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There are those who believe that our Lord, in instructing John to write the following messages to the seven churches, has outlined Church history from it’s very beginning to the time when it will be caught up to be with Him, just before He sends judgement upon the world. Although there may have been many other churches, some bigger and more prominent, He probably chose these particular churches because they were a good representation of the dangers that we could expect and that we should avoid. This is why our Lord pronounces a blessing upon those who read, hear, and keep themselves true to His instructions (Rev. 1:3). To each church He says "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." What He said concerning each individual church was most certainly true, but it may also describe the progressive periods of Church history in the order in which Jesus addressed these churches, as well as a sample of what we can expect to find at any given time period. When we examine each of the seven letters to the seven churches we find that in five of them there is a mixture of good and evil, and that they progressively become worse until we find the Lord Himself outside the last church knocking in an attempt to get back in. This should only be considered as the general condition of the majority of Christendom, and not for the whole of it.
From the New Scofield Reference Bible KJV:
The messages to the seven churches have a fourfold reference: (1) local, to the churches actually addressed; (2) admonitory, to all churches in all time as tests by which they may discern their true spiritual state in the sight of God; (3) personal, in the exhortations to him "who hath an ear," and in the promises "to him who overcometh"; and (4) prophetic, as disclosing in two areas the phases in the spiritual history of the church: (a) a pattern that has been repeated again and again through the centuries; and (b) the progress of its spiritual state until the end of the Church Age. It is incredible that in a prophecy covering the church period there should be no such foreview. These messages must contain that foreview if it is in the book at all, for the Church does not appear on earth after 3:22. Again, these messages by their very terms go beyond the local assemblies mentioned. It can be seen that Ephesus (2:1-7), though a local church in the apostle’s day, is typical of the first century church as a whole; Smyrna (2:8-11) characterizes the church under persecution, e.g. from A.D. 100-316; Pergamum (2:12-17), "where Satan’s throne is" (2:13; cp. 2:14-15, and notes), is suggestive of the church mixing with the world, e.g. in the Middle Ages; Thyatira (2:18-29) reveals how evil progresses in the church and idolatry is practiced; Sardis (3:1-6) is representative of the church as dead, yet still having a minority of godly men and women, as during the Reformation; Philadelphia (3:7-13) shows revival and a state of spiritual advance; and Laodicea (3:14-19) is illustrative of the final state of apostasy which the visible church will experience.
From Seiss’s Apocalypse, Rev. 4:1:
In applying the seven epistles to the successive periods in the history of the Church, a succession of pictures of growing apostasy and defection was exhibited, so contrary to current feelings and ideas, that some, perhaps, might be disposed to question the correctness of the interpretation. Some may perhaps think, that if the tendency of the professed Church is ever downward, then the Church must be considered a failure, and the Gospel regarded as inadequate to its purposes. I had not overlooked these bearings of the subject. It is also due to the truth, and to such as are honestly perplexed in adjusting our expositions to the general scheme of Providence and Revelation, that something more should be said.
Observe, then, in the first place, that so far as regards the history of the Church hitherto, it is a simple matter of fact that its course has always been in the line of deterioration; that mischiefs of different sorts have successively assailed it, and made sad havoc of its faith and life; and that from no one of them has it ever recovered, or given signs of its ability or destiny to recover. In a recent course of able Lectures on the Ages of Christendom, I find it announced, as the result of a faithful induction of the facts, that "Ecclesiastical history is, to a large extent, a history of corruptions." . . .
But I may not dwell longer upon this topic now. Whatever defections or judgments befall the nominal Church in any age, this is true, and clearly foreshown in these epistles: that God is never without His witness upon the earth. With all the waning love, and false apostles, and Nicolaitan practices of Ephesus, there were some who could not bear those who were evil; and who endured, labored and suffered for the name of Jesus, and whose fidelity is to be rewarded with the joys of Paradise. With all the poverty and tribulation and reproach of the Smyrnaotes, and the false ones of Satan's synagogue by whom they were afflicted, there were some rich in grace, faithful to the last, and destined to wear the crown of life, unhurt of the second death. With the proximity of the Church of Pergamos to Satan's throne, and the presence in it of the advocates of adulterous alliances, and systematizers of usurpation and evil, it had members who held fast to the Saviour's name, and kept the faith steadfast unto death, who are to receive of the hidden manna, and feast on heavenly bread, and wear the engraved gem of celestial privilege and honor.
