Last week, we looked at Revelation 1, which ends with a vision of the Risen Christ walking among seven golden lampstands while holding seven stars in his hands. We are told that the seven lampstands are seven churches of Asia Minor and the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. In the ancient world, earthly realities were thought to have angelic counterparts.  The seven angels are the heavenly counterparts and protectors of their earthly reflections, the churches of Asia Minor.
Following this vision, John records seven letters of Christ to the seven churches. No one knows whether the seven letters were written for seven individual churches (which did exist) or the seven letters are meant to be letters to all the churches suffering under the persecution of Domitian. In any case, today these letters are for all churches and all Christians to read.
As I mentioned last week, John loves the number seven.  The book of Revelation, and the Gospel of John, are often structured around sevens. In the case of Revelation, we see seven stars, seven lampstands, seven seals, seven bowls, so that the book itself is structured around the number seven. To the Hebrew mind, perhaps because there are seven days in a week, the number seven connoted perfection. It may be that these seven churches, which historically form a kind of semi-circle of cities in Asia Minor, were meant to symbolize all the churches of Asia Minor to whom John desired to communicate.  And, because seven is a perfect number, it is also likely that John had mind that many others would read his letter and profit from it.
Letters to God’s People.
Today, we are looking at the seven letters as a group to discern their meaning for contemporary Christians. While I am going to refer to all the letters and their common teachings, we will be reading from the first and the last letters. First, from the letter to Ephesus:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God (Revelation 2:1-7).
Now hear from the last letter to Laodicea:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 3: 14-22).
Prayer: God, by the Risen Christ you in our midst this morning, holding the stars in your hands and wishing to bless us. Please come now so that we can hear and receive the blessing you intend from the reading and hearing of your word. Amen.
Get Among the Lampstands.
When Jesus began his public ministry, the Gospels record that the first thing he did was to call the twelve disciples who would become his closest followers and eventually carry the Gospel into the entire world. By the year 100, the gospel had been spread throughout most if not all the Roman Empire. The fact that Jesus began his ministry by calling together a group of people who he would disciple, lets us know that the church was part of God’s intention from the very beginning. We know that many people followed Jesus and were his disciples. In addition to the Twelve, there was a much larger group of people who share the earthly ministry of Jesus. 
Paul, as he began his ministry, followed the same pattern as Jesus. He seldom traveled alone. He normally traveled with the group of fellow missionaries. When he arrived in a city, he would go to the synagogue (the church of Israel), teach the people of God, develop a group of disciples, build leadership among those disciples, turn over leadership to them, and go on to the next city. In other words, Paul planted churches, including some of the churches to which John writes, using the same method of discipleship that Jesus used.
It is, therefore, not surprising that John begins his vision of the Risen Christ by placing him among seven lampstands symbolizing the church as the place where the Spirit of God is poured out on people.  For John, Paul and the other apostles, the church was the place where the risen Christ could be met, experienced, and worshiped.
In the modern world, with our excessive individualism, we tend to think of religion as a personal matter. We also tend to think that we can be Christians without the church or at least outside the church. Some people think that they can be outside the church only some of the time, others believe they can be outside the church nearly all the time, or even all the time. The book of Revelation does not support this kind of thinking. Instead, we are to see that the Church of God is the most important place where Christ is heard, seen, felt, and followed. It is in among the fellowship of believers that we are discipled.
Step One: Remember Your First Love.
The first letter John writes is to the church in Ephesus. The Ephesian church was planted by the apostle Paul. He spent more time in Ephesus than in any other place he ministered. After Paul left, scholars think that Timothy was for a time bishop of the church. Finally, scholars believe that John himself ministered in Ephesus church and had an important role in all of Asia Minor. 
The Ephesian church was one of the great churches of the ancient world. It was the most important mission center in the early church. It was the home of great thinkers, of whom Paul and John were two. The church was diligent in its ministry and orthodox in its doctrine. As is sometimes the case, however, as time went by this church began to “lose its first love” (Rev. 2:4). What do you suppose this happened? Was it because they just began to get a little bit bored with the way things work? Was it because they’d been working so long that they began to get tired? Was it the persecution they were experiencing? Was it all the above and more? Probably it was all the above and more. 
There are times in the life of every Christian and every church when we must remember our first love. I’ve been preaching for a long time now. Quite frankly, sometimes it’s work. I’ve been a member of a small group for the past seventeen years or so. Frankly, it’s not always as exciting as it was the first day we began to pray together. Over the years, I’ve had to address a lot of problems, and addressing problems is not as much fun as it was in the beginning. Over twenty-five years of Christian ministry I’ve been to a lot of church services, and not all of them were exciting. In more than thirty years as a Christian, I have belonged to many Sunday school classes and not every one of them was taught by the best teacher in the world. I’ve belonged to many small groups, and not every one of them was successful. Sometimes I detect my first love failing.
As anyone who’s been married knows, the kind of excitement we experienced when we were first married seldom lasts for fifty years. There are times in any good marriage when, if it is going to endure, the spouses must remember our first love. Churches are no different. There are times in our lives when we are not going to experience the same kind of excitement in going to church as we did when first we became Christians, or when we were young and at vacation Bible school, or when we were in youth group. This is particularly true during times of stress that we need to remember our first love.
Step Two: Avoid the Bad Stuff.
The seven letters generally contain both praise and warning for the churches. The Church of Ephesus is praised for its endurance and its devotion to the truth, but is warned about its loss of first love. The complaints of the Risen Christ generally fall into two big categories:
- Bad Doctrine and
- Bad Morals.
