The Seven Golden Lampstands

There are many ways of approaching a study of the seven golden lampstands of Revelation 2 and 3. The present article suggests seven such ways.

1. We can consider the order in which the messages to the churches are found. It is interesting that we can trace in sequence the allusions made to the Old Testament history. For example:
Ephesus. This is the church which (i) had been beguiled from its single-hearted devotion and love to the Lord – doubtless by the devil, Rev. 2. 4; 2 Cor. 11. 3; (ii) had ‘fallen’, Rev. 2. 5; and (iii) had the promise to the overcomer that he would be given ‘to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God’, 2. 8. It seems clear that we are back in Genesis 3.
Smyrna. This is the church which experienced ‘affliction’, 2. 9, 10 lit. This is the very word used to describe the experience of Israel during their bondage in Egypt, Exod. 4. 31, LXX. The name ‘Smyrna’ means ‘myrrh or bitterness’ and may remind us of how the Egyptians made the lives of the children of Israel ‘bitter with hard bondage’, Exod. 1. 14. We have moved on to the time of the Exodus.
Pergamos. This is the church which had been affected by those which held ‘the doctrine 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’, Rev. 2. 14. It is to the overcomer at Pergamos that the promise is given that he ‘will eat of the hidden manna’, 2. 17. We are transported back to the time of Israel’s passage through the wilderness, Exod. 16. 33-35; Num. 25. 1-2; 31. 16.
Thyatira. This is the church which tolerated ‘that woman Jezebel’, 2. 20, a clear reference to the infamous wife of Ahab who stirred him up to work wickedness, 1 Kings 21. 25. We are now about half way through the period of Israel’s monarchy.
Sardis. This is the church which was alive in name only: its greatness was a thing of the past: those things which did remain looked about to die completely; yet there were ‘some’ who had not defiled themselves, 3. 1, 2, 4 (cf. Dan. 1. 8). All of this suggests the situation of God’s people during the time of the exile.
Philadelphia. This is the church which had but little strength and yet which attached such importance to keeping the Lord’s ‘word’, 3. 8, 10. The promise to the overcomer concerned the temple of God, 2. 12. These circumstances point to the return of the remnant in the days of Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah; see Neh. 8. 1; Zech. 4. 9-10 (’the day of small things’).
Laodicea. This is the church which was self-deceived – oblivious to its true spiritual condition, 3. 17. And yet they were assured of the Lord’s unfailing love, 3. 19. How reminiscent of the six-fold ‘Wherein …?’ of Malachi’s prophecy and of the Lord’s affirmation, ‘I have loved you’, Mal. 1. 2. We have reached the sad times of spiritual declension at the very end of Old Testament history.

2. We can group the letters together in various ways. It may be significant, for example, that the first three churches are distinguished from the later four in that the promise to the overcomer follows the exhortation to ‘hear what the Spirit says’. For the purpose of this article, however, we will consider a structure which links together the first and the last letters and proceeds inward.

Only the churches at Ephesus and Laodicea (viz. the first and seventh churches) are threatened with complete extinction. Ephesus is threatened with the moving of its lampstand out of its place, 2. 5, and Laodicea with being vomited out of the Lord’s mouth, 3. 16. It is sad that these were the only two churches of the seven to which (as far as we know) the apostle Paul had written, Eph. 1. 1; Col. 4. 16, and for which he had so earnestly prayed, Eph. 1. 16; 3. 14; Col. 2. 1.

Only the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia (viz. the second and sixth churches) receive unqualified praise. Not a word of censure or blame is heard in either letter. These are the only letters in which the word ‘repent’ is not found.

The churches at Pergamos, Thyatira and Sardis each represents a combination of strengths and weaknesses. It seems that in each case the spiritual condition of the church was worse than that of the one mentioned before. It appears that in the church at Pergamos most were sound in the faith but that there were some there who held the teaching of Balaam and of the Nicolaitans, 2. 14-15. It appears that at Thyatira a considerable proportion was affected by the teaching of Jezebel; see ‘as many as have not this doctrine’, 2. 24. At Sardis there were only ‘a few’ who ‘have not defiled their garments’, 3. 4. Sardis is distinguished by being the only one of the three for which the Lord has no word of commendation at all.

