Letters to the Seven Churches

Letters to the Seven Churches

Study at Home Series

Discover what Christ’s encouragement and warnings to the seven churches in the book of Revelation mean for us today.

For other Study at Home Series, click here

For the Group Leader

Thank you for leading a small group study! Thirdmill produces teaching materials to help church leaders around the globe study and teach the Bible more deeply. Thirdmill’s Study at Home Series has been created to accommodate remote and/or in-person learning in small groups such as weekly Bible studies and Sunday school classes.

In Jesus’ letters to the seven churches recorded in the book of Revelation, we find a series of diagnostic “tests” for our own hearts and lives. We also find his “prescription” of what we should do as a result of what those tests reveal and the results we can expect if we follow his advice. This six-week study will help believers evaluate their hearts and lives through Jesus’ letters to the seven churches. The accompanying 15-minute videos are compiled from Thirdmill’s series on the book of Revelation (chapters 2-3). If you would like a more in-depth study of Revelation, you can find it on our series page for The Book of Revelation.

The ideal scenario is for each participant to read through the entire devotional before the group meeting and answer the questions. If this is not possible, the group may read it together, but then give time for participants to consider the personal reflection questions in silence. Also, depending on your context, you can watch the video together through a third-party virtual networking platform (like Zoom or Skype), or each person can watch the video on their own before discussing it together.

The questions in bold are those specifically designed for group sharing. You may want to offer the chance for people to share insight from the other questions, if they desire, or you can share what you have learned, but please be sensitive to the personal nature of the material as you facilitate it in a group setting. You do not need to have each person share an answer for every question in the study.

Our desire is that you and the members of your study group may be spiritually strengthened as a result of this series. In the book of Revelation, the author promises that this will be the case:

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (Revelation 1:3).
Study 1

Examine Your Heart
The Church @ Ephesus

Connect

Who or what do you find yourself thinking, dreaming, or worrying about?

Before Ebenezer Scrooge became an example of miserliness, he was in love with and engaged to a beautiful woman. Few of us, though, actually remember that part of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Our memory of the story usually revolves around loathing the man he was at first, and rejoicing when his heart changes. Despite the happy ending, there is loss that he cannot regain.

When the first spirit transports him to his past, we see Scrooge as a young boy in boarding school, lonely and bookish. Later, as an apprentice to the merry Fezziwig, we see a happier Scrooge, making friends and becoming engaged to the lovely Belle. A few years later, after starting his career, he and Belle have a fateful meeting on a park bench. She releases Scrooge from their engagement because, as she puts it, “Another idol has displaced me.” Scrooge’s love for her had grown cold, squeezed out by his love for money. Belle refuses to marry a man who is merely going through the motions; she ends their meeting with a fateful wish: “May you be happy in the life you have chosen.” Scrooge remains alone.

At this point, Ebenezer Scrooge begs to be taken back, but the Spirit has one more shadow to show him. This time, he is transported to a lively living room. A married Belle sits with her eldest daughter, as her large brood of kids play around her. Her husband returns home and mentions that he has seen an old friend of Belle’s that day. She correctly guesses Mr. Scrooge, and he paints a sad picture of Scrooge working alone in his office as his partner, Marley, is on the brink of death. Belle’s husband describes Scrooge as “Quite alone in the world.” This last scene is more than Scrooge can bear and he begs to be returned to his bedroom, overwhelmed by the loss of his first love.

In Revelation 2, Jesus writes a letter to the Ephesian church, praising them for their hard work, but rebuking them for forsaking their first love for Christ and his kingdom. Unlike Scrooge, they have an opportunity to regain this love if they follow Jesus’ instructions:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

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)

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Ephesus was the commercial and cultural capital of the region of Asia Minor, as well as a hub of Christian activity. The New Testament tells us more about the history of this church than any other. Paul planted it and labored there at length, as did Timothy, Aquila, Priscilla and Apollos. Clearly, the Ephesian church was an important and vital one.

