Chapter 22 - The Seven Churches
The Book of Revelation was written in A. D. 96. The writer was the Apostle John. He was told to write the things which he "saw" and "heard." The Book therefore is a divinely given book, and is the "Revelation of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:1) and not of John. It is the most important and valuable prophetic book in the Bible. All through the Old Testament there are scattered references to things which are to come to pass in the "Last Days." The Book of Revelation reveals The Divine Program, or order, in which these events are to happen. It is the Book of Consummation and its proper place in the sacred canon is where it is placed, at the end of the Bible. The Book is full of "action." Earth and heaven are brought near together. The clouds roll away, thrones, elders, and angelic forms are seen; harps, trumpets, cries from disembodied souls, and choruses of song are heard. Earth touches heaven, and alas it touches hell also. There are strong moral contracts. Good and evil meet. There is no blending, but sharp contrasts, and a long protracted conflict that ends in victory for the good.
The Book is addressed to the "seven churches which are in Asia." By Asia is not meant the great Continent of Asia, or even the whole of Asia Minor, but only its western end. Neither were the seven churches named the only churches in that district, for there were at least three other churches: Colosse, Col. 1:2; Hierapolis, Col. 4:13; and Troas, Acts 20:6, Acts 20:7. These Seven Churches then must be representative or "typical" churches, chosen for -certain characteristics typical of the character of the Church of Christ from the end of the First Century down to the time of Christ's return for His Church, and descriptive of Seven Church Periods clearly defined in Church History.
John when he received his message was a prisoner on the Isle of Patmos. He heard behind him a "great voice, " as of a trumpet, and when he turned he saw "Seven Golden Candlesticks, " and standing in their midst one like unto the "Son of Man, " who held in His right hand "Seven Stars." He was told that the "Seven Stars" were the "Angels" (Ministers or Messengers) of the Seven Churches, and the "Seven Candlesticks" represented the Seven Churches. "Lampstand" is a better translation for the word "Candlestick, " and is so given in the margin of our Bibles. A "Candlestick" requires a light which is self-consuming, while a "Lampstand" is simply the "Holder" of a lamp whose light is fed from a reservoir of oil, thus typifying the oil of the Holy Spirit. Thus Christ looks upon the churches as not the Light, but simply the "Light Holder." 'the use of the figures "Lampstands" and "Stars, " which are only for service in the night, indicates that we are living in the "Night" of this Age.
The "Key" to the interpretation of the Book of Revelation is its "Threefold Division." Rev. 1:19.
I. Things Past.
"The Things Which Thou Hast SEEN."
The Vision of Christ in the midst of the "Lampstands." Chapter one.
II. Things Present.
"The Things Which ARE."
Obviously the Seven Churches. Chapters two and three. John was not far from 100 years old, and the only remaining Apostle. The Temple and city of Jerusalem had been destroyed, and the Jews dispersed 26 years before, and John's attention was called to the condition of the "Seven" representative churches of Asia.
"The Things Which SHALL BE HEREAFTER."
Beginning with the fourth chapter unto the end of the Book. Rev. 4:1.
It is worthy of note that the "Messages to the Seven Churches" are inserted between Two Visions, the "Vision of Christ" in the midst of the "Seven Lampstands" in chapter one, and the "Vision of the Four and Twenty Elders" round about the Throne, in chapter four.
As chapter four is a vision of the "Glorified Church" with the Lord, after it has been caught out (1Thes. 4:13-15), then the Second Division of the Book - "The Things Which Are," and which includes chapters two and three, must be a description or prophetic outline of the "Spiritual History" of the Church from the time when John wrote the Book in A. D. 96, down to the taking out of the Church, or else we have no "prophetic view" of the Church during that period, for she disappears from the earth at the close of chapter three, and is not seen again until she reappears with her Lord in chapter nineteen. This we shall find to be the case.
This interpretation of the "Messages to the Seven Churches" was hidden to the early Church, because time was required for Church History to develop and be written, so a comparison could be made to reveal the correspondence. If it had been clearly revealed that the Seven Churches stood for "Seven Church Periods" that would have to elapse before Christ could come back, the incentive to watch would have been absent.
