Chapter 4 Seven Churches

Jesus sent seven letters to seven churches located in a Roman province, called Asia. In each letter, Jesus urged us to pay attention saying, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Jesus was saying something like, “If you have an ear, my expectation is that you will listen!” He repeated this expectation seven times, once in each letter (Revelation 2:711, 17, 29; 3:6,13, 22).

Jesus could have sent a letter to any of a hundred first-century churches. He did not select many prominent churches, such as Antioch, Jerusalem, or Rome. It is widely thought that Jesus selected these churches for at least one reason: when placed end-to-end these letters describe worldwide church history, starting the first century and ending with the predominant church of today.

Church Description Predominance Began
Ephesus Second generation (complacent) 95 AD
Smyrna Martyrs  (persecuted, alive) 100 AD
Pergamum Catholic  (compromised doctrine) 312 AD
Thyatira Catholic  (misguided)
Sardis Catholic  (dead)
Philadelphia Protestant  (missionary, alive) 1517 AD
Laodicea Protestant  (complacent) 1900 AD

The past two thousand years all seven church types have continued to exist to one extent or another. Today the church is largely complacent, similar to Laodicea, in nature. However, God’s people can be found in other conditions. Believers living in countries that execute believers are part of the Smyrna Church.

Ephesus

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradiseof God.’ (Revelation 2:1-7)

Ephesus was a typical church near the end of the first century. Paul ministered in that city for two years (Acts 19:1-10). Later John, the writer of Revelation, was a part of this church. Ephesus was a hard-working church with integrity and perseverance. It was doctrinally sound and its members had tested and identified false teachers. Yet the Ephesus Church had lost its passion. Jesus had this criticism, But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. (Revelation 2:4)

The following outlines what it means to lose your first love.

  • I value praise from people more than praise from God.
  • I am callous in the way I treat a Christian brother.
  • I choose not to witness because I fear rejection.
  • My leisure-time thoughts do not turn to God.
  • I do not cheerfully give to God’s work.
  • I become complacent to sin.
  • I am slow to forgive.

Because Ephesus did not repent, severe persecution came against the church. This persecution was the central theme of the subsequent church, located at Smyrna.

Smyrna

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’ (Revelation 2: 8-11)

Smyrna was a beautiful city and the one of the largest in Provincial Asia. However, its persecution of believers produced countless martyrs. Jesus said to this church, I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich). The Smyrna Church predominance between 95 AD and 312 AD paralleled the story of the original Smyrna Church. Refusing to worship Caesar, martyrs laid down their lives, as replacement new believers continually came forward.

Christians were the targeted because they refused to worship the Roman gods or to pay homage to the emperor as divine. Smyrna is described as suffering for ten days; historians suggest that there were ten waves of persecution against Christians. While Polycarp was the most famous and best documented martyr, the Roman Empire martyred an estimated two million believers. Satan eventually gave up trying to destroy the church from the outside; instead, he chose to become active in church leadership. The new strategy was to destroy the church from the inside; that is the story of the following three churches.

Pergamum

And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this: ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.’ (Revelation 2:12-17)

The first-century church at Pergamum accepted Roman dominance, to include the worship of emperors. The teaching of the Nicolaitans started to infiltrate the church, which translates “to rule over the laity”—in other words, to rule over non-pastoral members of the church. The Pergamum time in history saw the rise of Pontiffs, as religious leaders created high-ranking positions in order to rule over God’s people. Constantine, a Roman emperor ruling from Constantinople (Istanbul Turkey), made the Catholic Pontiff preeminent.

Pergamum was where Satan’s throne is —a possible location of this throne was an ornate altar honoring pagan gods. German engineers moved this altar to Berlin between 1878 and 1886. It was placed in the Altes Museum, and later moved to an adjacent building, the Pergamum Museum. These locations are significant because Adolph Hitler gave rousing speeches to hundreds of thousands of people from a platform built on the steps of the Altes Museum. After this altar was moved to Berlin that city became a focal point for World War I, World War II, and the extermination of Jews. Berlin also was the place of greatest confrontation (the Berlin Wall) during the Cold War.

Thyatira

“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: The Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet are like burnished bronze, says this: ‘I know your deeds, and your love and faith and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality. Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds. But I say to you, the rest who are in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not known the deep things of Satan, as they call them—I place no other burden on you. Nevertheless what you have, hold fast until I come. He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, TO HIM I WILL GIVE AUTHORITY OVER THE NATIONS; AND HE SHALL RULE THEM WITH A ROD OF IRON,  AS THE VESSELS OF THE POTTER ARE BROKEN TO PIECES, as I also have received authority from My Father; and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 2:18-29)

During the Thyatira Church period, Roman Catholic leadership emphasized tradition while setting aside the authority of scripture. A person likened to Jezebel in the Old Testament promoted sexual immorality (1 Kings 16:30-31). An Associated Press report quotes Richard Sipe, a former priest, as saying that priest sexual abuse is a centuries-old problem, “The Vatican is in the know and has documented its knowledge throughout the centuries.” The authors further stated “Vatican officials have known about sex abuse by priests going all the way back to the fourth century”. Immorality during the Thyatira Church period was clearly documented.

