Imagine how these letters might have been received and how they were communicated to the brethren and sisters. Why did Jesus only write to the seven ecclesias? Did he plan on others like us reading them? Did John write seven copies of the entire Apocalypse and distribute them around? Or was there only one copy that they all had to share? So many unanswered questions that we are left to ponder.

But let us try and picture what impact these letters might have had. Imagine if your ecclesia was one of the seven to which Christ wrote. How would you feel? The comments to some are quite stark and reproving. My guess is that they would only be accepted if they came from Christ.

What if your Ecclesia received a letter like that to Laodicea for example? I guess you might want some sort of authenticity. Imagine for a moment if I were to write a letter to your ecclesia and accuse it of wrong doctrine and practice – which is effectively what Jesus did in some of his letters. I imagine it might either be dismissed at the first opportunity by solemn faced arranging brethren who nodded sadly in agreement that I ‘used to be such a levelheaded brother’ but they can’t imagine what went wrong – ‘it’s very sad’. The minutes might reflect that a letter had been received and filed.

Or it would be treated with outrage: ‘who does he think he is! – it’s not as though he is the paragon of uprightness!’ They might quickly send a ‘please explain’ defensive type letter in return. That would be the expected reaction of the flesh – to dismiss it one way or the other and continue on the same course. Possibly the ecclesias might have even reacted like that to Apostolic authority: ‘poor old apostle John imprisoned on Patmos for so long, perhaps he’s gone a bit funny – he is quite elderly now’.

The flesh does not have a native capacity to consider reproof with good grace, does it? Possibly the least likely course of action of an ecclesia – any ecclesia if it received a letter like the seven, well six of them at any rate, would be to accept the judgement of the author and seek to amend. Unless… perhaps… the author was Christ. So for these letters to carry weight they needed to clearly come from Christ. There was an identifier from Christ at the beginning of each letter and I also think it likely that within each letter there must have been some feature which was little known to outsiders that each ecclesia could identify. The face we present to others is often different from the one Christ sees, and when he pointed out the issues there was no escape.

I think for us that must be the first point of exhortation – Christ is walking amid the lightstands of each ecclesia and has the elders in his hand. Do we imagine that the head of our body does not know what is going on? Thinking of a natural body we would not have a part of us on fire and not know – even though we might rudely assert this of others, it could never really be the case. Whatever is going on in the Ecclesia, wherever it may be in the whole world, is at once known to Christ. The presence of Christ is here with us today – and not just symbolically on the table before us in the bread and wine either. Let us never get to thinking that Christ is out of sight and out of mind. I am not sure about you but I can manage to do that quite easily at times. How many times does Jesus offer the reminder, “I know thy works” – seven times – once to each ecclesia (2:2,9,13,19; 3:1,8,15). All ecclesias are important to Christ and he takes notice of them all.

Early on we try and teach our children that God sees all. We smile at the naivety of Adam and Eve hiding in the garden, we chuckle at the silliness of Gehazi who ‘went nowhere’, and everybody knows that hopping on a boat to Tarshish won’t get you away from God. Why do we act at times as if Christ does not see and know? He saw Nathanael from afar off, he knew what the woman of Samaria had done, he knew what Judas had done and wanted to do, what Peter had said, why Thomas wasn’t there and what he demanded. He knows us also. It might seem as if I am labouring the point and you may even be thinking: ‘I’ve got that, you can move on now’; but that’s just it – we often don’t ‘get it’! Because God and Christ are not visibly active among us in the same way as in Bible times we can make the mistake of thinking it’s different. We can enjoy being part of the Laodicean world around us and Christ will be fine with that, because he won’t even know. How wrong that is.

As we read these letters today we would do well to consider the content and take stock of ourselves to see whether the reproof of Christ is applicable to us. We can also be strengthened with the words of encouragement which are no less appropriate down the corridor of time. We will firstly consider the things which Jesus was unhappy with and then finish on a happier note.

Words of warning

He was displeased that the Ephesians had lost their first love. This phrase “first love”, protos agape, in the Greek can be taken in two ways. We might say on the one hand that the truth of the gospel was and should always be our first love and we should remember the enthusiasm with which we commenced, but I think perhaps the Ephesians were doing alright with this. More probably they were so busy heretic hunting that they had forgotten that Christ’s calling is first and foremost to love. Perhaps we, like Ephesus, need to be reminded of this also. We have come from a background of error. Brother Thomas rediscovered the Truth in the mid 19th century and in that discovery was obliged to speak out against error wherever it was found. We still do that today and it is not wrong, but it is not the greatest commandment; the first commandment is “thou shalt love…” You see it is love first, not second but first. Have we in standing up for the Truth against error lost sight of the concept that we exist because of love. We must grow in love and must share that love with others.

In Smyrna the problem was those who said they were Jews but weren’t. This, said Christ, was blasphemy. Of course, he is not talking about what percentage of the ecc1esia was Jewish, compared to Greeks or Romans, as if that mattered: “there is neither Jew nor Greek”, said the apostle Paul; but he put his finger on the real issue in Romans 2:28–29, “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” To say you are a Jew is to profess that you are Christ’s. We might say “I am a Christadelphian”, but unless our life matches our profession, it is blasphemy. They are strong words. Jesus does not say he found it a little disappointing; he says it is blasphemy, breaking the third commandment in the ten and the first in the code of Christ.