  1. In Christ’s letter to the Ephesians, he praised them for their hard work and perseverance, yet also rebuked them for losing their first love. How is it possible for both of these to be true at the same time? Identify an example from your own life when you were diligently working on something you no longer really cared about.
    • What number from 1% to 100% do you think best represents your “hard work and perseverance” for Christ and His Kingdom?
    • What number from 1% to 100% do you think best represents your intimacy with and love for Christ?
  2. Whatever fills our thoughts reveals what we most care about. Take an inventory of your thought life. Where does your mind go when it is free to wander?
    • What do your thoughts reveal about what you love?
  3. Think back to a time when you were first in love. What was it like? What did you feel? What did you do? What happened to that relationship?
    • Have you ever experienced that kind of enthusiasm in your relationship with Jesus? If so, how did it affect you?
  4. Name the instructions Jesus gives the Ephesians to regain their first love.
    • What would it look like for you to apply these instructions in your relationship with Christ?

Watch

Discuss

  • What is something you want to remember from the video?
     
  • How does what you have learned encourage you to persevere in your relationship with God?

Take Away

Although A Christmas Carol tells a painful story, it ends redemptively. The spirits who visit Scrooge accomplish what they intended: he saw his failings, repented, and set about to live the rest of his life a new man. He became a second father to Tiny Tim and “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew…” So, if he did not regain the romantic love that he lost, Ebenezer Scrooge more than made up for this by loving everyone in his life well and gaining forgiveness from those he had wronged.

We also have the chance to repent. Examining our hearts is an important first step.

How does the story of Scrooge and Christ’s letter to the church at Ephesus make you want to examine your heart more closely?

In the final line of the letter to the Ephesians, Jesus promises: 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. (Rev. 2:7) Adam and Eve did not have the right to eat from the tree of life, and they were banished from the Garden of Eden, in part so neither they nor their descendants would eat from it. But to those who love him, Jesus gives the right to eat of this very tree. Wrap your mind around that truth.

In Revelation 2:1, Jesus is described as sovereign over his angels (“[holding] the seven stars in his right hand”) and as being among his churches, tending to them (“walking among the seven golden lampstands”). He is near you. He loves you. The question is do you love him?

  • What is one thing you want to remember from this devotional?
     
  • What does this mean for your life this week?

—Susan Rogers Davis

Study 2

Be Encouraged in Suffering
The Church @ Smyrna

Connect

What gets you through hard times in your life?

When I’m in a situation that feels unbearable, I tell myself, “Tomorrow this will only be a memory.” I learned to do this in an airport halfway around the world from my home.

When my father was invited to teach other doctors in a missionary hospital, he and my mother decided to go as a family. The trip involved several long flights and took us through eight time zones. When our last flight landed, I was so tired, I felt delirious. My whole body ached. All I wanted to do was go to bed. But the piece of luggage containing equipment the hospital needed hadn’t appeared on the carousel. My parents were unwilling to leave the baggage claim area without it.

Sensing that this was going to take a while, my mother encouraged my sister and me to sit down with the other suitcases away from the conversation. From this vantage point, we watched all the other passengers gather their things and leave. Even the airport staff finished their various jobs and disappeared. This left my family alone with a few government officials and several soldiers with large guns.

My sister and I prayed together as we watched the conversation unfold. I had never felt so vulnerable. And so miserable. Sweat dripped down my back as the tropical sun beat down on the metal building.

Tired, hungry, sweaty, and scared…. something inside me screamed, “I can’t stand this any longer.” Then the thought came to me, “Tomorrow, this will only be a memory.”

My home, my bed, and everything safe and comfortable were just a memory to me then. I could think about them, but they didn’t affect my life. And this meant that the misery I was feeling would also slip into the past. This knowledge took away the power of my discomfort and I relaxed.

When Jesus sent a letter to suffering Christians in the city of Smyrna, he encouraged them to do something similar, to look beyond their present situation and focus on the time when their suffering would only be a memory. In fact, because of their present suffering, they would be beyond the reach of even worse suffering.

To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:

These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
(Revelation 2:8-11)

PERSONAL REFLECTION

The church at Smyrna is one of only two churches that received nothing but encouragement from Jesus. The city seemed like an ideal place to live. According to the Greek historian Strabo, it was famous for its beauty, wealth, and fine wines. But following Christ took you outside of the prosperous economy because it was permeated with worship rituals to the emperor and pagan gods. Following Christ also brought you under attack from the large population of Jews in the city. Instead of promising relief from the persecution and suffering, Jesus predicted things would only get worse.

