The church of Ephesus comes first, and the promise they receive goes all the way to the beginning of scripture. Mankind is created and placed in the Garden of Eden, this paradise where they can live in community with God Himself, but they allow sin to enter into their lives and the world and have to be removed. Now, we tend to talk about how they had to be removed because they couldn't remain in God's presence, and there's truth to that, but the passage actually describes a more specific motive: Adam and Eve needed to lose access to the Tree of Life.
Now, we see later in Revelation that this is not a return to the literal Garden of Eden. The New Jerusalem is a city, not a garden. But it does have the streams of flowing water, it does have the Tree of Life, and most importantly, it has the people of God living in the presence of God without sin. It is in this context that Hebrews, which concerns itself with a significant section on the day of rest coming for the people of God through Christ, presents the fullness of that rest being realized.
For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, "AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH, THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST," although His works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh [day:] "AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY FROM ALL HIS WORKS"; and again in this [passage,] "THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST."
Hebrews 4:2-5 (NASB)
This rest, according to Hebrews, is found in Christ for those who will believe on Him. This is placed in contrast to the generation that wandered in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, who contended with God and failed to trust in His promises and provision. But it is in the presence of God, in true community with Him like there was in the Garden and will be again in the New Jerusalem, that the rest God promises will be fully realized. This is our first point about salvation: it is a restoration, a return to the perfect design of God and community with Him.
'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.'
Revelation 2:11 (NASB)
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Revelation 20:14-15 (NASB)
Revelation paints a very vivid picture of those who remain enemies of God being cast into the lake of fire, called the second death, followed immediately by the redeemed going to dwell with God forever. The fundamental promise being made to the church of Smyrna, then, is that the saved have no fear of final separation from God and can trust in the eternal life He offers. The contrast is set forth in the narrative of Revelation, and promised here in chapter 2, but is given in a very clear and concise way by Peter. In his second letter, Peter talks about how unrighteous people and the corrupted natural order will be destroyed by fire, and then promises that those who are in Christ need not fear that because they can look beyond to the new life that awaits them.
'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give [some] of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.'
Revelation 2:17 (NASB)
At a quick stroke, the promise to the church of Pergamum seems a bit odd. What is this hidden manna, and why a stone with some name on it?
The manna is a theme that gets some development earlier in scripture, though it isn't as strongly recurring topic. In fact, there are really only two places we need to go to get the general thrust of the story so far. The first is during the wandering in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, when the people of Israel were in a barren place and hungry. God sustained them with provision in the form of a miraculous bread that appeared with the morning dew that they simply gathered. While there is very little discussion of the manna after that point in scripture, it certainly left a mark on the culture, because it gets cited after Jesus feeds the 5,000. He performs the miracle, He and His disciples ship out at night, and the people find them the next day and ask for more bread as a sign. A relevant part of that conversation includes:
"Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.'" Jesus then said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world." Then they said to Him, "Lord, always give us this bread." Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.
John 6:31-35 (NASB)
Later, they grumbled among themselves about Jesus proclaiming that He was the bread that came down from Heaven. They got Jesus' point, even if they didn't like it: while the manna was a very real and effective sustenance for the people of God, there is a better sustenance delivered by God in the person of Jesus Christ. The promise of hidden manna, then, is a promise that ties back to the earlier promises of eternal life, with a focus on Christ as the giver and sustainer of that life. In 1 John, the author of both the epistle and the gospel revisits this topic when he tells us, "And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life" (1 John 5:11-12, NASB).
Thus, the promise delivered through the church is Pergamum is not simply some bread and a stone, but an imperishable life founded on Christ and a new identity found in Him. The redeemed can trust that our lives are grounded on the solid rock of Christ, because He is both the giver and sustainer of life as well as the author of the promises that life contains.
'He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, TO HIM I WILL GIVE AUTHORITY OVER THE NATIONS; AND HE SHALL RULE THEM WITH A ROD OF IRON, AS THE VESSELS OF THE POTTER ARE BROKEN TO PIECES, as I also have received [authority] from My Father; and I will give him the morning star.
