What can today’s church learn from the letters to the churches in Revelation? In Revelation 2–3, John addresses seven letters to seven churches in Asia. These notes from the Interpretation Commentary help us see into the challenges facing the seven churches. From this we can identify some of the same struggles we encounter in our churches today. We’ll look at six topics: tribulation, division, works, repentance, holding firm, love and spiritual gifts.

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

Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22

Christian Life and Responsibility as Pictured in the Seven Messages

The “bodies” of the seven messages provide us a window into the life of the church in Asia at the end of the first century. As elsewhere in the New Testament, we see no idealized picture. We see the mixture of faith and unfaith, responsibility and irresponsibility, which always characterizes the church in this world. John addresses Christians not as individuals striving for perfection but corporately, as members of communities of Christian mission and witness.


Christians live their lives in the midst of the pressures from a hostile world, which John calls “tribulation.” This tribulation is not some spectacular future event but has already begun in John’s own time. For John and all the churches, tribulation is the constant context within which God calls the Christian to be a faithful witness, but it is particularly evident in some situations (1:9; 2:9, 13). In John’s view tribulation is about to intensify into a terrible persecution, which will engulf all Christians and is the prelude to the End (2:10; 3:10; cf. 7:14).

The members of John’s churches are adherents of a minority religion in an environment of conflicting religious pluralism. Hostile Jewish synagogues (2:9) and hostile pagan religions, especially the emperor cult, place the Christians in the situation of being outsiders in their own culture. Deciding that loyalty to Christ meant having the responsibility of exercising Christian witness by refusing to participate in pagan functions would have severe social and economic consequences. And it could well lead to accusations before the local Roman courts of being a member of an anti-Roman sect.

John sees the conflict between the church and the synagogue as the this-worldly reality of a deeper conflict being waged in the transcendent sphere. The synagogues in Smyrna and Philadelphia are “synagogues of Satan” (2:9; 3:9), and the impressive temple to the emperor in Pergamum is “Satan’s throne” (2:13). When Romans imprison Christians, it is “the devil” who is really at work (2:10). On the other hand, the church is the setting where the Spirit speaks and the power of God is at work (2:7, 23; 3:8).


The churches face plagues of external conflicts and internal tensions. They are visited by Christian religious leaders who understand themselves as being “apostles” (2:2). They presented themselves as authorized messengers, missionaries, and teachers for the church at large (cf. Acts 14:14; Rom. 16:7; II Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25). Their teaching conflicts with John’s, and he commends the Ephesian church for rejecting them.

John also refers to “Nicolaitans” (2:6, 15), those who follow the teaching of “Balaam” (2:14), and the followers of a prophet “Jezebel” (2:20). The “Nicolaitans,” “Balaam,” and “Jezebel” promoted the “progressive” doctrine of accommodation to the culture around them. John saw the issue entirely in either/or terms: to participate in such activities was to take part in the false worship of pagan religion. For Israel’s prophets and for John, such accommodation to pagan ways was a betrayal of the faith, equivalent to idolatry and fornication, to which John may not have been alluding only figuratively (cf. I Cor. 6:9–20).

These groups apparently also advocated a “realized eschatology” which affirmed that Christians already participated in the new age. The “riches” of which the Laodicean church boasted were probably not only or even primarily material riches but the spiritual riches enjoyed by Christians who supposed they were already living in the fulfilled time of prophetic phenomena and spiritual bliss (cf. I Cor. 1:5–7). In John’s view the biggest internal danger to the churches was a combination of two misunderstandings: an understanding of the Christian life which relegated religion to the internal realm of one’s “real self,” instead of one’s external conduct, and an orientation to the present as the time of fulfillment rather than to the future, sure hope of God’s coming kingdom.


We should understand John’s emphasis on works in this context of the action of the Christian community in the face of the claims of the cultural religion. Repeatedly, the risen Christ declares that he knows the works of the Asian Christians (2:2, 19; 3:1, 8, 15), and will judge them by their works (20:12). In Revelation, John never uses the whole word-group for faith and believing in contrast to works, as in Paul. It never has the Pauline meaning of “obedience in personal trust that mediates our relationship to God.” His concern is with responsible Christian conduct; John’s word for this is “works.”

