. The Laodicean church was completely unaware of its true spiritual condition. Christ tells them: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. . . . Because you are lukewarm . . . I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (3:15–16). While neighboring Hierapolis was famous for its hot (95 degrees Fahrenheit) medicinal water springs, and Colossae for its pure, cold water, Laodicea had a poor water supply and imported water from five miles out through an aqueduct. The water was tepid on arrival. Christ laments that Laodicea is neither hot nor cold but rather disgusting (in the spiritual sense) like its lukewarm waters. Though they think highly of themselves (3:17a), they are actually wretched, pitiful, morally bankrupt, blind, and naked (3:17b). Referencing their wealth, Christ admonishes the church to buy what really matters (3:18): purity of heart (like gold refined by fire), forgiveness and holiness (like white garments; 7:14; cf. Lev. 16:14–16), and moral discernment (like eyes healed by medicinal ointments). The purpose of this rebuke and accompanying discipline (perhaps in the form of the trials to come; 6:1–8:1; cf. Heb. 12:5–11) is repentance. Christ loves the church and has not given up on it. Yet in a heart-wrenching image, he stands outside knocking at the church’s door (3:20; cf. Song of Sol. 5:2; Luke 12:36–37). To those who let Jesus in, Christ promises an intimate and restored fellowship (symbolized by the shared meal; 3:20).