Let’s look at the seven churches of Revelation, considering the following which was spoken to John: “What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches” (Revelation 1:11).
And then the angel names the seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. These were all names of cities in the Roman province of Asia, a part of what we now call Asia Minor, territory belonging at the present time to the country of Turkey. This was the field of labor of the apostle Paul and others who followed immediately after the apostles.
These seven churches and the messages addressed to them and the blessings pronounced upon them apply to seven periods, or states, of the church reaching from the first advent of Jesus to His second coming. So you see that we really have a sevenfold prophecy of seven successive periods and conditions of the church, from the beginning of the Christian Church to the conclusion of it all. This is very clear as we study the prophecy of the seven churches.
The good qualities of these church periods are pointed out as well as their defects. Admonitions and warnings are given for each, and then blessings especially appropriate to the time are pronounced.
Now we turn to the second chapter of Revelation and notice the seven churches in order. Beginning with verse 1, we read: “To the angel of the church of Ephesus write.”
Ephesus very appropriately symbolizes the condition of the church in its first state of purity in the days of the apostles of Christ. They received His doctrine and held it, and enjoyed the benefits and blessings of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
This prophecy must apply to the first century, or during the lifetime of the apostles. But the divine messenger declares that he has something against even that first period of the Christian church, because he says in verse 4 “you have left your first love.”
How easy is this for any of us! And we should take warning from this message. We come into the Christian faith warm and enthusiastic but after a while it becomes commonplace and we lose our first love.
Like so many marriages, the first love cools and we see the imperfections of each other and are not willing to pass them over. Then trouble and resentment begin to brew. So it was in the life of this apostolic church--Ephesus.
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works” (Revelation 2:5).
Look back to the time of your first love, when that first love came from those first works, works of repentance, obedience, earnest Christian service, of suffering for the Master. If we restore in our lives these first works of Christian living, we shall find the first love returning. The first love is the love of the truth and a desire to make it known to others, and the first works are the fruits of this love.
We may ask, “How can I know that I love God? I believe I love Him, but I want to know.” Well, look at the following gauge. Our love for our brother, our friend, our neighbor is the measure of our love for God. Do we love our neighbors? We can answer that. And by that we can know our relation to God.
Remember, friend, there is not one love with which we love men and another with which we love God. Love is one. As it stands toward man in the gauge, so it stands toward God in the great reservoir which we cannot see.
But the last of the apostles died, and we come now to a new period in the church led by men who did not know our Saviour in the flesh.
Just as “Ephesus” means desirable, so the word “Smyrna” means myrrh or sweet smelling incense. This covers the period of pagan Roman persecution when many of God's children suffered martyrdom in the second, third, and early fourth centuries. To these suffering, persecuted Christians the message came:
“Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)
The most severe persecutions by pagan Rome began under Emperor Diocletian and continued from the year 303 to 313, exactly ten years, or ten prophetic days; for in Scripture prophecy a day often stands for a year. In those days it was often worth a man's life to be a Christian.
The word “Pergamos” means height or elevation, and the city of Pergamos itself was built on a lofty hill. It represents the period of Christian history following the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity and the setting up of the full union of church and state.
The church which formerly was persecuted and, like her Saviour, had no place to lay her head, gradually grew into a mighty power which could command untold wealth and the armies of imperial Rome. At this same time, as Philip Schaff, the great church historian, says, she received into her bosom vast deposits of foreign material from the world and from heathenism.
Many of the heathen rites and ceremonies were gradually introduced into the church as Christian usages and some of them are still evident in certain circles of organized Christianity. But there were many faithful believers in those days. As the heavenly watcher declared:
“I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith” (Revelation 2:13).
This is a wonderful testimony in any age, any time, to any people who are the true servants of God. Remember, the Lord knows where you live; He knows your works. He knows whether or not you hold fast His name; whether or not you have denied the faith. Let us pray that we may not deny Him either in our lives or by our words.
There are many other lessons in these prophetic messages to the seven churches which we shall not mention now, but read them for yourselves. Read also the wonderful blessings at the close of each church’s message or church prophecy.
Now we come to verse 18 and the fourth church, the church of Thyatira. This symbolizes the condition of God's people during the so-called Dark Ages of persecution when even the church often entered into the spirit of the age. Our Saviour referred to this period in His wonderful prophecy recorded in Matthew 24. He said:
“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:22, 23).
What promise did God leave for these persecuted ones? Here it is in Revelation 2:25, 26: “But hold fast what you have till I come. And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations.”
So the Sardis church must represent the reformed churches from the time when the Dark Ages were ending and persecution was beginning to cease, right down to the great Advent awakening in the early nineteenth century.
In fact, the word “Sardis” means that which remains. It signifies those great truths of salvation through faith proclaimed by such mighty reformers as John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Knox, and others.
This word “Philadelphia” means brotherly love, and applies to the church during the great Advent awakening and the days that have succeeded it. Notice the nearness of the advent brought to view in verse 11: “Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.”
The greatest need today is brotherly love among Christians. They should not backbite and devour one another, but manifest the love of Jesus. In our interactions with one another we should show the love which He manifested toward His disciples. When we look at our brother's faults, let us remember the words of Henry W. Shaw: “Love looks through a telescope, envy through a microscope.”
Last of all, we come to the seventh period of the church of which we read in Revelation 3:14-19. “Laodicea” means the judging of the people or just people. Notice Christ's words: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot” (Revelation 3:15).
There are a lot of lukewarm Christians today. It is one of the most dangerous spiritual conditions that ever threatened the spiritual life of God's people. When one is cold, he is uncomfortable. God does not want us cold or lukewarm, but hot in His service.
Notice Jesus’ next words: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:17-19).
We may have beautiful church buildings, we may have large budgets; but we need the divine riches, faith and hope and love. We need the white raiment of Christ's own righteousness, which is ours for the asking and receiving.
Yes, there may be some rebuking, but remember it is for our benefit and blessing. We are chastened that we might be God's own children. He calls upon us to be zealous and to repent. This is the final warning message before our Saviour's return.
We are living in a time of great profession, but of little possession; of great progress, but of little prayer. But there is a great encouragement for us all in the next words:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).
These are the words of Christ. Won't you open the door now and let Him in?