The Pastoral Letters to the Congregations at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, and Thyatira. Rev. 2, 1-29.

The letter to the congregation at Ephesus: V.1. Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write: These things saith Re that holdeth the seven stars in His right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks: v.2. I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil; and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles and are not, and hast found them liars; v.3. and hast borne, and hast patience, and for My name's sake hast labored, and hast not fainted. V.4. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. V.5. Remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. v.6. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate. V.7. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches: To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God. The seven open pastoral letters which are included in the Book of Revelation all have the same outline: the command to write, supported by some description of the person and office of Christ; the body of the letter with a testimony concerning the state of the congregation, an admonition to repentance or steadfastness, and a prophecy of the future; a promise to the conquering believers.

The congregation at Ephesus had been founded by the Apostle Paul, Acts 18, 19, who worked there for three years, and very successfully, in spite of many difficulties, Acts 20, 31; I Cor. 15, 32; 16, 9. Subsequently Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos, and Timothy, were active in the congregation at Ephesus, Acts 18, 16. 24; 1 Tim. 1, 2. 3. Since the death of Paul, and probably also that of Timothy, St. John had resided at Ephesus, if the historical account in this case may be relied upon. What Paul had foretold in regard to this congregation, Acts 20, 17-29, had come to pass. Therefore the Lord of the Church Himself dictated this letter to John: To the angel of the congregation in Ephesus write: These things says He that holds the seven stars in His right hand, that walks about in the midst of the seven golden lamp-stands. The letter is addressed to the pastor of the congregation, for he has the first responsibility for the souls in his pastoral care; he is to watch over both doctrine and life. It is the Lord of the Church that is speaking. He that holds the pastors of the seven congregations in His protecting hand, He that not only stands in the midst of the cressets, but walks about among them. He is ever watchful, continually active in behalf of every Christian congregation, He wants the Christian congregations to shine as lights in this world of sinful darkness, but He knows also that they require constant replenishing and care, and He is willing to be of assistance to them, lest their light flicker and fade.

The Lord’s first remarks are words of commendation: I know thy works and hard labor and thy endurance, and that thou canst not bear wicked men, and hast put to a test those that claim to be apostles and are not, and hast found them liars, and hast endurance and hast borne up for My name’s sake, and hast not grown weary. Nothing escapes the notice of the omniscient Lord, nothing is hidden from His interested search. He knew the works of faith that were performed in the midst of the Ephesine congregation, the hard labor done by those that were active in the ministry and in the many works of charity, the enduring patience toward the weak brethren within and the perils from without. Cp. 1 Tim. 3, 1; 5, 17. There was also careful vigilance in the congregation at Ephesus, a holy zeal far the truth which would not permit obviously wicked men to remain members. Men that claimed to be apostles and to be the bearers of new revelations were put to a severe test and their deceit and falsehood exposed. The Christians of Ephesus were noted for the fact that they suffered and bore and persevered in the midst of the severest afflictions, taking up their cross and following after the Lord without complaint. They showed true Christian endurance and hopeful patience. All the disgrace heaped upon them, all the persecution on the part of the world, was not able to take away the courage of their faith. For the sake of the name of Christ which they bore they remained faithful; they did not grow faint and weary. Mark: True Christian conduct, faithfulness in the service of the Lord, proper brotherly discipline, firm adherence to the pure doctrine, patience and perseverance in the midst of enmity and tribulation: all these should be distinctive signs of every Christian congregation.

A rebuke and a warning: But I have against thee that thou hast left the first love. It is a sad “but” that introduces such a reprimand. In spite of the many praiseworthy factors in the congregation at Ephesus this sad state of affairs existed, that they had left the first fire and zeal for the Truth, for the Word of the Gospel, for the honor of the Lord which had been so prominent in the early days of the church. They were no longer filled with that bliss which is the essence of the believer’s first experience of the love of God; the eyelids of their spirit had grown heavy, they were in danger of falling asleep, Matt. 25, 5. It was the same experience which has been undergone innumerable times since where congregations have been established for two or more generations. The Lord, therefore, calls out: Remember, then, whence thou hast fallen, and repent, and do the first works; but if not, I am coming to thee, and I shall remove thy lamp-stand from its place, if thou dost not repent. The congregation at Ephesus should have remained on the heights of the first love and grown ever stronger in their affection for the Lord of salvation, Song of Sol. 8, 6. 7. Since, now, it had fallen from this perfection, from this ideal state, there was only one way of restoring the relation between the Lord and His church, namely, by sincere repentance, by a return to the first works as they were surcharged with love for the Lord, as they were pleasing to God through Jesus Christ. Should they refuse to hear this faithful admonition, then the Lord would find Himself obliged to deal harshly with the Christians of Ephesus, by taking away the light of His Gospel from their midst. That has been the result of indifference in scores of cases, as the history of the Christian Church shows; and this warning is rendered none the less severe by the added condition that repentance is essential where the first love is no longer found in the Christian congregations.

