Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/Revelation/Chapter 3
Chapter 3 continues 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 should be able to see the same conditions within themselves and correct any deficiencies.
- 1 The Message to the Church at Sardis
- 2 The Message to the Church at Philadelphia
- 3 The Message to the Church at Laodicea
The Message to the Church at Sardis
- 1 And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things says He that has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your works, that you have a name that you live, and yet you are dead.
Commentary: Sardis was about fifty miles to the northeast of Ephesus. There is still a town on the site, but over the years it has come to be known as Sart. It was the provincial capital of the region of Lydia, which five hundred years before Christ had controlled most of the coast of Asia Minor and its offshore islands. Sardis was famous for its arts and crafts. It was also the first place to mint gold and silver coins. In the past, the Lydian kings had been so wealthy that King Croesus, who ruled in the middle of the sixth century B.C., had become a legend for his riches, and it was said that the sands of the River Pactolus, which ran through Lydia, were golden. Croesus overstepped himself in 549 B.C., however. He attacked the mighty Persian Empire, who defeated him soundly and colonized Lydia. Sardis then became the seat of Persia’s regional governor.
Three hundred years after the defeat by Persia, Lydia was conquered again, this time by the Romans. It was still under their control at the end of the first century A.D. when Revelation was written. Despite huge relief efforts by Rome, Sardis never recovered its former glory after it was devastated by a great earthquake in 17 A.D. The town, though humbled, did continue to exist however, and the passage in Revelation is evidence that there was a Christian community there in the late first century. Jesus alludes to the city's diminished glory when he says to the church, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, and yet you are dead” (3:1).
Sardis was the capital of the rich and powerful kingdom of Lydia. This church had lost its zeal, and was now just "there", not doing any worthy deeds, and having no spirit left. Sardis represents a "dead orthodoxy", a church that follows the form of religion without making any real contribution.
- 2 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.
Commentary: There was a remnant of fervent believers at Sardis. Jesus exhorts them to stir up the coals of faith in the others and encourage them to return to the church's primary role of spreading the gospel and gaining converts. Either make the tree good and his fruit good, or else make the tree corrupt and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit" (Matthew 13:33).
While the dwindling faith of the followers is important, the passage indicates that the more important issue is that they have not finished what they are supposed to do. Their works are not perfect; therefore they must purify themselves in order to please God. The phrase "Be watchful" reflects unreadiness or a lack of diligence in the followers of Sardis. The next verse continues this theme of unreadiness by stating that Jesus will come unexpectedly, like a thief. Since they do not know the time of his arrival, the only thing they can do is perfect themselves.
According to D.E. Aunde, the verse could also be translated as "strengthen those who remain but are at the point of death" (Revelation 1-5, (1997), p. 219). This carries with it the connotation of Christians being martyred for their faith.
Revelation verse 2 begins the five step plan that Jesus put into place to help fix the problems. The first step, be watchful, states that there needs to be aware and prepareed instead of being relaxed and unprepared. The second step, strengthen, is set into place to show the followers need to establish the important aspects of the church and strengthen their values within the church.
- 3 Remember therefore how you have received and heard, and hold fast and repent. If therefore you will not watch, I will come on you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.
Commentary: Jesus' words allude to the way in which the Persians had overcome the supposedly invincible citadel at Sardis with a surprise attack. The church is admonished to remember how the apostles delivered the gospel to them, hold fast to that good teaching, and repent of their deadness. If they do not, then they will be caught by surprise just like the unbelievers when the Day of Judgment arrives. Interestingly, a similar statement made by Jesus is also recorded in the book of Luke: "Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man" (21:36, KJV). Jesus's repetition of this statement places significant weight on "watching" and being prepared for the Lord's coming, in the hopes that people will grasp this message and heed the warning. It is also important to note that the verse in Revelation talks of Jesus coming as a "thief", which shows that the Church better turn things around because Jesus could show up unexpectedly.
