By the time the apostle John was nearing the end of his earthly life, he was acutely aware that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). He told people in his pastoral care, “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). But as John was living out his final days in torturous labor on the Isle of Patmos, he may have looked back in amazement at how different his circumstances were from what he expected when he set out to follow Jesus.
Israel had very high expectations for the Messiah and the kingdom He would institute. They eagerly anticipated the arrival of an heir to the Davidic throne who would overthrow Rome’s occupying forces, wipe out Israel’s enemies, and usher in the fulfillment of all God’s promises to Abraham, David, and the prophets. The salvation they awaited was temporal, not eternal.
The disciples held that hope. Throughout Christ’s ministry, they frequently jockeyed for supremacy in the promised kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 18:1–5; Luke 9:46–48). John and his brother James even enlisted their mother to petition the Lord on their behalf (Matthew 20:20–21). Acts 1:6 tells us that right up to the moment Christ ascended into heaven, His disciples expected Him to unleash His sovereign power and inaugurate His kingdom on earth.
In the years that followed, as the church exploded into existence and the Holy Spirit authenticated the apostles’ ministry through miraculous gifts, it must have seemed that the Lord’s return was imminent. But almost immediately the church was inundated with false teachers. Before long, many of John’s apostolic brothers were dead at the hands of Rome—by the time he reached Patmos, he was the only apostle still alive.
With believers on the run from merciless persecution and with churches in serious spiritual decline, John might have had every reason to be disappointed and depressed. Had the Lord’s plan for the church failed? It would be easy to imagine him crying out for a vision of what the Lord was doing in His church—some divine insight to encourage and comfort him in the twilight of his apostolic ministry. No matter how seasoned and spiritually mature he was, he surely could have used some hope and solace.
Instead, what he saw was utterly terrifying. John tells us it caused him to fall to the ground “like a dead man” (Revelation 1:17). What he saw was the glorified Christ, appearing as ruler, judge, and executioner. John saw the Lord in all His glory as the Head of the church, ready to mete out righteous judgment—not on the world, but on His church!
Christ’s message to the church, through John, is unequivocal: “Repent.” Over and over, Christ calls these wayward churches to repent and reform. To the church at Ephesus, He said, “Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first” (Revelation 2:5). He had a similar message for the church at Pergamum: “Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth” (Revelation 2:16). He warned the church at Thyatira of the severe judgment that awaited “unless they repent” (Revelation 2:22). He charged the church at Sardis to “remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent” (Revelation 3:3). And He gave a final warning to church at Laodicea, reminding them that “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19).
These were not casual, dispassionate warnings. Each call to repentance was accompanied by the devastating consequences that awaited if a church failed to reform. In that sense, what John saw and heard was the fulfillment of Peter’s words decades earlier in his first epistle: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). Like Paul, Peter knew the many looming spiritual dangers that threatened the church, even from within. He also knew that churches would in some cases succumb to temptations, false doctrines, the lure of the world, or the assaults of the evil one. Peter called his readers to persevere under persecution, which he saw in part as God’s judgment against the unfaithful church. Moreover, Peter understood that this is how God always operates with His people.
As a good student of the Old Testament, Peter would have been familiar with the prophecy of Ezekiel 9, which was another terrifying vision of God’s judgment: “Then He cried out in my hearing with a loud voice saying, ‘Draw near, O executioners of the city, each with his destroying weapon in his hand’” (Ezekiel 9:1). Writing during the Babylonian captivity, Ezekiel saw a vision of God calling foreign powers to execute His judgment on His people. The vision continues,
Behold, six men came from the direction of the upper gate which faces north, each with his shattering weapon in his hand; and among them was a certain man clothed in linen with a writing case at his loins. And they went in and stood beside the bronze altar.
Then the glory of the God of Israel went up from the cherub on which it had been, to the threshold of the temple. And He called to the man clothed in linen at whose loins was the writing case. The Lord said to him, “Go through the midst of the city, even through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed in its midst.” But to the others He said in my hearing, “Go through the city after him and strike; do not let your eye have pity and do not spare. Utterly slay old men, young men, maidens, little children, and women, but do not touch any man on whom is the mark; and you shall start from My sanctuary.” So they started with the elders who were before the temple. (Ezekiel 9:2–6)
God’s wrath had reached a boiling point with apostate Israel. He made a provision to mark out the few who had remained faithful, but everyone else would face the fullness of His judgment. Moreover, the slaughter would start at the very seat of His authority and the center of worship, with those most culpable for Israel’s apostasy.
In essence, that is the same vision John saw—the Lord as the righteous judge, coming to call His churches to repent of unfaithfulness to Him.
Most people who go to a church believe it is a safe place—perhaps the safest place—when it comes to threats of judgment from the Lord. It’s almost like climbing aboard the ark; once you’re safely inside, you’re untouchable.
But that’s not true. Frankly, it’s a foolish and dangerous notion. Just because you are in a church—or something you call a church, where Jesus’ name is invoked and songs are sung about Him—does not mean you’re safe against threats from God. Here in the opening chapters of Revelation, the Lord makes some very strong, direct threats against churches. A church is no safer than the world in that regard, and its transgressions often demand a swifter judgment.
That’s why this passage is so often overlooked and rarely discussed. While the Lord repeatedly called for Israel to repent and return to a right relationship with Him, the early chapters of Revelation are the only place He employs similar language when dealing with the sins and failures of churches. It makes us uncomfortable to think about God calling His church to repent and reform, and threatening them with judgment if they don’t. But it is critically important that we heed the warnings Christ delivers to us through the pen of John in Revelation.
Yes, these were letters written to specific local congregations about their particular issues. But they also stand as warnings to the entire church throughout its history. And as we’ll see, the rebukes delivered to the churches of Asia Minor are just as applicable to the modern church, if not more so.
The issues that corrupted churches in the first century are the same threats facing the church today: idolatry, sexual immorality, compromise with the world and its pagan culture, spiritual deadness, and hypocrisy. Over the intervening centuries, the church has not outgrown these familiar pitfalls. Nor has God lowered or softened His righteous standard. Regardless of when and where it exists, He demands a pure church.
That was His message to the churches in Revelation. Roughly two thousand years later, Christ is still calling churches to repent and warning us about dire consequences if they don’t.
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