Study No. 164
Seven Churches of Revelation
If there is any portion of Scripture that we should memorize, in addition to the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, it is the Messiahís Letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation. The lessons of history, past, present, and future, are given in the seven "love letters," of our Savior. These are our marching orders, encouraging us to have hope, to hold fast, and to endure patiently to the end. We are admonished to repent, and promised that if we heed these messages, and overcome, we will have great reward. This is a study of the prophetic, historical, and spiritual meaning of the letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, emphasizing the last three churches: Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
Table of Contents
Part 1 Introduction: He That Hath Ears to Hear
Part 2 History of the True Church
Part 3 Ephesus: Lost First Love, Candlestick Removed
Smyrna: Bitter Persecution, Quartodeciman Controversy
Pergamos: Satanís Seat
Part 4 Thyatira: Compromise With Spiritual Fornication
Part 5 Sardis: Forgot Historyís Lessons
Part 6 Philadelphia, Zealous Missionary City
Part 7 Laodicea: Rich and Increased With Goods
Introduction: He That Has Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear!
In editorials in the November 1896 and January 1897 Things to Come magazine, E. W. Bullinger discusses the letters to the seven Churches in the book of Revelation. On fourteen occasions the Savior used the words, "He that hath ears to hear let him hear." The first six are in Matthew 11:15 (Elijah); Matthew 13:9; Mark 4:9; Luke 8:8 (Parable of Sower); Mark 4:21-23 (candlestick of Godís Truth); Matthew 13:43 (Parable of Tares); Mark 7:16 (inward defilement worse than outward defilement); Luke 14:16-35 (Great Supper). These six times were given by Jesus when He was on the earth.
In Revelation, the risen Messiah used this saying eight times (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 13:9). Seven were addressed to the seven Churches of Asia. Revelation has a slightly different form of speech. Instead of "he that hath ears to hear let him hear," it is "he that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the Churches." The last communication from the Savior to men upon earth is to these seven Churches. It came after the destruction of Jerusalem, after the Church had been scattered, and after Paul and all the original Apostles except John had died.
The Revelation "He that hath an ear," clause precedes the promise to the overcomer in the letters to the first three Churches of Asia (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos), and follows the promise to the overcomer of the last four Churches (Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea).
The theme of the seven letters is the developing apostasy in the Church. Ephesus, of which Timothy was bishop, had "left thy first love," as Paul said in II Timothy 1:15, "All they which are in Asia be turned away from me." Smyrna had not only left its first love, but some in it claimed to be spiritual Jews and were following commandments and traditions of men. In Pergamos, doctrinal heresies of Balaam and the Nicolaitanes were arising, which divided the people into clergy and laity. Thyatira shows the depths of Satan had been reached by some, as Jezebel reigned supreme. In Sardis, another phase of apostasy reveals itself, as the truth barely survives, in name only. Each letter to each Church ends with the warning message, the solemn exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying (present tense) to the Churches.
One company of Philadelphia does not have this hearing ear. They falsely claim to be spiritual Jews. They say they have received the Apostolic Truth, but actually reject the Savior, and are of the Synagogue (Church) of Satan. Another part of Philadelphia has kept His word of patience. They are given an open door to proclaim His message. As a result, the Eternal will keep them out of the coming tribulation. Since these two companies are so distinct yet different, Bullinger says every Christian should ask, "To which of these two companies do I belong?"
The Epistle to the Church of the Laodiceans shows that it has hopelessly departed from the truth. Apostasy is at its height. There is no faithful company within it. The door is shut and the Lord is on the outside. However, there is hope for His sheep, for they hear His voice and He will come in and sup with them. In the last days, as it was in Malachi 3:16-17, only a few think on His mighty name.
