Their Prophetic Significance

Chapters 2 and 3 in the Book of Revelation contain letters from Christ to seven churches in Asia Minor. A leading traditional view of the seven churches is that in addition to representing actual first-century churches, they also stand for seven periods of church history. Accordingly, the letter to the first church, Ephesus, surveys the Apostolic period. The letter to the last church, Laodicea, surveys the modern period. And the other five letters deal chronologically with the intervening period of almost two thousand years.

The great difficulty in this view is that Christ speaks to most of the churches in Asia as if they will exist at the time of His coming. The only exceptions are the first two churches, Ephesus and Smyrna. To show which of the seven will have an end-time presence, we will review the contents of each letter.

1 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;

2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:

3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.

4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.

5 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.

6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.

7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.

Revelation 2:1-7

This letter makes no mention whatever of Christ's coming. Instead, we find an ominous warning. If the people in Ephesus fail to repent, Christ will remove their candlestick, or lamp stand, out of its place (v. 5). In other words, if they refuse to rekindle their first love, He will extinguish their witness, and their church will cease to exist. In fulfillment of this prophecy, no Ephesian church remains in our day.

Smyrna is the second of the seven churches of Asia.

8 And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;

9 I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.

10 Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.

11 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.

Revelation 2:8-11

Here, likewise, we find no mention of the return of Christ. The reason, as we will show later, is that the Lord speaks instead of the experience of this church after the Rapture. As we will also show, Sardis exists whenever believers come under severe persecution.

In the letter to each remaining church, we find clear references to Christ's return. For example, in the letter to Pergamos, the third church, Jesus says,

Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

Revelation 2:16

"Quickly" means that He will come sooner than they expect. He plainly warns this church that unless they repent and cast out evildoers, He Himself will take up the fight against them when He returns. Thus, He must believe that the church of Pergamos will still exist.

In the letter to the church of Thyatira, Jesus says,

But that which ye have already hold fast till I come.

Revelation 2:25

Thus, He clearly envisions this church continuing until the Rapture. He says, moreover,

Behold, I will cast her [Jezebel, the false prophetess who led many in Thyatira astray] into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.

Revelation 2:22

This appears to be a warning of what will befall the wicked in Thyatira after He comes. Whereas the righteous will be snatched away to a place of safety, the children of Jezebel will be left on earth to undergo the agonies of the Tribulation.

Beginning with the letter to the fifth church, Sardis, the references to Christ's coming become more explicit.

Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. 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.

Revelation 3:3

Here, the Lord takes for granted that Sardis will exist at His return. The only doubt is whether Sardis will be ready. He warns them that if they fail to watch, He will come like a thief and catch them unawares. Yet He expects that He will find some in Sardis who are worthy to be taken into His presence, where they will "walk . . . in white" (Rev. 3:4).

The prognosis is much better for 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.

Revelation 3:10

He issues no warning of chastisement or rebuke when He returns, but only the promise that He will remove Philadelphia before the world enters its "hour of temptation." Obviously, then, one of the churches remaining in the world at Christ's coming will be Philadelphia.

The last letter, the letter to Laodicea, contains only a veiled reference to Christ's return.

As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

Revelation 3:19

He seems to be announcing measures that He will undertake after His coming. Among the complacent Laodiceans will be some that the Lord, in His grace and mercy, will love. Upon these He will bring a stern hand of discipline, designed to produce repentance unto salvation.

It is now evident what the seven churches in Asia truly represent. That each stands for something beyond itself is undeniable, for all seven disappeared long ago, yet Christ treats them as though they would endure through the centuries. That the Book of Revelation seeks to give a comprehensive picture of the future is undeniable as well. So, we may suppose that the seven churches in Asia represent the entire spectrum of churches that would emerge during the Church Age. The Lord apparently conceives of the whole church as divided sevenfold into distinct branches or streams or types. Perhaps not all seven have always existed. Yet at any given time in church history, every true work of God belongs to one of the seven.

We may further suppose that Christ presents the seven letters chronologically, to show the order in which the seven churches would attain prominence. First to appear would be Ephesus. Then Smyrna would arise as an important type of church. Next would come Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and, lastly, Laodicea. So, the view seeing these churches as ages of church history has a kernel of truth in it.

The Identity of Each Church

Ephesus represents all the early churches that stemmed from the first church in Jerusalem and adhered closely to the original model, remaining orthodox in doctrine, separated in practice, and evangelistic in priority. But eventually all these churches either died out or lapsed into apostasy. Ephesus no longer exists.