3. We can concentrate on the dominant characteristic of each of the seven churches. The general character of each of the churches can be summarised as follows:
Ephesus – the unloving church, without heart-devotion for Christ, 2. 4.
Smyrna – the persecuted church, both in the present and future, 2. 9-10.
Pergamos – the over-tolerant church, harbouring those who held godless teaching, 2. 14-15.
Thyatira – the compromising church, allowing immoral doctrine to be publicly taught and the saints thereby deceived, 2. 20-24.
Sardis – the sleeping church, in one sense ‘dead’, 3. 1, and in another sense ‘dying’, 3. 2, needing to wake to watchfulness, 3. 1.
Philadelphia – the loyal church, praised for ‘keeping’ the Lord’s word, 3. 8, 10.
Laodicea – the lukewarm church, smug and spiritually complacent, 3. 15-17.

4. We can look for comparisons and contrasts between the churches. For example, we can compare and contrast Ephesus and Thyatira. Both are commended for their ‘endurance’, 2. 2, 19 lit. Both letters refer to the church’s first works, 2. 5, 19. To both churches, the Lord says, ‘But I have against you’, 2. 4, 20 lit. Yet there is one striking contrast between them. Ephesus is praised repeatedly for its zeal for truth, 2. 2, 6, but is condemned for its lack of love, 2. 4. Over against this, Thyatira is praised for its love (and is the only church that is), 2. 19 lit, but is woefully deficient by way of concern for sound doctrine, 2. 20, 24. Ephesus ‘let go’ its first love and Thyatira ‘let go’ Jezebel, 2. 4, 20 lit.

Again, we can link together Smyrna and Philadelphia. These churches have in common that they alone receive unqualified praise and to them alone does the Lord speak of ‘crowns’, 2. 10, 3. 11. Clearly these were exceptionally spiritual churches and yet there is a very real contrast between them in that the one was shortly to face the closed door of imprisonment, 2. 10, and the other a continuing open door of service, 3. 8 (cf. 1 Cor. 16. 9).

5. We can consider how relevant and fitting to the particular situation of each of the churches is the description of Christ and the promise to the overcomer.

Take, by way of example, Smyrna. To a church facing affliction for a short, defined period (’ten days’, 2. 10), the Lord presents Himself as ‘the first and the last’, 2. 8. He is the One before and beyond all time! To a church facing cases of martyrdom, 2. 10, He presents Himself as the One who ‘became dead and lived again’, 2. 8 lit; for them death was not uncharted territory – He had entered it first and had conquered it! The promise to the overcomer is that, though he may indeed be hurt by the first death, he most certainly shall not be hurt by the second; ‘by no means’ is the force of the double negative, 2. 11. Some of the saints may be ‘cast’ by the devil into prison, 2. 10, but they shall never be ‘cast’ where he is going to be, 20. 10, 14!

Again, consider Pergamos. To a church disturbed by the doctrine of Balaam, 2. 14, Jesus presents Himself as the One with the sharp sword, 2. 12, and threatens to war against the offenders with the sword of His mouth, 2. 16. It can hardly be a coincidence that Balaam was once withstood by ‘the angel of the Lord’ (the Lord Himself?) with a drawn sword in his hand, Num. 22. 23, 31 – or that Balaam perished finally ‘with the sword’. Num. 31. 8.

6. We can relate the contents of the letters to the historical and geographical background of the cities where the churches were located.

Take, for example, the Lord’s requirement of Smyrna that the saints there be ‘faithful’, 2. 10. The men of Smyrna were renowned for their loyalty to Rome, particularly in the period before Rome became all-powerful. Cicero (Roman orator and statesman, lived BC 106-43) called Smyrna ‘one of our most faithful and our most ancient allies’. Tacitus (Roman historian, lived AD 58-120) reports how the men of Smyrna stripped themselves of their garments and sent them to warm Roman soldiers during a winter campaign against Pontus. He further tells how, when eleven Asian cities were in competition in AD 26 for the privilege of building a temple in honour of Emperor Tiberius, Smyrna was selected because of its history of loyalty to Rome. The believers at Smyrna would have readily appreciated what the Lord meant when He commanded a higher loyalty!

