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Letters to Ephesus and Smyrna

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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June 7, 2023 12:01 am

Letters to Ephesus and Smyrna

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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June 7, 2023 12:01 am

Jesus holds the keys of death and hell. Even if the whole world should oppose us, our eternal hope rests safely in His hands. Today, W. Robert Godfrey draws lessons from Christ's letters to the churches in Ephesus and Smyrna.

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He's not saying if you really just love Jesus, you don't have to worry about doctrine or obedience.

He's not saying that. He commends them for their sound doctrine and their faithful obedience. But he says being doctrinally sound and morally obedient isn't enough if you've lost your love for Jesus. That has to remain central.

That has to remain the core. That has to inform everything else about your life as a church. Some Christians have said that doctrine doesn't matter. All that matters is that you love Jesus.

Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and welcome to Renewing Your Mind. That idea that all that matters is whether or not you love Jesus comes from a letter found in the book of Revelation addressed to the church at Ephesus. They were commended for their doctrine. They were commended for their moral living. But Jesus says they had lost their first love, their love for Christ. And as you'll hear today as W. Robert Godfrey continues his Blessed Hope series, to use this letter to justify theological error or sin is to miss the intent of what Jesus was saying.

Here's Dr. Godfrey. In our opening lectures together, we've been looking a fair bit at literary structure elements of how the book is put together. We won't be doing that as much as we go along, but we have to look at one more literary structure which those of you who've been around with some of my teaching knew would inevitably come up at some point, and that's finally we have found a chiasm in the book of the Revelation. Now, if you don't know what a chiasm is, that's okay.

I'm here for you. The word chiasm is derived from the Greek word chi, and the Greek symbol for chi is an X. And the reason it's called a chiasm is because the two sides of what's going on in a chiasm are related to one another.

I don't think that's the most helpful way of conceptualizing it. For me, I like to call the literary form a sort of pyramid. It goes up one side.

There's a central point, and then it goes down in a parallel way the other side. And this was a very popular literary form in the ancient world. You find a lot of it in the Psalms.

We found it in the book of Deuteronomy when we studied the book of Deuteronomy, and we're going to see it from time to time in various ways here. And as I said, to a certain extent, the structure of a literary document helps us see its meaning, and we'll see that here. So, Greg Beale, in his wonderful big commentary on the book of the Revelation, said that the letters are arranged chiastically.

And at first glance, that may not seem all that useful for us to know, but it does. It does begin to give us a sense of the literary relationship of the letters to one another. So, as he pointed out, the letters are arranged in a way that helps us see the first letter and the last letter are quite critical letters, where the churches are threatened with having their lampstand removed. And then the second letter and the sixth letter are to the churches that are not criticized at all, but just commended for the way they're living. And then the central three letters are a mixed bag of rebuke and commendation, not as severe as to the first and seventh. So, you do see there's this kind of literary structure where you have, we might say, the bad churches beginning and ending, and then the good churches above that, and then the mixed churches at the top. So, this structure helps us see a relationship.

It helps us see the planning that went into it. And then once you start to see chiasms anywhere, then you begin to see them everywhere, which may or may not be a good thing. But the minute we see these letters are arranged chiastically, the thought must come to us.

It surely already come to you. Are these cycles arranged chiastically? And actually, we discover they are. And we'll talk about that more as we go along. But cycle one is about the church suffering and enduring, and cycle seven is about the church vindicated. Cycle two is about the righteous suffering, and cycle six is in some ways about the righteous delivered from suffering. Cycle three is about the wicked suffering in history, and cycle five is about the wicked judged at the end of history. And then cycle four is the sort of top of the pyramid, and sure enough, cycle four is kind of the center point of the book and the point at which the whole history of the church is looked at as a struggle that is severe but in which Christ is victorious at the end.

