The Seven Churches (Rev. 2.1-3.22)

"Come, Lord Jesus", CFP, Watchman Nee

A SUMMARY OF CHAPTERS 2 AND 3

(1) Seven different churches—The seven churches in these two chapters are churches which actually existed at that time, and the situations described were also the actual conditions of these various churches. Yet, these seven churches in addition represent seven periods in church history along with their respective characteristics. However, these characteristics are not absolutely or exclusively applicable to each period; it is only that, for example, the post-apostolic church has a resemblance more to Ephesus, that the second generation church is more like Smyrna, and so forth. But as a matter of fact the post-apostolic church has the conditions of the other six churches as well.

(2) The seven angels—Each letter is addressed to an angel. We have already discussed who these angels are. May the Lord raise us up as messengers. Although every letter is written to the angel, it is nonetheless given to the church. Hence it concerns every believer.

(3) Seven self-styled addresses—In each letter our Lord utters something of himself, and what He says fits perfectly as the remedy to the condition of each church. For instance, Ephesus is a church which has lost its first love, so the Lord reveals himself as one who walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks. Smyrna being a suffering church, to her the Lord manifests himself as the one who was dead and lives again so as to encourage them to be martyrs. Pergamum is a worldly church, hence the Lord unveils himself as the one with the sharp two-edged sword able to cut the world asunder. Thyatira is a corrupted adulterous church, therefore the Lord appears with eyes as a flame of fire and feet like burnished brass in order to inspect and to judge. Sardis is a dead church, consequently the Lord shows himself forth as the one who has the Spirit of life (the seven Spirits of God) and the shining stars. Philadelphia is a church faithfully keeping the truth, and so the Lord proclaims himself as He who is holy and true and who opens wide to them the door of labor. Laodicea is a church full of human opinions, and for this reason the Lord discloses that He is the Head over all creation.

(4) Meaning of the seven localities—Ephesus means “desire” or “loosening”, which shows how they have left their first love. The word Smyrna comes from the word myrrh, which means “bitter”, thus signifying that period when the church suffered under the Roman persecutions. Pergamum signifies “high tower”, thus representing the church with worldly power and position after the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great accepted Christianity. Thyatira denotes “sacrificing untiringly”, which description fits well the period of the rise of the Catholic system with the instigation of the special priesthood and of idol-worship. This may be considered the darkest and most corrupted age of the church. As to its meaning, Sardis connotes “revival” or “restoration”—a development which happened at the time of the Reformation, with nonetheless its spiritual condition still weak or dead. Philadelphia speaks of “brotherly love”, which had its exemplification over a hundred years ago* when there was such a recovery of the church that some Christians left all sects behind, joined together in love, and kept faithfully the truths in the Bible. Laodicea suggests “people’s opinions”, and how this applies appropriately to the condition of the church today that is so full of men’s opinions.

* 1828 is over a hundred years ago.

(5) Seven “I know”’s—Each letter includes the words “I know”. The Lord knows our conduct, whether good or bad. He does His best to commend the good, but He also severely reprimands the bad. This is the token of the righteous judgment of the Lord.

(6) Seven exhortations—Each church has its own peculiar situation, and the Lord exhorts each of them accordingly. His words of exhortation to the various churches are recorded in Revelation 2 and 3 as follows: to Ephesus (2.4,5), to Smyrna (2.10), to Pergamum (2.14-16), to Thyatira (2.20-25), to Sardis (3.2,3), to Philadelphia (3.11), and to Laodicea (3.17-20).

(7) Seven promises—The Lord raises up overcomers in each church for the purpose of maintaining His testimony. To them He gives special promises. These promises are given in 2.7, 2.10-11, 2.17, 2.26-28, 3.5, 3.12, and 3.21.

(8) Seven calls—Each letter contains the words “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches” (2.7, 2.11, 2.29, 3.6, 3.13, and 3.22). Since these seven letters are dictated by the Lord himself, why does the record read that it is the Holy Spirit who speaks to the churches? In spite of the fact that the Lord speaks directly to John, the churches can only read what John has written. So that in the reading of them, there must be the enlightening of the Holy Spirit in order to understand. Furthermore, even when the Lord was on earth, He never spoke by himself but always spoke by the Holy Spirit. Today He still speaks by the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, it is the same as the Holy Spirit speaking to the churches.

Let us now take a closer look at the contents of each letter.

2.1-7 THE CHURCH IN EPHESUS

2.1 “Write”—John serves as the Lord’s secretary. He is to record what the Lord has said.

“The church in Ephesus”—The church has two different aspects: one is the mystic church, the other is the local church. One is the body of Christ, the other is the house of God. The churches referred to in these two chapters are the churches in each locality. Great is the distinction between “the church in Ephesus” and “the church of Ephesus”, for the church only sojourns at Ephesus, it does not belong to Ephesus. For this reason, names such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Chinese Church, and so forth are unscriptural.

“To the angel”—This letter to Ephesus is addressed to the messenger. How very different is this from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. There Paul wrote to all the believers, whereas here, due to the departures from earthly life or declensions in spiritual life, only the messenger was able to receive this letter. A comparison of the two letters will further reveal the great difference in that church’s situation then and now. Ephesus has indeed “loosened” itself, has drawn back, and been damaged.

The Lord shows forth himself to this church as the one “that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, he that walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks” so as to cause the church in Ephesus and its messenger to know that He possesses full authority and examines all His churches.

