Pastoral Letters to the Congregations at Sardis, at Philadelphia, and at Laodicea. Rev. 3, 1-22.

The letter to the congregation at Sardis: V.1. And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead. V.2. Be watchful and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die; for I have not found thy works perfect before God. V.3. 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. V.4. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white; for they are worthy. V.5. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the Book of Life, but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. V.6. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. Here is a picture of spiritual decay and ruin which belongs to the saddest in the entire New Testament. The Lord again introduces Himself in His usual solemn manner: And to the angel of the congregation at Sardis write: These things says He that has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. Cp. chap. 1, 4. 16. 20. The pastor of this church had an unusually heavy responsibility resting upon him, and would have to render an account of the conditions in the parish entrusted to him with a very severe reckoning. The Lord places due emphasis upon the fact that the sevenfold Spirit of God is His, Is. 61, 1-6, that the various gifts and spiritual blessings of the Spirit come upon the believers by virtue of the atoning work of Christ. The Lord also has the seven stars, the seven ministers of these congregations, in His hand. He is the Lord of His Church and of every single congregation; He protects and shields His ministers, but He also demands that they render an account to Him according to the strictest reckoning.

The first word of the Lord is one of sharp reprimand: I know thy works, for thou hast the name that thou livest, and thou art dead. Doings of life, of true spiritual power, the Lord expected from His congregation, and instead of that He found only evidences of death. Before men the congregation still had the name, the reputation, of being spiritually alive and active. Other Christians, impressed probably by the great number of those that professed Christianity in Sardis, considered it a wideawake church. But the Lord saw and knew the actual state, and He sets it down in two words: Thou (art) dead. Cp. Matt. 23, 27. Mark: It is not the size of the church nor the number of heads that makes a congregation, but the actual number of those that sincerely believe in Jesus Christ, and give evidence of this faith in their entire life.

The Lord, therefore, utters a powerful admonition: Wake up, and strengthen the rest that is on the point of dying. The Lord is addressing Himself to the few who have not entirely lapsed from their first vitality, but who are responsible for the state of the congregation along with the rest. They should throw off the sluggishness that had benumbed them; they should return to full wakefulness and vigilance; they should remember that dead formalism never made a live church. And the best way of showing that they had actually rubbed all the spiritual sleep out of their eyes consisted in their rallying and strengthening the rest, the other brethren that were on the point of Fielding to the spiritual coma which would certainly result in death. For this conduct they had every reason: For not have I found any works of thine perfect before My God. There was still a formal observance of Christian worship in Sardis, a definite time of worship, preaching, singing, praying, but all these doings lacked that element which would make them perfect in the sight of God. The living, powerful faith was no longer in evidence in their midst, and therefore truly good works were quite unknown.

The Lord backs up His first admonition with a second: Remember now how thou hast received and heard, and hold to that and repent. He reminds them of the days of their first love, when they were so eager to receive, to hear, the Gospel. Cp. Gal. 4, 15. To that eagerness, to that zeal, to that love they should return with all speed; they should cling to it, turning away from their present sleepiness in true repentance. The Lord reinforces this call with a warning: if now thou wilt not wake up, I shall come upon thee like a thief, and thou wilt not know at what hour I shall come upon thee. Where repentance will not follow after such an impressive warning, there judgment will come upon those that lie in spiritual coma, in the sleep that is the precursor of spiritual death. Suddenly the Lord will come, like a thief, Matt. 24, 42. 43. Terror will go before Him, striking the hearts of the unbelievers numb with fear; and His punishment will bring them everlasting destruction. Cp. Ps. 73, 19. 20.

Once more the Lord brings a charge against the congregation at Sardis, although in a somewhat mitigated form: Still, a few names thou hast in Sardis that have not polluted their garments, and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. Out of the great number of professed Christians only a few that were really worthy of the name, only a few that had not polluted themselves with sins, only a few that had not become the slaves of sin. But their names were precious in the sight of God; they were well known to Him, they were graven upon the palms of His hands, Is. 49, 16. To these, therefore, the Lord wanted to give the white raiment of perfect innocence and holiness imputed to them by virtue of the atoning work of Christ. Thus clothed and adorned they should walk with Him in His Father’s kingdom, enjoying the bliss of eternity in His presence.

The Lord concludes with a stirring summons: He that conquers shall thus be clothed in white garments, and I shall not erase his name out of the Book of Life, and I shall confess his name before My Father and before His angels. Every Christian that conquers, that overcomes all the deceitful attacks of the devil, all the weakness and weariness of the flesh, will be given these great blessings as a reward of the grace of Christ. They will stand clothed in the garment of the perfect righteousness of the Savior, white and spotless, with all the stains of their sins washed away. Their names, which were entered in the Book of Life as a result of their having accepted Christ by faith, will not be erased. And at the time of the Judgment, when the wrath of God strikes the unbelievers, they will be beyond all condemnation, for their Savior will confess them as His own before the Father and before all the holy angels. Cp. Matt. 10, 32; 25, 34. The importance of this fact is such as to engage the careful attention of all Christians: He that has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the congregations.

