Sunday, January 4, 2009

Letters from Jesus

In the revelation of Jesus given to John on the island of Patmos, one of the central revelations is that of Jesus standing in the midst of the churches. This is both a symbol of comfort and discomfort for the people of God. He knows what His people are going through. For those who are hurting, this can be a thing of comfort. For those who are hiding, it can be a thing of discomfort. There is nothing that is hidden from Him.

The churches to which Jesus dictates His letters to in Revelation 2-3 were real, historical churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor, in what is now modern-day Turkey. While present everywhere in the empire, the officially sanctioned worship of the Roman emperor was especially strong in the Asian provinces. The majority of these seven churches were located in cities dedicated to the promotion of the Roman civil religion that acclaimed Caesar as “Lord and God.” In such an environment, Christians were bound to experience increasing conflict as they proclaimed that Jesus was Lord and God. And whereas the Romans confessed the divinity and supremacy of Caesar out of civic duty without much religious conviction, the Christians really meant it. Jesus, not Caesar, was the only true Lord and God. All others were usurpers.

Hence, as we read these letters, it should not surprise us that many of these churches were being challenged on this point. Some responded with stubborn, uncompromising conviction and suffered for it. Others were prepared to find ways to accommodate these two claims, seeking to avoid conflict if they could. Was one group right and the other wrong? What would Jesus say? The answer is found in Revelation 2-3 and His message continues to resonate to us throughout the ages.

This is not surprising, for the issues are addressed in these seven letters are those that Christians have struggled with in any age and in any cultural setting. As I read them, I see parallels in my home church here in Mississauga as well as in churches in Ethiopia, Colombia, Nigeria, or India. By addressing seven churches (the number often used to depict completeness in Scripture), Jesus is addressing His entire Church. He addresses the letters to His messengers who are responsible for making sure that His Word is communicated accurately and faithfully. Whether the “angels” he is referring to are actual guardian angels given responsibility for each congregation, or to pastors, I am not sure. The point is, the message is meant to be heard by the church, not simply for individual edification. “Let him who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Christianity is not a private religion; it is to be experienced and lived out in community (as imperfect as that community may be).

It is worth noting that the seven churches fall into three groups (Kiddle, 1940: 19-20; Beale, 1999: 226-227). The first and last letters in Revelation 2-3 are addressed to churches that are in danger of losing their very identity as being Christian. They are told to repent in order to prevent their judgment and to inherit the promises that genuine faith deserves. The three central letters (to Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis) are addressed to churches that, to varying degrees, have members who have remained faithful and those who are compromising their faith. These churches are told to purge the elements of compromise from their midst in order to advert judgment and to receive God’s promises to those who remain faithful. The second and sixth letters are written to churches that have proven themselves to be faithful and loyal to Christ’s “name” even in the midst of persecution. They are encouraged to remain faithful even as other trials arise. To those who endure will be given a victor’s crown and great promises.

In light of the condition of the churches being presented in such a literary pattern (i.e. in a chiastic pattern of a b c c c b' a') we see that, in Jesus’ eyes, the Church, as a whole, is not in good condition. This is not only because healthy churches are in a minority but because, as the literary pattern shows, the churches in the worst condition form the literary boundaries of the letters and the churches with serious problems form the very core of the message.

However, it is also worth noting that Jesus has not given up on any of these congregations, regardless of how far they have slipped off of the bubble. It is never too late to start doing the right thing.

How is your walk with the Lord? If Jesus were to write a letter to you, would it be a letter of comfort? Or a letter of concern?



Martin Kiddle, 1940. The Revelation of St. John. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
G.K. Beale, 1999. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.


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