Revelation 2–3: The Message of the Seven Letters
One of our core Christian teachings is that the battle between good and evil is not much of a battle, since we already know the result. In the end, Christ wins. This is not just a teaching of the last book of the Bible; we see references to God’s ultimate victory throughout Scripture (Isaiah 62 and Phil 2:9–11 come to mind). But while talking about the certain defeat of the enemy is encouraging, this truth comes with a responsibility. Christ wants us to take action in the knowledge that we will win. This is the message of the letters to the churches in Revelation 2–3.
As many of you know, Revelation 2–3 consists of seven short letters to churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Very often, Christians approach these letters one at a time, perhaps comparing them to each other and thinking about how modern-day churches might benefit from each. Thus, we highlight the backslidden church in Ephesus, the exemplary church in Philadelphia, the “lukewarm” church in Laodecia, and so on. This is not a bad reading strategy, but whenever we go verse-by-verse and passage-by-passage, we risk “missing the forest for the trees.” Over-stressing the message to each individual church obscures the fact that the seven letters are bound together. These are not private letters; all readers are privy to each individual message and are thus invited to consider what is common to all. And it is things the letters have in common that connect Revelation 2–3 to the rest of the book. Therefore, this week we will examine aspects that appear in all seven.
First, each of the seven letters begins with Christ identifying himself as he was presented in Rev 1:12–18. As I emphasized last week, the Christ of Revelation 1 is not the peaceful, relational Jesus that we see in the movies, but is instead a well-dressed, white-haired ruler with a sword emerging from his mouth. This Christ has died and come back to life (Rev 1:18, 2:8), but instead of affirming that he died for our sins, Revelation stresses that he has defeated death itself. Christ is not fighting a battle; the battle is over so that Christ now rules the universe. The only fight left is the one taking place on earth; Christ already controls the heavens.
This picture of Christ as a ruling warrior helps readers to obey the first command that occurs in each letter: Christ wants us to have strong faith. Those of us who have lost faith must regain it. The letters express this idea in different ways. Sometimes Christ commands readers to repent from unfaithfulness, as in 2:5 and 2:16. Sometimes he encourages readers to maintain their faith in the light of persecution, as in 3:10–11. The form of the command varies depending on the faithfulness of each body of believers, but all seven letters stress the need to be faithful.
The third feature that occurs in each letter stems from the first two and is most pertinent to Revelation as a whole. In each letter, Christ promises to reward those who are, per the New International Version, “victorious.” While the first two features I identified use various expressions to talk about John’s vision of Christ and our need to be faithful, on this third point each letter uses the same Greek word, nikao (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5:12, 21).
Nikao is tricky to translate, which is why different versions use different words. The Living Bible follows the NIV in reading “victorious,” while the King James uses “overcometh” and the New American Standard Bible has “overcomes.” The New Revised Standard Version and English Standard Version both translate “conquers.” One reason that some translators like “overcome” is that this gives us an image of the church fending off the enemy before the final victory. Surely the original readers felt like they were being attacked by Rome, just as many of us feel under attack today!
But while “overcome” may be possible, “conquers” is better because it reflects the way nikao is used elsewhere in Revelation. A key verse is Rev 6:2, “I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” While there are different ways to understand this verse (we’ll get to this in a few weeks), for now we should notice that using “overcome” instead of “conquer” would sound very strange. The idea of interpreting “the plain meaning of scripture” means that we must prioritize linguistic consistency ahead of comfortable theology!
The command to “conquer” means that even in hard times Christ expects his church not just to play defense, but to push forward. He expects us not merely to survive, but to thrive. Making it through is not enough; rewards go to those of us who conquer. Christ wants us actively engaging his enemies.
A final major feature that appears in all seven letters is the phrase, “whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This phrase simply repeats one of the central ideas Revelation 1: the message is not hidden. Jesus is saying clearly what he wants his followers to hear. Jesus invites everyone to listen.
When we put this all together, we see a ruling Christ calling his church to remain faithful so that we can conquer. Even during hard times, when finances are a challenge and it is difficult or impossible for the church to meet, Christ wants us to advance the kingdom of God on earth. This message may be hard to accept when we foresee a future with serious obstacles. But when we take measures to increase our faith, we are in a much better position to face future challenges.
Ultimate triumph is not just a beyond-our-control future event; ultimate triumph is something that we can be part of, and, in fact, something that Christ wants us to be part of. We just need enough faith to work for it! So as we begin to push through the challenges of the “post-coronavirus” age, let’s think in terms of not just surviving, but of actively working toward Christ’s final victory.