THE SEVEN CHURCHES MENTIONED IN REVELATION
The Seven Churches and the Stages of the Church History they Represent
The second division of Revelation, “the things which are,” is recorded in chapters two and three. In these chapters we find seven letters. John is told to write a letter to each of the seven churches. They were seven distinct churches which existed at that time. And yet what is so special about these churches? Why should a condition in each of these local congregations be made a part of the Revelation to the universal Church?
We must remember that Christ sent His Angel and “sign-i-fied” the message to John (Rev. 1:1). He used present signs to show the meaning of future events. These churches were historical congregations in Western Asia Minor, but they were also typical of the stages through which the (universal) Church would go. These local congregations signify conditions or problems that would permeate the entire Church at a later date. The complete history of the (universal) Church is signified by conditions in the local congregation of the seven Churches of Asia. By combining these conditions, we have a perfect picture of the progressive stages of the Church Age.
The order in which these conditions appear in church history is exactly the same as they appear in the letters of chapter two and three. If you change the order of any one you will hopelessly confuse the facts of church history. John received the revelation of these two chapters as prophecy. Today, however, these events are mostly history. The remarkable correspondence of the conditions in the seven churches with periods of church history is certainly not accidental. Looking back on over 1900 years of the church, we are simply amazed at the appropriate order of events and the accuracy of their fulfilment.
Let us now consider the seven churches mentioned Revelation and the stages of church history they represent.
EPHESUS – the loveless church
This city was the capital of Asia Minor, where John resided both before and after receiving the Revelation on Patmos. The church was established by Paul on his third missionary journey. The word Ephesus means “desirable” and is the enduring term a young Greek lad would use to refer to his bride-to-be. When Christ left His Church in the world it was as a chaste virgin, the Bride of Christ, espoused to the Bridegroom. It is likely the Ephesian church represents the Apostolic Era or the first century church.
This was an evangelistic church which had labored for the master (v.1,2). It was a separated church for it could “not bear those who are evil (v.2).” It was an orthodox church which “tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars (v. 2).” It was a people’s church that “hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans (v, 6).” (These, whose name means “conquerors of the people,” or a group who argued that there ought to be to classes in the church – clergy and laity. They wanted a hierarchy to rule the church). Unfortunately, Ephesus was a church that had lost its “first love.” Their emotional fervor and depth of love for God had waned. They no longer spontaneously express their love and devotion to God as they once had.
SYMRNA – the persecuted church
Symrna means “myrrh” which is an aromatic substance that comes from a thorny tree but must be crushed in order to yield its perfume and fragrance. How appropriately this speaks of the second period of church history – the second and third century church. Persecutions began before the end of the Apostolic Age, but in the next two centuries the persecutions of the Roman government were directed at the church. So intense was the persecution under the Roman emperors that believers were encouraged to “be faithful until death,” that is, to be willing to die rather than renounce their faith in Christ. They would receive “the crown of life (v.10),” a special reward for martyrs.
PERGAMOS – the over-tolerant church
The period symbolized by the Church at Pergamos carries us to about the year A.D. 500. Pergamos is a picture of the church in compromise. This city was an important religious center were the pagan cults of Athena, Zeus, Asclepius and Dionysus were prominent. Here too was a university and a large library of around 200,000 volumes, later sent to Egypt as a gift from Anthony to Cleopatra. The word Pergamos means “marriage” and signifies the spiritual adultery which this church engaged in. What the devil could not do by Roman persecution in the proceeding period, he tried to do by patronage in this period. Outward assaults made the church grow inwardly stronger. Thus, Satan switched his tactics from persecution to protection. During this period the church became an official institution of the state. State taxes supported it and paid its pastors. The leavening of the pure church had already begun. The doctrine of Balaam was being spread, which resulted in a union of the church and the world. The Nicolaitan tendencies present in the Church of Ephesus had now become doctrine in the Church of Pergamos. The clergy ruled the laity, and a papal system arose which led to the hierarchy of Romanism.