Revelation 2:26-28 (NASB)
The message to Thyatira is a bit more straight forward. Jesus promises authority over the nations and, as the morning star frequently represents, a position of some glory. 1 Peter 1:12 notes a similar theme, in recognizing that the saints of old looked forward to the fullness of salvation and that the nature of what we receive is so great that even angels long to see it. But while the idea of us receiving authority and glory will be revisited here, they are not widely common themes in the general epistles. When they arise, in fact, they are generally pointing beyond us. Consider, for instance, John's words just one chapter earlier, during his greeting.
and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood-- and He has made us [to be] a kingdom, priests to His God and Father--to Him [be] the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Revelation 1:5-6 (NASB)
Any glory or authority we may receive is second in importance to that which Christ receives. We can trust that this promise is true, that God will grant us to rule with Him and that He will glorify us in the end, but there seems to be an almost subconscious hesitance by the authors of the general epistles to let us ever think about that without immediately turning our eyes to the One who deserves all authority and all glory. This is a stark reminder that not only is Christ the means by which our salvation comes, but that salvation is ultimately for His glory and not our own. I would do us no favors in presenting it any other way.
The book of life, again, points to eternal life; confession of the name includes both glory and endorsement, and we can ask for no greater endorsement than that of God the Son. Instead of revisiting these concepts, though, look at the first clause in that sentence, that we will be clothed in white garments. This is a promise of purity, that we will be washed clean, that the one who overcomes (that is, the one who believes on Jesus as per our opening verse) will be sanctified and made whole. Hebrews, a book largely about salvation and redemptive history, touches on this a number of times but few as concisely as "by this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Hebrews 10:10 NASB). The blood of Christ washes us clean, this is the means by which we are sanctified, and we have assurance given to the church of Sardis that this will be perfectly completed.
'He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name.
Revelation 3:12 (NASB)
We have here new information on the new identity we have in Christ, that it involves being marked as one of God's, but this talk about being a pillar in the temple ties back to the promise in the message to Ephesus. Philadelphia's portion includes residing in the presence of God, but the temple language ties back to the apparently false form of Judaism they were dealing with. These people lived in the midst of what appears to be a false temple or synagogue, and are promised a place in the true temple of God.
This, the eternal temple where Christ stands forever, always in the presence of the Father and without need for further sacrifice or washing, is the temple that the redeemed can look forward to calling home. Where Ephesus was given an emphasis on the perfection and the closeness of God to His people, Philadelphia is given a picture of life in perfect and continual communion with God.
The church of Laodicea is a rich body. In the message to them, they have to be reminded that the wealth they have on Earth makes no dent on the poverty they have in spiritual matters, and that they are 'lukewarm' in their devotion to God. There is much that can be said about what it means to be lukewarm, but turning to verse 21 we see that the church is given a vision of something far greater than the riches they are relying on. After all, the throne of Christ is no small seat of power, but as Peter describes it:
Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.
1 Peter 3:21-22 (NASB)
Angels, authorities, and powers are subject to the throne of Christ. The things of this world that we seek are too small, they are as nothing compared to the vast riches we have in Christ. To the church of Laodicea, and any of a similar mindset, the desire for earthly wealth is a distraction from the fullness of what awaits those who put their hope in Christ.
The overarching thread of salvation woven throughout the general epistles, though, is that this is all through and for Christ, and as He is better than anything we have on this world, so His salvation is greater than anything we can have through other means, and the weight of our treatment of salvation is greater than how we handle any other subject. This is why false teachers are viewed in such a harsh light: what they do with the gospel is objectively far more important than what they do with anything else. We cannot honor God or do any ultimate good if we will not handle this matter well, and we cannot handle it well if Christ is not the focus of all of it.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to [obtain] an inheritance [which is] imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
1 Peter 1:3-5 (NASB)
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away [from it.] For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
Hebrews 2:1-4 (NASB)
In Christ, through the salvation He offers, we have a new and better identity, one that is pure and washed free of all sin and corruption, that includes authority and coming glory, that allows us to reside joyfully in the presence of God forever, without fear of further pain or death. This is founded on the work of Christ and grounds everything we are and everything we do. Let us look forward with joy and expectation, patiently awaiting the fullness of this great salvation, as James reminds us:
Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
James 5:7-8 (NASB)
If we are truly grounding ourselves on this promise and on patiently waiting for it, our lives will be impacted. This will be the focus of the final post in this series.
