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Introduction to Alethea In Heart Ministries

The Revelation of John - Chapter II
Commentaries on the Entire Bible

By Rev. Henry Cowles
Professor of Church History and Prophesy at Oberlin College, and Main Editor of
The Oberlin Evangelist (responsible for giving us most of Finney's sermons).





Here are four of the seven special letters addressed respectively to Ephesus (1-7); to Smyrna (8-11); to Pergamos (12-17); and to Thyatira (18-29). Obviously the reason for a distinct message to each lay in what was peculiar in their respective cases; in the tone of their love, their stability, their Christian work, the errors of doctrine and of practice which had crept in to pervert their sentiments and corrupt their Christian life. While the visions that follow and make up the body of the book would be pertinent to them all and therefore are addressed without distinction to them all, the brief messages recorded in chapters 2 and 3 were wisely addressed to these churches severally.

Geographically these cities lay on a curved line somewhat in the shape of a horse-shoe magnet so that they might be taken by a tourist in the very order in which they stand in this book: thus from Ephesus north to Smyrna, 40 miles; thence north to Pergamos, 60 miles; thence east to Thyatira, 30 miles; thence south to Sardis, 40 miles; thence south-east to Philadelphia, 30 miles; thence south-east to Laodicea, 50 miles. Near the last named lay Colosse and Hierapolis. Of the seven cities, the first three were maritime; the others were inland on the returning portion of the curve.


1. Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write: These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;

2. I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not hear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars

3. And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast labored, and hast not fainted.

Ephesus was the home of the Apostle John, from which it is generally conceded he was banished, and to which when free to go so be returned to reside, and where tradition locates his sepulcher. It was the great city of Asia Minor, famous for the worship of Diana. The reader will readily recall the labors and history of Paul in this city (Acts 13: 19-21, and 19, and 20: 17-38) as also his letter to them.—The Ephesian brethren are first reminded of the dignity and glory of the great Author of this message, "holding the seven stars in his right hand" in the sense of upholding those faithful messengers by whom these words were sent; also "walking amid the seven golden candlesticks" with perpetual presence and omniscient eye. Therefore, with bated breath and reverent spirit, let them listen to his words.—"I know" is intensely expressive. Ye may have thought (John would say) that Jesus, your professed Lord, is far away and takes no special notice of your heart or life. No mistake could be greater. The heart and the life of every one of you are ever before him.—Jesus is careful to notice with commendation whatever will bear it. So always.

4. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.

The italic word "somewhat" were better omitted, the sense being, not that I have a small account, a somewhat of perhaps trivial sort, against thee; but I have this against thee, "that thou hast left thy first love." This losing thy first love I have against thee as thy great sin. How couldst thou forget my blood and tears for thee; how could thine heart lose the freshness, life, and power of thy first love to thine own Redeemer, thine own best Friend!—It should be carefully noted that this losing of first love is accounted a great sin, most offensive to Jesus, most grievous to his ever loving and ever constant heart. This assumes that such loss of first love is by no means a necessity of the Christian life; must not be excused as a thing of course—an inevitable result, and therefore a trivial and scarcely censurable offence. This view of it is some times taken;—alas, that it should be! How cruel to the heart of Jesus! Flow strangely unreasonable in itself! How perilous to the constancy and growth of young Christians must such teaching be!—It is pertinent here to say that this decline of the Ephesian brethren from their first love was the very point of heir special danger as well as of their special guilt. We are not told what peculiar temptation had stolen away their heart and broken down their love for Jesus. Perhaps it was the fascinations of a great city, the dominant spirit of worldliness, polluting (socially) the very atmosphere they breathed; but be it what it may, it cut the sinews of their Christian strength as against the fiery temptations that were to come upon them; it begat a spiritual state in which they would surely fall before the first fierce blast of persecution which should summon them to torture or to death for Jesus. Nothing short of the purest, warmest love for Jesus could abide such an ordeal. Hence the solemn and fearfully earnest rebuke and admonition which follow.

5: Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.

Recall thy first love and mark how deep thou hast fallen. "Repent," in the twofold sense of deploring thy sin and of turning thy heart from it. "Do the former works" of warm and earnest love and fresh devotion to thy Lord—implying what is always true, that the love which Christ requires is not a mere emotion that stirs only the sensibilities, and may flow off in tears or evanesce in raptures, but leave no result in true Christian work for Jesus. Altogether unlike this sentimentalism—this emotion of the novel reader who has tears but nothing else for human suffering or want—the love that Jesus calls for has work in it and evermore coming out of it; for what saith he? "If ye love me, keep my commandments." "He that keepeth my commandments, he it is that loveth me" (John 14: 15, 21 ). Therefore returning to one's first love is synonymous with "doing thy first works."—By what consideration is this urged? "Else I will come unto thee quickly"but not in blessings—not to give thee fresh tokens of approval and esteem; but to "remove thy candlestick out of a his pace, except thou repent." Christ would own them as his church no longer; would smite down the golden candlestick and doom the church to extinction!—-Of the nearer future of this Ephesian church we have no record in the New Testament. But we do know that for centuries past, that once proud city has been a ruin; from that Christian candlestick no light has gone forth for many ages! That threatening was but too significant of her prophetic future!

6. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

On the question who were these "Nicolaitans?" there has been much difference of opinion among critics. The data for an entirely decisive conclusion seem lacking.—(a) The theory that this sect takes its name from Nicolas, "a proselyte of Antioch," one of the seven deacons (Acts 6: 5), is almost baseless.—(b) The theory that the word has etymological affinities with Balaam, both alike having the sense, destroyers of the people, lacks adequate support. In vs. 14, 15, below, these two sects seem to be really though not perhaps very broadly distinguished. The utmost that can be safely said is that this sect in some points—perhaps some leading points—resembled the Balaamites described in v. 14. See notes on that passage.

7. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.

Each message introduces its closing promise to the victorious one by this special and solemn call to attention in the same words essentially which so often fell from the lips of our Lord (e. g., Mat. 11: 15, and 13: 9, 43, etc.) In the form here used they were reminded that the words he sent them were said by the divine Spirit—God's own voice of warning and of promise.—As said in the Introduction, the promise to the conquering one is in this case taken from the closing chapters of the book—the privilege of eating from the tree of life along the banks of the river of heaven. That marvelous wealth of promise which the glorious symbolism of this book has made available is here brought to bear upon the Christian life of the church of Ephesus to tide them over the breakers that lay before them. O, what blessings are these for the conquerors!


8. And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;

9. I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.

10. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison; that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.

The descriptive points of the speaker are taken from 1: 8, 17, 18.—Remarkably the tone of this message is commendatory without exception. Jesus seems to say with free and joyous heart—I know all thy fidelity and endurance for my sake; I know thy poverty as to the wealth of this world—but thou art rich in faith and in grace, the best of all riches. I know too the opposition and persecution against thee endured already and yet to be endured—but it shall be short.—It is possible that the Jews spoken of here made no profession of being Christians, but probable that they were the Judaizers who were so prominent in that age. Their claim to be Jews, I take, not in the sense of being lineal descendants of Abraham, but of being true worshipers of God, praisers of his name after the etymology of the word Judah—from which the name "Jew" came—(Gen. 29: 35 and 49: 8). Professing to be the people of God above all others, they were really doing only the work of Satan; bigoted and self-conceited were they, but so far from being praisers of God, they were blasphemers: so far from being a synagogue of his worshipers, they were only a "synagogue of Satan."—These facts go far to prove that the corrupt Judaism of the early and mid-apostolic age was still rife and earnest, and consequently that the crushing blow given it in the destruction of Jerusalem and the consequent dispersion of the Jews and prostration of their influence, had not yet fallen.—Observe that their persecutions are traced to the devil as their cause and author. It was well to show the churches where the root and mainspring of these persecutions lay. They would then understand better the nature of the fight in which they were parties and sufferers, and in which Jesus was to be their Almighty Savior and Deliverer—the grand antagonist of Satan; sure to conquer in the end.—"Be thou faithful unto death," seems to mean, not merely as long as you may live, till your life-power is exhausted and you fall asleep in your quiet bed; but rather, even to a martyr's death quail not, shrink not; face the rack or the flame till your soul is forced from its bodily mansion. Then I will give thee a crown of immortal life.

11. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.

The conquering one has the promise (taken up from 20: 14, and 21: 8) that he "shall never be hurt by that fearful second death." The first death may come upon him in forms of violence and torture, but of the woes of the second death he shall know nothing. Let this inspire his soul to endure; let this be his consolation!—Of all these seven ancient cities, Smyrna alone remains great, of undiminished population and trade, though the glory of its architecture and the magnificence of its civilization have mostly passed away. Its population is estimated at 100,000. A fine harbor and a fertile inland country secure for it an extensive commerce. It is remarkable that precisely the one city in which the church was then poor in wealth but rich in faith and against which the Savior brings no censure, should be the one alone of all to survive the desolations of ages.


12. And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges;

The descriptive point in which in this case designates the speaker is taken from 1: 16—the sword going forth from his mouth, sharp, double-edged—for his words were with power; a symbol fearfully pertinent in this case because there were many things in this church to condemn and but too much occasion for using this fearful sword!

