Letters from Heaven
10 Feb 2007, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
LETTERS FROM HEAVEN
In the year 95 AD an old man nearing 90 years of age was to be executed by the Roman authorities (Anderson, 1974: 2). He was summoned to Rome to appear before Emperor Domitian, 'the last of the twelve great Caesars'. It was in this place that the last remaining disciple of Jesus was to be tried for his faith (Ibid). His only crime was to be his opposition to the concept of emperor worship that had been set up by Domitian who came to power in AD 81. After the Emperor styled himself as 'Lord' and 'God' (Maxwell, 1985: 53), Christians in many places were required to offer incense as part of the worship to his statue. When they refused, his governors fined, exiled, or in exceptional cases, executed them (Ibid). His madness even extended to his own family, when in anger he killed his own Christian cousin and exiled the man's wife to a remote island off the mainland of Italy (Ibid).
At the time this persecution was taking place, the apostle John had been living in the wealthy city of Ephesus. It was from here that he was arrested, and after a failed execution in boiling oil, was banished to a little volcanic island just off the west coast of present day turkey. It was here among the jagged rocks of Patmos that John, with his hands and feet placed in irons, was to spend his time in the mines and quarries as part of the forced labour camp required by this Roman penal colony (Dept of Education, GC of SDA, 1974: 7, Mears, 1983: 625).
At the time John was banished to Patmos he was never more needed by those early believers. More than fifty years had passed since the Christian church had been organised. The childlike simplicity, fervor, and enthusiasm of the first converts were now gone, and coldness had crept in. Some of the new believers did not fully understand the foundation truths, and this eventually led to the introduction of false doctrines. These false teachings were bringing division in the church and, as a result, spirituality declined and missionary work went undone. The church needed divine help and guidance.
After Domitian's death, one year later, in AD 96, a new emperor by the name of Nerva came to the throne and the usual practice of freeing political prisoners was to take place. It is believed that at this time John was returned to Ephesus where he was to finish writing out the 'Revelation' before he died (Maxwell, 1985: 53). It was here under prophetic inspiration that John dipped his pen in ink and wrote that deathless message which for nineteen centuries has been the great apocalyptic epic of all literature - the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
However, it was to be on Patmos that John was privileged to receive the visions contained in this very unique book (Anderson, 1974: 3).
It was here on this rugged rocky outcrop in the midst of surging seas that the last living disciple was to be confronted with a very special glimpse of his Lord and Saviour. It was to be a Sabbath day vision and one that was to be overwhelming in its effect. Consequently, John was to find this event difficult to describe and to put into words.
How do you draw a word picture of a being that, because of his glory, was difficult to look upon?
No wonder we read in Rev 1: 17 that John fell at His feet as though dead.
However, let's read John's response in Revelation 1: 9-18. (RSV)
'I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord's Day [the Sabbath] I was in the Spirit [or in vision], and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet which said, Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.'
'I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lamp stands and among the lamp stands was someone 'like a son of man' dressed in a robe reaching down to His feet and with a golden sash around His chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In His right hand he held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.'
'When I saw Him I fell at His feet as though dead. Then He placed his right hand on me and said: Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.' Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now, and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the golden lamp stands is this; The seven stars are the angels [or ministers] of the seven churches, and the seven lamp stands are the seven churches.'
What a contrast from those days that Jesus tramped the dusty roads of Palestine. No longer is He despised and rejected of men. No longer is He clothed in the travel-stained garments of an itinerant teacher, but now He is robed in royal attire befitting His office as a King. As a priest-king, in all of His glory and majesty, He ministers for us in heaven.
No wonder when John beheld this glory he is overwhelmed and fell at His feet as though dead. Jesus responds in Rev 1: 17,18 by saying, 'Fear not…I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
What a wonderful promise and what comfort these words have given to the people of God throughout the centuries.
Millions of martyrs have gone to their graves sustained by this wonderful knowledge that Jesus, for whom they gave their lives, had already conquered death and in His nail pierced hands is the key that will unlock every grave.
The vision of Jesus walking in the midst of the lamp stands provides a wonderful assurance to His faithful followers in every age. This word picture was to show and confirm his presence among the individual churches throughout history.
Dear Friends, He is not aloof from us.
He walks in the midst of the churches throughout the length and breadth of the earth.
He looks with intense interest to see whether His people are in such a spiritual condition as to advance the kingdom of God.
He is present in every church assembly.
He knows those whose hearts He can fill with holy oil, that they may impart it to others and He takes pleasure in them.
