By Chuck Griffin
Revelation 1:19-20 (NLT): “Write down what you have seen—both the things that are now happening and the things that will happen. This is the meaning of the mystery of the seven stars you saw in my right hand and the seven gold lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
The Book of Revelation, with its strange imagery and wide variety of interpretations, makes readers feel anywhere from frightened to joyful. A truly valuable section of this book records letters to seven churches.
One study Bible has this very on-point entry:
It is common for interpreters to separate the seven letters into seven distinct messages and to make them symbolic of seven types of people or seven distinct periods of time. The seven letters, however, actually form a single unified message for the church in all times and places, taking into account all its spots and wrinkles.NLT Study Bible, Tyndale House Publishers, 2007
Let’s spend the rest of this week exploring what these churches heard in their letters, all messages from the risen Christ. In doing so, I invite you to meditate on our own spots and wrinkles. Something critically important to note: In the eyes of Christ, five of the seven churches are found to be dangerously flawed.
The first letter is to the Christians in Ephesus. There was much to be commended in this church. The people worked hard for Christ’s kingdom. They also had deep discernment. They were credited with rooting out false apostles, liars who probably wanted to use the church for their own benefit.
Such discernment is very important for the health of any church. I have had previous appointments where it became clear a person or people had entered the church in order to fulfill their own selfish desires for money and power, seeing the sheep as a flock to be fleeced. I am eternally grateful for discerning leaders who identified the problem and stood by me as we dealt with it.
Christ also sounded an alarm in this first letter—instead of growing in love for their savior or for each other, the Ephesians’ love had weakened.
Strange as it sounds, I suspect their strength may have fostered a weakness. Did they become so technically proficient in their church operations that they forgot to worship, pray and rest in the Holy Spirit, letting God flow freely among them in heartfelt ways?
If I’m correct, they had taken the first step down the slippery slope where other churches fell and continue to fall today.
The second church to receive a letter, Smyrna, is one of two churches where Christ offered no criticisms. We probably all think we would like to be a part of such a church, until we understand what these people experienced.
In short, poverty and persecution haunted them. Christ even warned that some of them would be imprisoned, suffering to the point of death. (One of the early church fathers, Polycarp, became a martyr in Smyrna in the middle of the second century.) For those who persevered, eternal life would clearly be theirs, the letter said.
When you recall Jesus saying “blessed are the poor” and “the meek shall inherit the earth,” think of the Christians in Smyrna.
Tomorrow, we will consider the letters to Pergamum and Thyatira, places with unfamiliar names but easily recognized situations.
Lord, as we grow in our understanding of these letters, may we see our own strengths and weaknesses as individual Christians, and as churches. Amen.