The apostle John was given important messages to the seven churches of Revelation. How are we to understand this section of Scripture today?
As the first chapter of the book of Revelation explains, the apostle John was given a vision of end-time events leading up to the return of Jesus Christ. Part of the instruction that John received was: “What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea” (verse 11). The order of these cities corresponds to “the route along which a courier from Patmos [where John received the vision] would have carried the scroll” (ESV Study Bible, Revelation 2:11).
Trying to understand what these messages mean for Christians today has been puzzling. These seven churches, named by their locations, were not the sum total of all the congregations of the Church of God in the first century. Additional congregations were located at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2), Philippi (Philippians 1:1) and Colosse (Colossians 1:2), just to name a few of the additional cities where churches of God existed in the New Testament.
So why did God the Father, the author of this message (Revelation 1:1), select these seven congregations? What relevance do these messages have for us today? As we will see, God selected these seven congregations to give timeless instruction for His people throughout the centuries.
Because this instruction is both historical and prophetic—John was told to write about “the things which are, and the things which will take place after this” (verse 19, emphasis added)—this information must be understood from more than one perspective. Here are three ways this section of Scripture can be understood.
Instruction for the first-century churches
The seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 were congregations of the Church of God in the first century. Located in Asia Minor (now modern Turkey), these churches represented actual communities of early Christians—not buildings or meeting halls.
In addressing each of these congregations, God said that He knew their works. Knowing the challenges they were facing and how they were responding, He admonished them to repent of their mistakes and to remain faithful in order to receive salvation. Although their circumstances varied, this message was similar for each church.
In closer examination of these messages, it is interesting to note that God clearly understood the difficulties and influences that the members of the congregation in each city had to endure and resist. For example, He knew that the members at Ephesus had lost their “first love” and that they were resisting the negative influence of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:4, 6). God also knew the “tribulation, and poverty” those in Smyrna were facing (verse 9).
One important lesson from Revelation 2 and 3 is that God knew the issues facing the churches and members of the first century. Similar to Paul’s letters to various congregations in other cities, these short messages to the seven congregations were intended to encourage the members in these cities to hold fast to God’s way of life so they could be rewarded in the future.
Progressive history of the Church
Students of the Bible have also noted that the messages to the seven churches imply a progressive history of things “which will take place after this” (Revelation 1:19). Some have described this as the chronological development of the Church or church eras.
Addressing this perspective, the late professor Dr. John F. Walvoord notes: “Many expositors believe that in addition to the obvious implication of these messages the seven churches represent the chronological development of church history viewed spiritually. They note that Ephesus seems to be characteristic of the Apostolic Period in general and that the progression of evil climaxing in Laodicea seems to indicate the final state of apostasy of the church. … The order of the messages to the churches seems to be divinely selected to give prophetically the main movement of church history” (John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 1989, pp. 51-52).
Another scholar, C.I. Scofield (1843-1921), editor of the Scofield Study Bible, gives a similar explanation:
“Again, these messages by their very terms go beyond the local assemblies mentioned. It can be seen that Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7), though a local church in the apostle’s day, is typical of the first century as a whole; Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11) characterizes the church under persecution, e.g. from A.D. c. 100-316; Pergamos (Revelation 2:12-17), ‘where Satan dwells’ … is suggestive of the church mixing with the world, e.g. in the Middle Ages; Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) reveals how evil progresses in the church and idolatry is practiced; Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) is representative of the church as dead, yet still having a minority of godly men and women, as during the Reformation; Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) shows revival and a state of spiritual advance; and Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-19) is illustrative of the final state of apostasy which the visible church will experience” (Scofield Study Bible, Revelation 1:20).
