Revelation 1 introduced John’s vision of the risen Christ speaking to him from the spiritual realm. Jesus is described with imagery drawn from the Old Testament, particularly messianic prophecies as well as depictions of God himself, and he stands among seven lampstands which represent local church communities on the mainland of Asia Minor. Jesus is spiritually present among his churches, and as we turn to chapters 2-3, we will see that he is going to begin evaluating how these churches were doing in their mission.
Anyone who’s had to undergo an evaluation knows it can be intimidating. Whether it’s an exam at school or a performance review at work, we worry whether we will pass or fail. But even though they can be scary, evaluations are a good thing. It’s an opportunity to have our weaknesses addressed so we can correct them and grow.
And if you’re doing a good job, evaluations can be very positive; you get the prospect of reward or a raise, and you get acknowledgement for a job well done. Positive feedback is great. It’s only when you’re slacking that a review gets scary.
Here in Revelation, we get to listen in as Jesus gives seven different churches a performance review. And one of the reasons why God had John write this down and preserve it for all future churches is so that we can all learn what criteria Jesus is holding us accountable to.
In Revelation, “seven” is the number of completeness. Therefore, John writes to these seven churches as representatives of all churches. If you’ll notice, at the end of every letter it says, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” In other words, all of the criteria Jesus uses to evaluate these seven churches could potentially be applied to any church, and they have lessons for every believer.
Now, it’s been a very common mistake for pastors/interpreters to say that each of the seven churches represents a different age in church history. In other words, Ephesus would be the early church, and Laodicea would be the church in the final stage of history, etc. But three factors make this view impossible: first, it completely misses the representative function of all of the churches in Rev 2-3. Second, the longer history continues, the more we see how impossible it is to line up different eras of history with these seven churches in any accurate way. And third, there’s no way the original readers of Revelation would have taken these chapters that way.
So rather than see these as different eras of church history, it’s much better to see these as seven different “church profiles” or patterns that any given church at any time might resemble.
To the degree that any church has the strengths or weaknesses listed in Rev 2-3, they need to heed these letters.
For example, the believers at Ephesus (2:1-7) are praised for their good works, their endurance of hardship, and their refusal to tolerate false teaching. This was a church that defended the truth of God’s word and stayed strong despite cultural hostility. But they are critiqued for losing the level of love they had at first (2:4). While they were excelling at activity and doctrine, they were missing the key ingredient: sincere love for God and neighbor. They were all truth with no love. Perhaps you’ve experienced a church like that.
The apostle Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 that without love, all the ministry in the world counts for nothing. That’s why the Ephesians are the only ones besides the Laodiceans who are warned that Christ will reject them as a church if they don’t repent! (“I will remove your lampstand” is the metaphorical threat here; “I’m about to spit you out of my mouth” he says to the Laodiceans.) If a church neglects to show Christlike love, Jesus himself threatens to disown it.
Christ doesn’t stop at critique, though; he also offers the corrective: They should remember their previous closeness with him, turn back to that, and do the works they did at first. (It’s interesting that the solution to a lack of love was for them to go back to doing certain things they did before, when their walk with God was new and fresh.)
Any church today that excels in doctrine but is lacking in a genuinely loving and thriving community of fellowship needs to receive and apply the message of the letter to Ephesus in Rev 2:1-7. Likewise, churches that are worldly and affluent with nothing that stands out as distinctly Christ-like need to hear the message to Laodicea (3:14-22).
Others that are struggling with hostility from outsiders can listen to Christ’s encouragement to the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia (2:8-11; 3:7-13). And congregations experiencing an abundance of false teaching and tolerance of sinful behavior should heed the words to Pergamum, Thyatira, & Sardis (2:12-3:6).
Something else worth keeping in mind when reading Rev 2-3 is that it is a picture of the grace of God that he would take the time to address a church’s weaknesses and blind spots before bringing judgment. His tone throughout these letters is like the patient discipline of a teacher with his students, or even like a doctor diagnosing where we need to improve our (spiritual) health. It is not the tone of a harsh taskmaster.
Another thing I would urge readers, preachers, and teachers of Revelation 2-3 to keep in mind is that these passages are not a call to become full-time church critics. Jesus is the one who judges these churches, not us. Our job is evaluate ourselves.
Notice that at the end of every letter Jesus addresses every believer as an individual responsible to heed the principles of these letters: “To the ONE who conquers…” We need to listen to “what the Spirit says to the churches” and evaluate ourselves in light of that. Are YOU being faithful? The challenge is to be overcomers ourselves.
Revelation defines “overcoming” (or “conquering”) in terms of the spiritual war going on between Satan and his evil followers on the one side, and God/Jesus and those loyal to him on the other. Those who “overcome” are the ones who stay faithful to Jesus till the end (Rev 2:26), who have accepted his redemptive sacrifice for them and are willing to die rather than abandon his gospel (12:11). As 1 John 5:4-5 says, the victory that overcomes the world is our faith in Jesus. 
This means that at the end of each of the seven letters in Rev 2-3, it is as if Jesus is turning to you and saying, “Will you be one who perseveres in your faith to the end?”
 “In short, overcoming in Revelation is analogous to pisteuo (believe) in Paul, referring to an active trust in God that leads to faithfulness in the difficult situations of life lived for Christ” (Osborne, Revelation, 123).