13. I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.

I can appreciate thy works of true allegiance and firm endurance for my name in the light of all those stern surroundings—thy city the place of Satan's throne where he instigated his minions to murder my faithful Antipas. That when this noble martyr fell, the brethren of Pergamos did not deny the name of Jesus was to their honor. He will not forget it.

14. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.

"A few things against thee," must not be omitted. Here were some of those pernicious teachers whose errors were a close imitation of that foul policy of Balaam who taught Balak the shortest way to ruin a people in covenant with God, viz., to seduce them into idolatry and fornication.—This historic allusion to Balaam will be readily understood by comparing Num. 25, with 31: 16, the former passage giving the facts of shameful lewdness between Israel and Moab; and the latter ascribing this lewdness to the counsel given by Balaam to the king of Moab. See also 2 Peter 2: 15, 16.—These temptations, bearing upon converts from life long heathenism, must have been fearfully seductive. The eating of things offered in sacrifice to idols would naturally be the steppingstone back to idol worship, as it was also the crucial test of conformity to the idolatrous spirit of the age. It would lead to mingling socially in the scenes of idol worship, and being connected with shameless fornication would naturally plunge them into the very depths of heathen abominations. No wonder Jesus should "have a few things against them" if they could tolerate in their communion such doctrine and such practice for a single hour.

15. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.

The approved reading has in the last clause in like manner [omoiwV] instead of "which things I hate." Thus we have two Greek words in this verse (the first and the last) which indicate the strong similarity in some respect between the Nicolaitans and the Balaamites. "So" [outwV]—a thing involving like guilt—"thou hast also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans in the same manner"—which naturally means, with the same results of shameless licentiousness and practical idolatry. The precise thing said is not that the two doctrines were the same, but that they were held similarly—which seems to mean with like guilt in the church that permits it, and with the same horrible fruits of moral corruption.—This gives us the most reliable clue we have to the real doctrine which bore the name of the Nicolaitans, (see v. 6), Since it was a "doctrine," something studiously taught, yet plunging its followers deep into the pollutions of idolatry, it could not fail to call for the sternest reprobation.

16. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

The judgment threatened against those who will not repent takes its form from the point made in the description of the august Speaker—a sword proceeding from his mouth! words that will surely do execution!

17. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.

To the victor in this stern Christian conflict, Jesus will give first "the hidden manna." This should carry our thought to the use made of the manna of the wilderness by Jesus as given by John in his gospel (6: 31-58), and affords incidental proof that the same John wrote both the "Revelation" and the gospel. The sense seems to be, the "bread of life"—the counterpart to the water of life as in Rev. 22: 1—and itself the fruit of the tree of life.—He will also give him "a white stone," significant of acquittal, as black was of condemnation. Also "a new name" upon it, known only to the receiver. This seems to be put in contrast with confessing his name before the angels (Luke 12: 8), and naturally refers to those personal testimonies of his approval which are currently known as "the witness of the Spirit"—which when real are the pledge and earnest of acceptance before Christ at the last day.—Further, the preciousness of this "new name" is set forth vividly by its application to the Great Conqueror himself (19: 12). Compare also 3: 12.—"And they shall be mine, saith the Lord, in the day when I make up my jewels" (Mal. 3: 17).—A somewhat different view of the source whence the symbols of this verse are taken may be suggested. It supposes that looking rather into the Old Testament than the New, John had his eye on the manna that was really hidden in the sacred ark of the covenant in the most holy place, whence his thought passes to the sacred name worn on the breastplate of the high priest when he entered that holy place once a year—a name of which no Jew was supposed to know the significance. But the name of Jesus now takes the place once held by that incommunicable name, and this name becomes the badge and the glory of all his accepted people.—The resulting sense is not essentially modified by these minor questions as to the source and explication of the figures employed—a fortunate circumstance in this case, because these questions are by no means easy to decide—perhaps I should say, seem scarcely capable of very decisive solution.


18. And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass;

A village of one thousand people marks the site of the ancient Thyatira. The Lydia whom Paul met at Philippi, and whose heart the Lord opened, was from this city.—The descriptive points which designate the Author of this message set forth his searching of the heart—eyes before which no wickedness can stand and no disguises can hide the guilty! "His feet as fine brass" betoken strength and majesty in his going forth.

19. I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first.

As usual Jesus commends whatever is commendable. The list of good qualities here is long and interesting, especially the fact (last named) of progress—unlike Ephesus, where the brethren had been falling back. Here they had been moving forward—their last works more and better than their first. Clearly this proves two points: (1.) That such progress in the Christian life and in Christian work is practicable; (2.) That Jesus warmly approves it. Let us make practical note of both these points.

20. Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.