The fourteenth and last time the Savior used the weighty phrase, "He that hath an ear," is in Revelation 13:9, in connection with the Beast from the Sea. At this time, the Churches are no longer present on the earth. Their power has been scattered, verse 7 and Daniel 7:25. None can escape the worship of the Beast, except those whose names are written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
The Savior foresaw how the departure from His truth would increase. Therefore, He sent messages by John to warn these Churches, and us, "to hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches." The same two companies exist in the Church today: those of the Temple of God, and those of the Synagogue of Satan.
"These Epistles to the Seven Churches have a past and also a present, as well as a future interpretation . . . . Christianity, today, has woefully degenerated . . . . The Lord Jesus calls from heaven to all who are thus substituting Religion for Christianity, to "hear" ó not what the Churches say to them ó but Ďwhat the Spirit is saying to the Churchesí " (Ibid.)
So perverse are menís thoughts, Bullinger continues in the September 1898 issue of Things to Come, that the average person, in spite of Christís seven-fold warning, persists in reading these admonitions as if they said "Let him hear what the Church saith," instead of the original inspired message, "Let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches."
What is the Spirit Saying to the Churches?
In the October 1898 issue of Things to Come, Dr. Bullinger continues to expound his views on the letters to the Churches. He explains how "what the Spirit says to the Churches" is covered in the Apostle Paulís Seven Church Epistles: Romans, Corinthians (I and II), Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (I and II). Seven is the number of spiritual perfection. It was not chance, but divine design, that as John addressed seven Churches in Asia, so also did Paul write letters to seven Churches, giving the Spiritís teaching to the churches. Paulís other Epistles (Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews), were not addressed to specific Churches. James, Peter, John and Jude were general Epistles.
The message of the Seven Church Epistles written by Paul is similar to the messages to the seven Churches of Revelation. The theme is doctrinal departure. In fact, departure from the teachings of Paul was the first step to general apostasy from the truth. Contrary to Bullinger, Paulís teaching was no different than that of the Twelve Apostles.
The Spirit is saying to the Churches that we ought to take heed and not turn away from the Truth of the Almighty. We must hold fast to the faithful Word. "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches," means that every true believer of every time should apply this message to himself, and be attentive to the direction of the Holy Spirit.
The Eternal Hates Deeds, Doctrine of the Nicolaitanes
Twice the mysterious "Nicolaitanes" are mentioned in the Seven Letters (Revelation 2:6, 15). The Savior tells the Church of Ephesus that He hates the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, commending them for likewise rejecting such deeds. He tells those of Pergamos, He hates the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, who are within the Church. The Church is admonished to repent. Who are these "Nicolaitanes"?
A Nicolaitane, as the Greek shows, means "a follower of Nicolas." Not the deacon Nicolas of Acts 6:5, but an infamous person. The name "Nicolas" comes from two Greek words, nikos, meaning "conqueror" or "destroyer," and laos, meaning "people" or "laity." The original Nicolas was a conqueror or destroyer of the people, Nimrod, who led the post- Flood rebellion against God. The modern St. Nicolas, or Santa Claus, stems from the worship of the false hero Nimrod who put himself in the place of God and had people worship him as "BAAL," that is, Master or Lord. Some continue to observe December 25, which is a continuation of the Saturnalia, the birthday of Saturn or Nimrod.
"Nicolaitanes" in the Church follow such vain customs, and also institute and practice a corrupt form of Church government based upon conquering the people and keeping them in subjection. Thus, despotism and elite rulership over the "laity" (the ordinary people) is another manifestation of the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes. How prophetic for our times, when false shepherds of the Almightyís flock rule the "dumb sheep" with force and cruelty, feeding themselves with rich living while scattering the flock, Ezekiel 34:1-6. Peter warned other elders against this type of Baalism, that they should humbly serve the flock, I Peter 5:1-6. Whereas the Catholic concept is a division of the brotherhood into "priests" and "laity," the Bible concept is a priesthood of all believers, I Peter 2:9, a multitude of gifts in the Church, I Corinthians 12. New Testament Churches were pastored by more than one elder, Acts 14:19-23, 20:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14. God has a "ministry" (service) for all His people, but not all have a pulpit ministry (Babylon Mystery Religion, pp. 112-113). Those who depend too much on a human spiritual leader, put that leader in place of Christ, and are shunning the true high priest in Heaven.
