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Letters from Jesus

by Dr. Dan Stolebarger


Over the years many who have traveled with us to Israel have asked us to put together a ‘Footsteps of Paul’ or ‘Seven Churches of Revelation’ Tour. I have to admit I was a bit lukewarm to the idea but decided we needed to expand all of KI Tours. We have some friends from Perth, Australia who raved about a tour they took to Turkey and decided to make that our fall extension.

Once the tour had enough people to assure it was a go, I started to do my research in order to be prepared to teach on each of the sites. In this process, I began to get very excited because, once I immersed myself back into the seven letters that Jesus dictated to John to the seven churches, I began to realize that they all had a message that was convicting as well as relevant to my life!

Our Fall Issachar Tour to Israel was amazing and once we said goodbye to about half that group (because the other half was coming along with us to Turkey), I began to feel a bit uneasy as this would be our first venture to Turkey and I knew that Turkey was very different from Israel! We landed the next day in Izmir and drove to our hotel that was about an hour away, just outside of Ephesus. That first evening we had our orientation and met our guide and got prepared for something that would turn out to be much more than I had expected! Our itinerary was different from the order in which the churches are addressed in Revelation. I soon realized that the Lord had made special arrangements for us and I have come to believe that He purposefully had our group go in the following order: Pergamos, Thyatira, Patmos, Smyrna, Sardis, Laodicea, and finally Ephesus. One thing that I had learned from listening to Chuck Missler’s commentary was a reminder that each of these letters had a message for all believers. I also remembered that, when Jon Courson was teaching on the parable of the soils, he warned not to just assume that you are always planted on the good soil and that each day you need to check your surroundings! With that in mind, I warned our folks not to just assume that we all simply need to hear the message to the church of Philadelphia but we needed to have ‘ears to hear’ what the Spirit intended for each of us at every stop!

First up was Pergamos. The archeological remains here are spectacular. We took a tram to the mountain top and were amazed to see the layout of this ancient city. We sat in the steep theater and began to read the letter that Jesus wrote to those who were a part of this church. The overarching theme at this site was that Pergamos was a compromised church. It had married the Roman Empire. It had become diluted and had lost its purity. The Spirit led us to understand how the ways of Balaam had become a part of today’s church. We were convicted of the many forms of sexual immorality and were drawn back to the Word of God to find our way back to purity. We ended our time lamenting over the power of the Nicolaitans in today’s church. The call was clear … REPENT … and choose to walk closer to Jesus, make a commitment to be a student of the Word and make prayer a daily part of your life!

Next up would be Thyatira, which would probably be the least impressive visual site of the seven, BUT the Lord had a message for us there as well. As we were driving through the modern city of Thyatira, we came to the site of the ruins that were, as I said, very unimpressive. We seemed to be right smack dab in the middle of the modern city and saw a city block fenced off with ancient broken down walls. There was lots of traffic and we had to hurry off the bus and find our way to the entrance of this site. Once we gathered, we walked around a bit and then gathered together and just sat on some of the old boulders that once made up this town. As I got our workbook out and gathered our folks together, I noticed three teenage Turkish girls giggling and watching our group intently. More about them later. As we prayed the Spirit brought the following to mind: Jesus told those at Thyatira that they tolerated the works of Jezebel and that if they did not repent they would be thrown into the great tribulation. All of a sudden we were standing on holy ground — this unspectacular site has a message to those who had ‘ears to hear’ and as I began to speak, those giggling girls were hanging on every word that was coming out of my mouth.

Thyatira means “continued sacrifice” — introduction to the Mass. This is a snapshot of the church during the Dark Ages. This was the most insignificant city of the seven and probably the smallest congregation. This city was built to defend Pergamos. It was a defensive outpost. John depicts Jesus as having eyes like a flame of fire and his feet were like bronze. These idioms stand for the truth that He sees all (both the inside as well as the outside) and that He will JUDGE all of our actions! Again the judgment against Thyatira was that they ‘tolerated’ the works of Jezebel. What were these works?

First some background: Jezebel was the daughter of the King of Sidon. A political marriage to Ahab was made to seal a profitable trade alliance between Israel and Phoenicia. Soon after this arrangement she set out to exterminate all the prophets of YHWH (1 Kings 18). Make no mistake; the queen is running things. Of all the women in the Bible, none was more cunning or more daring or more unscrupulous than Jezebel … she obtained lands through “inquisition” (Naboth’s vineyard). In the end Jezebel brought Israel to its lowest point spiritually.

Again, remember why they were condemned … they failed to raise a protest against Jezebel. Jesus does not say that they joined in but that they simply failed to raise a protest. This hit us all like a lead balloon as we began to ask the question: What about the church today? Are we tolerating the works of Jezebel and, more importantly, what is going on in our worlds that we are failing to raise a protest against? Now the visual - we are looking at the remains of what once was a home to those who were Believers! There was graffiti everywhere and it was evident that the lamp stand was gone! As we were walking away, I noticed those three teenage girls who took it all in were asking questions from some in our group. I was going to wait until they left before I started speaking but the Lord make it clear to me that He wanted them to hear the message. One thing I do know is that seeds were planted and that we entrusted those girls to the One who is truly the Lover of their Souls!

