Church discipline properly concerns individual members of the church. The elders of the church watch over the souls of its members and engage in the unpleasant but necessary task of discipline for their good and for the peace and purity of the whole flock. Revelation chapters two and three are remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is that we see a different kind of church discipline here: the Lord of the church disciplines his seven, representative congregations. This is church discipline on the next level for some of the congregations, whose elders and people have failed in their covenant discipline so that the Great Shepherd of the Church now intervenes, and in the case of one congregation, with a sentence of excommunication.
About the Book of Revelation
Revelation is a record of visions that John saw in the same vein as the Old Testament (OT) prophets Isaiah, Zechariah, Daniel, and the others. The visions of prophets were like dreams and can be full of symbolism and mysterious content, which is why they are called “dark sayings” or “riddles” in Num 12:6–8. Indeed, John repeatedly calls his book “prophecy” (Rev 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18; cf. 10:11) to show its similarities to the Old Testament prophecies. This means that careful study of how visionary prophecies communicate throughout the Bible is needed before rushing to interpret the visions of Revelation. (1)
Furthermore, Revelation 2–3 has attracted the most attention of any section of the book both among scholars and pastors. In scholarship, the historical background of the seven cities has been thoroughly investigated. We have fascinating studies into the social, political, and geographical characteristics of ancient Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, etc. Pastors who preach from Revelation naturally gravitate to the seven “letters” of Revelation 2–3 with their familiar and important themes: being watchful against false teaching and false apostles, “I stand at the door and knock,” and the warning against being lukewarm—themes that are eminently “preachable.”
“I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet. . . .” (Rev 1:10). John’s visions in Revelation begin with a command to communicate what he sees to the seven churches, and this results in the book of Revelation. The seven churches named here in Rev 1:11 and elsewhere in the book were real churches in Asia Minor, but there were at least four other cities in the area with churches at this time (Colossae, Troas, Miletus, and Magnesia). Why were they left out? Obviously, the seven churches symbolize the whole church. The number seven occurs over fifty times in Revelation and is well-known to be used as the number of completeness. And if you trace the seven churches of Revelation on a map (Ephesus to Smyrna to Pergamum, and so on) you will get a big circle reinforcing the fact that Revelation is addressed to the whole church, not just to these seven. (2)
You may have noticed earlier that I refer to the seven “letters” of Revelation 2–3 in quotation marks. Exactly what these messages are is worth careful consideration. Letters in antiquity have a pretty standard opening and closing format as is found in the letters of Paul, James, the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:23–29), and in the opening of Revelation itself (Rev 1:4–6). But the messages in Revelation present themselves not as letters but as something much more formal and stunning. What they are exactly will require some careful observation and discussion.
The seven messages of Revelation 2–3 are very carefully structured both as a whole and individually. As a whole, there are elements in each and main themes which help us to interpret the individual message. For example, in the messages to four of the churches: Ephesus (Rev 2:1–7; message #1), Pergamum (Rev 2:12–17; message #3), Sardis (Rev 3:1–6; message #5), and Laodicea (Rev 3:14–22; message #7), the Lord brings indictments against them and calls for them to repent (see Rev 2:5, 16; and 3:3; cf. 3:18). The message to the church of Smyrna (Rev 2:8–11; message #2) is paralleled by the message to Philadelphia (Rev 3:7–13; message #6) in that the Lord has no charges against either church. But the message to Thyatira (Rev 2:18–29; message #4), which is right in the middle of the seven, is unique in that the Lord does not call for repentance but announces his immanent judgment and excommunication.
Furthermore, each message has a very unusual and formal structure. One scholar believes that each message is modeled along the lines of ancient Persian royal decrees, which would certainly account for their formality and magisterial character. However, I believe the messages show themselves as covenant indictments (or lawsuits) in general form along the lines of OT exemplars found in the prophets Isaiah (Isa 1:2–3, 18–20), Jeremiah (Jer 2:4–13), Micah (Micah 6:1–8) and Hosea (Hosea 4:1–3). This makes sense because of what we saw above about Revelation being visionary prophecy in line with prophesies of the OT.
