Two key chapters in the book of Revelation explain the history of God's Church
—where it has gone astray, and what you need to do about it!
Ideas circulating among Christians today are significant in ways most do not realize. New ideas and new controversies cause some groups to move together, and others to move apart. But why is this happening, and what does it all mean? Does Scripture give us any clue?
Yes, it does! In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John wrote about events that would lead to the end of this age. The link between John's day and the time of Christ's return is the prophetic time period pictured by seven Church eras outlined in Revelation 2–3.
The letters to the seven churches describe actual conditions in each church at the end of the first century ad. However, the letters are also prophecy about the future. The seven churches were geographically arranged in sequence on a mail route in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Scholars realize that this sequence portrays seven eras of God's Church, from the days of the Apostles to the end of the age. The church conditions described in the letters prophetically describe conditions that would prevail in each successive era. John addressed the book of Revelation "to the seven churches" (1:4), indicating that the letters to each church were to be read in all the churches. Thus, a third purpose of the letters is to convey universal lessons that describe and deal with universal human tendencies. We need to understand what these letters reveal about the eras of the Church—especially our modern era—and how their lessons apply to us today.
Ephesus: Lost Its First Love
Ephesus was the leading city of Asia Minor—but it was in a state of decline. The Ephesian church is symbolic of the Apostolic era of the first and second centuries ad. This church is commended for its works—the preaching, enduring and serving by the early disciples (Revelation 2:1–3). Even they had to discern between false teachers and true Christian ministers. However, like the fading glory of Ephesus, the Church at the end of the first century was told that "you have left your first love" (Revelation 2:4). God warned that, unless they repented, He would cease to use them for His purpose (Revelation 2:5).
John equates "love" with walking in the truth and keeping the commandments (2 John 6). Concerning the effect of false teachers, he warns, "Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for," including our reward (2 John 7–8). In 3 John, he urges the Church to serve the brethren and to "become fellow workers for the truth" (vv. 4–8). Though Jesus emphasized humility (Matthew 5:5) and love for neighbor (John 15:12), the Church at the end of the first century contained individuals who loved preeminence over others—an attitude the Bible calls evil (3 John 9–11).
The church at Ephesus had lost its love—for God, for the Truth, for doing the Work and for the brethren. In place of these key fundamentals, people were listening to deceptive doctrines (see Revelation 2:6). For some, holding on to a position was more important than holding on to the Truth. Even today, some are more concerned with holding a position—perhaps serving as an elder or deacon, passing out songbooks or leading a choir—than with doing the Work of God. The lesson of the Ephesian era is clear: Get back on track—do the Work. Preach the Gospel with zeal, love the Truth and love each other.
The New Testament Church, which began in the 30s, was beginning to fragment in the 90s, when John wrote his epistles and the book of Revelation. The Apostle Paul indicates that this diversity of opinion had been present for some time (1 Corinthians 1:10–13), and was causing people to fall away (2 Timothy 1:15). In just over 60 years, the Church founded by Jesus Christ was already rife with division and doctrinal strife. This should be a sobering lesson for us today!
Smyrna: Faithful in Trial
The church at Smyrna offers another powerful and timeless lesson. Smyrna was a prosperous, bustling, beautifully planned port city, but Christians there faced considerable persecution. The Smyrna era appears to cover the third and fourth centuries ad, a period of intense Roman persecution of the Church. While the Smyrna era is commended for its works and being rich in faith (Revelation 2:9), it is urged to be "faithful until death" in order to receive a reward (Revelation 2:10). The church at Smyrna illustrates the vital importance of endurance—of holding on to your beliefs during difficult times. Jesus said that "he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 24:13). The Apostle Paul wrote that only those who finish the race will be given a prize (1 Corinthians 9:24–27). Elders are admonished that they must be found "holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught" (Titus 1:9). If your foundation is solid (Matthew 7:24–29), and you take time to "prove" what the Truth is (1 Thessalonians 5:21, KJV), you will be prepared to endure when the going becomes rough.