At the same time the Lord does not withhold from the congregation at Ephesus the praise it deserved: Still, this thou hast, that thou hatest the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. The Nicolaitans, named after a certain Nicolaus, whom some identify with the deacon of that name, Acts 6, 5, were a sect whose members turned Christian liberty into license, practicing religious sensuality and immorality, and trying to introduce many heathen customs into the Christian Church. The hatred which the congregation of Ephesus as such showed for the ways of these libertines proved that the ways of the world had not yet gained the upper hand in their midst. In this they had the emphatic approval of the Lord, who wants this hatred for heathen abominations continued by all means, since He is a jealous God and cannot bear impurity in the Church which He ransomed by His blood.

The promise of the Lord: He that has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the congregations: To him that conquers I shall grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. Here is a powerful appeal for close attention, addressed primarily to the Christians of Ephesus, but also to believers everywhere and at all times. Every one that has ears to hear should yield them in careful application of mind and heart to this promise of the Lord. It is the Spirit of Christ that is speaking, and the words are the words of the Holy Ghost, 1 Cor. 2, 13. To every one that conquers or overcomes the many enemies and perils that obstruct his path in this life, to every one who through the power of faith passes successfully through life’s temptations, the Lord will grant, out of free favor and love, to eat of the fruit of the tree of life. Adam and Eve, by their transgression of God’s command, lost the earthly paradise with its tree of life, Gen. 3, 24. But we Christians look forward to the heavenly paradise, in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ, our Savior, in which we shall have fullness of joy and bliss unspeakable at His right hand forevermore. Christ's relation to God guarantees His promise of such privilege, for Christ's gift is God's gift, Rom. 6, 23.

The letter to the congregation at Smyrna: V.8. And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things says the First and the Last, which was dead and is alive: v.9. I know thy works and tribulation and poverty (but thou art rich), and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagog of Satan. V.10. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer. Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. V.11. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches: He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death. In the case of Ephesus it was internal decay that caused the pastoral letter to be written, in the case of Smyrna it was enmity and persecution from without. There is a solemn introduction also in this case: And to the angel of the congregation in Smyrna write: This says the First and the Last, who was dead and became alive. The entire message was to be transmitted to the congregation by its pastor, who is here addressed as the responsible officer. The Lord again calls Himself the First, having been before the beginning of the world, from eternity, and the Last, since He is the everlasting God. He was dead, not only in appearance, but in fact; He laid down His life for His friends and the whole world: we are reconciled to God through the death of His Son, Rom. 5, 10. But He did not remain in death; He became alive, by His own almighty power He restored His soul to His body. Thus He is the Source of life in those that believe in Him; by faith in Him they can scoff at death, which has lost its sting through Christ's atoning work.

The Lord addresses words of encouragement to the Smyrnean Christians: I know thy tribulation and thy poverty (but thou art rich), and the blasphemy on the part of those that claim to be Jews and are not, rather the synagog of Satan. That was the cross which the congregation at Smyrna had to bear, the enmity of the Jews. This opposition on the part of the Jews did not stop with little acts of meanness and with evil speaking and slandering: it was also due to their machinations that the Christians lost their earthly goods, money and property. On various trumped-up charges the believers were robbed of all they possessed in this world; they endured the confiscation of all that their earthly labor had brought them And yet, as the Lord tells them, they were rich, for they still had the grace of their Lord Jesus Christ, they still clung to the love of their heavenly Father; they had the riches of the divine mercy in the Gospel, 2 Cor. 6, 10. So far as the enemies of the Christians are concerned, the judgment of the Lord designates them as the synagog of Satan, for Satan is the liar from the beginning, and in his school the blasphemers are trained.

