Rebukes in Revelation

Messages from the Risen Christ: Revelation 2:1-3:21

In Chapters 2 and 3 of the Revelation, the risen Christ sent messages through the apostle John to seven churches of the first century. These were representative congregations of professed believers. The destinations and sequence of these short letters follow a clockwise circuit in Asia Minor, beginning at Ephesus and concluding at Laodicea.

The stern tone of parts of these epistles may unsettle an insecure believer. “Is the Lord mad at me? Will I be punished or cast out? What does it mean to overcome?”
The seven letters follow a basic pattern: 1) a pictographic description of the risen Christ, 2) commendation for their good works, 3) a rebuke for areas of unfaithfulness, 4) admonitions to correct the church, and 5) promises to overcomers. Smyrna and Philadelphia churches were not rebuked; suffering and perseverance evidently kept their priorities straight. Consider some issues in Revelation 2:1-3:22 that relate to assurance and security.

1. Who Are the Overcomers?

At first glance the promises to overcomers seem to be addressed to a special class of Christians–those who end their lives triumphantly: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7. cf. 2:11,17,26; 3:5,12,21). In a sense this is true, since every born again believer is “kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). Ultimate salvation is always a victory over death and judgment.

The human author of Revelation defined the “overcomer” in an earlier epistle: “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4,5). In this sense every regenerate believer is described as an overcomer. Their continued faith is the essence of victory (cf. Col. 1:23).

Regrettably, not all heaven-bound believers finish their race victoriously, even though that is the goal and desire of every true Christian. Some will miss out on their potential rewards like Demas evidently did. For a good while he was a trusted ministry associate of the apostle Paul, but later he got off track: “for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica….” (2 Tim. 4:10). How different he was from Paul, who was committed to finishing the Christian race well. He did not want to lose any potential rewards or discredit the Savior. Paul confided in the Corinthians,

“Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified [for the prize]” (1 Cor. 9:26,27; cf. Phil. 3:14; 2 Cor. 5:10).

No wonder Paul could testify before his martyrdom,

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7,8).

2. Will Uncommitted Believers Be Rejected?

The tone of rebuke in five of these letters reflects God’s righteousness and holiness. The churches were to have testimonies that shone brightly in a pagan culture. Therefore, any doctrinal, moral, or spiritual problems were serious concerns. Rebuke and correction are essential qualities of God’s Word (2 Tim. 3:16). These issues deserved the Lord’s censure: a lack of love for Christ (Ephesus), toleration of immorality and idolatry (Pergamos and Thyatira), heresy (Pergamos), and lukewarmness (Laodicea).

The warnings involved underscored exhortations to repentance and obedience. The Lord reassured them that His love was motivating this discipline (Rev. 3:19). The consequences of continued error was the potential loss of their corporate witness: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place ….” (Rev. 2:5). How sad it is when a church’s light dims and goes out. Centuries later this happened to Asia minor’s historic churches through the domination of Islam.

A text which some have interpreted as teaching insecurity is the warning to the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:16: “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” This strong, eastern figure of speech is related to the metaphors in this letter. Christ spoke of the alternatives of water being hot or cold. The church’s condition was “lukewarm.”

“Hot” seems to refer to a commitment to the truth of the gospel and a zealous, faithful commitment to the Lord. The “hot” water was probably an allusion to the medicinal hot springs of nearby Hieropolis. “Lukewarm” was the unpleasant state of being in between hot and cold. It may have alluded to the water that was supplied to Laodicea by a long set of pipes, rendering the water almost undrinkable.

What, then, did “cold” symbolize here? Usually this “cold” option has been viewed as referring to an unsaved, unbelieving condition. If so, why would Christ prefer the cold state to believers being lukewarm? Surely, the Lord is not saying he would rather have an individual die as a lost person, rather than being a fully devoted disciple! That would be totally out of character with His redeeming love and His awareness of human struggles (cf. John 15:13; Heb. 4:14-16).

In this context Christ is speaking of their corporate witness, not an individual’s standing before God (which is based on grace–Rom. 5:1-4). If “cold” refers to a person who has not professed faith in Christ, how would this be preferable to being lukewarm? Pastor Albert Barnes listed several reasons that would justify this conclusion. For example, a known unbeliever would be more reachable, since he has not identified with the church; his need of the gospel is obvious to Christians. Being deceived by self-righteousness (lukewarm condition) would hinder one’s true conversion (Matt. 7:21-23). A person needs to confess his lost condition in order to be “found” (Luke 15:1-31). Concerning his witness to others, the unbeliever avoids the hypocrisy of confessing one thing but believing and living in a contradictory way. This condition is a stumbling block to outsiders.[1]

Another possible interpretation of “cold” is that it symbolizes a quality of refreshing fellow believers. In this case Christ prefers “cold” to lukewarmness, which fails to refresh while also failing to be hot. Hot (medicinal waters) would symbolize a radiant, prophetic witness to a secular world.

This use of “cold” may allude to the cold mountain streams of Colosse.[2] Paul affirmed a church leader in Colosse named Philemon who had a reputation for refreshing encouragement for those who came to his house church: “For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother” (Phile. 7).


These seven letters prompted the churches of Asia Minor to individual faithfulness and collective effectiveness. In this way they would be strategic outposts of the kingdom of God in Roman culture. The warnings in these epistles need to be balanced with God’s promises to never cast out His people. Christ assures true believers:

“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out … This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day” (John 6:37,39).

All seven letters conclude with symbolic expressions of rewards that await the people of God. For example, Revelation 3:12 states:

“He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God [security and access], and he shall go out no more [permanence]. 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 I will write on him My new name [identity and glory].”

Reassured by His grace, demonstrate your loyalty to your risen, glorified Savior. Renounce fleshly inconsistencies, and yield to the indwelling Holy Spirit. Let your light shine, as you anticipate your glorious heavenly welcome!


1 Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament.

2 The historical allusions to Hierapolis and Colosse are documented in the notes of The Geneva Study Bible at Revelation 3:15. The interpretation of “cold” water as refreshing is in The Nelson Study Bible notes at Revelation 3:16.

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