He is with us in the hour of trial, as well as the moment of triumph and He ministers His grace in accordance with our needs (Nichol Vol 7, 1957: 956).
What a wonderful picture this provides for all people in every age.
It is important to note that the churches named in this vision were to be found in those cities that lay along the imperial post road. This mighty Roman highway was built approximately 133 BC. It passed through each of these cities and then joined another main highway used as part of the Roman postal service (Anderson, 1974: 7).
It is also believed by Bible scholars that this imperial post road of Asia Minor was to become an impressive symbol of the great highway of time along which the Church was eventually to travel (Ibid: 15). Apart from the specific messages given to them, the seven churches were believed to represent seven periods of church history stretching through from the time of the apostles to the second coming of Jesus Christ (Seiss in Anderson, 1974: 7).
While there are only seven churches specifically mentioned in John's vision, they were not the only churches to be found in Asia Minor at that time, nor were they to be the most important. Therefore, their selection in this vision was to be deeply significant.
The first two letters were addressed to the churches in Ephesus and Smyrna.
The city of Ephesus, often referred to as the 'city of change', could rightly represent the beginning of the Christian era. No period in history has witnessed more drastic changes in human thought than the period from AD 31 through to AD 100.
The revolutionary message brought by Jesus Christ was to challenge every system of thought up until that time. It would seem that nothing would impede the progress of Christianity. We are told that 'it was born in a storm, nurtured in a cyclone, and swept the world like a tornado' (Anderson, 1974: 15).
Ephesus was to symbolise that era.
This city was the natural gateway to the province of Asia with the imperial post road leading north through the cities of Smyrna and Pergamos, before it turned east to Thyatira, then south to Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (Ibid: 19).
Ephesus, built during the 11th century BC, was located near the Mediterranean coast enabling its commerce to become an important source of income for the city. As noted in Acts 19: 23-41, this development led to the growth of labour unions as an important sector within its social structure. The city had a democratic assembly of its citizens and boasted one of the then known wonders of the world. This temple to the fertility goddess of Diana or Artemis, who was often referred to as the great mother of all the Gods, was to become a centre for fertility rites of a highly immoral character.
What do we know about the Christian Church in this great city?
Revelation 1: 2, 4 tells us that the Ephesus church, which symbolised the apostolic church, was known and commended for its hard work and patience. They rejected the Nicolaitan or Gnostic doctrine, which not only denied the divinity of Christ, but also taught that the gospel had done away with the law, therefore releasing them from being doers of the Word. These pagan philosophies, during this period, were to be of immense peril to the early church (Rudy, Vol 1, 1981: 50). During this first century, paganism made a desperate struggle for existence as light and darkness were to meet face to face (Haskell, 1987:44). However, while purging the church of moral contamination and false doctrine, the people soon became dogmatic and intolerant. (There are lessons here for all of us) They lost that great love for the Lord and His gospel that had given them their original motivation and eventually it had the effect of reducing their labour for the salvation of souls. The wealth of Ephesus was also believed to be one of the greatest drawbacks to their spiritual life allowing worldliness to permeate the church.
God's loving message of rebuke and promise to Ephesus is found in Revelation 1: 7 when He says: He, who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.'
We need to learn some very important lessons from the experience of this significant period of history for the early Church. We need to maintain our first love - Our love for Jesus at the time of our conversion.
Forty miles north of the city of Ephesus was Smyrna, the birthplace of Homer, the most famous of Greek poets (Rudy, 1981: 59). It stood at the end of a lovely valley and was an outstandingly beautiful city. Politically it was an honoured city, as it had chosen the side of the Romans in all its civil wars. It was also one of the great centres of Caesar Worship embodying the Spirit of Rome.
It survives today under the name of Izmir and is one of the oldest cities in the world and the third largest in modern Turkey (Ibid, Maxwell, 1985: 101).
Smyrna was to represent the period of history that commenced in 100 AD and which finished in 313AD when, during the time of Constantine, the edict of Milan 'decreed equal rights for all religions throughout the empire and restored confiscated Christian property' (Nichols, Vol 7, 1957: 753).
Poverty, persecution, imprisonment and martyrdom was to afflict the Christian Church during this time and this was aided and abetted by the Roman Emperors from Trajan through to Valerian (Battistone, 1989: 23).
For the most part the believers in this city were from the poor and socially disadvantaged. While the Pagans pursued them at will, the most severe treatment came from the Jews as many Christians had been converted from Judaism.
However, while this church was poor in worldly goods, it was rich in the eyes of the Lord (Haskell, 1905: 49).