Even in Thyatira, where Jezebel herself enacted her damning uncleannesses, there was a remnant who kept aloof from Satan's depths, and done the deeds of faith and charity, and made good their title to share in the judgment of nations, and to receive the morning star. The dearness of Sardis was not so pervading, but a few names were left which had not defiled their garments, which had received the truth, and taught it, and lived it, and which are to walk with Christ in white, and to be confessed in heaven. The Philadelphians, though but a handful in the midst of false ones, and dwellers among those too much at ease in worldly comfort, are still a band of earnest brothers, on whom the doors cannot be shut, at whose feet Satan's synagogue shall be humbled, and who are to be kept out of the trying hour, transferred to the celestial temple, and adorned with the name of God, and the new Jerusalem, and the new name of Christ himself. And in among the sickening lukewarmness, pride, boasting and emptiness of the Laodiceans, there are some chastened ones whom Jesus loves, and some who hear His voice, and open unto Him, and sup with Him, and whose destiny is to sit with Him on His everlasting throne. And if in these seven pictures the whole length of the Church's history is embraced, the fact stands out, in noonday clearness, that God has His saints in every age.
When we survey the characteristics of our times-the unrighteousness, the avarice, the lustfulness, the untruthfulness, the hypocrisy, the impiety, the crime, the hollow-heartedness, and the untold hidden iniquities which prevail in all circles of Church, business and State; when we consider the wickednesses which are perpetrated by people who call themselves Christians, and the shameless worldliness of professors of religion, and the wreck of all distinctive doctrinal belief, and the prostitutions of the house of God and the sacred desk itself to vanity, politics, selfishness, sensuality, and base trickery in the name of Jesus; when we look at the insubordination which is left to run riot in the great majority of so-called Christian families, and the secret vices and concealed blood-guilty crimes of so-called Christian husbands and wives, and of the utter moral emptiness, headiness and incontinence of the mass of the busiest and noisiest modern religionists; when we contemplate the goings forth of sin in these days, like Death on the pale horse, with hell following in its train, and come to count up the names of those in our congregations whom we can confidently set down as true and thorough saints of God-we are sometimes tempted, with the Psalmist, to say, "All men are liars," and to doubt whether God has not resigned His dominion over mankind, and abandoned them to be drifted, by the whirlwinds of their own passions, to irremediable ruin.
But, with all the hard things which we are in honesty and fairness compelled to write against the present population of Christendom, God has not left Himself without witnesses, and still has His true people, who have not kissed their hands nor bowed their knees to the reigning idolatry of the times. Earthy and vile as the congest may be, there is gold in it, as there was an Enoch and a Noah in the generation before the flood, and a Lot even in Sodom itself. Amid all Christianity's corruptions, there has always been some standing out against them. The pure ideal has never failed to produce some proximate realization of itself. Dreary as the annals of the Church appear, both in prophetic and historic records, the student of them still finds his path skirted with spiritual verdure; and in the distant scenery, examples of faith, purity, love, heroism, devotion and obedience, are never once entirely out of view, the loveliest often being found in the by-paths, and encountered where they would be least expected. (End of quote from The Apocalypse: Exposition of the Book of Revelation, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1998 by Biblesoft)
REVELATION 2:1-29.... TO THE angel (messenger) of the assembly (church) in Ephesus write: These are the words of Him Who holds the seven stars [which are the messengers of the seven churches] in His right hand, Who goes about among the seven golden lampstands [which are the seven churches]: I know your industry and activities, laborious toil and trouble, and your patient endurance, and how you cannot tolerate wicked [men] and have tested and critically appraised those who call [themselves] apostles (special messengers of Christ) and yet are not, and have found them to be impostors and liars. I know you are enduring patiently and are bearing up for My name's sake, and you have not fainted or become exhausted or grown weary.
4But I have this [one charge to make] against you: that you have left (abandoned) the love that you had at first [you have deserted Me, your first love]. Remember then from what heights you have fallen. Repent (change the inner man to meet God's will) and do the works you did previously [when first you knew the Lord], or else I will visit you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you change your mind and repent. Yet you have this [in your favor and to your credit]: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans [what they are doing as corrupters of the people], which I Myself also detest. He who is able to hear, let him listen to and give heed to what the Spirit says to the assemblies (churches). To him who overcomes (is victorious), I will grant to eat [of the fruit] of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. [Gen. 2:9; 3:24.]
The Ephesian church could well illustrate the period of the Apostles and early Church fathers of the first two centuries. It was a time of vigorous activity to keep the Church free of wicked men and false teachings, but all that busy engagement had a tendency to cause them to neglect something even more important -- devotion to Christ. The first step away that eventually lead to the apostasy that the Church is now in, was neglect of a proper love relationship to Christ -- when hearts become more attracted to someone or something else. Unless Jesus is our first love we cannot be true witnesses for Him nor can we reflect His light to the world and thus our candlestick is removed, therefore God calls us to repentance.
