THE MEANING OF THE LORD’S MESSAGE TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION
The Lord’s message to the seven churches in the book of Revelation may seem dated and mysterious. None of the churches mentioned are in existence today, the names and places are unfamiliar, and the writing is rich in imagery and symbolism. Nevertheless, the Lord’s message to the seven churches is timeless and relevant. This article is designed to encourage and inform as it profiles the prophetic and personal significance of the Lord’s message to each of the seven churches.
Levels of Application
To think that the message to the seven churches of Revelation applies only to those seven first-century churches is like snorkeling in a shallow bay and thinking you have seen the entire ocean. Yes, there are remarkable things to see in a shallow bay, but marvelous wonders await those who venture into the deep. The design of this eight-part article is to identify some of the deeper mysteries of Revelation 2-3.
Many Bible scholars believe that embodied in the Lord’s messages to the churches in Revelation are directives and warnings to actual ancient churches, prophetic messages for seven distinct periods of church history, and pertinent information for believers today.
The Application for the Ancient Church
Scholars such as Sir William Ramsay have verified that the seven churches in Revelation 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. First century Ephesus, for example, had a population of some 250,000! Other cities, such as Thyatira, were rather small frontier outposts. These churches were likely planted by the Apostle Paul when, more than three decades prior, he used Ephesus as a base for ministry for about three years.
Revelation chapters 2 and 3 records Jesus’ message to seven churches located in seven different cities. The question is, Why those seven churches? When John wrote the book of Revelation, there were about 100 churches in the greater ‘Asian’ region. So again, Why those particular seven? They 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 these churches were addressed by Jesus because their location and ministries were somehow representative of future periods in Church history (their strengths and struggles). For example, the Church of Ephesus is said to typify the first-century church (or the age of the Apostles). A brief profile of the seven churches in Revelation follows:
The Church at 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 foremost love-Jesus Christ.
The Church at 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. The pleasant fragrance of myrrh is only released when it is ‘crushed.’ This correlates to Jesus’ ministry of a ‘suffering servant’ as presented in Isaiah 53.
The Church at Pergamum slipped into compromise. Pergamum is a compound word meaning mixed (in a negative sense) and union. Pergamum was located in a pagan center known as “The City Of Temples.” The 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.
The Church at Thyatira was marked by profound apostasy. This city had ties to ancient Babylonian mythology which emphasized violence and sensuality, and perverted true doctrine and spiritual principles. For example, in Babylonian mythology, snake symbols are good (not evil). The ‘star of the dawn’ (see Isaiah 14) did fall from heaven, but the mythology teaches that this was an injustice that will be rectified in the future. There is a chief god, but often this deity is presented as feminine. The son of the king is associated with light and glory, but he comes to power through murder and requires violence from his followers.
The ancient Babylonian religion was not merely 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.
The Church at Sardis was a divided city that perceived itself as being better than it was. The word ‘Sardis’ is plural. The city of Sardis had upper and lower sections. The upper portion of the city sat atop a 1500-foot cliff. They were separated by a relatively short distance but required more than an hour’s travel time. Both sections referred to themselves as Sardis.
This rather strong strategic position of the upper Sardis led city leaders to boast of their invincibility. However, their vast wealth (The legend of King Midas and his gold originated 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 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 Church at Sardis was evaluating itself by man’s standards, not God’s.
The Church at Philadelphia was the youngest of the seven cities noted in the book of Revelation. To this strong, loving and faithful church, Jesus offered only words of commendation and promise. In the 14th century, Philadelphia stood alone as the last Christian city in the region. Jesus commends this church for its ability to endure, to remain faithful to His Word, and not deny His name. To the faithful, He promised a great reward and an escape from “the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world…” (Revelation 3:10b).
The Church at Laodicea, like Pergamum and Sardis, was associated with apostasy. This church did not think itself significant as the church at Sardis did, but was comfortable and complacent. Their wealth and prosperity contributed to their lack of reliance on God. This “lukewarm” church received a stern rebuke from the Lord in Revelation 3:16.
An Overview of the Prophetic Nature of the Message to the Seven Churches
Many scholars believe the letters to the seven churches in Revelation prophetically point forward to future periods in church history. Though there is some dispute on this supposition, one can see that if the message to these churches were different, or if there was a change in the order of the letters to these churches, the supposition would have no support. It is the unique order, city history, and individual elements of each churches’ history that make the theory compelling. Noted below is a brief presentation of the possible prophetic application of the messages to the seven churches in the book of Revelation:
The Church at Ephesus points to 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 to demonstrate proper affection and devotion to their first love—Jesus Christ. This church represents the years 33 AD to 100 AD.
