A Study on the 7 Churches (Ephesus)

A Study on the 7 Churches (Ephesus)

This article provides a brief overview of the Lord’s message to the Seven Churches in the book of Revelation, an expanded look at the Lord’s message to the Church at Ephesus, and a live worship hour recording of a teaching on THE SEVEN CHURCHES.

Introduction

This seven-part study is designed to help individuals become more familiar with the meaning of the Lord’s message to the seven churches in the book of Revelation. The premise of this study is threefold:

  1. The message to the churches had an application for seven distinct first-century churches (such as the Church at Laodicea). That is, there were specific issues the Lord wanted particular churches to be aware of and address.
  2. The message to each Church points prophetically to seven distinct future periods of church history. That is, the specific strengths and weaknesses associated with each local Church mentioned in Revelation chapters 2-3 also characterize the future state of the universal Church in distinct, periods of church history (sometimes called church ages).
  3. The message to the churches is relevant and applicable to believers and God’s Church. The message provides encouragement, counsel, insight, and exhortation. Following the prompts and directives found in Revelation 2-3 facilitate spiritual maturity and lead to blessing.

 

The message to the ancient Church: 

Scholars such as Sir William Ramsay have verified that the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3 were actual first-century churches. These churches, located in cities on the western side of present-day Turkey, lined the Roman Imperial Post Road, which connected the ‘Gateway of Asia’ to Rome. Several of these cities were great metropolises. When John wrote the book of Revelation, Ephesus had a population of about 250,000. Others, such as the city of Thyatira, were more like a frontier outpost than a city. A church served each of these cities—many were likely planted by the Apostle Paul and his team some decades earlier when Ephesus was a base for ministry.

It is important to note that when John wrote the book of Revelation, there were about 100 churches in the greater ‘Asian’ region. Why then does Jesus address these specific seven churches?  These churches were not the largest or most notable—or what some might call the best of the best (two of the seven churches in the book of Revelation had grave issues). Many believe Jesus chose to address these churches because their location and ministry are representative of both future periods in church history and the major issues that individuals and churches struggle with today. Noted below are the issues the seven churches struggled with:

  • Ephesus struggled with priorities. They had ‘forgotten their first love’ which is to say, they had neglected to demonstrate proper affection and devotion to their first love—Jesus Christ.
  • Smyrna faced great persecution and oppression. The name of the city has a tie to the word, myrrh, which is a perfume associated with suffering and death. Note that the pleasant fragrance of myrrh is only released when it is ‘crushed,’ and that this correlates to the ministry of the ‘suffering servant’ as presented in Isaiah 53.
  • Pergamum slipped into compromise. Pergamum is a compound word meaning mixed (as in a negative sense) and union. Located in a great pagan center known as, ‘The City of Temples’, this Church struggled to remain pure. The Altar of Pergamos, which is infamous in history, was located there. In time, this Church embraced elements of paganism.
  • Thyatira represents a falling away from the truth and profound apostasy. This city had ties to ancient Babylonian mythology which, in addition to being marked by violence and sensuality, had a particular ability to pervert (corrupt) true spiritual principles. For example, in Babylonian mythology, snake symbols are good (not evil). The ‘star of the dawn’ (see Isaiah 14) was cast from heaven, but the mythology teaches that this was an injustice. There is a chief god, but often this deity is presented as feminine. There is a son of the king associated with light and glory. The king’s son, Tammuz (later called Baal), comes to power through murder and requires violence from his followers. The ancient Babylonian religion was not just another faith—it was an anti-faith—a religious system built on distorted truths. Thyatira struggled with being able to discern truth from error and allowed false teachings to enter the Church. Satan is a master deceiver and would have believers forget that a half-truth is a full lie.   
  • Sardis was a divided city that perceived itself as being better than it was. The word ‘Sardis’ is plural. The city of Sardis had an upper and lower section—separated by a relatively short distance, but required more than an hour’s travel time. Both sections referred to themselves as Sardis. The upper portion of the city rested atop a 1500’ cliff. This rather strong strategic position led city leaders to boast of their invincibility. However, their great wealth (King Midas and gold are said to have come from there) and location did not save them from military conquest (multiple times). Historians reference Sardis as a city of false pretensions. This mindset crept into the heart of the Church and is reflected in Jesus’ stern exhortation: “You think that you are [have a reputation for being] alive—but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1b). The Lord rebuked the Church at Sardis  for evaluating itself against man’s standards, not God’s.
  • Philadelphia was the youngest of the seven cities noted in the book of Revelation. To this Church, Jesus offered only words of commendation and promise. This Church was strong, loving and faithful. In the 14th century, Philadelphia stood alone as the last Christian city in the entire region. Jesus commends this Church for its ability to endure, to remain faithful to His Word, and to not deny His name. To the faithful, He promises a great reward and an escape from “the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world…” (Revelation 3:10b).
  • Laodicea, like Pergamum and Sardis, is a city associated with apostasy. This Church did not think itself significant as the Church at Sardis did—but was comfortable and complacent. This ‘lukewarm’ Church was an offense to Jesus and received a stern rebuke from the Lord in Revelation 3:16. Their wealth and prosperity contributed to their lack of reliance on God. As believers, we must understand that our security must rest in the Lord (Psalm 62:1-2), and our faith ever-growing and active (James 2-3).