Historical sources reveal that Christians of the Smyrna era believed in the Millennium—the thousand-year reign of Christ and the saints on earth. They would have nothing to do with the Roman Saturnalia and Brumalia (sources of modern Saturnalia customs). They tithed and did not believe in an immortal soul. They kept the Sabbath and the Holy Days, and followed the dietary laws of Scripture (see Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 15). It is no wonder they were persecuted; they did not follow prevailing social and religious customs. Smyrna is one of only two churches to receive no correction. The lesson of the Smyrna era is simple, but vital and timeless: Remain faithful in trials—endure to the end and do not give up! It is a lesson we cannot afford to forget!
Pergamos: The Compromising Church
Pergamos was the capital city of Asia Minor, home to imposing temples dedicated to Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Asclepius (the healing cult) and Caesar. Its citizens were sophisticated and literate. The church at Pergamos is admonished for permitting false teachers to put "stumbling blocks" in the way of believers (Revelation 2:14). While people may not initially believe false teachings, tolerating the spread of deceptive ideas will eventually lead many to stumble spiritually and compromise the doctrines of true Apostolic Christianity. The Bible reveals that not only can false teachers cause people to stumble; so also can trials, tribulations, persecutions (Matthew 13:21) and poor examples (1 Corinthians 8:9). Some will even stumble over the Word of God and the teachings of Jesus Christ (Malachi 2:8; 1 Corinthians 1:23).
The Pergamos era appears to extend from about 500–1000ad. It was during this time—the Dark Ages when the Roman Church dominated Europe—that Ishtar, Saturnalia, Halloween and the philosophical ideas of the Trinity and the immortal soul were absorbed from paganism into the dominant church. Intellectual sophistication, human reason and the desire to be "progressive" often leads to abandoning fundamental biblical truth The lesson of Pergamos is pointed: Do not tolerate false teachings or those who promote them—compromise causes people to stumble; Christians must stand for the Truth. This advice is particularly appropriate for the Church today!
Thyatira: The Corrupt Church
Thyatira was an inland city located on a major trade route. It was a commercial center with many trade guilds, and was the home of a military garrison. Its patron deity was a warrior goddess. To participate in the local economy would have required membership in trade guilds that sponsored idolatrous annual festivals—thus putting pressure on Christians to compromise to fit in. The Thyatira era appears to stretch from about the 11th century to the 16th century, including the Reformation and Counter-Reformation periods when many left the established Roman Church. During this time, in central and southern Europe, we find groups of Christians who believed in the Sabbath, some of the Holy Days, tithing, adult baptism and the dietary laws, and rejected doctrines of the Trinity, immortal soul, purgatory, and the popularized concepts of heaven and hell. However, over time and under the pressure of Counter-Reformation forces, many drifted back into prevailing practices by sitting in Sunday services, observing pagan holidays and serving in armies to avoid persecution. Many suffered and died as a result, as we see from the history of the Waldenses.
The lesson of Thyatira is blunt: Do not pretend to go along with false teachings for appearance's sake—do not compromise the Truth, do not go back into ways you have been called out of or you will suffer tribulation. Scripture contains very graphic warnings about this (see Deuteronomy 12:29–31; Jeremiah 10:2; 2 Corinthians 6:14–18; 2 Peter 2:18–22). We are specifically told that at the end of the age, many professing Christians will be "deluded" into accepting false but fashionable religious beliefs, because they did not know the Truth, or were willing to compromise the Truth they once knew (2 Thessalonians 2:1–13). Today, as many who once attended the Church of God are returning to their former beliefs, Paul's message rings clear, to "stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Spiritual compromise leads to spiritual corruption. It happened before, it is happening today—and we need to be alert!
Sardis: The Dead Church
Only a few comments are made about Sardis, a city once famous for arts, crafts and wealth. Sardis appears to correspond to the Church era from about the 16th century to the early 20th century. The main description of the Sardis era is that it was a dead church (Revelation 3:1). Although it had a recognizable name and pieces of the Truth, it never did much with that precious information. During this era, we find a number of small congregations—in England, America and other parts of the world—keeping the Sabbath and other doctrines of original Christianity. However, most were (or remain) tiny and insignificant groups, of which few people have ever heard! The Sardis church was also urged to be watchful—but, as we will see, they did not know what to watch for! They lacked a vital key for understanding Bible prophecy.
The lesson of Sardis is sobering: Do not let the Truth die—hold on to the Truth you have been given; bear fruit with this precious Truth, or be blotted out of the Book of Life! Sadly, Scripture indicates that despite these strong warnings, many believers at the end of the age will "turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (2 Timothy 4:4). Isaiah wrote of a time before Christ returns when Truth will be "fallen in the street" (Isaiah 59:14). The cost will be high if we let the Truth die, failing to learn from the lessons of the Bible and history!
