Seven Letters of Encouragement During Very Troubled Times

In the heat of contest, in the midst of a sporting battle, any good coach will take every opportunity to encourage his athletes to press on, to leave it all on the field and keep fighting.  As Vince Lombardi (head coach of the Green Bay Packers 1959 – 1967) once said, “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”

Not all encouragement is warm and fuzzy.  Sometimes encouragement from a coach, friend, leader, parent etc. has teeth.  It is not condemning, but means to inspire the recipient to not give up, not crater under the pressure, to reach deep within and find the fortitude to take that final step, whether they be first or last, and cross the finish line.  This is certainly true for our God and our Lord.  They have never left their people, children, brothers and sisters without encouragement and hope.  So it is for those who will believe in Christ in the future during the time known as the Great Tribulation period.  

Most of the material written about the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 refer to them as letters of warning and/or condemnation.  Many, if not most, fail to see the tender compassion of our Lord and his encouragement in those letters.

Setting the scene

The Rapture has occurred, all born again Christians (both living and dead) have been gathered together with the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).  The only people left on the earth are those who rejected Christ or simply did not believe during the Administration (dispensation) of the Grace of God.  Complete and utter chaos is beginning to reign, fear and trembling is mounting with every hour.  The terrible Day of the Lord is coming.

Israel is alone (no nation is supporting it).  The United States is in ruin, as are Great Britain, Germany and many other countries where God’s light had once shined. Millions of people suddenly are missing. Military men and women, government officials, police forces, fire fighters, doctors, nurses, EMT’s, ministers, social workers, power plant operators, pilots and so many others…gone!

Planes have fallen out of the sky. Runaway trains, cars without drivers and boats without captains seem to be everywhere. Out of control fires, dead bodies, looting, fear, warring and rumors of warring are all over; it is madness. 

Darkness covers the planet like a blanket. Weapons of mass destruction are now in the hands of non-believers at best and more than likely those working for the Adversary.  Communication has broken down.  There is civil unrest and society has collapsed.  The forces of evil are marshaling, and their eyes and weapons are aimed at Israel.

The Day of Christ, the Day of the Lord, the Day of the vengeance of our God, the Times of Jacob’s Trouble, are near.

I can only paint a partial picture of what it could and probably will be like shortly after the Rapture, but in Matthew Jesus said, “For at that time there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and it will never ever happen again. And if those days were not shortened, no flesh would have been saved, but for the sake of the chosen, those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:21-22).

There will be little comfort for those remaining on the earth after the Rapture (Matthew 24:1-14).  What happens shortly after the Rapture of the Christian Church is key to understanding these end times.

The Rebellion

Then, after the 62 weeks, the Anointed One will be cut off, and will have nothing, and the people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary; and its end will be with a flood, and even to the end there will be war. Desolations are determined. 27 And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will cause the sacrifice and the offering to cease;And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation; even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who causes desolation.

Daniel 9:26-27

Daniel tells us that “the ruler that will come” (the Antichrist) will make a “firm covenant” with “the many” for one week.  This week is widely understood to stand for seven years, and is also understood to be the seven years of tribulation, the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jeremiah 30:7).  Jesus also addressed this in Matthew 24:11:

And then many will fall away, and will hand over one another, and will hate one another. 11And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many. 12And because of the increase in lawlessness, the love of the many will grow cold. 13But the one who endures to their end, this one will be saved.

Matthew 24:10-13

When we read Scripture, attention to detail is paramount.  Notice Jesus said that “many” will be misled (or deceived), not all, just as Daniel had said that many will enter into a covenant with the antichrist.  Both Jesus and Daniel are addressing and referring to Jews (see the REV commentary on Daniel 9:27).

The making of this covenant is in direct conflict with God’s commandment to Israel.  At least three times in the Old Testament God clearly told Israel not to enter into a treaty with their neighbors (enemies).

And an angel of Yahweh went up from Gilgal to Bochim. He said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you to the land that I swore to your fathers, and I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, 2and you are not to cut a covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you are to break down their altars.’ But you have not listened to my voice. Why have you done this? 3Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out from before you, but they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.’” […] 20The anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel and he said, “Because this nation has transgressed my covenant that I commanded their fathers and has not listened to my voice,  21I also will not henceforth drive out any from before them of the nations that Joshua left when he died, 22that by them I may prove Israel, whether they will keep the way of Yahweh to walk in it as their fathers kept it or not.” 23So Yahweh left those nations without driving them out hastily; nor did he give them into the hand of Joshua.

