Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/Revelation/Chapter 2
Chapter 2 begins the messages to the seven churches. Chapters 2 and 3 are the "things that are" division of Revelation. God sees and addresses the conditions that existed within the seven churches at that time. However, there is also an element of future application: Modern churches will be able to see the same conditions within themselves. If God told an early church not to do something, modern churches will do well to assume He has not changed His mind! Please notice that there is not one word from John within the seven messages. God’s message for the churches is enveloped in love and stamped with corrective and constructive criticism. He begins by commending the churches for their virtuous qualities (e.g. works, patience, faith, perseverance, service, & love- rf. v. 2-3 9, 13, & 19). God then corrects that which causes Him displeasure, such as forsaking their first love (v.4), wrong confession (v. 9), holding to false doctrines (v 14), and following false teachers (v 20). This correction is followed by a call for repentance (e.g. v. 5, 16, & 21-22). Fourth, God cautions the churches of the cost and consequences of continuing in their wrongful ways (v. 5, 16, & 22-23). Indeed, John has transcribed God's voice word-for-word. This illustrates an important point: When God speaks, people will do well not to reword His message. Such rewording could lose some nuance of meaning.
The Message to the Church at EphesusEdit
- 1 To the angel of the church of Ephesus write: These things says He that holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.
Commentary: The city of Ephesus was an important commercial and religious center in John's time. It was John's headquarters before his exile, and he returned there after his release. Ephesus was the "mother" church that established the other six churches who received these messages. The line "To the angel of the church of Ephesus write" is a good argument for the stars representing earthly church leaders. Actual angels would not need a written letter, for they have the ability to directly know God's will.
Ephesus was a port city which was situated at the estuary of the River Cayster. It was the chief city of the region and one of the most important business and cultural centers in the empire outside of Rome. Although in John’s time it was on the coast, it is now several miles inland due to natural changes in the coastline. Its ruins have been extensively explored and excavated. Paul, Peter, and John all spent time there, with John being in the position of leadership at the time of his exile.
This is a letter of warning to the city of Ephesus because of the city's connection with emperor worship and with other powerful religious cults. Within the city of Ephesus, there were at least two temples dedicated to Augustus, the first Roman Emperor to be worshiped. The connections between the Ephesus in the Book of Revelation and emperor worship are also further strengthened if one believes that the Book of Revelation was recorded during the reign of Domitian. Under Domitian, Ephesus was named a guardian of the imperial cult and likely had statues of or temples dedicated to Domitian or his brother and predecessor, Titus. In addition to being a seat of emperor worship, Ephesus also was home to other well established and popular religious cults such as the cult of Artemis/Diana, which was centered around the impressive temple dedicated to the goddess.
- 2 I know your works, and your labour, and your patience, and how you cannot bear them which are evil. And you have tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and have found them liars, 3 and have persevered, and have patience, and for my name's sake have laboured, and have not fainted.
Commentary: The church is commended for its doctrinal soundness, refusal of corrupting influences, perseverance and endurance in the face of persecution, and for the fact that they have worked the Lord's will with proper motive and without turning back (fainting). There is alor of imagery to Christ's power in this verse. This verse not only shows that God is the one to hold the world together and is all powerful, but it also shows that one can find comfort in him. In this verse, the writer is most likey referring to a coming of Jesus and judgement.
- 4 Nevertheless, I have somewhat against you, because you have left your first love. 5 Remember, therefore, from whence you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly, and will remove your candlestick out of its place, except you repent.
Commentary: The church is sharply rebuked because they have fallen into complacence. Although the Ephesians had centered their activities around God, they relegated Him to a substandard position in their lives, not making their love for God their number one priority. The love they once had was waning.When the church at Ephesus was young, it actively evangelized the country, establishing daughter churches and gaining converts. Now they are "resting on their laurels", doing good work, but not doing the fervent work the Lord wanted. He warns that He will set them aside (but not completely reject them) unless they return to the Will of the Lord. It seems the warning was not heeded, for despite efforts to save it, the famous port of Ephesus gradually silted up and the city was left high and dry, cut off from the main source of its wealth. All that remains of Ephesus today are its ruins.