Still more encouragement is contained in the next words: Fear nothing what thou art destined to suffer. The Lord does not promise them relief or surcease from suffering. His words rather imply that further persecutions are imminent, and history shows that the next decades brought trials of various kinds to the Christians in this part of Asia Minor. And yet the Lord tells them to fear nothing, not to have the slightest apprehension as to their safety. Without His will or permission not a hair of their head could he harmed. They should be filled with the power of faith, which rests secure in the hands of the Father, no matter what the vicissitudes of life may be, Ps. 46, 2. 3. And this in spite of the fact that they are told: Behold, the devil will succeed in throwing some of you into prison that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. That was one form of persecution, which came from the government, but, as the Lord says, at the instigation of the devil, who hates the Word of the Gospel and makes use of the same methods to this day in order to hinder the spread of the Church. The very statement that this tribulation and test would be for only a definite time shows that the Lord will not permit them that are His to be tried beyond that they are able to endure, 1 Cor. 10, 13.

Therefore He calls out to them the golden words: Be thou faithful to death, and I shall give thee the crown of life. The very persecutions that were designed to make the Christians give up their faith served to strengthen them. The dross is burned away in the furnace of-the assayer, but the gold remains. Thus the faith of the Christian is proved in the school of persecutions; for it is at such times that he has an opportunity to prove his faithfulness to his Lord. Nor will the Lord permit this faithfulness to go unrewarded. The crown of life, eternal life itself, is the reward of grace assigned to the triumph of faith, to the loyalty of the believer. Like kings and priests we shall be given wreaths, in an everlasting festival we shall live before and with our Lord in the heavenly mansions, Jas. 1, 12. This thought is repeated in a second promise: He that has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the congregations: He that conquers will not suffer injury from the second death. The Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of Truth, says this to all congregations, to all believers. Every one that does overcome, that does prove himself a conqueror in the power of God, may feel the pangs of temporal death in his body, the weakness of his old sinful nature may cause him to wince and complain in sickness and to shrink back at the specter of death. But he that confesses Christ to the end, clinging to Him in true faith, will not see the second death, will not come into judgment and condemnation, but will pass through death into life. Temporal death will be to him an entrance into the everlasting homes of joy.

The letter to the congregation at Pergamos: V.12. And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write: These things saith He which hath the sharp sword with two edges: v.13. I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is; and thou holdest fast My name, and hast not denied My faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. V.14. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold to the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling- block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. V.15. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate. V.16. Repent, or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth. V.17. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the spirit saith unto the churches: To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. As in the case of the other letters, the Lord here introduces Himself by mentioning a special characteristic: And to the angel of the congregation in Pergamum write, These things says He that has the sword, two-edged, sharp. That is the way the Lord had appeared to John, chap. 1, 16, to signify the penetrating power of His Word, Heb. 4, 12. The Word of power was intended to assist the pastor of the congregation in Pergamum in his apparently difficult position. His testimony, under the circumstances, was not to lack in sharpness and penetrating strength. All pastors are to preach the Word as it is written, regardless of the fact that their proclamation is to the one a savor of life unto life and to the other a savor of death unto death, 2 Cor. 2, 16.

The Lord describes the situation as it existed in Pergamum: I know thy works and where thou dwellest, where is the throne of Satan; and thou adherest to My name, and thou hast not denied faith in Me in the days when Antipas, My witness, faithful to Me, was put to death in your midst, where Satan lives. The statements that Satan sat enthroned, had his abode, in the city of Pergamum, is probably made with reference to the idolatry practiced in that city and district. For not only was Pergamum a center of emperor-worship in Asia Minor, where the Roman emperor was given divine honor, but the worship of the heathen god Aesculapius, the god of doctors, and of Zeus Soter, the chief god of Greek mythology, was practiced there. All this was particularly repulsive to the Christian religion, which condemned all idols and their cult with absolute emphasis as inventions of Satan. Thus the Christian congregation at Pergamum was in a difficult position. The Lord, therefore, acknowledges the faithfulness of the believers in adhering to His name, to the confession of their Christian faith, under very trying conditions. Even when Antipas, or Antipater, who is said to have been the bishop of Pergamum toward the close of the century, suffered martyrdom, thus becoming the first prominent victim in the local church, they did not flinch, they did not deny or renounce the truth which they had accepted. For this stand the Lord commends them highly.

But there was cause for a severe reprimand also here: But I have a few things against thee, that thou hast there such as adhere to the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to place a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication; likewise thou hast also such as adhere to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. Though the Lord had given the congregation of Pergamum high praise, the rebuke here administered had become necessary. A minority of the church had become contaminated with dangerous transgressions, and the fault of the majority was indifference. Sensualism and carnal sins were being tolerated. The Lord refers to Balaam, who, after having been thwarted in his attempt to curse the children of Israel, Bum. 22-25; 31, 8-16, caused Balak, the king of the Moabites, to place a pitfall before the children of Israel by having the Moabite women seduce them to heathen worship and its attendant shameful orgies and sexual vices. It seems that certain members of the congregation at Pergamum had grown so lax that they deliberately took part in all the obscene practices of idol worship, and that they considered sexual excesses a harmless indulgence, the Nicolaitans holding this doctrine openly. Cp. v.6. These errorists were seducing the local Christians in the same way as Balaam succeeded in getting the Israelites enticed to ruin.

