Ever wondered about who exactly the churches were that were mentioned in the book of Revelation? Have you ever wondered why six out of seven of them were chastised? Find out what was wrong and how these problems are still a threat to any church today. The book of Revelation is a book of types, allegories and symbols. While there is frequently a literal application to its message, there is an allegorical application to most of it. For example, there are messages to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (Asia Minor - in what is now Turkey). While there were seven actual churches that needed to hear what the Spirit was saying to them, even the messages to them are prophetic.
The seven churches are a type of seven eras in the history of the church - starting with the early church and ending with the church in the latter days. The messages they received are a prophetic preview of the seven great church ages that would occur between Pentecost and the end of the church age. The Lord followed a pattern in His messages to the churches. He began with a commendation of their good points, followed with a condemnation of their weaknesses. He then gave them counsel that would help them keep the church in existence, and finally a challenge - an offer to those who overcome. These strengths, weaknesses and counsel prophetically apply to the great church ages also. Please note that some of these dates are estimates, and that it is not always possible to know the exact date of transition from one church age to another. There may even be some overlap in the ages. It is important to know the criticism the Lord had for each age, so that we may try to avoid the same problems today. Let us consider each age, with special emphasis on the dangers of the age we live in now.
The Ephesian Age - The Apostolic Church, 30-300 A.D. Ephesus was the principal city of the province of Asia. It was both the religious and commercial center for the region. The word "Ephesus" means "desirable." As a major trade center, it was quite cosmopolitan - a sort of crossroads for Europe and Asia. The city contained one of the ancient wonders of the world - the temple of Diana. Recall that when Paul was planting the church in the city, there was a riot wherein the city chanted for two hours, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." (Such misguided zeal; can we shout about the greatness of God for two hours?) Ephesus means "desirable" and is a reference to the early, apostolic church. Consider what Jesus said to the church and see how it relates to the age of the early church. Revelation 2:2-3,6 contains commendations. Ephesus was:
- An evangelistic church (works and labor)
- A patient church (He knew their patience)
- A separated church (cannot bear them that are evil)
- An orthodox church (they rejected false apostles)
- A persecuted but patient church (they bore)
- A zealous church (they could not abide the false Nicolaitans)
This is an apt description of the strengths of the early, or apostolic, church. It began as a very evangelistic church; starting with just 120 in the Upper Room, and spreading throughout Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, and then the uttermost part of the earth. It was a patient church - or a church that learned patience. They thought the Lord would restore the kingdom to Israel at His resurrection, Acts 1:6, but learned to wait for His return. They saw Jerusalem fall in 70 A.D. - eliminating the temple and the nation, and they learned to wait for God to work. They thought John would live until He came back, but they learned patience, John 21:23. They were a separated church. They did not join in with apostate Judaism, nor did they stay in fellowship with those who deviated from the truth. Diotrophes, Hymanaes, Philetus, and others were not accepted. They withdrew themselves from any who walked disorderly. II Thessalonians 3:6. In this, we see that the early church was an orthodox church. Doctrine was important to its leaders. Modern Christianity is saying that doctrine doesn't matter, but the early church knew that it did. When a preacher deferred from the truth, he overthrew the faith of all who followed him. II Timothy 2:18. The early church was a persecuted church. II Thessalonians 1:4-5. They were first persecuted by the Jews, and later by the Roman Empire. And the first century church was a zealous church. II Corinthians 7:11.
They sold possessions to assist the work of God. Acts 2:45. But the message to the church at Ephesus contained condemnation as well as commendation. Revelation 2:4 says the Lord had somewhat against the church because it had left its first love. Sadly, that was true of the early church, too. Forty years into the church age, iniquity was creeping in. Jude had to change the theme of his letter from a discussion of common salvation to contending for the faith that was once delivered to the saints. Jude 3. The counsel to Ephesus was to remember, to repent and to go back and do their first works over again. They were losing something very precious. If they did not re-gain a hold on that that they were losing, the Lord was going to take away the candlestick.
