Seven Letters to Seven Churches- Some Final Thoughts

I think it’s easy to forget, even for those of us with red letter Bibles, that Jesus does a lot of speaking in Revelation. This is one of the reasons I undertook these devotionals, to consider the short letters Christ orders John to write:

“Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicean.” (Revelation 1:11 ESV)

I came to love these little letters as Christ’s gift to the church — a gift of hope, mostly, telling us who we are and what it means to be church.

So, a few things I noticed as I wrote these. This short essay is hardly exhaustive, but I think it would be interesting to write a short book about being church based on these letters, since each of these seven churches represents a “type” of church we’ve all seen, or been in. Which means these letters are still, in many ways, dictated to us. Because, as Christ himself says,

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

  1. Each Church Has An Angel Watching Over It. The letters aren’t actually dictated to the churches themselves, but to the angels — the seven stars in Christ’s right hand — that belong to and watch over the churches. I say watch over, but we aren’t really told what the seven stars do, aside from “belonging” to each church. Whatever this might mean, we aren’t alone — God is watching us, protecting us, guiding us, disciplining us and keeping us safe while se do the work of and live as church. We are not alone — we have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in our midst, and an angel with us, giving us guidance. We are powerful, even — perhaps especially — when we think we’re not.
  2. We Can Fail to Get It “Right” And Still Be Church This is the most important thing I believe we can learn from these letters. Christ reproaches each of these churches for something, and four of them he specifically calls to repent. The other three, he commands them to courage and faith in the face of tribulation and suffering, or he admonishes them for tolerating heretical teaching. We don’t know if any of these churches “gets it right,” but we do know that they are still church despite not getting it right. This stands in opposition to a lot of Christian thinking, that if we don’t get church absolutely right, we aren’t church. Christ warns and calls each of these churches to some kind of repentance, but he also reminds each of them — even the feckless church at Laodicea that cannot seem to get anything right — that each of them has something going for them (even if it is only their suffering because Christ is disciplining them). Because for all the issues these churches have, they know whose they are. They belong to Jesus.
  3. Consequences Are For Christ Alone For their sins, their falling short, Christ tells each of these churches that something will happen (or, at Laodicia, is already happening). But Jesus is emphatic — he and he alone will impose these consequences, whether it is removing a lamp stand or coming like a thief in the night, bringing enemies to grovel at one’s feet, or inflicting sickness and death upon Jezebel and her children. This is actually a good corrective to the shunning and exclusion that Paul seems to advocate as part of church life. We’re not the authors of the consequences, we don’t impose penalties or punishments for sin. We leave that to God, who promises a kind of “what goes around comes around” when it comes to faithlessness and sin in the church. Our calling is only to be faithful and true to the one who is faithful and true.
  4. To The One Who Conquers… Each of these letters concludes with a promise from Jesus “to the one who conquers” (ὁ νικῶν), a fascinating way to describe those who die in the faith. Because each of these letters are calls by Christ to be faithful unto death just as he was faithful unto death. Though because Christ himself also rises, in this “conquest” in the promise of resurrection with him, to rule with him. God uses this phrase, “the one who conquers,” in Revelation 21 to describe who will share in the new heaven and new earth, who will have living water, and who will be “my son” (which means this could be a reference to Christ, and/or a reference to those who have died in Christ and been risen again). Death is not to be feared here, because we belong to one who died and lives forever. Christ rose from the dead and promises to share that rising, that conquest, with us.

It is a great and eternal hope that we have, this calling to be God’s people in the world. It is not easy, and we are not always very good at it, but that doesn’t necessarily matter. Because even when we cannot be faithful and true, we belong to Crucified and Risen Lord who is faithful and true, to the very end.

A Brief Delay

Okay, so I have gotten a good start on the latest in my Revelation church letter reflections, to the Church at Thyatira, but this last weekend was something of a muddle. Our neighbor kept us up all hours with very loud music (no one who lives in a complex as tightly packed as the one we live in should have a sound system that good; there’s no point) and I have appointments this morning. So, I will have to punt on Thyatira right now, and it will have to wait.

