Time for PAUSE

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

(Seven Letters to Seven Churches, Pt. 2)

Warner Sallman (1892-1968) was a gifted American illustrator and painter from Chicago, best known for his works of Christian religious imagery. He is most associated with his sympathetic “Head of Christ,” of  which more than 500 million copies have been sold and is used by multiple denominations, in addition to offering private devotional enjoyment. Sallman is also well known for his representation of the Lord in the painting “Christ at the Door,” a rendering of Revelation 3:20.

The symbolism of Christ’s words, “‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” is obvious. The luminance of Christ and the frame of the doorway produce a barely concealed heart, and thereby convey the Lord’s patience to rescue the soul ensnared by sin and the darkness of willful ignorance. There is, however, an indication of hope, because there is an opening of grillwork in the door (revealing the darkness of sin within the human soul), allowing one to see Him, who is good and kind.

The absence of any outside knob or latch on the door is unlike anything in reality. Sallman understood Revelation 3:20 as the Lord knocking at the door to an individual’s life. Thus, one must open his or her heart to Christ, because He will not enter by force. Sallman’s understanding of Revelation 3:20 is popular among many, yet the Lord’s command was disciplinary, not evangelistic.

Nevertheless, the description of Christ standing at the door so He could meet with the assembly of believers, should cause one to ponder the implications. The portrayal is disturbing, not encouraging. The final description of Christ in relation to one of His churches is that of seeking entry. Do you name Christ as Savior, yet exclude Him? The possibility of such indifference and self-sufficiency, demanding Christ’s discipline and rebuke, is certainly reason for pause.

Letter to Sardis
(Rev 3:1-6) Sardis was located approximately thirty miles south of Thyatira, and about fifty miles east of Smyrna. It was a proud city and capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. The city developed into a two-part town, with the lower settlement having an east-west road as its axis, which connected the interior to the coast. Sardis was once considered to be impregnable, because the city was situated on a high plateau, surrounded by steep cliffs that were nearly impossible to scale. Therefore, only one narrow path of approach needed to be defended. Excessive confidence eventually led to ease in conquering the city.

The living Lord is revealed as “He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars” (v. 1a), meaning He is complete in wisdom and has entire control of the church leadership. He obviously knows their deeds (v. 1b). The situation with this particular church was so severe that unless remedied, it would die (vv. 1c-2). Indeed, the Lord made it evident that nothing was commendable within this church. While the church had a good reputation (v. 1c), the living Lord regarded these individuals as “dead,” and their deeds were not completed in the sight of God (v. 2).

They began many things, yet never completed them. Jesus once asked, “‘For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28). Novelty is the problem for those who begin well, yet do not finish. Bringing any task to completion requires perseverance. The fundamental problem is failing to “calculate the cost,” which is necessary prior to making any life changes. The living Lord admonished this church to remember what they had “received and heard . . . and repent” (Rev 3:3).

The cause for this church’s near death was that many of the people were defiling themselves by compromising with sin (v. 4; 2 Cor 6:14-18; Jas 1:27). The blessings for the faithful minority were to motivate the others to repent. The promise made to the overcomers proves there was a godly remnant in Sardis, whose salvation was eternally secure (Rev 3:5). Only those faithful to Christ would enjoy intimate fellowship with Him. The living Lord knows those who are faithful, who are often not in agreement with the majority, yet have a good name with God.

Letter to Philadelphia
(Rev 3:7-13) Located approximately twenty-eight miles southeast of Sardis was the agriculturally fertile city of Philadelphia. The region was in perpetual danger of earthquakes; it was destroyed and rebuilt in AD 17. As its name implies, Philadelphia was the “city of brotherly love.”

The living Lord is described as “He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David” (v. 7), meaning He is righteous and genuine, and has the ability to make progress even in the midst of impossible situations (v. 8). “No one can shut” the door God opens, yet it can be ignored or neglected. In the final analysis, God is the One providing opportunities for effective work; therefore, having “a little power” is never reason for discouragement.