We headed back to our hotel and the next morning we boarded a ferry and sailed four and a half hours to what was once a penal colony, a place called Patmos. Patmos is a gorgeous Greek isle and, once we docked, we made our way to what was once a cave on the hillside overlooking the bay. We realized we were sitting in what was most likely the place where John saw his vision of Jesus (see Revelation 1) and then began to write down the things he was told by Jesus. The scenery was breathtaking, and we had a great time of fellowship as we ferried back to Izmir later that afternoon.

The next day the order of our church visits were Smyrna, Sardis, and ending in Philadelphia. As we got to Smyrna the Lord pressed in to me that the theme here was Death. As we settled down to read over this letter we were reminded that of what ISIS was doing to fellow Christians on the eastern border of Turkey. It was not a coincidence that in Smyrna Jesus told His own that they were going to die. He does not promise deliverance but expects them to finish their races faithfully. After all, even in the name Smyrna we see the roots of death - Myrrh - and the only use for myrrh was for embalming. We must never forget that this was the third gift from the Magi. Jesus was born to die!

As we were sitting down in the marble archways, we could look up the hill and see the traditional site of where Polycarp was martyred. Polycarp was a 2nd-century Christian bishop of Smyrna. According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, he died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake, then stabbed when the fire failed to touch him.

“80 + 6 years have I served Him, and He never did me wrong. How can I now speak evil of my King who has saved me?” Polycarp of Smyrna (ca. 69–ca. 155) quoted in a letter from the church of Smyrna.

All that Polycarp needed to do to avoid his horrible fate was to take a pinch of incense and put it on the altar and to simply acknowledge that Caesar was the supreme Lord.

For me, this was a special place because I felt the heart of Jesus here. This is a place of great intimacy because this church would face martyrdom and Jesus makes it clear that He will be with them each step of the way. Friends, as I mentioned, there are Christians today who are NOT recanting and becoming a Polycarp of our day! Make sure you pray for the persecuted Christians of our day!

Next up we visited Sardis. This place is haunting and even the rocks cry out warnings to Believers today to make sure that we are bearing fruit.

The name Sardis became synonymous with promise without performance; appearance without reality and lead to a false confidence. They betrayed themselves by their lack of watchfulness and diligence. They were clouds without rain! Oh, how the church needs to heed this warning today. Jesus spoke of a fig tree that looked good on the outside but had no fruit! He also told convicting parables about a vineyard that did not produce as well as speaking harshly about those who failed to use their talents!

Seven hundred years before this letter was written, Sardis was one of the greatest cities in the world. It probably dates back to before 2000 B.C. and at one time was the ancient capital of the Lydian empire (1200 B.C.).

Sardis was situated on a hill 1000 feet above the broad valley at the foot of Mt. Tmolus. It “appeared” to be impregnable. However, the sheer precipitous cliff was clay which suffered continual erosion. The untrustworthy mud left occasional cracks which could be exploited. Because of their false confidence the city, when captured, was always like a thief in the night!

Sardis is often linked to the denomination churches of today — the Protestant movement. Sadly one cannot find any commendations in this letter from the Lord of the Church. His message is simple … BEAR FRUIT and FINISH STRONG!

Next up, the one church we all want to be a part of … Philadelphia! Honestly, this site was not very memorable. Much like Thyatira it is located in the heart of a city, and with all the hustle and bustle of an inner city, with the noises and traffic, it was a bit strange. We all knew that of all the churches this one seemed to get the highest grades but I think the Holy Spirit was not content on letting us have a Mount of Transfiguration type experience! Remember how Peter just wanted to sort of hang out and soak it all in? You know … that “can it get any better than this” type of experience?

Bases of ancient arches in Philadelphia were the only visual ruins, but they did enable one to envision how massive the structure once was. The truth is, however, that for the one church with such high grades there is virtually nothing there today! The message was clear - don’t rest on your laurels; there is still much work to do!

Now for one of the most impressive sites — Laodicea. As we were driving up to the site I was fixated on how barren things were, which fits the tenor of this letter. As we got further into the site it was amazing to see how extensive the ruins were! This area was truly a site to behold! As we opened the Word to read this letter it was so easy to see what Jesus was referring to when He spoke these words:

17 Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked…

Revelation 3:17 NKJV

The Laodiceans were blinded and the picture of Jesus on the outside of the church knocking did not go unnoticed. I think we all agreed that, as a whole, today’s church is living in the age of Laodicea.

Finally, we come to the end and what is first in the order from the text was our last stop. Anyone who has been to Turkey can testify to the glory of Ephesus! The site is the most impressive and truly the Holy Spirit was saving the best for last for all of us on this tour! The message that we heard as we were sitting in the same theater where Paul spoke to the crowds in Acts 19:28 was to return to our first love and to reignite our passion for Jesus!

“Return to Me, and I will return to you,” Says the Lord of Hosts.

Malachi 3:7 NKJV

As I look back I can honestly say that, just like in Israel when Jesus spoke to the Pharisees on the Mount of Olives regarding calming the crowds down, when He said that even if they were quiet the rocks would cry out, so too the rocks and ruins of the Seven Churches of Revelation in Turkey are still crying out today! The question is do we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to His Church?


For more information about our Israel Tours, please visit our KI Israel Tours page.


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