Judges 20:1-3 & 20-23

(Compare Exodus 34:15-16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-3.)

The cutting of this covenant (with God’s archenemy) is the apostasy (rebellion) that Paul speaks about in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and will trigger the Tribulation; it will be a Jewish rebellion against God.  (For more on apostasia being a rebellion, see the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, on Joshua 22:9-34).

However, not everyone will be deceived.  So, what happens next?

“Therefore, when you see the abomination of desolation that was spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the Holy Place (let the one reading understand), 16then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains…

Matthew 24:15-16

Those who flee to the mountains will be the remnant that were not deceived and did not agree with the covenant with the Antichrist.  But what mountains?  The Bible does not tell us, but we can make a logical assumption about them: there are mountains in Jordan which presently enjoy a friendly relationship with Israel.  However, those mountains are in the desert, which is not suitable for sustaining life and provides little cover. There are also mountains in Israel, but the Antichrist has broken the covenant and is assembling armies in preparation to attack them; the mountains in Syria and Lebanon are hostile territory.  The easiest and safest mountains to reach are those in western Turkey, which at the time of this writing has amicable relations with Israel.

If we are to take Revelation 2 and 3 literally, then the western mountains of Turkey are where they will flee, seeing as the seven churches are also located in that region.  There are those who argue that the Book of Revelation is written to the present Christian Church, but for many reasons (too many to mention here), this is not the case.  E. W. Bullinger makes the most complete and compelling argument that the Book of Revelation is written to Israel (see E. W. Bullinger’s Commentary on Revelation pages 4-102).

As mentioned previously, this is a time of great distress, turmoil, fear and evil.  Those who were not deceived—Jews and Gentiles who have come to believe in Christ as Messiah after the Rapture of the Christian Church—have now fled Israel to the mountains.  Jesus will not leave them without a shepherd, without hope.

The letters written to the ecclesia in the Book of Revelation, namely Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, are letters of encouragement and hope.  They were most likely written around 90-95 AD by revelation for this time period we are addressing—the time of Jacob’s trouble, the Tribulation period (Rev. 1:10; and see REV commentary on Rev. 1:10).

The Seven Letters

The seven letters in Revelation, while not exactly identical in structure, all have the same elements except for the letter to the assembly in Laodicea, which is missing any commendation.  They are letters of exhortation (paraklesis). This Greek word shows up 29 times in the Greek New Testament.  According to the BDAG commentary, paraklesis is defined as:

  • act of emboldening another in belief or course of action, encouragement, exhortation (as in Hebrews 12:5)
  • strong request, appeal, request  (as in 2 Corinthians 8:4)
  • lifting of another’s spirits, comfort, consolation  (as in Philemon 7)

Just as with the football coach, not all exhortation is simply warm and fuzzy.  Sometimes it has teeth.  It may warn of pending failure if change does not occur. However, its aim is to motivate, bring comfort and embolden the hearer so they can hold up and succeed under the pressure.

This is exactly what the Good Shepherd does for his sheep.  The following chart represents a simple breakdown of the elements in the seven letters in Revelation 2 and 3.

(Note: you can scroll through the table below.)

  INSTRUCTIONS TO JOHNEPHESUS 2:1aSMYRNA 2:8aPERGAMUM 2:12aTHYATIRA 2:18aSARDIS 3:1aPHILADELPHIA 3:7aLAODICEA 3:14a
INTRODUCTION2:1b2:8b2:12b2:18b3:1b3:7b3:14b
COMMENDATION2:2-32:92:132:193:43:8n/a
EXHORTATION2:4-62:102:14-162:20-253:2-33:9-113:15-20
CONDITION2:7b2:11b2:17b2:26a3:5a3:12a3:21a
EYES TO SEE & EARS TO HEAR2:7a2:11a2:17a2:293:63:133:22
PROMISE OF HOPE2:7c2:11c2:17c2:26b-283:5b3:12b3:21b

There are two specific statements within these letters that express Jesus’s heart regarding the recipients. The first one is in Revelation 3:9b (specifically to the assembly in Philadelphia, but applies to all), “I will make them to come and fall prostrate at your feet, and to know that I have loved you.” Jesus loves them, and they believe on him as Messiah. He is fighting for them, pulling for them like a good coach (shepherd) would.

This shows up even bigger in the letter to the assembly in Laodicea (which has no commendation in it but a harsher “warning) “As many as are my friends, I reprove and discipline, therefore be zealous, and repent.”