This insistence on the importance of Christian action shows that even in his situation of persecution, threat, and expectation of the near End John does not understand the Christian life to be simply passive waiting. The reference to “service” in 2:19 is more than incidental. John calls his churches to do more than endure; they are to perform ministry in the meantime.


Jesus commend some churches in the face of crisis, their “works” (Ephesus, 2:2; Thyatira, 2:19; Philadelphia, 3:8), while reproving others (Sardis, 3:1–2; Laodicea, 3:15). He calls all except Smyrna and Philadelphia to repentance. Repentance is not a once-and-for-all act that brings one into the Christian community but is the constant challenge to the community. It is not a matter of feeling sorry in a religious mood about past misdeeds but reorientation to a new model of life based on the gospel, the good news that God has already acted in Jesus for our salvation. The call to repentance is thus not chiding but opportunity. Even the Laodicean Christians can repent and sit with Christ on his throne, rejoicing with all God’s people at the messianic banquet (3:20–21).

Holding firm.

In John’s situation the Christian life is expressed chiefly in hypomone (RSV: “patient endurance,” 1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10). The quality of Christian action it expresses is not passive resignation; it is an active holding firm “for the sake of my name” (2:3, 13; 3:8), having courage in the face of interrogation by the Roman officials. The word derives from a verb which means “stand one’s ground, not to give in” (cf. Matt. 24:13; Mark 13:13). Some of the Asian churches are praised for manifesting this quality (2:2, 3, 19; 3:10): In the face of the cultural pressures, they hold fast to their confession of Christ as the only Lord—some of them even to the point of dying (2:13). There was much to admire in the Asian Christians.

Preachers and teachers in later generations, when the church is not such a powerless community threatened by the hostile government and culture, need to ask how hypomone can be translated into appropriate forms of Christian life and witness. In settings other than oppression and persecution, “patient endurance” as the essence of Christian responsibility in the world can be misunderstood as all too passive.

Love and spiritual gifts.

Since Revelation has the reputation of being a violent and unloving book, it should perhaps be emphasized that the risen Christ, through John, commends some of the Asian Christians for their love (2:4), and that like Paul, John considers love among the supreme expressions of the Christian life. “Love,” of course, is not a sentimental emotion but the active care for others manifested in Jesus’ own life. It is equated with “works” in 2:4–5.

The church at Thyatira is praised for its love expressed in deeds (2:19). The Ephesian church receives blame because it has abandoned the love it had at first (2:4). This does not mean that their “enthusiasm” had waned. John is not speaking of enthusiastic worship services, which seem to have continued among the Ephesians and John’s other churches. The reputation of Sardis as a “live” church (3:1) and the Laodiceans’ view of themselves as “rich” (3:17) probably refer to the charismatic enthusiasm of their realized eschatology (cf. I Cor. 4:8; II Cor. 4:12). Other, more spectacular manifestations of what they supposed was the spiritual life had become more important than the commonplace, selfless care for others represented by love in its Christian meaning.

As in Paul’s teaching, the kind of love Christ has for sinners (1:5, cf. Rom. 5:5–11) and even for the city which crucified him (20:9—Jerusalem is nonetheless “the beloved city”) is the basis for Christian love for others. John does have visions of terrible violence which befall the unrepentant, and these must receive their due. Yet these violent pictures must not blind us to the fact that John also has a vision of the love of God that embraces and redeems even the enemies, and this love is the basis for commending Christians to love as they have been loved.

Strengthen Your Church with the Interpretation Commentary

There is much for us to learn from John’s letter to the seven churches in Revelation. We also had to cut a lot of the material out of the commentary on this passage for this article. Now that we have your interest, go ahead and follow the link to the learn more about the Interpretation Commentary.

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