Applying Revelation 2: Ephesus & Smyrna (vs. 1-11)


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This is a continuation of Applying Revelation 1: Jesus’ New Look.

The book of Revelation is specifically addressed to seven Christian Churches located in the Asian province of the Roman Empire. In Chapters 2-3, each of these seven churches gets a quick spiritual assessment from Jesus. Ephesus (EH-fuh-suss)  is up first.

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this:

I know what you do, how you work hard and never give up. I know you do not put up with the false teachings of evil people. You have tested those who say they are apostles but really are not, and you found they are liars. You have patience and have suffered troubles for My Name and have not given up.” (Rev. 2:1-3)

In Chapter 1, Jesus appeared to John as a human looking figure with some bizarre features, such as  blindingly bright eyes and a sword protruding from His mouth. As He gives His assessment of the seven churches, Jesus remains in this form, and He is standing among seven lampstands which He says represent the churches. It’s a metaphorical picture of Jesus’ Presence abiding with His people, and notice how in this passage He describes Himself as “the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands”. The point is that Jesus is very much aware of what’s going in all of these churches. He knows that the believers in Ephesus have been doggedly persevering in the Christian faith despite getting a lot of flak for being followers of Jesus. Remember that this letter is primarily speaking to Jews. Certainly some non-Jews will hear the contents of it, but the fact that this book is packed with cultural references which would only be meaningful to Old Covenant Jews makes it very clear that Jesus has Jews in mind when He is speaking.

As a Christian, you need to realize that God does not play these incrowd outcrowd games which we’re so fond of in the Church. When God is speaking to you, He is going to use terms and analogies that you will understand. He isn’t going to speak to you in some cryptic code and then blame you for being confused. You’re not a Jew who is living in the year 96 AD. You’re not living in the Roman Empire. You’re not feeling devastated by the recent destruction of Yahweh’s Temple and Jerusalem. So when you find much of Revelation to be confusing, it doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent. Jesus isn’t talking to you. If Jesus were talking to you, you wouldn’t need anyone to help you understand what He’s saying because it would be obvious to you. So don’t feel one down to the scholars because you don’t get Revelation. And don’t let pompous morons try to tell you this book is some mystical codebook in which Jesus is describing the future of your life. Remember that Jesus isn’t talking to you. He’s talking to other people who have a vastly different perspective of the world than you do.

When we totally ignore the cultural and historical context of Revelation, we come up with the idiotic theory that this book is speaking to modern day believers and giving us a detailed blow-by-blow of how our Gods are planning to shut down Project Earth. Then we start cranking out the drama filled movies and books in which we try to force ancient metaphors to align with modern concepts and technology that didn’t even exist at the time Jesus spoke. All of this is utter foolishness. And as always, when we start pumping out lies, the result is an increase in fear and an obsession with the powers of evil.

When’s the last time you saw a movie about the end times that made you feel hopeful in your walk with God? It’s always a bunch of horror stories about a human antichrist who runs around systematically capturing and torturing Christians. It’s nightmare material. Instead of being encouraged to focus on God, you’re taught to focus on demons and their human servants. It’s always God’s enemies and human carnality that’s being exalted in our end time dramas. You’re told that horrible persecution is in your future, but you’re not given any hope for how to get through it, while at the same time you’re taught that Jesus will despise you if you publicly disown Him. Since when is Jesus so ignorant about the frailty of His own creatures that He finds it unreasonable for us to crack under pressure? If someone starts sawing your leg off, it is a given that you’re going to deny Christ, curse Christ, and anything else that you have to do in order to make the pain stop. There’s no mystery about this: humans are all sniveling cowards at bottom and we have no hope of being better than cowards unless God decides to perform a miracle. God isn’t always in the mood to perform miracles. Sometimes He prefers that we get a real faceful of how pathetic and faithless we are without His help. This doesn’t mean we’ve disgusted Him. Our three Creators know that we can do nothing without Them, and if They withhold the empowerment we need to be courageous in the face of death, They do not blame us for falling apart.

