The Seven (Prophetic) Churches of Revelation 2-3

The Book of Revelation (not “Revelations“) remains a mystery in the minds of the majority of believers. The thought of reading and studying the book intimidates even the most serene of Christians. And who could blame them given its seemingly mythological content of multi-headed dragons, mutated locust warriors, and a cosmic Babylonian harlot, rivaling any Hollywood blockbuster of today (I’d take it over Clash of the Titans any day)?

It’s interesting that second to John’s Apocalypse is Genesis in terms of neglected and intimidating books of the Bible. But why should we expect anything less? Satan, the enemy of God, works to veil and blind God’s people from seeing His purpose in the Word (c.f. 2 Cor. 3-4), and the bookends of the Bible are most critical in determining what said purpose is. Along with God’s purpose, in these two books we find the plot and destiny of the devil himself! The subtle serpent today conceals himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14) for the deceiving of God’s people, but we find a fully exposed prince of darkness in the Garden and the scene of Revelation. Thus, Satan has, rather successfully, worked to veil these books with concerns of science and mystery respectively, keeping us from seeing his eventual demise. We are not ignorant of his schemes (2 Cor. 2:11)!

While I won’t be looking at Revelation in its entirety in this post, I write the above to encourage all of God’s people to read this book again and again. It’s not intended to be uninterpretable! In fact, it’s the only book that comes with an explicit blessing for those who read it:

Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy and keep the things written in it, for the time is near (1:3).

Unless you read this book 50 times and are fully familiar with the basic concepts and content, you will never be able to grasp it. Over half of the signs/symbols are emphatically defined in the text itself – the remainder are found in other areas of the Bible.

Revelation 2-3

Okay, back to the point of this post. I’m going to be briefly looking at Revelation 2-3, as these seven epistles are incredibly important and neglected today.  Many great Bible scholars of the last 2 centuries have noticed that these epistles aren’t solely describing the situations of these local churches in Asia Minor at the time (though they do address that undoubtedly), but they also possess a prophetic undertone which expands beyond the churches of John’s day.

There are seven churches, showing that they are representatives of the entirety of the church throughout the ages (“Seven” usually represents the entirety/completion of something c.f. 3:1; 6:1; 8:2; 10:3; 12:3; 15:8; 17:10). If they were merely historical, why were these churches chosen to receive epistles directly from the Lord and not other major churches like Jerusalem or Rome? You may say because they are only those in Asia minor, but what about other major churches in the region like Colossae? Surely it has nothing to do with particular conditions or concerns with these churches, because two of the seven seem to have no major problems to be addressed (Smyrna and Philadelphia). There must be a more grandiose intent behind these seven short epistles from our Lord.

Matching the History of the Church

When we compare the seven churches with the history of the Church over the last 2,000 years, it’s baffling how well the two align. Whether I’m reading a more interpretive, biased account of the history of the church (like Miller’s Church History or the Pilgrim Church – highly recommended), or a more dry and objective account (like Schaff’s History of the Christian Church or the Story of Christian Theology), all tend to give the same general, overarching picture of Christendom that matches these epistles!

To the church in Ephesus (Post-Apostolic Age)

For those of you who aren’t familiar, the first Epistle was written to the Ephesians who’s striking characteristic was a diminishing love for the Lord:

But I have one thing against you, that you have left your first love. (Rev. 2:4)

While this church may have still been desirable to the Lord (as indicated by the meaning of her name – all the names of these churches are revealing), her love began to wane, not heeding the benediction of the apostle from their first epistle (Eph. 6:24).

Who can but marvel at the fact that as the last of the apostles perished, the church possessed such striking similarities to that of the actual Ephesian church at that time? The gifts of the Holy Spirit diminished, the cold religious formalities began taking root, philosophy superseded theology and theosophy, and the degradation of the church had its beginning.

To the church in Smyrna (Persecuted Church)

The next epistle addresses the church in Smyrna, whose very name indicates its condition (Smyrna means “myrrh” in the greek – c.f. Jn. 19:39 – indicative of suffering and death). She is suffering under the hand of the Satan in an outward, physical way:

Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison that you may be tried, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Rev. 2:9b)

When reading of the horrors of the pre-Constantine martyrdoms in accounts like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, it’s quite clear that the early church was a suffering church. After the church began to lose its fiery first love, the Lord allowed Satan to send purgatorial trials, proving and purifying the saints. This is the age of the great martyrs. The church suffered under 10 great persecutions (typified here by the “ten days”). Satan sought to destroy as he did the man Jesus, but the Lord encouraged them with His resurrection life (v. 8).