It is quite possible that what Jesus meant by their "abandoning the love they had at first" was the tendency to become more interested in the work they were doing for Christ than they were in Christ Himself. Then what is being done becomes our work and our church instead of the Lord’s work and church. Many times it truly has become the work of men, instead of being lead and empowered by the Lord in the things we do, too often it is nothing more than the efforts of men for their own glory and not for the glory of God. Jesus is Lord, and that means that He is the one that is to direct and approve all our activities, we are not to attempt things on our own without Him.
Some think that the Nicolaitans were those who crept into the Church and usurped authority and titles of lordship over God’s people, calling themselves bishops and priests. This tendency was evident in the early church and became an increasing problem down through the ages. Those who are able to overcome these worldly tendencies will be granted to eat of the tree of life.
JOHN 14:15.... If you [really] love Me, you will keep (obey) My commands.
8And to the angel (messenger) of the assembly (church) in Smyrna write: These are the words of the First and the Last, Who died and came to life again: [Isa. 44:6.] I know your affliction and distress and pressing trouble and your poverty--but you are rich! and how you are abused and reviled and slandered by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Fear nothing that you are about to suffer. [Dismiss your dread and your fears!] Behold, the devil is indeed about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested and proved and critically appraised, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be loyally faithful unto death [even if you must die for it], and I will give you the crown of life. [Rev. 3:10,11.] He who is able to hear, let him listen to and heed what the Spirit says to the assemblies (churches). He who overcomes (is victorious) shall in no way be injured by the second death.
Jesus found no fault with this church, not even their physical distress and poverty. It is very likely that the ten days referred to in the above passage by our Lord relate to the worst of all the persecutions, under Diocletian, that lasted for 10 years.
12Then to the angel (messenger) of the assembly (church) in Pergamum write: These are the words of Him Who has and wields the sharp two-edged sword: I know where you live--a place where Satan sits enthroned. [Yet] you are clinging to and holding fast My name, and you did not deny My faith, even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed (martyred) in your midst--where Satan dwells.
14Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: you have some people there who are clinging to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to set a trap and a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, [to entice them] to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols and to practice lewdness [giving themselves up to sexual vice]. [Num. 25:1,2; 31:16.] You also have some who in a similar way are clinging to the teaching of the Nicolaitans [those corrupters of the people] which thing I hate. Repent [then]! Or else I will come to you quickly and fight against them with the sword of My mouth. He who is able to hear, let him listen to and heed what the Spirit says to the assemblies (churches). To him who overcomes (conquers), I will give to eat of the manna that is hidden, and I will give him a white stone with a new name engraved on the stone, which no one knows or understands except he who receives it. [Ps. 78:24; Isa. 62:2.]
The teachings of Balaam are probably referred to as an example of the progressive deterioration that was happening, it is interesting to note that while the Ephesian Church resisted the works of the Nicolaitans, the Pergamum church allowed those who held to these practices to remain a part of their church.
18And to the angel (messenger) of the assembly (church) in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, Who has eyes that flash like a flame of fire, and Whose feet glow like bright and burnished and white-hot bronze: [Dan. 10:6.] I know your record and what you are doing, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your recent works are more numerous and greater than your first ones.
20But I have this against you: that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess [claiming to be inspired], and who is teaching and leading astray my servants and beguiling them into practicing sexual vice and eating food sacrificed to idols. [1 Kings 16:31; 2 Kings 9:22,30.] I gave her time to repent, but she has no desire to repent of her immorality [symbolic of idolatry] and refuses to do so. Take note: I will throw her on a bed [of anguish], and those who commit adultery with her [her paramours] I will bring down to pressing distress and severe affliction, unless they turn away their minds from conduct [such as] hers and repent of their doings. And I will strike her children (her proper followers) dead [thoroughly exterminating them]. And all the assemblies (churches) shall recognize and understand that I am He Who searches minds (the thoughts, feelings, and purposes) and the [inmost] hearts, and I will give to each of you [the reward for what you have done] as your work deserves. [Ps. 62:12; Jer. 17:10.] But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not explored and known the depths of Satan, as they say--I tell you that I do not lay upon you any other [fresh] burden: Only hold fast to what you have until I come. And he who overcomes (is victorious) and who obeys My commands to the [very] end [doing the works that please Me], I will give him authority and power over the nations; and he shall rule them with a sceptre (rod) of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, and [his power over them shall be] like that which I Myself have received from My Father; [Ps. 2:8,9.] and I will give him the Morning Star. He who is able to hear, let him listen to and heed what the [Holy] Spirit says to the assemblies (churches).
REVELATION 3:1-22.... AND TO the angel (messenger) of the assembly (church) in Sardis write: These are the words of Him Who has the seven Spirits of God [the sevenfold Holy Spirit] and the seven stars: I know your record and what you are doing; you are supposed to be alive, but [in reality] you are dead. Rouse yourselves and keep awake, and strengthen and invigorate what remains and is on the point of dying; for I have not found a thing that you have done [any work of yours] meeting the requirements of My God or perfect in His sight. So call to mind the lessons you received and heard; continually lay them to heart and obey them, and repent. In case you will not rouse yourselves and keep awake and watch, I will come upon you like a thief, and you will not know or suspect at what hour I will come.
