Revelation 3 Commentary

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v.1“Sir W. M. Ramsay said of Sardis that nowhere was there a greater example of the melancholy contrast between past splendour and present decay. Sardis was a city of degeneration.

“Seven hundred years before this letter was written Sardis had been one of the greatest cities in the world.”[1]

“When John wrote his letter to Sardis, it was wealthy but degenerate. Even the once great citadel was now only an ancient monument on the hill top. There was no life or spirit there. The once great Sardians were soft, and twice they had lost their city because they were too lazy to watch. In that enervating atmosphere the Christian Church too had lost its vitality and was a corpse instead of a living Church.”[2]

v.1 “Christ’s acknowledgment that ‘I know your works, that you have a name that you live’ is not a positive commendation of the church’s present spiritual health, but only a recognition that this is the confession, and possibly the reputation of the church.  However, their confession and reputation are contradicted by the fact that they are in reality, ‘dead’ […] Just as the city in general was living off a former but no longer existing fame, so the same attitude had infected the church.  Though it considered itself spiritually alive, and perhaps other churches in the region respected the Sardinian Christians, in reality, they were in a condition of spiritual death.”[3]

v.4 “While the majority had departed from faithful obedience to Christ, a few at Sardis remained true. Here an allusion to the wool industry at Sardis intensifies the image of soiled and defiled garments. Those with soiled garments were removed from the public lists of citizens in Sardis. In the pagan religions it was forbidden to approach the gods in garments that were soiled or stained (Barclay, Seven Churches, p. 77). Soiling seems to be a symbol for mingling with pagan life and thus defiling the purity of one’s relation to Christ (14:4; 1Cor 8:7; 2Cor 7:1; 11:2; Jude 23). To ‘walk with Christ’ symbolizes salvation and fellowship with him–something the others at Sardis had forfeited through their sin (1John 1:6-7). ‘White’ garments are symbolic of the righteousness, victory, and glory of God (3:18; 6:11; 7:9, 13 f.; 19:14). As Caird (p. 49) observes, this passage shows that not all faithful Christians were martyrs, nor can we make emperor worship the sole source of the problems of the early Christians. Ironically, the Sardians were occupied with their outward appearance, but they were not concerned with inner purity toward Christ and their outward moral life in a pagan society.”[4]

v.5 “Furthermore, the pure relationship to Christ is permanently guaranteed: ‘I will never erase his name from the book of life.’ In ancient cities the names of citizens were recorded in a register till their death; then their names were erased or marked out of the book of the living. This same idea appears in the OT (Exod 32:32-33; Ps 69:28; Isa 4:3). From the idea of being recorded in God’s book of the living (or the righteous) comes the sense of belonging to God’s eternal kingdom or possessing eternal life (Dan 12:1; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Heb 12:23; Rev 13:8; 17:8; 20:15; 21:27). For Christ to say that he will never blot out or erase the overcomer’s name from the book of life is the strongest affirmation that death can never separate us from Christ and his life (Rom 8:38-39) […] There is some evidence that a person’s name could be removed from the city register before death if he were convicted of a crime. In the first century, Christians who were loyal to Christ were under constant threat of being branded political and social rebels and then stripped of their citizenship. But Christ offers them an eternal, safe citizenship in his everlasting kingdom if they only remain loyal to him.”[5]

v.7 “So situated, Philadelphia became a strong fortress city. To the northeast was a great vine-growing district, which, along with textile and leather industries, contributed greatly to the city’s prosperity.