The weight of ancient textual authority and of critical opinion makes the text, not "that woman;" but thy wife. This raises the question, Whose wife? That of the messenger ("angel") of this church, or of the church itself? The latter would be an unnatural figure and therefore improbable. Hence I prefer the former, and assume that she was the wife of the person to whom the letter was addressed and by whom it was sent to the church. I take "Jezebel" to be, not her original proper name, but a name of historic significance. She was a second Jezebel. The reader will recall the scriptural record of this paragon of wickedness and also of resolution, will, policy and seductive power (1 Kings 16: 30-33, and 21, and 2 Kings 9: 30-37). Herself the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Zidonians, bred an idolater and trained to bear sway, she brought into Israel an enormous power for evil, sweeping both Ahab and his people fearfully away from the ancient worship of Jehovah into the gross idolatry of her native country.—Like her this second Jezebel, pretending to be a prophetess and espousing the doctrines and practices against which the first Christian Council (Acts 15: 20, 29) admonished Gentile converts, she mightily seduced the servants of Christ into fornication and the eating of things sacrificed to idols. These two practices are manifestly associated together. See notes on v. 14.

21. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.

On the question whether this "fornication" were literal, or only the spiritual idea of idol worship, I hold the former view for three main reasons: (1.) This is the most obvious sense; (2.) It is everywhere distinguished from eating things sacrificed to idols, which itself was one form of idol worship; (3.) Historically it is well known that idol worship was associated with lewdness in its basest, most shameless forms.—The Lord gave this woman Jezebel some forewarnings of his judgments upon her and admonished her to repent of these great crimes, and also gave her space for such repentance, but in vain.

22. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.

Here also the literal and most obvious sense is to be accepted. "I will cast her into a bed" should mean, I will bring upon her some terrible disease—and the store-house of God's retributions has never lacked such agencies of prostration, suffering, loathsome rottenness and a death of horrors. Remarkably the judgment came (as often) so in the line of the sin as perpetually to remind both herself and all who knew her whose hand sent this plague upon her, and why.—Her guilty partners in this crime could not escape great tribulation.

23. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.

"Death" in such a connection means pestilence, mortal disease. Her sins go down with their heritage of curses upon her children; not only by a physical law from whose influence few if any escape, but by the righteous, moral retribution of the great moral Governor of the world. Such cases are not strictly retributive vengeance as to the children for their lascivious mother's crimes. As to the mother, they are retribution; as to the children, only calamity and perhaps discipline. In the proper sense of punishment, God will punish such children only for their own sins. See Ezek. 18, and my notes on that chapter.—All the churches shall know that I search the heart and that I will give to every one according to his works. My judgments on Jezebel will forcibly illustrate these great elements of my character and of my righteous, moral government.

24. But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden.

25. But that which ye have already, hold fast till I come.

There were some in this church as yet uncontaminated. To them these verses pertain.—Remarkably this delusion and abomination appear here as a "doctrine" as well as a practice. On what grounds the doctrine rested, by what fallacies and lies it was supported, it might gratify our curiosity to know. As the case is, we only know that "the father of lies" never lacked sophistry and show of argument to give some plausibility to the most abominably wicked practices, and we must satisfy ourselves with the general fact without the specific illustration which this one case might add to other thousands already extant. "Have not known" by experience "the depths of Satan, as men call them" implying that those abominations of lewdness and idol worship went down to a depth of moral pollution below which Satan himself could not well sink—so deep that they could not be slandered by calling them "the depths of Satan."—"I will put upon you none other burden," i. e., no extra trial or calamity because of the crimes of Jezebel and of her paramours—no other than you have had already. Whatever Christian stability you have, retain it firmly till I come.

26. And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations

27. And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father.

28. And I will give him the morning star.

29. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

Here the reward to the victor in this conflict is not (like those that precede it) taken directly from the closing chapters of this book,—but from Ps. 2, where its primary reference is to the Messiah.—The appropriate comment on this sublimely magnificent promise is in my view best made in those other words of John: "It doth not yet appear what we shall be" (1 Eps. 3: 2)—What more can we say of this promised "power over the nations;" of this "ruling them with a rod of iron;" of this wielding a power of such sort (in some unknown respect such) as Jesus has received from his Father? If this power be like the providential rule of the Messiah over the nations, I have no wisdom as yet for the answer of these questions: I do not find any revelation that answers them.—"I will give him the morning star" must be put in the same category. In Rev. 22: 16 Jesus pertinently says this of himself: "I am the bright and morning star." We accept this sublime imagery as most pertinent when applied to Him: of its application to his victorious human servants, what can we say? The answer lies among the unrevealed mysteries of infinite grace.

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"Day" = year?