2.2,3 These are words of commendation by the Lord. What He commends touches three perspectives. (1) Regarding themselves: (a) Works—they must have had good works; (b) Toil—they must have labored diligently; and (c) Patience—they had the parent’s heart so as to bear and forbear the weaknesses of other people. (2) Regarding the management of the church: (a) They do not bear evil men (cf. 1 Cor. 5); and (b) They do not accept workers carelessly—nay, they even test the apostles. All this shows that they have spiritual discernment. (3) Regarding the world: They patiently bear for the Lord’s name and do not grow weary. From this description we might conclude that the church in Ephesus is most perfect.

2.4 Though the church in Ephesus looks so good, the Lord nevertheless has something against her; she has lost her first love. We may wonder how a truly working church can be so lacking in inward love towards the Lord. Yet experience tells us that there may be outside activities even though the first love within is already lost. The “first love” is the best and most perfect love.

The question may be raised, How is the first love lost? (1) It may be due to an over-emphasis on works rather than on loving the Lord. (2) It may be due to disobedience to the Lord (John 15.10).

Herein are we shown that what the Lord requires is our love towards Him. If there are toil and spiritual knowledge and yet there is no love, all is useless (1 Thess. 1.2,3; 1 Cor. 13.2).

2.5 The Lord tells them a way of restoration. (1) “Remember therefore whence thou art fallen”—This means there should be an investigation of the cause. There is a reason for each retrogression. Unless the cause is found, restoration is impossible. According to the Lord’s view, even though the church in Ephesus is outwardly perfect she has already fallen inwardly. Inner fall precedes outer failure. (2) “And repent”—Repentance is not only required of sinners, it is likewise necessary for believers. Whenever there is a falling away, there is the need for repentance. (3) “And do the first works”—Repentance is negative, while “do the first works” is positive.

From this word we may deduce that the church in Ephesus is not doing what she really did before. What were the things that she previously did? We know these could not have been toil, patience, diligence, resisting evil men, and so forth. In spite of the fact that nothing is explicitly mentioned, a careful reading of the letter to the Ephesians will convince us of two things which they had been doing before: (1) they were faithful (1.1), and (2) they let Christ be Lord (3.17). Hence, in this verse the Lord shows the way to restoration on the one hand and discloses His judgment on the other—the way of first love, but then followed by a warning: “Or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent”—Move the candlestick out of its place! Since the word candlestick represents the church, the duty of the church is to shine, that is, to witness.

To be removed from its place is a word that prompts us to ask what is the church’s place. The original place of all these candlesticks is before the Lord (1.12,13; 2.1). And hence, to be removed from its place will mean that a given church will lose its original place before the Lord and thus be rejected by Him. Having lost its place, the candlestick is no longer supplied with oil (that is to say, the church can no longer be filled with the Holy Spirit), and consequently it is unable to shine for the Lord. The point in view here is not concerned with salvation, rather is it a matter of work and testimony. There are many churches today that are simply removed candlesticks in the eyes of the Lord.

2.6 “Nicolaitans” means, in the original, “those who conquer the people”; this then refers to a party that lusts after power and takes upon itself the position of leadership. The Lord hates the works of these people. He commends the Ephesian believers because they are able to hate what He hates.

2.7 “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches”—Such a refrain shows that this letter is given not only to the church in Ephesus but also to all the churches which may be in a situation similar to that of the church in Ephesus. Alas, how few are those who will hear the Lord’s words, although they are indeed addressed to all the churches. “He that hath an ear” connotes the sad fact of how many there are in the church who have no ear to hear.

Why is there no ear to hear the Lord’s words? This does not refer to the physical but to the spiritual ear. This can be easily understood by reading Matthew 13.13-15. Why do some people not have any spiritual ear? Because (1) they have no spiritual aspiration, and (2) they are in fact afraid of the Lord’s word.

Finally, reward is mentioned. “To him that overcometh”—Here the word “him” is singular in number. In spite of the fact that the church as a whole has failed, individuals may still seek after victory. What the Lord seeks in these seven letters is for people to overcome.

The reward which the overcomers will receive is that they shall eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. This paradise or garden most likely points to the one in the kingdom of the heavens, because the kingdom of the heavens is to restore the condition of Genesis 2. As there was on earth a garden of Eden as recorded in Genesis 2, so there will be a paradise in the kingdom of the heavens. What joy the overcomer will have in being with the Lord in Paradise! And not just a being in Paradise, but able also to eat the fruit of the tree of life.

2.8-11 THE CHURCH IN SMYRNA

The church in Smyrna represents the condition of the church from the second century up to the year 313 after Christ.

The church in Ephesus is cold as to her love, whereas the church in Smyrna suffers greatly. This is most meaningful, since the Lord frequently uses suffering to revive believers who have turned cold or have become loose.

2.8 The word Smyrna signifies “bitterness” which comes from the root word “myrrh”—Myrrh is most precious; and hence this suffering is a precious suffering. All who suffer for the Lord are truly precious.

“The first and the last” denotes that the Lord is the God who changes not. What comfort this Name gives to the church in Smyrna.

“Who was dead, and lived again”—These were the experiences of our Lord while on earth. It gives great consolation and encouragement and help to the believers in Smyrna: (1) The Lord leaves with us an example. If He had to die while on earth, can we be spared? (2) Since He suffered unto death, He is well able to sympathize with us (Heb. 4.15). (3) In order to accomplish God’s purpose and overcome the enemy, He must suffer death; likewise, we need to suffer that we too may succeed. (4) Though He died, yet He lives again. There is hope, and it will not be in vain if we suffer or die for the Lord.