“[…]  In A.D. 17 an earthquake that destroyed Sardis and ten other cities also destroyed Philadelphia. […]

“After the devastating earthquake, Tiberius came to the peoples’ aid and had the city rebuilt. In gratitude the citizens renamed it Neocaesarea (‘New Caesar’). Later the name was changed to Flavia (A.D. 70-79), and this, along with Philadelphia, continued to be its name through the second and third centuries A.D. Later, the establishment of the emperor cult in the city earned it the title ‘Neokoros,’ or ‘Temple Warden’ (c. 211-17). In the fifth century, it was nicknamed ‘Little Athens’ because of its proliferation of festivals and pagan cults. Whether this indicates something of its early period is uncertain. Since wine was one of the city’s important industries, some have assumed that the worship of Dionysus was a chief pagan cult in it.”[6]

v.7 “He is he who has the key of David, who opens and no man will shut, who shuts and no man opens. We may first note that the key is the symbol of authority. Here is the picture of Jesus Christ as the one who has the final authority which no one can question.

“Behind this there is an Old Testament picture. Hezekiah had a faithful steward called Eliakim, who was over all his house and who alone could admit to the presence of the king. Isaiah heard God say of this faithful Eliakim: ‘and I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open’ (Isaiah 22:22). It is this picture which is in John’s mind. Jesus alone has authority to admit to the new Jerusalem, the new city of David. As the Te Deum has it: ‘Thou didst open the kingdom of Heaven to all believers.’ He is the new and living way into the presence of God.”[7]

v.9 “Here those opposing the witness of the congregation are characterized as ‘those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars.’ The words are like those spoken to the church in Smyrna (cf. comments on 2:9). A ‘synagogue of Satan’ appears to describe a Jewish element that vehemently denied Jesus as the Messiah and that actively persecuted others who made this claim. A true Jew in the view of Jews like John and Paul is one who has found forgiveness and life in Jesus the Messiah, while a false Jew is one who rejects those who believe in Jesus and openly persecutes them; such a one is an antichrist (1John 2:22).”[8]

v.12 “The promise to the overcomer is again twofold and related to the experience and memory of the inhabitants of the city. First, Christ will make the overcomer a ‘pillar in the temple of my God.’ As has already been noted, the city was constantly threatened with earthquakes. Often the only parts of a city left standing after a severe quake were the huge stone temple columns. Christ promises to set believers in his temple (the future kingdom?) in such a secure fashion that no disturbance can ever force them out.

“Moreover, a faithful municipal servant or a distinguished priest was sometimes honored by having a special pillar added to one of the temples and inscribed with his name (Barclay, Seven Churches, p. 89). This may well be the sense of the second promise, ‘I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, … and … my new name.’ The inscribed name signifies identification and ownership. To those who have ‘little strength’ (little influence) because of being ostracized, Christ promises recognition in his kingdom worthy of the most noble hero of any society.

“Remembering how in days past the changes of name their city received (e.g., Neocaesarea; see comments on v. 7), the Philadelphians would be impressed that God himself (not the emperor) had chosen to identify himself with them and to insure their citizenship in the New Jerusalem (cf. 21:2 ff.; Ezek 48:35). Christ’s ‘new name’ could be either the unknown name that he alone knows, signifying his absolute power over all other powers (19:12), or the new name of Christ given to the believer, i.e., his possession by Christ through redemption (Isa 62:2; 65:15).”[9]

v.14 “Laodicea was about forty-five miles southeast of Philadelphia and about one hundred miles due east of Ephesus. Along with Colosse and Hierapolis, it was one of the cities in the fertile Lyous valley. The great Roman road stretching to the inland of Asia from the coast at Ephesus ran straight through its center, making Laodicea an important center of trade and communication. In addition, its wealth came from the production of a fine quality of famous glossy black wool–whether dyed or natural in color is not known. That the city’s banking assets were noteworthy is evidenced by the fact that Cicero cashed huge bank drafts in Laodicea. So wealthy was Laodicea that after the great earthquake of A.D. 17, which destroyed it, the people refused imperial help in rebuilding the city, choosing rather to do it entirely by themselves.