Verse 3 continues the five step plan for Sardis that began in verse 2. The third step, remember, tells Sardis that it needs to look back to the beginning and remember when they first revieced the Gospel. The fourth step, hold fast, states that Sardis needs to return to the Scripture. The final step that Jesus suggested was repent.
- 4 You have a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments, and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.
Commentary: Jesus' words here allude to Sardis' famous garment industry (hence our word sartorial). White garments are symbolic of purity and holiness.If a person had a soiled garment, they were not allowed to worship. The believers who have held fast to their faith are still clean because they have tried and will continue trying to correct the problems. Such are promised their reward in heaven, even if their efforts fail. This verse makes reference to a small group of Christians that Jesus feels are following him in the correct way. He then calls for them to show others the way that the Church should worship him. The same Greek word that means "watch" can also mean "wake up." Thus, this could mean that the people of Sardis, or all people, need to wake up and follow the word of God and embrace purity.
- 5 He that overcomes, the same will be clothed in white, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
Commentary: Those that conquer the devil will be robed in white by a means of grace. This "gift" is given without anything in return. It is by God's grace and through Jesus' death on the cross that sinners are able to be clothed in white. Those who wear this color will be noticed in the eyes of all. By having one's name in the book of life, he/she can be ensured that they are remembered in the Kingdom. By him confessing the name of the one who has overcome evil in front of God and his angels, this is showing that he will receive the highest praise for his duties to the Lord.
Additionally, this verse raises issues concerning free will and predetermination. On the one hand, John mentions the book of life in such a way that indicates that it already contains a list of names of those who will be a part of the Kingdom of God. However, John refers to blotting names out of the book, which would seem to indicate that the contents of the book of life are mutable, dependent upon the actions or free will of each individual.
The image also opens up the possibility that one could be removed from the book. In the O.T. the "book of life" refers to early life while in contrast the "book of life" refers to eternal life. Therefore, if we go along with what the image implies it is possible to have the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ work on the cross removed.
- 6 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Commentary: The churches are again admonished to understand and obey the teaching of these messages. He is saying that not only those who hear the word of God have to obey the word, but everyone must do what is right and follow what is said. Everyone is capable of following, because everyone has an ear to hear the word of God.
The Message to the Church at Philadelphia
- 7 And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These things says He who is holy, He who is true, He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens.
Commentary: Philadelphia, which today is the Turkish town of Alaşehir, was about seventy miles inland from Ephesus. The name means “brotherly love.” The city derived its name, not from a reputation for brotherly love among its inhabitants, but from its founder, King Attalus II Philadelphus, who ruled the region from 159 to 138 B.C. He was so named because of his devotion to his brother. Philadelphia was a very Hellenistic culture; it could be considered a “Little Athens”. In addition to being an agricultural center, Philadelphia was a producer of leather goods and textiles. It also served as a commercial link between other cities. Like Sardis, Philadelphia was devastated by the earthquake of 17 A.D. Located right on the fault, it is said to have suffered after-shocks for twenty years. This final recording of the city keeps to a theme in the book of Revelation of sevens. Seven is a symbol of completion.
Philadelphia’s church had been faithful in spite of persecution, hence Christ’s words: “...he who is true.” Christ continues his description of himself with a quote from Isaiah: “…he who has the key of David, who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens” (3:7). If this message follows the pattern of the others, these words had a special meaning for Philadelphia in some way, but it is no longer clear how.
As the greeting is positive, so is the message. The church at Philadelphia was doing the best job of the seven. In application, it represents the faithful churches of all ages, and the message is for them. The key of David is a messianic title from Isaiah 22:22. "He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens" means that whatever the Lord ordains cannot be negated by the actions of man. This passage is offering the followers of Christ a place of honor and security in the presence of God as well as showing the sovereignty and power of God in his ability to open doors and close doors that man are unable to do for themselves.
- 8 I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it, for you have a little strength, and have kept my word, and have not denied my name.