2.9 “I know”—(1) The Lord knows all about our sufferings. Our hearts should therefore rest. (2) Since He knows our sufferings but still does not take them away from us, it can only mean that such sufferings are profitable to us. (3) Knowing our sufferings now, He undoubtedly knows how to reward us in the future.

The sufferings which the church in Smyrna endures are three-fold: (1) tribulation, (2) poverty, and (3) blasphemy.

(1) Tribulation. What is it? Tribulation is pressure coming from outside, such as opposition, attack, ostracism, oppression, scourging, pillaging, and so forth.

(2) Poverty. People do not feel too bad if they are amply supplied financially during tribulation. But to suffer tribulation together with poverty can in fact be considered as reaching the end of the road.

In spite of such a situation, the Lord adds a most precious word, saying, “but thou art rich”—At that time her faith is really rich (James 2.5) and her love is truly full (1 Thess. 1.3). Otherwise, who would not indeed fall under such circumstances?

The church in Smyrna is directly contrary to the church in Laodicea (3.17). Now no one can be Smyrna before the Lord and simultaneously be Laodicea before the world. 

(3) Words of blasphemy. This is that which defames us. Some people may endure tribulation and poverty, but few can withstand the mocking of their name.

“The blasphemy of them that say they are Jews”—This is because such blasphemy is begun by the Jews. Even while our Lord was on earth He was so blasphemed; how then can we avoid it?

What are the blasphemers’ words? Blasphemy against the word of salvation (Acts 13.45, 18.6, 19.9, 28.22; Rom. 3.8). Yet the Lord says “Blessed are ye when men shall . . . say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake” (Matt. 5.11).

Something more can be noticed here: “Say they are Jews, and they are not, but are a synagogue of Satan”—Who are these people? Before solving this puzzle, we should first find out who are the real Jews. By reading Romans 2.28-29, John 8.39-47, and Romans 4.11-12 we can readily perceive that a true believer in the Lord Jesus is a real Jew. Thus, those who are not Jews but say they are will naturally be a stance which points to the Jews according to the flesh together with the proselytes converted to Judaism.

These people are organized into what may be called the Judaized church. Their teachings are Judaized, being partly based on law and partly on grace, a salvation partly by faith and partly by works. Their system follows that which is under the law, with a priestly caste. There were a great number of these people at Paul’s time; except that they were more developed and organized by the time of Revelation. Thus they have now become a synagogue of Satan, being used by him to propagate another gospel which is not the gospel at all.

2.10 “Fear not the things which thou art about to suffer”—These are the things which they will yet suffer, additional to the three things before mentioned. This is truly suffering upon suffering. But the Lord has told us beforehand.

“Fear not”: (1) Fear is the source of defeat. Fearlessness precludes defeat. (2) Since the Lord has already overcome, we too—though we suffer—will eventually overcome.

“Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried”—In the beginning it is but opposition and blasphemy; but later it is increased to include imprisonment. The purposes behind imprisonment are (1) that they may not be able to witness outside, so as to bind the truth of the Lord; (2) that they may be separated from one another, thus diminishing their strength; and (3) that those imprisoned may so suffer as to faint in their heart. Oh! How venomous are the wiles of the devil.

“The devil is about . . .”—No man is mentioned, only the devil is especially pointed out here. This is so that (1) we will not murmur against men but will hate the devil, and (2) we may recognize the enemy and resist him.

“And ye shall have tribulation ten days”—The “ten days” cited does not refer to a literal ten days and ten nights. It simply tells us that this suffering of ours has its time limit. It may also typify the ten colossal persecutions that were perpetrated by the Roman Empire.

“Be thou faithful unto death”—(1) “Unto death” indicates the possibility of being killed. When the devil discovers that imprisonment fails to achieve its aim he will move a step further, namely, to killing. (2) “Be thou” is cast in the imperative mood, being a command. (3) “Faithful unto death” means that they love not their lives even to death (Rev. 12.11). Such is the limit of the devil’s attack. He cannot do anything further if we are thus faithful.

“And I will give thee the crown of life”—What a precious promise, what a blessed hope is this (James 1.12). What is promised here is not just life, but the crown of life. Life is received through believing; the crown of life is obtained by being faithful.

“Crown” speaks of glory, reigning with the Lord in the kingdom of the heavens.

2.11 “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches”—This has already been explained. “He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death”—How clear is the promise to the overcomer told: positively, obtaining the crown of life; negatively, not to be hurt of the second death.

“He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death”—Put conversely, it would read: The one who is overcome will be hurt by the second death. However, before “hurt of the second death” is mentioned, the word first specifies what the victory or defeat here is. The victory here is a being faithful unto death, so naturally the defeat will be an unwillingness to be a martyr for the Lord. One who loves his own life and does not dare to die for the Lord will be hurt by the second death.

Now let us ask what the second death is. In 20.14,15 we are told that the dead after being resurrected will be cast into the lake of fire, which is eternal perdition. Believers, though, will have no part in it (John 10.28).

The hurt of the second death and the second death itself are different. As life is in opposition to second death, so the crown of life is in contrast to the hurt of the second death. Since there is a difference between life and the crown of life, there must also be a distinction between the second death and the hurt of the second death. Furthermore, our knowing that the crown of life pertains to the kingdom will cause us to see that the hurt of the second death quite naturally falls within the kingdom period too. And hence the hurt of the second death cannot mean eternal perdition.