The REV Commentary gives wonderful insight to this phrase in Revelation 3:19:

“are my friends.” The Greek word we translate as “are…friends,” is phileō (#5368 φιλέω). It is hard to translate the Greek verb phileō in this context and keep the English as a verb. If we say, “love,” as most versions do, we lose the meaning of phileō here, and confuse it with agapē love. Phileō love has a deep attachment, like the attachment of true friends, while agapē love does not necessarily have any feeling of attachment at all, which is why we can “love” (agapē) our enemies. Jesus takes a special interest in those who have taken a special interest in him (“You are my friends if you do what I command” John 15:14), and he reproves, disciplines, and prunes those with whom he has a special friendship relationship. In the REV we could have tried to stick with a verb and used “friendly” or “fond,” but these seem too weak. Also, the Greek verb phileō is in the present tense. Given that, it seemed that using the phrase, “are…friends” was the best way to bring the meaning of the Greek into the English.

These letters in Revelation 2 and 3 are written to those Jews and non-Jews from Israel who believe in Jesus after the Rapture and during the Tribulation period; and perhaps not them only, but anyone around the world who will believe in Jesus during those troubling times, as is stated in the phrases “those that have eyes to see and ears to hear”.

While most writers on this subject focus on the “warning” or “condemning” aspects in these seven letters, I believe comfort and exhortation is their true intent.  They are pastoral in nature (e.g. see The IVP Bible Background Commentary of the New Testament by Craig S. Keener pages768-775).

Hope in the Coming Times

Each of the seven letters in Revelation 2 and 3 ends with Jesus giving the tribulation believers a hope to cling to, to anchor themselves to in order to “overcome” the intense pressures they will be facing and experiencing.

To the assembly in Ephesus:  “To him who overcomes, to him I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.”

  • This is the same tree we read about in Genesis 2:9 and 3:24. Man was driven out of the original Paradise of God and the way to the tree of life has been guarded ever since.  Those who overcome through the tribulation will eat of that tree, meaning they will receive eternal life.

To the assembly in Smyrna:  “Whoever overcomes will absolutely not be hurt by the second death.”

  • The second death is explained in Revelation 21:8 (see also Rev. 20:6 & 14).  Those who overcome and remain faithful to the Lord to the end will be given eternal life, the second death will not affect them just as it has no power over Christ (see Romans 6:5-10).

To the assembly in Pergamum:  “To him who overcomes, to him I will give of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written, which no one knows but the one who receives it.”

  • While the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, Yahweh fed them with manna and quail (Exo. 16).  The manna sustained them.  It was a food foreign to this world, sent by Yahweh.  They ate manna until they came to the border of the Promised Land (Exo. 16:35).  In essence, it was life giving/sustaining.  This “hidden manna” may have reference to the manna that God commanded Moses to put into a jar and place before Yahweh “for generations to come” (Exo. 16:32-34 & Heb. 9:3-4).  It points forward to the entrance into the true Promised Land, the Kingdom of our Lord and eternal life.

Scholars are unclear as to what the “white stone” represents.  Some say it could be a reference to the Urim and the Thummim used by the Old Testament High Priest when making judgements.  Others believe that it could refer to a token of hospitality (see The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquitiesby William B. Astor, “Hospitium” on pages 511-513).  Whatever the white stone is, it will have a new name on it, a new identity.  They will no longer be people of sin but of righteousness.  They will have eternal life.

To the assembly in Thyatira:  “And whoever overcomes, and whoever keeps my works to the end, to him I will give authority over the nations (and he will shepherd them with a rod of iron…as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces), as I also have received from my Father, and I will give him the morning star.”

  • Those who overcome will be given authority in Christ’s Kingdom (for more on Christ’s Kingdom see Appendix 3 of the Revised English Version of the Bible at: https://www.revisedenglishversion.com/appx/3).  The “morning star” may refer to a position of royalty within the Kingdom (possibly royal priesthood).  Because they have overcome, they will be given eternal life.

To the assembly in Sardis:  “Whoever overcomes will be similarly clothed in white garments, and I will never, ever wipe his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.”

  • Those who overcome will be clothed in white, unstained, unsoiled garments.  “Come now and let us reason together, says Yahweh, “Though your sins are red as scarlet, they will be as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they will be as wool (Isaiah 1:18). Their sins blotted out, their names will forever be written in the book of life and Jesus will testify on their behalf before Yahweh.  They will have eternal life.