Commentary: Jesus is commending the church for their works. They have kept their doctrine pure and have not failed to spread the gospel. "A little strength" is all the Lord asks of mortal man. He knows we have not the power to change the world, He is satisfied if we only give love and good testimony to our neighbor. Because the church has done well, Jesus promises that He will empower them. He is saying that their efforts will be fruitful, and their witness will not be in vain.
This metaphor of a door is a recurring theme throughout The Bible. See 1 Cor 16.9 and 2 Cor 2.12. For more extensive commentary on the metaphor, see Rev 3.20.
- 9 Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews and are not, but lie, I will make them to come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you.
Commentary: At some level, John is drawing a connection between Satan the Jewish community Smyrna. It is, however, difficult to assess how literally this is to be read. It has been asserted that Satan worship may have taken place in the synagogue, though it seems more likely that the actions the author is referring to are "of Satan," considering his previous use of such syntax. Additionally, if John is not directly referencing Romans 9.6, then the spirit of it seems to be present when he refers to Jews that are inauthentic. The passage in Romans indicates that not all of Abraham's descendants are true Jews. This verse is also looking to illustrate that Jews will soon be sorry and will in the end understand that the Christians were the ones that were truly faithful. However, many Christians at this time considered themselves Jews still since organized Christianity was widely persecuted in this time period. Therefore, they are being accused of falsely being under the title of a Jew and hiding their true faith from the public. This was an action to be reprimanded by New Testament standards since it would appear that they were ashamed of their faith.
- 10 Because you have kept the word of my patience, I also will keep you from the hour of temptation, which will come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
Commentary: This verse is cited by believers in the Rapture as evidence for their belief. The "hour of temptation" indicates far more than a mere sixty minute time span. It is an extended period of worldwide tribulation (Greek peirasmos) which has not yet occurred (Daniel 12:1, Matthew 24:21, 29). The word "from" is the Greek ek, meaning "out of". Thus, the verse is promising that true believers, that is those who adhere to the Word, will be removed (raptured) from the world before the Tribulation Period begins. Not all Christian sects believe this, and other interpretations are possible. One of these interpretations could be such that God is coming down to "protect" his followers, rather than coming to take them off to Heaven.
- 11 Behold, I come quickly. Hold fast what you have, so that no one take your crown.
Commentary: Assuming Verse 10 does refer to a Rapture event, the promise in Verse 11 must refer to that event and not the final return to establish the Millennial Kingdom. Terms like "shortly" and "quickly" are not to be understood as "tomorrow". God's time frame is not that of man.
This reference to a Rapture event coincides with the belief that after the second-coming of Christ, a period of great turmoil will ensue. The writer is urging the reader (in this case, the church) to stay true to God even in that time of great distress so that no one (not even the "anti-Christ") will be able to take away God's plan of salvation for His believers.
- 12 Him that overcomes will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will go out no more, and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem which comes down out of heaven from my God, and I will write upon him my new name.
Commentary: The church in Philadelphia has indeed been a "pillar," surviving to the present day in spite of the advance of Islam. The believer is promised a place of service and honor before God. The threefold reference to the Name constitutes a guarantee of eternal security and citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
"I will write upon him the name of my God..., and I will write upon him my new name": Compare 2:17 . Later in Revelation, John describes a vision of Jesus and says, “He had a name written that no one knew except himself... and his name is called the Word of God” (Rev 19:12-13) . The "name" and the "Word" are therefore one. The Word is not a written or spoken word, nor can it be written or spoken. "Word" and "name" are simply terms which are used to denote a spiritual reality, in the same way that the word "cup" represents an object, but the word "cup" itself is not the object. It is simply what we call it. So it is with the "Word" and the "name" of God. In John 1:1, we read that the Word (and therefore the "name" of God) is both with God, and is God. The Gospel of John says that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). The terms "name" and "Word," then, both refer to the spirit of God which was embodied in Jesus. This spiritual name of God will eventually be revealed, however, for as this verse says, "I will write upon him the name of my God." Similarly, in chapter 22, John says that "[God's] name will be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:4) .