The exact heresies that afflicted the seven churches are not necessarily important to us today. They involved teachers who dominated their church and who taught things that Jesus had not taught. The early church had many of the same problems we have today. The church was always under pressure to conform its teachings and its morals to the society around it. Some leaders tried to conform Christian faith to Greek philosophy and went too far. Some teachers tried to conform Christian morals to the morals of the Roman Empire.
Several of the letters refer to the “Nicolaitans” (2:6, 15). The term is never defined by John, but it seems that a leader named Nicholas, who apparently was a strong leader and may have been the deacon referred to in Acts 6, took upon himself to teach things that were in error. Probably influenced by Greek philosophy, he began to teach that it did not matter what one did with the body. Greco-Roman culture was very sexually decadent. Apparently, the Nicolataitans began to behave shamefully, including at “love feasts,” which were an early form of communion. John complains about the Nicolaitans and about a woman whom he calls “Jezebel” more than once in the letter, who apparently taught a similar error. 
We live in a similar time. Christians believe things that a materialistic culture finds hard to believe. We believe in a transcendent personal God who loves and cares for each of us and who exists in a relationship of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe in a kind of moral purity that our culture does not easily or universally accept. We are also made fun of sometimes, and we must get used to being made fun of. Like the ancient Christians, we must learn how to maintain or faith in a culture that does not agree with our faith or our morals.
Step Three: Open the Door of Your Heart.
The final letter to the seven churches contains one of the most famous images in all Christian history. During the letter, Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and sup with him and he with me” (3:19-20). The church in Laodicea had become lukewarm. Like Ephesus, the Laodaceans had allowed their faith to grow lukewarm, no longer hot and vital. Jesus gives them, and us, a recipe for renewal. He just says, “Look, I am here. I am always here. I am always knocking. I always desire you to come in and be your friend and share fellowship with you.
Result: Receive the Blessing.
In Revelation 1, Jesus says that he will bless those who hear the word, internalize the word, and put the word of God to work in their lives (1:3). In the seven letters, John and the Risen Christ give a blessing to those who hear the word and respond to the Word of Jesus. In the letter to the Ephesians, he tells them that those who resist the temptation to fit in, live the Christian life, and are faithful to the end will receive the tree of life (2:7). This is a reference to the tree of life in Genesis, which is a symbol of eternal life with God. At the end of the letter to the Laodiceans, the risen Christ says that those who conquer will be seated with him on his throne (3:21). Both images teach us that we need not fear difficult times because if we are faithful there is a blessing to be received, a blessing that extends to all eternity. In hard times, we can hold onto the promise of Christ that “Blessed are those who hear these words and take to heart what is written” (1:3, paraphrased).
Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved
 William Barclay, “The Revelation of John” in The Daily Bible Study Bible Study Vol.1 (Westminster Press, 1976), 53-55.
 The number seven appears in John in the form of the seven signs around which the book is structured and the seven “I am sayings” that occur in the book. The seven signs are generally thought to be the changing of the water into wine (2:1-11), healing the official’s son (4:46-54), the healing of the paralytic (5:1-18), feeding of the 5000 (6:5-14), walking on water (6:16-24), healing of the man born blind (9:1-7) and the raising of Lazarus (11:1-45). The seven I am’s are: “I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:22), “I am the sheep gate” (10:19), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25-26), “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:16), “I am the true vine” (15:5), In Revelation, the number seven appears fifty-four times. There are seven churches (1:4) seven lampstands (1:12), seven stars (1:20) seven spirits (1:4), seven seals (5:1), seven bowls of wrath (15:7), seven trumpets, (8:2) and some imagery is often repeated as in the letters where the seven lampstands and seven angels appear and reappear. See, William Hendricksen, More than Conquerors (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1940, 1967), 23.
 A major issue among scholars concerns whether the letters were writing to seven actual churches or to seven churches as a symbol of all the churches of Asia Minor. Without going into detail, it is my view that the best way to think of it is that there were seven churches with the problems associated with the seven churches, but that John also chose the seven as illustrative of the kinds of problems all the churches had. Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993, 2006), 29. Once again, I cannot for reasons of space give you all the citations to all references on this debate or that inform this blog.
 In addition to the Twelve, we know that there were Seventy as recorded in Luke 10:1–24. There are also references to a group of disciples who met in the Upper Room recorded in Acts 1. Finally, Paul refers to 500 witnesses to the resurrected Christ in I Corinthians 15:6.
 Lamps and oil are symbols of the Holy Spirit in Scripture. See Matthew 25:1-13 for a teaching of Jesus that illustrates these usages.
 See, J.P.M. Sweet, “Revelation” in the Westminster Pelican Commentaries (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1979), 79. Barclay, Revelation, Vol. 1, 58-61.
 William Barclay, The Revelation of John Vol. 1, 57-61; See also, Metzger, Breaking the Code, at 30-32; Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, at 60-63.
 John refers to Jezebel, the Nicolaitans, and Balaam, seem to be symbolic of references to a group of similar errors that afflicted the churches of Asia Minor.In fact, the meaning of Balaam and Nicolaitan are similar, one being Greek and one being Hebrew. It may be that one error is being referred to by John. In a time of persecution, the fact that Christians would not attend pagan feasts, where food offered to idols was served, would not worship the emperor, and embraced Hebrew sexual morality that excluded much of the decadence of Rome caused the church to stand out and become a target for persecution. There is also some indication that the Nicolaitans were a personality cult and what is being warned against is “clerisy” or the excessive power of charismatic religious leaders. In the ancient world (and today) some leaders find ways to accommodate the culture and end up theologically and morally compromised. Eugene Boring, “Revelation” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), 92-93.