The letter to the congregation at Philadelphia: V.7. And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These things saith He that is holy, He that is true, He that hath the key of David, he that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth: v.8. I know thy works; behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it; for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept My Word, and hast not denied My name. V.9. Behold, I will make them of the synagog of Satan which say they are Jews and are not, but do lie, behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. V.10. Because thou hast kept the Word of My patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. V.11. Behold, I come quickly; hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. V.12. Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go no more out; and I will write upon him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, which is New Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from My God; and I will write upon him My new name. V.13. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the spirit saith unto the churches. With even greater solemnity and impressiveness than in the case of the preceding letters, the Lord here addresses the Christians at Philadelphia: And to the angel of the congregation at Philadelphia write: These things says the Holy One, the True One, He that has the key of David. He that opens and no one shall shut, and shuts and no one shall open. The pastor of this congregation was to transmit to his charge a message with a very serious import. This is shown even by the name which the Lord applies to Himself. He calls Himself the Holy, the True One, or the truly Holy One. Christ is the Holy One of God, free from all weakness and imperfection of the creatures, true God with the Father from eternity, perfect in His essential holiness. He has the key of David; as a true descendant of David according to the flesh, as the Son of Man, He has established His kingdom, His Church, here on earth. To this mansion of His grace He has the key, in. it He rules and governs: He opens and He shuts its doors, He unlocks and He locks the treasures of His mercy to whom He will. This description prepares for the wonderful promises which the Lord now makes to this congregation.

The first word of the Lord is one of cordial commendation: I know thy works; behold, I have given before thee a door opened, which no one can close, because thou hast a little strength, and thou hast kept My Word, and not hast thou denied My name. The omniscient Lord is fully acquainted with all the circumstances of the congregation; He knows in just what manner His people have been doing the work which was entrusted to them, the work which consisted in bringing others to the blessed knowledge of their Savior. In this work they were being aided by the fact that the Son of David had opened a door before them, a door through which many might still enter into the kingdom of Christ. The Lord had given to this congregation unusual opportunities and facilities for preaching and advancing the faith among outsiders, the best chance for extending the Gospel-message. The entrance of unbelievers of every class, the conversion of the heathen, is the work of the Lord, and of Him alone. The reason why the Lord chose this congregation for this work is indicated by Him when He says that they had a little strength. Without riches, power, and influence before men, these Christians still possessed sources of might such as no man may have by his own reason, learning, and ability, namely, the Word of Christ, to which they had clung in spite of all enmity; the Lord Himself, whom they had not denied, in spite of all attempts of their enemies, renewed their strength day after day. It is He who gives power to the proclamation of His Word and causes it to bring forth much fruit.

An encouraging promise regarding the enemies: Behold, I give out of the synagog of Satan, of those that claim for themselves that they are Jews, and are not, but lie, - behold, I shall make them come and fall down at thy feet and know that I loved thee. There were men among the enemies of the church of Philadelphia who were full of hatred and full of deceit, men who belonged to the synagog of Satan, who had been apt pupils of the devil himself, especially in the art of malignant persecution, men who styled themselves Jews, but did not belong to the true Israelites in whom there is no guile, to the men that accepted the Messiah in simple faith. From the midst of these very bitter enemies of Christ and His Church the Lord intended, by His grace, to gain some souls for eternal salvation. This the Lord would give, this the Lord would bring to pass, for it is He that converts the hearts and fills them with the joy of their redemption. They would come, overcome by the power of the Word, and they would do homage before the Church which they formerly persecuted, fully convinced at last that the love of God was with His Church, and that only he that accepts this love in faith could be truly happy.

To this promise the Lord adds a second: Because thou hast kept the Word of My patience, I also shall keep thee from the hour of temptation which is bound to come upon the whole world, to test those that live upon the earth. The Word of Christ’s patience is the Word of the Gospel, since it teaches us how patiently Christ suffered for us, how readily He showed all forbearance toward His enemies, 1 Tim. 1, 16; 2 Pet. 3, 15. This Word the congregation at Philadelphia had kept; to this message, by the grace of God, it had clung; through its power the members had borne all tribulations patiently. In return the Lord, out of His great mercy, promises to keep them that are His from the great temptations of the last days of the world, when false Christs and false prophets, not to speak of Antichrist himself, would arise and fight against the army of Christ, Matt. 24, 23-26. That last hour would be a fierce and evil period, a time of proving, of testing out the true believers in the fires of many tribulations and distresses. But in the midst of these trials the Lord promises to keep them that are His; no man can pluck them out of His hand, John 10, 26. 29.

