The Book of Revelation is a gigantic mystery to me, at least in its details. Yes, I’m familiar with the popular church meme that we’ve read the last chapter and the Church wins in the end. However, there is some serious trouble for believers between chapter one and twenty-two, and we should take a careful look at it—especially if we want to be among those who count themselves victorious in the Day of the Lord. Therefore, we are going to look at the seven letters Jesus wrote to the churches. I don’t intend to dig deeply into these letters, but some of the things I read here disturb me—again, concerning the Church.

Let’s begin with Jesus’ first letter, which is to the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7). This letter disturbs me greatly.

Here’s why.

Jesus first lists the things the Ephesians had done well:

They were working.

They had patiently endured.

They couldn’t bear with those who did evil.

They tested false apostles.

They hadn’t grown weary.

Sounds like a pretty good church to me. In fact, better than most that we may be aware of. At least the Christians at Ephesus were testing false apostles—people that Paul warned them about, by the way (Acts 20). I’m not sure most churches today even have the courage to challenge false apostles. We don’t want to be labeled as “divisive” and “haters.”

Nevertheless, in spite of these admirable traits, the believers at Ephesus had stopped loving Jesus, and, by extension, people.

Jesus’ warning to them is exceptional—and scary. If they didn’t repent, He would remove their lampstand. We have learned earlier—chapter 1, verse 20—that the lampstands were the churches.

So, the church at Ephesus would no longer be a church. That Jesus would actually do this should cause us to tremble. The church at Ephesus would go spiritually dark. I’m not sure I really understand what this even means, on a practical level. These people wouldn’t be considered Christians anymore?

The good news is that church history says that the Ephesian believers did repent and got back on track.

The Lord Jesus found no reason to chastise the church at Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11), so let’s move on to the church at Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-16). Jesus told these believers that they had held fast to His name, even in the days when His faithful witness, Antipas, had been martyred. They didn’t desert Jesus when their lives were on the line.

That’s a strong place to be as a church.

However, some in the church were holding to the teaching of Balaam and engaging in sexual immorality.

What did Balaam “teach”?

In Peter’s second letter, he wrote about false teachers who taught like Balaam: “They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing…” (2 Peter 2:14–15)1

Balaam was a man who compromised obedience to God for the sake of money. You can read about his shameful disobedience in Numbers 22-24 and 31. It’s an interesting account. What’s interesting is that some of the things Balaam did seem quite right. What’s also interesting is that, somehow, he led Israel into sexual sin. I’m not sure I understand how compromising obedience for the sake of money is associated with sexual immorality, but Peter connects them. Perhaps it’s becoming worldly where everything is compromised. Perhaps it’s being compromised, not only by money, but by the culture. So, a question: Will the Church today compromise its stance on hetero and homosexual immorality in order to look inclusive to its culture? Will it compromise so it won’t be despised by the world? Will it compromise in order to maintain its tax exempt status so people will keep making tax-deductible donations?

I would maintain that certain segments of the Church have already done so.

The good news for the believers at Pergamum is that Jesus told them that He would come to them soon and war against “them” with the sword of His mouth. According to Revelation 19:15, this sword is a sword of judgment: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron.” Jesus is making a separation here. Jesus will deal harshly with those who compromise. The others, and those who repent, will be rewarded.

How much stronger can Jesus say it? The lesson we learn from the letters to these two churches is be diligent to make the love for Jesus and others the most important aspect of your life in God. And do not compromise. You don’t want to be on the receiving side of the sharp blade of Jesus’ judgment. However, I know that even as I write this, some of us will. I don’t need to speak as a prophet. The Word of God has already spoken. Before Jesus returns, the rebellion, the falling away, the apostasia, must come first, as Paul told us.

For some of us—perhaps too many—there are unhappy days ahead.

1All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.