That was typical language too. The early church was falling away from the truth and the order the Lord had given them. Because they did not follow the counsel of the Lord and His apostles, the candlestick was removed, and the early church era came to an end. In each church age, a challenge was made to inspire overcomers. This means that there was a small group in each age where Bride members were being made ready. To the first century church, the challenge was an offer of the tree of life to those who overcame. That tree of life will be on the new earth. Revelation 22:2, 14. The Smyrnan Age - The Martyr Church, 100-313 A.D. The city of Smyrna was located some 40 miles north of Ephesus. It was a beautiful city located on a fine bay, on the major trade route between Rome and India and Persia. It had considerable notoriety for its schools of science and medicine, for its fine architecture and its wide streets.
The temple of Bacchus, the god of wine, was there, and it was the birthplace of Homer. Revelation 2:8-11 contains the message to the church. The members were commended because they had suffered poverty for the cause of Christ. Many likely belonged to the various labor guilds prior to conversion, but were expelled when they converted. They lost the right to ply their profession, and may have gone bankrupt. But they were rich - because their souls were prospering. III John 2. Smyrna means "myrrh" or martyrdom, which the Lord considered to be a sweet sacrifice.
That church had suffered persecution, and was to have "tribulation ten days." While that may have been literal, it was also a type of the ten Roman persecutions that would occur during the Smyrnan church age. It is believed that five million saints were martyred in the period between 100-313 A.D. In proportion to total world population, that would be like martyrdom of in excess of 100 million Christians today. During the era of 100 - 313 A.D., the church was persecuted, and trying to hold to what Jesus and His apostles had given them. Ten Roman Emperors persecuted the church:
- Nero - killed Paul and Peter.
- Domitan - Killed thousands, banished John to Patmos.
- Trajan - Passed laws forbidding Christianity; Burned Ignatius (John's disciple) at the stake.
- Pius - Killed Polycarp, another of John's disciples.
- Marcus Aurelius - Considered Christianity an absurd superstition. Beheaded Justin Martyr, an early writer and defender of the faith.
- Severus - Killed many, including Origen's father.
- Thracian - Commanded that all Christian leaders were to be killed.
- Decius - Determined to eliminate Christianity from the entire earth.
- Valerian - Slew the leaders of the major churches.
- Diocletian - The last and most severe persecution.
For ten years believers were hunted down in forests and in caves. They were burned, thrown to the wild beasts, and tortured by every means imaginable. Only Smyrna and Philadelphia did not have any condemnation. Smyrna was suffering so much, that the Lord felt that it was enough. The persecution was doing a work in their lives. The counsel to the Smyrnan church was to be fearless and to be faithful. (Verse 10: Fear not...be thou faithful unto death.) That challenge applied prophetically to that church age: they were not to fear the fearsome persecution, and remain faithful to what they had. The challenge was to overcome so they might receive a crown of life and not be hurt of the second death. The Pergamon Age - The Compromising Church, 313-590 A.D. Pergamos was the political capital of the Roman province of Asia. It was about 75 miles north of Ephesus (3 days journey by foot - maybe a full day on horse.) It boasted one of the finest libraries in the world, 200,000 books in the days before the printing press. (Mark Antony later gave that library to Cleopatra.) The church at Pergamos was commended for keeping the faith, in spite of martyrdom. But the Lord had somewhat against them: Satan was dwelling there, and false doctrine was taking hold. They were following the teachings of modern Balaams. The prophecy applies to the church in the period 313 - 590 A.D. Pergamos means "marriage" and this refers to an unholy alliance between church and state that required the church to compromise to gain acceptance. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, and signed the Edict of Toleration in 313. That law granted freedom to Christians. He promised white robes and gold pieces to all Christians, drawing in many pagans. Christianity became fashionable for government officials, and those engaged in commerce. During this period, the church embraced many false doctrines, following after Balaam. What was the doctrine of Balaam?
- He taught that you did not have to be a part of Israel, following Moses at the time, to have a wonderful relationship with God.
- He was covetous, offering religious services for monetary gain. II Peter 2:15.