Let us now define directly what the hurt of the second death is and what the second death itself is. The second death denotes that a non-believer whose soul has already suffered after death will suffer eternally in spirit and soul and body after being resurrected in the future. The hurt of the second death simply means that a believer after being resurrected may suffer during the kingdom age, though this is assuredly not eternal perdition. Here I will praise God for His righteousness, for an overcomer having suffered martyrdom on earth shall not be hurt by the second death during the kingdom time but will receive instead the crown of life. Yes, a defeated Christian who is unwilling to die for the Lord may escape suffering on earth, but will be hurt at the kingdom period and shall not receive the crown of life. Who would not rather choose to suffer now and receive glory then?

An Old Testament typology may help to illustrate this point. The people in Sodom were burned to death—and this may signify the second death. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt outside the city—but this may suggest the hurt of the second death.

2.12-17 THE CHURCH IN PERGAMUM

This church signifies the condition of the church from the fourth to the seventh century.

2.12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These things saith he that hath the sharp two-edged sword”—Pergamum in the original Greek means (1) “united in marriage”, which indicates the relationship between the church and the world; and (2) “high tower” (or “fortified”), which points to the position of the church in the world.

“He that hath the sharp two-edged sword”—The sharp sword has two functions: one is to cut asunder the union between the church and the world, and the other is to judge that church which is united to the world. 

2.13 “I know where thou dwellest”—The church sojourns on earth as a passer-by just as our Lord too was once a stranger in this world. How pitiful that the church now has lost her character as a sojourner and has instead a dwelling, that is, a position here. This shows how the church has become worldly, and her dwelling is in Pergamum—which means high tower, that is to say, having a superior position, influence and glory.

Judging by outward appearance, the church is most prosperous, possessing position, influence and glory; but in reality she has been corrupted and defeated. For although the duty of the church on earth is to battle against the enemy, she now owns a dwelling place where the seat of Satan is. In other words, Satan occupies a place in the church. How lamentable this is!

“In the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwelleth”—In these seven letters, no believer’s name is ever mentioned except that of Antipas. Thus is affirmed the extreme importance of this believer. Why was Antipas killed? For the sake of holding fast the Lord’s name and not denying his faith. That is, he was killed because he faithfully testified to these facts.

“And thou holdest fast my name, and didst not deny my faith”—As long as Antipas lived, and through his faithful standing, the whole church stood firm. But after he was killed, the entire church was shaken.

2.14 “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there some that hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication”—Balaam was a covetous Old Testament prophet whose teaching aimed at uniting the Israelites with the Gentiles. How very many there are today who preach for the sake of money, and how they advocate a union with the world. As Balaam was hired by Balak, even so, since the time of Constantine the Great, many others have been employed by kings. The effects of the teaching of Balaam are: (1) eating things sacrificed to idols, which is to say, to be mixed with other religions, and (2) committing fornication, which in other words is to befriend the world.

2.15 “So hast thou also some that hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans in like manner”—Since the period typified was the time when the Roman Empire accepted Christianity as her religion, and since most of the people had no knowledge of Christian truths, naturally the burden of carrying on spiritual things fell on a minority. Class system became a necessity, and soon this system developed into a kind of teaching.

2.16 “Repent therefore, or else I come to thee quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of my mouth”—The sword in verse 12 is the word of the Lord which will cut asunder our relationship with the world. If we hear His admonition but do not repent and sever our relationship with the world, we will be judged by His sword-like word.

2.17 “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches. To him that overcometh, to him will I give of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and upon the stone a new name written, which no one knoweth but he that receiveth it”—Here are two promises for the overcomer, namely: (1) The hidden manna. Manna is a type of Christ (John 6.49-51). The visible manna was shared in by all the children of Israel, but the hidden manna was to be preserved for Canaan. All believers enjoy the salvation of Christ, but only the overcomers partake of that hidden part of Christ which is not known by all. (2) A white stone. During those days a white stone—on which was written the name of a candidate—was used for election, and then it was deposited in an urn. Though an overcomer will obviously not be elected by the religious world, he will nonetheless receive from the Lord a white stone on which is inscribed a new name unknown to all the rest. This indicates the Lord’s satisfaction with us.

2.18-29 THE CHURCH IN THYATIRA

This church represents the Roman Catholic system.

2.18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like a flame of fire, and his feet are like unto burnished brass”—The Lord identifies himself as (1) One whose eyes are like a flame of fire that can see through and distinguish all things, and (2) the Son of God, thus reminding the Roman Catholic Church of her error of inordinately uplifting Mary. And His feet are like burnished brass which are capable of executing judgment. What His eyes condemn, His feet trample down.

2.19 “I know thy works, and thy love and faith and ministry and patience, and that thy last works are more than the first”—We are most surprised to hear of the many good works to be found in such a corrupted church. Naturally, these are performed by a relative few. In spite of the failure of the great majority there are still a few who are excellent. This may be proved by looking at church history.

[Translator’s Note: As was indicated in the Preface to this English translation of Mr. Nee’s study on the book of Revelation, that part of the study dealing with chapter 2.19 through 3.22 was found missing. For the sake of completion, therefore, the reader will find, in the paragraphs which follow, a re-arrangement of an English translation, made by the present translator, of the pertinent portion of one of the author’s later works published in Chinese, entitled Church Orthodoxy. This translated portion is taken directly from the first Chinese edition of the work, which was published at Chungking in 1945.]

The Lord does acknowledge that there is some reality even in the Roman Catholic system. People such as Madame Guyon, Francois Fenelon, La Combe, John Tauler, and many others were not only saved but knew God in a real way as well. This is something for us to remember.

2.20 “But I have this against thee, that thou sufferest the woman Jezebel . . . ; and she teacheth and seduceth my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols”—Who is this Jezebel?

