Would you please explain Christ's message to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, as recorded in chapters 2 and 3?


We have already written about this subject in two previous Updates (Update #157 and #187). We explained that it has long been understood and taught by God’s Church that Christ’s message to the seven churches has at least a three-fold application. First, it relates to seven literal churches or church congregations in Asia Minor at the time of John. Then, it describes the history of the Church in seven distinct prophetic “Church eras” from the time of John until Christ’s return. And finally, it points out character traits of spiritual strength and weakness of God’s people throughout the existence of the New Testament Church. Christ’s message to the seven churches, although in some respects directed foremost to individual congregations and/or Church eras (Revelation 2:6, 10, 14-15, 20-23; 3:3, 10, 20) is, in its overall sense, meant for all Christians at all times (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:5-6, 12-13, 21-22).

Regarding the understanding that Christ’s message ALSO includes seven church ERAS, please note the following interesting comments by Baptist minister, Dr. Lehman Strauss, “The Book of the Revelation,” copyright 1964, 1972, pages 33, 34, 45:

“… each church individually, and the seven churches combined, set forth prophetic anticipation. I see in them seven ages or stages in the life of the Church on earth, commencing with Pentecost… There is a prophetic picture of seven periods of the Church’s history on earth… The Laodicean letter, being the last of the seven, anticipates prophetically the end of the Church Age, that period immediately preceding the return of Christ… Our materialistic, inflationary times might well mark the end of the present age…”

In this Q&A, we are going to provide some additional information on Christ’s message to the seven churches. We will mainly emphasize the historical relevance and the application of Christ’s message to individual Christians. Although we will briefly mention the identity of the Church ERAS, please make sure to review again our previous Updates, #157 and #187, which address that aspect in much more detail.

In all of Christ’s messages to the seven churches, He emphasizes the fact that He knows their works. But this does not mean that He approves, in each case, of the particular works in question. After all, we can do good or bad works, and everyone will be judged “according to his work” (Revelation 22:12).

(1) Message to Ephesus (compare Revelation 2:1-7)

The city of Ephesus was the commercial center of Asia. Its temple of Diana was one of the “seven wonders” of the ancient world. At first, the Church brethren did not follow “false apostles” (compare Revelation 2:2: “… you cannot bear those who are evil.”). Strauss comments on page 36: “They were intolerant of sin. Today it makes little difference what people are like morally or spiritually, just so we get them into our church and on the membership roll to swell the number. The church at Ephesus was not concerned with the quantity of persons that were added, but rather with the quality.”

Nevertheless, they subsequently did tolerate false teachers such as the “Nicolaitans,” a sect believed by many to have advocated licentiousness as the proper way of life (Revelation 2:6). They had become weary and had lost their first love for Christ and His truth and were not as zealous anymore to resist error. That this could happen was partially due to constant persecution from the Romans under Emperor Domitian (whose statute was found in Ephesus and who called himself “god”) and the fact that they were meeting in their homes, or everywhere else they could—scattered congregations with their own pastorship, but without central leadership (compare Halley’s Bible Handbook, p. 701).

Historically, the New Testament Church was founded in Jerusalem and transferred later to the city of Pella, around 69 A.D. When Paul traveled to Europe, Ephesus became a second Headquarters. According to tradition, Paul and John died here.

(2) Message to Smyrna (compare Revelation 2:8-11)

Smyrna means “bitter.” And so, Christ addressed the Smyrna church as one finding itself in the midst of bitter sorrow and suffering.

Christ encouraged the church to “be faithful until death” (Revelation 2:10). The Greek word for faithful in this case signifies conviction–including the persuasion that with Christ, everything is possible, and there is never a compelling reason to give up.

Although Smyrna was a splendid city, the members themselves were poor (compare Revelation 2:9). Polycarp, the disciple of John, became later the leader of the Church in Smyrna, who refused, in 155 A.D., to renounce Christ and was martyred as a consequence. The persecution mentioned in Revelation 2:10 could refer to ten separate attempts to wipe out Christianity prompted by the edicts of ten different Roman rulers (Strauss, page 43). Or, it might refer to the persecution under Trajan which hit Smyrna extra hard. Historically, a ten year persecution against the Church (“ten” signifies in the Bible a period of testing and judgment) occurred under Diocletian and Galerius from 303 to 313 A.D. Subsequently, in 325 A.D., the observance of Passover was prohibited by Emperor Constantine, and in 365 A.D., Sabbath observance was outlawed as well. God’s true Church was forced to flee “into the wilderness” of little recognition in this world for about 1,260 years, to be able to observe God’s laws (Revelation 12:6).