Jesus makes clear to the Church at Smyrna in Rev 2: 10, 11, not to be afraid of what they are about to suffer, but He says: '…Be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you a crown of life…He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.' This is a death that the righteous need not fear.
Victory lies ahead and a crown is promised to everyone who overcomes. Praise God for this wonderful and certain hope of the gospel which offers eternal life with him.
To the north of Smyrna lies the city of Pergamum which when translated means elevation, height or citadel (Anderson, 1974: 22; Rudy, 1981: 68). It was so named because of its elevated position, which provided a natural defence making the city almost impregnable.
It was the seat of Roman government in Asia. It was a city of temples, the most important being the temple of Zeus with its great alter, 90 feet square and 40 feet high. It was dedicated to the serpent God or the God of healing. Located at this site was a famous school of medicine, the emblem of which was the serpent or caduceus twined around a pole. This symbol comes down to modern day as the accepted emblem of the medical profession (Anderson, 1974: 24,25).
As a great educational centre Pergamos also had a library of over 200,000 books that was to rival the great Egyptian library at Alexandria.
It also became the centre or seat of the satanic Babylonian mystery religion, which, we are told, was later shifted to Rome.
Reference is made to this situation by Jesus himself in Rev 2: 13 when he said to the Pergamos Church, 'I know where you live - where Satan has his throne [or seat].
This counterfeit religion was based on the claim that it provided a bridge between heaven and earth. Therefore, it is interesting to note that the ruling monarch as head of this system was to be known as Pontifex Maximus that translated means 'the greatest bridge builder' (Ibid: 23).
However, even in Pergamos, the very throne of Satan, God had his people who were prepared to be faithful unto death. Rev 2: 13 says: '…You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city - where Satan lives.' While tradition tells us that that this early believer was slowly baked in a brass bull that was heated until red-hot, there are those who would see his name as being representative of all the martyrs of that period (Ibid: 25).
The period of history represented by this church fell approximately between the time of Constantine's accession to the throne in 313 AD and the year 538 AD. This was a time when the church had joined hands with the ruling civil power that, in turn, was to give it special privileges and protection (Haskell, 1905: 56, 57). It was a time characterised by compromise, apostasy and popularity and one that saw the consolidation of the power and authority of the Church of Rome. Nominal Christianity was to become extremely popular and while Constantine's conversion caused great rejoicing, it was believed during that period 'the world cloaked with a form of righteousness, walked into the church.' (White,1950: 49,50). It would seem that human theories and traditions were now to take the place of Christian truth. The lesson for the church as a whole is total separation from the civil power (Haskell, 1905: 59).
At the close of this period we find that Imperial Rome is now a spent force and the Papacy is fully formed and ready to embark on a 1260-year career as ruler of all of Western Christendom.
We need to remember that Christ's words are like manna from heaven for us to feed upon and receive spiritual strength. This was Christ's promise to the Church when He said in Rev 2: 17: 'To him who overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna…'
The letter to Thyatira is the longest of the seven and yet this fourth city is the least significant of them all. Pliny, one of the historians of the time, speaks of Thyatira as an unimportant community. Professor Ramsey in his scholarly work says that: 'No city has been given by nature less of the look of strength of a fortress. It possesses no proper Acropolis and the whole impression which the situation gives is of weakness, subjection and dependence' (General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1974: 25). It was a place well known for its manufacturing of brass and bronze instruments and for the dyeing of red and purple cloth. Lydia, whom Paul met at Philippi, was a seller of this material that came from Thyatira (Acts 16: 11-15; Anderson, 1974: 30).
While the church in this city suffered from the same problems that existed in Pergamos, and while they were seen in even greater intensity, Christ still complements the believers on their works. Rev 2: 19 says that 'I know…that of late you have toiled harder than you did at first.' It would seem that this is the only church where Jesus notes an improvement as time progressed (Maxwell, 1985: 106). 'Your latter works exceed the first' (Rev 2: 19).
Thyatira symbolizes the longest of the church periods. Approximately 1000 years. Beginning with the sixth century and lasting through until the seventeenth it becomes a symbol of the church of the Middle Ages (Anderson, 1974: 30). It was at the end of this period that the great Reformation arose. It was at this time that men such as Luther, Knox, Calvin, Zwingli and a score of others were responsible for leading the people back to God (Ibid: 31). They were heralds to come like the bright and morning star at a time when the church was passing through her darkest hour of apostasy (Ibid: 32).