Jezebel, whose story is recorded in 1 Kings, was an unusual Old Testament personality. Ahab King of Israel took to wife this Jezebel, the daughter of a Sidonian king (1 Kings 16.31). She seduced the people into serving and worshiping another god, even Baal. The problem created at that time was more than simply a worshiping of idols; the children of Israel had also changed their God. They made Baal their god. Never before had there been any king to lead Israel to sin more than King Ahab. He was the first one who steered the people along to worship a foreign god. His sin surpassed even that of Jeroboam.

The woman here mentioned is Jezebel. Both the woman mentioned in Revelation 17 and the woman who hid the leaven in three measures of meal as mentioned in Matthew 13 betoken the Roman Catholic system.

Here is a woman who brings confusion to God’s people as well as to God’s word. She brings in idolatry. She calls herself a prophetess. She desires to preach and to teach. It is quite true that according to divine truth the church stands before God in the position of a woman. But whenever the church assumes the authority to teach, she turns into a Jezebel. The church of God has no right to speak on her own. In other words, the church has no doctrine of her own, since only the Son of God is the truth and has truths. Christ as the Head of the church alone can speak. How the Roman Catholic system, having turned into a Jezebel, insists on what the church says instead of what the Bible says or what the Lord says.

Jezebel has committed adultery—she has joined herself to the world. The phenomenon of the Roman Catholic system for the past thousand and some odd years is, according to the epistle of James (4.4), an adultery of the first magnitude. Here we find that the church has lost her chastity.

The consequence of such adultery is idol-worship. We are faced with the fact that none other than the Roman Catholic Church has so many idols.

“Thou sufferest the woman Jezebel . . . ; and she teacheth and seduceth my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols”—Why Jezebel? Because she introduces foreign gods and so can represent the Roman Catholic Church. How foreign deities have been taken over and labeled with Christian names, the most notable being the image of Mary. The Greeks had the goddess Venus, the eastern countries had the goddess of mercy, the Egyptians had the goddess of the nether region, but only Christianity had no goddess. For the sake of having a goddess, therefore, Mary was introduced. This is idolatry added on to fornication. The failure of the believers at Thyatira, says God, is to allow such teaching to prevail over them.

2.21 “And I gave her time that she should repent; and she wiliest not to repent of her fornication”—There is only one woman in the whole world who has killed the prophets, and she is Jezebel. During the middle centuries, countless numbers of God’s children died a martyr’s death at the hand of the Roman Catholic Church. She insists that what she decides or judges is right, and she tries to control man’s thought. She will not repent.

2.22 “Behold, I cast her into a bed”—Notice that this is not a coffin, but a bed. It means she is fixed for life, just as a physician might declare the sickness of a patient to be terminal. Her condition will not improve.

2.23 “I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he that searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto each one of you according to your works”—This may refer to how God in the future will use Antichrist and his party to destroy the Roman Catholic system.

2.24,25 “But to you I say, to the rest that are in Thyatira, as many as have not this teaching, who know not the deep things of Satan, as they are wont to say; I cast upon you none other burden. Nevertheless that which ye have, hold fast till I come”—Notice the phrase “the rest that are in Thyatira”: Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah. The latter was greatly disappointed and afraid, so he hid himself. When questioned by God, he complained that he alone was left and yet his life was in danger. God’s answer to him was: He had seven thousand in Israel who had not bent their knees to Baal (1 Kings 19). These are “the rest that are in Thyatira”.

Thank God, there are still those who “have not this teaching, who know not the deep things of Satan”—The word “bathea” in Greek is translated “mystery” or “deep things” in English. If you ask a Catholic priest whether you can take the Bible and comment on it, you will often be told that the Bible is such a mystery that none but the Pope is able to understand it. To those who do not follow such teaching the Lord puts no burden upon them save to keep what they have already learned of Him. It is enough just to keep it until He comes.

2.26,27 “And he that overcometh, and he that keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give authority over the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to shivers; as I also have received of my Father”—This is the first promise. In the kingdom to come, he who overcomes today shall rule the nations with an iron rod.

What God creates is stone, but what man produces is brick. From the time of the tower of Babel to the time as described in 2 Timothy, all who counterfeit God’s work are considered vessels of clay. They shall be broken one by one until the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth.

2.28 “And I will give him the morning star”—This is the second promise. Physically speaking, we know the morning star in the sky is Venus. It has two characteristics: it being the first star to appear in the sky at dawn as well as being the first one at dusk. One day the Lord shall be seen by the whole world (Mal. 4.2—“the sun of righteousness [shall] arise”). But those who see the morning star are necessarily awake much earlier while the vast majority are still asleep. And these who see the morning star are the overcomers.

2.29 “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches”—The Lord speaks not only to the Roman Catholic Church but to all the churches as well. In the three preceding letters the call for overcomers always follows the words “he that hath an ear, let him hear”; but beginning with Thyatira, this order is reversed. This indicates that the first three churches belong to one class while the last four churches compose another class. The history of Smyrna commences after that of Ephesus has ended, and so too begins the history of Pergamum after that of Smyrna has finished. Thyatira comes after the history of Pergamum is closed, but Thyatira does not pass off the scene when Sardis arrives. Instead, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea will all continue even to the second coming of the Lord Jesus.

