The Seven Churches of the Revelation

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The Great Tribulation Part I

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 The Seven Churches

Jesus began the Book of Revelation by dictating seven letters to seven churches. We know from Church and secular history that these were seven actual Churches in cities that existed in the Roman Province of Asia, now western Turkey, at the time the Book was written. In each letter, Jesus gave a different description of Himself, and gave an analysis of the spiritual condition of the Church He was addressing. He also gave them some kind of admonition concerning what they should do in reference to their spiritual condition. Finally, He always made some kind of promise to "him who overcomes".

There have been three general interpretations given to these Churches:

  1. The first is literal - historical. The Churches did, of course, exist.
  2. The second is spiritual - prophetic. The Churches represent seven different spiritual conditions that any particular congregation may be in at any specific time.
  3. The third is future - prophetic. The Churches represent seven consecutive periods in the history of the Church.

All three interpretations may be considered correct!

The interpretation most relevant to this message, of course, is the future - prophetic. This idea is widely, though not universally, accepted by students of Prophecy. Again, it is widely, though not universally, accepted that we are living in the Age of the Church of Laodicea.

The Spiritual - Prophetic Meaning

It is valuable for a Christian to understand what kind of congregation his Church is spiritually. This is not something that can be easily discerned, however. The Christian who makes such a judgment must first of all be a mature Christian. Secondly, he must really understand the meanings of the Seven Letters. Third, he must really have discernment in understanding what is going on spiritually; what is being done right, and what is being done wrong, in his congregation. Then, especially if he is in a position of leadership, he will have some understanding of what his Church needs to do. But he must be careful and not leap to conclusions!

Unfortunately, this writer has noticed that whenever a congregation or it's leaders evaluate it in terms of the letters, they always seem to consider themselves to be a Church of Philadelphia. Actually, there are very few of them around today. Most present day "Philadelphia" congregations are in the Third World, usually Protestant Churches in Muslim, Communist, or Catholic-dominated countries. And any "Smyrna" Churches are in countries where they are suffering deadly persecution, currently mainly Muslim countries. Most individual congregations today are in the condition of one of the five others.

The Seven Historical Ages

It is possible to discern from Church History when each Age began and ended. There were "marker events", events that altered the course of Church and secular history, that identify when the Ages changed. Historically, the Ages are shown in the following table.

Note that the idea of "marker events" has Biblical precedent in Daniel's Prophecy of the Seventy Weeks, Daniel 9:25, and in Daniel 12:11 & 12.

Note also that there is no uniformity in the time periods.

The Seven Churches of the Revelation In History

Church

Time Period

Meaning

1. Ephesus Exact dates uncertain: from end of persecution of Nero to death of St. John. "Not Lasting"; historically, the shortest time. Spiritually, it had lost its "first love".
2. Smyrna Death of St. John, to Edict of Milan, 313 AD. "Bitter Sweetness"; The Church persecuted under the Roman Emperors. One of the best.
3. Pergamum Edict of Milan, until the reign of Charlemagne, 800 AD (or Battle of Tours, 732 AD) "Divorce"; The Church as the state religion of, and spiritually married to, Rome.
4. Thyatira Reign of Charlemagne, (or Battle of Tours) until end of the Crusades, 1290 AD. "Constant Labor" and/or "Guarding the Door"; The early Holy Roman Empire.
5. Sardis End of the Crusades, until Martin Luther, 1517 AD. "Of the Flesh"; The Roman Catholic Church of the Renaissance. One of the worst.
6. Philadelphia Martin Luther's 95 Theses, until the American Revolution, 1776 AD. "Brotherly Love"; The Protestant Church of the Reformation. One of the best.
7. Laodicea American Revolution, until the beginning of the Great Tribulation. "People's Opinions" and "People Judged"; The present lukewarm Church. One of the worst.

Note that the dating of the Church of Laodicea from the American Revolution is a radical position even to those who hold this general view. As will be shown in the next page, "The Church of Laodicea", there is concrete Biblical and historical reason for this view.

What Jesus Said To The Churches

As will be shown, everything Jesus said in each letter means something relevant to the Church He is addressing. The name of each Church means something. What He says about Himself means something. Of course, His analysis of each church's spiritual condition and His admonition are central to each letter. Even the promises to those who "overcome" means something relevant to the spiritual condition of the Church addressed. To give the reader a working familiarity with these letters, we will look at a couple of examples of each of these parts of the letters.