So, there'll be no tests at the end, there'll be no tests at the end of this lecture. So, you don't have to remember all of this now, but it's anticipating how, again, the structure of this book is going to help us get its meaning and particularly help us to see the pastoral dimension, the blessing dimension of this book for us. So, with that in mind, at least a little bit in mind, we turn to the letters themselves. We've looked at the introduction of the letters.

Now we can begin to look a little bit at the letters themselves. And I thought it might be a little bit helpful to talk briefly about the geographical relationship of the letter writer to these seven churches. All of these churches are historical sites that can still be visited in Asia Minor, in Turkey today. All of them are still functioning cities except for Ephesus, and yet Ephesus is almost a functioning city.

There are so many tourists that visit there regularly. So, these churches are not symbols. They were real historical cities that occupied real geographical territory and were, we might say, on a kind of arc. If you look at the map of Turkey today, these churches would form a kind of arc, and there were ancient roads that connected them.

So, setting up these churches in this order is also related to their geographical relationship to one another and the ease with which this written document might have passed from one another. So, John may even have had in his mind the letters will first go to Ephesus and then be passed on to the other churches. So, John is on the island of Patmos, which is about 35 miles off the coast of modern Turkey. And occasionally it can be visited, although I think R.C. told me that he visited it once in a ship that he was not at all sure would remain afloat for 35 miles.

And when he got there, he discovered there wasn't a great deal to see. So, the closest major city would have been Ephesus, and John knew Ephesus well. Tradition holds that he's buried in Ephesus. How reliable that tradition is is always sort of questionable, but you can visit the grave of John in Ephesus. Whether he's in there or not remains to be seen at the last day. But he had a close relationship with Ephesus.

There's no doubt about that. Then Smyrna was about 70 miles north of Ephesus, also on the coast. And then Pergamum was another coastal city about 80 miles north of Smyrna. So, we're moving kind of up the coast of Turkey from where the letter would have arrived. Thyatira is about 75 miles southeast of Pergamum.

So, now we're beginning to arc over and back. And Sardis is about 35 miles southeast of Thyatira. Philadelphia is about 30 miles south from there.

And Laodicea, another prosperous commercial city, is about 70 miles southeast of Philadelphia. So, here you have this kind of arc on which this letter would travel. As I say, all those cities in that order were connected by roads, ancient roads on which they might have traveled. So, here we have a picture of a map, a literal map, but also we have a literary structure that connects these cities in terms of their spiritual trials, their spiritual needs, what is going on in them. So, now let's turn at last to the specifics of these letters. And we come to that familiar letter of the Ephesians, and it is an intriguing letter. And all of these letters are real letters to real churches with real problems, but they're also occasions for us to pause and think about the Christian life of our congregations and of ourselves as individuals because Ephesus is commended greatly for a number of things. I know your works, your toil, and your patient endurance, and you cannot bear with those who are evil but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not and have found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for My name's sake, and you have not grown weary. Wow, you know, that's really good, isn't it? They are doctrinally discerning, they hold to the truth, and they are working hard for the Lord. You would say, wouldn't you at first glance?

What could be better? It appears in the opening of this letter that these are a church almost beyond reproach. And yet he goes on to say, but I have this against you that you have abandoned the love you had at first. What's the love they had at first? Well, this is only the second time in the book of the Revelation that the word love is used.

So it's sometimes used to look back for the first use and say, how was love used in the first place? And we see that in Revelation 1, verse 5, where John begins his doxology and says, to Him who loves us and freed us from our sins by His blood. But if the first love is Jesus to them and them to Jesus, losing the first love is somehow getting distracted from Jesus. Now, I think it's important to see how John is saying this. He's not saying, if you really just love Jesus, you don't have to worry about doctrine or obedience.

He's not saying that. He commends them for their sound doctrine and their faithful obedience. But he says being doctrinally sound and morally obedient isn't enough if you've lost your love for Jesus. That has to remain central.