3.1-6 THE CHURCH IN SARDIS

As the church falls progressively, from the works of the Nicolaitans at the Apostolic age to the domination of the prophetess Jezebel in the Roman Catholic system, God can no longer tolerate it. Hence comes Sardis. Sardis means “restoration” in the Greek. Sardis is God’s reaction to Thyatira. The history of revivals is the story of divine reactions. Whenever God starts to do the work of revival, He is reacting against the status quo. Now God’s reaction is man’s recovery.

3.1 “The things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars”—In Ephesus the Lord holds the seven stars in His right hand, in Sardis He has the seven stars. Ephesus is the deterioration of the Apostolic age, while Sardis is the recovery from Thyatira. Works without love is Ephesus, and name without life is Sardis. So these two form a pair.

The seven Spirits are sent by God to the world to do the works of life. In Ephesus the seven stars point to the messengers, but here they signify enlightening. Revival work is done partly in the Spirit and partly in the light. Sardis, we can therefore say, represents the history of the Protestant church from the Reformation until the Lord’s return.

“I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead”—No one will ever be doubtful of Luther as God’s servant; nor will any be skeptical of the Reformation as a magnificent piece of God’s work, as a divine reaction. When Luther began his work, it was Sardis. His motive was wholly for restoration.

3.2 “Be thou watchful, and establish the things that remain, which were ready to die: for I have found no works of thine perfected before my God”—The Lord does not say that Luther’s work is not good, He only says it is not perfected, all having good beginnings yet without ends. Being the perfect Lord that He is, He demands perfection.

With the Reformation we have justification by faith restored as well as an open Bible; but in the matter of the church, the Reformation still imitates Rome instead of returning to the status of the early church. This is history. The Reformation leaves the church matter unsolved. Luther himself did not consider justification by faith sufficient to make the Reformation complete, for there were things concerning the church that were left for others to tackle. Yet we have stopped short. Though we have returned to the faith once delivered to the saints, still there is no formidable change in the status of the church. The churches in the Reformation became united to various nations. As Thyatira is married to the world, so Sardis is united to different nations.

In the eighteenth century there began the history of the dissenters. Those who did not wish to follow national lines used instead doctrines as their lines of demarcation.

“Thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead. Be thou watchful, and establish the things that remain, which were ready to die”—This refers to justification by faith and the open Bible. In the entire history of Sardis these are seen to be dying, and the Lord therefore exhorts the believers to establish the things which remain.

3.3 “Remember therefore how thou hast received and didst hear; and keep it, and repent”—The history of Protestantism is one of revivals. Today Protestantism acts as though it were a cup. Whenever there is God’s blessing, people will organize themselves so as to contain it. Though the blessing of God is still there, it is being circumscribed. During the first generation, the cup is full; with the second generation, however, it is only half full, so that the message becomes less clear; and by the third or fifth generation, there is no more water but only the cup remains. People then contend about whose cup is best, yet no one can obtain anything to drink. And the result: God answers with another reaction, and so another Sardis is born.

Man always tries to set up something to preserve God’s grace. Now the cup of man’s making will never be broken because it never lacks people who will exert themselves to maintain it. So that the entire history is one of revivals. On the one hand there is revival, for which we are thankful to God. On the other hand, in these revivals man never returns to the beginning; and consequently we believers are reprimanded by God. God’s servants have this one problem, that they find it extremely difficult to distinguish between what is living water and what is an empty cup. And so from each old cup there continually evolves some new cup. Protestantism, then, is always experiencing revival, yet the Lord declares it to be imperfect. It is almost perfect, but not quite, since it never has gone back to the beginning.

“Remember therefore how thou hast received and didst hear”—The question is not how now to receive and hear, rather how things were received and heard then. “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (Acts 2.42). We cannot invent a fellowship. The apostles’ fellowship is the fellowship of Christ. If it is the apostles’ teaching, it is in fact Christ’s teaching. The error with Thyatira was to create her own teaching. Yet God has not charged us to invent, only to receive. During the past 20 centuries everything could be invented except truth. We may discover truth in our spirit, but we can never invent any truth.

“I will come as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee”—The coming of a thief is a coming upon (Greek, epi) which means coming by you, but you do not know it. Many brethren in the past have rightly observed that the thief comes to steal the best. Even so too will the Lord steal the very best from the earth. Only the best will be in His hand: “One is taken, and one is left” (Matt. 24.40-41). Hence He says, “If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come as a thief’ (3.3).

3.4 “But thou hast a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments: and they shall walk with me in white; for they are worthy”—The Lord pays special attention to our names. When we stand before God we are clothed with Christ, for He is our white garment. But when we stand before Christ at His judgment seat we need to be clothed also in “fine linen, bright and pure: for the fine linen is the righteousnesses of the saints” (Rev. 19.8 Darby). The word “righteousnesses” is plural in number.

3.5 “He that overcometh shall thus be arrayed in white garments; and I will in no wise blot his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels”—Here it is not a matter of having a name written but a matter of having a name confessed. At the time of resurrection the angels will also be present. And he whom the Lord confesses has part in the kingdom, but he whose name is not recognized by the Lord has no portion in the kingdom. Now this is not a question of eternity, it is a question of reigning with Christ. How pathetic it will be to have one’s name written in the book of life and yet not confessed!

3.7-13 THE CHURCH IN PHILADELPHIA

The name “Philadelphia” is a combination of two Greek words “philo” and “adelphos”: “philo” means “love”, and “adelphos” means “brother”: and hence Philadelphia signifies “brotherly love”. Now you will notice that the words of the Lord to Philadelphia and to Smyrna are quite alike. Of the seven churches, five are reprimanded, and only two receive no reproof. These two are Smyrna and Philadelphia. Just as the trouble in Smyrna came from Judaism and the Jews, so the same is true with Philadelphia. To the church in Smyrna the Lord says: “Ye shall have tribulation”; to the church in Philadelphia He says: “I also will keep thee from the hour of trial, the hour which is to come upon the whole world.” To both of these churches the Lord mentions the crown. To Smyrna He says: “I will give thee the crown of life”; and to Philadelphia He says: “Hold fast that which thou hast, that no one take thy crown.”