- He tried to bend God's Word to his own will, at tempting to curse those whom God did not curse. Jude 11.
- He concluded that if you cannot curse God's people, then corrupt them with worldliness and immorality. Revelation 2:14.
Even so the church in the fourth to seventh centuries deviated so far in doctrine. They abandoned the idea of a separated people, joining in with the ruling element of society. The church became accepted and wealthy - as fine structures were built and worship became more ceremonial and liturgical. Preaching against sin diminished, lest it reduce cash flow. Sin in high places was overlooked because wealthy patrons endowed the church. Worldliness and immorality crept in. Some of the false teachings that were accepted in this age were:
- 300 A.D. Praying for the dead.
- 300 A.D. Making the sign of the cross.
- 325 A.D. Jesus co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.
- 375 A.D. Worship of saints and angels
- 385 A.D. The trinity.
- 394 A.D. Institution of the mass.
- 431 A.D. The worship of Mary.
- 526 A.D. The doctrine of extreme unction.
- 593 A.D. The doctrine of purgatory.
The counsel given to Pergamos was to repent. The worldly church of that era needed to repent or lose out. The church did not do so, as the man of sin began to arise, and the apostatizing church became the Roman Catholic Church. The challenge to the few true believers in this age was to overcome, and receive hidden manna to eat. This bespeaks of a private and special relationship with Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the true believers had to go to Jesus outside the camp of organized religion in order to worship in Spirit and in truth. The Thyatiran Age - Roman Catholic Church, 590-1517, A.D. The city of Thyatira was located about 35 miles southeast of Pergamos. It was founded by Alexander the Great, and was the headquarters of many guilds (like labor unions), such as tanners, potters, weavers, dyers, robe-makers, etc. Lydia, a seller of purple who was Paul's first convert in Europe, was from Thyatira. The Lord was able to commend the church for five things: 1) good works, 2) charity, 3) service, 4) faith, 5) patience - and He mentioned works again, the last more than the first. Revelation 2:19. But He also condemned the church for listening to the prophetess, Jezebel. The church was being seduced into doing things that the Lord could not approve. Thyratira means "continual sacrifice," and refers to the church age that began in 590 and continued until 1517. This was the era of the Popes, and the unbloody sacrifice of the mass, which is offered continually in Catholic churches. In the prior age, the ruling pastor of the largest church in a city began to exercise authority over other churches in the area, and took on the title of bishop. This was contrary to the instructions of Jesus. They were not to be masters; they were to be servants. Matthew 23:10-11. The most powerful bishops were those of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. All of these bishops were called popes. The bishop of Rome began to gain the ascendancy over the others. Gregory I, who lived from 590 to 694, was the first true pope. He consolidated Christendom under his authority. Though he was basically a good and moral man, he did more than any other person to establish the office that Paul called "the man of sin" and the "son of perdition." II Thessalonians 2:3. The institution of the church was seduced by a Jezebel-like spirit to rule the world. This truly was the seventh head of the beast.
There were a series of evil popes. Time precludes any serious examination of the evils of the system that ruled the known world during the Dark Ages. The counsel given to Thyatira was only directed to the few, the small remnant that had not known this doctrine, nor the depths of Satan. This is a reference to the thin red line, obscured in history, of true believers. Rome martyred them as heretics, but there has been a seed that served the Lord in every generation. Psalms 22:30. The challenge to overcomers was that they would rule the world with a rod of iron. How fitting to tell the persecuted minority, feeling the wrath of a system that claimed to rule the world for Christ, that they would actually be the rulers one day.