The Name of the Church

The name of each Church is actually a reference to either the spiritual condition of the Church, or it's historical destiny, or both. In the cases of Ephesus, Thyatira and Laodicea, at least, it is both.

  • "Ephesus", the name of the Church that had lost it's first love, and was historically the shortest, literally means "not lasting". At one time (early 2nd Century), Ephesus was the unofficial capital of Christianity. St. John spent his final years there. But the city itself is now nothing but ruins.
  • "Thyatira" is usually understood to mean "constant labor" or "constant sacrifice", the latter being a reference to the celebration of the Mass, a practice that began during that time. This applies to the spiritual condition of a "Thyatira" congregation. But there is a little-known alternate meaning: "Thyatira" can also be considered an abbreviated phrase that means "guarding the door". (Note: "Laodicea" is also an abbreviated phrase.) This is a reference to its role in history. The Church of Thyatira, historically, was the Holy Roman Empire uniting Christendom against the onslaught of Islam.

What Jesus Said About Himself

In each letter, what Jesus said about Himself is actually an indirect comment on the spiritual condition and/or historical circumstances of the Church He is addressing.

  • He told the Church of Smyrna, "These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life...." (Revelation 2:8) The Church of Smyrna was facing deadly persecution. A higher percentage of the Christians of the Age of Smyrna died as true martyrs than in any other historical Age of the Church. Jesus was, in an indirect way, encouraging them with a promise of resurrection to eternal life. He was saying, "Fear not! I also died a martyr's death! Yet now I live eternally! And because I do, so will you!"
Note that the violent, untimely death of a Christian is not necessarily martyrdom. It is true martyrdom only when the Christian is killed specifically for the testimony of Christ. Otherwise, it may actually be the ultimate chastisement, what has been called, "a severe mercy". This writer knows of specific cases in point. It can also be mere happenstance. See Ecclesiastes 9:11. There is a chance factor in life.
See
"The Validity of the Christian Faith"
  • Jesus told the Church of Philadelphia that He is the one "who opens and no man can shut, and who shuts and no man can open...." (Revelation 7:1) He was telling the Christians of the Reformation that the Roman Catholic Church would not be able to stop them. And believe this: The Church of Rome tried! The Spanish Armada, for example, had as one of its main purposes the putting down of the Reformation in England and the Netherlands. The destruction of the "invincible" Armada qualifies as an Old Testament - type miracle. It was destroyed by the forces of nature as much as, if not more than, by the British ships.

His Analysis of The Spiritual Condition of the Churches

Of course, this is always of supreme importance. What He says always goes right to the core of what is right or wrong (usually wrong) with the Church He is addressing.

  • He told the Church of Sardis that they had the name of being alive and were dead. As shown above, the Church of Sardis was the Catholic Church of the Renaissance. It was a Church that had political and cultural control over all of Western Europe, and, at the end, colonies in the New World. The word of the Pope was law. Yet this Church had substituted "Sacred Tradition" for the Word of God. There were very few real Christians in the leadership of the Church of Sardis. This was the Church's lowest point in history, spiritually.

    He told them that He would come on them as a thief. He did make a surprise attack on them. It came in the form of Martin Luther's 95 Theses. The Wittenberg Door was the coffin lid of the Church of Sardis. Jesus said that they would not know the hour when He would come upon them. Actually, it wasn't until some years later that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church fully comprehended what had happened. Since that time, the Roman Catholic Church, from God's standpoint, has not been part of the true Church. It is dead.
  • He told the Church of Philadelphia that they had kept His Word. There has been no other time since the Early Church wherein there was more faithfulness to the teaching and preaching of sound Biblical doctrine, and real in-depth study of the Scriptures than during the Reformation. The Church leaders of the Reformation put most modern preachers and teachers to shame in this aspect of Christian ministry. Examples are John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Matthew Henry, and of course, Martin Luther.

    There are some modern interpreters of Prophecy who say that the Church of the Reformation was the Church of Sardis. They are showing their ignorance of Church History.


    He told them that they had not denied His name, which is to say that they would stand steadfast in the face of persecution. The Christians of the Reformation did just that. Otherwise, the Reformation would have failed.

His Admonitions To The Churches

To each of the Churches He addressed, Jesus said something that they needed to hear. It was either what to do about their problems, or how to deal with their situation. In some cases, it was a small matter. In others, it was something that would take extreme action.