To the church in Pergamos (Constantinian Christianity)

With Pergamos we see a major shift in the enemy’s strategy. Her name literally means “strong, fortified tower,” but it’s composed of two greek words implying there’s been a great wedding (gk. “Gamos” – root for marriage like in our english word “polygamy”)! This church has entered into a marriage union with the world! She’s now a fortified tower, possessing a strong, influential standing in global affairs.

How subtle the strategy of Satan! He first used the world to try and destroy the church, but now he’s joined the church to the world. Just look at where she dwells:

I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is (2:13a; c.f. Jn. 14:30; 2 Cor. 4:4)

Here the teaching of Balaam is prevalent, with the temptations of money in religious services, along with leading God’s people into idolatrous practices (c.f. Num. 22:5-7; 2 Pet. 2:15). She even holds to the teaching of the Nicolaitans! No one can clearly define what this heretical group believed or practiced, but once again, their name possesses the key to understanding their error. “Nico” means to conquer or be victorious (i.e. Nike) and “Laos” means the the people or the laity. So with the Nicolaitans we have the beginnings of the clergy-laity system! Her roots began in Ephesus, but there it was only a “work,” not a formal teaching. Now in the worldly church, we have an established and creedal teaching that promotes a mediatorial class to replace the “commoners'” participation.

This church is no longer threatened by the sword of Satan as Smyrna. Now the sword is in the Lord’s hand (v. vv. 12, 16)! He comes not to kill, but to divide the unholy union the church now possesses with the world. How dare the church seek privilege and favor from the world which rejected our dear Lord Jesus (c.f. Jn. 15:18-20). Rome executed our Master, yet by 323 AD, Christianity became the official religion of the empire! Many view this as the conquering of the cross and a glory to our Lord, but the Bible utterly repudiates such a matrimony as a shame. The only result was the beginning of nominalism.

There’s much more to say regarding the pitiful condition of Pergamos, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll move one to see its further degradation (see Miller’s Church History or Watchman Nee’s Meditations on Revelation for further study).

To the church in Thyatira (Roman Catholicism)

Thyatira surpasses all others in its utter corruption and degradation. The Lord comes to her not as one seeking to help or heal, but rather as the fearful Son of God (not the Son of Mary) with fiery eyes and feet like shining bronze (symbolic of judgement – c.f. Ex. 38:30). The dominant characteristic of this church is evil woman Jezebel:

But I have something against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, she who calls herself a prophetess and teaches and leads My slaves astray to commit fornication and to eat idol sacrifices. (Rev. 3:20)

In this church, the Lord’s speaking and leading has been usurped by this lying harlot. She takes the position of the king and influences him to kill God’s people (c.f. 1 Kings 21:5-14).

Is this not a picture perfect representation of the the Roman Catholic Church with the establishment of the universal papal system in the late sixth century? The Word of God is deprived of authority and the liturgical services fully revolve around the idolatrous, sacrificial mass (“Thyatira” in the Greek denotes an unceasing sacrifice). No other entity on earth (not Pagan Rome, not Stalin, not Mao) has killed more of God’s people. This Jezebel appears again in the Revelation in the descriptions of Babylon the Great in chapters 17 & 18. There she sits on the seven hills of Rome and is drunk with the blood of the saints (17:6, 9)!

This epitome of degeneration has only to await the fearful judgement of the Lord (2:21-22), for she corrupted the masses and taught the very mysteries of Satan (v. 24). She truly characterizes what we now know as the Dark Ages, prompting the Lord to begin a work of reformation or recovery with Sardis.