Strauss makes the following comments regarding Constantine and the Catholic Church, on pages 55 and 56:

“Constantine… declared himself a Christian and Christianity to be the religion of the state. Christian leaders were invited to witness the wholesale baptism of whole regiments of soldiers in Constantine’s army. When later almost four hundred bishops met, Constantine was carried on a golden throne and he presided over the council as the recognized head of the church… Today the world is ready to accept the Roman Pope and be subject to him. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be of divine origin, but its ‘deeds’ and ‘doctrine’s are hated by Christ.”

(3) Message to Pergamos (Revelation 2:12-17)

A great altar of Zeus or Jupiter overlooked Pergamos. This town was also the seat of emperor worship. Christians refusing to worship pagan gods or the emperor would often times be killed (compare Revelation 2:13). In addition, Pergamos was a center of healing associated with the temple of Asclepius (or Esculapius) who was worshipped in the form of a serpent (one of the designations of Satan, compare Revelation 12:9).

Christ chided the Church at Pergamos for holding the doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14; compare Jude 10-14; 2 Peter 2:15).

Notice these interesting comments by Strauss, pages 53-54: “Balaam conceived an evil scheme that was to produce the downfall of God’s people. When he concluded that he could not curse them, he proposed to corrupt them. He suggested that the Moabite girls should seduce the men of Israel by inviting them to participate in their idolatrous and immoral feasts. In this evil perpetration he succeeded (Numbers 25:1-3; cf. 31:16), and through this unholy alliance, this unequal yoke, this mixed marriage, Israel fell. Balaam had followed Satan’s old line. When the devil failed to wipe out the godly line through murder (Genesis 4), he resorted to mixture (Genesis 6). This was Balaamism, and it was this evil principle that came into the assembly at Pergamos.”

The Pergamos-era began about 650 A.D. under Constantine of Mananoli. He led hundreds of thousands of Christians who became known as “Paulicians.” A large portion of those were killed, as one author put it, “by hanging, fire and sword.”

(4) Message to Thyatira (compare Revelation 2:18-29)

The city of Thyatira was a commercial center and famous for its temple of Artemis or Diana. A mysterious figure, Jezebel, is
mentioned. Whether a literal woman, a symbolic reference to a great false church (compare Revelation 17) or a reference to the wife of ancient king Ahab, the thought conveyed here is that some in the Church of God had begun to engage in pagan worship of the sun god Baal and his “mother-wife”–the moon goddess Astarte or Isthar (compare 2 Kings 9:22)–including the observance of Sunday and Christmas and Easter celebrations, a doctrine or teaching referred to as the “depths of Satan” (Revelation 2: 24).

Strauss offers this interesting interpretation, on pages 66-67: “Even though the Bible is clear that a woman is in subjection to the man and that a woman is never to usurp authority over the man (1 Timothy 2:1-12), Romanism has reversed this order and millions of Roman Catholic men worship an image of Mary and offer prayers to her… The Jezebel of the last 1,500 years has not changed. Rome never does change. But this Babylon of prophecy will meet with divine judgment when the sovereign Head of the Church comes back to earth again…”

The Thyatira-era began around 1100 with Peter of Bruys in France. He would later become known as Peter Valdez or Peter Waldo, leader of the Waldensians. In the 12th century, Waldensians were known in about 22 European countries. In 1309, they appeared in the Netherlands, and a few years later, Waldensian leaders Walter the Lollard and his brother Raymond preached the gospel in Great Britain. In 1315, records report of 80,000 Waldensians in Bohemia. By 1539, their number had reached 800,000 in Europe.

(5) Message to Sardis (compare Revelation 3:1-6)

The city of Sardis had once been extremely wealthy under the legendary king Croesus. It was still famous in Roman times. Apparently many in Sardis converted to Christianity, but only few remained faithful. Most were, and would be, asleep (compare 1 Thessalonians 5:2).

