The Seven Churches
Though usually we think of the book of Revelation when we read that title, the letters to the seven churches (Rev. ch. 2 and 3) describe an epoch whose end we have almost reached. These were literal congregations in John’s day, but clearly there is more to these letters than their immediate applications.
The first thing to note is that these were not the only, nor the most prominent, churches of the time. Conspicuously absent from the list is the church at Jerusalem, for example. Rather, they were all in the vicinity of the Isle of Patmos where John had been exiled. They were in the area now known as western Turkey, and Patmos was about 37 miles off the coast. There is even a place there called Cave of the Apocalypse.
The most widely-accepted date for the Revelation is 95-6 a.d. There is a common claim that the Revelation was only written by a bitter old man against the persecution of Rome, but not even liberal scholarship makes this argument anymore; see the largely anti-Christian/Jewish source Wikipedia. That same source, again without any stake in when the book was written, agrees that it was no earlier than 89 a.d. The reason this is even an issue is that many who hold to a prophetic viewpoint called Preterism insist that all of Revelation was fulfilled in 70 a.d. when Jerusalem and the Temple fell to the Roman general Titus. So clearly this book, and the seven letters, look beyond the first century.
Details about what Jesus said to each church should be read in the Bible text, and there is a commentary about Revelation here. Here is a brief list:
- Ephesus— (+)discernment (-)lost love
- Smyrna— (+)strong, and fearless in persecution
- Pergamos— (+)faithful in temptation (-)immoral
- Thyatira— (+)struggling (-)false teachings
- Sardis— (-)dead
- Philadelphia— (+)escape from global time of testing
- Laodicea— (-)indifferent
If these letters were written for more than the literal churches, what did they mean? One possibility is that they describe stages or conditions which can apply to any given congregation at any time. But the details in the letters weren’t always literally fulfilled in that century, and their application to any other given church is most unclear, if this were the extent of the meaning. So even if this is true, it probably isn’t the whole meaning.
Another possibility is that they were a preview of the church age. This has at least some support in history. The early church, represented by Ephesus, was beginning to lose its fervor. Many Christians can testify that when they were first saved they were very enthusiastic and “on fire”. But in time, the “honeymoon” wears off and people settle into the daily routines of life. And this can happen to organizations as well as individuals, so it can happen to churches. The many letters written by Paul are a testimony to this fact, and Paul died before the Revelation was given.
As for Smyrna, no one would dispute the fact that the second century was characterized by extreme persecution against the churches. A list of various waves of persecution can be seen at History Timeline. Though it is difficult to align the “ten days” to either the literal church or the era, the days could simply refer to a limited duration. Of course there have always been Christians being persecuted, even to the present day, but this was clearly a widespread and state-sponsored phenomenon throughout the known world.
Pergamos is commended for keeping the faith in spite of the evil environment there, but some of them were falling into promiscuity and idolatry. Though Ephesus opposed the Nicolaitans, Pergamos had accepted them. Who were they? Scholars disagree, with some holding that they were the same as the Baalamites who taught immorality, while others argue that this would be redundant and that the Nicolaitans were those who wanted to institutionalize the church into a power hierarchy. The latter viewpoint is corroborated by the respected historian Philip Schaff; see You Are All One. But was there an era in history that could characterize the churches this way? Certainly Constantine’s melding of the church with the many gods of Rome in the third and fourth centuries fits this description. Not only had the churches compromised their purity, they also adopted the chain-of-command government model. Though the seeds of this compromise were planted earlier, it was Constantine who accelerated and expanded it.
Thyatira was given a mild commendation for working hard to grow and for faithfulness, but they were accepting a false prophet referred to as Jezebel.1 Her characteristics matched those of a typical priestess of Artemis/Diana, the twin of Apollos, whose “worship” often involved orgies of both food and sex. The Medieval period could possibly fit this description, in that it saw the birth and growth of so-called Christian mysticism, as well as the crusades, and certainly much false teaching. Most people had no access to the scriptures and depended completely on the few who did, who often twisted the scriptures either for personal ambition or the dictates of those in power.
Sardis was given no commendation at all. They were dead, though under the illusion that they were alive and well. This would come as no surprise near the end of the Medieval period. But what about the Reformation? The seeds of this movement predated Luther’s famous 95 theses in 1517, which is a discussion beyond the scope of this article.2 In fact, there was always a “remnant” of Christians who never went along with the majority church, which surely relates to the “few” Jesus mentions in most of the letters. This era also saw the writing of many of the first Protestant comprehensive theological treatises, along with the Roman Catholic councils.
