17 A Preview of the Judgment
The Lord Jesus will judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom. Do we want to know the sort of things that the Great Judge will look for? The letters to the churches supply vital information concerning judgment to come.
To the angel of the church at Oldcastle
Imagine that there are not seven letters to seven churches, but eight letters to eight churches; and that the eighth letter begins like this:
"Unto the angel of the church in Oldcastle [or whatever the name of your ecclesia] write: These things saith the Son of God, I know thy works ..."
Would you be interested in this message from the Lord Jesus to your own ecclesia? Indeed you would!
"7 know thy works." Your mind would probably be leaping ahead of the written words, examining yourself and your ecclesia far more critically than you normally do, anticipating the Lord's verdict.
The fact is that you and your ecclesia have received not just one letter, but seven. Indeed each of the seven letters to the churches of Asia is also addressed to every one of us. Each is a personal communication from the Lord Jesus Christ to those who will receive it — "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches."
The letters to the churches are essentially judgments, interim judgments that help us to understand what the ultimate judgment will be like. There are important lessons to be learned, and they must be learned quickly because the time is short.
1. Complete discipleship
The first lesson is the most important of all. Nothing less than complete discipleship will do. The Lord abhors part-time disciples. There must be unconditional surrender to His authority. A quick check here: does this describe you — or are you a part-time disciple?
The church at Ephesus is a truly remarkable one. Works, labour, patience, doctrinal purity, endurance in adversity — this community functions like a well-oiled piece of machinery. Surely it has great reason to feel satisfied?
It has not! It has left its first love, and because of this it is in imminent danger. Repent or your lightstand will suddenly be removed — this is the urgent message of the Judge; it almost eclipses that splendid catalogue of virtues.
How does this stern verdict impress us? If we think that it is rather hard, we are, in our hearts, challenging the standards of the Lord Jesus and showing that we do not understand the nature of our calling. If we still think it is hard, let us not forget that love is the virtue that the Lord is insisting on. Those who forsake love cannot expect love.
So love is the one thing that matters! Are we here and now resolving to concentrate on love while perhaps relaxing a little with regard to the sterner virtues, like doctrinal purity?
Careful now! Pergamos is rebuked just as sternly as Ephesus, but the reason for the rebuke is different. Because the wicked teaching of Balaam has pervaded the church in Pergamos, they are told: "Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth" (2:16).
So a high standard of purity in teaching and practice is also vitally important. In fact, everything that God commands is important. For this reason each disciple should make a special point of discovering his deficiencies and making them good.
It is human and natural for people to congratulate themselves on their "strong points" and to console themselves with the thought that these will compensate for their shortcomings. This is a pernicious and dangerous way of thinking. The commandment that really tests the quality of a man's discipleship is the one that he finds difficult. There is no credit in concentrating on that which is easy to obey. This is the way of the world. The fact that all professing Christians tend to do this is a commentary on the deceitfulness of the human mind. And self is the biggest victim of human deceit.
Nothing less than unconditional surrender to the Lord's authority is acceptable; and we cannot surrender unconditionally unless we really believe in Him, and know in our heart that He is altogether adequate, and will provide for all our needs.
2. The danger of self-deceit
Back to the theme of self-deceit! In six out of the seven letters there is condemnation for trusting in a lie. Thus there are, in Ephesus, those "which say they are apostles"; in Smyrna, "them which say they are Jews"; in Thyatira, "that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess"; Sardis has "a name that thou livest, and art dead"; in Philadelphia again there are those "which say they are Jews"; and Laodicea is condemned "because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."
Here, surely, is evidence enough that self-deceit is dangerously easy. Which reminds us of earlier thoughts concerning prejudice.
As the wise man says: "Every man's ways are pure in his own eyes". In these messages to the churches, the Lord is warning his servants that the reason why people will be rejected at the judgment is because they have not examined themselves in the light of instruction from the Word of God. It is the Lord's standards that matter, and not ours.
3. The need for repentance
The demands of discipleship reveal the shortcomings of God's servants. Inevitably there are sins, both of commission and neglect, to be repented of.
The frequent occurrence of this word "repent" in the letters to the churches is the measure of its importance. Today is the day of opportunity — the day of repentance. And generally speaking the proof of sincere repentance is the forsaking of that which is repented of. To repent is to acknowledge that God is right after all. "Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee" (3:3).
4. Beware of covetousness
Again and again reference is made, in these seven letters, to one particular chapter from the Gospels. Have you noticed the frequency of these references? Do you recognise the chapter?
The chapter is Luke 12. If you do not recall what this chapter is about, you may unwittingly have been neglecting one of the most important messages of all. The key verse is verse 31:
"But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things [food, clothing, material possessions] shall be added unto you."
It would be an interesting exercise to mark every place where Luke 12 is quoted in the seven letters. "There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known"; "Be not afraid of them that kill the body . . ."; "Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God"; "Sell that ye have, and give alms .. ."; "And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come . . ."; "He will make him ruler over all that he hath" — these are only some of the passages from Luke 12 that can be matched by words from the seven letters.
The importance of all this is immense. Ponder the fact that the standards laid down in Luke 12 are the basis of the Lord's judgment. How do we measure up to them?
Covetousness is the fashionable, sophisticated idolatry of our day that threatens to steal our hearts and beguile us into thinking that other things are more important than the kingdom of God. Hence the Lord's warning:
"Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (Luke 12:15). And again:
"The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment" (Luke 12:23).
The fact must be faced that most people simply do not accept these propositions. Of course the Lord recognises that because we are mortal we need certain basic things to maintain us in life — "Your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things." The things in question contribute towards our life, but seeking them must not be the great purpose of life. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God."
