I think it’s easy to forget, even for those of us with red letter Bibles, that Jesus does a lot of speaking in Revelation. This is one of the reasons I undertook these devotionals, to consider the short letters Christ orders John to write:
I came to love these little letters as Christ’s gift to the church — a gift of hope, mostly, telling us who we are and what it means to be church.
So, a few things I noticed as I wrote these. This short essay is hardly exhaustive, but I think it would be interesting to write a short book about being church based on these letters, since each of these seven churches represents a “type” of church we’ve all seen, or been in. Which means these letters are still, in many ways, dictated to us. Because, as Christ himself says,
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
- Each Church Has An Angel Watching Over It. The letters aren’t actually dictated to the churches themselves, but to the angels — the seven stars in Christ’s right hand — that belong to and watch over the churches. I say watch over, but we aren’t really told what the seven stars do, aside from “belonging” to each church. Whatever this might mean, we aren’t alone — God is watching us, protecting us, guiding us, disciplining us and keeping us safe while se do the work of and live as church. We are not alone — we have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in our midst, and an angel with us, giving us guidance. We are powerful, even — perhaps especially — when we think we’re not.
- We Can Fail to Get It “Right” And Still Be Church This is the most important thing I believe we can learn from these letters. Christ reproaches each of these churches for something, and four of them he specifically calls to repent. The other three, he commands them to courage and faith in the face of tribulation and suffering, or he admonishes them for tolerating heretical teaching. We don’t know if any of these churches “gets it right,” but we do know that they are still church despite not getting it right. This stands in opposition to a lot of Christian thinking, that if we don’t get church absolutely right, we aren’t church. Christ warns and calls each of these churches to some kind of repentance, but he also reminds each of them — even the feckless church at Laodicea that cannot seem to get anything right — that each of them has something going for them (even if it is only their suffering because Christ is disciplining them). Because for all the issues these churches have, they know whose they are. They belong to Jesus.
- Consequences Are For Christ Alone For their sins, their falling short, Christ tells each of these churches that something will happen (or, at Laodicia, is already happening). But Jesus is emphatic — he and he alone will impose these consequences, whether it is removing a lamp stand or coming like a thief in the night, bringing enemies to grovel at one’s feet, or inflicting sickness and death upon Jezebel and her children. This is actually a good corrective to the shunning and exclusion that Paul seems to advocate as part of church life. We’re not the authors of the consequences, we don’t impose penalties or punishments for sin. We leave that to God, who promises a kind of “what goes around comes around” when it comes to faithlessness and sin in the church. Our calling is only to be faithful and true to the one who is faithful and true.
- To The One Who Conquers… Each of these letters concludes with a promise from Jesus “to the one who conquers” (ὁ νικῶν), a fascinating way to describe those who die in the faith. Because each of these letters are calls by Christ to be faithful unto death just as he was faithful unto death. Though because Christ himself also rises, in this “conquest” in the promise of resurrection with him, to rule with him. God uses this phrase, “the one who conquers,” in Revelation 21 to describe who will share in the new heaven and new earth, who will have living water, and who will be “my son” (which means this could be a reference to Christ, and/or a reference to those who have died in Christ and been risen again). Death is not to be feared here, because we belong to one who died and lives forever. Christ rose from the dead and promises to share that rising, that conquest, with us.
It is a great and eternal hope that we have, this calling to be God’s people in the world. It is not easy, and we are not always very good at it, but that doesn’t necessarily matter. Because even when we cannot be faithful and true, we belong to Crucified and Risen Lord who is faithful and true, to the very end.