- 6 But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Commentary: The Nicolaitans were early Christian-pagan syncretists, false teachers that crept into the church, who disguised themselves as followers of Christ – who professed to be His ministers and servants – but who led the people astray. They would create long prayers that would be performed publicly. Peter wrote of them that they “despise authority. They are presumptuous, self-willed, and like brutish beasts speak evil of the things they do not understand. They are spots and blemishes in the churches, carousing in their own deceptions while they feast with you". Even though the Nicolaitans had committed a horrible sin, it is known that Jesus does not hate the sinner, only the sin. Jesus taught his disciples to watch out for false teachers and prophesies. He declared the teachings of the Nicolaitans as corrupt and immoral.
- 7 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
Commentary: "He that has an ear, let him hear" comes from a command from the Gospels (Matthew 11:15, Mark 4:9, Luke 9:8) and is repeated later in Revelation 13:9 means that everyone reading or hearing this message should strive to understand it and take action to come into compliance with God's wishes. It is also a reminder that the author wrote this book from visions of the Lord meaning that these visions are interpreted. Those with the ability to understand these dreams are to report what the spirit is telling them. Though this letter is to the Ephesians, it is a personal command and promise rather than corporate. The reward of listening to the Lord is eating from the tree of life (Genesis 3:22 and Revelation 22:2). The paradise of God is also mentioned in Luke 23:43. It can be interpreted of a New Jerusalem or a place like that in the Garden of Eden, a perfect living with God.
The Message to the Church at SmyrnaEdit
- 8 And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things says the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive.
Commentary: Also on the coast, about forty miles to the north of Ephesus, was the city of Smyrna, the “glory of Asia.” It still exists today, though it is now called Izmir. Like Ephesus, Smyrna had the double advantage of being located on a major highway and having an excellent port. Rich farmland surrounded the city, and it was a natural terminal for a busy inland trade route. The city had been destroyed by the Lydians in 627 B.C. and was little more than a village for three centuries. But in the third century B.C., Smyrna began to revive as a business and cultural center, and by the end of the first century, it had made so much progress that it rivaled Ephesus in importance. Smyrna, therefore, was known as the city that had died and come back to life. So Jesus’ opening words were especially significant for the church there.
The city’s leadership was consistently loyal to Rome. This loyalty had initially been inspired by the threat of Antiochus the Great of Syria at the beginning of the second century B.C. This threat made Rome a very desirable friend and ally. As a token of Smyrna’s loyalty, a temple was erected in the city to “the goddess Rome” in 195 B.C. Over two hundred years later, in 26 A.D., construction was begun on another temple for the worship of the Roman emperor, who at the time was Tiberius. The city was famous as a center of learning, particularly in the fields of science and medicine.
Again we have proof that the speaker is none other than Jesus Christ. Being eternal and immutable, neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit ever suffered death. Only the Son, as the human manifestation of the Godhead, can make that claim. He suffered His earthly body to die in order to redeem mankind from sin, and now He has returned to His rightful place in the Godhead.
- 9 I know your works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but you are rich,) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
Commentary: The church at Smyrna was experiencing problems with Jewish converts who had not fully understood the doctrine of salvation by grace, and the nature of Christ's all-sufficient atonement. As a result, they were still bound to a legalistic form of religion and they insisted that it was necessary for converts to Christianity follow the laws of Moses. This is contrary to the Gospel because it puts works into the salvation picture, thus negating Christ's finished work of redemption, for, as Paul says, "by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Eph 2:8-9). The church was also undergoing severe persecution. This hostility caused the Christians to lose all of their possessions to the Jews. Despite losing all of their earthly things, they still remained rich because they remained unwavering in their faith.
- 10 Fear none of those things which you shall suffer. Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried, and you shall have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life.
Commentary: Smyrna was known for its architecture, especially its beautiful temples and its public buildings, which formed a ring around the top of Mount Pagos, like a crown. It is in reference to this “crown of Smyrna” that Jesus says, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life.” The crown might also refer to the laurel wreath which Olympic champions would wear. One of Smyrna’s claims to fame was its hosting of such games. In addition to these games, Smyrna is also known to be the home of the ancient Greek poet, Homer. The emblem which the city used to represent itself was a wreath. Clearly, there would have been many images going through the original readers’ minds. . This wreath may also be connected to the wreath of thorns that Jesus wore at his crucifixion.
Jesus gives no condemnation to the church at Smyrna, but encourages them to continue as they are no matter how bad things get. He warns them that they have a rough road ahead, but promises them it will be of short duration. Again, a reward is promised for faithful service.
