When you picture Jesus what do you see? Does your heart go to the baby in the stable, of shepherds, wise men, and angelic proclamations? Do you envision Jesus teaching on a hillside or healing the broken that He encountered? Do you picture the dark, cruel day on Golgotha as Jesus suffered the agonizing death of crucifixion? Perhaps you see a risen Jesus speaking with Mary in the Garden, to the two travelers heading towards Emmaus, or to the disciples hiding in an upper room? There is one final vision given to us in the Bible. One that is filled with symbolism and meaning yet falling far short of the true glory, majesty, and authority of Jesus Christ.
On a particular Sunday morning the Apostle John, while worshiping in exile, heard and saw a far different picture of Jesus than our minds run to. He wrote,“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, saying, “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.” (Revelation 1:10–16, NASB95)
A voice like a trumpet, like the sound of many waterfalls, yet also like a two-edged sword. A man clothed in a robe and a sash like the priests described by Moses. Pure white hair and beard. A face that, like the sun, shines on all. Eyes aflame with love and discernment. Feet that glow red hot.
After taking in this vision of Jesus John reports, “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man.” (Revelation 1:17a, NASB95) Jesus’ trumpet-like, waterfall-like, sword-like voice then spoke words of comfort and of purpose to John, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. “Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.” (Revelation 1:17b–19, NASB95). Jesus then instructs John to take some dictation, specific letters to seven churches in Asia. Those seven letters are the focal point of this series of articles.
The book of Revelation tugs at our imagination and our desire to understand the dawning of the full reality of God’s kingdom. This series, however, is not about what will be but what is. Each of the seven letters closes with the phrase, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” That phrase invites all Christ followers to learn and gain wisdom from the particular strengths, weaknesses, and challenges of each of the seven churches. While it is tempting to read these descriptions and pigeonhole the varied communities of Christ-followers in the world today we will avoid doing that. Neither are we looking to discern which of the seven churches our own local fellowship is like. What we are looking to do is examine our own hearts in the light of these seven letters to discover where we might be like them. Gaining encouragement, correction, and promise from Jesus’ words to each one.
There is one other thing that I’d like to point out before we begin. It is easy to read some of the letters and think that there is no hope. We might as well throw those churches on the fire of uselessness. And perhaps we sometimes think that way about ourselves as well. How could God still use me after all the mistakes I’ve made? But notice something. Jesus wrote them a letter. His desire was not to throw them out but to change their course. None of these are “Dear John” letters of rejection, but they are all love letters. Not the sappy romanticized version of love. But real love that celebrates successes and achievements as well as pointing out places to change and grow along with the promise for the future. In the same way, these letters, even the ones that are hard to read, are love letters designed to encourage and challenge the hearers to greater love and action.