One common theme raised throughout the general epistles is that of false teachers. This seems to have been a fairly constant issue in the early church, as it is referenced by every single author of a general epistle, discussed by Paul, and even briefly described in Acts. Jude, who sought to write a letter about salvation, instead found the need to address false teachers too pressing to delay. Peter, who spent his first letter largely concerned with salvation and Christian living, had to write (or at least dictate) a second that dealt heavily with false teachers. James, in a letter that is almost entirely about living out the gospel, found need to make a point about false teachers his audience needed to avoid. This was a rampant problem, and not one that has ever really gone away.
For who provoked [Him] when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt [led] by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? [So] we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.
Hebrews 3:16-19 (NASB)
The authors of the general epistles, when confronted with the notion of false teachers, thought back to the period after their ancestors left Egypt and before that congregation entered the promised land. There is much to be said about the apparent cultural importance of these events, that details of individuals such as Korah and Balaam found their way into the immediate thought processes of so varied a group of individuals. For now, however, we will focus on what these citations say about the false teachers of the day.
2 Peter mentions Balaam as an archetype of the teachings he was condemning in 2 Peter 2:13-16. Here, Balaam is described as loving "the wages of unrighteousness," and those who are seen to be following after his character are described as "...stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you, having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children" (2 Peter 2:13b-14 NASB). In Jude 11, readers are warned that "for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam." John condemns the church in Smyrna, "'But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit [acts of] immorality" (Revelation 2:14 NASB).
We know little about Balaam son of Beor, but the bulk of what we know is in Numbers 22-24, and we find in two different Biblical sources that he was later killed by the people of Israel while his town was being destroyed. The cultural understanding of what Balaam actually did must have drawn from other sources, however, because the actual narrative does not contain everything said of him here. Either way, the image being given of the false teachers of the day seem to include significant immoral behavior and an open enjoyment of their unrighteousness, as well as a certain amount of greed that drove Balaam to answer Balak's call after being told by God not to. This last point also indicates a disregard for God's command.
In Revelation, Balaam is associated with the Nicolaitans, a heretical sect which held that spiritual freedom was a license to live immoral lives and seems to have been present in Thyatira and Pergamum as well. Given the emphasis on good works in James, it is distinctly possible that the groups he was addressing were, if not Nicolaitans, at least similar to them in doctrine. If Peter and Jude have the same understanding of Balaam as John does, which seems likely from their descriptions, then they might also have been addressing the rise of the Nicolaitan sect. Given the context of the phrase in which Jude's use of Balaam appears, he may have also been citing Balaam's involvement in Balak's jealous attempts to usurp the will of God through sacrifices and condemn God's people.
The stories detailed above both take place during the Exodus, which is also referenced at length in Hebrews, notable here because it was a formative period in the development of Judaism. There is a certain degree to which the Jewish authors of the general epistles can look back to the wandering in the wilderness as a definitive period in establishing their identity, religious expression, and the promises God had made to their people. While they appear to have generally understood the rise of the church as the fulfillment of many such promises, there seems to have been an acute understanding that there was something new at play in the world that was unlike anything that had come before. In such a formative period, that would define much of Christian identity, religious expression, and the nature of God's promises and fulfillment, it should not be a surprise that the minds of the generation that saw God descend in human form went to the generation that saw God descend on Sinai. But not every general epistle goes to that history, or even to that level of specificity.
Let not many [of you] become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many [ways.] If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and [yet] it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the [very] world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of [our] life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; [it is] a restless evil [and] full of deadly poison.