The Church at Smyrna points to the age of persecution (primarily at the hands of 10 notorious Roman Caesars). This church age represents the years 100-313 AD.
The Church at Pergamum points to the age of compromise. Constantine was the first “Christian Caesar.” Many question the genuineness of Constantine’s faith, but his rise to power early in the fourth century does coincide with the reversal of many laws designed to persecute and oppress Christians. This relaxing of prohibitions sounds like a great 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 doctrine.
The Church at Thyatira points to a period of grave apostasy. It points to a period of history (roughly 600-1517 AD) when 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 the embracing of false doctrines and practices took place during this dark time.
The Church at Sardis points to the age of division, false pretention 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 pretentions 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 points to a time of love, spiritual growth, and championing the name of Christ. Between 1648—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 new efforts to establish Bible Colleges, Seminaries, and Missionary Training/Sending Centers. This period of history marks one of the high points of the Christian Church.
The Church at Laodicea points to 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. 2000 years ago the church at Laodicea was sternly rebuked for manifesting these characteristics. The Church of the last age will suffer the same fate.
The Application for the Believer and the Church Today
The message to the Church at Ephesus reminds believers of the importance of demonstrating proper affection and devotion to their first love—the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Lord’s message to the Church at Smyrna reminds believers that God can use suffering and opposition to bring about spiritual growth and an increased witness. It is significant that though the Church of Smyrna suffered terribly under Roman persecution, it was perhaps the most vibrant and Great-Commission oriented of the seven churches.
The message to the Church at Pergamum serves as a warning to not embrace (be 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, twists and distorts the truth. Believers are enjoined 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 pretentions 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 that 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. To the faithful Jesus promises a great reward 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 seven churches in the book of Revelation may also point back in time to periods in Old Testament history.
The Church of Ephesus can be associated with the beginning of the New Testament Church and moving of God’s people outward from Jerusalem—and the beginning of the nation of Israel and move of God’s people out from Egypt.
The Church of Smyrna can be associated with the persecution and expansion of the New Testament Church—and the wandering of Israel and expansion into the promised land in the days of Moses and Joshua.
The Church of Pergamum can be associated with a spirit of complacency and compromise which became evident in the 4th and 5th centuries AD—and the spirit of complacency and compromise prominent in the book of Judges.
The Church of Thyatira can be associated with the dark ages and apostasy—and the period of unfaithful kings and apostasy in Israel.
The Church of Sardis can be associated with a false sense of security and perceived righteousness that marked the church in the 16th and 17th centuries—and the spiritual condition of Israel in the century preceding the Babylonian exile to their return.
The Church of Philadelphia can be associated with the rebuilding of faith and revivals in the 17th-19th centuries—and the rebuilding of the wall and Temple in the days of Nehemiah and Ezra.
The Church of Laodicea can be associated with man-driven (rather than God-focused) programs and spiritual complacency—and the period between the Testaments when Pharisaical systems were established and convictions compromised.
Though the fullness of the meaning of the Lord’s message to the seven churches in the book of Revelation may be difficult to grasp, it is vital that individuals today invest time in study and seek the Lord for understanding. The warnings of admonitions of yesterday apply to the church, and individuals, today.
The Lord’s word to the churches in the book of Revelation likely prophetically points to future periods of persecution and apostasy. If this is true, then we are now living in the last age represented by the church of Laodicea. During this time Jesus said that there will be troubles, wars, and rumors of wars (Matthew 24). Jesus prophesied that in the last days love would wax cold. The Apostle Paul wrote of how there would be a turning away from the truth.
The Bible notes that in the midst of troubles and turmoil, Jesus will return. Are you ready? Will you commit to being ALL IN for Him? Will you commit to make serving Him, growing in Him and witnessing for Him the priorities of your life? God expects believers to be active in doing good (Galatians 6:9). Know this: A great reward awaits those found doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, at the right place, and with the right heart when the Lord returns. Declare that you are ALL IN FOR JESUS by following this link to the I Am A Watchman website: https://iamawatchman.com/be-all-in-for-jesus/
“So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.” (Matthew 24:44-46)
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