Saturday, July 2, 2022

The Letters to the Seven Churches

by James C. Morris –  

In Revelation two and three, the Holy Spirit addressed seven letters to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. But this suggests two questions. “Why this number of churches?” And, “Why these particular churches?” It is commonly believed that in scriptural symbology, the number seven represents perfection. But is there more involved here than simple perfection? Why, for instance, did the list include neither Jerusalem, the early center of Christianity, nor Rome, the largest city in the world? There seems to be more involved than just letters to a few particular churches. But what is this greater something?

We remember that in the historical books of the Bible, vast spans of time are often passed over in just a few verses, while the lifetimes of certain individuals fill many chapters. So the point of these divinely inspired records is not just to satisfy the curiosity of the readers. Rather, certain stories were selected for inclusion, while most others were left out. We are not left to our own imaginations as to why this was done. For we are explicitly told that “whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” (Romans 15:4) Even so, the letters to the seven churches have a far greater significance than simply letters to a few churches that existed thousands of years ago. But what is that significance?

We find our first hint about this in two statements from the first chapter. In verse 1 we read, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants – things which must shortly take place.” And then in verse 19 we read, “Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.”

So the book itself is about “things which must shortly take place.” And it is in three divisions. The first division was the things which John had just seen, that is, the vision of Jesus in the midst of the seven churches. The second division was “the things which are.” And the third division was “the things which will take place after this.” Then, immediately after the end of the seven letters, the next thing we read is “After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, ‘Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.’ ” (Revelation 4:1) I have no explanation for why the translators of the NKJV, which we are using, rendered the last word in both Revelation 1:19 and Revelation 4:1 as “this,” for the Greek word used in both of these places was σαυτα, “tauta” in our alphabet. This Greek word (word number 5023 in Strong’s Greek Dictionary) is plainly plural, so in English they should read, “things which will take place after these,” not after “this,” as the NKJV renders them. In the KJV this Greek word was rendered in the plural 193 times, and as singular only 6 times. (And as a side note we should notice that this word is in the accusative case, so the preceding Greek word, which is μετα, “meta” in our alphabet, word number 3326 in Strong’s Greek Dictionary, was properly translated as “after,” rather than its more common meaning of “with.” So a literal translation of these two words, which occur in each of these two sentences, is “after these.” or, more clearly, “after these things,” with the word “things” in italics to indicate that it had been added to complete the sense.)

So in the first place, the entire book is about “things which must shortly take place,” and the third division is about “things which will take place after these,” that is, “things which will take place after” “the things which are.” This is the first distinct hint, right in the Greek text of the Revelation, that the seven letters represent something more than just individual messages to seven local churches that existed thousands of years ago.

The rendering of the Greek word “tauta” as “this,” rather than “these,” is an unfortunate error which occurs in several translations. For it masks what was actually said in these two passages. From chapter 4 onward, the Revelation is about things that were to take place after what was revealed in chapters 2 and 3. But the things presented from that chapter onward have still not happened, even to the present day. So, Revelation 1:19 and 4:1 together form a distinct hint that these seven letters speak of the period from when the Revelation was given until a time that has not yet arrived.

But after this clearly impied hint, we have four distinct statements of a passing of time.

The first of these that we will notice is in verse 19 of chapter 2, where we read, concerning the church of Thyatira, “I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first.” Here we see a time progression clearly stated. For “the last” “works” are said to be “more than the first” “works.” After this, we will notice that in verse 4 of chapter 2 the church of Ephesus was told that “you have left your first love.” Then, in verse 10 of the same chapter, the church in Smyrna was told that “you will have tribulation ten days.” Then, in verse 21, it was said of the church in Thyatira, that, “I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent.” In each of these four places a passing of time is not just hinted at, but is distinctly stated.

So we have a total of five separate statements showing that these letters speak of periods of time. There are also other hints that are not stated, but are just as real.

One of these is the manifest progression of evil in the sequence of these letters. This clearly, even though not directly, indicates a time sequence. For, contrary to what some imagine, the scriptures very clearly teach that the church will progressively grow more evil. We read, for instance, “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29-30) We also read, “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (2 Timothy 3:1-5) This warning led to a crescendo eight verses later, where the Holy Spirit declared that “evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Timothy 3:13) And finally, our Lord himself asked the rhetorical question, “when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8) So the scriptures plainly teach us to expect the church to become “worse and worse,” until, when the Lord finally arrives, He will not even “find faith on the earth.”

So the steady progression of evil in these letters is indeed an indication that they represent a sequence of time. There were two exceptions to this steady progression of evil, one near the beginning and one near the end. But we will not deal with these exceptions until later.