The ecclesia in Pergamos was plagued with the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. These teachings were essentially the teachings of liberty and licence. The liberty in Christ is not the right to do as we please but the freedom to do as we ought. We need to remember that we cannot use our liberty to do things of which God would disapprove. The big theme of today’s world is, do what you want to do, be what you want to be. It’s not right, is it? Rather let us be pleased to love God and then do as we please. It might seem a subtle difference but it makes all the difference in the world. Balaam, in teaching Israel to commit fornication, nearly destroyed them when God had by his own mouth pronounced manifold blessings.

In Thyatira the issues were similar but there was some religious justification. Let us be very direct here: there can be no justification for committing sin. We cannot get to a position where we can justify immorality on religious grounds. The churches around us have already reached this dubious milestone. Immorality is popular and the churches are embracing it. Let us beware lest we follow the teachings of the Jezebel system and do as they.

In Sardis the issues were about display. The real face of the brothers and sisters was not the one on show. To look at the ecc1esia one might think it vibrant and active, nearly perfect, but Jesus warned it was far from perfect, in fact dead and dying. We really struggle to see ourselves as our Lord does. Are we like Sardis? We hope not, but how would we know? They thought that everything was going fine, but Christ was very worried. When we examine ourselves it is hard because our heart which is deceitful is that which does the examining.

In Laodicea the big problem was affluence and materialism. It does not need me to remind you that this is the number one issue affecting our modem western societies and so is probably the issue we need to focus on. Affluence tends to promote an attitude towards Christ of ‘whatever’ – a lack of passion for the things that should really matter. Is that an issue for us? Has the fire in the belly gone cold? We struggle to even get people from our own community to commit to Bible seminars and other preaching work. There is much to be done everywhere but the willing hands are few. If we really thought Christ was here taking notice we wouldn’t be so casual would we? When announcements are made for assistance are we overwhelmed or underwhelmed?

I don’t know what your arrangements are, but at my ecclesia we require a quorum for business meetings of a third and we struggle to meet it. Twice last year a business meeting was abandoned because not enough people cared to attend! Now I know that a business meeting may not be the most inspiring event in everybody’s mind but the Bible Class and the outings and other ecclesial arrangements fare little better. We have been struck down with an apathetic palsy which is paralyzing our community. But we have still got time for shopping. Petrol is getting more expensive and that is an excellent excuse not to come, but we will still find enough fuel to get to Harbourtown. Across the board, in the wealthy western ecclesias we are being struck down with ‘Laodicea virus’ and we struggle to see it. We know what Jesus’ counsel would be. We can read it in chapter 3 verse 18.

Words of encouragement

For every ecclesia, every ecclesia, Jesus had words of encouragement. It is never too late to change. There will always be a need to press on and always a rich reward for those who endure to the end; so we will briefly consider the seven-fold message of encouragement for the ‘overcomers’. “To eat of the tree of life.” Immortality! These words imply a rolling back of the curse commenced in Eden when the tree of life was withheld, and freedom from all the ills that have transpired since. What an uplifting prospect! The message continues to Smyrna that this arrangement will be permanent – death can no longer hurt us ever again.

Those in Pergamos were told that they could eat of the “hidden manna” – heavenly food that we might barely appreciate now with all of the goodness implied in that angels’ food (as the Psalmist called it), spiritual sustenance such as we can hardly imagine. What a treat to look forward to. The white stone, a symbol of favourable judgement. What an incredible blessing. We know that naturally the judgement can only be death – that is all we deserve. But Christ has promised otherwise as the apostle Paul said: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”

Those in Thyatira were told that they would have “power over the nations”. The situation will be completely reversed. Now the nations have power over us, literally and metaphorically, and we find it hard not to go with them in their mad race to destruction. But just imagine the thrill of guiding nations and people in right ways and the joy that will bring peace, prosperity and environmental sustainability that this world craves but has no idea how to obtain. We can be the administrators of the coming new world order. What an honour!

In Sardis the faithful were promised the “white raiment” of forgiveness and righteousness, that God would blot out their sins from His book rather than their names. How we long for that also. As we remember our Lord this day we realise with shame the things we have again done that we ought not to have done and the things we should have done and did not. Imagine a time when the slate is finally wiped clean, and for the last time, too. None of our faults will remain or even any evidence that we ever had any – just the sparkling garment of righteousness.

The Philadelphians were told that they would be made pillars in the house of God, not just that they would be there, which we might think enough, but that they would be in an honourable position. There are only honourable places in the Kingdom. We might feel that we would be happy just to be there but to be given an honourable place is way beyond what we might ever presume. “He shall no more go out.” The position of honour is irrevocable and fixed. Occasionally this world bestows positions of honour on us, and then takes them back after a time or gives them to somebody else. Not Christ! His Word will be firm and once spoken shall remain. He has promised a position of eternal honour – amazing!

Even to Laodicea was promised great honour if they overcame, a seat with Christ on his throne, symbolically telling us we will share judgement with Christ. I think it’s well worth being an ‘overcomer’, isn’t it?

At the end of each letter we are encouraged to hear: “He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the ecclesias.” Seven times we are admonished to hear. Why? Because we are inclined to dilute the message: we tend to think, the warnings aren’t about me; the blessings can’t be mine. The warnings are for us and the blessings can be ours. Why did Christ write them down through John and give them to us? So we might heed the warnings and rejoice in the hope.

The same Jesus who walked on the earth 2000 years ago, the same Jesus who died for us, who was made Lord of all, who walked through the ecclesias then, is here with us today. He does not want to be disappointed, he doesn’t want to turn us away with the sad words, “I don’t know you, I never knew you.” Let us see these letters from Christ as expressions of his love and care for us and let us vow today to respond to that love with dedication and thanksgiving.