Seven Churches of Asia

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 are also symbols with prophetic meaning. Indeed, they must refer to something beyond themselves for two reasons:

  1. We find them in a book devoted to prophecy.
  2. All seven churches in Asia Minor ceased to exist long ago, when the Muslims overran that part of the world, yet Christ speaks to many of these churches as if they will exist later in church history.

A common view is that these churches divide church history into seven periods. 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 end of church history, when He returns. 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.

The letter to Ephesus makes no mention whatever of Christ's coming (Rev. 2:1-7). 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. As we show in another lesson, the threat has been carried out. Ephesus no longer exists.

Smyrna is the second of the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 2:8-11). Also in this letter we find no reference to the return of Christ. The reason, as we also show in another lesson, is that the Lord speaks instead of the experience of this church after the Rapture. Sardis exists whenever believers come under severe persecution.

But each of the remaining five letters previews Christ's return by showing how He will deal with that church. For example, in the letter to Pergamos, the third church, He says, "Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth" (Rev. 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" (Rev. 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" (Rev. 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 (Rev. 3:3). 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 white" (Rev.3:4).

The prognosis is much better for Philadelphia (Rev. 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 (Rev. 3:19). The most alarming prophecy in all seven letters is the Lord's threat to spue the complacent Laodiceans out of His mouth. This decisive and violent act of rejection makes no historical sense unless we associate it with a single event. He therefore seems to be announcing measures that He will undertake at the event of His coming. Yet in this wayward church 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, as we said earlier, 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 He singles out the seven churches in Asia for special instruction because they represent the entire spectrum of churches that would emerge during the Church Age. What the Lord says to each of the seven applies equally to all similar churches in the future. 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. Yet the meaning must be broader, for if they were church ages and no more, which of the seven could look forward to the Rapture? The last, Laodicea. Yet this is the church that Christ will especially repudiate. As we will see, the clearest promise of the Rapture is given to the preceding church, Philadelphia.

Proof that the Promise to Philadelphia Speaks of a Rapture

The Lord's message to Philadelphia is especially enlightening to those who live on the verge of Christ's return at the Rapture (Revelation 3:7-12). In verse 10, we find wording similar to the wording in Luke 21:34-35, describing the Tribulation. The former speaks of "the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth." The latter refers to the "that day" which "as a snare shall . . . come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth." In the letter to Philadelphia, the Lord seems to be assuring the saints of this church that the Tribulation will not start before they have been caught up to heaven. Proof that Jesus is pointing to the Rapture comes by investigating the door open before Philadelphia. Two arguments establish that it is the door to heaven.

  1. Jesus says to Philadelphia, "Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it" (Rev. 3:8). A few verses later we read of another open door. John writes, "After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven" (Rev. 4:1). By passing through this door "in heaven"—that is, in the sky—John entered the heaven where God dwells. Thus, the immediate context assures us that the door mentioned in Revelation 3:8 must also be a door to heaven. Lest we shrink from this conclusion, the two references to an open door are prefaced by the same word, "behold." The word signifies that the sight about to be described is extraordinary. If the open door in Revelation 3:8 is merely a figure of speech, introducing this figure with a word suggesting that the door is able to excite wonder is certainly overdramatic.

    Biblical prophecy frequently represents the coming of Christ for His saints as the opening of a door or doors. Among the many texts referring to a door or doors through which the saints will enter the heavenly realm is the following: "So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors (Matt. 24:33). "It" can be translated "he." The idea is that "all these things" will be signs that Christ is about to open the doors and admit His people into His presence. Passage through a door into heaven also appears in the Parable of the Virgins (Matt. 25:10). The bridegroom represents Christ, and the virgins admitted to the feast represent the Church. The event Jesus is describing is the Rapture, here also associated with the opening of a door. James warns that after the saints pass through a door into heaven, they will come before the Judgment Seat of Christ (James 5:8-9).

  2. In Revelation 3:7, Jesus says that He carries the key of David. It is evident that the Lord is speaking here in riddles. What this key signifies is clarified in Isaiah 22 (Isa. 22:20-25). The prophecy concerns a transfer of high office from one man to another. Eliakim the son of Hilkiah would be made the king's steward, and in that capacity he would carry the key of the house of David—that is, the key giving him access to the king's treasure house. Jesus' words in Revelation 3:7 deliberately echo verse 22. In claiming possession of the key of David, Jesus means that only He can admit us to the treasure house of the heavenly King. Only He can open to us all the riches of heaven.

    Revelation 3:7 does not speak explicitly of a door. It speaks only of a key enabling Christ to open and shut. Yet clearly, in light of Revelation 3:8, what the key enables Him to open and shut must be the door standing open before the church of Philadelphia. He says of both that no man can shut what He opens. Since the key of David is the key to the treasures of heaven, the door that He opens for Philadelphia must be a door to heaven.

