Letters to the Seven Churches

Study at Home Series

Prepare for Easter with Christ’s encouragement and warnings to seven churches recorded in the book of Revelation.

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 small groups like weekly Bible studies and Sunday school classes.

This six-week study will help believers prepare themselves for Easter as they evaluate their lives through Jesus’ letters to the seven churches recorded in the book of Revelation, chapters 2 and 3. The accompanying 15-minute videos are compiled from Thirdmill’s series on the book of Revelation. 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 the 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 it before meeting in order to discuss it together.

The questions in bold are those specifically designed for group sharing. You may 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 each question throughout the study.

Our desire is that you and the members of your study group may be spiritually strengthened as a result of this series. The author of Revelation promises 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).
Why Prepare for Easter

Easter only matters for people who acknowledge that they are sinners. Jesus can be a model and an inspiration for people who want to improve themselves and are looking for yet another self-help guru. Jesus can be a teacher for people who want to make the world a better place and have compassion for those who are suffering. Jesus can be a guide for people who want to change society because others don’t conform to their convictions about how it should be. However, the cross, the grave, and the empty tomb demand that we believe things about ourselves and about the world that are as unacceptable in many parts of society today as they were in the days when following Christ could make you lose your job, or your life.

  • The cross: Jesus pouring out his lifeblood to pay for sin, requires me to believe that my sin is so serious that it merits the death penalty for all eternity.
  • The grave: Jesus dying to break the power of the devil, requires me to believe that supernatural evil powers exist and exert great power over the world and over my life. In fact, anyone who is outside of Christ is enslaved to them and powerless to free themselves.
  • The empty tomb: Jesus coming back to life with a resurrected body, requires me to believe that there is another dimension to reality that is more real and more important than this one.

Jesus is more than a model or a teacher or a guide. He is the faithful witness about the Creator God, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth (Revelation 1:5). We might think that his life, death, and resurrection came naturally to him. But the truth is, the Gospels show him preparing strenuously for it. Before beginning his ministry, he spent forty days in the wilderness, fasting, praying, and overcoming temptation.

Christians throughout the centuries have sought to prepare themselves by spending Lent, the forty days before Easter, fasting, praying, and repenting of the temptations they have not overcome.

Lent can be observed superficially. My father tells the story of a college friend who celebrated Lent by fasting from all meat except fish on Fridays in Lent. One Friday evening, the cook at their fraternity dining hall prepared steak for dinner. My father’s friend decided not to let his religious tradition get in the way of this rare treat, so before putting a bite of steak in his mouth, he dipped it in a glass of water and said, “Swim, darn it, swim.”

But Lent doesn’t have to be superficial. We can use these six weeks like an annual check-up with our Great Physician, an opportunity for him to show us what we are doing well as we struggle to live out our faith and the dangers threatening us.

This 6-week study is designed to help you prepare for Easter by evaluating your life through Jesus’ letters to seven churches recorded in the book of Revelation chapters 2 and 3. Each session is accompanied by a video which has been compiled from the Thirdmill series on the Book of Revelation. If you would like more resources about Revelation, you can find them on the series page for The Book of Revelation.

In Jesus’ letters to the seven churches, we find a series of diagnostic “tests” for our own heart and life. 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.

After Jesus' time of preparation in the wilderness, angels came and took care of him. Our desire is that as a result of this series, you too may be spiritually strengthened. The author of Revelation promises this will be the case: Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for 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:

  • 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.)
  • 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 from the book of Revelation 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

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