  1. In what ways does your Christian faith put you in conflict with people and with the culture around you?
    • Have you ever been looked down on or attacked for your faith in Christ? If so, when and what happened?
  2. What situations in your life are, or have been, most challenging to your faith?
  3. Summarize Jesus' encouragement to the suffering and persecuted church.
    • What stands out to you about the way he encouraged them to stay faithful to him in the midst of their suffering?
    • Jesus presents himself to them as “him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again,” and he promises that “the one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.” In what way is this particularly helpful for Christians who are suffering?
  4. List ways that someone looking at your life might see poverty or suffering.
    • What part of Jesus' letter to the Smyrnians can encourage you?
    • In what ways would Jesus say that your life is rich?

Watch

Discuss

  • What is something you want to remember from the video?
     
  • How does what you have learned encourage you to persevere in your relationship with God?

Take Away

Eventually, God said “Yes” to my family’s prayers in the airport. The missing suitcase appeared. Even more amazing, all of the equipment was still inside. We drug our bags and our weary selves out of the airport, saying prayers of thanks as we left the officials and the soldiers behind us. We took a taxi to the guest house, and I fell into the bed prepared for me. When I woke up, the fear and the misery were indeed just a memory.

That experience was nothing compared to the “constant pain [and] dire poverty” of the church of Smyrna (Revelation 2:9 MSG). Each new day brought them suffering instead of relief. But Jesus promised them a tomorrow in which all their suffering would just be a memory. He presented himself as proof of the gleaming, glorious life that would be theirs if they persevered. And he assured them they would be exempt from the “second death,” which would be much worse than the first one.

History shows that many believers in Smyrna persevered. When Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the apostle John, was burned alive at the stake for refusing to renounce his faith, he reportedly said: “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” His words and example have encouraged suffering Christians throughout the centuries.

What words or example could you use to encourage yourself when what you are facing feels unbearable?

If you love Christ and are suffering now, let his words of encouragement reach your heart: I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! Add to that encouragement the words of a fellow sufferer, Paul, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

  • What is one thing you want to remember from this devotional?
     
  • What does this mean for your life this week?

—Annette Gulick

Study 3

Examine What You Tolerate at Home
The Churches @ Pergamum & Thyatira

Connect

What person or persons do you love so little that, instead of getting involved in the mess of their lives, you turn a blind eye to their sin?

A high school student from our church told me that the musicians on the worship team were often hungover Sunday mornings when they got on stage. I had noticed that as soon as the group of college students finished playing, they left the building and only returned to play a closing song. Them not staying for the sermon bothered me...but, hung over from a night of drinking? This took my frustration with them to a whole new level.

“Do other people know about this?”, I asked the teenager, whose grandfather was an elder at the church.

“I guess so,” he said. “They don’t hide it.”

“Why are they allowed to keep playing?” was my next question.

“They’re the best musicians we have,” he replied. “Without them, the music sounds really bad.”

What should I have done next? Or, to make it more personal, what do you do when the lifestyle of someone in your sphere of influence doesn’t line up with their claim to follow Christ?

Jesus' letters to the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira address this very issue. As you read them, pay close attention to what he asks the churches to do.

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:

These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.
I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:12-17)

To the angel of the church in Thyatira write:

These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.
I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent ... but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering… Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.

Now I say to the rest of you… who do not hold to her teaching… ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.’

To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations… just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 2:18-29)

PERSONAL REFLECTION

The cultural pressure on the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira was extreme. To their credit, they didn’t renounce their faith. Christ recognizes them for their courage and perseverance. However, in the eyes of the one who “searches hearts and minds,” they fell short. They were strong before a hostile world, but weak when it came to dealing with sin inside the church.

  1. What does Jesus tell these churches to do?
  2. What does Jesus say he is going to do?
  3. The practices Jesus denounces were culturally acceptable, even required, activities that Christ followers needed to eradicate from their lives: idol worship and sexual immorality (Acts 15:29).
    • What does the culture around you encourage as sources of well-being, control, satisfaction, or happiness?
    • How does the biblical view of sexual activity differ from what is culturally acceptable?

Not for group discussion:

  1. What cultural idols or sexual sins* are hard for you to resist?
    (*These include fantasizing, reading about, or viewing sexual activity or taking part in indecent conversation and/or an intimate, sexually-exciting relationship with someone who is not your spouse.)
  2. What sins are you aware of in your home or church family that feel too complex to confront?