Now so far the church in Ephesus is sounding pretty good. In fact, they’re sounding perfect: they’ve got perseverance, discernment, devotion. Given this, it’s quite a shock when Jesus goes on to say:

“But I have this complaint against you: you don’t love Me as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to Me and do the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches!” (Rev. 2:4-5)

Yikes! Jesus says if this church doesn’t shape up, He’s going to completely snuff her out. This is frightening language. This is like Him saying to some church in your neighborhood: “If you don’t knock it off with the rebellion, I’m going to turn you into a pile of rubble!” How can a church that sounds so good be so bad at the same time?

To understand this apparent doubletalk, we need to remember that God judges us by our soul’s response to Him, not by our outward behavior. On the outside, the Ephesian Christians are looking good. They drive false teachers out of their midst. They work hard. They refuse to disband their little group no matter how much bullying they receive from outsiders. All of these things sound pretty good, but we could pay the same compliments to other groups as well. If a bunch of Mormons or Muslims stick together through hard times, drive away all those who refuse to convert to their beliefs, do a bunch of charitable works, and refuse to turn away from their beliefs no matter how much flak they get from outsiders, would God be pleased? Not hardly, for the religions of Mormonism and Islam totally reject the Divinity of Christ. Working hard and acting religious doesn’t get us anywhere with God. How are we responding to Him in our souls? Why are we doing the good deeds—to please people or to please God?

In this world, we find humans banning together for countless reasons. Fiercely devoted groups form over sports, religion, politics, and hobbies. Among these groups we find people choosing to stick together in the face of all kinds of mockery. When a particular sports team does nothing but lose for years on end, most people will abandon them, but there’s always some group of diehard fans who continue loyally rooting for their team just because.

Loyalty to a cause has nothing to do with internal devotion to God. People are willing to work, sacrifice and suffer for all kinds of pointless reasons in this world. We’ll work insane amounts of overtime just so we can save up to by some silly sports car. We’ll volunteer to be degraded and mocked just so we can earn acceptance into some sorority or fraternity group. And once we become accepted by some group of people, that acceptance becomes extremely important to us and we’ll do anything to keep it. So just because we find Christians sticking together in the midst of intense persecution doesn’t mean those Christians are seriously devoted to God. Buddhists stick together. Muslims stick together. Satanists stick together. When we see people who we know are on their way to Hell exhibiting the same behaviors that we like to hold up as evidence of soul devotion to Christ, we need to open our eyes and realize that there’s a major flaw in our logic.

The Ephesian Christians looked devoted on the outside, yet Christ is so annoyed by their lack of love for Him that’s He’s ready to obliterate their whole group. When we see some Christian organization breaking their necks to help the poor, we applaud them, yet what does God think? The Ephesian Christians looked like stellar examples of righteousness, yet Jesus exclaims, “Look how far you have fallen!” Such disturbing language ought to make us realize how incapable we are of accurately assessing what is going on in someone else’s soul. Sometimes the guys who look like spiritual superstars aren’t even saved. Sometimes the guys who look like spiritual zeros are the ones God is truly pleased with.

“But this is in your favor: You hate the evil deeds of the Nicolaitans, just as I do. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what He is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give fruit from the tree of life which is in the paradise of God.” (Eph. 2:6-7)

False teaching abounds in the early Church. Today no one knows for sure who the Nicolaitans were or exactly what they taught, but they were obviously gaining a foothold in Christian circles because Jesus speaks against them more than once. Today if Jesus was to assess our modern churches, He’d no doubt speak against other sects who are putting out perversions of truth, so let’s not get carried away by thinking the Nicolaitans were the only troublemakers of this time or that they were the worst. In the Old Testament we find Yahweh railing at the Jews for worshiping and sacrificing their children to the god Molech. We find Him complaining over and over again about the Jews worshiping the gods Baal and Asherah. God’s people have always gone astray, and He will always complain about it until we leave this earth.

“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Smyrna. This is the message from the One who is the First and the Last, who was dead but is now alive: I know about your suffering and your poverty—but you are rich! I know the blasphemy of those opposing you. They say they are Jews, but they are not, because their synagogue belongs to Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some of you into prison to test you. You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Whoever is victorious will not be harmed by the second death.” (Rev. 2:8-11)

The church in Smyrna [SMURR-nuh) is up next. Notice how Jesus refers to Himself as the First and the Last. Back in Chapter 1, we learned that Yahweh is the One who first claimed this title as a way of emphasizing His eternal existence. Now Jesus claims the same title as a way of emphasizing His equality with Yahweh as an uncreated, eternal, all-powerful God. He also throws in that line about being dead but now alive to remind the Jews of His miraculous resurrection on earth.