“Laodicea had a famous school of medicine; and a special ointment known as ‘Phrygian powder,’ famous for its cure of eye defects, was either manufactured or distributed there, as were ear ointments also. Near the temple of the special god associated with healing, Men Karou (who later became identified with Asclepius), there was a market for trading all sorts of goods (Ramsay, Seven Churches, p. 417). Zeus, the supreme god, was also worshiped in the city.

“Ramsay notes that Laodicea is difficult to describe because no one thing stands out. There were no excesses or notable achievements to distinguish it. It was a city with a people who had learned to compromise and accommodate themselves to the needs and wishes of others (ibid., p. 423). They did not zealously stand for anything. A six-mile-long aqueduct brought Laodicea its supply of water from the south. The water came either from hot springs and was cooled to lukewarm or came from a cooler source and warmed up in the aqueduct on the way. For all its wealth, the city had poor water. A large and influential Jewish population resided there. As for the church in Laodicea, it may have been founded by Epaphras (Col 4:12-13).”[10]

“Laodicea has the grim distinction of being the only Church of which the Risen Christ has nothing good to say.”[11]

v.17 “The deeper problem in the Laodicean church was not simply their indifference. It was their ignorance of their real condition: ‘You say, `I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’‘ Observe the way this indictment is related to the general condition of the populace at large–rich in material possessions and self-sufficient. The spirit of the surrounding culture had crept into the congregation and had paralyzed their spiritual life. But did they actually claim to be materially rich or spiritually rich? Since it is difficult to see how a Christian community would boast of material wealth, many prefer the latter interpretation. Yet the Laodiceans may have interpreted their material wealth as a blessing from God and thus have been self-deceived as to their true spiritual state. In any case, they had misread their true condition.

“Christ’s revelation of the Laodiceans’ actual situation shatters their illusions and calls them to repentance: ‘But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.’ Probably the first two characteristics–’wretched’ and ‘pitiful’- are to be linked together, while the latter three explain this twofold condition in more detail (cf. v. 18). They are not, as they thought, rich and without need; they are pitifully wretched and in great need, being ‘poor, blind and naked.’ Conversely, Jesus said to the church at Smyrna, ‘I know … your poverty–yet you are rich!’ (2:9).

“To be ‘wretched’ physically describes life when everything one owns has been destroyed or plundered by war (Ps 137:8 LXX). Here it refers to the Laodiceans’ spiritual destitution and pitiableness before God.”[12]

v.18 “The commands of Christ correspond exactly to the self-deceptions of the Laodiceans. Gold, a source of the wealth of the city, was to be bought from Christ and to become the spiritually poverty-stricken’s true wealth. Their shameful nakedness was to be clothed, not by purchasing the sleek, black wool of Laodicea, but by buying from Christ the white clothing that alone can cover shameful nakedness (16:15). For those who were blind to their true condition, the ‘Phrygian powder’ was useless (cf. comments on v. 14). They needed to buy salve from Christ so that they could truly see. The reference to buying would recall the famous market near the temple of Men Karou, where the commodities manufactured at Laodicea could be bought, along with imports from other areas.”[13]


[1] William Barclay, The Revelation of John: Volume 1, Daily Study Bible Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 2000)  113.

[2] William Barclay, The Revelation of John: Volume 1, Daily Study Bible Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 2000)  115-116.

[3] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1999) 272-273.

[4] Alan F. Johnson,, Gen. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 3:4.

[5] Alan F. Johnson,, Gen. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 3:5.

[6] Alan F. Johnson,, Gen. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 3:7.

[7] William Barclay, The Revelation of John: Volume 1, Daily Study Bible Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 2000)  127-128.

[8] Alan F. Johnson,, Gen. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 3:9.

[9] Alan F. Johnson,, Gen. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 3:12.

[10] Alan F. Johnson,, Gen. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 3:14.

[11] William Barclay, The Revelation of John: Volume 1, Daily Study Bible Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 2000)  137.

[12]Alan F. Johnson,, Gen. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 3:17.

[13] Alan F. Johnson,, Gen. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 3:18.

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