Watch

Discuss

  • What is something you want to remember from the video?
     
  • How does what you have learned encourage you to persevere in your relationship with God?

Take Away

What sin do I tolerate within the body of Christ? That is the big question these two letters ask us to face. That straightforward question raises other, more complex, questions: How do I know what is actually sin? What does it look like not to tolerate sin? What am I supposed to do about the sin if I don’t have a position of formal leadership? Jesus' descriptions of himself in these two letters and his promises to the overcomers give us some clues.

“These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword” (Revelation 2:12).

The way Jesus presents himself to the church at Pergamum reminds us that God’s Word is our tool to distinguish sin from cultural ideas and personal preferences.

When it came to the musicians at my church, there was an obvious incongruence between playing worship songs and a lifestyle of partying and drunkenness. But what reasons did the church leadership give to the musicians when they “disciplined” them and told them they could no longer play? I don’t know because I didn’t love them enough to get involved. The leaders could have taken the easy way out and based their criticism on superficial things, like showing up late or missing practice. If they did not allow Scripture to guide the conversation to what a life of worship and godliness looks like, they missed out on the power there.

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
  • Where in the Bible do you find teaching or guidance about the culturally acceptable idols or perspective on sexuality that you identified in question #3 above.
“These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” (Revelation 2:18)

The way Jesus presents himself to the church at Thyatira reminds us that Jesus is a consuming fire. The firestorm refines his people and destroys the sinful (Malachi 3:2; 4:1). When we tolerate sin instead of getting involved, we act like spectators at a blaze instead of firefighters. Firefighters can’t always save the people in danger, but they risk everything to try. And they do all they can to contain the destruction so it doesn’t spread.

I don’t know what would have happened if I had loved the musicians enough to invite them over to the house to hear their stories. It might not have changed anything. Maybe it would have. At the very least, I would have shown the high school student that I was willing to get involved in messy lives instead of just being an onlooker. The thing about onlookers, they stay safe and clean but they don’t grow. They don’t develop the wisdom needed to be given authority over the nations (Revelation 2:26). Only those who get involved in the mess of the world like Jesus did truly reflect his love and so shine in the darkness like the morning star.

  • Who is Jesus inviting you to love enough to get involved in their messy life?
     
  • What is one thing you want to remember from this devotional?
     
  • What does this mean for your life this week?

— Annette Gulick

Study 4

Examine Your Deeds
The Church @ Sardis

Connect

What motivates and fills what you do?

Is Judas Iscariot in heaven? His name is always mentioned last in the list of Jesus’ disciples and is followed by, “the one who betrayed him.” Even so, Judas has fascinated people for centuries as we try to explain why he betrayed Jesus. Was he just greedy, or had he become disillusioned with his Rabbi? Some claim he was actually so dedicated to Jesus' mission that he heroically pushed it forward to a climax. Regardless of what you think about Judas’ motives, do you remember the turning point in his relationship with Jesus?

It happened in Bethany, a week before the Passover. A woman anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, and Judas harassed her saying,

“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages” (John 12:5).

Jesus rebuked him,

“Leave her alone” (John 12:7).

He went on,

“She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matthew 26:10-13).

After this conversation, Judas went to the temple and asked the chief priests,

“What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” (Matthew 26:15).

Judas and the woman didn’t calculate the cost or the benefit of their actions. They each followed an impulse that was the overflow of their heart, and in the end, they reaped the consequences. Judas loved himself and loved money. His life ended with bitter regret. The woman loved Jesus, and he lifted her from obscurity into the spotlight of praise. These lives remind us that where an action begins and what fills it as we carry it out matter. This is what Jesus calls the church at Sardis, and us, to hear.

To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
(Revelation 3:1-6)

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Jesus' evaluation of the church at Sardis focuses on their deeds. In contrast to some of the other churches in Asia Minor, what they are doing doesn't look sinful. In fact, it looks so good from the outside that Sardis has a reputation for being alive. But God doesn’t evaluate things the way we do. As he told his prophet Samuel, when he was about to anoint the new king of Israel,

“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Jesus' diagnosis revealed that in God’s eyes the deeds of the church at Sardis were “unfinished” (the Greek says “not full”). What was God looking for? Well, as he told Samuel, he was looking at their hearts. First Corinthians 13 reminds us that from God’s point of view, even the most extraordinary spiritual gifts and impressive sacrifices are empty and worthless without love. Jesus' letter to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2 highlights the priority of our love for God. Scripture teaches that authentic love for God expresses itself in love for others, love for what we do, and love for self.

  1. As you meditate on what each of these means through the lens of the Scriptures below, ask God to show you what your deeds are full of.
    1. Love for God
      • “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

        Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment”
        (Matthew 22:36-38).
      • “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the Lord your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12, NLT).
    2. Love for others
      • “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).
      • “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you… My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:9,12).
    3. Love for what you do
      • “’My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work’” (John 4:34).
      • “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23).
      • “I take joy in doing your will, my God” (Psalm 40:8, NLT).
    4. Love for yourself
      • “For the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).
      • “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it” (Mark 8:35 NLT).
      • “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
  2. What stood out to you as a result of this activity?
  3. Read 1 Corinthians 13:4-6.* Which characteristics of love listed in these verses are most challenging for you in your relationship with:
    1. God?
    2. others?
    3. what you do?
    4. yourself?
*“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6, ESV).

Watch

Discuss

  • What is something you want to remember from the video?
     
  • How does what you have learned encourage you to persevere in your relationship with God?

Take Away

In his letter to Sardis, Jesus lays out the steps to get back into a flourishing relationship with him: Wake up! Strengthen what you do have before it dies. Remember what you received and were taught. Hold on to it. Repent.

If we follow Jesus’ advice, we will get a foretaste of what he promises the overcomers of Sardis: intimacy with him and glorious righteousness (“They will walk with me, dressed in white.”). And since Christianity is not a religion of self-improvement but is good news about a relationship with God, he doesn’t expect us to generate this love on our own. He offers it to us:

“This is real love — not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us” (1 John 4:10-12 NLT).
  • Judas tried to hide his selfishness behind loud concern for the poor. Can you think of a time recently when you have hidden selfish motivations behind something that looks good? Confess it, and ask God to replace your selfishness with his love.
     
  • What is one thing you want to remember from this devotional?
     
  • What does this mean for your life this week?

— Annette Gulick

Study 5

Be Encouraged in Opposition
The Church @ Philadelphia

Connect

Where in your life do you face difficulties or obstacles?

Katie Davis epitomized the American dream. She was beautiful, an honor student, senior class president, homecoming queen, and had a handsome boyfriend and a convertible. Her life was mapped out: She would attend the college of her choice, marry the love of her life, then ride off into the sunset. Cue the credits. But her life took an unexpected turn. A three-week mission trip to Uganda over Christmas break of her senior year of high school turned Katie’s life upside down. As she volunteered in a home for abandoned or orphaned babies, she knew she would never be the same. She decided to delay college for a year and returned to Uganda to teach kindergarten at the same orphanage. Her parents were skeptical, but let her go so that she could get this obsession with Uganda out of her system.

If you have read Katie Davis Majors’ book Kisses from Katie, which details her love story with Uganda, you know that nothing about that year was easy. Soon after she arrived, the pastor decided to allow children from a nearby impoverished neighborhood to attend the kindergarten, so Katie went from teaching 12 children to 138. The children and Katie did not share a language, and some kids feared her because they had never seen a white person before. The classroom sat between the pit latrines and farm animals so it smelled horrible. Geckos, ants, and crickets crawled in her bed while a cat-sized rat lived in her bathroom and some bats in her shower. Electricity was scarce and cooking and laundering laborious. She was often exhausted, lonely and overwhelmed and would cry herself to sleep at night. She wrote: “Sometimes I feel like I am emptying the ocean with an eyedropper. And just when I have about half a cup full of water it rains: more orphaned children from the north migrate to where I live, more abandoned and dead bodies are found, more people are infected with HIV.”

Why would Katie endure such difficulty? Her life could have been so much smoother and safer. She could have attended college to become a nurse. With a secure job and salary, she could have taken an occasional mission trip to Uganda to further her work with children. At age 18, what would motivate her to walk such a road paved with obstacles?

In Jesus’ letter to the Philadelphian church in Revelation, he praises them for their patient endurance of opposition and obstacles. In fact, this is the only congregation of the seven that receives nothing but praise from our Lord.

To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:

These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.