The Church Eras Teaching
Many modern theologians believe the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 represent seven successive Church eras which begin with the Apostolic Church and end with the Church of the end-time. We have often been asked, "Do you believe in Church eras?" Yes, we do. (1) We believe that the spirit and attitude of the successive seven Churches has been dominant from age to age, and that in this age, the Laodicean spirit and attitude is dominant. (2) We also believe that each of the messages to the seven Churches has meaning for all believers during all times, and that there have always been believers who epitomize one or more of these characteristics. (3) And also, we believe that the seven Churches of Asia represent the true Church, with its wheat and tares, strengths and weaknesses, in the time of the end. All three views of the seven Churches have validity, and they are not mutually exclusive.
The Book of Revelation is prophetic. Prophecy is dual. That means, prophetic patterns repeat themselves throughout history. Acts 2 is a case in point. On the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 31, Peter referred to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel (Acts 2:16-20; Joel 2:28-32). Yet obviously Joelís prophecy, set in the end time "day of the Lord," Joel 1:15, 2:1-11, 31, has not yet been fulfilled. What Peter was saying was that the Pentecost event was a forerunner, or type of Joelís end-time prophecy.
And so it is with the seven Churches. Seven literal Churches existed at the same time when John wrote Revelation about A.D. 96. Historically, dominant traits of these seven Churches have existed throughout the ages. In these days, different individuals exhibit these characteristics to one degree or another. Belief in Church eras and continuous existence of these typical Churches is not contradictory, but complementary.
End-Time Language to the Seven Churches
Notice the "end-time" language found throughout the letters to the seven Churches:
Ephesus: " . . . repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly . . . ." (Revelation 2:5)
Pergamos: "Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth." (2:16)
Thyatira: "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 . . . . But that which ye have already hold fast till I come." (2:22, 25)
Sardis: "If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee." (3:3)
Philadelphia: "Because thou hast kept the word of My patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. Behold, I come quickly . . . ." (3:10-11)
Laodicea: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock . . . ." (3:20)
The book of Revelation is primarily an end-time prophecy. However, the section on the letters to the seven churches is prophetic not only of the end time condition of the Church, but also of its history since A.D. 31.
Church Era Extremists
Until later years, the Worldwide Church of God vociferously advocated the teaching of Church eras, claiming that it (the organization) was the "Philadelphia Era." Now this teaching has been abandoned. And other groups, even naming themselves, "Philadelphia Church of God," emphasize Church eras and claim that they are the one true Philadelphia Church, and that the Worldwide Church of God is now "Laodicean." On the other side of the spectrum, Garner Ted Armstrong attacks the Church era teaching. Both extremes of the spectrum are wrong. Godís true Church is not an organization, although certainly organizations of people do tend to have the same spirit and attitude.
Garner Ted Armstrong notes that looking at the whole Church of God, there are people today who are experiencing the same problems, trials, successes, and attitudes as ALL SEVEN of the Churches of Asia in the First Century A.D. Some are in their "first love." Others have "left their first love," and need to repent and do the first works, like the Ephesian Church. Some are in the corrupt big cities, where every conceivable evil dwells, just like the Thyatira Church. Some are almost "asleep" spiritually, like Sardis, but a few "have not defiled their garments." Some are excited about having a part of walking through the "open door" given to the Church, and are like Philadelphia. And there are others who are "lukewarm," like the Laodiceans, needing to repent and be zealous for the Work.
Armstrong says that "Church era extremism" produces two deadly evils: (1) It promotes spiritual "labelism." He says that the Laodicean Church is NOT the church of Satan, and the two witnesses come from that Church. (2) It creates an "escape mentality," that those who feel they are "Philadelphians" are more worthy than First Century martyrs and will be taken to a "Place of Safety."