A note on the use of “10 days.” This is not a literal prediction. It is known that the persecutions in Smyrna lasted much longer than this. Ten is used in Revelation, as well as elsewhere, to represent completion. By using ten here, John is telling the people of Smyrna that there will be an end. By using days instead of months or years, he probably means that the time of suffering will be short.
- 11 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He that overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.
Commentary: The second death is eternal destruction in the lake of fire, reserved for the unbelievers (Revelation 20:14,15). The implication is that the believers at Smyrna might suffer and even die at the hands of men, but if they kept their faith, their reward would be certain.
The Message to the Church at PergamosEdit
- 12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write: These things says He which has the sharp sword with two edges.
Commentary: Pergamos, or Pergamum, was about a hundred miles north of Ephesus, in the region known as Mysia. It was situated about fifteen miles inland. There is still a small town on the site today, though over the years the name has changed slightly and it is now called Bergama. Pergamos’ time of glory had been in the third and second centuries B.C., when it was the capital of a small independent kingdom. In the second century, at the instigation of King Eumenes II (197-159 B.C.), a library was built which was second only to that of Alexandria, in northern Egypt. There was also a famous school of sculpture. The city’s affluence was tied to a number of flourishing industries, including agriculture, wool products, silver, and parchment, which was invented there. It became a part of the Roman province of Asia when King Attalus III, probably sensing the inevitability of Roman domination, bequeathed the kingdom to Rome in 133 B.C. Jesus says, “These things says he who has the sharp two-edged sword” (2:12). The sharp, two-edged sword is apparently a figurative way of referring to the power of words, for in the previous chapter, John describes Jesus as having a sharp, two-edged sword coming out of his mouth (1:16), and later on in this chapter, Jesus himself refers to the sword of his mouth (2:16). This is a fitting introduction for a city which was famous for its parchment and its library.
The sharp sword with two edges is the Word of God. In this case, it refers not just to the Scriptures, but also to the power of God to judge and to punish. The church will be threatened with judgment in the next verses.
- 13 I know your works, and where you dwell, even where Satan's seat is, and you hold fast My name, and have not denied My faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwells.
Commentary: Jesus' words: “I know... where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is” are a reference to the “throne of Zeus” which was located on the top of a hill overlooking the city. Zeus, as the chief of the gods, was a particular symbol of paganism, and the city was a major center for pagan cults. In addition to Zeus, there were temples dedicated to Athena (goddess of wisdom), Apollo (god of prophecy, music and poetry), and Asklepios (god of healing). It also became the site of the first temple erected for the worship of Caesar in 29 B.C., during the reign of Augustus. Some of these temples employed “priestesses,” who were actually prostitutes, as a part of their worship. The church at Pergamos, therefore, was in an especially precarious position among the early churches. Pergamos (Roman Pergamum) was a veritable melting pot of pagan religions and emperor worship. We are not told who Antipas was, but he apparently was killed by the unbelievers. Jesus commends the church for holding firm in the face of the Satanic influences and, it seems, in the face of physical violence as well.
- 14 But I have a few things against you, because you have there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication.
Commentary: The author alludes to the diviner Balaam of Numbers 22.5-24.25. Balaam is further mentioned in Numbers 31:16. Balaam led the Israelites to compromise their faith in Christianity and engage in sins such as sexual relations with outsiders and idolatry. The phrase "to eat things sacrifices to idols" could refer to either participating in ritual banquets or simply partaking of food that had been sacrificed in a pagan temple. This food could have been unknowingly purchased in the market by the Christians of Pergamum. The phrase "commit fornication" is probably not meant to be taken literally. This is likely a metaphor that refers not to sexual infidelity, but spiritual or religious infidelity.
- 15 So have you also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.
Commentary: Again we meet the Nicolaitans, whose doctrine was not that much different from the followers of Balaam. It will be useful to repeat here the commentary of Verse 6: The Nicolaitans were early Christian-pagan syncretists, false teachers that crept into the church, who disguised themselves as followers of Christ – who professed to be His ministers and servants – but who led the people astray. Peter wrote of them that they “despise authority. They are presumptuous, self-willed, and like brutish beasts speak evil of the things they do not understand. They are spots and blemishes in the churches, carousing in their own deceptions while they feast with you".