 

The application for the believer and Church today is noted below:

  • The message to the Church at Ephesus reminds believers to demonstrate proper affection and devotion to their first love—the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • The Lord’s word to the Church at Smyrna reminds believers that God can use suffering and opposition to bring about spiritual growth and an increased witness. Though the Church of Smyrna suffered terribly under Roman persecution, it was perhaps the most vibrant, and Great-Commission oriented of the churches.
  • The message to the Church at Pergamum warns believers not to embrace (become in union with) the things of the world (2 Cor. 6:14).
  • The message to the Church at Thyatira reminds believers that the enemy often slyly manipulates and distorts the truth. Believers are called to “Test all things and hold on to that which is good [and true]” (1 Thess. 5:21).
  • The message to the Church at Sardis reminds believers that a divided city is not a great city, that false pretensions lead to disaster, and that having a reputation for good is not the same as actually being good. It is the united and faithful Church that will be blessed. In evaluating our effectiveness and spirituality, believers must not seek man’s assessment, but God’s. It is God’s expectations, and standards believers must strive to meet.
  • The message to the Church at Philadelphia reminds believers of the importance of love, endurance, truth, and being a witness. Jesus promises a great reward to the faithful, and an escape from “the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world…” (Rev. 3:10b)
  • The message to the Church at Laodicea is somber and reminds believers that the ‘lukewarm’ Church (and a ‘lukewarm’ faith) is not acceptable in the sight of Jesus. Believers must put their trust in the Lord and remember that complacency is not acceptable. (Psalm 62:1-2; James 2-3).

 

The prophetic nature of the message to the seven churches  

Many scholars believe that the letter to the seven churches in Revelation prophetically points forward to future periods in the history of the Church.  It is the unique order, city history, and individual elements of each church’s history that make the theory compelling. Noted below is a brief presentation of the prophetic application of Jesus’ messages to the seven Churches.

  • The Church at Ephesus is said to represent the age of the Apostles and early expansion of the New Testament Church. There was a mighty beginning, quickly followed by a tendency to neglect demonstrations of proper affection and devotion to their first love—Jesus Christ. This Church is said to represent the period from 33—100 AD.
  • The Church at Smyrna represents the age of persecution (primarily at the hands of 10 notorious Roman Caesars). This Church represents roughly the period from 100—313 AD.
  • The Church at Pergamum represents the age of compromise. The first ‘Christian Caesar’ was Constantine. There are questions about the genuine nature of his faith, but his coming to power does coincide with the reversal of many laws designed to oppress Christians. This relaxing of prohibitions sounds like a significant positive, but for many, the relaxing of these prohibitions coincided with a reduction of passion regarding living out one’s faith. As pressure diminished, the Christian Church slid into compromise and complacency. The period of 313—600 AD saw the Church weaken, and introduce worldly elements into various aspects of church government, structure, and doctrine.
  • The Church at Thyatira is said to represent a period of grave apostasy. It points to a period of history (roughly 600—1517 AD) wherein various aspects of church doctrine, practice, and motive, became corrupt. The Inquisitions, the Crusades, the development of the political/military arm of ‘the church,’ the sale of indulgences, the elevation of the clergy, and embracing false doctrines took place during this dark time.
  • The Church at Sardis is said to represent the age of division, false pretension and near death (1517—1648 AD). It is during this church age that the Holy Roman Empire fades and the Protestant Reformation begins. It also represents a time of false pretensions as the 16th century Catholic Church saw no need to reform. This position led to a split (Protestants and Catholics), and within 200 years the Protestant arm became fractured by the rise of various denominations. Though there are some positive happenings in this church age, it is known as a dark period in church history.
  • The Church at Philadelphia is said to represent a time of love, spiritual growth, and championing the name of Christ. Between 1648 and 1900 AD, revival broke out in many places across the globe. Great preachers such as Whitfield, Spurgeon, Sunday, Finney, and Wesley were well respected and ushered in a new era of respect for the Church. There was a hunger for Bible study and efforts to establish many Bible Colleges, seminaries, and missionary training centers. This period of history marks one of the high points of the Christian Church.
  • The Church at Laodicea is said to represent the last era for the current form of the Christian Church. Sadly, prophecy notes that during this period, there will be complacency, compromise, and egregious apostasy. Two thousand years ago, the Lord rebuked the Church at Laodicea for manifesting these characteristics. The Church of the last age will likely suffer the same fate.

