Friday, January 16, 2009

A Look At The Seven Churches Of Revelation As A Prophetic History Of The Church

Now that we have looked at the seven churches of Revelation chapters two and three individually I want to look at them from the perspective of prophecy. Please keep in mind as we work through this that even though I believe this gives us a picture of church history, these were letters to seven real churches, and the messages of each of these letters is still applicable to everyone of us today. We need to study and heed the warnings of these letters and apply the principles to our individual lives. With that said, let’s look at these churches as a prophetic pattern for the history of the church.

In Revelation 22:18-19 we are told that this book is a book of prophecy. It does not say that chapters four and beyond are prophecy, it says the whole book is a book of prophecy, and this includes chapters two and three. So what does this mean? As we look at the seven churches of Asia Minor we can see a picture, in very broad strokes, of the path that the church has taken throughout its history. While it is true that you can find individual churches in every age that look like each of these churches, the overall direction of the church as a whole has followed this pattern from the first century right up to today.

Also, if you look back to Revelation 1:11 you will see that Jesus told the Apostle John to “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea." The reason that this is important is this: unlike the letters that Paul wrote which were to a specific church, this message was to be sent to all seven churches, and it was to be read by all seven churches. So the message to the church at Ephesus, for example, applies not only to Ephesus but also to the other six churches, and it also has application for us today. But beyond that we can also see a pattern that begins with the church at Ephesus and ends with the church at Laodicea that mirrors, in very broad strokes, the history of the church since the first century. So let’s take a quick look at this and see what we can learn.

A. The Church at Ephesus – The Loveless Church

Ephesus, the first church we looked at, and the first church addressed in Revelation chapter two represents the beginning of the church age. If you think back to what we learned when we studied this church you will remember that they were praised for their works, but Jesus told them that they had left their first love. Their doctrine was sound; verse two tells us that they would not endure evil men, and they put to the test those who claimed to be apostles and were not, and they found them to be false. We also see in verse six that they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans. This church was orthodox, they fought heresy, but they lost their zeal. The problem that this church faced was that their love for Jesus had grown cold; they continued to work for Him, but they did so out of duty. They were no longer motivated by love.

This is a picture of what happened to the church as a whole in the first century. The Ephesian church represents a time in church history when the church was new, and they were on fire for Jesus and the gospel, but as time went on and they were faced with continuing persecution and adversity they grew tired and they left their first love.

B. The Church at Smyrna – The Persecuted Church

The next church we came to was the church at Smyrna. The church at Smyrna represents the time from approximately 100 A.D. to the beginning of the fourth century. During this time the church underwent intense persecution at the hands of the Roman government. We can see from verse nine of chapter two that this church was in tribulation and extreme poverty. Verse ten lets us know that they were suffering for their faith, and Jesus tells them that they will be cast into prison and have tribulation ten days. During the time in history that this church represents there were ten waves of persecution under ten different Roman emperors, which ended in the year 313 A.D. when Constantine merged the church with the Roman government, which leads us to the next church; the church at Pergamum.

C. The Church at Pergamum – The Worldly Church

In 313 A.D. the Roman emperor Constantine did something that on the surface appeared to be wonderful, but in reality ended up being awful; he merged the Roman government with the church. This merger seemed like a great thing for the church that had just suffered 200 years of persecution, but history would prove different. This became the point where the world moved into the church and the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire.

This is the church that Jesus said was where Satan dwelled. And this unlike the church in the first century, this church embraced the doctrine and teaching of the Nicolaitans, which as you will recall was an establishment of the clergy over the people. The Nicolaitans taught that the people had to go through the clergy to get to God; they could not approach God on their own.

During this time in history it was hard to tell the difference between the government and the church, and although it didn’t happen immediately, within a few hundred years the Roman government would actually be picking the Popes. This period lasted until approximately 500 A.D.

D. The Church at Thyatira – The Compromising Church

This leads us to the next period of church history, which we know as the Dark Ages. At this point the church has gone from a new entity that was passionate for Jesus to a widely persecuted group to a church that looked exactly like the world, and now, after 200 years of the world infiltrating the church we come to a period where the church is compromising their beliefs. This is the church that was allowing Jezebel to teach immorality and lead people away from God. This was the time of indulgences; this was the time of the crusades.

During this time the church didn’t have easy access to the Bible, and most people had never even seen one, much less been able to read it in their own language. Access to the word of God was limited to the priests only, and not only did the people not have access to the Bible but the worship services were not even in a language that they could understand. This period lasted from about 500 A.D. to the early 1300’s.