THYATIRA – the compromising church
The Church of Thyatira symbolizes the period from A.D. 500 to 1500. As the worldliness of the Church of Pergamos led to the papacy, so to the Church at Thyatira introduced other excesses which would become dominant in the church. Thyatira means “continual sacrifice.” How fitting this name is – for in this period was invented the doctrine that every time the priest performed the mass, the wafer turned into the actual body of Christ and the wine turned into His literal blood. The continual sacrifice of Christ as practiced in the Romanized church is a damnable heresy which puts our Lord to shame (read Heb. 6:6).
In verse 20 Scripture tells us that the church had permitted a self-styled prophetess name Jezebel to lead God’s servants into sin. Just as Jezebel in the Old Testament had corrupted God’s people with fornication and idolatry, so this woman taught that Christians could engage in these practices without sinning. The Church of Thyatira represents the growth of the seeds of corruption which the devil earlier introduced into the church.
SARDIS – the sleeping church
Sardis, which means “remnant,” is the perfect representation of the church in reformation. The remnant in the church who “have not defiled their garments (v. 3:4)” – seeking a return to the pure and undefiled which the apostles had known. Having recognized the abuses so prevalent in the church for over 1000 years and having become convinced that “the just shall live by faith,” Martin Luther lifted his hand against Roman tyranny in Germany. Across the continent others joined him in attempting to reform their beloved church. This brought about the Protestant Reformation. The 16th and 17th centuries where the post-Reformation period.
PHILADELPHIA – the church with opportunity
The sixth message of Jesus Christ is the one to the Church of Philadelphia. This church symbolically marks the great revival period of the 18th and 19th centuries. Revelation 3:7-8 depicts this as the church with an open door. Our Lord commended the Philadelphians for using the opportunities of evangelism afforded by the open door, for keeping His word, and for their separation and fidelity. In church history this signifies the years of Spurgeon, Wesley, Whitfield, Moody, etc. There was a great spiritual awakening and everywhere doors were being opened to the Gospel.
LAODICEA – the complacent church
Now we come to the final state of the church, the church at Laodicea. The word Laodicea means “the people’s rights” and if ever there was a day when people are clamoring for equal rights it is today. With respect to the church, people themselves have taken over the church and the Lord is no longer the head (Christ is outside looking in). Conventions, denominations, councils, etc., governed by people that now run the church. Verse 16 says the members of this church were “neither cold nor hot.” No one accused them of the excesses which characterize the Church centuries before. However, no one could accuse them of serving the Lord zealously either. Because their works were neither hot nor cold, they made the Lord sick. He said, “I will spew you out of My mouth.”
Wow, those are mighty words. There is no doubt in my mind that today we are living in the very period of church history symbolically portrayed by the Church of Laodicea. I don’t think we have to worry about atheism or liberalism but we do have to worry about straddling the fence and getting bogged down in the things of this world which prohibit us from serving our Lord Jesus Christ zealously. This was the problem of Laodicea, and this is our problem today.
Verse 19 indicates the Lord’s reason for delivering these seven messages. He says, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.” The next verse finds Christ outside His own church. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock……” How gracious that He should still seek entrance! The Lord’s command to the church today is the same as His command to the Laodicean church; “…. be zealous, therefore, and repent.” The Lord’s love for the church is seen in the fact that He rebukes and chastens it. If He did not care, He would not bother. Look, the Lord disciplines those He loves, who are His children (Heb. 12:5-8).
We can describe the Laodicean church of Revelation with the church’s problems of today. Such as: (1) losing their first love; (2) fear of suffering; (3) doctrinal defection; (4) moral departure; (5) spiritual deadness; (6) not holding fast; (7) lukewarmness; (8) self-sufficiency; (9) and complacency.
Whatever interpretation we take of the book of Revelation, it is undeniable that the church of Laodicea represents a vivid picture of the age in which we live. Luxury-living abounds on every hand while souls are dying for want of the gospel. Christians are wearing crowns instead of bearing a cross. We become so emotionally stirred over sports, politics, television, earthly pleasures, etc. than we do over Christ. There is little sense of spiritual need and little longing for true revival. Obsessed with materialism and wealth we accumulate treasures on earth instead of in heaven. Today, the world loves to preach love and tolerance and not what the Bible teaches us which is love and repentance (Rev. 3:19). Today, this is the condition of the church on the eve of Christ’s return.