While the character of these Seven Churches is descriptive of the Church during seven periods of her history, we must not forget that the condition of those churches, as described, were their exact condition in John's day. So we see that at the close of the First Century the leaven of "False Doctrine" was at work in the Churches. The churches are given in the order named, because the peculiar characteristic of that Church applied to the period of Church History to which it is assigned. It also must not be forgotten, that, that which is a distinctive characteristic of each Church Period, does not disappear with that Period, but continues on down through the next Period, and so on until the end, thus increasing the imperfections of the visible Church, until it ends in an open Apostasy, as shown on the chart "The Messages to the Seven Churches Compared with Church History."
We will now consider each message separately.
1. The Message to the Church at EPHESUS. Rev. 2:1-3.
The complaint that Christ makes against this Church is that it "had left its First Love." Its character is seen in its very name, for Ephesus means to "let go...... to relax." It had become a Backslidden Church. Paul, who founded it, warned it of what should happen, in his parting message.
"I know this, that after my departing shall grievous 'wolves' enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, 'speaking perverse things, ' to draw away disciples after them." Acts 20:29, Acts 20:30.
The significance of this warning is seen in the commendation of the Message, vs. 6-"But this thou hast, that thou 'hatest' the deeds of the Nicolaitanes which I also hate." Here Paul's "wolves" are called Nicolaitanes. They were not a sect, but a party in the Church who were trying to establish a "Priestly Order." Probably trying to model the Church after the Old Testament order of Priests, Levites, and common people. This is seen in the meaning of the word, which is from "Niko" to conquer, to overthrow, and "Laos" the people or laity. The object was to establish a "Holy Order of Men, " and place them over the laity, which was foreign to the New Testament plan, and call them not pastors, but-Clergy, Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals, Popes. Here we have the origin of the dogma of "Apostolic Succession, " and the separation of the Clergy from the Laity, a thing that God "hates." The Church at Ephesus was not deceived, but recognized them as false apostles and liars.
The character of the Church at Ephesus is a fair outline of the Church Period from A. D. 70 to A. D. 170.
II. The Message to the Church at Smyrna. Rev. 2:8-10.
The Church in its "Ephesian Period" having lost its "First Love, " the Lord is now about to "chastise" it, so as to cause it to return to Him. Smyrna has for its root meaning "bitterness, " and means "Myrrh, " an ointment associated with death, and we see in the meaning of the word a prophecy of the persecution and death which was to befall the members of the Smyrna Church. They were told not to "fear" the things that they should be called on to suffer, but to be faithful "unto" death, not "until" death. That is, not until the end of their "natural" life, they were not to "recant" when called upon to face a Martyr's death, but remain faithful until death relieved them of their suffering. The reward would be a "Crown of Life." This is the Martyr's crown.
They were told that the "author" of their suffering would be the Devil, and its duration would be "ten days, " which was doubtless a prophetic reference to the "Ten Great Persecutions" under the Roman Emperors, beginning with Nero, A. D. 64, and ending with Diocletian in A. D. 310. Seven of these "Great Persecutions" occurred during this "Smyrna Period" of Church History. Or it may refer to the 10 years of the last and fiercest persecution under Diocletian. This Period extended from A. D. 170 to Constantine A. D. 312.
III. The Message to the Church at Pergamos. Rev. 2:12-14.
In this Message Pergamos is spoken of as "Satan's Seat." When Attalus III, the Priest-King of the Chaldean Hierarchy, fled before the conquering Persians to Pergamos, and settled there, Satan shifted his capital from Babylon to Pergamos. At first he persecuted the followers of Christ, and Antipas was one of the martyrs. But soon he changed his tactics and began to exalt the Church, and through Constantine united the Church and State, and offered all kinds of inducements for worldly people to come into the Church. Constantine's motive was more political than religious. He wished to weld his Christian and Pagan subjects into one people, and so consolidate his Empire. The result of this union was that two false and. pernicious doctrines crept into the Church. The first was the "Doctrine of Balaam, " and the second the "Doctrine of the Nicolaitanes." The latter we have already considered under the Message to the Church at Ephesus. And the foothold it had secured in the Church was seen in the First Great Council of the Church held at Nicaea, in A. D. 325. The Council was composed of about 1500 delegates, the laymen outnumbering the Bishops 5 to 1. It was a stormy council , full of intrigue and political methods, and from the supremacy of the "Clergy" over the "Laity" it was evident that the "Doctrine of the Nicolaitanes" had secured a strong and permanent foothold.