In the first letter, the only complaint made by the Holy Spirit was “that you have left your first love.” (Revelation 2:4) In the third letter the complaint was that they were tolerating those who held wicked doctrines in their midst. (Revelation 2:15) The first group, “the church of Ephesus,” hated “the deeds of the Nicolaitans,” (verse 6) and in the third group, “the church in Pergamos,” there were some that held their evil doctrine. (verse 14) But the fourth group, “the church in Thyatira,” not only tolerated those that held these wicked doctrines, they were allowing such persons to teach those evil doctrines. (verse 20) Scripture does not tell us what their wicked deeds and doctrines were. These were clearly stated by many ancient Christian writers. But we will not go into what they said, as that is not the point of these letters.

The decline then accelerates in the fifth group, “the church in Sardis,” where the Holy Spirit declares, “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1) And it is finally complete in the last group, “the church of the Laodiceans,” Where the Lord is on the outside, knocking on the door. (verse 20) The Holy spirit tells that church “you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” (verses15-16)

Thus we see a steady progression from everything still being outwardly right, but having lost their first love, to everything being so wrong that the Lord himself is on the outside, not even in the church. Indeed, the last church is not even called the church of, or in, whatever city was being addressed, but instead of this terminology, which was used for all the other churches in this series, the last one is only called “the church of the Laodiceans.” (Revelation 3:14) In other words, the Lord was denying that this last church was even his own. He only called it their church, not His church.

Other hints about this time sequence are to be found in a comparison of the details in these seven letters. There are two systematic differences in these seven letters. The most noticeable of these is that the first three of these letters all speak of their times ending, while the last four ones all speak distinctly of them still being present at the time of the Lord’s coming. We will examine this in greater detail below.

And finally, there is a systematic difference in the promises to the overcomers in these seven churches. In each of the first three, the promise comes before the words, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” which are said to all seven. (See chapter 2, verses 7, 11, and 17.) But in each of the last four, the promise comes after these words. (See chapter 2, verses 26-28 and chapter 3, verses 5, 12, and 21.) It has been pointed out that this seems to indicate that in the first three, all are called to heed the exhortation to hear, while in the last four, the overall body is given up as already lost, and this exhortation is only addressed to the overcomers.

So we see that there are a total of six hints buried withing the very wording of the Greek text of the Revelation, that these seven letters speak of the time between the time the Revelation was given and the time the Lord will return.

Now all of this is only interpretation. And all interpretations of scripture are subject to error. So we cannot positively insist that “this is what the Bible teaches.” But These details most certainly seem to indicate that these letters at least speak in some general way of the entire span of time from when the Revelation was given until when the Lord returns.

But in addition to these distinctly stated hints in the text of scripture itself, we find a remarkable parallel between the details found in these letters and the historical records of the church.

In verse 5 of chapter 2, “the church of Ephesus” was told that unless they repented, the Lord would “come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place.” This has indeed happened, as what was once the thriving city of Ephesus has shrunk to a mere village. And that village is 100% Muslim. There is not even one person in Ephesus that even pretends to be a Christian. The candlestick has been removed out of its place. For the glorious light of the gospel no longer has even a glimmer or glow in Ephesus.

In verse 10 of chapter 2, “the church in Smyrna” was told “you will have tribulation ten days.” And after its post apostolic period, the church passed through ten periods of persecution. Some might complain that it does not say ten periods, but “ten days.” But the word “day” is often used in the scriptures to represent a general period of time. We find this, for instance, in the Old Testament in Isaiah 19:18-25, in which a future period of time is called “that day” no less than five times. Likewise, in the New Testament, in Luke 6:23 a generic time of persecution is called “that day,” and in John 16:23 the future in general is called “that day.”

But after this church, the message changes. In verses 22 to 25, “Jezebel” and her adulterous lovers are told they will be “cast” “into great tribulation” unless they repent, and the faithful of “Thyatira” are told to “hold fast what you have till I come.” Then, in chapter 3, in verse 3 “the church in Sardis” was told that unless they repented and watched, “I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” and in verse 10 “the church in Philadelphia” was told that “I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” the Greek word here translated “from” is εκ, “ek” in our alphabet, word number 1537 in String’s Greek Dictionary. This Greek word literally means “from,” but in the sense of “away from,” or “out of.” So we see that in these details, the Holy Spirit was indicating that the first three churches would come to an end, but the next three would continue down to the Lord’s coming. And the last one, which was a church in name only, will be vomited out of His mouth when He comes.