Now in this passage, Jesus is intentionally mangling truth in order to work within the false beliefs of His audience. For example, He says that He died and then became alive again. Well, not really. When humans think of death, they think of someone ceasing to be. Jesus has never ceased to be. He is God Almighty, not a human being, so when He came to earth in the form of a human, He was putting on a grand charade for our benefit. The Jews all thought Jesus was human, and when He died, they thought He was truly gone. When He then came back to life, it was utterly shocking. If they’d understood that He was really God Almighty, they would have known that He never really died, and they wouldn’t have struggled to believe He was real when He came to see them again in His resurrected corpse. But as it was, they did struggle to believe. Even Jesus’ closest disciples struggled. When we read about Jesus giving His boys the Great Commission, we find this introduction:

The eleven disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted. (Matt. 28:16-17)

In the Gospel of Mark, we find a resurrected Jesus chewing His disciples out for not believing that He’d really come back to life.

Later, He appeared to the Eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table. He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who saw Him after He had been resurrected. (Mk. 16:14)

Now if you saw someone get gunned down in front of you, attended their funeral, and weeks later had them show up in your bedroom, you’d be pretty freaked out. You’d have a hard time believing they were really who they claimed to be. We humans struggle with the whole concept of resurrection. As our Creator, Jesus understands our struggle, so why is He so crispy with His disciples? Well, whenever we find God getting sharp-tongued with someone in the Bible, we need to remember that He’s always responding to that person’s soul attitude. God is very gracious. If Jesus is accusing His disciples of being hardhearted, then that’s what they’re being. When He says they ought to be farther along in their spiritual development, then that tells us He has given them the resources they need to be farther along and they’re willfully resisting Him. It turns out that Jesus’ disciples weren’t the wonderful models of faith that we like to pretend they were today. In the Gospels, we find Jesus getting on their cases a lot for not being as far along as they should be. The fact that He is so frustrated with their rate of progress tells us there’s a lot of internal rebellion going on.

Now from the beginning, the term “Jew” has always had multiple definitions. In the human sense, it simply means “a genetic descendant of Jacob”. In the spiritual sense, it means, “a sincere follower of Yahweh.” Jesus is using the spiritual definition of the term Jew when He says:

I know the blasphemy of those opposing you. They say they are Jews, but they are not, because their synagogue belongs to Satan. (Rev. 2:9)

Old Covenant Jews felt totally justified in despising and persecuting Jewish Christians because true Christianity is a polytheistic religion. True Christians believe in three Gods: Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. According to the Old Covenant Laws, any Jew who claimed to believe in Yahweh yet encouraged his fellow Jews to worship other gods besides Yahweh was to be immediately executed.   This is a rule Yahweh laid down in Deuteronomy 13. Here in Revelation, Jesus knows that Jewish Christians are getting persecuted by their fellow ethnic Jews, yet He classifies those Jews as being non-Jews because they are refusing to align with Yahweh’s New Covenant.

It’s vital to understand that from Yahweh’s perspective, any Jew who rejects Christ is also rejecting Him, because Yahweh is the One who is commanding His followers to submit to Christ as a second God. The revelation of Christ was Yahweh’s idea. It is Yahweh’s New Covenant, not Christ’s New Covenant. So it is impossible to stay in good standing with Yahweh while you refuse to do what He’s telling you, and that means submit to Christ. This is why the adherents of Judaism today are so delusional: they tell themselves that they’re in good standing with Yahweh while they adamantly reject the Divinity of Christ. Our Creators can’t be divided like this. You can’t suck up to one of Them while you’re despising another and think it will all be okay. You’re either accepted by Them all, or you’re going to Hell.

“Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some of you into prison to test you.” (Rev. 2:10)

Notice how Jesus credits the devil as the one persecuting these Jewish Christians. This is another example of Him working within their flawed belief system. In the Old Testament, references to demons are very rare and we find Yahweh constantly emphasizing His supremacy over all things and saying that He is the ultimate Source of all of our misery. Yet in the New Testament, Jesus is working with Jews who are as obsessed with the powers of demons as our intercessors and deliverance ministers are today. These Jews are obsessed with angels and demons and they are quite enthralled with the role that angelic beings play in their lives. It’s a complete waste of time, but Jesus isn’t going to bother trying to fix the fundamental flaws in Jewish thinking. That’s a task that can’t be accomplished in a single letter, and realistically, most of these Jews aren’t interested in growing out of their ridiculous thinking. It’s far more comfortable to imagine Satan as the source of our problems instead of facing the reality of God’s involvement in our pain. If you tell a prayer warrior today that all their prayers aren’t doing bumpkus to control the activity of demons, what kind of response would you receive? An insulted huff. Today we cling to the pompous delusion that we Christians are potent little sorcerers who can really make things happen in the spiritual realm simply by the power of our words. The truth forces us to grow up while lies encourage us to stagnate in ego-pleasing delusions. So naturally, we pick the lies. Christians today pretend they serve a God who never gets His hands dirty with evil. They want to believe their God would never intentionally inflict pain on anyone. The New Testament Jews were the same. When God messed up Paul’s travel plans, the learned apostle blamed demons instead of acknowledging the sovereignty of God.

So we wanted to come to you—even I, Paul, time and again—but Satan hindered us. (1 Thess. 2:18)

In his letter, the apostle James insisted that God was totally uninvolved with our temptations.

No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God.” For God is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn’t tempt anyone. (Jam. 1:13)

This intentional denial of God’s sovereignty over all things—including the actions of demons—is the mindset Jesus is working with in Revelation. There’s just a limit on how truthful you can be with people who refuse to believe truth. Once you start with the assumption that there is no God, how do you explain the origin of the universe? In the same way, once you start with the ridiculous assumption that God has nothing to do with evil, suffering, and pain, how do you talk to persecuted Christians? You can’t very well tell them what’s really going on because they won’t believe it. God is the One pounding these Christians, not Satan. But they don’t want to hear that. They want to think it’s that bad ol’ devil who’s causing all the trouble, so Jesus says:

“The devil will throw some of you into prison to test you.” (Rev. 2:10)

It’s statements like these which keep the Jews from totally shutting down. If Jesus had said, “I’m the One chucking you all into prison and Satan is just My very useful pawn,” what would have been the result? Are these spiritual infants ready for such a lesson? Not hardly. It’s important to realize that Jesus isn’t talking to a crowd of devoted Christians in this book. He’s speaking to rebellious infants who aren’t all that interested in growing. That’s why we’re going to find Him throwing in so many threats as He goes along. A father doesn’t have to threaten his obedient child with discipline, because the obedient child is eager to obey. It’s positive encouragement and attaboys that the obedient child gets from God. Yet because we don’t find a bunch of attaboys in the Bible, we rush to the conclusion that God is some hard Taskmaster who is very difficult to please. No, this isn’t it at all. The reason Yahweh is so full of threats in the Old Testament and Jesus is so crispy in the Gospels and Revelation is because They’re always talking to rebels. The Christians in Ephesus are being such little punks that Jesus is about to wipe them off the map. These Christians in Smyrna are being more cooperative, but since Smyrna is one of the churches Revelation is addressed to, and since Revelation is filled with a lot of threats, they’re obviously a mixed bag. God always responds to heart attitude. Where He sees cooperation, He goes for faith development, and that means bring on the trials. It’s more trials, not happy times, that Jesus has planned for these Christians in Smyrna and He’s very upfront about it here.

“You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Whoever is victorious will not be harmed by the second death.” (Rev. 2:8-11)

Numbers are used symbolically all throughout this book because of how the Jewish culture viewed numbers at this time. The reference to ten days isn’t meant to be taken literally. Instead Jesus is telling them to expect a limited period of suffering, as opposed to suffering that drags on and on.

It’s important to realize that Jesus is almost always talking to Old Covenant Jews when He discusses salvation in the New Testament. In the first place, Old Covenant Jews already believed they had salvation sewn up, despite the fact that most of them were only going through religious motions. In the second place, Old Covenant Jews defined salvation as a conditional thing that was contingent upon continuous devotion to Yahweh. Even though they weren’t meeting Yahweh’s requirements for salvation because their heart attitudes were so lousy, the idea that salvation is as permanent as we understand it to be today was simply not a concept in the Old Covenant Jew’s brain.