These passages, when taken together, indicate that God's people will be given the ability to experience his presence directly, and spiritually, within themselves. They will be connected to him externally through the Incarnation, but will also be connected to him internally through the knowledge of his true name, the revealed Spirit of God. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation, nor will they say, ‘Look here!’ or ‘Look there!’ for, indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:20-21). The opening of a pathway to a direct experience of the Spirit within us is also what is meant by the promise to the church at Pergamos that God's people will "eat of the hidden manna," and God will reveal to them a name "which no one knows except he who receives it" (2:17) . Since the name is a spiritual experience and cannot be written or spoken, only the one who receives it can know it. The phrase used here, "I will write upon him the name of my God," is therefore a figure of speech which is used to denote a spiritual experience which will be imparted by the Lord to his disciples. He will, in fact, reveal himself to them -- not his physical self, but his spiritual self which cannot be seen with physical eyes. Those who receive his "name" will have the ability to remain in constant spiritual communion with him.
Jesus' spiritual form, then, is referred to as the Name (or the Word) of God, and this and other passages indicate that it will be revealed to those who sincerely seek him. The moment of initiation, when the Name is revealed to the seeker, may be the sealing of believers referred to in Rev 7:1-3  and 9:4 . It also may be equivalent to the baptism of the Holy Spirit of apostolic times (cf. Mk 1:8; Acts 8:17; etc.), though it probably does not equate to the usage of that phrase in church circles today, which more often denotes the working of grace in a believer's life, or an isolated experience of the "infilling" of the Spirit, rather than an open door into the experience of the Holy Spirit within the believer.
- 13 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Commentary: As before, this phrase means the reader is to understand and obey these prophecies.
The Message to the Church at Laodicea
- 14 And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write: These things says the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.
Commentary: The last of the seven churches which Jesus addresses in Revelation is Laodicea. Laodicea was situated about a hundred miles inland from Ephesus in the Lycus River valley near Hierapolis and Colossae. Its ruins can be found near the modern Turkish town of Eskihisar. Colossae and Hierapolis were neighbors of Laodicea, and there was much communication between the churches in these cities. Paul writes in his epistle to the Colossians, “Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16). Unfortunately, the epistle to Laodicea which Paul mentions has not been preserved for us. It probably disappeared along with the church to which it was addressed.
Laodicea was founded by the Seleucid king, Antiochus II, who controlled the area between 261 and 246 B.C. He named the city for his wife, Laodice, who ironically was later responsible for his death, after he divorced her and married another woman for political reasons. The city was situated on a busy trade route which was largely responsible for its considerable prosperity. This prosperity was such that after suffering extensive damage in the earthquake of 60 A.D., the city refused an offer of assistance from Rome and rebuilt the city using money from its own coffers. It was a major banking center, and Cicero himself is said to have cashed drafts there en route to Cilicia in 51 B.C. Jaodicea was also famous for it's medical schooling.
The special use of "Amen" here means "He who is", and is comparable to the Hebrew Yahweh meaning "I Am".
- 15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I would you were cold or hot. 16 So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.
Commentary: Hierapolis had hot mineral water believed to be medicinal, while Colossae was famed for its cold, pure water. Laodicea's water had to be delivered by aqueduct, and therefore arrived lukewarm, so Jesus' words, again, have special meaning for the church in question, which had the show of faith, but no genuine belief. Because the church was paying no more than lip service to God, attempting to justify their lack of spirituality and depending upon their self-righteousness, Christ says He has no prerogative, but to "spew them out", or eject them from His presence. This oft-cited verse has been interpreted in many contemporary circles that God disapproves of half-done attempts, asserting that God would prefer no action (cold water) than a listless attempt (lukewarm water). While this could be the case, the historical context seems to allude to a sense of functionality. Considering the hot mineral water in Hierapolis and pure water of Colossae, lukewarm water would serve no useful function in the hot, arid climate of Asia Minor. In his 2003 commentary Revelation, Ben Witherington III writes, "Just across from Laodicea the hot springs went over limestone cliffs and became lukewarm and brackish. Anyone drinking it would spit it out. The imagery seems to be pointedly directed toward the audience's life situation...The Laodiceans are faulted for being neither hot nor cold."
