Imperative Verbs in the Letters to the Seven Churches

The Seven Churches of Revelation. The island of Patmos, where John was exiled when he received a vision of Jesus is in the lower left.

The Letters to the Seven Churches (Revelation 2–3) are the very words of Jesus, given through John in a vision, to seven city-churches in Asia Minor.

  1. Church (“To the angel of the church in…”)
  2. Description of Christ (“The words of [him who]…”)
  3. Commendation (“I know your deeds…”)
  4. Rebuke (“I have this against you…”)
  5. Proposed Solution (see Greek Imperative Verbs below)
  6. Consequence of Disobedience (e.g. remove their lamp stand, make war with them, spit them out of his mouth, etc.)
  7. Promise of Reward for Conquerors (e.g. tree of life, crowns, manna from heaven, etc.)

All of the churches follow this pattern with a few exceptions: Smyrna and Philadelphia do not receive a rebuke or a consequence of disobedience, while Sardis and Laodicea do not receive a commendation.

An interesting study is to look at the Greek verbs in the imperative mood for these passages:

“The imperative mood is the mood of intention. It is the mood furthest removed from certainty.…the imperative moves in the realm of volition (involving the imposition of one’s will upon another) and possibility”  (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: an Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Accordance electronic ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 485).

Therefore, the imperative mood is used most often when making a command. Jesus makes several commands to the churches. So to look at the message of Jesus himself to these churches it is really helpful to know precisely what Jesus is commanding them to do, i.e. the “intention” that he has for them. This is aided by highlighting the Greek imperatives in these two chapters. Consequently, any teaching from these passages must give careful consideration to these imperatives as constitutive to the exposition.

There are 29 imperatives in the instruction to the seven churches, and can be divided into three groups: seven directed to the angel of the church to “write”, seven commands to anyone in any church to “hear”, and fifteen other commands distributed among the individual churches.

The first imperative in each of the seven letters is directed not to the believers at each church per se but to the angel or messenger of that church. The command is for them to “write” (γράψον; grapson) what the Spirit says (cf. Rev 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). It is interesting that Jesus is the one speaking but that they are to write what “the Spirit” says. This hints at a Trinitarian theme that is permeates John’s Revelation.

The last imperative in each of the seven “letters” is the command for the believers to “hear” (ἀκουσάτω; akousato): “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (cf. Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). That this final command is to hear what the Spirit says to the “the churches” indicates that the message to each church was in some way a message to every church.

Now on to the commands to the individual churches (the English verb that corresponds to the Greek imperative is in bold italics followed by the Greek and English transliteration):

Ephesus (2:1–7): “Remember…Repent…Do!”

Remember [μνημόνευε; mnemoneue] therefore from where you have fallen; repent [μετανόησον; metanoeson], and do [ποίησον; poieson] the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev 2:5).

Smyrna (2:8–11): “Do Not Fear…Be Faithful!”

Do not fear [φοβοῦ; phobou]1 what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful [γίνου; ginou]2 unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10).

Pergamum (2:12–17): “Repent!”

“Therefore repent [μετανόησον; metanoeson]. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev 2:16).

Thyatira (2:18–29): “Hold Fast!”

“Only hold fast [κρατήσατε; kratesate] what you have until I come” (Rev 2:25).

Sardis (3:1–6): “Wake Up and Strengthen!… Keep it…Repent!”

Wake up [γίνου; ginou]3, and strengthen [στήρισον; sterison] what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 2 Remember [μνημόνευε; mnemoneue], then, what you received and heard. Keep it [τήρει; terei]4, and repent [μετανόησον; metanoeson]. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (Rev 3:2–3).

Philadelphia (3:7–13)

“I am coming soon. Hold fast [κράτει; kratei] what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (Rev 3:11).

Laodicea (3:14–22)

“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous [ζήλευε; zeleue] and repent [μετανόησον; metanoeson]” (Rev 3:19).

Notes:

1 The negative, “not, no one” [μηδὲν; meden] precedes the imperative verb.
2
The imperative is followed by the adjective , “faithful,” further defining what they were specifically to do. Jesus doesn’t just want them to “be”; he is commanding them to “be faithful.” In light of this I have bold-italicized both for clarity.
3
The Greek phrase is an imperative verb followed by a participle. It would literally read, “Be be awakened and strengthen…” Similar to note 2 above, Jesus is not commanding them to “be” but to be awakened, or “wake up!”
4
The believers at Sardis were to “keep” what they “received and heard” in the previous clause; presumably this means the original apostolic teaching (i.e. “the message of the kingdom”, or “the word of God” cf. Matt 13:20; Mark 4:16; Luke 8:11–13).

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