Now how do you take a people who already think they are right with Yahweh, convince them that they’re not really right with Yahweh, and then get them to stick with the tenants of the New Covenant? The Old Covenant Jews were in a very strange situation. They didn’t have to change their God—they just had to add two more Gods into the mix. Today if you switch from Islam to Christianity, then you might say “Now I realize Allah doesn’t exist, and I’ve found the real Gods.” When you chuck your entire belief system and convert to a radically different one, you feel like you’ve really made a significant change. But for Old Covenant Jews, Yahweh hasn’t gone anywhere. And even though Yahweh threw out the sacrificial system, the early Jewish Christians are still mentally hanging on to it. They call Christ their High Priest. They imagine that He’s up in Heaven interceding on their behalf. The males are still getting circumcised, which in their minds symbolized that they were Yahweh’s chosen people. Many of them are still sticking to the old dietary laws. In short, they are changing as little as possible and this isn’t a good thing. It’s just too easy for these Jews to think, “Hey, I worship Yahweh, and He’s still the Guy in charge, so I’m good.” But no, they’re not good. The issue of Christ’s Divinity must not be treated as casually as many of them are treating it. To simply accept that Christ was the long-awaited Messiah isn’t good enough. These Jews have to be submitting to Christ as God Almighty, otherwise Yahweh is going to reject them. Many of them haven’t crossed that line yet. They tell themselves that they have, but they haven’t. A lot of them are viewing Christ as just another kind of angel.

Ever wonder why Yahweh pounded the early Church so hard? The fact that Christianity was born out of Judaism had a lot to do with it. Old Covenant Jews who were convinced they were already meeting Yahweh’s requirements for salvation had to be forced to really contemplate their submission to Christ. After all the miracles Christ did on earth, it was easy to applaud Him as another Elijah type and be done with it. Sure, He resurrected, but so did Lazarus and a whole host of other folks in both the Gospels and the Old Testament. Old Covenant Jews wouldn’t have believed Jesus’ claim to have raised Himself back to life. They would have credited Yahweh for that miracle. And if Yahweh was really the One who rose Christ from the dead, then the resurrection doesn’t prove anything about Christ’s Divinity. When the Jews heard of Lazarus being resurrected, they wouldn’t have credited Jesus as the One with such power. Instead, they would have seen it as Yahweh working through Jesus. See the problem? Everything Jesus did to prove He is God could be explained by Old Covenant Jews as an act of Yahweh. And since Yahweh has always condemned polytheism, why should any Old Covenant Jew get serious about submitting to Christ? Bring on the persecution. These Jews need to be forced to really think about the issue of Christ’s Divinity. Are they really serious about their submission to Him as God Almighty, or are they just playing games by viewing Him as some mega-angel?

When our beliefs start costing us, we start re-evaluating them. By riling up the Roman Empire to have a particular dislike for Christians, Yahweh was forcing Jewish Christians to choose a side. Were they going to stay in the Judaism camp and keep viewing Yahweh as the only God or were they going to so commit themselves to Christ that they would stand on the truth of His Divinity no matter what? Yahweh and Jesus are intentionally polarizing the Jews with all of this anti-Christian sentiment. They love the Jews and They want the Jews to be saved. But the Jews have to be willing to totally commit to Christ as God. Simply shrugging Him off as a controversial figure isn’t good enough. It’s Christ or nothing.

“Whoever is victorious will not be harmed by the second death.” (Rev. 2:11)

Only Jews who fully accept the Divinity of Jesus will receive eternal life, thus their physical death will not end in eternal torment. But for Jews who haven’t really accepted the Divinity of Christ, salvation will be denied.

Now we know that many Old Covenant Jews halfheartedly dabbled in Christianity at first because we find a theme throughout the New Testament epistles of Old Covenant Jews taking a stab at the whole Christian thing, only to decide that the idea of multiple Gods was just too hard to swallow. Remember that Jesus knows the hearts of those He is speaking to. He sees who is really saved and who is just posing. There are a lot of posers in the mix, which is why we keep hearing Him bringing up the threat of eternal damnation towards those who are refusing to fully align with the requirements of Yahweh’s New Covenant.

UP NEXT: Applying Revelation 2: Pergamum & Thyatira (vs. 12-29)