Incidentally, however, He calls out: I am coming very soon; hold firmly what thou hast, lest some one take thy crown. Through His Word the Lord gains and keeps the souls. Therefore the congregation, in view of the fact that His return to Judgment is at hand, is urged to cling to the Gospel and its blessings. Their crown, the message of their salvation, in which the individual spiritual gifts are like costly jewels, must be held with all the power at their command. Through unfaithfulness this crown, which includes the blessing of everlasting life, is lost. If Christians listen to the voice of the deceivers, if they permit themselves to be seduced into misbelief, despair, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, then the enemies will triumph, then they will capture the crown of life which is held out before the faithful. These words are not to be taken as a condition under which the Christians merit everlasting life, but as an admonition through which the Lord strengthens them in faithfulness. Thus we are kept, by the power of God, through faith, unto salvation.

To the faithful, moreover, the Lord holds out a wonderful final blessing: He that conquers, I shall make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall nevermore go forth, and I shall write upon him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, of the New Jerusalem which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My own new name. Here the reward of steadfastness in the Kingdom of Glory is described, as it is given to those who overcome all the attacks of the enemies and all the weakness of their own flesh. There will be no outwardly visible temple in the new Jerusalem, chap. 21, 22, but the building of that wonderful spiritual edifice of the Church will there be completed, the faithful Christians themselves being the pillars, adorned with glory and majesty. “My God” Christ calls His heavenly Father, Eph. 1, 17, to indicate that He who was His Judge in the great Passion has now become in truth His God and our God, our true Father, reconciled to us through His bloody atonement, John 20, 17. A threefold name the faithful believer will then bear, that of God the heavenly Father, of the heavenly Jerusalem, and of Christ the Redeemer Himself. Every Christian is the child of God by faith in Christ Jesus; having put on Christ in Baptism, He is in God’s hands throughout eternity. The name of the New Jerusalem, of the city above, he bears, to indicate that he has his citizenship above, where there will be joy at His right hand forevermore. Even in the new name of Jesus Christ we shall share, in that name above every name which has been given Him by virtue of His entering into the glory of heaven through His vicarious redemption. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. All those, therefore, that confessed the name of Jesus Christ unto the end will govern and triumph with Christ world without end. Truly, the prize is worth the most constant effort, and we shall do well to heed the call of the Lord: He that has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the congregations.

The letter to the congregation at Laodicea: V.14. And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write: These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: v.15. I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or hot. V.16. So, then, because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of My mouth; v.17. 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. V.18. I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire that thou mayest be rich, and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve that thou mayest see. V.19. As many as I love I rebuke and chasten; be zealous, therefore, and repent. V.20. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me. V.21. 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. V.22. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. The congregation had been in existence at the time when Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians, for he stated that he had a great conflict also for the Christians at Laodicea, Col. 2, 1; 4, 15-17. Apparently there was even greater reason for apprehension at this time, to judge from the general tone of this letter. The very introduction places the faithful and true Christ in strong opposition to the unstable and vacillating Christians of this Phrygian town: And to the angel of the congregation at Laodicea write: These things says Amen, the Witness faithful and true, the Beginning of God’s creation. It was a sad, almost disagreeable task which devolved upon the pastor of the Laodicean congregation, especially since the blame for the conditions in that city fell upon him. It was Amen that was speaking, a word which He Himself explains by stating that He is the true and faithful Witness, that every word which He utters is the eternal truth, that He does not recede from His position or change His mind like a vacillating weakling. He Himself is the Beginning of God’s creation, the active Source of God’s universe, the Creator of all things, almighty as well as omniscient, John 1, 3.

It is a sentence of divine disgust over lukewarm religion which the Lord utters: I know thy works, that neither cold thou art nor hot; would that cold thou wert or hot; so, because thou art tepid, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to spit thee out of My mouth. The omniscient Lord, familiar with all their hearts and minds, knew also all their doings, their attitude toward the Christian faith and all their customs and habits. They were not cold, they were not outspoken unbelievers, they did not range themselves on the side of the enemies of the Cross and of the Gospel, they were not of the party of the blasphemers. But, unfortunately, neither were they warm or hot; they did not possess that energetic warmth of religious life, of fervent faith and love, they had none of the warm zeal which breaks forth in holy wrath over the ungodly attitude of their day and age. Even a frank enmity against the Christian religion is more promising in a person than the lukewarmness and spiritual indifference which these people showed. It would have been better for them never to have come to the knowledge of the divine doctrine than to have come to this knowledge and not to be filled with spiritual zeal, 2 Pet. 2, 21. Their attitude fills the Lord with supreme disgust, with unspeakable loathing; it acts upon Him literally as an emetic, He is constrained to vomit them out of His mouth. That is the judgment of the Lord upon all such as are not seriously concerned about their Christianity, that still profess to be Christians, usually from some ulterior motive, and yet will not oppose the godless ways of the world. They want to mediate between Jehovah and Baal, between God and the world, between Christ and Belial, between light and darkness, between faith and unbelief, between righteousness and unrighteousness. Such people the Lord cannot bear, and unless they change their tactics very decidedly, His disgusted attitude will result in their punishment, in their being excluded from the blessings of the Kingdom.

