Jesus Gets Tough… Part Two
In this two-part series we’re considering characteristics of Jesus that are revealed clearly in the Scriptures but that seem to be avoided or dismissed in the church today. As we noted in part one, Jesus presents Himself to John in chapter 1 of Revelation in a highly symbolic way—a way that is far different from the years when Jesus was physically with John and they walked together. John, the beloved of Christ, who seemed to have had a more intimate relationship with His Lord and Savior than the other Apostles, nevertheless is confronted visually by an image of Jesus so overpowering that he can only react by dropping to his face before Him. There is little doubt that John’s relationship grew deeper with Jesus after His ascension, as it should with all believers as they mature in the faith. But it seems that even John was not prepared for what he witnessed.
The symbolic image represented a characteristic of Jesus that He wants His church, His bride, those who believe in Him, to understand concerning their relationship with Him. He wants His followers to be pure, to be holy, just as He is pure and holy (1 Peter:1:15-16). That seems to be indicated by His hair and the fiery image of His eyes: “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace…” (Revelation:1:14-15). All of these symbolic elements appear to represent judgment. That seems to be underscored by the “twoedged sword” protruding from the mouth of the image of Christ (Revelation:1:16). The sword is His Word, the Scriptures, by which everyone will be judged. He is the Word, and it is His words that will judge and condemn unbelievers. His words will also judge believers in the sense of correcting and pruning so that their lives might conform to the truth and be increasingly fruitful.
We need to be aware that the symbolism surrounding the rather intimidating figure of Christ and His exhortation in the first three chapters of Revelation is not directed at the world, but rather at His bride, His church. These are the ones whom John declares the Groom loves: “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood” (Revelation:1:5). Yet any believer who doesn’t grasp that Jesus is “getting tough” with His bride is missing a very important aspect of His message to the seven churches, that being—He wants her to “shape up” before the wedding.
It seems to me to be a “prenuptial” exhortation, and a rather frank one at that. But why would Jesus speak to His bride the way He does? It certainly isn’t the way young men today go about wooing their brides in order to ensure that they show up at the church. Of course, what seems right to us because of worldly or cultural influences rarely conforms to the teachings of Scripture. Nevertheless, the question remains: why would Jesus “read His bride the riot act,” as He seems to be doing in His messages to the seven churches? Let me suggest some possibilities.
First of all, and bottom line, it is for her good. That’s a safe conjecture because everything Jesus says and does is good and for the good of those He addresses. Yet there is much more that we can surmise. Although we are to expect the Lord to return from heaven at any time for us His bride, and we can’t know the day or the hour, we do know the spiritual condition of the world at that time. It’s indicated in the words of Jesus in Luke:18:8: “Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” In the Gospel of Matthew, our Lord tells His disciples that the days prior to His return will be characterized by spiritual deception (24:4) that will be terribly seductive: “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (v. 24).
Some claim that this verse teaches that the elect are immune to such deception. That view has many problems. Jesus was speaking to His disciples, who were certainly His elect, yet He warned them not to be deceived—which doesn’t make sense if they couldn’t be deceived. Believers have always been subject to deception. Scripture warns us against falling for Satan’s “devices” (2 Corinthians:2:11). Furthermore, all of the epistles, which are written to believers, contain corrections of false doctrines that either had seduced them or had that potential. These are all things the Lord knows His bride will face.
Christ’s sternness in one way may be compared to a drill sergeant who prepares his raw recruits for warfare. A drill sergeant, no matter what the army, is universally known for his being hard on his men. His approach is no-nonsense because of his concern not only for his troop’s survival but also that his soldiers will be victorious in the battles they will face. Similarly, believers in Jesus down through the ages have been subjected to intense spiritual battles. Our Lord’s concern is for how they fair in what they are facing. He points out issues to the seven churches (and to us today) that will seriously undermine one’s relationship with Him and consequently one’s effectiveness for His kingdom. The Ephesians, for example, were commended for many things, but their foundation was being undermined as their active love for the Lord was fading. That may seem insignificant compared to all the good works they were doing, yet it is more critical than we may realize, and simply so. If the love of Christ is not our first and foremost motivation for the works that we do, then what will be our motivation, even though we may not be aware of it? Self. And where the leaven of self enters in, the loaf of pride rises, which is the primary recipe for works of the flesh.
The issue is so serious that the Lord declares to His bride, the Ephesians (and again to us as well), that if they do not repent He will “remove their candlestick out of its place” (Revelation:2:5). A candlestick is a light-giving instrument, a symbol that “giveth light unto all that are in the house” and in the passages of Matthew:5:14-15
Jesus called his disciples “the light of the world.” They were only that light in the sense that they taught others to “observe all things” that Jesus taught them (Matthew:28:20), i.e., His Word. Peter refers to the Scriptures, which he calls the “word of prophecy,” as a “light that shineth in a dark place” (2 Peter:1:19). I believe the action of the removal of the “candlestick” (also referred to as a lampstand) is primarily the drifting away from the light of God’s Word as believers’ love for Him waxes cold. Furthermore, in John:8:12, Jesus, who is the Living Word, referred to Himself as “the light of the world.” Isaiah, as well, shows clearly the relationship of light and the Scriptures: “…if they speak not according to [God’s] word, it is because there is no light in them” (8:20).
