There are two statements in these verses which have long troubled me. They are: the things which must soon take place and the time is near. If these words are taken to refer to chapters four through 22 (and I assumed they did), it would seem they are inaccurate because they culminate in the physical return of Jesus Christ, who after nearly 2,000 years has not yet appeared. Trying to argue that God thinks of 2,000 years as soon isnt convincing. But when I finally understood the purpose and structure of the Book of Revelation those words made perfect sense to me. They became a powerful warning and a wonderful promise. What did I discover? I recognized that those words, along with similar words at the end of the book (Rev 22:6, 7, 10, 12, 20) were addressed to the seven churches in chapters two and three. And after reading what the Lord said to them it became clear that what would soon take place were not the events surrounding the Lords physical return at the end of the age, but His coming in spirit to judge five of the churches if they did not repent (Rev 2:5, 16, 21-23; 3:3, 11, 19) and strengthen two who were facing a serious religious persecution that was rapidly approaching (Rev 2:10; 3:10). To state it simply: What was near wasnt the physical return of Jesus Christ, but a visitation of severe discipline to five of the churches and an intense persecution of two. But His words werent meant just for these first century churches. The problems they experienced continue to trouble us today in one form or another. So, we can use their example to examine our own faith and conduct and thereby avoid repeating their failures or facing their punishment.
Listen to Jesus warnings
Revelation 2:4, 5; Revelation 2:10 (promise); Revelation 2:14-16; Revelation 2:20-23; Revelation 3:2, 3, 5; Revelation 3:10, 11 (promise); Revelation 3:15, 16, 19
There is quite a difference between the ongoing discipline (training, refining) which God sends to every believer (Heb 12:4-11) and the severe discipline (adversity meant to correct) being threatened against five of these seven churches. It would seem from these prophecies that there are thresholds of disobedience, which, if crossed, bring a disciplinary visit from Jesus (Rev 22:7, 12).
Where else do we see this?
This is not an isolated event. There are other New Testament examples of God severely disciplining Christians.
Acts 5:1-11 Religious hypocrisy was being planted at the heart of the early church, so God stopped it and put a healthy fear in the church. I believe the danger of such miraculous discipline increases as the presence of God increases (Ac 4:31). In powerless times or places the likelihood of this greatly diminishes. When God is distant the bitter fruit of rebellion emerges more slowly.
1 Corinthians 5:1-5 The loving thing to do was to not tolerate this church members immorality, but to discipline it so hopefully he would repent. Paul removed his spiritual protection so Satan could trouble him physically which would provoke him to repent. I think it worked (2Co 2:5-11).
1 Corinthians 11:20-34 By disrespecting the human Body of Christ (believers; vs 21, 22) and the spiritual Body of Christ (bread and cup symbolizing His crucifixion; vs 23-26) these church members brought severe discipline on themselves, to the point that they became weak, sick or even died.
Why is Jesus willing to act so severely?
1) To bring someone back to Him because theyve stopped listening to His voice.
This type of discipline only makes sense if it is possible for a person to backslide and lose their salvation. From Gods perspective this is far worse than even death (1Co 5:5; 11:32).
2) To prevent someone from corrupting others.
Rebelling against God is infectious and the Lord will act to stop it from spreading to others (Ac 5).
Paul tells us Gods motive in 1 Corinthians 11:31, 32 But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. [Notice: We determine who judges us. If we judge ourselves rightly God wont (one reason we regularly take communion)].
How God warns us
God carefully warns us long before He ever brings such discipline. Severe discipline is a last resort. Knowing this allows us to distinguish between afflictions He sends and those that come from a spiritual attack or natural causes.
1) Grieving the Spirit / conscience; 2) Confronted by the written Word; 3) Prophetic warning through people; 4) Circumstantial hardship (God works against you, not for you); 5) Physical illness; 6) Death; 7) Dishonor (2Ch 24:17-25; Joash)
What sins bring severe discipline?
All sins do not carry the same moral gravity. A popular misconception is that all sin is the same. This comes from philosophical reasoning, not the clear witness of Scripture. Yes, all sins bring death, but some bring it much faster than others (1Co 6:9, 10; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:5, 6; 1Ti 1:8-10).
Some are severely addictive; some quickly alienate us from God; some badly injure others
The Lord is compassionate toward our temptations and weaknesses (Heb 2:18; 4:15, 16). He is merciful to our sins (Heb 7:25). But persistent immorality, corrupting others and spiritual disloyalty will provoke Him to act.
He knows our heart better than we do. He knows when we know that what were doing is wrong. He knows when we quit fighting the temptation and give in to it.
He knows when our faith has decayed into a memory even though we may keep talking like a Christian.
He knows when weve hardened our heart to His voice and deceived ourselves into believing our rebellion is okay.
He knows when the addiction has successfully enslaved us.
And as a loving parent Hes willing to discipline us if He has to. But remember, we never have to experience this type of discipline. We are the ones who determine if God must deal with us severely. If the grieving of the Spirit, the light of His Word or the prophetic warning is enough, thats all well get.
The visitation we read about here in Revelation is an extreme situation. Much water has passed under the bridge to come to this level of warning. Those who repent quickly will be spared all of this.
All of us deal with temptations on a daily basis. All of us stumble at times and need a fresh washing of His mercy, by repenting and reminding ourselves of His cross. Yet these passages warn us not to confuse Gods mercy with indifference, nor His patience with a lack of will to discipline. Its remarkable to think that someone who knows what Christ has done for them on the cross and who at some point surrendered their independence and rebellion, giving Him the right to lead and change them, would ever become so seduced by sin or deceived by false teaching that God would be moved to lift His protection and allow adversity to trouble them. But passages like these make it clear that this can happen. There is also a comforting truth here if we have the eyes to see it: God wont let us go without a fight. He wont be passive if we foolishly put ourselves in danger. Thankfully, Hell discipline us so well not be condemned along with the world (1Co 11:32).
However, its worth repeating that just because sickness or hardship might come into our life, this does not mean God is disciplining us. As weve said, severe discipline comes only after weve put ourselves or others in extreme spiritual danger. To get to that point we had to refuse every appeal to repent and knowingly press on with our sin. In that case, God may send such adversity but thats the only reason Hell ever send it to a believer. Its true He causes all things to work for our good (Ro 8:28), but that doesnt mean He sends all things. The things He uses to discipline an obedient child (Heb 12:4-11; trials of faith, persecution) are quite different from the things He uses to discipline a rebellious or deceived child (Rev 2:21-23). The severe discipline we read about here in these chapters was meant to protect believers who had put themselves or others in jeopardy of an eternal judgment that would be far worse (Mt 24:50, 51; 25:11, 30).
Listen to Jesus once more:
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him and he with Me. (Rev 3:19, 20).