  • All He said to the Church of Philadelphia was "Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown". Similarly, He told the Church of Smyrna, "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life". Both admonitions could be paraphrased, "Keep up the good work!" These were the two best Church Ages, spiritually. For most of the Christians in those Churches, all they had to do was keep doing what they were doing.
  • On the other hand, He told the Church of Sardis, "Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent." This was a big order. What they had to do was remember, and hold fast to, was the Bible, the Word of God. As stated, they had substituted "Sacred Tradition" - the word of man (see Matthew 15:7-9) for the Word of God.

    Now here is something for those who think that the Bible has been tampered with: If ever there was a time when the Church should have wanted to tamper with the Scriptures, it was during the Renaissance. The Bible condemns or excludes many of the practices and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church; like the Indulgences that got Martin Luther so upset. But there was no tampering with it. As it happened, only the clergy and a relative few wealthy scholars ever got to read it. The Bibles were mostly written in Latin, which few common people understood. Then, as now, the Church told the people who did read the Bible not to try to interpret it for themselves. Far from tampering with the Bible, the Church suppressed it. On the other hand, there were people who were burned at the stake, like William Tyndale, for doing what might have been perceived as tampering with the Scripture.

    Less than a century before the Reformation, the invention of moveable type, followed by the translation of common - language Bibles during the Reformation, made Bibles available to anyone who wanted one. Christians during the Reformation could study it for themselves. Martin Luther and other Reformers established "sola scriptura" as the standing rule for Christian faith and practice. The true Church had remembered!

His Promises To The Overcomers

At the end of each letter, Jesus addressed a promise to "he who overcomes". We must first understand what this phrase means. Most of the Christians in each type of congregation, and in each age will to some extent manifest the spiritual problems of the relevant Church age and/or congregation in their own Christian walk. The overcomers do not. They rise above the prevailing spiritual circumstances of their times and their congregations and live lives of real, victorious obedient faith. That is why they are singled out for rewards.

A Smyrna overcomer, for example, was a Christian who was prepared to seal his testimony with his blood. This was a time of many martyrs, but it was also the time of the catacombs, of Christians living and worshipping in hiding. There were many "closet Christians" in that time; Christians who kept their faith a secret. The overcomers were open about it, even though they knew it could cost them their lives. They dared to be witnesses, even when on trial for their lives (see Luke 21:12 - 15). In fact, the word "martyr" comes from a Greek word that means "a witness". All true overcomers live at a similar level of obedient faith. That's why they get rewarded.

Unfortunately, for the majority of the rest, all they have to look forward to is found in I Corinthians 3:15. They will be saved, but "so as through fire", which, by the context, means without any of the rewards - the Bible clearly says there will be such - that go beyond basic salvation. Again, what Jesus says to the overcomers tells us more about the relevant Churches.

  • He told the overcomers of Sardis that they would be clothed in white garments, and that He would not remove their names from the Book of Life, etc. This, far from really being a "reward", simply means that the "overcomers" of Sardis don't lose their salvation. In other words, in Sardis, either you were an overcomer, or you were lost. The Church of Sardis was (and still is) so far from the Truth in preaching and practice that you couldn't be an ordinary Sardis - type Christian and be saved. This, unfortunately, goes for Roman Catholics today.

    Note: He did tell them that there were some in Sardis who had
    "not defiled their garments". There were overcomers in the days before the Reformation. Even so, there are Roman Catholics today who are truly saved. But the institution is no longer part of the True Church.
  • He told the overcomers of Thyatira, in so many words, that they would reign with Him, and apparently at a high level of authority at that. This is equivalent to the rewards given to overcomers from Smyrna and Laodicea. A Thyatira saint had a battle on his hands, spiritually and materially. Thyatira was the Church Age when serious idolatry, particularly "Mary" worship, was beginning to proliferate within the Church. At the same time, there was ongoing war, materially, between the forces of Christianity and the forces of Islam. It was, in many ways, a very difficult time in which to be an overcomer, but, within Christian kingdoms, not necessarily so difficult to be a Christian, period.  Sometimes not difficult at all. Like the Church of Laodicea now.

This gives the reader a working familiarity with what these letters communicate and how. What must be emphasized is that rewards are only promised to those who overcome. As stated, they are Christians who rise above the prevailing spiritual conditions of their ages and congregations and really live lives of victorious, obedient faith. Understand this, too: You are either an "overcomer" or you are not ready! In every age there will be some, but the percentage varies. (Smyrna and Philadelphia, probably the highest, Sardis and Laodicea probably the lowest.) The Bible does give the impression that in the current age there will be relatively few. We will look at why this is so in the following page:

The Church of Laodicea

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Contact Author, William D. Brehm