David Reagan — The 7 Churches of Revelation
The words of Jesus are quoted throughout the New Testament, but did you know that the only Scripture that He wrote directly is contained in the book of Revelation in the form of seven letters to seven churches.
All of which were located in the area we know today as the nation of Turkey. What did these important direct letters from the Lord say and what is their relevance to you and me today?
Greetings in the name of Jesus our blessed hope! I’m Dave Reagan, founder and director of Lamb and Lion Ministries. Welcome to our program, Christ in Prophecy. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at chapters two and three of the book of Revelation. These chapters contain seven remarkable letters that Jesus wrote to seven churches some 65 years after His death, burial, and resurrection.
We will examine each letter in detail, and consider what it meant to the people it was written to and what it means to you and me today. But first, I want to present a sweeping overview of the letters in order to give you a feeling for their context. If you have a Bible handy, get it out, turn to Revelation and follow along as we study these remarkable letters.
The seven letters are found in chapters two and three of the book of Revelation. But let’s begin by taking a look at chapter one in order to lay the proper foundation for our consideration of the letters. As we begin with chapter one, let’s consider the name of the book. It’s not the “Book of Revelations” - plural. There are many revelations in it, but that’s not its name.
If you have a copy of the authorized King James Version, you will note that the title is stated as The Revelation of John. That title is also incorrect. The proper title is the one contained in modern translations, The Revelation to John. It is not John’s revelation. It is the revelation, or unveiling, of Jesus Christ that was given to John by God the Father through Jesus. John refers to it in chapter one, verse 9 as the testimony of Jesus.
Now, who was this John? He does not clearly identify himself. But the testimony of all the early Church fathers is that this was the Apostle John. All he says about himself is that he was, “a brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and perseverance which are in Jesus.”
It’s interesting that John says he was a prisoner on the Isle of Patmos. His imprisonment there is one of the clues to the dating of the book, because around 95 AD was the time when the Roman Empire began to severely persecute the Church. This happened because the Emperor declared Caesar to be god, and every person in the empire was required once a year to go before a Roman magistrate and declare “Caesar is Lord.” No Christian could do that, and therefore, Christians were considered enemies of the empire. The result is that they became the target of terrible persecution.
John tells us something very interesting here now in verse 10. He states that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when all this occurred. I don’t think John is referring to Sunday here. I think he’s referring to what the Hebrew prophets called the Day of the Lord, which was a term for the End Times. So, I believe that John is telling us that in the Spirit, he was catapulted forward to the Day of the Lord, to the End Times, and given a preview of what will happen when the Church Age comes to a close.
John was about 95 years old when this book was written. He was the only apostle left alive. The thing that you need to keep in mind is that by the time this book was written, the persecution of Christians had become so terrible that it is evident from the book of Revelation that many were wondering if the Church would really continue to exist. They were beginning to have second thoughts, wondering if Jesus really was who He said He was. Wondering if Jesus really cared for them, wondering if He really meant it when He said, “Upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
The Church needed encouragement, and that’s really one of the main purposes of this book. It is designed to give encouragement and comfort to those who are suffering terribly. For that reason, the book of Revelation has always been a book that has given tremendous comfort to anyone going through persecution or suffering. Whether it be individual, family, or national in nature. The book begins therefore with a tremendous vision of Jesus Christ the Glorified One. He is victorious over death and the Heavenly Glory which He surrendered when He came to earth has been restored. John sees Jesus resurrected and glorified. Keep in mind that this is 65 years after the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord. Jesus has returned to give the Church a second touch, a touch of encouragement. He has returned to say, “Yes, I care. I love you, I know what’s going on. I’m walking among you.”
John proceeds to describe Jesus in His glorified form. He sees Jesus dressed as a Priest, because that’s what Jesus is now. You see, He is our High Priest before the throne of God, our Mediator before God. John sees Jesus with white hair, which indicates his wisdom. And his eyes, and feet, and voice, are all presented as symbols of judgment because all judgment has been given to Him by the Father. He has stars in His right hand which are the angels, or messengers of the Churches, showing that He cares for those Churches and for their pastors.
He’s walking among seven golden candlesticks which we’re told in verse 20 represent Churches, they represent all the Churches. And through this image, the Lord is trying to give to John and the Church the message that He is walking among them, that He cares about them, that He loves them. He is not some distant and impersonal God who is aloof and uncaring.