The prophetic nature of the seven churches in the book of Revelation may also point back in time to periods in Old Testament history. The chart below notes possible future and past associations to these seven churches.

  Seven Stages/Ages of Church History

Church

Church History Typified

Dates

Israel’s History Typified

Verses

Ephesus

The Church led by the Apostles

A.D. 30-100

The beginning (Exodus)

 Rev.   2:1-7+

Smyrna

The persecuted   and expanding Church

A.D. 100 – 313

Israel’s wandering and entering Canaan

Rev.     2:8-11+

Pergamum

The Church  of Constantine and Compromise

A.D. 313 – 600

The period of   the Judges 

 Rev. 2:12-17+

Thyatira

The Church of the Dark Ages

A.D. 600-1517

Evil kings and Jezebel

 Rev. 2:18-29+

Sardis

The Church of the Reformation

A.D. 1517-1648

The exile and return of Israel

Rev.     3:1-6+

Philadelphia

The Church of missionary movements

A.D. 1648-1900

Rebuilding projects and recommitments

Rev.     3:7-13+

Laodicea

The Church of the Apostasy

A.D. 1900-present day

The silent period between the Testaments

Rev. 3:14-22+

           

 

NOTES FOR THE VIDEO TEACHING ON THE CHURCH AT EPHESUS

VIDEO TEACHING: A live worship-hour teaching on the Lord’s message to the Church at Ephesus can be viewed below:    

 

The history:

  • For three years, Paul used Ephesus as a base for ministry.
  • Ephesus was a grand port city and trade center.
  • The word Ephesus means desirable. The city was founded by Athens about 1000 years before the birth of Christ and was considered the greatest city in the region, having a population of about 250,000 in the mid-first century AD.
  • Aquila and Priscilla ministered in Ephesus with Paul for 18 months. Apollos joined Paul there as well.
  • The Apostle John moved there in 68AD in advance of the Roman assault on Jerusalem.
  • According to Eusebius, John spent his later years in Ephesus—where he cared for Mary, the mother of Jesus until her death.
  • The temple of Diana was in Ephesus—it’s 127 iconic columns (each 60’ tall) made it one of the wonders of the ancient world.
  • Tradition holds that the Apostle Paul appointed Timothy as the first Bishop of the region of Ephesus.
  • Tradition holds that Timothy was martyred in Ephesus.
  • In 262 AD, Ephesus was destroyed by the Goths and never rose to its former glory.

 

Words of praise. Jesus offered the following words of affirmation:

  • “I know…your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people…” v. 2:4a)
  • Jesus commended the Church, noting that He was aware that…
    • They worked hard
    • They persevered
    • They did not tolerate wickedness
      • They did not adhere to the practices of the Nicolaitans” (“ev. 2:4a), which is a reference to those who turned their back on true faith and embraced a distorted, compromised faith.
  • The Lord’s admonitions to this Church echoes New Testament passages written decades earlier by John and Paul. Verses with parallel admonitions include:
    • “Run” with perseverance the race set out before us.” (Heb. 12:1)
    • “Do not grow weary in doing good.” (Galatians 6:9)
    • “Be “n the world but not of the world.” (John 17:15-17)
    • “Be “anctified.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3)
    • “Fle” from every kind of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:22)

 

Words of warning. Jesus offered the following words of affirmation:

  • I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first…” (Revelation 2:4-5)
    • They had forgotten their first love
    • Their passion for service had faded
    • They did not realize how far they had fallen away from where God wanted them to be.
    • They needed to repent.
      • They needed to acknowledge their wrong and return to the right path.

 

Complimenting verses and challenges

  • “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind…” (Luke 10:27)
  • But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior…” (2 Peter 3:18)
  • …”Put aside ‘childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)
  • Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3)

 

SUMMARY:

  • It is important to remain strong in the faith, to “remember your first love” and to take advantage of every opportunity to serve the Lord.
  • The Church at Ephesus was given a season to impact the world for Christ. By the year 200 AD the Church was gone. By the year 265 AD the city of Ephesus was gone. Believers are to:
    • “Be wise in the way you act; make the most of every opportunity.” (Colossians 4:5)
    • “Do not grow weary in doing good.” (Gal. 6:9)

 

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