For those that haven’t read the book of Revelation before, in the first chapter, Jesus instructs John to write to the seven churches in the province of Asia (Revelation 1:4). Chapters 2 & 3 are the letters to the seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. 2 of the churches, Jesus has nothing but good things to say about. 3 of them he has some good and bad to say about. And 2 of them he has nothing good to say about. These letters are good to read, although they can be a little convicting. They are applicable to both to church and to believer. As a list, they break down into the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Yes, this list is inspired by Clint Eastwood’s classic and amazing movie.) As you read this, contemplate on how each of these points apply in your life and in your church.

THE GOOD

These are the churches that Jesus had nothing bad to say about. These are gold star churches.

  1. The Church in Smyrna:

 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not,but are a synagogue of Satan.
Rev 2:9

This church was gracefully bearing suffering, and was being commended for it. They were enduring even slander. The Greek word for slander used in this verse is blasphemia, and in the context of this verse, it means “slander, detraction, speech injurious, to another’s good name.” Here in America, this may be the worst persecution we could currently endure, and yet still some cave in to the pressure. But Jesus tells this church in v10 that they will be thrown into prison, but to remain faithful even to the point of death.

The Life Application Study Bible says this:

The church in this city struggled against two hostile forces: a Jewish population strongly opposed to Christianity, and a non-Jewish population that was loyal to Rome and supported emporer worship. Persecution and suffering were inevitable in an environment like this.

The Spirit Filled Life Bible adds this (emphasis in original):

Even though the Christians were poor, probably as a result of economic boycott, they were spiritually rich.

Think about the news and how often you hear about this happening today. Christian businesses and employees fined and taken to court for not compromising their integrity. What’s more important, being rich in money and status or being spiritually rich? Jesus commended the church of Smyrna for being spiritually rich.

 

2. The Church in Philadelphia

8 I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. 10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.
Rev 3:8-10

  • Like the church in Ephesus and in Thyatira, the church in Philadelphia had deeds that showed their faith.
  • Even with little strength, they kept God’s word and did not deny his name. Jesus said that even if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains.
  • Above all else, they kept Jesus’ command to endure patiently.

 

THE BAD

These are the churches that, while there is some good said about them by Jesus, there is also some bad, enough that he holds it against them.

1. The Church in Ephesus

The good:

2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Rev 2:2-3 (NIV)

6 Yet you have this[to your credit], that you hate the works and corrupt teachings of the Nicolaitans [that mislead and delude the people], which I also hate.
Rev 2:6 (AMP)

This church had:

  • Hard work. Their deeds spoke for themselves. Jesus said that they will know us by our deeds. James says, “Faith without works is dead.”
  • Perseverance. They didn’t quit. As my pastor says, “You only lose if you quit.” V3 even says that they persevered and endured hardships for Christ, and did not grow weary.
  • They did not tolerate wicked people. The word wicked is interesting there. The Greek word is kakos, and it means:
    • of a bad nature: not such as it ought to be
    • of a mode of thinking, feeling, actingbase, wrong, wicked
    • troublesome, injurious, pernicious, destructive, baneful
  • They critically examined those who claimed to be apostles but weren’t, and found them to be false. 1 John 4:1 says, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
  • They hated the works and corrupt teachings of the Nicolaitans, which mislead and delude people. Who were the Nicolaitans? In the commentary on v2:6 in the Archaeological Study Bible, it says this (emphasis mine):

The Nicolaitans were a heretical sect within the church that had worked out a compromise with the pagan society. They apparently taught that spiritual liberty allowed them to practice idolatry and immorality.

The NET Bible agrees:

The Nicolaitans were a sect that apparently taught that Christians could engage in immoral behavior with impunity.

So the church at Ephesus hated the compromise of the Nicolaitans, just as Jesus does.

The Life Application Study Bible says this:

Over a long period of time, the church at Ephesus had steadfastly refused to tolerate sin among its members. This was not easy in a city noted for immoral sexual practices associated with the worship of the goddess Diana. We also are living in times of widespread sin and sexual immorality. It is popular to be open-minded toward many types of sin, callin them personal choices or alternative life-styles. But when the body of believers begins to tolerate sin in the church, it is lowering the standards and compromising the church’s witness. Remember that God’s approval is infinitely more important than the world’s.

The bad from the church in Ephesus:

4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen!
Rev 2:4-5a

This church had hard work, perseverance, did not tolerate wicked people, critically examined those who claimed to be apostles but weren’t and found them to be false, and hated the works and corrupt teachings of the Nicolaitans that misled and deluded people. But they had lost their love, their enthusiasm. Paul said that if we do not have love, we are nothing (1 Cor 13). May we rekindle our love, fire, and devotion for God.

2. The Church in Pergamum

The good:

I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
Rev 2:13

They remained true to the name of Jesus and did not renounce their faith in him. Jesus said that if we confess him before men, then he will confess us before God, but if we deny him before men, then he will deny us before God (Matt 10:32-33).

About this verse, the Archaeological Study Bible says this:

Antipas was the first martyr of Asia. According to tradition he was slowly roasted to death in a bronze kettle during the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96).

The bad from the church in Pergamum:

14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
Rev 2:14-15

This church had remained true to the name of Jesus and did not renounce their faith in him, but they held to the teaching of Balaam and to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

The Life Application Study Bible sums up the teaching of Balaam this way:

Balak was a king who feared the large number of Israelites traveling through his country, so he hired Balaam to pronounce a curse on them. Balaam refused at first, but an offer of money changed his mind (Numbers 22-24). Later Balaam influenced the Israelites to turn to idol worship (Numbers 31:16; also see 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11). Here, Christ rebuked the church for tolerating those who, like Balaam, lead people away from God.