Smyrna represents all churches under intense persecution. Such churches tend to develop certain features that set them apart as a distinct type. Denominational lines may become blurred. Organizational structures may weaken or disappear. Ordinary rites and observances may be neglected. Believers may gather in private homes or secluded places out-of-doors rather than in church buildings. Churches like Smyrna have existed throughout church history, and they still exist today. Hidden enclaves of believers belonging to no particular denomination and lacking the normal structure of a church have been common in Muslim and Communist countries.

Pergamos is the forerunner of all churches that cultivate sensational religious experience, while they downgrade the authority of the Scriptures. One practice they may encourage is speaking in tongues. The first major proliferation of churches like Pergamos occurred as a result of the Montanist movement in the early third century. The same kind of church survives today among the charismatics and Pentecostals.

Thyatira stands for all churches that are ecclesiastical in government, liturgical in worship, and medieval in superstition. These began to flourish after Christianity won the patronage of the Roman Emperor. Modern offshoots of Thyatira include the Orthodox churches and "that woman Jezebel" (Rev. 2:20), an allusion to the Old Testament queen who slew the true prophets of God (1 Kings 18:13). She stands for the papal church, which has a long history of persecuting and martyring true believers. (Please understand that this interpretation does not support hatred of Catholics. We should love Catholics no less than we love others. Christ censures not the people in Catholic churches, but the religious system that enthralls them and keeps them from Biblical truth.)

Sardis is Christ's name for the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches that came out of the Reformation. Since these have an excessive respect for human learning and human tradition, they readily become intellectual, cold, and worldly. Also, they are characteristically blind to any new and fuller illumination of prophecy.

The roots of Philadelphia go back to the Moravian movement in the eighteenth century. To this stream belong all those churches springing up from the great revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The modern fundamentalist movement belongs largely to the same tradition. The churches embodying Philadelphia have been distinctive in several respects.

  1. In government, they have been largely independent of outside control.
  2. They have been extremely missionary minded.
  3. They have been very interested in prophecy and generally have believed that they existed in the Last Days.
  4. They have been marked by a keen interest in Bible study. A wealth of good Christian books has come out of this tradition, more so than from any other tradition except perhaps Sardis.
  5. They have been unusual in their commitment to both personal and ecclesiastical separation. The well-known rules against worldly practices belong especially to the Philadelphian churches.
  6. The laity have always played an especially prominent role. Among the Moravians, every man was a preacher, and throughout the history of Philadelphia, many of its foremost preachers lacked formal theological training. Many, like D. L. Moody, even lacked ordination.

Laodicea is a church that exists only in the Last Days. It is, to be specific, the modern evangelical church. Although wealthy and outwardly successful, it has abandoned the virtues of its predecessor, Philadelphia. It is lukewarm about missions, prophecy, Bible study, separation, and lay involvement in ministry. Its members prefer to be spectators, and they see no contradiction between their profession of faith and their worldly lifestyle.

Christ's message to each church deals with its typical strengths and weaknesses. Yet when speaking to each of the last six churches, He addresses primarily its members on the eve of His return. His counsel to these churches relates especially to the forms they will assume in the Last Days.

Each letter has four parts: a salutation designed to remedy some deficiency in the Christology of that church, an acknowledgment of the service which that church has performed, an exhortation pointing out good things that should be shored up and bad things that should be eliminated, and a promise designed to satisfy the particular aspirations of that church. The exhortation has one or more of the following elements: criticism, warning, prediction, commendation, and assurance. When examined in detail, the contents of each letter demonstrate that we have correctly identified the intended recipient.

The Message to Each Church

Ephesus/New Testament Churches
Message Element Message Relevance to This Church
Salutation Christ walks in the midst of the seven candlesticks. This church always tended to think of itself as the only true church. Christ reminds Ephesus that He is Lord of the other churches also.
Acknowledgment He notices seven instances of work, patience, and discernment. In its achievements, this church was superior to all the others. It excelled especially in its ability to distinguish truth from error.
They have lost their first love. In the course of a few centuries, the remnant of New Testament churches lost their zeal for service and their devotion to Christ.
Warning He may remove their candlestick. Ephesus will not survive until Christ's return.
Commendation They have rejected the Nicolaitanes. The Nicolaitanes, which means "conquering of the people," probably represent those in the early church who wished to give more power to bishops at the expense of local-church autonomy and individual soul liberty.
Promise Overcomers will eat the tree of life in the midst of paradise. The members of this church, so dedicated to work and separated living, denied themselves much pleasure. Christ reminds them that the hope of the faithful is to live forever in a place where pleasure abounds.