The Lord’s warning call: Repent; But if not, I am coming to thee quickly and shall battle with them with the sword of My mouth. Although only a few members of the congregation were actually involved in this sinning, yet the entire church, by its tolerant attitude, had become guilty before the Lord. Not to remove the cancerous growth and not to apply remedial measures was equivalent to abetting the guilty ones. So the Lord demanded repentance of the whole congregation for the sin of laxity in Christian discipline. And should the church delay in this change of attitude, then the Lord Himself will visit them. Not with the power of the government, but with the sword of His Word He intends to battle against the evildoers. He has ways and means of awakening strong witnesses for the truth and of showing all that profess the Christian truth that He will not be mocked. Laxity in Christian discipline is always a great peril for a congregation, for not only does the entire body become guilty of the transgressions committed by a few, but the evil, if unchecked, is bound to spread, for “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.”

The Lord closes this letter with a glorious promise: He that has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the congregations: To him that conquers I shall give to eat of the hidden manna, and I shall give him a white stone inscribed with a new name, which no man knows except the receiver. It is again the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Power, that makes this promise, not only to the Christians of Pergamum, but to those of all times and in every place. To him that conquers and overcomes all the tribulations and perils that beset his path the Lord will give heavenly food, hidden manna, John 6, 31-35, Christ Himself being that true spiritual food which meets every need of the soul. As we truly receive Christ and all His blessings through the means of grace here in time, so we shall afterward, in heaven, on the eternal Sabbath, enjoy His glory in its very fullness. There the believers shall also receive a fine white precious stone, which is a testimony of the Holy Ghost to their faith. As their names were written in the hands of God by virtue of His eternal love, so they are here inscribed on the precious stones of eternity as belonging to the heavenly Jerusalem, where they will see and enjoy their sonship of the Father through the lore of Christ, world without end.

Praise and reprimand for the congregation at Thyatira: V.18. And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These things saith the Son of God, who hath His eyes like unto a flame of fire, and His feet are like fine brass: v.19. I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first. V.20. Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce My servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. V.21. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. V.22. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. V.23. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am He which searcheth the reins and hearts; and I will give unto every one of you according to your works. This is the longest of the seven pastoral letters, and it shows peculiar conditions in the little city of Thyatira, the home of the pious Lydia, Acts 16, 14. 15. This letter also opens with a characteristic description of the author: And to the angel of the congregation in Thyatira write: These things says the Son of God, He that has His eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like burnished bronze. Cp. chap. 1, 15. It is as a judge full of holy wrath, as a consuming fire, that Jesus, the Son of God, is here introduced, as one from whom His enemies may expect certain and terrible punishment.

As in the case of the other congregations the Lord opens with a commendation: I know thy works and thy love and thy faith and thy service and thy patient endurance, and thy last works more than the first. That is high praise for a Christian congregation and speaks well for the Christian zeal of Lydia, who is generally supposed to have founded this church. The congregation of Thyatira as such was noted for its diligence in works and service of love, of brotherly love. These were the natural fruits of the faith which was still held by the great majority of the brethren. Another fruit of this faith was patient endurance amidst the persecutions which were instigated on the part of the enemies. They are even given the testimony that they had made steady progress in the works of Christianity, that their profiting had been apparent to all, Gal. 6, 9; 1 Thess. 4, 1; 1 Tim. 4, 15.

At the same time, however, conditions were existing that caused the Lord more than apprehension: But I have against thee that thou permittest that woman Jezebel, who alleges herself to be a prophetess and teaches and seduces My servants to commit fornication and to eat meats sacrificed to idols: and I have given her time that she should repent, and she will not repent from her fornication. Apparently the conditions of Pergamum were here intensified. In the Old Testament there had been a Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, who had seduced the children of Israel to idolatry, to the service of Baal with its obscene cult, to many abominations and lewd deeds. The name Jezebel, therefore, was a fitting name for the false prophetess in Thyatira, whose chief allurement seems to have consisted in the doctrine that Christians should overcome carnal desires by yielding to the lusts of the flesh to satiety and weariness, and that they should join in all the abominations of the heathen in order to pain influence over them. The result was that many servants of the Lord, many true Christians, had been seduced to a life of idolatry, of dissipation, of immorality and sexual vices. They had been plunged into a veritable abyss of wickedness, where the most abominable works of darkness were committed with the plea that this was Christianity in an advanced state. The Lord had already sent a warning to this immoral prophetess and had given her time to repent, but she obstinately persisted in her lewd course and despised the forbearance of God. And all this the congregation permitted; knowing the pool of unspeakable filth which was in their midst, the members had done nothing to remove the stain, the blot, from the congregation.