Here we disagree with Garner Ted Armstrongís rationale. Those in Laodicea who do not repent, who do not become zealous, will not be saved. The unrepentant are of the Synagogue of Satan. Those who allow themselves to get so lukewarm are under a curse from God, and He will have to subject them to the fires of persecution and martyrdom, to see if they really care for Him. You cannot be lukewarm and still be a true believer! It appears that Armstrong justifies lukewarm, watered-down teachings and lifestyles. "Laodicean" means "judgment of the people," and non zealous people will be sternly judged by the Savior because He loves them, but hates their lack of deeds, and their shameful departure from His truth.
Garner Ted disagrees with the "Place of Safety" doctrine which is clearly shown in numerous scriptures. See our article, "Petra and the Place of Safety." Those "Philadelphians" who will be protected from the coming time of great trial on the world are not more worthy than past Christian martyrs. God has a purpose and reason for protecting them from martyrdom. They will be pillars in His kingdom.
It is useless to label certain organizations or groups of people "Philadelphia" or "Laodicea." Let the Eternal make the determination of each individual. Some have watered down Biblical truth, and preach a newsy or self-proclaimed prophetic gospel instead of telling people their sins. One of the leading sins of Church of God organizations is not condemning rampant divorce and remarriage. Yet they claim their organization is Godís Church and they are doing "the Work." Such are definitely in the Laodicean condition. If the shoe fits, wear it.
The words "Church era" are not to be found in the Bible. Some, in trying to exalt their organization, have pictured other groups as "Laodicean" and themselves as "Philadelphian." On the other hand, others have downplayed the lessons from the letters to the seven Churches because they themselves have so watered down doctrinal teachings that the term "Laodicean" directly applies to them! Time and again in the letters to the seven Churches, the Savior tells the Churches to "Hold Fast!" Yet most are busily throwing away doctrinal truths they once had.
Hold Fast Admonitions to the Seven Churches
Ephesus: " . . . thou hast left thy first love . . . . repent, and do the first works . . . ." (Revelation 2:4-5)
Pergamos: " . . . thou holdest fast My name, and hast not denied My faith . . . ." (2:13)
Thyatira: "But that which ye have already hold fast till I come." (2:25)
Sardis: "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die . . . hold fast, and repent . . . ." (3:2-3)
Philadelphia: " . . . hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown." (3:11)
These verses tell us that one of the themes of Jesus Christís message to the Seven Churches was to hold fast to the truth and not water it down. This is a message for today!
Removal of the Candlestick
Each of the seven Churches is like a seven-stemmed candlestick. They are called the seven golden candlesticks, Revelation 1:11-20. The Church is to illuminate the world, Matthew 5:14-16. If a Church does not do this, it is good for nothing, and the Savior removes the candlestick. Ephesus lost its first love, so Jesus removed its candlestick. Ephesus today is in ruins! And so it is with Laodicea, the Church for which there was nothing good to say.
Garner Ted Armstrong compares the churches of Ephesus and Laodicea:
"I know thy works."
"Thou hast left thy first love."
"Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent."
"To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God."
"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches."
"I know thy works."
"Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot."
"As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent."
"To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne."
"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches."
What Garner Ted fails to mention is that when John wrote Revelation in the late 90s A.D., the Ephesus Church had sadly departed from the truth. Most had already apostatized, and more would soon. Only a zealous few like John, Polycarp, and Polycrates would hold fast to essential truths, such as the annual Passover on the 14th of Nisan. The time of the twelve Apostles and "the big push" of spreading the true gospel was over. Apostasy and corruption were firmly entrenched. To compare the Ephesus and Laodicea Churches in a favorable light is to justify the departure from truth in these last days.
Seven Churches: Then and Now
Let us compare the first century A.D., status of the Seven Churches of Asia, with their current condition. Historical facts illustrate spiritual principles.