4Yet you still have a few [persons'] names in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes, and they shall walk with Me in white, because they are worthy and deserving. Thus shall he who conquers (is victorious) be clad in white garments, and I will not erase or blot out his name from the Book of Life; I will acknowledge him [as Mine] and I will confess his name openly before My Father and before His angels. [Ps. 69:28; Dan. 12:1.] He who is able to hear, let him listen to and heed what the [Holy] Spirit says to the assemblies (churches).
The highlighted portion above seems to indicate that God writes the name of every person born into this world into the book of life, and that it remains there until such a time as this person has shown himself to be beyond redemption. There are other portions of Scripture that seem to indicate that at some particular time the names of those who receive Christ as their Lord and Savior are entered into the book of life, but this is probably referring to the fact that their name is still there.
7And to the angel (messenger) of the assembly (church) in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the Holy one, the True one, He Who has the key of David, Who opens and no one shall shut, Who shuts and no one shall open: [Isa. 22:22.] I know your [record of] works and what you are doing. See! I have set before you a door wide open which no one is able to shut; I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept My Word and guarded My message and have not renounced or denied My name. Take note! I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say they are Jews and are not, but lie--behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and learn and acknowledge that I have loved you. [Isa. 43:4; 49:23; 60:14.] Because you have guarded and kept My word of patient endurance [have held fast the lesson of My patience with the expectant endurance that I give you], I also will keep you [safe] from the hour of trial (testing) which is coming on the whole world to try those who dwell upon the earth. I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one may rob you and deprive you of your crown. He who overcomes (is victorious), I will make him a pillar in the sanctuary of My God; he shall never be put out of it or go out of it, and I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which descends from My God out of heaven, and My own new name. [Isa. 62:2; Ezek. 48:35.] He who can hear, let him listen to and heed what the Spirit says to the assemblies (churches).
As with the church at Smyrna, Jesus finds no fault with this church, not even it’s lack of power. It’s also interesting to note that Jesus promises to keep them safe from an hour of trial that would come upon the whole world at a future date, probably referring to the Tribulation period. This is the sixth church, the one immediately preceding the seventh and last church of Laodicea – the apostate church of the end times. The instructions that Jesus gives to this church are for us today in order for us to avoid the great apostasy of the now forming Laodicean church. His instructions are that we should keep His Word and hold fast to what we have been given in order to avoid the deception that would rob us of our reward.
14And to the angel (messenger) of the assembly (church) in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the trusty and faithful and true Witness, the Origin and Beginning and Author of God's creation: [Isa. 55:4; Prov. 8:22.] I know your [record of] works and what you are doing; you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth! For you say, I am rich; I have prospered and grown wealthy, and I am in need of nothing; and you do not realize and understand that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. [Hos. 12:8.]
18Therefore I counsel you to purchase from Me gold refined and tested by fire, that you may be [truly] wealthy, and white clothes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nudity from being seen, and salve to put on your eyes, that you may see. Those whom I [dearly and tenderly] love, I tell their faults and convict and convince and reprove and chasten [I discipline and instruct them]. So be enthusiastic and in earnest and burning with zeal and repent [changing your mind and attitude]. [Prov. 3:12.] Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears and listens to and heeds My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will eat with him, and he [will eat] with Me. He who overcomes (is victorious), I will grant him to sit beside Me on My throne, as I Myself overcame (was victorious) and sat down beside My Father on His throne. He who is able to hear, let him listen to and heed what the [Holy] Spirit says to the assemblies (churches).
This is the condition that we find in most of the churches of today, believing that prosperity through worldly practices is acceptable with God, but ignorant of their true spiritual condition.
What does all this mean to us, and what lessons can we draw from these descriptions of the churches and benefit from?
1. The church in Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7): The first century Church
2. The church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11): The persecuted Church
3. The church in Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-17): The Church that began to live to close to the world. I know where you live--a place where Satan sits enthroned.
4. The church in Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29): The Church of the popes
5. The church in Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6): The dead Church of the popes before the Reformation
6. The church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13): The Reformation Church that escapes the Tribulation period:
We must be careful that we are not drawn by the appealing and deceitful practices of the Laodicean church or present apostate Christendom are promoting. The danger is great, and the call of Christ is to come out from among them – not to join them (Rev. 18:4). For a list of the dangers to avoid see this website’s page, Satan’s Vast Network Of Deception & Opposition.
7. The church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22): The Church that goes into the Tribulation