In the immediate post-Apostolic era, all seemed to be going on well in the church as a whole. But it is very reveling to compare the praise “the church of Ephesus” received with the praise the Holy Spirit heaped on the church at Thessalonica during the Apostolic era. There we read of “your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope.” (1 Thessalonians 1:3) But here we read only of “your works, your labor, your patience.” (Revelation 2:2) They still worked. But it was no longer a “work of faith.” they still labored, but it was no longer a “labor of love.” and they still had patience, but it was no longer a “patience of hope.” But what was the basic problem? “you have left your first love.” (Revelation 2:4) This is like the complaint in the old favorite song by Frank Sinatra, “You never seem to want my romancing. The only time you hold me is when we're dancing.” Everything in “the church of Ephesus” was still outwardly right and proper. But God, who knows the hearts, knew that they no longer loved him with the fervor that had once burned in their hearts. “The cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches” (Matthew 13:22, Mark 4:19, see also Luke 8:14) was choking the word in their hearts. And this grieved their Savior, who had shed his blood for them.

But soon widespread persecution arose. There had always been persecutions. But they had mostly been local. But now a worldwide persecution against the church rose from the great Roman Empire itself. History tells us that there were a total of ten successive persecutions launched by various Roman Emperors. So “the church in Smyrna” was told “you will have tribulation ten days.” (Revelation 2:10) As we have already noticed, in the scriptures, the word “day” is often used to represent an undefined period of time, as in the oft repeated expression, “the last days,” or our the Holy Spirit’s words, “now is he day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2) We should also note here that, as this church was suffering, our Lord had nothing but comfort and encouragement for them. This should not be interpreted as meaning that there was nothing wrong in this church, but only demonstrates our Savior’s compassion. When his own are suffering, He does not correct or rebuke them, but only comforts and encourages them.

But the persecutions finally ended, In the year 313 Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan decriminalizing Christian worship. And the church settled down in the world. It had become comfortable to be a Christian. This is treated at length in the third of these seven letters, the one to “the church in Pergamos.” They were told that “you dwell where Satan's throne is.

This concept of “dwelling” in the Revelation does not simply imply their address, as it were, but the place where their hearts were occupied. Revelation 3:10, 11:10, 13:8, 13:12, 13:14 (twice) 14:6 and 17:8 all speak of “those who dwell on the earth.” and always in the light of people who will receive the judgment of God. So their dwelling “where Satan’s throne is was not a commendation or an encouragement, but a criticism. But there was also a second problem in this church. They not only dwelt “where Satan’s throne is,” but they were tolerating teachers of wicked doctrine in their very midst. And this is exactly what happened in the church at that time. The wicked teachers who had previously been cast out of the church became tolerated in her very bosom. Teachers who had previously been condemned as heretics began to be studied, so their evil opinions began to spread throughout the church.

Within 200 years this had disastrous results, which we find discussed at length in the fourth letter, the one to “the church in Thyatira.” these wicked teachers began to not only be tolerated in the church, but to be allowed to openly teach their wicked doctrines. The time when this phase of church history began is not well defined, but some equate it with an ascendence of Monasticism, credited mainly to Boniface in around the year 530. This is the first church for which a protracted period of time is explicitly mentioned, in the words, “I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent.” 11 And, as explained in detail in the footnote, the Greek text does not simply say that she “did not repent,” but that she “does not wish to repent.” That is, that she loves her sinfulness, and has no intention of repenting. So what is the Lord’s response go her stubborn rebellion?

Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.” (Revelation 2:22) Here we see an indication of this church continuing until the end. For the Lord “will cast her” “into great tribulation.” That is, these unrepentant sinners, being Christians in name only, will not be “caught up” in the rapture, but will be left behind to go through the “great tribulation.” But there is more. “I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.” (Revelation 2:23)

These words, “I will kill her children with death,” sounds redundant. But it is not. As with much of what God says, the meaning here goes deeper than the superficial statement.

We remember God’s words that, “they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12) And what He had previously told the rebels of Judah:


Just as they have chosen their own ways,

And their soul delights in their abominations,

So will I choose their delusions,

And bring their fears on them;

Because, when I called, no one answered,

When I spoke they did not hear;

But they did evil before My eyes,

And chose that in which I do not delight.”

(Isaiah 66:3-4)

Even so, these false Christians, who loved their sin and did “not wish to repent,” will be killed with something far worse than merely being physically killed, but with a spiritual death. They will be turned over to “believe the lie.” That is, to believe the lie of the “Antichrist,” that “the beast” is God, and that he is God’s messenger.

