Seven Churches of Revelation
By Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., 1974
Edited by David Sielaff, July 2008
NOTE: This article was first published in 1974, but is still "news" to most everyone. It gives a biblical perspective of the Seven Churches of Revelation, not a fantasy interpretation.
Much confusion exists concerning the seven churches of Revelation. Some say they are typical of the church during the entire Church Age, another that they are seven consecutive stages or eras of God’s Church. It is the purpose of this article to examine the Scriptures concerning these seven churches of Revelation and to come to some important conclusions based on the revealed word of God. But first let’s consider the background and timing of this prophecy.
The Book of Revelation is just what the name implies—the book written to reveal “those things that must shortly come to pass” (Revelation 1:1). It is a revelation to God’s church. This book is open to understanding and is meant to be understood. Notice,
“And he said unto me, ‘Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.’”
• Revelation 22:10 (see Revelation 1:3)
The theme of the book is the Day of the Lord, as indicated in verse 10 of the first chapter where John is writing, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet.” John was taken forward in time in a vision to the very Day of the Lord and he sees Christ walking among seven churches (1:13; 2:1).
The Book of Revelation was written specifically for the seven churches. Christ himself states this:
“Saying, ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last’: and, ‘What you see, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.’”
• Revelation 1:11
He reiterates this in the last chapter, Revelation 22:16: “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches.” To which churches is Christ referring? None other than the seven churches of chapters 2 and 3. Also notice in Revelation 1:1 that the book is written to the servants of Jesus Christ.
These Scriptures clearly indicate the Book of Revelation was written specifically for the seven churches, and yet, the prophecies of the book basically deal with the Day of the Lord.
In the first chapter Christ is pictured walking among the seven golden candlesticks which are interpreted as seven churches (verse 20). (The number seven denotes completeness or perfection.) These seven churches of chapters 2 and 3 existed in the days of the Apostle John and were located in Asia Minor, a province of the Roman Empire and modern-day Turkey. While these literal churches ceased to exist long ago, what about the prophecies contained in their messages? Have they yet been fulfilled?
There are four major interpretations of the messages to the seven churches:
(1) First, there is the interpretation that these churches did exist historically and that all prophecies concerning them have already been fulfilled.
(2) Secondly, there is the belief that these churches represent all churches through all ages, from the first century to the end-time, and therefore the warnings and promises are for all Christians individually and collectively throughout the ages.
(3) Thirdly, some hold the view that these prophecies are to be interpreted for the future. That is, there will be seven different churches at the end of the age and at that time the prophecies concerning the churches will be fulfilled in their full intent.
(4) A fourth view, which is held by many, is that these seven churches represent seven consecutive stages or eras of God’s one true church extending from the first century to the end of the age.
Let’s take a closer look at this fourth viewpoint and examine the history of this interpretation.
The first indication found in the historical records that anyone believed the church would pass through seven consecutive stages was in the 13th Century when Joachim of Fiore, a Catholic monk, first proposed the thought. Later, Nicholas of Lyra systematized this concept and gave it a chronology. The Catholic Church finally rejected the concepts of Joachim, but by the time of the Protestant Reformation, these same ideas had crept into the theology of some of the Reformed churches. An example of this is seen in Virtringa’s identification of the sixth church (Philadelphia) with the 1st century of the Reformation and the seventh (Laodicea) with the Reformed church of his own day. Usually the proponents of this “consecutive era” concept have identified themselves as the Laodicean Church—the last “era”—since their belief has been that Christ’s return would be in their day or immediate future. This belief has led to a constant revision of stages and dates involved in the various chronologies whenever events contradicted previous conclusions.
The “consecutive eras” interpretation was adopted by the Seventh Day Adventists and is found in the writings of Ellen G. White. She reveals that they are the last age of God’s true church. Others have also taken these beliefs unto themselves but have slightly modified them to fit their individual situations. And so, there are today several denominations that believe in the “eras” theory. Those denominations which fondly believe they are the one-and-only true church of God at this time are especially prone to accept the theory.
One denomination has dogmatically called itself the Philadelphia Church and said that it was prophesied to dominate the Christian scene during the Philadelphian Era. They are supposed to be the ones who have “kept my word, and have not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8).
Those who accept such a teaching base their belief on equating history with the prophecy of the seven churches. The denomination mentioned above looked for its cardinal proof of Christian evidence as being “Sabbath keeping.” So, they picked as a major leader in the Thyatiran Era, Peter Waldo. He was believed to be a Sabbath keeper. However, as the records plainly show, Peter Waldo never kept the seventh-day Sabbath a day in his life. He was a godly man, but Peter Waldo never kept the Sabbath.
The records which some try to use to prove Sabbath keepers among the leaders of the other early “eras” is so scanty that one finds people stretching, forcing and even fabricating evidences to show it. What one should do is to check all references which the theorists have given to prove their points. One would be amazed at what the records really say.