Therefore the Lord rebukes the congregation, incidentally adding the threat: Behold, I shall cast her upon a couch (of sickness), and the adulterers with her into great misery, if they do not repent of her works; and her children I shall utterly slay, and all congregations shall know that I am He who searches reins and hearts, and I shall give to you, to every one, according to your works. Almost the Lord’s patient forbearance is exhausted, and He will then show Himself the terrible Judge. The false prophetess herself He intended to visit with sickness, with pestilence, and all those that followed her immoral teaching and became guilty of lewdness in any form He would plunge into such an abyss of misery as to make them feel the power of His wrath. Note: In the very midst of this terrible threat the Lord holds out full amnesty to the sinners if they but repent. Physical distress and illness were not to come upon the men and women only that imitated the prophetess in her licentiousness, but her sin was to be visited also upon her children, whom the Lord threatened to exterminate. Thus by this one example of righteous wrath and punishment the Lord wanted to issue an emphatic and solemn warning to all the congregations in the entire district or province, to all congregations to the end of time, in fact, to show that He searches the inmost mind and heart, that no transgression is hidden before His eyes, and that He will punish the evil-doers according to their works. He may not always strike so openly, but it is true, nevertheless, that no man can escape His avenging justice.

An admonition and a warning to the congregation at Thyatira: V.24. But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak: I will put upon you none other burden. V.25. But that which ye have already hold fast till I come. V.26. And he that overcometh, and keepeth My works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations; v.27. and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers; even as I received of My Father. V.28. And I will give him the morning-star. V.29. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. These words are addressed to the faithful believers in Thyatira: But to you I say, the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not hold this doctrine, that did not know the depths of Satan, as they say: I do not cast upon you another burden. Some there were that had not been seduced by the immoral teachings of the false prophetess, that had kept themselves uncontaminated by her licentiousness. Even if the libertines claimed that this was the height of perfection, that they could fathom the very abysses of Satan, plunge into the very depths of immoral knowledge and practices and yet remain immune in body and mind, the true Christians knew that this was a mere pretest for indulgence in carnal excesses, and so they preserved a severe and uncompromising aloofness. Upon these people the Lord did not want to impose a further burden. He was milling to look upon their defection in the matter of dealing with the evil in their midst as a weakness, as lack of proper knowledge.

At the same time, however, He admonishes: Only hold what you have until I come. They should adhere firmly to their Christian faith and its confession, to their love, service, and patience, to their refusal to join the libertines in their terrible sins. He says that His visit, His coming, may be expected soon; He wants them to be faithful and true, to overcome wickedness and evil in every form.

To the faithful Christians the Lord also promises: And he that conquers and he that keeps My works to the end, I shall give him power over the heathen: and he shall rule them with an iron rod, like the jars of a potter he shall shatter them, as I have received from My Father, and I shall give him the morning-star. That surely is a glorious goal to hold out before the eyes of the Christians. Every one that overcomes the many attacks of Satan, the world, and his own evil flesh, and clings firmly to Christ’s Word and works by which Christ performs and perfects His sanctification in them, shall become partaker of the triumph of Christ. For as it was prophesied of Him, Ps. 2, 8. 9, that He would have dominion over the heathen, over the nations, that He would be given unlimited authority over them, so He will make those that believe in Him to the end partakers of this glory and power. The believers shall and will judge the world at the side of their great Lord and Savior. There, as the glory of eternity dawns, the brightness of everlasting life will shine on them after the dark afflictions of this vale of tears and misery. And lest the Christians forget the urgent admonition and the glorious promise of the Lord, He closes with the powerful call: He that has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the congregations.

Summary. The Lord dictates to his servant John pastoral letters addressed to the congregations at Ephesus, at Smyrna, at Pergamos, and at Thyatira, in all of which He commends the Christians for their condition and progress, but also rebukes them for any defects in doctrine and life that were to be found in their midst.