Since these two churches have many similarities, they stand in the same line: the orthodox line of the Apostles. But though the church in Sardis is truly a restoration, the recovery is not perfect. For unlike the church in Philadelphia which receives praises, Sardis receives reproaches. We thus know for sure that Philadelphia is the Lord’s choice because it is an extension of the orthodox line of the Apostles.

In the last century* just past we have had a great movement in the church which surpasses the Reformation. And thus Philadelphia has given us that which the Reformation failed to give. We thank God, for the matter of the church is solved through the early Brethren movement. The position of God’s children is almost entirely restored. Nevertheless, the fame of the Brethren movement falls far behind that of the Reformation. For the Reformation broke upon the world with the aid of sword and gun, whereas the Brethren movement depended purely on the preaching of the word of God.

* Actually, the 19th century.

3.7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write”—Philadelphia: brotherly love. In what respect does God particularly praise Philadelphia? In their brotherly love, for the intermediary class that distinguished clergy from laity has been totally abolished. Moreover, in the church there are neither Jews nor Gentiles, neither freemen nor bondmen. All are brothers. Only after our eyes have been opened to this can brotherly love ever be possible. In the world, distinctions are glorious; but in the church, it is shameful. The church stands not on distinctions but on brotherly love.

“These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth and none shall shut, and that shutteth and none openeth”—Holy is the Lord’s life; He himself is that holiness. And He is that reality before God, for He is God’s reality. The key of David means authority. Christ is the finality, and all problems are solved in Him. It is not a matter of force, nor of advertising, but of His opening the door.

3.8 “I know thy works . . . , that thou hast a little power”—One passage in the Scriptures may be associated with this verse: “Who hath despised the day of small things?” (Zech. 4.10) You should not despise the day of small things, that is, the day of the rebuilding of the temple. After the seventy years of captivity the remnant of the Jews returned to Jerusalem in weakness and in groups. They rebuilt the holy temple, thus serving as a type of the Brethren movement. Many of the older Jews who had seen the old temple wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of the house of God being laid. For how could the glory of this temple be compared with the glory of the temple of Solomon? But God spoke through the prophet Zechariah, saying that they ought not despise the day of small things. Comparatively speaking, the testimony of the church in the world is like a day of small things.

“And didst keep my word, and didst not deny my name”—On the side of strength, the Lord grants them two things: the keeping of His word and no denying of His name. The Brethren are noted for their knowledge of God’s word. A simple believer among them appears to have a clearer understanding of the Scriptures than some missionaries. And since 1828 the Brethren have maintained that they can only be called Christians. Many people insist on having denominational names, but these brethren have no other name than Christian. That they are called by the name Brethren (with a capital “B”) by others is something which they have never called themselves.

“Behold, I have set before thee a door opened, which none can shut”—To Philadelphia the Lord only mentions “open”. People may contend that if you preach according to the Scriptures all doors will be shut. The greatest hardship in obeying the Lord is when a person finds doors closed. Yet here is this extraordinary promise: “Behold, I have set before Thee a door opened, which none can shut”!

3.9 “Behold, I give of the synagogue of Satan, of them that say they are Jews, and they are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee”—There are at least four things which Judaizes Christianity; namely, an intermediary priesthood, a written code, a physical temple, and earthly promises. For those who truly know God, the influence of Judaism is completely nullified.

3.10 “Because thou didst keep the word of my patience”—This is joined with “partaker with you in the tribulation and kingdom and patience which are in Jesus” (1.9). The word here is a noun, not an adjective: It is not My patient word, but the word of My patience, which is to say, the patience of Christ himself. Today the Lord is patient with those who revile Him. His word is the word of patience. He has no fame here on this earth. He is a humble Man, the Man of Nazareth, supposed to be the son of a carpenter. As we follow Him, we are told to keep the word of His patience.

“I also will keep thee from the hour of trial, that hour which is to come upon the whole world, to try them that dwell upon the earth”—The trial which is to come upon the whole world, all Christians know, is the Great Tribulation. But before the hour of trial is come we shall already be raptured. In the Bible there are two places which speak of the promise of rapture: one is found in Luke 21.36 and the other is in Revelation 3.10. We need to follow the Lord carefully, learn to walk in the way of Philadelphia, and ask the Lord to deliver us from all these things that are coming upon the world.

3.11 “I come quickly: hold fast that which thou hast, that no one take thy crown”—This church shall continue on until the Lord’s return. “Hold fast that which thou hast”—What do the Philadelphians have? My word, My name. “That no one take thy crown”—To the other churches, it is a question of gaining the crown; to Philadelphia, it is a question of losing it. For the Lord says, you already have the crown. There is only one person in the whole New Testament who knew he had the crown, and that man was Paul. And of all the churches, Philadelphia alone knows she has the crown. Now then, says the Lord, do not let anybody take it away; by which He meant, do not come out of Philadelphia and forsake her place.