I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
(Revelation 3:7-13)

PERSONAL REFLECTION

  1. The name “Philadelphia” means “brotherly love” but Christians in this city suffered substantial opposition from the Jews living there. Nonetheless, the believers remained steadfast in their faith and because of their patient endurance, Jesus promised to protect them from an unspecified “hour of trial.”
    • From 1% to 100%, what number best represents your patient endurance of opposition or difficult circumstances?
  2. Jesus’ description of himself to this church does not use imagery from John’s vision in chapter 1. Instead, he refutes the Jews who rejected him as the Messiah with an image from Isaiah 22:22: He has the “key of David.” Later Jesus promised that those Jews will have to acknowledge that he loves the Philadelphians, who have accepted him.
    • How does it affect you to know that someday the non-Christians who oppose you will acknowledge that Jesus is the one who is holy and true and that he loves you? What about this can motivate you to pray for them?
    • In what area of your life, can you be comforted by the knowledge that Jesus will destroy all lies and pretense?
  3. In Romans 5:3-4, Paul writes, “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” In what ways have you found this to be true in your own life?
  4. Jesus placed before the Philadelphians an open door to grow and develop spiritually.
    • Name a time that God gave you an open door to such growth. Did you walk through it? If so, list the things God did in your life as a result of taking advantage of such an opportunity.
    • What open door is God giving you right now? What makes it difficult to walk through it? What compels you forward?

Watch

Discuss

  • What is something you want to remember from the video?
     
  • How does what you have learned encourage you to persevere in your relationship with God?

Take Away

Jesus tells the faithful church in Philadelphia, “I know that you have little strength” (Revelation 3:8). Although this might sound discouraging, it is actually the opposite because God promises to supply the strength that we need to do the work he has called us to do, and his power is “made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Katie’s life seems amazing to many people. By the time she was 23 years old, she had adopted 13 orphaned Ugandan girls. She created a ministry called Amazima that feeds, educates, and shares the love of Jesus with children in need. But Katie is quick to point out that she is just an average girl who chose to say ‘yes’ to the things and people that God placed in front of her. In her words, “I am just an ordinary person serving an extraordinary God.”

If the church at Philadelphia holds on and doesn’t let anyone take their crown, Jesus promises to make them a “pillar in the temple of my God,” a place they will never have to leave (Revelation 3:12). This would have been a powerful image for citizens there since Philadelphia was vulnerable to earthquakes that destroyed buildings. Jesus promised the victors would be as eternally secure and safe as strong pillars in God’s temple, which is in heaven where no earthquakes cause destruction. Furthermore, Jesus promised to write on the victorious Philadelphians the name of God the Father, the new Jerusalem, and Jesus’ own name. These names all signify that they belong to him for eternity. What a glorious picture!

Instead of deterring her, obstacles Katie faced taught her the spiritual benefit of difficulty. She writes that on the other side of struggle “is something beautiful, because He has used the hard place to increase my sense of urgency and align my desires with His.” This makes her want to return to those hard places because there she gains “more wisdom, and though with wisdom comes sorrow, on the other side of sorrow is joy.”

Katie is a woman who lives this truth: “He is coming! He is coming to bandage our wounds, to bind up our broken hearts, to take our faces into his hands and whisper, ‘I am always here.’” We can face trials, struggles, opposition and difficulty as believers because God goes before us, opens and shuts doors, fights our battles for us, gives us strength to go on and reminds us he will be here soon.

  • Jesus says in Revelation 3:11, “I am coming soon.” How does knowing that Jesus is coming back help you when facing obstacles or difficult people?
     
  • What is one thing you want to remember from this devotional?
     
  • What does this mean for your life this week?

— Susan Rogers Davis

Study 6

Examine Your Assumptions
The Church @ Laodicea

Connect

When have you realized your assumptions about yourself or someone else were wrong?

I really couldn’t stand him. He lived in my freshman dorm, just down the hall. My roommate and I shared similar tastes in music and senses of humor with him and his two roommates. The five of us spent a lot of time together. We were sort of like the five musketeers. But Will and I did not get along. We often clashed and bickered. One point of contention was my newfound faith in Jesus. I was attending a Bible study and learning about Christianity. Fearful of being questioned or teased, I kept this growing faith to myself. I had two sets of friends and activities: Christian and non-Christian. Little did I know that, despite my efforts to hide my light under a bushel, my friends were sensing a change in me. One night as we were studying, my nemesis Will lectured me: “Don’t you ever talk to me about Christianity! There were kids in my high school who said they were Christians. They were even leaders in a Christian ministry, but all of them got drunk on the weekends. They were hypocrites.” As he talked, Will was literally snarling with anger, and his tone certainly delivered his message loud and clear. Don’t worry, I thought, I will not be talking to you about Jesus. And I never did. Not once.

