The Revelation is a multi-layered book presented to us by Jesus through John the Apostle. Those who say this book only had meaning to the early church limit God. One of the apparent layers of The Revelation is the Seven Letters to the Seven Churches in Asia Minor. These letters appear to represent periods in the Church Age. The Church Age spans from the Day of Pentecost when Peter preached the first gospel sermon in Acts chapter two, until the glorious day when the Lord comes for His Church.
In this particular perspective of the Seven Letters, we have to remember that we are looking at a period of time and not a physical location. Sometimes, the physical attributes of the location of the church give us clues to the period of time. Let's look at the first letter.
I – Ephesus - The Early Church - The Zondervan Bible Dictionary defines "Ephesus" as "desirable". The early church was desirable to the Lord. The Lord, in His message to the church at Ephesus, begins with a positive statement, and follows with a negative observation. This pattern is followed in two other letters. The Lord acknowledges the hard work and perserverance of the church, and how they had tested false apostles. But, He states, "you have forgotten your first love". Apparently, this Church had wandered from the original gospel of the Lord.
He warns them to repent or He will remove their lamp. We are told at the end of chapter one that the lamps represent the churches. The city of Ephesus no longer exists. The lamp was removed. The early church also no longer exists, even though many churches try to emulate it. This period probably covers from the Day of Pentecost until the persecution of Nero (54 AD).
II – Smyrna – The Persecuted Church - As we know, the Church was defamed and persecuted horribly for many years. Several Roman emperors were responsible. Generally, the period of persecution ranged from 54 AD (Nero) until 305 AD (Diocletian).
Clearly, this letter represents the persecuted church. It starts and ends with death. The letter starts with Jesus describing Himself as having died and come to life again. He admonishes the church to be faithful to death, and receive the Crown of Life. Only positive statements are made about the church at Smyrna. The Lord has nothing negative to say to this Church.
The name of this city is another form of the word "myrrh" which is a perfume. The faith of this church was a sweet perfume to the Lord. The Lord tells them to not be afraid, even though the Devil would test them. The Lord honors this church. The city still exists and several years ago there were many Christians living there.
III – Pergamum – The Amalgamated Church - In 313 AD Constantine issued his Edict of Toleration. This stated that Christians were free to worship God. What a change after over two centuries of persecution. In 325 AD Constantine exorted his subjects to convert to Christianity. This was not bad. The damage was done by Theodosius, who reigned from 378 AD to 395 AD. Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion. Pagans and Christians were forced together. ("You live where Satan has his throne"). The Pagans brought with them a lot of their religion, and incorporated this into practices and observances of the Church. These pagan practices were basically Babylonian mystery religion.
The Lord tells this Church to overcome and eat hidden manna and receive a white stone with a name on it that only the Church will know. The hidden manna and the stone with a secret name both imply mystery. This was the Church that was forced to accept a mystery religion.
This letter contains the positive/negative format. The Lord recognizes that these Christians live where Satan has his throne, but also renounces them because they tolerate the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitanes. These are false teachings; pagan teachings.
The city still exists with a Turkish name – Bergama. The amalgamated or combined Church still exists today, also.
IV – Thyatira – The Political Church - The city of Thyatira was located on the border of Lydia and Mysia. Peloubet says that it was sometimes counted with one country and sometimes with the other as borders shifted over the centuries. Likewise the Church represented by this city vacillated between spiritual matters and worldly matters. After the forced combination of Christian and pagan beliefs, the Church became more political. The bishop of Rome claimed more and more authority over the other churches. Leo I (440 – 461 AD) took advantage of the anarchy of the disintegrating Roman Empire. Eventually, the Church took the place of the state and referred to its dominion as the Holy Roman Empire. The bishop of Rome became known as the pope and kings answered to his instructions.
The Lord has positive and negative statements about Thyatira. He says ,"you are doing more now than at first." The church sent many missionaries to many lands. But, He says, "You tolerate that Jezebel". The Church still held to many teachings of mystery religions. The city of Thyatira still exists, as does the political church.
The seven letters form an obvious menorah design. The menorah is the golden lampstand the Lord described in Exodus 25:31. The center lamp is the servant lamp. In menorah designs in scripture the center position refers to light or fire or the Throne of God. This letter starts out with a reference to the Son of God, who has eyes like blazing fire.
Thyatira represents the Church which claimed authority over all nations. The Lord promises those who have not learned Satan's "deep secrets" and have overcome that He will give them authority over the nations.
V – Sardis – The Reformation Church - Perhaps the greatest event in Church history in the second millenium was the act of Martin Luther. Luther had 95 questions. At his church it was customary to post announcements on the door. In 1517, in Wittenberg, Luther posted his questions on the door of the church, and the Church has not been the same since.
The Lord tells them that their deeds are not complete. This is, after all, the same political church that we saw before. But the Lord had a job for them. He states that some of the Church have not soiled their clothes, and they will walk with Him, dressed in white. In chapter 19 we find that robes of white stand for the righteous acts of the saints.
This Church represents from 1517 until ??? The Lord tells this Church that those who overcome will sit with Him on His Throne. The Lord tells the Church at Sardis to wake up! He says it twice. Sadly, this city no longer exists.
THE LAST TWO LETTERS
The last two churches must co-exist in the Last Days; the Church at Philadelphia representing the true Church and the Church at Laodicea representing the apostate Church. They must co-exist because the Philadelphian Church will certainly exist in the Last Days and the Laodicean Church is listed last. So these two letters are not necessarily chronological.
VI – Philadelphia – The True Church of the Last Days - Most know that Philadelphia means "city of brotherly love". What a wonderful name for the Church that represents the true Church in the final times. The Lord only has positive things to say about this Church. He says, "I know your deeds", but He does not enumerate them. It is as if the deeds of this Church are well known. They "go without saying". This city still exists (with a Turkish name) and several years ago the church was flourishing.
The Lord Jesus identifies Himself as holding the keys of David, and what He opens, no man can shut. He also tells this Church that He has placed an open door before them, which no one can shut. What a positive promise! The Lord also promises that He will keep this Church from the Hour of Trial. This is a wonderful promise for the Church that will experience the Last Days. The Hour of Trial must be the Great Tribulation. The Lord says that He will write on them the name of the City of God, the New Jerusalem. In chapter 21 we find that the New Jerusalem is the Church, prepared as a bride for Jesus. The Church is the Bride of Christ.
He also tells this Church that he is coming soon!
VII – Laodicea – The Apostate Church - The letter to this Church is an exact opposite of the letter to Philadelphia. The Lord only has negative statements about the Church at Laodicea. He reminds them that He is the faithful and true witness, the Ruler of God's Creation. While the Lord promises the Church at Philadelphia an open door, at Laodicea He is outside the door and knocking, asking to come in. The Lord is outside of this Church. When this scripture is quoted, we are conditioned to picture Jesus asking to come into the life of a sinner. But, in fact, He is talking to a Church!
What a sorry and sad Church. They think they are rich, but He says they are poor and wretched. He counsels them to obtain riches from Him. The Lord knows the deeds of this Church, also. Because He knows their deeds, He will spew them out of His mouth. This is a distasteful Church. How sad. And, this city no longer exists.
But, there is still an opportunity for salvation. Jesus asks them to repent. He tells them to overcome and sit with Him on His Throne. This is the same message to those who overcome in the Church at Sardis. Is the Church at Laodicea a continuation of the Sardis Church, which came out of the political church of Thyatira? Time will tell.