As just one example of this formality and linkage with the OT, each message includes a distinctively old-fashioned oracular formula which can be rendered, “Thus declares” (Rev 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). (3) The only other place this phrase appears in the New Testament (NT) is as an introductory formula from the prophet Agabus: “Thus declares the Holy Spirit” (Acts 21:11). But when we look at the Greek translation of the OT, this same phrase appears over 200 times as a prophetic introductory formula found so often in the KJV as “Thus saith the Lord” (e.g., Isaiah 49:7; Jer 13:1; Ezek 6:3, 11; Nahum 1:12). This formal structure conforms to the character of the messages as having the prophetic lawsuit as their background. (4)
Three Kinds of Messages
In the details of the structure of the messages given above, exceptions to the general pattern were noted. When you look closely, there are actually three different kinds of messages in the seven of Revelation 2–3, which we will now examine.
1. Prophetic Indictment: The first sort is the prophetic indictment proper, which characterizes the messages to the churches of Ephesus, Pergamum, Sardis, and Laodicea. These four messages may be thought of as indictments of the churches for various forms of infidelity to their liege Lord, but this is church discipline for remedial purpose as the Lord holds out promise of eternal blessings for the church that repents of the faults he identifies.
As one example of this indictment, look at the message to the church at Ephesus (Rev 2:1–7). The Lord identifies himself as the one who is in intimate fellowship with his churches in the visionary symbol of his walking among the seven golden lampstands (Rev 2:1; cf. 1:12–13, 20). Therefore when he says, “I know your works” (Rev 2:2), this is because of his personal presence in their midst. “But I have this against you” (Rev 2:4) is his indictment and charge of their failure followed by a call to repentance and to give evidence of repentance through good works of renewed love for their covenant Lord (Rev 2:5). The threatened sanction is the Lord’s ultimate threat: “I will come against you and remove your lampstand from its place unless you repent” (Rev 2:5). This is excommunication of the congregation. Notice that the church might continue to exist as a group of people, but they would no longer be one of Christ’s lampstands enjoying his presence and blessing. (5)
2. Imminent Judgment: The second kind of message in Revelation 2–3 is the most awful: that to the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18–29). This message has moved beyond indictment and warning to an announcement of imminent judgment because this church had been given time to exercise its internal church discipline against a “Jezebel” (Rev 2:20) and she had been given time to repent “but she refuses” (Rev 2:21). This church will now experience tribulation and the enmity of the risen Lord Jesus Christ whose brazen feet (Rev 2:18) will tread on his enemies. But notice this vital point: even in the midst of this terrible picture, our Lord holds out hope, comfort, and the promise of eternal blessings to the individuals in the Thyatiran church who are faithful to him (Rev 2:24–29). The Lord does truly shepherd his people both with a rod of iron for the wayward and with his comforting rod and staff beside still waters for the faithful (Psalm 23).
3. Comfort & Encouragement: Finally, two of the messages of Revelation 2–3, those to the churches of Smyrna and of Philadelphia (Rev 2:8–11; 3:7–13), have no indictment or threats of any kind, but are loving words of comfort and encouragement to persevering faith addressed to churches who have been loyal to their Lord. Both of these churches will experience the hostility and persecution of the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9; 3:9), so they are encouraged to persevere (“conquer”) by promise of glorious rule and life eternal with their Lord.
The common identification of the seven messages of Revelation 2–3 as “letters” runs the danger of seeing them as merely the Lord passing on information to his church. When read in light of their OT prophetic background, the messages instead show themselves to be modeled as “covenant lawsuits.” As such, the messages are not merely informational, but rather they are instruments of the Lord’s discipline of his wayward congregations, encouragement to the faint of heart, and exhortations to the church militant throughout this age to heed what the Spirit is saying to all (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). Through these messages, the Lord expresses his determination to bring his repentant and persevering church to himself in great glory, into the joys of the new creation.
2 Notice also that each of the seven messages to these churches in Revelation 2–3 ends with the refrain to hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, and 22). The message to a particular church is to be heard by us all.[back to text]
3 The NASB renders the phrase “says this,” the NIV as “These are the words of,” but the phrase is not translated at all in the ESV.[back to text]
4 In the OT, the prophetic “lawsuit” or “accusation” (Hebrew, rib), was based upon the sanctions of the Mosaic covenant for violation of its stipulations.[back to text]
5 The lampstands here are OT temple imagery of the menorah in God’s presence.[back to text]
First published in Evangelium, Vol. 4, Issue 2
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