Fast forward to the end of our freshman year. The iciness between me and Will had thawed, and we became friends. In fact, he became like the brother I never had. Our junior year, I noticed he had begun to have lunch occasionally with a campus staff member of the Christian ministry I was involved in. Not long after, Will asked to attend church with me. I was curious, but I never asked him about these developments. After all, I was under his strict instructions never to speak to him about Jesus, and I definitely kept that promise, although deep down I suspected it was no longer necessary. The summer before our senior year, he sent me a package containing some paintings he had done. One of them showed a cross with the words, “Susan led me to Christ” written over it. I was completely stunned. Wasn’t this the boy who had hissed at me never to speak to him of Jesus? And now he was a believer? I couldn’t believe it. My assumptions about Will were wrong.

The church at Laodicea was a church that seemingly had it all together. Laodicea was the wealthiest of the seven cities, with a thriving banking, clothing, and medical industry. Prosperous and self-sufficient, the church appeared healthy on the outside. Imagine their surprise when Jesus issued them a stunning rebuke:

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:

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)

PERSONAL REFLECTION

The Laodiceans assumed things about themselves that Jesus saw completely differently. They were wealthy and proud. Jesus saw them as wretched, poor, blind, and naked. In fact, he has no praise at all for this church that was physically wealthy but spiritually poor. Jesus’ prescription for the lukewarm Laodiceans is to repent earnestly and to buy from him some important remedies for their impoverished condition. He is not telling them to buy their salvation; that is a free gift (see Revelation 22:17).

  1. Name a time when you felt your Christian life was healthy, but God showed you otherwise.
  2. What helped you see yourself more clearly?
  3. How did this new perspective make you feel?
  4. What did you do as a result?
  5. Review the following passages to better understand the true wealth and health that Jesus desires for the church.
    1. BUY gold refined by fire SO THAT you may become rich.

      If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
      • What happens to gold when it is refined by fire?
      • What impurities would you like God to remove from your work?
    2. BUY white clothes SO THAT your nakedness is covered.

      After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Revelation 7:9).
      • Modern day celebrations and parades often include showering people with confetti. The equivalent in the ancient world was waving palm branches. Christians around the world wave palm branches on Palm Sunday, and we will hold them again as we worship Jesus in heaven with all nations. We will also wear white clothes, symbolizing righteousness. What worship song comes to your mind as you imagine yourself standing before God’s throne?
    3. BUY eye Salve SO THAT you can see.

      Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind" (John 9:39).
      • What has Jesus helped you see through these studies that you were blind to before?

Watch

Discuss

  • What is something you want to remember from the video?
     
  • How does what you have learned encourage you to persevere in your relationship with God?

Take Away

Will’s claim that he was hard-hearted and not interested in Jesus was just a facade. Some gentle questioning would likely have revealed that there was more behind his words than just anger. Had I probed and listened to his viewpoint, I may have learned more about where he was coming from, but I was too fearful of not having answers to his questions, so I stayed silent. The experience taught me a valuable lesson that first impressions are deceiving.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I integrated faith and life in college. Often, I behaved exactly like the hypocrites that Will spoke to me about. Just like the Laodiceans, I believed my way of living was fine, but I was lukewarm. I had pushed Jesus out so I could live as I pleased, and he disciplined me for that. When Jesus said, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock” (Revelation 3:20), he was waiting for the Laodiceans to invite him back in for fellowship. Notice that he is knocking patiently, not forcing his way in. In the same way, when we are trusting in our self-sufficiency and not in Jesus, he is gently knocking at our doors as well. I did repent of my choices and invited him back in to take control. The rebuke was nothing compared to sweet restoration of fellowship. Remember, as believers we always have the choice to open the door to His guidance and provision. And the overcomers will have the chance to sit enthroned with Jesus in eternity.

  • What has God confronted you with through these letters to the churches?
     
  • How has God encouraged you through these letters to the churches?

—Susan Rogers Davis

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