To the assembly in Philadelphia:  “Whoever overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the sanctuary of my God, and he will absolutely not go out from there 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 own new name.” 

  • A pillar is a structural member of an edifice.  It is permanent, unmovable.  Those who overcome will be like pillars in the sanctuary, ever present before Yahweh.  Jesus will write (like a tattoo, permanent) on them the three names mentioned.  They have permanence in God’s sanctuary, they have eternal life. 

To the assembly in Laodicea: “Whoever overcomes, I will give to him to sit down with me on my throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with my Father on his throne.”

  • When Jesus sat down with the Father, he assumed his rightful place in Yahweh’s court.  All of the work required to secure the salvation and restoration of God’s creation was completed (just as God rested on the seventh day of creation, Gen. 2:2.) Those who overcome will sit with Christ in God’s court.  They will have finished their course and received eternal life (see Rev. 20:4).

All seven of these promises relate to life everlasting in the Millennial Kingdom and beyond (see R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation, pages 82-165).

The Good Shepherd’s Vow

Yahweh is my shepherd, I will not lack. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup runs over.  6 Surely goodness and covenant faithfulness will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in Yahweh’s house for my length of days.

Psalm 23:1-6

Jesus is the “good shepherd” (John 10:11 & 14) and the “great shepherd” (Hebrews 13:20).  Here in Revelation he is shepherding his flock in very troubling times.  The shepherds in the East carried both a “rod” and a “staff,” or crook.  They served many functions such as:

  • Counting the sheep as they walked under the staff when entering the sheepfold thereby the shepherd knew he had not lost one. (Smith’s Bible Dictionary, pages 617-618).
  • The crook was used to capture the hind legs of a sheep in the event it was scared and tempted to run away.
  • The staff was used while walking in rugged terrain while leading the sheep.
  • The crook was used to correct the direction of the sheep when necessary.
  • They both were used to ward off enemies and predators.

(see Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible and Barnes’ Notes on the Bible on Biblehub under commentaries for Psalm 23:4 – https://biblehub.com/commentaries/psalms/23-4.htm).

These two implements of the shepherd brought comfort to the flock, even in the valley of the shadow of death as the shepherd defended them and led them to green pastures.  This is exactly what Jesus does for these believers in the Book of Revelation. He is defending them, correcting their steps, keeping them on the path while leading them to the green pastures of eternal life.

“The shepherd was known for his feeding and protecting the flock (Jer.31:10, Ezek. 34:2): for seeking out the lost sheep (Ezek. 34:12) and for rescuing those which were attacked (Amos 3:12)”  (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible vol. 5, page 397 &398). 

While the seven letters to the assemblies in the Book of Revelation contain warnings and point out where the believers will be tempted and faltering, the overall tone is that of encouragement, compassion and hope. They are not written directly to the Church of the Administration of Grace (the Body of Christ).  However, we as Christians can learn much from them.  We can take heart in troubling times, whether the troubles are financial, social, relational, health-centric, or any other, because of the great hope Jesus gave to his Church (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 & 5:1-11).

We can be assured that the Great Shepherd has not left us without hope.  He is here with his rod and staff to ward off the enemies and lead us to greener pastures, just as he will be doing for those who believe during the times of Jacob’s trouble.

Postscript

If you are reading this article and have seen that many, maybe millions of people are no longer on earth, the world is in turmoil like never seen before and Israel has entered into a treaty/covenant to gain peace in the world, then turn to Jesus, the Christ.  Accept him as your Lord.  Look to him for strength, endurance and hope in this time of great trouble.  He has not left you without hope.  And remember… “He is coming”.

There may be many “churchgoers” who, although they attended church faithfully, never really accepted Jesus as Lord and were not included in the rapture.  To them, Jesus says to turn to him now.  He is your Lord.  Take heed of Matthew 24 and Revelation 2 and 3.  He is coming.

For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have turned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:25

Blessed is the one who reads the words of the prophecy aloud, and those who hear and keep the things that are written in it, for the time is near.

Revelation 1:3

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3 comments

  1. Great stuff, Dennis – provisions for much continued study – thank you so much!

  2. Thanks for teaching!

  3. Great teaching.. It opens up so much of the bible I am amazed. I have always wondered why John or any for that matter would say “for the time is near” I’m not sure it sounds like he knew when it would happen or is it a finishing touch for those that would believe at that time and be saved?

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