Wonderfully reassuring are the words: "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (verse 32). The emphasis is on the kingdom. Because it is God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom — if we seek it — He can surely take care of us and supply our creature needs in the meantime.
What it amounts to is this: if our highest priority is seeking God's kingdom, we can be sure that God will give us that kingdom, and that He will supply us with sufficient to maintain us in this present life which is a preparation for the kingdom; if, however, these other things take precedence, we will not get the kingdom, and we have no guarantee that our material needs will be satisfied either.
Only those who apply this principle in their lives can withstand the Lord's scrutiny as he moves amongst the churches. Only they will be able to stand in the great day of God's wrath. They alone are God's true servants for whom the enlightenment of the Revelation is intended.
Smyrna had learned this lesson. How comforting are the Lord's words to this church: "I know thy . . . poverty, (but thou art rich)" (2:9). And what a contrast the words to Laodicea: "Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked" (3:17). These people were obsessed with material things: no wonder they were lukewarm. They tried to worship both God and Mammon.
5. Ecclesial independence
Important lessons concerning the status of ecclesias can be learned from the letters to the churches. Each church is a separate light-stand. The Mosaic candlestick was all of one piece, consisting of a central stem and six branches.1 The candlestick of Zechariah's prophecy was also of one piece, though here there was one great bowl and seven burners.2 However, in Revelation the pattern changes more significantly. Appropriate to the ecclesial organisation of the Christian community there are seven separate light-stands. Some can be removed and others left — hence the warning to Ephesus: "I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent" (2:5).
The fact that each church is represented by a separate candlestick means that each church functions independently and is re-responsible for its own affairs. Ephesus is blamed because she has lost her first love, but she is not held responsible for the false doctrine of Pergamos nor the lukewarmness of Laodicea.
Ecclesial autonomy is an important principle, and the Lord's words to the churches of Asia show how wrong it is for some ecclesias to pressurise other ecclesias into conforming to their pattern, often to the point of boycotting and virtually disfellowship-ping those that do not conform.
Of course this ecclesial independence cannot be absolute. Apostles and prophets were concerned with the spiritual health of many churches; brethren were appointed as bishops of ecclesias
that they had not been members of; some ecclesias provided welfare for others whose material needs were great; and messages were exchanged and sometimes circulated — for example there was to be an exchange of Paul's letters between the neighbouring ecclesias of Colosse and Laodicea.3
Another lesson is provided by the Lord's words to the faithful remnant in Thyatira. They are not encouraged to break away from that compromising community and start a better one. Like the few in Sardis, they prove their worth by holding fast.
The relevance of the seven messages
The seven letters are often treated as if they hardly belong to the book of Revelation. Some expositors have almost, if not altogether, ignored them. Others have tried to give these letters an artificial relevance by postulating the theory that, taken together, they provide us with a dramatised prophecy of the declension of the church — the spiritual graph sloping downwards from Ephesus to Laodicea. However, there is no scriptural support for this theory, and it is contradicted by the high spiritual quality of the next to the last church, Philadelphia.
The relevance of the seven letters is more real than this. The book of Revelation has been provided to show God's servants things which must shortly come to pass; and the letters enable people to examine themselves and see whether they are indeed God's servants.
We have seen that, above all else, they teach clearly that the Judge accepts nothing less than complete discipleship; and by repeated references to Luke 12 they provide a warning against that form of idolatry called covetousness.
This warning against covetousness is important for two reasons: first, because obsession with material things is such a feature of these last days; second, because the destruction of civilisation will reveal the absurdity of this misplaced trust. Let us not forget Ba-ruch the son of Neriah!4
Blessings are promised to those who overcome. Seven times the assurance of blessing to come is given by the Lord Jesus. Those who overcome are permitted to eat of the tree of life; are given a crown of life; a new name, power over the nations; white garments; they are made pillars in the temple of God; are granted the privilege of sitting with the Lord around God's throne.
That word, overcome, is important. It is profitable to trace the usage of this key word right through the book of Revelation.5
The circumstances in which the promised blessings are given to those who overcome are detailed in the ensuing chapters of the book of Revelation. Particularly impressive is chapter 19 where there are references to five of the seven churches.6
The important connections between the letters to the churches and the beginning of the next section of Revelation are often overlooked. Brief reference was made to some of these earlier,7 but here they are set out more fully.
"Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life" (2:10). Connect this with the 24 elders with crowns of gold (4:4).
"He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment" (3:5). Connect this with the 24 elders clothed in white raiment (4:4).
"Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown" (3:11).
Those who have held their crowns, resisting all human attempts to take them away, are able to cast them before the throne, saying, "Thou art worthy ..." (4:10,11).
"To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my ^ throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne" (3:21).
This is related 1) to the picture of the 24 elders' thrones around a central throne (4:4); and 2) the prevailing [same word as "overcome" in Greek] of the Lamb referred to in Revelation 5.5.
Those interested in a deeper study of the letters to the churches! might like to follow up this suggestion. Each of the letters is based on a character and/or an o-ccasion from the Old Testament. [ Three of the more obvious examples are:
Ephesus — Eden
Sardis — Moses coming down from Mount Sinai
Philadelphia — Jacob
Pursuing themes of this kind can be interesting and exciting. It can also be profitable, provided one does not lose sight of the fact that what ultimately matters is that we learn the lessons that the stimulating themes of Scripture are there to teach us.
References and Notes
1. Exodus 25:31-37
5 Unfortunately the importance of this word has been obscured by translation The Greek word, nikao, is translated "overcome" in the following passages: Revelation 2:7,11,26; 3:5,12,21; 11:7; 12:11; 13:7; 17:14; 21:7; it is translated "prevail" in 5:5;"conquer" in 6:2; "get the victory" in 15':2.
6 See Revelation 19 verses 8,9,11,12