James 3:1-8 (NASB)
The epistle of James is, primarily, a study of the Christian life, and some parts are debated as to their influence on the doctrine of salvation. But in chapter 3, James (while still discussing the general expectations of Christians) focuses in on teachers. The first verse sets the tone, that teaching is a risky venture, and the rest of the chapter expands on the idea that our speech cannot be trusted unless our tongue is tamed, and even this is beyond our ability to do alone. We tend to read this passage as a command to all Christians to watch our tongues, and it is certainly useful in this way, and not contradictory to the broader context in which it appears. The fact that it appears as a clarification of a warning to teachers means that we can also look at it as a solid text to examine the nature of false teachers.
The warning is simple: teachers are held to a high standards of accountability for what they teach, and the means through which they teach is corrupt and in need of purification. Our tongues can guide our entire lives, especially if we make our living through speech, and if we do not have this under control everything else will suffer. In this way he is, somewhat indirectly, warning that the false teachers, those who do not have bridled tongues, who allow blessing and curses to come from the same source, will lead themselves and their hearers astray. Everything described in the rest of that chapter, when applied to the body at large, is a matter of significant concern. When applied to teachers, it is harrowing.
Jude, in one sentence, describes the false teachers of the day in a very concise way: "For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah" (Jude 1:11 NASB). Balaam and Korah have been addressed already, and Cain is known for being jealous of his brother, offering improper sacrifice, and causing destruction and division. This all brings us to the big picture.
The general epistles, while addressing different audiences at somewhat different times, have a certain unity of description when addressing false teachers. They are described across the board as jealous, greedy, destructive and divisive, and dismissive of God's commands. This is all fine, and fairly easy to understand, and we can certainly apply the set to false teachers today; but probably the least clear common description best sums up the lot of them: these are people who would offer an improper sacrifice to God. But what does that even mean in a context where the sacrificial system is seen as superseded by a once-for-all sacrifice by Christ? Let's close this post by looking at that issue.
But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR [God's] OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.
1 Peter 2:9-10 (NASB)
Hebrews seems to be concerning itself with attempts to return to the Mosaic law rather than welcoming the freedom available in Christ, while authors like James and Jude are discussing teachers that are disregarding all semblance of righteous living in favor of wanton immorality. Both extremes end up doing the same ultimate thing: offering up to God a form of faith that is unacceptable to His standards, instead of relying on the accepted blood of Christ. All of the forms of false teaching end up rejecting the true Christ and His work in favor of a religion that is, in the end, empty. The motives of false teachers may vary, but the end result is always taking the people of God and offering through them a lifestyle that will be rejected by Him.
In contrast, then, the teacher who is honoring God properly is one who operates out of humility rather than jealousy, charity rather than greed, seeking unity and seeing life blossom in their congregations rather than destruction and division, respectful of God's commands without being legalistic, and leaning on the sacrifice of Christ rather than offering up a life that is marked by corruption. But the true mark of a sound teacher is the salvation they preach, and this will be the topic of the next post.
The epistles are a deeply important part of the New Testament and the Bible as a whole. Where the gospels reveal the person and teaching of Jesus and the example He sets and detail His atoning death and resurrection, and Acts gives us insight into how the early church was formed and functioned in light of all of that, it is the epistles that really unpack for us what so much of this means for our daily lives, how the teachings of Jesus became the theology of the church, and how the whole story of the Bible fits together and hinges on Christ.
Of the twenty-two epistles, we can say for certain that thirteen were written by Paul. These Pauline epistles tend to be more densely packed with theological discussion, openly addressed to specific situations and therefore concerned with very concrete application, and longer than the remaining epistles. This is great for the unity of our understanding, but it does tend to mean that our preaching and study of these issues are frequently limited in scope to one man's theology--admittedly, a man writing scripture under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit and therefore trustworthy in his teaching, but still only one man--when there are nine other books that explore some of the same themes and can offer, at the very least, a different perspective.
The following three posts will each study the general epistles' handling of one major theme. The first theme will be false teachers, the second will be on redemptive history and the nature of salvation, and the final one will be the Christian life. This sequence is intentional and bears consideration when reading the following posts, because the overarching sequence will influence how they are each presented. We will begin by narrowing our focus only to that which is valid theology, and then we will explore the heart of that theology, and then how to live that theology out.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation