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The Seven Churches of Revelation – Part One – By Ed Wood

In the second and third chapters of Revelation, Jesus had messages for the seven churches which existed in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) at the end of the first century A.D. This was the time at what would ultimately become the last book of the Bible was given to the apostle John, the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 20:2), while he was exiled on the island of Patmos.

A reasonable question for us would be: “How does it apply to us now almost 20 centuries later?” Were Jesus’ words intended only for those churches at that time, or do they have significance for the present day?

The answer is that many Bible scholars believe that every one of those ancient churches were also prefigurements of churches which were to follow. Let’s look at each one of them and see if this is a valid claim. First, the introduction:

Revelation {1:12-16} And I* turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks [one] like unto the Son of man**, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and [his] hairs [were] white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes [were] as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance [was] as the sun shineth in his strength.

*John ** Jesus

This is followed by an explanation by Jesus of what the candlesticks and stars represent:

Revelation {1:19-20} Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter; The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels* of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches. * From the Greek aggelos which means “messenger” (Strong’s Concordance). It can refer to a heavenly messenger or a human one. In this case and in the passages to the churches which follow, it is most likely directed to their respective human chief pastors who served as “messengers of the Word.” It wouldn’t have been necessary to give the message to John had God chosen to employ heavenly angels as he did to announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields (Luke 2).

Now we will look at each one of the churches in turn.

The Church at Ephesus

Revelation {2:1-7} Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless I have [somewhat] against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.

This church bears many parallels to the first which began on the day of Pentecost in which the apostles received the initial and permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). It is commended for its stance against evil and false doctrine, yet, as time went by, it, too, became subject to error. In fact, many of Paul’s letters were meant to address various errors and conflicts which had sprung up. Its members had left their “first love” of proclaiming the Gospel without distortion and of not living in harmony with each other.

One of the several characteristics which earned them praise, however, was their rejection of the “deeds of the Nicolaitanes.” there are two possibilities regarding this reference. The first is that it is referring to the followers of Nicolaus, a heretic (Strong’s Concordance). It may be the same Nicolas, a pagan convert from Antioch Syria, who became one of the initial deacons (Acts 6:5) but later reverted again to paganism.

A second other possibility is that there were church leaders who ran roughshod over their adherents since the term “Nicolaitan” translates as “victorious over the people” (Strong’s). There have been plenty of examples of religious leaders doing just that throughout history, a sorry trend that when practiced to its extreme even brings death.

Perhaps both characteristics were in play at the time Jesus related his words to John.. The Lord then concluded by saying anyone belonging to this church who overcame all the failings he indicated would be live on eternally in paradise.

The Church at Smyrna

Revelation {2:8-11} And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and [I know] the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but [are] the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast [some] of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.  He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.

Jesus had much earlier told his disciples:

John {15:18-19} If the world hate you, ye know that [it hated] me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

The Lord became the first object lesson of that hate at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman government. This persecution continued with vigor upon his followers. If there was one person who personified all those trying to crush them it had to be Saul of Tarsus, a Roman citizen and Pharisaic Jew whose self-chosen role was to track them all down and deliver them up in chains. Armed with the appropriate letters and the power from the religious authorities, he headed for Damascus to do just that – until his encounter with the post-ascendant Jesus changed his whole life. Saul became Paul, the writer of most of the epistles comprising the New Testament and the greatest evangelist of the gentile world of his time. Though Simon Peter played some part in that outreach (Acts, chapter 10), his mission was primarily to his Jewish kinsmen (Galatians 2:8).

Unlike the church at Ephesus, Jesus found no fault within it and the “overcoming” he spoke of was not against any error on its part, but against the outside forces opposing it. Those who did resist, even to the point of death, would be given the “crown of life” and not be subject to the “second death” described in Revelation 20:14-15 where the unsaved would be condemned to the lake of fire forever. Instead, they would be “blessed and holy,” (Revelation 20:6) and reign with Jesus during his Millennial Kingdom. In fact, except for John, all the apostles, including Paul, were martyred for the faith.

The Church at Pergamos

Revelation {2:12-17} And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges*; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, [even] where Satan’s seat [is:] and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas **[was] my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam***, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. {He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the  churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone****, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth [it.]

* See Hebrews 4:12.

** Probably the Bishop of Pergamos who was killed by being thrown into a brass bull statue which had been heated to a lethal temperature.

*** Balaam – a fortuneteller hired by the Midianite Balac [Balak] to curse the Israelites but who refused, (Numbers, chapters 22-24). Balaam was later killed by them (Joshua 13:22). A negative comment about him shows up in 2 Peter 2:11-15 and the historian Josephus (Antiquities, Book 4, chapter 6) suggests that though he would not curse the Hebrews outright, he advised Balak to use the Midianite women to tempt the men and lead them into idolatry. This account supports Peter’s contention quite well.