John is so overcome by this glorious vision of His resurrected and glorified Lord that he falls at Jesus’ feet as if he were dead. Jesus responds with one of the most comforting scriptures or statements in all of the Word of God. In verse 17 He says, “Do not be afraid, John. I am the first and the last, and I am the living one. I was dead and behold I am alive forevermore and I have the keys of death and Hades.”
Jesus is saying, I am the beginning of history, I am the end of history, I am the meaning of history, and I am in control of history. I have power over life and death. Again, Jesus’ appearance and words are intended to reassure a Church that’s under severe persecution. The hearts of First Century Christians, including John’s, must have been greatly encouraged, even as Christians today are encouraged by these glorious Words.
As we move to chapters two and three, our focus shifts from Jesus, the Glorified One, to Jesus the Over-comer who is encouraging His Church to persevere and overcome with Him. Chapters two and three present us with seven letters, written by Jesus to seven Churches, and these are very interesting letters because first of all, they are letters to seven real churches located in the area we know today as Turkey. But these Churches were selected for a reason, folks. And that’s because they are representative of all Churches existing at that time and today. Let’s take a look at the types of Churches that are represented in these seven letters.
The very first Church addressed is the Church at Ephesus, which was a legalistic Church. It was a Church that dotted the i’s, crossed the t’s, but it had lost its first love. In verse eight, we are introduced to the Church at Smyrna, which was representative of persecuted Churches. In verse twelve we have the Church at Pergamum, which is a liberal Church. It’s the Church that doesn’t care about doctrine, it’s the opposite of Ephesus, it embraces everyone. Then, in verse eighteen we have the Church at Thyatira, which is the pagan Church, the Church that is full of cultic practices.
Chapter three begins with the Church of Sardis which is representative of dead Churches. It has a reputation for being alive, but in reality it is dead. The next Church mentioned is the Church of Philadelphia. It’s the Church that we would all like to be a member of because it is the alive Church, for which Jesus has no criticism whatsoever. And then finally, in verse fourteen of chapter three we have the Church at Laodicea. In many respects it is the most pathetic of all the Churches because it’s the worldly and apathetic Church, the Church that is neither hot nor cold because it could just simply care less.
Now, as I said, these seven Churches are representative of every kind of Church that exists today. You will find your Church in one of these seven or a combination of them. I think they are also representative of seven different types of Christians, so I ask you, are you a legalistic Christian? A persecuted Christian? Liberal? Worldly? Are you dead? Are you alive? Are you apathetic?
I believe these seven Churches are also representative of seven periods of Church history. All seven types of Churches have always existed, all of them exist today, but one type has dominated each period of Church history.
The Church at Ephesus is representative of the apostolic period from 30 AD to 95 AD, when the Church was concerned about organization and doctrine to the point that it became legalistic.
The Church at Smyrna represents the persecuted Church, or the martyred Church that existed from 95 AD to 312 AD. It’s the Church that existed at the time that the book of Revelation was written.
Then we have the liberal Church of Pergamum representing the apostate Church that existed from 312 to 590. This period developed after the Emperor Constantine was converted and the Church and the state were welded together. As is always the case in such unions, the state began to corrupt the Church.
The Church at Thyatira represents the dark pagan period from 590 to 1517 when the Papacy developed and the Church became full of Babylonian occult practices. When we come to the reformation, in 1517, we think of it as a time of life, but it was only partially so. The reformation produced the protestant state Churches of Europe, Churches that had a reputation for being alive, but were really dead because of their union with the state. So, the Church of Sardis, the dead Church, with a reputation for being alive, represents the post reformation period from 1517 to about 1750.
The opposite of Sardis is the Church at Philadelphia, the alive Church. It represents the period of Church history from about 1750 when the Church began to send missionaries out all over the world, until about 1925, when the German school of higher criticism invaded seminaries worldwide and destroyed many people’s faith in the word of God.
The Church of today is represented by the Church of Laodicea. A Church that says to the world, I am rich and have become wealthy and need nothing whatsoever. But Jesus says to that Church, you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. It is a worldly, apathetic, apostate Church that will not even let Jesus in the front door.
You know, the best summary of these letters that I have ever encountered is the one penned by John Stott in his book, Basic Christianity. He sees the message of Jesus as three fold in nature. To a sinful Church, Jesus is saying “I know your sin, repent.” To a doubtful Church, Jesus is saying “I know of your doubt, believe.” And to a fearful Church, He is saying “I know of your fear, endure.” Repent, believe, endure. That’s a very relevant message for the Church today.
One final thing about these letters. Please note that each of these seven letters end with promises to over-comers. I would exhort you to go through and make a list of them and study them very carefully. You’ll find a total of 13 promises.