The "Doctrine of Balaam" is disclosed in the story of Balaam found in the Book of Numbers, chapters 22 to 25 inclusive. When the Children of Israel on their way to Canaan had reached the land of Moab, Balak the king of Moab sent for Balaam the Son of Beor, who lived at Pethor on the river Euphrates, to come and curse them. When the Lord would not permit Balaam to curse Israel, he suggested to Balak that he invite them to the licentious feasts of "Baal-Peor, " and thus cause Israel to fall into a snare that would so anger the Lord, that he would Himself destroy them. This Balak did, and the result was that when the men of Israel went to those sensual feasts and saw the "daughters of Moab" they committed whoredoms with them, which so kindled God's anger that He sent a plague that destroyed 42, 000 of them. Now the word "Pergamos" means "Marriage, " and when the Church entered into a union with the State it was guilty of "Spiritual Fornication" or "Balaamism." The "Balaam Method" that Constantine employed was to give to the Bishops of the Church a number of imposing buildings called Basilicas for conversion into churches, for whose decoration he was lavish in the gift of money. He also supplied superb vestments for the clergy, and soon the Bishop found himself clad in costly vestments, seated on a lofty throne in the apse of the Basilica, with a marble altar, adorned with gold and gems, on a lower level in front of him. A sensuous form of worship was introduced, the character of the preaching was changed, and the great "Pagan Festivals" were adopted, with but little alteration, to please the Pagan members of the church, and attract Pagans to the church. For illustration, as the Winter Solstice falls on the 21st day of December, which is the shortest day in the year, and it is not until the 25th that the day begins to lengthen, which day was regarded throughout the Heathen world as the "birthday" of the "Sun-God, " and was a high festival, which was celebrated at Rome by the "Great Games" of the Circus, it was found advisable to change the Birthday of the Son of God, from April, at which time He was probably born, to December 25th, because as He was the "Sun of Righteousness, " what more appropriate birthday could He have than the birthday of the Pagan "Sun-God"?
It was at this time that "Post-Millennial Views" had their origin. As the Church had become rich and powerful, it was suggested that by the union of Church and State a condition of affairs would develop that would usher in the Millennium without the return of Christ, and since some scriptural support was needed for such a doctrine, it was claimed that the Jews had been cast off "forever, " and that all the prophecies of Israel's future glory were intended for the Church. This "Period" extends from the accession of Constantine, A. D. 312 to A. D. 606, when Boniface III was crowned "Universal Bishop."
IV. The Message to the Church at Thyatira. Rev. 2:18-20.
In His commendation of this Church, Christ lays the emphasis on their "works, " as if they depended on them, and claimed they deserved merit for "works" of "Supererogation." But He had a complaint to make against them that was terrible in its awfulness. He charges them not merely with permitting a bad woman, Jezebel, who called herself a "Prophetess, " to remain in the Church, but with permitting her to "teach" her pernicious doctrines, and to "seduce" the servants to "commit fornication, " and to "eat things sacrificed to idols."
Who this woman was is a question. She was a "pretender, and called herself a "prophetess." Probably she was of noble lineage. She certainly was a woman of commanding influence. Whether her real name was Jezebel or not, she was so like her prototype in the Old Testament, Jezebel the wife of Ahab, that Christ called her by that name. Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, was not by birth a daughter of Abraham, but a princess of idolatrous Tyre, at a time, too, when its royal family was famed for cruel savagery and intense devotion to Baal and Astarte. Her father, Eth-baal, a priest of the latter deity, murdered the reigning monarch Phales, and succeeded him. Ahab, king of Israel, to strengthen his kingdom, married Jezebel, and she, aided and abetted by Ahab, introduced the licentious worship of Baal into Israel, and killed all the prophets of the Lord she could lay her hands on. And this influence she exercised, not only while her husband was alive but also during the reign of her two sons, Ahaziah and Jehoram. More daughter Athaliah to Jehoram, son of Jehoshoaphat introduced idolatrous worship into Judah, and it was not long before a house of Baal built in Jerusalem, and so Jezebel caused all Israel to sin after the sin of Jeroboam the e son of Nebat. 1Kings 16:29-31.
There is no question that whether Jezebel was a real person or not, she typified a System" and that "System" was the "Papal Church." When the "Papal Church" introduced images and pictures into its churches for the people to bow down to it became idolatrous. And when it set up its claim that the teaching of the Church is superior to the Word of God, it assumed the role of "Prophetess." A careful study of the "Papal System" from A. D. 606 to the Reformation A. D. 1520, with its institution of the "Sacrifice of the Mass" and other Pagan rites, reveals in it the sway of "Jezebelism." It was also a period of "Jezebelistic Persecution, " as seen in the wars of the Crusades, and the rise of the Inquisition. A careful comparison of this "Message" with the Parable of "The Leaven, " (see the chapter on "The Kingdom"), will reveal the wonderful correspondence between the two, the "Jezebel" of the Church of Thyatira, being the "Woman" of the Parable, who inserted the "Leaven" of "False Doctrine" into the Meal of the Gospel. This Period extended from A. D. 606 to the Reformation A. D. 1520.