The Reformation was God's appeal to His people, but those whom Jesus symbolized as Jezebel, refused to heed this opportunity. Rev 2: 20, 21 says: '…you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants…I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.' This unwillingness was to be seen in the Counter Reformation launched by the Jesuit forces of the Church to oppose the Protestant Reformation, and, as a result of their success, many were blinded to God's real message for that time. (Ibid: 32). However, it is interesting to note that in those lands away from the jurisdiction of Rome there existed for centuries bodies of Christians who remained untouched from church corruption. We see this illustrated in the lives of the early Christians in Britain, Scotland and Ireland. The Waldenses and the followers of Wycliffe and Huss were closer to apostolic Christianity than most of their contemporaries (Battistone, 1989: 25). We need to remember that 'wherever men, women and children assemble for worship in the name of Jesus, the risen Lord is present and active in their midst' (Ibid: 26).
Jesus says in Rev 2: 25 to 'Hold fast until I come.' This is His desperate call to the Church to remain firm until He returns at the Second Coming when those who overcome will be promised power over the nations. This was a power that the martyrs of this period never had.
Thirty miles southeast of Thyatira lay Sardis, one of the oldest and most storied cities in Asia Minor. It was found in the centre of five different roads that were to lead to many of the other major cities. It grew into power about 1150 BC and built on a crumbling rock, stood at an elevation of 1,500 feet. It later became the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, one of the richest kingdoms of the ancient world (Anderson, 1974: 330). It is also of interest to note that the first coinage ever to be minted in Asia Minor was minted in Sardis in the days of King Croesus. As William Barclay, well-known New Testament Scholar confirms, Sardis was the place where modern money was born (General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1974: 33).
While Sardis considered itself impregnable, it was Cyrus the Great who conquered it by sending a hardy volunteer to scale the city walls and, while the city slept, opened the gates from the inside (Maxwell, 1985: 109).
The church of Sardis was described as listless, lifeless and loveless. Its members were reputed to be spiritually alive, but they lacked living faith. The church had become lazy and lethargic, exhibiting an alarming complacency (Battistone, 1989: 28,29). While they were considered to be spiritually dead having lost their born again experience, the situation was not entirely hopeless (Maxwell, 1985: 110).
Jesus says in Rev 3: 4,5 that 'Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and His angels.'
We are told to 'Be watchful…And repent'. In the light of this city's history we dare not be overconfident and we need to be awake to Satan's deceptions.
Applying this message to the post-Reformation period from 1517-1798, it would seem to match perfectly. Those who led out in the Reformation were men of power, vigour and consecration, but those who followed them, believing the battles to be won, were happy to settle down to an organised religion (Anderson, 1974: 35). Form without power becomes formality and eventually dies.
We have that wonderful assurance in Rev 3: 5 that even if our names are blotted from the record books of man, disowned by family and friends, we will not be blotted out from the book of life in heaven. Praise God that Jesus, our great high priest, confesses our names before the Father.
The city of Philadelphia, meaning 'brotherly love', was to command one of the greatest highways in the world leading from the continent of Europe to the continents of the Far East. The city, often referred to as 'Little Athens', was located at the entrance to the beautiful valley of Hermus that offered a natural gateway or 'open door' through the mountains to the east. It was a volcanic area with rich fertile soils and hot springs. Even today, the city that is currently known as Alashehir, is seen as a centre for people to come and bathe in its medicinal waters. Sadly, it would seem that not too many Christians inhabit this beautiful area today.
As with Smyrna Jesus in Rev 3: 8 commends the believers in Philadelphia. This was a Church that had kept His word and not denied His name.
Philadelphia represents that period in church history from 1798-1844, which was to be ushered in by the evangelical preaching of the Wesleys, Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and a host of others. John Wesley was to declare that 'The World was my Parish' and it was his message of free grace that challenged the heart of John Calvin's concept of 'election'. This evangelical movement was a prelude to the explosion of modern missions that took place with the dawn of the eighteenth century. As Jesus said to the church of this period in Rev 3: 8, 'I have set before thee an open door', and it was this door, opened by providence itself, that allowed the missionary movement to reach out to practically every land on the globe (Anderson, 1974: 38). The everlasting Gospel was being taken to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people (Rev 14: 6,7).
The Philadelphia period was to culminate in the great Second Advent awakening of the nineteenth century. Through the study of Daniel and Revelation, and the interpretation of Christ's own prophecy, a profound conviction came to Christendom that the return of Christ was at hand (Anderson, 1974: 38). This gave impetus to one of the greatest eras of preaching since the days of the apostles.
It was to eventually lead up to the time when Jesus entered upon the closing phase of His mediatorial work in the heavenly sanctuary.