Christ says in Revelation 3:4 that Sardis had “a few” which had not defiled their garments. Strauss writes, on page 74: “The sad contrast between the ‘many’ and the ‘few’ marks the twofold division of the human race. All men travel on one or the other of these two roads. Those who travel with the crowd and stand for nothing might find a certain feeling of security in doing what the majority do. But it is a false security. The fact that so many persons are doing the same thing does not make it right.”

Historically, the Sardis era began in 1664 when Stephen Mumford was sent by the Church of God in England to Newport, Rhode Island, to establish the mother church of the Church of God in the United States. In about 1860, the Church of God separated from the Adventist movement. Commencing in 1890, Spanish speaking congregations in Chile and Argentina began to keep God’s annual Holy Days.

(6) Message to Philadelphia (compare Revelation 3:7-13)

Philadelphia was a small town. The brethren had “little strength” (Revelation 3:8); they were humble and content in the midst of a corrupt society. This is the only Church with which Jesus does not find any fault. Christ, who has the key of David (Revelation 3:7; compare Isaiah 22: 20-22), promised them to keep them from persecution (Revelation 3:10), and to give them an open door (Revelation 3:8; compare 1 Corinthians 16:9).

Christ said to the church at Philadelphia (Revelation 3:8) that He knew their works, and He approved of them. Strauss explains correctly on page 91 that we “are saved by faith and not by works, but we are saved to work, and for our works we shall be rewarded (Ephesians 2:8-10).”

The Philadelphia ERA began in 1933 with Herbert W. Armstrong’s ministry which would increase in strength and power to become a worldwide work, well recognized by kings, presidents, heads of governments, and influential personalities in the fields of humanity, science and art. At the time of his death in 1986, Mr. Armstrong wondered in a prayer in the presence of the Advisory Counsel of Elders whether he was passing the baton to the Laodicea era. Subsequent events have answered this question in the affirmative.

(7) Message to Laodicea (compare Revelation 3:14-22)

Laodicea was a very prosperous city near Colossae. Christ alluded to this prosperity (compare Revelation 3:17), also by referring to fine wool and eye-salve, two of the town’s products (Revelation 3:18). The city was a banking center as well, and its water supply was channeled from hot springs some distance away, reaching the town “luke-warm” (Revelation 3:16).

Christ said in Revelation 3:15-16 that He wished the Laodiceans were either cold or hot, but that He will spew them out of His mouth, because they were lukewarm. Strauss explains, on pages 97 and 98: “This the Lord is saying to those at Laodicea that if, instead of being lukewarm, they were so cold as to feel the bitterness and severity of that coldness, they would flee to the true warmth of refuge. If we are really cold, and admit to the fact, our confession will lead to the removal of our sin… The Greek word for ‘hot’ … means ‘boiling hot’… the members in the church at Laodicea were not boiling hot; they were not ardent Christians. They had no enthusiasm, no emotion, no zeal, no urgency. It is possible to have a large measure of doctrinal correctness without the fire of spiritual fervor and affection…”

While all the other messages were directed to the angel [either a spirit being or a human church leader] of a particular city, this message is directed to the angel of the “Laodiceans,” [not Laodicea!], showing perhaps the “individuality” of the people. Halley (pp. 707-708) remarks, “Strange picture. A Church of Christ, with Christ Himself on the outside, asking to be let in to one of His own churches.” Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible concurs, stating on p. 650, “The worst case of all seven is a church so self-satisfied as to be totally blind to its true condition. It is so far from what it should be that Jesus stands outside, knocking for admittance to the lives of individuals who call themselves Christians.”

The message to the Laodiceans should serve as a strong warning for us today who are living in the “Laodicea era.” Rather than keeping the doors of our hearts closed, denying entrance to Christ who stands outside knocking, refusing to follow Him and DO what He says, we should obey His command and embrace His promise to His true followers, as recorded in John 14:23: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”

History reveals, as does God’s infallible Word, that Jesus did indeed build His Church (compare Matthew 16:18); that commencing with the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2, God separated individuals whom He called and to whom He gave His Holy Spirit; that throughout some two thousand years of subsequent history, the Church of God has existed–even though its identity has been often overshadowed by false churches; and that even now, in a time when Satan has caused a scattering of God’s people, Jesus Christ still works and rules as the living Head of the Church of God.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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