V. The Message to the Church at Sardis. Rev. 3:1-3.
The Church at Sardis was called a "Dead Church" though it had a name to live. That is, it was a "Formalistic Church, " a church given over to "formal" or "ritualistic" worship. It had the "Form of Godliness without the power." The meaning of the word "Sardis" is the "escaping one, " or those who "come out" and so it is an excellent type of the Church of the Reformation Period.
By the Reformation we mean that period in the history of the Christian Church when Martin Luther and a number of other reformers protested against the false teaching, tyranny and claims of the Papal Church.
This Period began about A. D. 1500. The condition of affairs in the realm dominated by the Papal Church became intolerable, and came to a crisis when Martin Luther on October 31, 1517 A. D., nailed his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, Germany. From that date the Reformation set in. But it was more a struggle for political liberty, than a purely Christian or religious movement.
It had the advantage of encouraging and aiding the circulation of the Holy Scriptures, that had hitherto been a sealed book, the revival of the Doctrine of "Justification by Faith, " and a reversion to more simple modes of worship, - but the multiplication of sects only led to bitter controversial contentions, that, while they threw much light on the Word of God, interfered greatly with the spiritual state of the Church, until it could truthfully be said, "That she had a name to live and was dead."
While the reformers swept away much ritualistic and doctrinal rubbish they failed to recover the promise of the Second Advent. They turned to God from idols, but not to "wait for His Son from the Heavens." The "Sardis Period" extended from A. D. 1520 to about A. D. 1750.
VI. The Message to the Church at Philadelphia. Rev. 3:7-9.
There is no question about the meaning of the word Philadelphia. It means "Brotherly Love, " and well describes the charity and brotherly fellowship that dissipated the bitter personal animosities that characterized the theological disputants of the "Sardis Period, " and made possible the evangelistic and missionary labors of the past 150 years.
Three things are said of this Church.
1. It had a "little strength." It was like a person coming back to life who was still very weak. It was the "dead" Sardis Church "revived, " and Revivals have been characteristic of the Philadelphia Period. These Revivals began with George Whitefield in A. D. 1739, followed by John Wesley, Charles G. Finney and D. L. Moody.
2. It had set before it an "open door, " that no "man" could shut. Note that this promise was made by Him, who "hath the 'Key of David, ' He that 'openeth' and no mail shutteth; and 'shutteth' and no man openeth." In 1793 William Carey sailed for India, where he found an "open door, " and since then the Lord has opened the door into China, Japan, Korea, India, Africa and the isles of the sea, until there is not a country in the world where the missionary cannot go.
3. It was to be kept from the "hour of temptation" (Tribulation), that shall come upon all the world. As the Church at Philadelphia is still in existence, and the only one of the seven that has survived, and while it suffered more or less under the "Ten Persecutions" of the "Smyrna Period, " it has never yet suffered in a persecution that was world-wide. This "hour of temptation" then must be still future and refers doubtless to the "Great Tribulation " that is to come upon the "whole world, " ' just before the return of the Lord to set up His Millennial Kingdom, and as the promise is that the "Philadelphia Church" shall not pass through the Tribulation, is not this additional proof that the Church shall be "caught out" before the Tribulation?
The "Philadelphia Period" covers the time between A. D. 1750 and A. D. 1900. We must not forget that the characteristics of all these Periods continue on in the Church down to the end. This is true of the Evangelistic and Missionary movements of the "Philadelphia Period, " but they are now more mechanical and based on business methods, and there is less spiritual power, and this will continue until Christ returns.
VII. The Message to the Church at Laodicea. Rev. 3:14-16.
Christ has no "commendation" for this Church, but much to complain of. He says-
"I know thy works, that thou art neither cold or hot; I would thou wert cold or hot. So then, because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold or hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."
There is nothing more disgusting or nauseating than "tepid" water. So there is nothing more repugnant to Christ than a "tepid" church. He would rather have a church "frozen" or "boiling." It was the "chilly spiritual atmosphere" of the Church of England that drove John Wesley to start those outside meetings which became so noted for their "religious fervor, " and it was the same "chilly atmosphere" of the Methodist Church that drove William Booth in turn to become a "Red-hot" Salvationist.