The Sardinian Age - Reformation Church, 1517-1700, A.D. The city of Sardis was 30 miles south of Thyatira. It was noted for its great wealth, and has the distinction of being the place where coins were first minted. Sardis means "remnant" and is a type of the Protestant Reformation. The commendation was that there were a few, a small remnant, that did not defile their garments and would walk with Him in while. The Lord hates any garment spotted by the flesh. Jude 23. Our righteousness is as filthy rage. Isaiah 64:6. White linen is the imputed righteousness the saints receive from Jesus Christ. Revelation 19:8. The great doctrine that launched the Protestant Reformation is that the just shall live by faith. Salvation does not come through indulgences, nor from saying Hail Mary, nor from praying the Rosary; we cannot get righteous enough to be accepted by the Father. We must have His righteousness. Philippians 3:9. The condemnation of Sardis was that they had a name to make it seem that they lived, but they were dead. The Protestant Reformation died aborning.
They lifted up the name of Jesus, proclaiming that salvation was by faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. But they stopped short of the full salvation experience – they did not embrace Holy Ghost baptism with the evidence of speaking with other tongues. They were not quickened by the Spirit, and were thus still dead in trespasses and sins. Ephesians 2:1. They had a name that they lived, but were still dead. The counsel to Sardis was to be watchful and strengthen those things that were ready to die. Their work was not perfect. The Reformation church was not the complete restoration of a New Testament church. And yet there was still that small remnant of true believers who barely hung on.
They were ready to die, but clung to life. The challenge to the overcomers of that age that their name was written in the Lamb's book of life and that their name would be called when they were presented to the Father at the time of the Rapture. The Philadelphian Age - Revival Church, 1700-1900, A.D. The city of Philadelphia was a center of Greek culture located about 30 miles southeast of Sardis. It was noted for its famous wineries. The city had been destroyed by an earthquake in 17 A.D., but was quickly re-built by Tiberius Caesar. This church was commended because it had a little strength, and did not deny His name. They had good works and kept the word of God through tribulation. Philadelphia means "brotherly love" and is a type of the revival church. In type, this refers to the second wave of Reformation – led by men such as John Wesley, George Whitefield, and D.L. Moody. The Lord set before the Philadelphian church an open door.
The corresponding church age had an open door. It began with the Great Awakening, and progressed to great missionary efforts – to Africa, to China, and around the globe. He had nothing bad to say about the church at Philadelphia. They were very zealous. Just as an evangelistic and holiness zeal characterized the church age from 1700 –1900. Laodicean Age - Worldly Church, 1900-present. The last church was Laodicea, a city about 45 miles southeast of Philadelphia, and about 90 miles east of Ephesus. It was a very wealthy banking center and was famous for its cellyrium, an eye-salve.
It was graced with wonderful buildings, temples and theatres. The inhabitants were materially well-off but spiritually empty. Of all the seven churches, the only one that the Lord had nothing good to say about was Laodicea. Can the Lord say much good about the church age that we are in? When He comes back, will He find faith on earth? Luke 18:8. The Laodicean age is the final church age and the one we are living in. It is somewhat unclear as to when it started. We still have some of the lingering effects of the Philadelphian age, but we are in the age of Laodicea.
The word means "people's rights," and points to a worldly church. I believe that the age began in 1901, when the Holy Ghost fell in Topeka, Kansas, and the Pentecostal movement began. This has had a powerful effect on some, and especially the Body of Christ, but if you look at Christendom as a whole, and the churches of Babylon, you see why it is an age that the Lord condemned. The condemnation on Laodicea was due to its self-deception and utter lack of the important things it needed. The church thought it was rich and increased with goods and needed nothing. But in reality it was poor and wretched and miserable and blind. It thought it was hot, but in reality it was lukewarm. They lacked the things that they so desperately needed. Even so, modern Christianity is materially-successful, and spiritually lacking. It thinks it is rich; but it lacks the necessary things. It thinks it is hot; but it is lukewarm. We must be constantly vigilant, lest the spirit of this church age invade this part of the Body of Christ. The Lord counseled the church to obtain the three things that were most lacking: gold tried in the fire, white raiment, and eye-salve. The gold is that the result of a refining process, what remains after the dross is burned out. It is a faith that has been hardened by adversity. White raiment is the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Eye-salve will allow them to see what is important – from God's perspective. The challenge to overcomers in this age is to do the right thing, in order to be rewarded with the ability to share the throne of Christ's glory.