Credible sexual molestation lawsuits have implicated Pope Benedict XVI. Plaintiffs in Houston Texas cited a May 18, 2001 letter that he wrote while head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In a letter to bishops concerning molestations, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that cases of this kind are subject to “pontifical secret.” The lawsuit alleged that Ratzinger was responsible due to his active cover-up of child molestation. The Pope avoided legal problems in the United States because he obtained immunity as the Vatican head of state.

Jesus also criticized that members would eat things sacrificed to idols. Catholics accept bread consecrated by their priests as actually being Christ in physical form. People kneel before communion bread, which makes that bread an idol.

Sardis

“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 3:1-6)

Although the Sardis Church had a reputation for being alive, Jesus said that this church was dead. This depiction of being alive can be seen in the impressive cathedral construction in Europe. Everything was done for the glory of the “one true church.” Honor was also given to its papal leader, who was called “the” representative of Christ on earth. While the reputation of the Roman Catholic leaders was zealously protected, precious little was done for the glory of God.

There can be no greater condemnation of a church than for Jesus to pronounce it dead. Sardis is the Catholic Church, in great need of reformation. Philadelphia tells of the success that came from the Protestant Reformation.

Philadelphia

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this: ‘I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you. Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 3:7-13)

The Gutenberg printing press in the fifteenth century increased the availability of Bibles to ordinary people. Through cruel inquisitions, popes fought those who believed scriptures possessed ultimate authority. Catholic leadership murdered Protestant believers; the charge for which believers were burnt at the stake was called “heresy” (John 16:2). There have been attempts to minimize this event, similar to efforts to deny the Jewish holocaust. For example, while King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, Spain did not abolish this religious terrorism until 1834. Accountings of the various Inquisitions today acknowledge only a few thousand deaths, and frequently use phrases like “greatly exaggerated” to describe more realistic execution totals. As administrator of Inquisitions, the Catholic Church maintained the only records.

What is historically verifiable is that Protestant believers eventually fled to America; the Pilgrims were not Catholic. In 1790, the United States named Philadelphia Pennsylvania its capital city. Larger than any other city in the colonies, both the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution were signed at Independence Hall. The overall Philadelphia Church provided a worldwide missionary outreach. A remnant of Philadelphia believers continues to serve God today. Because these believers continue to keep God’s command to demonstrate perseverance, Jesus will act upon his promise to keep this church from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world. This protection means that Philadelphia believers will not suffer through the end-times.

Laodicea

The Laodicea Church predominance began about 1900, with a wealthy church membership predominately interested in its own comfort and security. Members enjoy their place in society and are proud of their religion. Laodicea is a church with much religion—but little passion.

“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” (Revelation 3:14-22)

Laodicea is the primary end-times church; it is the preeminent church in western civilization today. Laodicea places its founder on the outside; Jesus said to this church, I stand at the door and knock. Many Christians today have wealth. Yet their spiritual poverty caused Jesus to say they were neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. Laodicea is an educated church, smart enough to avoid complete complacency, and therefore is not cold. However, instead of passionately applying that knowledge, to make Laodicea hot, members apply their God-given talents to sustain their own comfort. Laodicea is a weak church that is lacking credibility and intensity.

Laodicea has sufficient communication tools to reach the entire the world with the gospel, but is largely ineffective. The Laodicea Church is compromised; its members have bought into another religion. This religion sets our priorities and demands our loyalty. This is an infrequently recognized religion, called Secularism. The Laodicea Church believes it possible to passionately care about both God and money. In fact, a person is capable of loving only one or the other. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:24)

Laodicea sees itself as rich and that members have need of nothing. Jesus answers saying in effect, “you need everything!” Jesus says this kind of church makes him sick. He will spit this church out his mouth. Jesus’ warning of discipline for the Laodicea Church will one day touch millions of believers.

The End-Time Church

Today believers identify with a denomination, such as Baptist or Lutheran, or claim a non-denominational status. God also categorizes believers; every believer is a member of one of the seven churches of Revelation. The Philadelphia Church has a bright future. Jesus promised it protection: I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. (Revelation 3:10b). The only hour of testing that affects the whole world is the end-times. In contrast, Jesus warns the Laodicea Church: those whom I love, I reprove and discipline (Revelation 3:19a).

Many scholars anticipate the same future for both Laodicea and Philadelphia church members; that shared future is an early rapture. However, it is reckless to state with certainty that a group of believers promised discipline will share the same future as believers promised removal from earth for the entire end-time period.