Again, consider Sardis. On two occasions the city had fallen to its enemies because its occupants failed to watch and properly guard its battlements. Built on a hill about 1,000 feet above a valley, with steep cliffs on three sides, its Acropolis seemed inaccessible and unassailable. In BC 549 it was besieged by the Persians. Croesus, the wealthy king of Lydia, believed Sardis was impregnable and left its cliffs unguarded. A Mardian soldier (on the side of the Persians) spotted a Lydian soldier climb down, and back up, one of the cliffs to retrieve a fallen helmet. The following night the Mardian led a company of Persian troops up the cliff and Sardis fell.

incredibly, history repeated itself about 300 years later when the city was taken by Antiochus following the ascent of the apparently unscalable cliffs by a band of his men – again there was no guard! The saints at Sardis could hardly miss the aptness of the Lord’s words, ‘Be watching … If therefore you do not watch …’, 3. 2-3. This call for vigilance is unique to the letter to Sardis.

(Three easily accessible sources of information about the historical background to the seven letters are: ‘The Final Encounter’ by F A Tatford, ‘The Daily Study Bible’ by W Barclay, and the separate articles on each of the churches by W M Ramsay in ‘Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible’.)

7. We can follow threads and key words through the individual letters.

For example, the idea of ‘holding’ in the letter to Pergamos, 2. 13-15 (three times). Also that of ‘works’ in the letter to Thyatira. Note ‘thy works’ twice, 2. 19; ‘her works’, v. 22 lit; ‘your works’, v. 23; ‘My works’, v. 26. Again, in the letter to Philadelphia, the four occurrences of ‘name’, 3. 8, 12, and the repeated references to ‘keeping’, 3. 8, 10 (cf. ‘hold fast’, v. 11).

Additional notes:
(i) The identity of the ‘overcomer’. John refers to ‘overcoming’ 23 times in his writings. This is in marked contrast to the rest of the New Testament, where we find only three references in all. To John, the Lord Jesus is pre-eminently the ‘overcomer’; see ‘be of good cheer; I have overcome the world’, John 16. 33; cf. Rev. 3. 21. John wrote, ‘Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?’, 1 John 5. 5. That is, the ‘overcomer’ is the true, genuine Christian. Having spoken of the eternal glory, John said, ‘He that overcomes shall inherit these things’, Rev. 21. 7 lit, in contrast to those who have their part in the lake of fire, v. 8. That is, the word ‘overcomer’ does not describe a member of an elite band of super-spiritual Christians; it is a definition of a real Christian. The promises to the ‘overcomer’ in Revelation 2 and 3 are made to all true Christians.

(ii) The identity of the ‘angels of the seven churches’. In that the ‘angels’ are themselves symbolised by ‘stars’, Rev. 1. 20, they cannot themselves be symbols of something (or someone) else – any more than the ‘churches’, which are symbolised by ‘lampstands’, are themselves symbols of anything else. The ‘churches’ are literal churches and it follows that the ‘angels’ are literal angels. Nor is there any ground for translating the Greek word as ‘messenger’. Out of 185 occurrences in the New Testament, it is translated ‘messenger’ on only 6 occasions – and never in the writings of John. In Revelation, all the other occurrences of the word (ail 68 of them) unquestionably describe literal angels, including one in the letter to the church at Sardis, 3. 5. John was ‘in the Spirit’ when he saw the events he records and would therefore have had no more difficulty in writing to an angel, 2. 1, 8, 12 etc, than he would have had in conversing with one, 17. 1; 19. 10; 22. 9-10.

We do not understand the relation between the angels and the churches; note, for example, how the singular ‘thy’ and ‘thee’ (referring to the ‘angel’) merges into the plural ‘you’ and ‘ye’ (referring to the members of the church) in the letter to Thyatira, 2. 18-29. But then neither do we understand the relation between angels and the nations, Dan. 10. 13-21, or between angels and individual believers, Matt. 18. 10; Heb. 1. 13-14.


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