To the church in Sardis (Protestant church)

The degradation begins to take a turn when coming to Sardis. “Sardis” means “the remains” or “the restoration” in Greek. The Lord came in through the faithful testimonies of men like Luther and Zwingli to recover major truths in the Bible, especially regarding the justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. However, she stopped in her recovery work and gained the following evaluation from the Lord:

Become watchful and establish the things which remain, which were about to die; for I have found none of your works completed before My God. (3:2)

While many doctrinal truths were recovered in the 16th century, we find that the union with the world remained, the Roman priesthood only underwent slight modifications with the clergy-laity system, and ultimately the deep truths of the Spirit and life remained fully veiled. Here’s the final evaluation of our Lord:

I know your works, that you have a name that you are living, and yet you are dead. (v. 1)

The “reformed” churches have a name that they are living and have cast off the evil yoke of Rome, but in reality she is dead. How quickly did even the matters of justification by faith begin to fade away into a dismal view of salvation through faith + any number of things (charitable works, proper living, donations, etc.)! Sardis truly typifies the great state churches and all the denominations which sprang from her.

To the church in Philadelphia (proper church life)

Hallelujah for Philadelphia, the church of brotherly love (lit. Gk. )! Here we have the full recovery of truth, love, simplicity, and purity. The Lord sees nothing wrong with this church:

I know your works; behold, I have put before you an opened door which no one can shut, because you have a little power and have kept My word and have not denied My name. (v. 8)

These brothers have left the divisions and denominations (literally meaning “a name”), taking the Lord’s name alone as their standing (c.f. Matt. 18:20). Their striking features aren’t in great spiritual gifts or exceedingly great revivals, rather they have kept the Lord’s precious word, a little enduring power, and love His dear name.

Surveying the history of the church (and this one can get a little foggy given the approach to the present day), in the 19th century we can find a group of believers beginning to exhibit the Philadelphian spirit in England and Ireland among what some have called the “Plymouth Brethren” (though they repudiated such a title, preferring to just call one another “brothers”). These saints left the formal, organized denominations and honored the Lord’s name alone as their ground of meeting. Through them, great revelations streamed forth concerning the deeper mysteries of the Bible, especially regarding the second coming of Christ, the Spirit, the kingdom, Old Testament typology, and the Church in its universal and local aspects.

To the church in Laodicea (Degraded Recovered Church)

We must never forget about the subtle serpent and his diabolical stratagems. He actively works against anything coming close to the Church of Christ (c.f. Matt. 16:18). What better way to bring about destruction to a recovered church than to bring in a spirit of self-contentment and satisfaction:

Because you say, I am wealthy and have become rich and have need of nothing… (v. 17a)

Unlike dead Sardis, the Laodiceans are simply a “lukewarm,” knowledgable but prideful group of Christians. They have left the denominations, the shackles of a clerical or priestly class, but where has the power gone to?? “Laodicea” means “the judgement or opinion of the people”! What should have been under the headship of the Lord Christ has now gone into the democratic hands of the masses. The Lord isn’t allowed inside. He’s outside their door knocking (v. 20).

Laodicea is independent both from organized religion and from the new creation of God (c.f. v. 14; Col. 1:15-18). She’s somewhere in the middle, making her “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (v. 17). This is the sad history of the brethren in England. The many godly men eventually lost their unity and love for one another in the Lord, rather exalting in their acquired doctrines and knowledge, resulting in hundreds of splinters and divisions internally. As Thyatira symbolically stands for the lowest of degraded Christendom, Laodicea is the lowest of possible relapses after reaching the stage of recovery.

Concluding Thoughts

If you made it this far in the post, I appreciate your sticking with me. But to you I need to apologize for the utter lack of thoroughness a post like this can have to address all the symbolism and issues among these seven churches. I barely scratched the surface, and I’d encourage you to go to a more thorough resource if you’d like to learn more (I believe this view originated with Andrew Miller in his “Miller’s Church History,” so that’d be a great place to start).

My burden in writing this post is that all readers would heed the Lord’s plea to “Consider your ways” (Hag. 1:5, 7). Are you in a denomination? How do you think the Lord feels about that? You may not possess a denominating spirit, but why remain in the degraded system which is repudiated by the Lord and forbidden in His word? Are you in a “free group”? Is that group fully recovered back to the biblical principals laid out in the New Testament (see other posts that consider this in further detail)? If it is, do you possess a proud, self-contented spirit like the Laodiceans?

The Ephesians began the spiral that eventually resulted in Laodicea. May we all take Jesus’ word to heart:

Remember therefore where you have fallen from and repent (Rev. 2:5a)

Let us go to the Lord in desperate prayer, repent for our cold or lukewarm hearts, renew our love for Him, and seek to be those who keep His holy Word wholly and adore His precious name.

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