- 16 Repent, or else I will come to you quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Commentary: The entire church is warned to repent of these sins and stop tolerating the false teachers, or else Christ Himself will judge and punish them. The church must discipline itself and not tolerate false teaching and immorality within. The sword of his mouth is a reference back to Rev. 1.16 where John sees Christ with seven stars in his right hand and the "two-edged sword in his mouth" and also a reference to Rev. 19.15 where the sword has the power to "strike down the nations."
- 17 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written, which no one knows except he who receives it.
Commentary: An unusually cryptic verse, but the meaning is simple: Those who manage to hold fast to the true faith and do not fall victim to the heresies will be sustained (given the manna or bread of life) and a name in the Book of Life which assures them a place in God's Kingdom. Jesus said, "Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die" (Jn 6:49-50).
(See also the commentary on 3:12.)
The Message to the Church at ThyatiraEdit
- 18 And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These things says the Son of God, who has His eyes like to a flame of fire, and His feet are like fine brass.
Commentary: About eighty miles to the north of Ephesus and about fifty miles inland lay the city of Thyatira, known today as Akhisar. The city had been founded by Seleucus I in the early third century and was therefore a “son of Seleucus.” It was not a city of great importance, but it was a commercial center, and there were a number of trade guilds. It was also a garrison town. The Thyatirans were expert metalworkers who were known for their work with alloys, with which they made helmets, swords, armor, and no doubt other useful implements of a more domestic nature. Jesus’ opening words to the city, as the "son of Seleucus" which was also famous for its metalwork, will have immediately caught the church’s attention.
Thyatira was the hometown of Lydia, Paul's first convert in Macedonia (Acts 16:14). The city was dominated by a dye and cloth industry, and was famed for a purple dye much prized in those times. The fire and brass references are an indication that judgment will be given to this church. Again, Christ directly states His identity as the speaker.
- 19 I know your works, and love, and service, and faith, and your patience. And as to your works, the last are more than the first.
Commentary: "The last are more than the first" is not made clear. Possibly Jesus was commending the church for an improvement in their works over time, or it may have meant something specific that the church itself would have understood.
- 20 Notwithstanding, I have a few things against you, because you suffer that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. 21 And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she repented not. 22 Behold, I will cast her into a sickbed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds, 23a and I will kill her children with death.
Commentary: A self-proclaimed prophetess at Thyatira was leading the church into false doctrine and immorality. Jesus calls her "Jezebel" in reference to the Old Testament Jezebel (I Kings 16, II Kings 9), who was a queen who promoted the worship of Baal. This woman is referred to as Jezebel because her actions were the same as those of that earlier false teacher. Jesus implies that He gave her some sign or warning, which she has ignored. He warns that He intends to punish her, and that He will visit trouble upon those who tolerate her, unless they repent. Her "children" are Jezebel's "disciples", those who continue to follow and believe her. The phrase "commit adultery with her" in verse 22 likely refers not to literally having sexual relations with her, but instead to engaging in idolatry with her.
- 23b And all the churches shall know that I am He which searches the minds and hearts, and I will give to every one of you according to your works.
Commentary: The implication seems to be that the punishment of "Jezebel" and her followers will be obvious to the churches, and will serve as a reminder that God cannot be deceived. He knows not only the deeds, but also the motives behind them, and He will judge everyone with perfect justice.
This passage can be illustrated in modern times by the Catholic belief in mortal and venial sins. In Catholicism, sins are of two types: mortal--a sin (like murder, suicide, etc.) that is judged more harshly if not confessed and repented before death--and venial--the more basic sins (like lying, impure actions/thoughts, etc.). This passage reflects the Catholic belief that God judges according to our works and sins, not just based on one's belief in salvation.
- 24 But to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and who have not known the depths of Satan (as they say), I will put upon you no other burden. 25 But what you have, hold fast till I come.
Commentary: There was a remnant among the church who had not accepted the false teachings, and who had resisted the tolerance of them. To these, Jesus says He will ask nothing more. He tells them to stay firm in their convictions and wait for His return.
- 26 And he that overcomes, and keeps my works to the end, to him will I give power over the nations, 27 and "he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to pieces," [Ps 2:9] even as I received of my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Commentary: The obedient believer will be given a place of authority in the Millennial Kingdom (Revelation 12:5, 19:15, 20:4). In Revelation 22:16, Jesus refers to himself as the morning star. Therefore, all whomever remains unmoving to temptation, the Lord will allow them to be partakers in His glory and power.
- Witherington, Ben. Revelation. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
- Witherington, Ben. Revelation. Cambridge University Press, 2003.