**** The “white stone” analogy may have a double meaning. First, at the conclusion of a trial, those deciding on the accused’s fate would either cast a white stone for acquittal or a black stone for condemnation. Second, it was also the custom for one giving a party to send a personalized greeting – a white stone- to those invited with a message on it intended specifically for them. I believe this is telling us that those who did as Jesus directed would receive both acquittal for their sins and a new home tailored precisely for them in the world to come (John 14:2-3).

            Many Roman emperors made it their business to exterminate the new faith. If Nero (A.D. 54 – 68) wasn’t the worst, he was certainly on the short list for being so. In the year 64 the city was devastated by a fire and he promptly blamed to the Christians, having them put to death in his own garden. Peter and Paul met their ends during his reign – Paul was likely beheaded, since he was a Roman citizen and Peter crucified upside-down because he was not.

Despite the ongoing persecutions of many the Roman emperors, the Christian faith still grew for the next two centuries. In the year 312, there was a turn-around. Emperor Constantine the Great had a vision described by his son’s tutor Lactantius which directed him to put the sign of the cross on his soldiers’ shields and go into what is called the battle of Milvian Bridge at which he was successful. From that point on Christianity became an accepted religion and was now intertwined with Constantine’s government itself.

The church of Pergamos has been compared with this “state church.” The original church existed right in the midst of “Satan’s seat,” and the description describes the stresses it was under in that pagan city. It is easy to imagine the “state church” was subject to many of the same stresses producing idolatry and apparently including a “victory over the people” approach practiced by its leaders. A combination of church and state, i.e. a theocracy, has historically never worked out in the long run. Ancient Egypt had its pharaohs, Rome had its supposed “divine” emperors. The Roman Catholic Church had its share of supposedly “infallible” popes who were clearly corrupt, insane, or both and whose “Nicolaitan” approach taken to extremes resulted in the Inquisitions at its worst, or simply keeping its members in check with the threats of damnation for failing to adhere to church doctrine, even if it was scripturally unsound.

Protestant sects were and currently not immune to such abuses when they are tightly enmeshed with the civil government as witnessed by such tragic events the Salem Witch Trials, the unopposed disgrace of racism by nominally Christian churches in the United States right into the Twentieth Century, and the “Reich Church” of the Nazis in the last century. This list, sadly, like the number of demons in the possessed Gergasene demoniac, are legion (Mark 5:1-20).

Though I believe that a separation of church and state is a necessity for the reasons above, this is not to say the biblical standards of morality and justice should be excluded from civil authority. In America, I believe our government was at its best when this was the case. The founding fathers certainly believed that, too, and it is only in the last few decades that this principle has become increasingly abandoned.

In my view, the government also crossed the separation principle of the First amendment when in 1963 the Supreme Court presumed to tell Americans when and where they may or may not pray – in our schools, for example.

In the face of this, I present these two questions: Where was and is the opposition of Christian Church to this blatant intrusion on our freedoms and as a society are we better off now for it?

Concluding Thoughts

This is a good stopping point in our exploration of the seven churches of Revelation because despite their differences, these first three have one thing in common – all have slipped away into the pages of history.

The Ephesian Church came to an end when the last of the original apostles died (once again including Paul,) which was followed by the persecuted church of Smyrna. This is not, by any means, to say true Christians are no longer subject to persecution. For over 2000 years Jesus’ words of John 16:33 have been confirmed repeatedly.

It finds its harshest extremes in autocratic nations today which are officially atheistic or under fundamental Islamic rule and in more subtle forms where Bible-believing and affirming Christians find themselves excluded from the established denominations which have “gone rogue” and fallen into apostasy.

The difference, I believe, is a question of magnitude. In its time, the Smyrnan church was the target of what was essentially a world government as far as the Mediterranean region of the world is concerned. We are not likely to encounter anything like this again until the Antichrist appears and proclaims himself as “God.” in which the entire planet will be involved, though the trend away from a Christian world view is already well under way in Western civilization.

Nor does there presently exist any neo-Pergamos Church in which a fusion between civil government and a Christian church comparable to what existed in Constantine’s time. This, however, will likely be replicated in the Tribulation as well with a “one-world religion” operating in concert with a “one-world government” under the control of the aforementioned Antichrist.

Now this is not to say that modern churches may not still have shared characteristics with these historical ones, because they certainly might. However as entities in and of themselves, the three we have examined so far have ceased to exist.

But what of the final four? Have they all disappeared into the past as well?

That’s just one of the questions we’ll examine in the next article.

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