We are now ready to interpret the riddle. In Revelation 3:10 Jesus warns of the hour of "temptation" (better translated "trial" or "calamity") that will fall on "all the world." He is clearly referring to a time of universal trouble on the earth, yet He promises to keep Philadelphia from it. How else could Jesus keep Philadelphia from universal trouble on the earth except by removing them from the earth? The door to heaven open before them is an obvious reference to their avenue of escape. Presumably, then, He is alerting Philadelphia that He intends to snatch them away into heaven—in other words, to rapture them.

The True Identity of Philadelphia

Many pretribulationists believe that Philadelphia represents the whole church, but this view is erroneous. As we have shown, in His letters to four other churches—that is, to all the other churches except Ephesus and Smyrna—Christ reveals His expectation that they also will exist at the time of the Philadelphian rapture. It is true that Philadelphia is the only church as a whole that Jesus promises to rescue from the hour of temptation, but He says that some from Sardis will also be taken, and presumably some will also be taken from the other remaining churches.

So, what is Philadelphia? It is critically important to understand what Philadelphia represents. A convincing answer requires that we identify all seven churches. As we have said, these seven stand for the different streams or branches of Christianity that have developed over the centuries. They are seven types of churches. We will now go further and say that the types are comprehensive. In their portrayal of the churches that have appeared in history, they show the whole spectrum. In other words, there have been seven types of churches, no more and no less. How do we know that seven is the real sum of types? Because seven is the number Scripture often chooses to represent perfection or completeness. Creation was perfect and complete in seven days.

If the seven churches in Asia symbolize seven branches of Christianity, what specifically are these branches? In the following discussion, I will pass over the first two, because they no longer exist. If you wish to know how I interpret them, I suggest you consult the fuller discussion elsewhere in these studies on prophecy. Here, I will limit myself to proposing identifications of the last five churches.

From Christ's words to Pergamos, we infer that it represents churches which exalt experience over the written Word. They first emerged in the Montanist movement of the second century and they have reemerged in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements of our day. One practice they may encourage is speaking in tongues. Notice that the Lord is severely critical of this stream of Christianity.

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 the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches that came out of the Reformation. They adopted a form of theology, covenant theology, which has blinded them to the meaning of prophecy. Therefore, the Lord rebukes them for being ignorant as to the time of His coming and for failing to watch.

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. In fact, the standard view is that Philadelphia corresponds to the age of great missionary enterprise, from 1800 to 1950 and afterward.
  3. They have been very interested in prophecy and generally have believed that they existed in the Last Days. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

We are left with Laodicea. In the last lesson, we said that many students of prophecy identify it as the whole church in the Last Days. This is not exactly right, because Jesus suggests that other churches would also exist then. But it is right in some measure, because 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, about prophecy, about Bible study, about separation, about lay involvement in ministry. Its members prefer to be spectators, and they see no contradiction between their profession of faith and their worldly lifestyle.

How can we be sure of these identifications? Each letter is full of clues. We will not consider all of these, but for the sake of time, we will show how we discovered the identity of a particular church, Thyatira. In His salutation to each church, Jesus presents Himself in such a way as to correct their view of Him. He shows them how their view is deficient. Notice what He says to Thyatira (Rev. 2:18). Why? Because this is the church that has liked to use images of Christ—icons, crucifixes, and other pictorial representations. Jesus wants them to know that these are not acceptable. Not only do they fail to show Him as He is, but also they are insulting. So, the opening words of each letter point to the intended church. Likewise the closing words. In each case they reveal the rewards awaiting the people in that church if they remain true to the Lord, and He fashions the promise to suit their special mentality. See what He says to Thyatira (Rev. 2:26-27). He offers them power and splendor. Why? Because this is what these churches have always sought. Thyatira has built the most beautiful churches and composed the most beautiful music. Its leaders have striven for temporal power, and in many countries have succeeded in winning state recognition of their church as the established church. They have sought power even to the extent of suppressing and persecuting other churches.

Are We Philadelphia?

We have argued that only five of the seven churches will exist at the Rapture. To four of these, Jesus issues a strong warning to repent. To none of these four does He hold out the hope of being raptured, except to tell Sardis that a few will be taken. Yet to the fifth church, Philadelphia, He has nothing critical to say, and to them He promises the Rapture very clearly. What must we conclude? The right church to be in when Christ comes is Philadelphia.

To assure that we are a church of Philadelphia, we must evaluate ourselves in two ways. First, do we fit into the tradition that Philadelphia represents? That is, in our church are we preserving historic fundamentalism? Second, do we possess the virtues that our Lord ascribes to Philadelphia?

Let us start by applying the first test. Does this church truly fit into the fundamentalist tradition? There is no doubt that we are independent, but do we preserve the other distinctives?

  1. Do we have a zeal for missions?
  2. Do we have a serious interest in prophecy, and have we allowed the Holy Spirit to teach us the great prophetic truths of vital importance today?
  3. Do we diligently study the Bible? Is the Bible important enough to us that coming to classes and preaching services is a high priority? Do we read Christian books?
  4. Are we committed to separated living? Or has worldly lust drawn us into lives under the world's influence?
  5. Do we view Christian work as a responsibility of the pastors, or do we view it as a responsibility we share? Are we Sunday morning Christians, or are we actively involved in the ministries of the church?