E. The Church at Sardis – The Dead Church

After several hundred years without the word of God the church had began to look like the church at Sardis; it had a name that it was alive, but the church was dead. This period in church history, which began in the early 1300’s, lasted right up to the time of the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

Jesus told the church at Sardis that they were to wake up and strengthen the things which remained, which were about to die. That is the picture of the church during this time; the church had become indistinguishable from the world and had so compromised their beliefs that very few faithful remained. Then a man by the name of Martin Luther, who was training as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church got the opportunity to read the Bible for himself and as he began to study it he saw that the church was in error; he saw that salvation was by faith, and what we know as the Reformation began.

Along with Martin Luther men like John Calvin began to teach the word of God instead of the traditions of man, and Martin Luther worked diligently to translate the Bible into German so the people could have the word of God in a language they could understand. As the people once again had God’s word and were able to read it for themselves the church began to change, which leads us into the next phase of church history.

F. The Church at Philadelphia – The Faithful Church

The church at Philadelphia was characterized by their faithfulness to the word of God. For the first time in several hundred years the common man had access to the Bible and could read it for himself. As a result of this, if you look at the period of time from the Protestant Reformation in 1517 right up to the early 20th century you will see a church that was faithfully preaching and teaching the word of God. Jesus told the church at Philadelphia that He placed an open door before them, and that is exactly what happened during this period of time. All of the great revivals and prayer movements that we know about took place in this time. Men like Moody, Spurgeon, and Matthew Henry all came out of this period of church history. They had an open door and they took full advantage of the opportunities they were given. But around the turn of the 20th century things began to change, which leads us to the last phase of church history, the Laodicean age.

G. The Church at Laodicea – The Lukewarm Church

Around the year 1900 the church began to change. The church began to be more concerned with gaining “stuff” than with winning souls. No longer was the church interested in great revivals, they were interested in their own comfort. This is the picture that we see at the end of Revelation three with the church at Laodicea.

Jesus chastised the Laodicean church because they had the attitude that they had everything they needed and Jesus was left outside knocking on the door to get in. The people of Laodicea were guilty of “playing church.” For them it was all ritual with no relationship. They had become self-sufficient; notice that in Revelation 3:17 Jesus says, “you say, ‘I am rich and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.’” They had completely missed the point that Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus and has nothing to do with religious ritual; they had become lukewarm.

The Laodicean church is a picture of what the church will look like when Jesus returns, and if you look at the church today this is exactly what it looks like. Yes, you can still find Ephesian churches and Sardian churches and Philadelphian churches, just as all seven of these individual churches existed during the Ephesian age, but as a whole the church of today looks like the church of Laodicea.

So what does all of this mean for us? It means that is our individual responsibility to make sure that we are not following the trends that are present in the church today, but that we are seeking holiness and obedience to Christ above everything else. It means that we are to heed the warnings that Jesus gave to the churches in Revelation two and three, and we are to be overcomers. It means that we love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. It means that we remain faithful when we are persecuted. It means that we don’t conform to the world or compromise what we know to be true. It means that when we sin we repent, and we run back to Jesus. It means that we hold fast to the faith. And it means that we do whatever it takes to remain on fire for God.

These messages may lay out prophetically the path that the church will take, and we may be living in the Laodicean age, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a Laodicean Christian.
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Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Anonymous said...

You are amazing!!! This has really opened my eyes. May the Lord continue to give you wisdom and revelation concerning his word.

Kelly said...

Interesting. I've just been looking ta Rev 2-3, and was looking up 'what has become' of these churches when I found your blog. This is new material for me--though I haven't looked at commentary or anything else. That said, please pardon the ignorant question, but is this a commonly-held interpretation of the 7 churches? I'm interested in learning more :)

Christopher said...

Hi Kelly,

Sorry it took me so long to get back to your question. I am not sure how wide spread this interpretation is; I have seen it in a few commentaries and found a few sermons on that presented this view so I did some research and found that there were enough people that I respect that were holding this view that I went ahead and included it as a possibility in my posts on Revelation.

With that said please keep in mind that the point of this book is to point us to Jesus; it is after all The Revelation of Jesus Christ. And while it is interesting to speculate as to the prophetic implications of the messages to the seven churches, the bottom line is that they were given to warn us to follow Jesus, to trust Him, and to come to Him in repentance and faith.

If you have any other questions please feel free to ask.

Jim said...

I do subscribe to this reading of Revelation chapters 2 and 3 - only one question about it. Does it still fit as a picture of church history if we include the Eastern and other sections of the church? What about the church in India, which existed all this time? Do we have a narrow view on the worldwide history of Christians?