Prophetic History of the Church
The book of Revelation was of course written to everyone as the revelation from God, but specifically, at the time of the writing, it was addressed to seven actual different churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). The “mother church” at Ephesus was the largest and most influential, and tradition is that the Apostle John was the head elder at that church. John also would have been known and influential to the other six churches too. Within this large body of God’s revelation entrusted to John to write down, are seven individual letters written to specific churches about each of their spiritual condition at that time (around 95 AD). Why seven letters written to seven churches? They are representative churches not only to the late first century, but also to 400 AD, 1000 AD, 1950, and especially now in 2007. Unfortunately, these letters have been for the most part unopened and ignored. All churches are familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, but very few know the message of Revelation 2 and 3. These chapters are important because all the problems and ills could be cured if our churches would respond to these messages written about 95 AD. That is why they promise “blessing” upon anyone who “has an ear to hear what the Spirit says to the churches”.
Christ has set His church in the world for an important purpose of being the “light of the world” and “the salt of the earth”. Paul called the church the pillar of truth, yet many of his letters deal with divisions, sin, apostasy, and false teaching. Paul and all the other N.T. authors confronted sin and false teaching, and exhorted the churches to repent. For us today, Revelation 2-3 represents valuable insight and instruction into the nature and plight of the church, and what the Holy Spirit is leading us to do about it. Nevertheless, 99% have no idea of what is going on in their church, or they turn a blind eye as if it was none of their business. The seven churches in Rev.2-3 well represent the churches in the 21st century. Do you want to know what is going on in all the churches around the world today? Study Rev.2-3. Do you want the answers to the problems or the course of action God expects us to take? Study Rev.2-3. These churches well represent the seven basic types of churches that have existed for almost 2000 years. Somewhere in these seven types we will find your church and mine. The good news is that a church can change from one type to another.
Historical Stages ?
Another way of viewing these seven churches in Revelation is appealing to some theologians who are especially interested in history. They view these seven churches as representing seven stages in church history. They teach that these churches historically have progressed from one stage to another, and provide a complete overview of the church age. Let’s examine these stages and attempt to date and identify them:
- Ephesus—the second generation Christians were well taught and disciplined with sound doctrine, but their heartfelt love for Christ was waning at the end of the first century.
- Smyrna—represented the age of martyrs that lasted until about 312 AD. This stage overlapped and continued stage one with periodic increases in persecution and martyrdom. Ironically, the more the persecution-the more the love for Christ returned. It is estimated that 3 million Christians were executed during this era.
- Pergamum—the church of compromise reflected the church after 312 AD when Christianity became the official state religion for all people in the Roman Empire. You would think this would be a good thing—but not so fast. When the church became an institution with political influence, its spiritual influence went down hill. This stage extended to the 6th century.
- Thyatira—during the Dark Ages or the Middle Ages the institutional church became corrupt. Pagan rituals watered down Biblical teaching, and Christians got used to moral laxity. Everyone professed Christ with no real spiritual reality, yet many good works were being done.
- Sardis—the dead church with a few faithful believers. This stage may represent the 17th and 18th century stagnant churches that dominated Christianity and made possible the so called “Great Enlightenment”. Some believe Sardis represents the 13th century until the reformation in 1517, which would put Philadelphia (the 6th stage) as the stage of the reformation from 1517 on.
- Philadelphia—represents the “Great Awakening” of the 18th and 19th centuries. There were large movements toward Bible study, revival, and evangelism. There were great missionary movements in India, China, and Africa.
- Laodicea—this final stage is alive and well today and has been progressing negatively throughout the 20th century until now. It is the era of people’s rights, relative truth, self reliance and self sufficiency. It is an age of compromise. Many theologians refer to this age in terms of postmodernism, and like Laodicea it makes God want to “throw up” (see Rev.3:16). I read Rev.3:17, and I swear He was talking about America today when He said, “Because you say (or feel), ‘I am rich and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’, and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked (in God’s eyes).”
I do not know if the seven churches of Rev.2-3 are representative of all the churches throughout the church age, or if they represent seven stages of church history. I do know that we today in the church should be very convicted by the messages to Ephesus and Laodicea. There is a great danger within even the best and most fruitful church to “leave your first love”. In a materialistic culture free of religious persecution, it is easy to get complacent and find yourself just going through the motions. You do things because you are supposed to, not because there is a fire in your heart for Jesus. What is the remedy? Read and meditate on Rev.2:5, “REMEMBER from where you have fallen and repent”. Remember who you were without Christ—dead in your sin, without hope, without a future, and without purpose. Remember what Jesus did for you in its fullest extent, and then live in light of your gracious salvation through the atoning work of Christ.
I doubt Laodicea represents your church, but it certainly could represent the current stage of universal Christianity. It is neither hot nor cold, thus to God it is good for nothing, even sickening to Him. The scary part is this church is promised discipline from the Lord (3:19). The good news is that Jesus is there with the church, with us and He desires to come in and have a rich intimate relationship with each of us. It has been said that the door of our heart only has a door handle on the inside. Jesus will not force open the door, we must open our hearts and let Him come in (3:20). Therefore, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”.