This period of church history covered by this letter has come to be called “the dark ages,” or, more formally, “the middle ages.” This gave way to “the Reformation,” which, like the last age, did not have a distinct beginning. There were “reformers” as early as the mid 1300s, but this movement did not become widespread until the 1500s. A true gospel began to be preached again, and many came to faith in Christ. But this revival was short lived. And in time, the great movements that had been founded by the reformers slipped into the mere formality of the mainstream protestant churches, and from there into apostasy. So before long, the Lord’s word to these remnants of what had once been a great movement of God, was: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent.” (Revelation 3:1-3)

This was an even more severe condemnation than the one received by the openly wicked “church in Thyatira,” to whom the Lord only said “I have a few things against you.” But now, to these that had received His word, and had turned away from it, He said, “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” This is like the time when our Lord himself told “the chief priests and the elders of the people” (Matthew 21:23) “that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.” (Matthew 21:31) As the Holy Spirit said through Peter, “For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.” (2 Peter 2:21)

And here, the Lord only addressed “the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, who have not known the depths of Satan, as they say,” telling them that “I will put on you no other burden. But hold fast what you have till I come.” (Revelation 2:24-25) But now He says, “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.” (Revelation 3:4) The words “even in Sardis” are another indication that our Lord considered “the church in Sardis” to be worse than “the church in Thyatira.”

But to this church, after telling them, “Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent,” the Lord said, “Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” (Revelation 3:3) So this church, like “the church in Thyatira,” is warned of judgment when the Lord comes.

After centuries of the apostasy of the church of the reformation, in the nineteenth century there came another revival. This began in movements such as the Plymouth brethren and churches of the Moody genre, and continues to this day in “Bible” churches and “community” churches, along with some churches of other types. These groups, with varying levels of Biblical understanding, faithfully follow the scriptures as they understand them. To these, “the church in Philadelphia,” the Lord says, “I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name.” (Revelation 3:7) And from this, we know that Satan will not be able close the open door to proclaim the gospel, which God has “set before” this church. For “no one can shut it.”

And, even as “the church in Thyatira” and “the church in Sardis” are warned of judgment when the Lord comes, the faithful few of “the church in Philadelphia” are promised the opposite. For the Lord had said of the wicked in Thyatira, “Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.” (Revelation 2:22) And He had said of the apostates in Sardis, that “if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” (Revelation 3:3) He now says of the faithful in Philadelphia, “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” (Revelation 3:10) So the Lord here promises to keep His faithful ones “from,” not “through,” not just the “great tribulation,” but “the hour of trial.” That is, Our Lord promised to keep these faithful ones out of the time during which the “the whole world” will be tested.

But finally, we come to the last church, which our Lord calls by an entirely different name. He no longer calls it “the church of Ephesus,” as He called the first one, or “the church in” such-and-such a place, as He called all the others, but only “the church of the Laodiceans.” That is, he does not recognize it as His church, but only as their own. And what does He say to them? I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. 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.” (Revelation 3:15-18)

Who can deny that this is the sad state of the bulk of what claims to be Christian today? This is an apt description of what has come to be called “Modernism.” And where is the Lord in all this? he is not even there. He is on the outside, knocking on the door. For He says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” (Revelationm3:20) And we again see our Lord’s coming in this letter, when he says, “because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” (Revelation 3:16)

And finally, there is one more hint buried in the text of these seven letters, showing that this is a veiled prophecy of the sad history of “the church.” And that is the location of the universal call, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” These same words were said to each of the seven churches. (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29 and 3:6, 13, and 22) But for the first three churches, these words come before the promises to the overcomers, and for the last four, they come after those promises. It has been suggested that, for the first three churches, Our Lord directed His call to hear to all of them. But for the last four, the overall body had become so evil that His call was only addressed to the few overcomers within those churches.

Thus we see that these seven letters do indeed contain a veiled prophetic history of the church, written long ago, but aptly describing what actually took place during the almost two thousand years since these words were given through the Apostle John.

11 The Greek words here translated “did not repent,” are ου θελει μετανοησαι, “ou thelei metansai” in our alphabet. “Ou,” word number 3756 in Strong’s Greek Dictionary, translates literally as “not.” And “thelei” is an indicative form of θελο, “thelo” in our alphabet, word number 2309 in Strong’s Greek Dictionary, which translates literally as “wish.” And “metansai” is a form of the Greek word μετανοεω, “metanoeo” in our alphabet, word number 3340 in Strong’s Greek Dictionary. This word means “repent,” but it is in an infinitive form, which makes it mean “to repent.” So the actual Greek text literally says “not wish to repent,” or, as the CSB version renders it, “not want to repent.”

No comments:

Post a Comment