Our churches today are largely in this "lukewarm" condition. There is very little of warm-hearted spirituality. There is much going on in them, but it is largely mechanical and of a social character. Committees, societies, and clubs are multiplied, but there is an absence of "spiritual heat." Revival meetings are held, but instead of waiting on the Lord for power, evangelists and paid singers are hired and soul winning is made a business The cause of this "lukewarmness" is the same as that of the Church of Laodicea-Self-Deception.
"Because thou sayest I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind and naked."
They thought they were rich, and outwardly they were, but Christ saw the poverty of their heart. There are many such churches in the world today. More so than in any other period in the history of the church. Many of these churches have Cathedral-like buildings, stained glass windows, eloquent preachers, paid singers, large congregations. Some of them have large landed interests and are well endowed, and yet they are poor. Many of the members, if not the majority, are worldly, card playing, dancing, and theatre going Christians. The poor and the saintly are not wanted in such churches because their presence is a rebuke. These churches do not see that they are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.
If we were to visit such churches they would take pride in showing us the building, they would praise the preaching and singing, they would boast of the character of their congregations, the exclusiveness of their membership, and the attractiveness of all their services, but if we suggested a series of meetings for the "deepening of the Spiritual Life, " or the "conversion of the unsaved, " they would say-"Oh, no, we do not want such meetings, we have need of nothing." The Church at Laodicea was not burdened with debt, but it was burdened with WEALTH.
The trouble with the church today is that it thinks that nothing can be done without money, and that if we only had the money the world would be converted in this generation. The world is not to be converted by money, but by the Spirit of God.
The trouble with the Church of Laodicea was that its "Gold', was not of the right kind, and so it was counseled to buy of the Lord "gold tried in the fire." What kind of gold is that? It-is gold that has no taint upon it. Gold that is not cankered, or secured by fraud, or the withholding of a just wage. What a description we have of these Laodicean days in James 5:1-3.
But the Church of Laodicea was not only poor, though rich, it was blind. Or to put it more accurately-"Near-Sighted." They could see their worldly prosperity, but were "Short-Sighted" as to heavenly things, so the Lord counseled them to anoint their eyes with "EyeSalve." Their merchants dealt in ointments and herbs of a high degree of healing virtue, but they possessed no salve that would restore impaired Spiritual Vision, only the Unction of the Holy One could do that.
But the Church was not only poor, and blind, it was naked. Their outward garments were doubtless of the finest material and the latest fashionable cut, but not such as should adorn the person of a Child of God. So they were counseled to purchase of Christ "White Raiment, " in exchange for the "raven black woolen" garments for which the garment makers of Laodicea were famous.
Then a most startling revelation was made to the Church of Laodicea, Christ said-
"Behold, I Stand at the Door and Knock."
These words are generally quoted as an appeal to sinners, but they are not, they are addressed to a Church, and to a Church in whose midst Christ had once stood, but now found Himself excluded and standing outside knocking for admittance.
This is the most startling thing recorded in the New Testament, that it is possible for a church to be outwardly prosperous and yet have no Christ in its midst, and be unconscious of the fact. This is a description of a Christless Church. Oh, the EXCLUDED CHRIST.
Excluded from His own nation, for they Rejected Him; excluded from the world, for it Crucified Him; excluded from His Church, for He stands outside its door Knocking for Entrance.
How did Christ come to be outside the Church? He had been within it once or there never would have been a Church. How did He come to leave? It is clear that they had not thrust Him out, for they do not seem to have missed His presence. They continued to worship Him, to sing His praises, and engage in all manner of Christian service, yet He had withdrawn. Why? The reason is summed up in one word-Worldliness.
But how is Christ to get back into His Church? Does it require the unanimous vote or invitation of the membership? No. "If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to Him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." That is, the way to revive a lukewarm church is for the individual members to open their hearts and let Christ re-enter, and thus open the door for His reappearance.
The character of the Church today is Laodicean, and as the Laodicean Period is to continue until the Church of the "New-Born" is taken out, we cannot hope for any great change until the Lord comes back.
"If Christ should come today,
I'll not be here tomorrow;
He'll take His ransomed ones away
From death and sin and sorrow.
In the 'Midair He'll come
To call His loved ones home,
To take them to the 'place prepared,'
As He, before He left, declared."