As we noted in part one of these articles, the seven churches of Revelation were not only specific churches functioning at the time when John wrote the book, but they are also reflective of what the church in general experienced at certain times throughout its history. Moreover, the issues that Christ addresses can be found in local churches throughout the world today. So, as we are repeatedly urged, we need to heed what Jesus said to the historic churches and apply that to our local churches and to ourselves as individual believers—His bride—today.
To two of the seven churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, Jesus offers no correction. They are only shown comfort and encouragement because of what they have suffered and will suffer for their steadfastness in the faith. There are multitudes of fellowships undergoing similar persecution for their witness for Christ today and many more that perhaps will be subject to the same in the future. Christ’s words, therefore, as they are heeded, will strengthen and give heart to His bride not only to endure what’s ahead but to be victorious and fruitful in the midst of it.
The Groom’s address to the other five churches consists mainly of a list of issues that will create major spiritual problems for His bride—problems that will seriously affect a believer’s relationship with Him and one’s fruitfulness for His kingdom. To underscore what is central to correcting the churches that have drifted away from His Word, our Lord repeats the symbol for the Word that He first identified Himself with in addressing the church in Pergamos: “These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges” (2:12). That is not only central, but it is the only basis for the necessary discernment the bride must have in order to recognize deception and repent of the erroneous spiritual practices she has gotten into or may yet face.
The church at Pergamos had problems that were hardly unique to that fellowship. Some of its members were teaching false doctrine, likely for material gain, and were fostering sexual immorality. The church had those who held to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which no doubt involved some form of elevating the leaders to a higher spiritual level and control over laity, that is, the brothers and sisters of that fellowship. This is apparent today in churches where there is a hierarchy and a distinct clergy class. Jesus declares that He hates that, and He will deal directly with it through His Word if the fellowship does not repent.
Christ speaks to the church of Thyatira in terms that clearly indicate judgment, reiterating the earlier symbols that represent the same: “These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass” (2:18). That church has a woman, a false prophetess, who has introduced sexual immorality, spiritual fornication, and practices related to idolatry. In His mercy and longsuffering, He has given her time to repent. In His concern for this fellowship of believers, He uses His most sobering and sternest words: “Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give every one of you according to your works” (2:22-23). If the Lord’s words seem shocking to some of us, it may be because we’ve been so mesmerized by our politically, socially, religiously, and psychologically “correct thinking” that we’ve been blinded to the many strong deterrents (e.g., Ananias and Sapphira) found throughout the Bible. Furthermore, we may have lost sight of the fact that He is speaking as the One who loves those whom He is addressing and has washed them from their sins in his own blood (Revelation:1:5).
To the church at Sardis, which has only a remnant of steadfast believers, He gives exhortation to “be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain” (3:2) and to remember what they have “received and heard, and hold fast, and repent.” If they will not watch, our Lord declares that He will “come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee” (3:3). I believe this is a visit for corrective judgment of His church, His bride. This is what Peter prophetically confirms: “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God” (1 Peter:4:17).
The Groom has gentler words for the bride at Philadelphia, a fellowship of “little strength” yet they have “kept [Christ’s] word, and [have] not denied [His] name” (3:8). He declares His love for them and praises them for living out His Word in patient perseverance. Nevertheless, they are warned to “hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown” (3:10-11). It seems that the Groom not only will have His bride “arrayed in fine linen, clean and white” (19:8) because of his imputed righteousness, but He also wants her to be adorned with crowns earned by her loving obedience to His Word.
Many have suggested that the church of the Laodiceans is the church most representative of the churches of our day, particularly churches in the West. One definition I found for the word Laodicea is “rule of the people”; another was “judgment of the people.” Both seem to be appropriate to Christ’s admonitions, in that the people are doing their own thing and He is outside their fellowship. They seem to be so self-absorbed in their materialistic self-sufficiency that they cannot recognize that they are spiritually “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (3:17). How does the Bridegroom address this condition? In the strongest language yet! Regarding those whom He characterizes as “lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot,” He declares, “I will spue thee out of my mouth” (3:15-16).
Here we must ask again: why would the Lord speak to His bride in such a way?
In the last passages of Revelation 3, He spells out the reasons quite clearly for what I’ve referred to as His “prenuptial exhortation” to the seven churches. In verse 3:19 He declares, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”
He loves the bride, and He counsels her to receive from Him things that have been purified and will purify her life and love for Him—spiritual “gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white rainment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see” (3:18).
He concludes His exhortation to His bride, to us who profess to believe in Him, who claim to follow Him, with an offer that implies a reality check, a check of our relationship with Him as the One to whom we are betrothed. Has our love for Him become “lukewarm”? Or have we drifted away from our first love for Him? Whatever our condition may be, He urges and encourages us, “Be zealous therefore, and repent. 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” (3:19-20).
The Bridegroom is willing…but what about the bride? Whatever instruction we find in the Word of God, we are to take heed. But when we find in Scripture something repeated, such as Jesus saying, “Verily, verily…” it seems that He is making His instruction very emphatic. What then of His instructions to His bride, which He emphasizes with an exhortation that He repeats seven times? “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”— Revelation:2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22.
And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely (Revelation:22:17).