Smyrna/Persecuted Churches
Message Element Message Relevance to This Church
Salutation Christ is the ever-living One who rose from the dead. As those facing death, the members of this church need to understand that Christ has conquered death.
Acknowledgment He notices their works, tribulation, poverty, and persecution by false believers. The chief persecutor of true religion has always been false religion.
They will be cast into prison and will suffer tribulation ten days. Although all true believers in Smyrna will be taken at the Rapture, the church will reappear when intense persecution breaks out anew during the Tribulation (Matt. 24:9-10).
Assurance If they are faithful unto death, they will receive a crown of life. They must understand that death is merely a bridge to an exalted life.
Promise Overcomers will escape the second death. One motive driving them to accept death as the penalty for faith is fear of the second death. Christ promises them that the second death will not touch them.

Pergamos/Pentecostal-type Churches
Message Element Message Relevance to This Church
Salutation Christ bears the sharp two-edged sword. This sword is the Word of God, which they have dishonored by giving greater authority to experience.
Acknowledgment He notices their works, and their faithfulness under persecution. This church has never shrunk from persecution. Under the Communists, for example, the Pentecostals maintained a good testimony for Christ.
They tolerate those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, and they tolerate also the Nicolaitanes. No church is more infested with crass profiteering, blatant immorality, and unashamed worldliness than modern Pergamos. Modern Pergamos has also been friendly to ecumenism, another movement that transfers more power to church hierarchies.
Warning If they do not repent, He will catch them by surprise and fight against the unruly with the sword of His mouth. When Christ returns, the leaders of this church will face judgment according to the strict measure of Scripture. The evildoers will be punished severely (Matt. 24:48-51).
Promise Overcomers will receive the hidden manna and the stone with secret writing. To answer the craving of this church for private revelation, God will share wonderful secrets with every overcomer.

Thyatira/Medieval Churches
Message Element Message Relevance to This Church
Salutation Christ is a glorious Being with eyes of fire and feet of brass. The true picture of Christ is a corrective to the idols that this church has condoned.
Acknowledgment He notices six instances of works, charity, service, faith, patience, and works again, the last better than the first. This church has produced many people who have devoted their lives to religious and charitable work. This church has also founded countless charitable institutions. The works of this church have been more outstanding in modern times than before, as many Thyatirans in missions around the world have devoted themselves to selfless assistance of the poor and needy.
They have Jezebel in their midst. Jezebel is the papal church. The papal church has promoted fornication by imposing celibacy on those who pursue a religious vocation. The sin of eating "things sacrificed unto idols" is a reference to the mass.
Warning Because she has had opportunity to repent, He will bring great trouble upon her and upon her lovers, and He will kill her children. The Tribulation will fall especially hard on Roman Catholic countries.
Assurance Upon the rest in Thyatira, He will put no other burden than to hold fast what they have already. So long as the rest in Thyatira stay clear of Rome, Christ in His mercy will overlook their many faults.
Promise Overcomers will receive power over the nations. Also, they will receive the morning star. The leaders of Thyatira have sought power and splendor. Christ offers Thyatira true power and true splendor.

Sardis/Reformation Churches
Message Element Message Relevance to This Church
Salutation Christ has the seven spirits and the seven stars. Sardis has a carnal pride in its superiority to the other churches, some in Sardis even priding themselves as absolutely right. Christ reminds them that He is not so parochial.
Acknowledgment He notices their works, which are deficient. Their true condition does not match their good reputation. Though once alive, this church is now almost dead. Indeed, little vital Christianity remains in northern Europe and other former strongholds of the Reformation church. This church has never been outstanding in works, because most of its people have centered their lives on family and business. By the time Christ returns, Sardis will retain little interest in charitable and evangelistic endeavors.
They must remember their traditions, hold fast, and repent. If they do not watch, He will come upon them as a thief, when they are not expecting Him. This church has stubbornly resisted new insights on prophecy, instead holding to false systems of interpretation congenial to covenant theology. In consequence, Sardis is blind to signs of the times, and the coming of Christ will take it by surprise.
Commendation A few names in Sardis are worthy to walk with Him in white. Still today, some in Reformation circles strive for personal holiness and for personal devotion to Christ.
Promise He will not reject overcomers. Rather, He will give them white raiment and confess them before the Father. The people of this church have never had much spiritual ambition beyond a desire to be known as good Christians. Christ promises overcomers the public standing they seek.