Philadelphia is described as having “little power”, but Jesus does not rebuke them for anything. They have faithfully kept Jesus’ Word and have not renounced his Name. He promises that liars and slanderers will grovel at their feet, but also that they will be “kept out of the hour of trial that is about to come upon the whole inhabited world, to test all who live on the earth”. In contrast to the testing of Smyrna which was persecution of Christians, this testing is of “the world”. Jesus promises that his people will not endure the wrath of God, which is not at all the same as the wrath of Satan or mankind. As already mentioned, Christians have been and continue to be persecuted, but this is never by the hand of God. So when God begins to impose his wrath on the unbelieving world, his church will be “kept out” of it.
The great controversy of course is what it means to be “kept out”: is it that we will be protected during the wrath of God, or taken away from it completely? The Greek words, tErEsO ek, mean “hold in reserve out and away from”. That is, it means to be taken out of the place of harm, not to be preserved within or during it. Moreover, Jesus adds the phrase “hour of trial”, so this “taking out” includes not only the place but also the time. His words, “trial to come upon the whole inhabited world to test those who live on the earth” clearly indicates a global scope, and this wrath is aimed at unbelievers.
So it seems very clear from the Greek that this coming time of the wrath of God cannot be meant to test Christians, and that everyone who belongs to Jesus will be taken out of the earth before that time can begin. Then the question is, What exactly constitutes the wrath of God? That too is a question best examined outside of this article, but there is no disputing that whatever it is, the church will not be on earth to endure it. This clearly has not yet happened, but one more church remains after this era.
Laodicea could be described as “the church in name only”. They had no concern about right and wrong, evangelization, or anything else but their own comfort and happiness. Their self-perception of health and wealth was a complete illusion. Yet Jesus still loves them; he says “Those I love, I rebuke and instruct; so be filled with passion and repent!” Yet on the other hand, Jesus describes himself as outside of this church, waiting to be invited in.
But how can there be a church after it has been taken out of the world? Just as we’ve seen in all the other letters, there is never a hard boundary between them, but much overlap. For example, the persecution of the early church wasn’t limited to them alone; there is overlap to some degree. So it’s certainly plausible that we would see some aspects of the next church before the previous church’s era is finished. Thus there is no necessary conflict between what Jesus said to Philadelphia and what he said to Laodicea. However, as Jesus is outside of this one yet they still carry his Name, it could well be fulfilled during the time of God’s wrath as the apostate, worldly church that may characterize false religion during that time.
What does this mean to us today?
If in fact the seven letters represent a prophecy about church history, it means we are very close to the time of our departure before the wrath of God is unleashed on the unbelieving world. At the very least, the letters serve as warnings about the many ways in which the churches tend to falter, and how seriously Jesus takes these things. We should not think that he doesn’t see or care, just because the consequences have not been apparent. And regardless of what the majority is doing, we as individual Christians must never use that as an excuse to do what they’re doing.
In Heb. 10:25b we read, “encourage each other, and all the more as you see the Day approaching“. That Day is upon us; we must not be ignorant of prophecy. Neither must we forget that if we truly love the lost, we will work all the harder to convince them to join us so that they, too, can “escape all these things” (Luke 21:36). Churches are very busy places, but most of the activity is self-centered: buildings, furnishings, supplies, salaries… we spend an awful lot of money and time on ourselves. We justify this, just as did the churches long ago, but rarely do we ask Jesus if we’re serving him and the Gospel rather than seeing to our own comfort. Austerity isn’t necessarily a virtue, but prosperity can be a vice. It is up to each of us to learn where the lines are drawn, and to both heed Jesus’ warnings and be encouraged by his commendations.
- Jezebel is a reference to the Old Testament character who was the wife of King Ahab. She had enticed the people of Israel to engage in promiscuity, and she persecuted the prophets of God. It must be noted that no portion of scripture in either Testament faults her for disobeying or manipulating her husband. Those who use her name as a club with which to beat Christian women have invented a Jezebel unknown in scripture. Neither is there any such thing as a “spirit of Jezebel”.
- Analysis of The Reformers and Their Stepchildren by Leonard Verduin.