In contrast to the letters given to Sardis and Laodicea, the church in Philadelphia received only commendations. The church was commended for using the opportunities granted her by means of “an open door.” Jesus praised her for having “kept [His] word” and not denying His name (v. 8). As a result of her faithfulness, God promised to vindicate this church before her enemies (v. 9; cf. 2:9) and to deliver her “from the hour of testing . . . to test those who dwell on the earth” (3:10; cf. the contrast in Phil 3:20-21, where a believer’s “citizenship is in heaven”). The return of the Lord Jesus will be without delay (Rev 3:11), and He will honor those who overcome (v. 12). God will write His name upon the overcomers, which means they belong to Him in a special manner.

Of key interest in the letter to Philadelphia is the promise of being kept “from the hour of testing” (v. 10). The statement does not directly refer to a pre-tribulational rapture, yet does guarantee protection from the “hour of testing” when that period is in effect. The promise of safety for the faithful in Philadelphia is equally applicable to the faithful in all the churches (cf. v. 13), and assumes they will have been taken to heaven by means of the rapture at the beginning of that “hour of testing.” Therefore, the faithful in the first century were certain to be delivered from the “hour of testing” (or “tribulation”; cf. Matt 13:21; Mark 4:17; Luke 8:13) if it occurred then, yet the promise applies to the faithful in all the churches when the tribulation prophesied in the book of Revelation occurs.

The word “hour” (Gk. hōra) indicates deliverance not only from the “testing,” but also from the period of time in which it occurs (i.e. the historical time in which the testing will arrive). The assurance of deliverance is “from the hour of testing,” as opposed to preservation in that hour. The combination of the verb (“keep”) and the preposition (“from”) certainly means that Jesus will deliver them from the seven-year tribulation (Rev 6—19), as opposed to preserving them through it (posttribulationism) or removing them in the midst of it (midtribulationism).

Every generation of Christians is to live as if the Lord may return in their own lifetime and rescue them “from the wrath to come” (1 Thess 1:9-10) by means of the rapture (cf. 1 Thess 2:17-19; 3:13; 4:13—5:11; 2 Thess 2:1-12). Believers on earth will meet the living Lord in the air and thereby escape the “hour of testing.” The church in Philadelphia was given coveted promises from the Lord, yet the exhortation to “hold fast what you have” is applicable to all churches today. The suddenness (“I am coming quickly”) in which Jesus will return is an incentive for evangelism and holiness, so that Christians should not be caught unaware when the Lord returns for His church.

Letter to Laodicea
(Rev 3:14-22) Laodicea was located approximately forty miles southeast of Philadelphia and ninety miles east of Ephesus. The city was highly commercial and wealthy. An earthquake destroyed Laodicea in AD 60, yet the people were resourceful and self-sufficient enough to restore their city rather than receive help from Rome. In addition to being a banking center, the city manufactured a medicinal eye salve. An independent spirit characterized Laodicea.

The living Lord is revealed as “the Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God” (v. 14). He is depicted as the Amen who confirms all His words. He is faithful, in contrast to those who bear false witness. Jesus is entitled to all rights of the firstborn, having preeminence over all creation (cf. Col 1:15-18).

Similar to the letter to Sardis, the message to Laodicea contains nothing except condemnation. The living Lord reprimanded them for being “neither cold nor hot” (vv. 15-16). The city’s water supply was its only inadequacy, which was undrinkable in its lukewarm state. Jesus used this to illustrate Laodicea’s empty profession. Believing she had need of nothing, this church was self-deceived and thus unable to discern her own spiritual poverty (vv. 17-18).

The Lord’s counsel is faith and repentance (v. 19). Jesus promised true riches (“gold refined by fire”), unfeigned purity (“white garments”), and spiritual discernment to the person trusting in Him (vv. 18-20). Those who overcome are promised to reign with Christ in His kingdom (v. 21). The promise is the climax of all those given to overcomers (2:7, 11, 17, 26-28; 3:5, 12, 21). The letters to the seven churches were given for all believers in all times: “‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’” (vv. 6, 13, 22).

Midnight Call - 09/2020

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