Philadelphia/Fundamentalist Churches
Message Element Message Relevance to This Church
Salutation Christ is holy and true and holds the key of David. What He opens no one can shut, and what He shuts no one can open. At some time in the lives of many Philadelphians, victimization by unholy liars in the church has brought them into peril of spiritual disillusionment. But Christ assures them that He is holy and true. Also, despite the many reverses this church will suffer, Christ exhorts them not to doubt His sovereignty.
Acknowledgment He notices their works. Because they have kept His word and have not denied His name, He will set before them an open door. Because this church has sought to obey the Scriptures and to honor Christ, He will take them alive into heaven.
The synagogue of Satan will worship at their feet. When evil church leaders come to judgment, they will be forced to bow down in respect before those they have oppressed.
Commendation They have kept the word of His patience. This church has patiently waited for Christ's coming, maintaining its watchfulness even when other churches decided that His coming was not imminent.
Assurance He will keep them from the hour of temptation. As a result of being raptured, Philadelphia will escape the Tribulation.
Warning They must hold fast what they have, lest any man take their crown. The people of Philadelphia must be wary of attempts to draw them into compromises. By such compromises they would forfeit the special privileges that Christ offers them.
Promise Overcomers will be pillars in the temple of God, so that they need "go no more out." Upon them will be inscribed the name of God, the name of the New Jerusalem, and Christ's new name. Most of the people in Philadelphia have come there from other churches. They are weary of the sacrifice and maltreatment that, in their quest for vital Christianity, they have suffered by leaving decayed churches. Christ assures them that He will give them a permanent home.

Laodicea/Modern Evangelical Churches
Message Element Message Relevance to This Church
Salutation Christ is the Amen, the faithful and true witness, and the beginning of God's creation. This church has freely affirmed "Amen," has defended the authority of Scripture against liberalism, and has insisted that the world arose by creation and not evolution. But in maintaining these doctrines, Laodicea has tended to ignore the Person whom these doctrines adorn.
Acknowledgment He notices their works, and His verdict is that they are lukewarm. In the brief history of this church, little has been accomplished, since most of its people live largely self-indulgent lives.
They are self-deluded in thinking they have everything. In reality, they have nothing. Outwardly this church is very successful. It has large congregations, sumptuous facilities, and extensive exposure in the media. Yet it teaches an easy-believism that gives security without salvation.
Warning As many as He loves, He will rebuke and chasten. Most of the people in this church will not take part in the Rapture. The shock of being left behind and the rigors of the Tribulation will bring the elect among them to a saving knowledge of Christ.
Assurance Any who repent will enjoy fellowship with Christ. After the Rapture, it will not be too late to accept Christ. Any in Laodicea who then repent will be saved.
Promise Overcomers will sit with Him in His throne. Though they may for a time suffer exclusion from Christ's presence, the overcomers will someday enjoy intimate fellowship with Christ, even sitting by His side upon His throne.

Laodicea's Tragic Self-Deception

The letter to Laodicea describes a people who sound exactly like modern evangelical Christians. The Laodiceans are smug about their Christianity. They imagine that no one could stand higher in God's estimation than they do. But they are self-deceived.

14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;

15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

17 Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:

18 I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.

19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

21 To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.

22 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

Revelation 3:14-22

Here we have a church that outwardly appears very prosperous. Its people even have the audacity to boast that they have need of nothing. Perceiving the bustling success of their church as a sign of God's favor, they freely thank God for His special blessings upon them. In their hearts they feel secure in their salvation, and they have no doubt that they will go to heaven. If they believe in the Rapture, they expect to be included. But what is their true condition? Jesus says that despite the size and wealth of their church, He does not take any pleasure in the Laodiceans. They are, in fact, disgusting, like the taste of lukewarm water.

The terms He uses to describe these people show clearly that they are not born again. His assessment is that they are "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind" (v. 17). What does "blind" mean? It means that they do not see the truth. If they do not see the truth, how can they be saved? Jesus adds that they are also "naked." The meaning must be that they are not clothed with the garments of Christ's righteousness.

The Laodiceans resemble the false Christians whom Christ elsewhere pictures as foolish virgins.

1 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.

2 And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.

3 They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:

4 But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

5 While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.

6 And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

7 Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.

8 And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.

9 But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.

11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

12 But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.

13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

Matthew 25:1-13

Like the foolish virgins, the Laodiceans think they belong to Christ, but they are not saved.

The Lord issues Laodicea an alarming threat. He says that He intends to spew them out of His mouth. When will He do this if not when He returns for the church? Thus, we find that Scripture twice portrays the returning Christ in an act of rejection. He will spew Laodicea out of His mouth, and He will deny the foolish virgins access to the heavenly feast. The foolish virgins and the Laodiceans are both evidently figures for the self-satisfied but unregenerate people who will fill churches at the time of Christ's return.

Never have churches with the look of Laodicea been so common as they are today. The present condition of the church is therefore strong evidence that we live in the Last Days.