Philadelphia: Small but Faithful
In contrast to the other churches on the mail route, Philadelphia was not a wealthy, sophisticated or influential city. Located on an easily defended hill beside a major highway, it functioned as an outpost for spreading Greek and Roman culture (and later Christianity) to the surrounding region. The city was destroyed several times by earthquakes, but each time was rebuilt. It still exists today. Its name means "brotherly love." The Philadelphia era appears to have begun in the 1930s—about the time radio became popular and just before the age of television. In the last 75 years, the Church of God has used mass media to reach millions of people—proclaiming the Gospel of the coming Kingdom of God, and warning the world to watch for the signs of the end of this age and the return of Jesus Christ. This was the mission Jesus gave to His Church (Matthew 4:23; 10:6–7). This message was to be prominent at the end of the age (Matthew 24:14). Understanding the identity of modern Israelite nations—a key to understanding Bible prophecy—was restored to the Church of God during the modern Philadelphia era.
God promised to provide the Philadelphia era with an open door—a door no man could shut—for preaching the Gospel. God commends this small church for its persistence in fulfilling its mission, and for holding on, without compromise, to His precious Truth (Revelation 3:7–8). For faithfully doing a Work and holding onto the Truth, not just attending a church of their choice, Philadelphian Christians are promised protection from the coming Tribulation (Revelation 3:10). The lesson of Philadelphia is simple: Remain faithful to Truth—do the work of preaching the Gospel, love the brethren and let no one take your crown. We cannot afford to "drop the ball" at this vital moment of history! Our salvation and our reward are at stake if we do!
Laodicea: Lukewarm and Laid-Back
Laodicea is a study in contrasts. From history, we learn that Laodicea was a proud and prosperous city, yet it played only a minor role in the spread of Greek culture. Its imposing fortifications gave the appearance of strength and promoted a feeling of security, yet its valley location and its exposed water supply made the city quite vulnerable. Laodicea was a banking center with a strong sense of independence. This independent attitude is reflected in its name, which in Greek means "the people decide" or "the people judge" (see Strong's Exhaustive Concordance). The Laodicean era describes the condition of the Church of God just before the return of Jesus Christ. It is not a pretty picture. Perhaps this is why some try to deny that these seven churches represent seven historical eras—understanding this truth may make some Laodiceans uncomfortable!
The charge against the Laodiceans is their lukewarm attitude (Revelation 3:16). Their wealth and prosperity fosters an attitude of worldliness. They are lukewarm about the Truth, obedience to the commandments and their mission to preach the Gospel. They are very independent, and have "need of nothing" (Revelation 3:17). Laodicea had a medical school noted for its eye-salve, yet the Bible describes its people as blind to their own spiritual condition. Intellectual "sophistication" prevented them from seeing their own lack of spiritual discernment. Laodiceans produced fine black wool clothing, yet the Bible calls them naked, in need of white garments (Revelation 3:17–18). In a sense, naked Laodiceans lack vital pieces of spiritual armor—faith, love, perseverance, commitment to the Truth and godly fear of disobeying God's commandments. They may be failing to exercise the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 6:10–19) to stand firm in times of trial and preach the Gospel with boldness.
The picture of Laodicea is of a sophisticated and self-sufficient church that trusts in its own wealth, numbers and wisdom. It appears strong, stable and unified, but it is internally divided. Its independent-minded people unknowingly reject the leadership of Jesus Christ while they do their own thing! The "democratic" (people-deciding) aspects of the Laodicean era can extend to decisions about doctrine, organization, governance, mission and methods. This lukewarm attitude is prophesied to become dominant in the Church of God at the end of the age. The lesson of Laodicea is urgent: Wake up before it is too late, and ask God to open your eyes to see your own spiritual condition—repent of complacency, compromise, materialism and stubborn independence; respond to the leadership of Jesus Christ and do not lose your reward!
The letters to the seven churches—and the seven Church eras they represent—contain important lessons! If we heed these lessons, we will gain a reward from Jesus Christ. John advised all seven churches: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 3:22). Do we understand how the lessons apply to each of us today?