Until then, I’d like to present you all with an excerpt from advertising executive Bruce Barton’s classic 1924 work about Jesus as salesman and business executive, The Man Nobody Knows. This is both compelling and horrifying, in that Barton is trying to punch through all the myth to the man Jesus whose followers accomplished such great things with hard work, organization, and moxie, and yet the Jesus he creates is the kind of man you would expect would succeed wildly selling farm implements, municipal bonds, or vacuum cleaners.

Theology has spoiled the thrill of his life by assuming that he knew everything form the beginning–that his three years of public work were a kind of dress rehearsal, with no real problems or crises. What interest would there be in such a life? What inspiration? You who read these pages have your own creed concerning him; I have mine. Let us forget all creed for the time being, and take the story just as the simple narratives give it–a poor boy, growing up in a peasant family, working in a carpenter shop; gradually feeling his powers expanding, beginning to have an influence over his neighbors, recruiting a few followers, suffering disappointments and reverses, finally death. Yet building so solidly and well that death was only the beginning of his influence! Stripped of all dogma this is the grandest achievement story of all! …

Success is always exciting; we never grow tired of asking what and how. What, then were the principle elements in his power over men? How was it is that the boy from a country village became the greatest leader?

“Whoever meets or exceeds quarterly expectations will inherit eternal life!”

First of all he had the voice and manner of the leader–the personal magnetism which begets loyalty and commands respect… . . We speak of personal magnetism as though there were something mysterious about it–a magic quality bestowed on one in a thousand and denied to all the rest. This is not true. The essential element in personal magnetism is a consuming sincerity–an overwhelming faith in the importance of the work one has to do… .

The second [secret of Jesus’ success] was his wonderful power to pick men, and to recognize hidden capacities in them. It must have amazed Nicodemus when he learned the names of the twelve whom the young teacher had chosen to be his associates. What a list! Not a single well-known person on it. Nobody who had ever made a success of anything. A haphazard collection of fishermen and small-town businessmen, and one tax collector–a member of the most hated element in the community. What a crowd! …

Having gathered together his organization, there remained for Jesus the tremendous task of training it. And herein lay the third great element in his success–his vast unending patience. The Church has attached to each of the disciples the title of Saint and thereby done most to destroy the conviction of their reality. They were very far from sainthood when he picked them up. For three years he had them with him day and night, his whole energy and resources poured out in an effort to create an understanding in them …

The Bible presents an interesting collection of contrasts in this matter of executive ability. Samson had almost all the attributes of leadership. He was physically powerful and handsome; he had the great courage to which men always respond. No man was ever given a finer opportunity to free his countrymen from the oppressors and build up a great place of power for himself. Yet Samson failed miserably. He could do wonders singlehanded, but he could not organize. Moses started out under the same handicap. He tried to be everything and do everything; and was almost on the verge of failure. It was his father-in-law, Jethro, who saved him from calamity. Said that shrewd old man: Said that shrewd old man: The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou and this people that is with thee, for this thing is too heavy for thee, for thou are not able to perform it thyself alone.

Moses took the advice and associated with himself a partner, Aaron, who was strong where he was weak. They supplemented each other and together achieved what neither of them could have done alone.

John, the Baptist, had the same lack. He could denounce, but he could not construct. He drew crowds who were willing to repent at his command, but he had no program for them after their repentance. They waited for him to organize them for some sort of effective service, and he was no organizer. So his followers drifted away and his movement gradually collapsed. The same thing might have happened to the work of Jesus. He started with much less reputation than John and a much smaller group of followers. He had only twelve, and they were untrained simple men, with elementary weakness and passions. Yet because of the fire of his personal conviction, because of his marvelous instinct for discovering their latent powers, and because of his unwavering faith and patience, he molded them into an organization which carried on victoriously. Within a very few years after his death, it was reported in a far-off corner of the Roman Empire that these who have turned the world upside down have come hither also. A few decades later the proud Emperor himself bowed his head to the teachings of this Nazareth carpenter, transmitted through common men.

Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1925), 8–9, 18–19, 23, 27, 29–31.

Jesus clearly had the Glengarry leads.