City Then Now
Ephesus "First City of Asia," great Candlestick removed, total ruins, Temple of Diana, excellent harbor. harbor filled up.
Smyrna One of oldest cities in the world, Large, modern, city of Izmir, Turkey,
excellent harbor, rival to Ephesus exports famous Smyrna figs, woolen
and Pergamos. cloth, "City of Life."
Pergamos Most illustrious capital city of Modern Turkish town of Bergama,
Roman province of Asia; Homer in the valley below the Acropolis,
and Herodotus studied and wrote has a population of 20,000 and has a
at its great library of 200,000 vols., steady flow of tourists.
which rivaled Alexandria. A royal
city, huge hill 1,000 feet up from
valley, seat of Babylonian religion.
Thyatira Manufacturing city of laborers, Modern Turkish town of Akhisar,
organized into unions or guilds, population of 30,000.
produced brass, bronze, metals,
and royal purple cloth.
Sardis Rich capital of Lydia, inventors of Miserable village of Sart, a heap of
coined money, rich soil. ruins, "City of Death."
Philadelphia Numerous earthquakes, citizens Christian stronghold in the midst
accustomed to fleeing. of Moslems. Allah Shehr, "City of
Laodicea Rich farming country on Lycus Long deserted, most of stones have
River, banking center, large mar- been removed to nearby villages. It
kets controlled mostly by Jews, is the most desolated of all the seven
so wealthy that in A.D. 60 when cities.
destroyed by earthquake, it refused
Roman aid. Famous black wool
cloth and eye salve. Hot springs
and limestone deposits at nearby
Hierapolis; close to Colossae.
Meaning Of the Names of the Seven Churches
In the Bible, names have great significance. According to A History of the True Religion by A.N. Dugger and C.O. Dodd, pages 250-251, Taylor G. Bunchís The Seven Epistles of Christ, and A Dictionary of Scripture Proper Names, by J.B. Jackson, the following chart shows the meaning of the names of the seven Churches of Asia:
Ephesus Desirable; having relaxed, let go; full purposed
Smyrna Death, or myrrh, a pleasant odor
Pergamos High and exalted, union through marriage
Thyatira Sacrifice of nearest and dearest; odor of affliction;
Sardis That which is left, those escaping
Philadelphia Brotherly love, faithful remnant
Laodicea Judgment of the people; righteous judgment; peopleís rights
Dugger and the Church of God, Seventh Day, taught Church epochs or eras. Dugger said that the period of the Sabbath Baptists in America from 1620 to 1789 was the latter part of the Sardis period (page 251).
J.T. Williamson in the April 1, 1924, Bible Advocate said, "to properly describe the conditions of this Church, from Christís first advent until His second coming, this entire period of time [of the New Testament Church] is subdivided into seven periods . . . . the ĎChurch of Godí in each of these seven periods of time, like a lamp or candlestick illuminates the life of Christ (light to the world) . . . . The first period or Apostolic age is called ĎChurch of Ephesus,í . . . [because] it would be the most desirable period of the Church when Christ and the Apostles were in it . . . ." He goes on to divide Church history into seven periods, based on the seven Churches.
G.G. Rupert and Church Eras
Another early 20th Century Sabbath keeping minister who taught Church eras was G.G. Rupert (1847-1922). He believed the "ten days" of "tribulation" of Revelation 2:10 were the ten yearís persecution under Diocletian, A.D. 302-312, during the Smyrna era. He stated that Thyatira lasted for 1260 years, from 538-1798. In his book, The Yellow Peril, Rupert says the Sardis era lasted from 1798-1833, while the Philadelphia era lasted only from 1833-1844. Rupert admitted his suggested dates were not clear breaks, for it is "clear to our mind that more than one of the last Churches live con-temporary and at the same time." An Independent Sabbath keeper, Rupert hinted that the Church of God, Seventh Day, was the dead Sardis era.
Seven Churches of Revelation Beginning.