While the Bible does not give us specific dates for the time periods or eras of the Church’s development and many of these periods of time overlap, there are indications of this historical progression within these messages to the churches. Here are a few of these apparent indications of the Church’s developing history:
Ephesus, the first church mentioned in the messages to the seven churches of Revelation, served as the center for John’s ministry at the end of the first century. The island of Patmos, where John received the vision recorded in the book of Revelation, was only 50 miles from Ephesus. It is well-known that John preached about love—some refer to him as the apostle of love—to help Christians at that time recapture their “first love” (Revelation 2:4; 1 John 3:10-11, 14, 16-18, 23).
Smyrna, the second church mentioned, was told that it would “have tribulation ten days” (Revelation 2:10). Commenting on this verse, Adam Clarke states: “As the days in this book are what is commonly called prophetic days, each answering to a year, the ten years of tribulation may denote ten years of persecution; and this was precisely the duration of the persecution under Diocletian, during which all the Asiatic Churches were grievously afflicted. Others understand the expression as implying frequency and abundance, as it does in other parts of Scripture” (Adam Clarke Commentary, Revelation 2:10).
Regardless of the exact meaning of “ten days” in Revelation 2:10, history shows that the Church of God faced great persecution in its earliest centuries. As shown, this is implied in the message to Smyrna and is also included in the third message (to Pergamos), in which God refers to “Antipas … My faithful martyr” (Revelation 2:13).
The messages to the last four churches speak of Christ’s return—an indication that at least a remnant of Thyatira, Sardis and Philadelphia will still exist, along with Laodicea, in the end time (Revelation 2:25; Revelation 3:3, 11, 20). Indicating that the progression of history prior to Christ’s return has nearly run its course, Philadelphia is promised protection during “the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 3:10).
Advice for Christians throughout the ages
A third way the messages to the seven churches can be understood is as advice and warnings to Christians throughout all ages. The responses of each church to the advice given can also be understood as attitudes. The relevance of these messages to Christians throughout history becomes obvious with the closing to each of the seven churches: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; Revelation 3:6, 13, 22).
While more complete explanations of the relevance of each message are available in the articles on each congregation, here is an abbreviated summary of the lessons we can learn from the instruction God gave each church:
- Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7): Don’t lose your love for God’s truth or His people.
- Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11): Remain faithful in the face of tribulation and poverty.
- Pergamos (Revelation 2:12-17): Resist Satan’s influence, even to death, if necessary.
- Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29): Resist false teaching.
- Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6): Remain zealous and pure in conduct.
- Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13): Persevere and walk through the doors God opens.
- Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22): Don’t become lukewarm about God’s way of life.
Abuse of church eras
Similar to the way much of the Bible’s teaching has been misunderstood and misapplied, some have misused the messages to the seven churches in claiming that their organization or group of people represents a particular church era, such as Philadelphia, and that other believers represent another era, such as Laodicea. No matter what humans may claim, we have to remember that Christ will be the ultimate Judge (Acts 10:42; Acts 17:31; 2 Timothy 4:1).
As for judging others to be Laodiceans, it is ironic to note that the nature of those in Laodicea was to misjudge their spiritual condition. Again, the timeless instruction for us today is to hear and apply all of the messages given to the churches. The wise course of action is to heed all of the messages and let Christ do the judging—a role He will most certainly fulfill!
Modern relevance of the messages
The messages to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 show us that the Church of God and its members were destined to face many trials throughout the centuries before Jesus Christ would return. Yet God promised to reward His Church and individual members if they would remain faithful to Him.
These rewards include eating from the tree of life (Revelation 2:7), being given the crown of life (verse 10), being given a new name (verse 17), being given power over the nations (verse 26), having one’s name written in the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5), becoming a pillar in God’s temple (verse 12) and sitting with Christ on His throne (verse 21). This encouragement from God reminds us that serving Him is well worth the effort.
What are you doing with the spiritual knowledge you have received? Are you remaining faithful to what God has revealed? Continue reading the information on this website to learn more about God’s way of life and how you can strengthen your relationship with God. You may find it especially helpful to study the sections on “The Church” and on “Christian Conversion.”