3.12 “He that overcometh, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go out thence no more: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God, and mine own new name”—Just as Philadelphia frequently experienced ostracism in her history, so she will one day not be excommunicated any more. To be a pillar in the temple of God means to be permanently settled, because a pillar cannot be taken away. Philadelphia, like a pillar, will support the temple of God, having the three names of God, New Jerusalem, and Christ inscribed on her. The eternal purpose of God is then fulfilled. The Philadelphians satisfy the Lord as well as belong to the Lord.

3.13 “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches”—Remember well that God has not given us alternatives to choose from; rather, He has laid out most plainly before us the way of the church.

3.14-22 THE CHURCH IN LAODICEA

To what does the church in Laodicea point? Many are unable to answer this question. Some may try to glean personal lessons from it, others may take it as representing the ruinous situation of the church in general. But the Lord is here prophesying.

3.14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write”—Her name is quite peculiar. It is a combination of two Greek words: Laos, meaning “people” or “laity”; and dicea meaning “opinion” or “custom”: hence Laodicea means the opinion or the custom of the people. We can see very distinctly that the church has fallen. What we see in Philadelphia is love, what we see in Philadelphia is the brethren. But here everything has become common. If God’s people do not stand stedfastly in the position of Philadelphia, they will change. Yet they will never change by returning to Sardis; instead, they will become Laodicea. That which comes out of Rome (Thyatira) is Protestantism (Sardis), that which comes out of Protestantism is the brethren (Philadelphia). And that which comes out of the brethren becomes the laity (Laodicea).

One day when the brethren fail to stand firm on the ground of the brethren, they fall from adelphos (brethren) to laos (laity or people). In Sardis, authority is in the hand of the pastors. In Philadelphia, authority falls on the brethren. Now, though, in Laodicea it is neither with the brethren nor with the pastors but with the laity. This means the opinion of the majority. In the people, you meet Laodicea; in the Lord’s will, you see Philadelphia.

“These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God”—Philadelphia and Laodicea are similar in church position. The difference lies in the fact that Philadelphia has love. There is not much distinction in outward appearance; what differentiates them is that Laodicea is a proud Philadelphia. Only fallen Philadelphia can become Laodicea. Riches themselves are the characteristic of Philadelphia; boasting of being rich is the trademark of Laodicea. The fatal disease with Laodicea is pride.

The Lord speaks of himself here as the Amen, the faithful and true witness, and the beginning of God’s creation. Everything that the Lord has mentioned will find its fulfillment in Him. As a matter of fact, all that is of God shall be accomplished in Him. The Lord came to the world to bear witness to the work of God. He is the Head over all things.

3.15,16 “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth”—Sardis has a name of being alive and yet is dead; Laodicea is neither cold nor hot. In Ephesus it is “move thy candlestick out of its place”; here it is “spew thee out of my mouth”: the Lord will have no more use of her.

3.17 “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art the wretched one and miserable and poor and blind and naked”—They have reason to be proud on the natural plane; but spiritual things ought to inhibit boasting. As soon as there is boasting, things spiritual vanish. The word “wretched” is the same as found in Romans 7.24: “Wretched man that I am!” The Lord is saying: you are spiritually wretched as is the man in Romans 7. In the eyes of the Lord they are pitiful. Three reasons are thereafter given for their wretchedness and misery: they are in reality poor and naked and blind.

3.18 “I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eyesalve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see”—In order to deal with the above three curses they must buy gold, white garments, and eyesalve.

In God’s view, richness in doctrine is useless; consequently, they are still poor. The Lord exhorts them to buy gold refined by fire that they may be rich. In his first epistle Peter says: “The proof of your faith, being more precious than gold that perisheth though it is proved by fire” (1.7).

“White garments” refers to works or conduct. God’s will is for them to be undefiled like wearing white garments, so that they may always walk before Him. The problem here is not whether there is a garment to wear, but whether the garment is white. “And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only, in the name of a disciple”, says the Lord Jesus, “verily I say unto you he shall in no wise lose his reward” (Matt. 10.42). This is the white garment. The Lord wishes people to do His works with a pure enough motive. How many activities are done with impure motives!

Eyesalve speaks of the revelation of the Holy Spirit. One only sees when he has the Holy Spirit’s revelation. Too much understanding on doctrine may impede the Holy Spirit’s revelation. How many are walking in the light of other people! May we learn this before God: to buy eyesalve.

3.19 “As many as I love, I reprove and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent”—All that has been said before are words of reproach, but the Lord now shows us that He reproves and chastens because He loves. Not only individuals need to repent, the church also must repent.

3.20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me”—What is this door? There are two possibilities: one is the heart door, the other is the door of the church. Many use this Scripture verse to preach the gospel. We certainly can borrow this verse to preach the gospel to sinners, but we must not borrow it forever without returning it to its proper context. Strictly speaking, the Lord is speaking of the door of the church. How strange it is that the Lord who is the head of the church is now standing outside the door of the church. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”—The word “behold” is addressed to the whole church, but the message is spoken to individuals. The door is the door of the church, but hearing His voice and opening the door come from the individuals.

We know that truth has two sides: the subjective and the objective, experience versus truth. The biggest failure of the Brethren is to overemphasize objective truth. “I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me”—This implies that the Lord will turn all their objective truths into subjective experiences.

3.21 “He that overcometh, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with my Father in his throne”—Many people consider this to be the best among all the promises given to the overcomers of the seven churches. Why is the overcomer promised such a noble thing? Because the church age shall soon be over, and the overcomer is waiting for the return of the Lord. For this reason, we see the throne.

[Here ends the translated portion taken directly from Mr. Nee’s Church Orthodoxy (First Chinese edition, Chungking, 1945) covering Revelation 2.19 to 3.22 of this present study.—Translator]