The “eras” theory is not as popular as it used to be. People are beginning to learn that assumption is not a sound basis on which to found proper doctrine. Actually the historical eras theory has been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and now many are rightly discarding it.
Let us now look at another interpretation which is much more plausible than the fabricated “eras” theory.
The primary point to consider is that each message given to a church contains a direct or indirect reference to the return of Jesus Christ. Christ said to the church at Ephesus, “I will come unto thee quickly” (Revelation 2:5). We see here a direct reference to the return of Christ, and very soon.
The message to Smyrna describes a church which is persecuted and imprisoned and in which some of the members must even suffer death. This could definitely refer to the fifth seal and the persecutions of Christians in the end-time.
To the church at Pergamos Christ said in Revelation 2:16: “Repent or else I will come unto thee quickly and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” Here we see Christ coming with “the sword of his mouth” which we also find described at his return in chapter 19:15: “And out of his mouth goes a sharp sword and with it he should smite the nations and he shall rule them with a rod of iron.” We see here that some in the Pergamos church are prophesied to be destroyed by Christ at his second coming unless they repent of their apostasy. And finally to the church of Thyatira He says: “Hold fast till I come” (2:25). This is a clear reference to the Second Coming.
Christ says to the church of Sardis in another clear reference to Christ’s second coming (see Matthew 24:43),
“Remember therefore how you have received and heard, and hold fast and repent. If therefore you shall not watch, I will come on you as a thief, and you shall not know what hour I will come upon you.”
• Revelation 3:3
The Philadelphia church was told,
“Because you have kept the word of my patience I will also keep you from the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world to try them that dwell on the earth.”
• Revelation 3:10–11
This is a plain reference to the end-time, worldwide destruction coming upon all people and to the coming Day of the Lord. Again notice verse 11: “behold I come quickly”—also a reference to the return of Jesus Christ. Christ’s message to the church at Laodiceais,
“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come into him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”
• Revelation 3:20
This reference is undoubtedly to the eminent return of Christ and the wedding feast which follows. We see from the verses quoted above that each message to a church could have a direct reference to the return of Jesus Christ.
Additional evidence indicates that these churches exist concurrently instead of consecutively—and also that they all exist in the end-time. The messages to the fourth and sixth churches, Thyatira and Philadelphia, refer to “great tribulation.” In the church of Thyatira, some of them are to be cast into “great tribulation,” while the church of Philadelphia is to be kept from “the hour of temptation which is to try all the world.” It looks as though both of these passages are referring to the great end-time conflagration which is to come upon the whole world. Some of the church of Thyatira are threatened with death by Christ and are to be cast into great tribulation as an example to the other six churches. Notice,
“Behold, I will cast her [Jezebel] into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches [ekklesias] shall know that I am he which searches the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.”
• Revelation 2:22–23
In verse 23 the statement “and all the churches [ekklesias] shall know” indicates that this “killing of her children” shall be a dire warning to the other six churches to repent and to follow God in a more perfect manner. How would all the other six churches know that the fourth church had been destroyed unless they were there to witness it? Could it be that they actually see it happen, that they are contemporaneous with the Thyatiran church? Really, they will “all” have to see this church destroyed.
Further evidence indicating that these churches are in existence concurrently will now be shown. In the second and sixth churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, we find a reference to the “synagogue of Satan.” It is unlikely that we would find the exact reference to a “synagogue of Satan” mentioned four “eras” apart if there were such things as “eras.” And the wording is almost identical in each passage (Revelation 2:9; 3:9).
Now notice the messages to Ephesus and Pergamos. These are the first and third churches. Both messages mention the Nicolaitans; Ephesus hates the “deeds of the Nicolaitans,” and some of the church of Pergamos “hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans.” Again, it is unlikely that we would find this one particular group mentioned several “eras” apart.
In conclusion, let us review the basic principles we have learned in this investigation of the seven churches.
(1) In the first place, we found that the Book of Revelation is specifically written to all the end-time churches of God.
(2) Secondly, we discovered that each message to a church could contain a direct reference to the second coming of Christ, and if this is true, then each church will be in existence when Christ returns
(3) Thirdly, the Scriptures have clearly shown us that the seven churches are not really seven consecutive stages or eras of one church.
(4) Fourth, there is a variety of spiritual conditions in the seven churches; one church is prophesied to escape the tribulation while others will be required to suffer through it; and eventually, parts of two churches could even be destroyed by Christ at his return unless they repent.
This prophetic evidence shows that at the end-time there will be seven separate churches. But what is remarkable, God is in all of them. Some need to practice much repentance, but they still belong to God. What we should do is learn the messages of all seven churches and heed all of them. It is not we who assign ourselves to one church or another; God does the assigning. We should each be the best Christian we can so that God can place us in the church which pleases Him the most.
Ernest L. Martin, 1974
edited by David Sielaff, July 2008
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