The Lord adds a further characterization of lukewarm behavior in the Christian Church: Thou sayest, Rich I am, and abundance I possess, and of nothing I stand in need, and thou knowest not that thou art miserable and pitiful and poor and blind and naked. Self-sufficiency, self-satisfaction, is an attribute of lukewarm Christians. They are convinced of the perfection of their own Christianity and are careful to let every one else know of the good opinion which they hold of themselves. They imagine that they are rich in all spiritual truth and knowledge; they claim that they are filled to satiety with the old Gospel doctrine, and that no one can teach them anything. Cp. Hos. 12, 9. The talk which is heard from Christians of this type in our day often agrees word for word with what is here recorded. People are turning up their noses in disgust at the old Gospel-truth; the doctrines of the Catechism are beneath their dignity. But they deceive themselves. They are afflicted with blindness, and do not know it; they are in need of sympathy, and do not feel it; rich they claim to be, but in reality are poor beyond conception; they think their eyes have been opened, whereas in reality they have returned to the spiritual blindness of their state before conversion; they are proud of their dress of self-righteousness, and do not know that in the sight of God they are bare and naked.

Warningly, therefore, the Lord calls out to them: I advise thee earnestly to buy from Me gold tried by fire that thou mayest be rich, and white garments to clothe thee, lest the shame of thy nakedness appear, and salve to anoint thine eyes that thou mayest see. Here the earnest love of the Savior even for those that do not realize their own defects appears, He, in whom is the Spirit of counsel and of understanding, is so concerned about their soul’s salvation that He earnestly and urgently advises them to buy from Him wares tried and true. The gold which has been tried by fire is true, sound faith, 1 Pet. 1, 7, such faith as stands the test of persecutions and tribulations as well as that of peace and quietness. The white garments that will cover the nakedness of men is that of Christ’s righteousness, which is imputed to every one that believes. And the salve is the illumination of the Holy Ghost, which is needed above all to bring men to the knowledge of their real spiritual condition. These wonderful gifts are not obtained by any man by his own reason or strength; the price which man pays for them is not one of his own merit. The buying of which the Lord speaks is that which He brings out in that wonderful passage: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” It is all free, wonderful love and mercy on the part of God.

The Lord follows up His warning with a powerful appeal: As for Me, as many as I love I rebuke and chasten. Be zealous, then, and repent. Here Christ places His own person and work into the foreground and emphasizes His disinterested love for even such as have proved themselves unworthy of His love. It is this love which causes the Lord to be instant in reprimanding, and even in inflicting painful punishments, His object being to restore the lukewarm to the former loyalty. They should return to the habit of a true zeal for Him and for His work; they should repent at once and once for all of their indifference and inconsistency. In this way the Lord at all times lets the congregation feel the warmth and the eagerness of His love, in order that at least some Christians be kindled to new spiritual life.

The Lord now adds a very general invitation: Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one will hear My voice and open the door, I shall enter in to him and hold the feast with him and he with Me. The time of mercy is still at hand, the Gospel is still being preached. The coming of the Lord is near, however. Many events, many happenings in Church and State are intended to remind us of the fact and of the nearness of His return. Upon US devolves the supreme necessity of hearing His voice, of heeding the Word of His Gospel and of His will that all men come to the knowledge of the truth. If we thus heed His knocking and obey His voice, then He will enter into our hearts and make His abode with us, hold the feast of His everlasting grace with us, feed us with the heavenly manna of His body, and let us drink of the river of heavenly pleasures forevermore.

He repeats this thought for the sake of emphasis: He that conquers, I shall give him to sit with Me on My throne, just as I conquered and sat with My Father on His throne. He that has conquered and overcome, every one who here in time renounced all those things which are opposed to Christ, will in yonder world take part in the glory and triumph of Christ, will rule and govern with Him with divine honor, glory, and bliss, world without end. That is what happened to Christ in His exaltation, and that is the reward which awaits those that are faithful to the end, to share the throne of God, the heavenly Father, and of the Lamb which was slain for them. They will enjoy the most intimate, the most blessed fellowship with God and with Christ to all eternity. And again the call of the Lord, inviting, appealing, sounds forth: He that has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the congregations! 2)

Summary. The Lord addresses letters to the congregations at Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, commending them wherein they were faithful, but reprimanding all defilement and all lukewarmness in the strongest terms.