- 17 Because you say, “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing,” and know not that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked, 18 I counsel you to buy of me gold tried in the fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments, so that you may be clothed and the shame of your nakedness not appear. And anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.
Commentary: Jesus alludes to several things for which the city was famous: its wealth, its medical center and school (it was particularly famous for its eye salve), and its textile industry (famous for its black wool, from which were made clothes and carpets). He counsels the church there to buy "gold tried in the fire" and "white garments," and "anoint their eyes with eye salve" in order to see their true condition.
The church members thought that, because they were well off and had no physical problems, they were well with God too. Jesus tells them that their wealth is nothing to Him, and that their faithless church is unacceptable. "Gold tried in the fire" means true belief and faith, which gains acceptance in heaven. This claim that Laodicea is rich and has no needs, physically and offers that Laodicea is poor and naked spiritually. But through relationship in Christ Jesus one is cleaned, made new, and dressed in white clothes (cross-reference to Revelation 3:4).
The phrase "buy from me gold tried in the fire" in verse 18 is likely an idiom for removing sins from one's life. See Proverbs 27.21. The metaphor of a commercial transaction is strong because the city was known for its manufacturing abilities.
- 19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Be zealous, therefore, and repent.
Commentary:It is in this verse that the readers understand why Jesus deals firmly with the Laodicean church. He is jarring the church in order to get their attention. His strong statements in the previous verses were not words of constant condemnation, but a loving rebuke. Jesus sheds light on their true heart conditions. Even though the church as a whole was unacceptable, Jesus still holds out His hand. He loves those who would follow Him, and tells them what they need to do in order to regain His favor. This illustrates that a Christian who has stumbled need never feel hopeless.
- 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.
Commentary: This evangelistic invitation is one of the most quoted verses in the Bible. Jesus offers salvation and eternal life to everyone, regardless of their station in life. To dine together is to be accepted into His Kingdom; not simply as someone "allowed" in, but as someone who enjoys the full blessings of belonging to His "family", as it were. This is an invitation into a personal fellowship with Jesus Christ. But, in order to follow Jesus Christ one must invite him in. Unlike in verse 7, man has control of opening and shutting the door as salvation never occurs against one’s own will. However, many may argue that using this scripture to merely preach a salvation message would be taking it out of context. It is important to also note that in this verse Jesus is addressing a lukewarm church. The reader is provided with a pictorial representation of Jesus standing outside the Laodicean church and knocking. God exhorts the lukewarm church community to renew their covenant with Him, to restore the great intimacy that was once there, and to become zealous for Him, again. He should have never been "kicked out" of the "church," (ekklesia (Greek): “an assembly”-- The root meaning of “church” is not a structural building, but a representation of the people), a place where His presence belongs and should be welcomed.
- 21 To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me on my throne, even as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.
Commentary: Again we have a clear statement that Jesus Christ is the speaker, and that He wields the full authority of the Godhead. Jesus overcame death and hell when He shed His blood to redeem mankind from sin. Now He holds His rightful position, and promises that those who have saving faith will share it with Him.
Possibly another reference to a Rapture event. Those that have faith and overcome what his happen after the second-coming of Christ, will be welcomed into the Kingdom of God.
- 22 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Commentary: This concludes the letters to the seven churches. The reader is advised to understand and obey what has been written. Take note that these letters continue the trend of the number seven used throughout the book of Revelation.
These seven letters have given the reader a glimpse into the situations of first century churches. They faced problems both within and outside of their walls: false prophets, eating meat in the presence of idols, relationships with the Jewish communities, and emperor worship. Also the composition of the congregations varied widely, from the very poor to the upper classes of society. In the absence of great leaders like John and Paul, many were stumbling. These letters also provide glimpses into church life today. There are internal and external issues as we struggle to get along with each other and the secular world at our doorsteps. These letters still hold wisdom, guidance, and warnings for the church of the here and now.