Regarding the teaching of the Nicolaitans, the church in Ephesus was commended by Jesus for hating it, but here Jesus is holding it against the church in Pergamum for holding to it. Some like to think that immorality isn’t a big deal, but it’s clear from these verses that to Jesus, it really is. In fact, this church is called out twice for sexual immorality (between the teaching of Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans).

3. The Church in Thyatira

The good:

I know your deeds,your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
Rev 2:19

Thyatira had deeds, love, faith, service, and perseverance, and they did more now than what they did at first.

The bad from the church in Thyatira

20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. 21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. 23 I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.
24 Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, 25 except to hold on to what you have until I come.’
Rev 2: 20-25

This is the 2nd church called out for sexual immorality.

The Apologetics Study Bible says this:

In the church at Thyatira, things had reached a crisis point. A false prophetess, called Jezebel (v. 20), had involved her followers in the same sins as those infecting the church at Pergamum (vv. 14,20). Here this view/lifestyle is unmasked as the “deep things of Satan” (v. 24). This false belief and behavior originated with the devil.

The Life Application Study Bible says this:

A woman in the church in Thyatira was teaching that immorality was not a serious matter for believers. Her name may have been Jezebel, or John may have used the name Jezebel to symbolize the kind of evil she was promoting. Jezebel, a heathen queen of Israel, was considered the most evil woman who ever lived.

And:

The “depths of Satan” were either false teaching advocated by heretics, or secret insights by so-called believers “guaranteed” to promote deeper spiritual life. We should hold tightly to the basics of our Christian faith and view with caution and counsel any new teaching that turns us away from the Bible, the fellowship of our church, or our basic confession of faith.

THE UGLY

These 2 churches are beyond bad to ugly, because Jesus had nothing good to say about them. Both of these churches were judged on their deeds. People like to say that we don’t need deeds. And yes, deeds are not a pre-requisite for salvation, but repentance should lead to deeds, our love for God and for what he has done for us (salvation) should lead to bearing fruits worthy of repentance.

1. The Ugly From the Church in Sardis

I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.
Rev 3:1b-2

Other churches are commended for their deeds. Even Ephesus, which had forsaken their first love, was still commended for their deeds. But the deeds in the church in Sardis are unfinished in the sight of God. They had a reputation for being alive, but really weren’t. Thankfully, God can cause dead bones to live.

The Archaeological Study Bible says this:

Sardis was full of sophisticated paganism. The lack of mention of persecution probably reflects the secure position of its Jewish community. Jesus’ followers evidently coexisted peacefully with the synogogue community and city establishment. Unaccustomed to opposition, they had grown comfortable in their relationship to the world. Their spiritual state (deadness) prevented them from realizing that Jesus’ resurrection power was available to them.

The Apologetics Study Bible says this:

The church at Sardis was an example of congregations that had basically quit walking with the Lord and standing for Him. They may have still been going through the right motions, but in God’s eyes they were about to die (v. 2).

And the Life Application Study Bible says this:

The problem in the Sardis church was not heresy, but spiritual death. In spite of its reputation for being active, Sardis was infested with sin. Its works were evil and its clothes soiled. The Spirit has no words of commendation for this church that looked so good on the outside but was so corrupt on the inside.

2. The Ugly From the Church in Laodicea

Finally, we come to the last church. In my opinion, this is the worst church, as the rebuke that Jesus has for it seems the strongest.

15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
Rev 3: 15-17

Some translations say that Jesus will vomit this church out of his mouth. I.e., it makes him sick. They were lukewarm, or room temperature. There was nothing in their walk that separated them from the world. There was nothing in their actions or deeds that was any different from those in the world around them.

The NET Bible says this:

the metaphor condemns Laodicea for not providing spiritual healing (being hot) or spiritual refreshment (being cold) to those around them. It is a condemnation of their lack of works and lack of witness.

The Apologetics Study Bible says this:

Their spiritual lukewarmness made the Lord want to vomit (vv 15-16). Their well-to-do status, materially, had blinded them to their utter destitution (vv 17-18)…What the devil or false doctrine does not accomplish in the church, self-centered materialism often will.

The Life Application Study Bible says this:

The believers didn’t take a stand for anything; indifference had led to idleness. By neglecting to do anything for Christ, the church had become hardened and self-satisfied, and it was destroying itself. There is nothing more disgusting than a halfhearted, in-name-only Christian who is self-sufficient. Don’t settle for following God halfway. Let Christ fire up your faith and get you into the action.

The Encouragement and Reward

In each of the seven letters, Jesus concludes with “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” in one way or another, as well as offering a reward to “he who overcomes”. These rewards are:

  • the right to ear from the tree of life (Rev 2:7, said to the church in Ephesus)
  • not be hurt at all by the second death (Rev 2:11, said to the church in Smyrna)
  • receive some of the hidden manna (Rev 2:17, said to the church in Pergamum)
  • receive authority over all the nations and the morning star (Rev 2: 26-28, said to the church in Thyatira)
  • be dressed in white, to never have their name blotted out from the book of life, and to have your name acknowledged by Jesus before God and his angels (Rev 3:5, said to the church in Sardis)
  • be made a pillar in the temple of God, to never leave the temple, to have the name of God and the name of the New Jerusalem written on you, and to be given a new name (Rev 3:12, said to the church in Philadelphia)
  • the right to sit on the throne with Jesus (Rev 3:21, said to the church in Laodicea).