Along with Laodicea, the Philadelphia period, which represented the beginnings of the Advent movement, has real significance for Seventh-day Adventists in a way that the other five churches have not. Jesus says in Rev 3:11: 'I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have so that no one will take your crown.'
Laodicea, the seventh and final city on the list of Jesus' letters, lay forty-three miles southeast of Philadelphia and about one hundred miles from Ephesus. It was a notably wealthy city. Much of this wealth came from its commercial and banking interests that were believed to be the centre of monetary exchange for all of Asia Minor. It also received significant income from the soft, glossy and expensive black wool that was marketed there and which was processed into prized garments and rugs (Maxwell, 1985: 113).
Laodicea was also famous for its medical school known to provide two main kinds of medicine made from local ingredients believed to cure sore ears and eyes. It was also one of the leading health resorts in the Greco-Roman Empire resulting from the hot mineral springs that were to be found bubbling out of the hills a few miles to the south. It was while travelling via an aqueduct to the city that the water became lukewarm and while it was not good to drink, it was good to bathe in. This was eventually to attract visitors from all over the continent of Europe and Asia.
The Laodiceans were a people who put their trust in material prosperity, in outward luxury, and in physical health. The city therefore stands as a warning to those who only see that man has a body but completely forget that he also has a soul. It stands as a warning to all who put their trust in material things, and as such, leave God out of the picture (General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1974: 41).
This last letter is now the terminal point of our journey with the period it represents commencing in 1844. This is Christ's last message to the churches, speaking as the 'Amen' and 'the faithful and true Witness. He says in Rev 3: 16 that 'Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot I will spew you out of my mouth.' It is interesting to note that the lukewarm baths of Laodicea were to be a tragic symbol of professing Christians just prior to the return of Christ (Anderson, 1974: 44).
Self-righteousness is difficult to deal with. While imagining themselves wealthy in Christian graces and fancying themselves well off, the Laodiceans were not aware of their true poverty. They were to feel no need. They were seen as poor, miserable blind and naked.
The Laodicean message applies to all who profess to keep the law of God, and yet are not doers of it. We are not to be selfish in anything. Every phase of the Christian life is to be a representation of the life of Christ. If it is not, we shall hear the terrible words 'I know you not' (Nichols, Vol 7, 1957: 961, 962)
While this message is a scathing condemnation of the last day church it is also a message of hope and mercy. The backslidden church may still buy the gold of faith and love and may yet have the white robe of the righteousness of Christ.
Jesus is standing at the door of every heart and He appeals to us to let Him in. Not only does He knock, but he calls to us and it makes no difference who we are or what condition our lives are in. The Lord is taking the initiative, pleading for entrance. 'If any man…opens the door I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with Me (Rev 3: 20).
Dear friends, salvation is always a personal matter. As individuals we must heed His voice and let him in. Not only will He sup with us, but he will share His throne with us. This is one of the most wonderful and profound promises in the Bible.
While this message to the church in Laodicea has a special application to the church in the last days, we also need to heed all seven messages.
Some Christians today are like the Ephesian believers who have lost their first love.
Some are like Smyrna, faced with intolerance and persecution.
Some are tolerating error and apostasy like Pergamum.
Some are committing spiritual immorality like Thyatira and are being drawn into the religious system symbolized as 'Jezebel'.
Some have lost that living faith that works by love as in Sardis.
Some are working faithfully for Christ while at the same time trusting in His mediatorial and judgement ministry like Philadelphia.
And some are spiritually lukewarm, self satisfied, and unaware that they are 'wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked as in Laodicea.
Jesus says: Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me' (Rev 3: 20).
He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches
Anderson, R. A. (1974) Unfolding the Revelation. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
Battistone, J. J. (1989) Present Triumph- Future Glory. (Adult Sabbath School Lessons, April-June) Warburton, Victoria: Signs Publishing Company
Dept of Education General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (1974) Tomorrow. Breakthrough With God's Word. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (1974) News from Jesus. Adult Sabbath School Lessons April-June. Warburton, Victoria: Signs Publishing Association.
Haskell, S. N. (1905) The Story of the Seer of Patmos. Nashville, Tennessee: Southern Publishing Association.
Maxwell, C. M. (1985) God Cares Vol 2. Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
Mears, H. C. (1983) What the Bible is all about. Ventura, California: Regal Books.
Rudy, H. L. (1981) The Message of Revelation. An exposition of the Book of Revelation Vol. 1. College Place, Washington: Color Press.
White, E. G. (1950) The Great Controversy. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
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