That has to remain the core. That has to inform everything else about your life as a church. And while we live in an age where we sometimes get impatient with people who seem to justify all sorts of bad things by saying, well, at least I love Jesus, at least I love Jesus, John is saying not that that is right at all, but that there is a danger on the other side where we can invest all our energy in living holy lives and getting our doctrine straight and kind of forgetting about Jesus.

Because Christianity is not ultimately about a principle. It's about a person. And so, this Ephesian problem is so serious that Jesus threatens them with their lampstand being removed if they lose connection with their life, with the source of life, if they lose their first love. And so, in a sense, we could say this letter to the Ephesians is a letter about love.

Keep your first love strong while you're doing other commendable things. That's what is said here. And then when you do that, you'll eat of the tree of life a picture of close fellowship with Jesus Himself. So, this is a great letter, an encouraging letter, one we all have to think of. And then we have in verse 6 the statement, yet you have this, and he returns here to commendation, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans. Now, do you hate the works of the Nicolaitans if you're testing yourself? How goes it between you and the Nicolaitans? Well, we have no clue, we have no idea, we have no historical record who the Nicolaitans were or what they believed or what they did.

Now, this is not as surprising perhaps as we might think it is. Only twice in the whole New Testament do we have reference to the Nicolaitans, here and in the letter to the church of Pergamum. And in neither letter is there any clarification of who these people were. And there is no record outside of the Bible who these people were. Now, in the first place then, it would remind us we don't have to know every detail of everything perfectly, fully, for this work still to speak to us. Perhaps it's not too much to say. This reminds us there are groups we need to avoid.

This is one of them even though we don't know specifically why we need to avoid them. So, we have a letter on love to the church of Ephesus calling them to love. And then we have a letter to Smyrna, the next church on the root, the next church here in chapter 2. And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, the words of the first and the last, who died and came to life, I know your tribulation and your poverty, but you are rich.

And the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. And he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. This is, we could say, a letter of life. If Ephesus was the letter of love, this is the letter of life, promising life to these faithful, enduring, persecuted, suffering Smyrnans, no criticism of them. Wouldn't that be nice to get a letter from an apostle and have no criticism?

It doesn't mean they're perfect in every way, but he's writing to encourage them because they're struggling, they have it hard. He says they're going to be put in prison for ten days. This is the first hard time reference that we have in the book of the Revelation, ten days. And we don't know for sure whether this is a symbolic time or a literal time.

One's tempted to think that it's symbolic in some ways. The letter wouldn't even get to Smyrna in ten days. So probably, as with many of the times references in the book of the Revelation, it's to give a kind of general feeling, ten days long but not terribly long. It could be worse to be in prison than more than ten days. So it's, I think, meant to say, yeah, it's going to be a real imprisonment but not endlessly long imprisonment, and that's a word of encouragement to them.

Ten, of course, is another of those perfect numbers. Maybe part of the meaning is you'll be there just the amount of time God wants you there to fulfill His purpose, but it's not endless. It's not a time in which you will be forgotten. Now, as He promises life, He commends them for enduring the persecution of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are really the synagogue of Satan. Now, this raises the question frequently raised against certain passages in the New Testament, are they anti-Semitic? And the reason that that's a very pressing question, isn't it, that in the history of Christian life and faith there has been anti-Semitism amongst Christians, and it's a terrible thing. There was just a shooting in Poway, California, that probably most of you read about. That's only about ten or fifteen miles from where I live.

It suddenly really comes home when it's geographically close to you. And it gets us all to think anti-Semitism is a terrible thing. And the truth is when we look more carefully at this passage, it's really not anti-Semitic at all because what John is really saying here, you oppose those who say that they are Jews and are not, and what's the implication of that? The implication of that is they're not Jews because we're the real Jews. Now, you can't say that's anti-Semitic to say we're really Jews. Now, you might say if you're Jewish and don't believe in Jesus that this is annoying to claim our name for yourselves, but it's really not anti-Semitic. And I think when we say to all Jews that we know, please come and join our church, please come and accept Jesus as Messiah, we would love to have you with us, that's not anti-Semitic. Now, it may annoy them, but it's really not true to say it's anti-Semitic. Now, it seems strong when John says they are a synagogue of Satan.