Now we will apply the second test. Scripture has much to say about the qualities that will distinguish the saints taken at the Rapture. Let us see whether we measure up. In Luke 18, for example, we read the following (Luke 18:1-8). See also Luke 21:34-36. From these passages read in conjunction, we surmise that the chief evidence of worthiness will be perseverance in prayer and in personal communion with God despite ever-mounting distractions. We find also that the saints prepared for Christ's coming will be characterized by watchfulness (Matt. 24:42, 44; Mark 13:37). Another trait will be purity (1 John 3:2-3). Yet another will be holiness (Heb. 12:14). Yet another will be sobriety (1 Thess. 5:6; Titus 2:12-13; 1 Pet. 4:7).

Christ's commendation of Philadelphia further broadens the concept of worthiness (Rev. 3:8). The worthy in this church will be notable for three virtues.

  1. They have "a little strength ['dunamis,' ordinarily translated 'power']." Since this is meant as a tribute, we infer that He is talking about the power of godliness. Their possession of this power will set them apart from others in the Last Days who will have only the form of godliness (2 Tim. 3:5). Through the Holy Spirit, who is the source of this power, they will exhibit a character antithetical to the character of false Christians. The terms describing them will be exact opposites of the terms Paul uses in 2 Timothy 3. Instead of being lovers of self, for example, they will be lovers of God. Yet even so, their strength will be little, no doubt in comparison with the church after Pentecost. Perhaps the Lord is suggesting also that this will not be a large church.
  2. Philadelphia will keep the Word of God. They will revere every word of it as inerrant truth. They will reject corrupt texts and versions. They will renounce hermeneutical approaches which belittle the supernatural. And they will study the Scriptures diligently as their rule of doctrine and practice.
  3. Philadelphia will not deny the name of Christ. Under persecution, they will remain faithful to Him, and they will not demean His name by encouraging the unruly to believe that they can claim His salvation without submitting to His Lordship. In other words, they will live in the age of easy-believism, when many will use Christianity as a cloak for worldly and corrupt lives.

One quality never mentioned in the letter to Philadelphia must nevertheless be the most outstanding quality of this church, for the name Philadelphia means "brotherly love." Now the warning in James takes on added significance (James 5:8-9). "Grudging" here signifies absence of love. Let us therefore be diligent to make real and maintain our love for each other.

Despite the godly character of the Philadelphians, they will not be well-liked in the world. They will particularly suffer the persecution of a synagogue of Satan (v. 9). It was an actual synagogue of Jews that persecuted the original church of Philadelphia. They were Jews by birth, but not Jews in God's sight, for they lacked a right relationship with God. Therefore, they had no right to consider themselves the people of God (Rom. 2:28-29). What is the synagogue of Satan that will trouble Philadelphia on the eve of Christ's return? The word "synagogue" just means "assembly." The assembly of Satan is evidently a church whose members consider themselves the people of God, but are self-deceived. In reality, they do the bidding of Satan. These false Christians will cast reproach on Philadelphia and hinder its work in every way possible, perhaps even calling it a deviant or cultic form of religion. But when the time of judgment arrives, the Lord will show His approval of Philadelphia by requiring all its detractors to bow down and kiss the feet of the saints they so viciously maligned.

Elsewhere in the letter to Philadelphia we find more about the nature of the persecution that the synagogue of Satan will inflict upon this church. In verse 8 the door may have double meaning. Besides being the door to heaven, perhaps also it bears a more familiar sense. A figure we often use in our thinking about spiritual things is the door of opportunity. Thus, the door that Christ can open and no one can shut may refer to an opportunity that Christ will provide for Philadelphia to prosper in a difficult period of history. The synagogue of Satan will oppose it vigorously. But despite all the obstacles that Satan and his human instruments will throw in the path of Philadelphia, it will go forward to success, as measured by eternal results. No one will be able to stop it.

Another allusion to the persecution Philadelphia will undergo appears in the closing promise. Jesus says that when the people of this church are raptured into His presence, they "shall go no more out" (v. 12). He apparently means that to maintain their purity and integrity, they will never again have to separate themselves from corrupt religion. All the churches within the historical stream of Philadelphia originated by separating themselves from churches on a downward slide: the Moravians from the Lutherans, the Wesleyans from the Anglicans, the fundamentalists from the liberals. The letter to Philadelphia suggests that this church will retain its separatist leanings even throughout the Last Days. It will be a haven for people who, in obedience to the commands we find in 2 Timothy 3:5 and Revelation 18:4-5, have moved from church to church in an effort to find a true work of God. Before finding Philadelphia, however, they may repeatedly go through the bitter experience of false Christians labeling them as fanatics or Pharisees.