Synagogue is a Greek word, not a Hebrew word, meaning the gathering together. And what he's saying is these people, rather than gathering together as the disciples of Jesus, have gathered together as the disciples of Satan. And again, if we say to somebody, you're following Satan, they're not going to like it, that's understandable.

But if it's true, it's true. And it doesn't need to lead to hate, it shouldn't lead to hate, it mustn't lead to hate, but it leads to truth, and it's very much what Jesus said in John 8, isn't it, about your father the devil. And so John here is trying to encourage them that even though they are being opposed by Jews that they might well have hoped would support them, and almost certainly in the Christian church of Smyrna there are converted Jews as well, he's encouraging them to say, no, you are the true people of God. That's what's at stake here.

Who are the true people of God? And if you are faithful, even if you have to be faithful and to death, suffering persecution from other religions and persecution from the civil government, you will receive the eternal crown of life. That's the great encouragement.

That's the great encouragement. You will receive the eternal crown of life, and you will be numbered amongst those who conquer and cannot be hurt by the second death. Now, again, we come across phrases that have become probably relatively familiar to us out of the book of the Revelation, but think of the church at Smyrna receiving this letter and hearing about being delivered from the second death and thinking, huh, I wonder what that means. Now, maybe John had used that in a sermon when he visited there, but it causes us to pause and ask, what is the second death? And, of course, as we look at the book of the Revelation as a whole, we see that the second death is the final judgment and being cast into hell. And implicit in this is, don't be afraid of the first death. Don't be afraid of those who might put you through the first death because they can't touch your soul because it's not the ultimate word about you. Don't worry about the first death. Worry about the second death. That's the terrible one to face.

And yeah, that's easier said than done, isn't it? When we actually face death, it's not always so easy. One of the great things I've always thought about Pilgrim's Progress is that when Pilgrim gets to the river to pass into the sea, that some cross the river with great faith and joy and anticipation, and some cross with great fear and trepidation.

And I think Bunyan is absolutely right, pass joy. It's not a sign of whether your faith is real or not if you find facing death really hard. But what we're called to do is to face that first death with faith, whether the Lord grants us great confidence or whether we tremble and fret. But this passage reminds us that what we really need to fear is the second death.

And Jesus promises that He has the key to death in Hades, and He will ensure that His people don't end up there. And that's the great promise and encouragement that we find in this second letter. So here is a letter of a church at real risk.

Ephesus called to love. Smyrna, a church with great accomplishment, promised life. And then we'll turn next time to the church at Pergamum, one of the three churches that is kind of a mixed bag. And that's probably not a phrase that John would have used, but we'll find commendable and condemnable things among them. This series really has me thinking about what would Jesus say if He were to write a letter to the local church of which I'm a part of, or if He was to write that letter to me. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind, and that was W. Robert Godfrey from his Blessed Hope series, his overview of the book of Revelation. And this week, we're considering the seven letters to the seven churches.

But this series goes into much more detail as it walks through the book of Revelation chapter by chapter. And this complete 24-part series can be yours for your donation of any amount. You can give your gift by visiting And in addition to being able to add this to your physical library, you'll receive digital access to all of the messages and the study guide. So I encourage you to give your gift by visiting or by calling us at 800 435 4343. Tomorrow, we'll consider the letters to the churches in Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis.

Here's a preview. So here is a very interesting picture of Jesus searching the church, distinguishing in the church among those who are holding faithfully and those who are wandering. And what He's calling on here is that Christians should not move from the truth. They should follow their Savior. They should stand firm to the end on what they are committed to.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-07 08:52:51 / 2023-06-07 09:01:58 / 9

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