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Seven Letters to the Seven Churches


Introduction

The seven letters to the seven churches in chapters two and three of the book of Revelation have been applied to the body of Christ with at least two interpretations. The successive historical view states that each of the churches represent seven different eras throughout the present church age. The first four are referred to describe the history of the church from its first decline to its latter condition in Popery; the last three are the history of Protestantism. This view originated with J. N. Darby and the Plymouth Brethren. According to this view we would now be in the Laodicean church era. The problem with this view, however, is that it makes the characteristics too general for each of the seven churches to fit with that particular period of historical time. This is no less than what astrology does, making any individual's general characteristics fitting any of the zodiac. Neither is there any suggestion in the book of Revelation where this teaching is even implied and thereby is erroneous. The other views that suggest these seven churches are the body of Christ are strained in their interpretation as well.

All the symbolism describing the seven churches is strongly suggestive of Messianic Jewish churches in their characteristics. It is also curious that these seven churches were all located within a small circle in Asia Minor in the first century (Rev.1:4a); today this area is known as Turkey. [Art used by permission by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992. Click here to visit her "Revelation Illustrated" site.] An example of this is in the letter of James where in the salutation James says, "to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad..." (James 1:1 NASB). Now here James is clearly addressing Messianic Jewish churches. The theology of the letter of James is "works" oriented with the Jewish traditions in mind and contrary to the Pauline theology of only grace. The churches Paul established during his three missionary journeys were scattered throughout the civilized world. Many modern churches have wrestled and stumbled over this early "works" oriented letter of James, attempting to force this theology to apply to the body of Christ during our church age. This "works" theology is also clearly seen as a theme in the seven letters to the seven churches. In fact, in the entire book of Revelation there is only one reference to the church, as the body of Christ (Rev. 7:9-17) and even here it is "seen" as from a Jewish point of view. I.e., the body of Christ seen in heaven, immediately after the rapture, is described with "Gentile" characteristics (e.g., v. 9; c.f., v. 4). John, not Paul, was chosen to be given the Revelation of Jesus. This is significant because Paul was "set apart" (Acts 13:2, Rom. 1:1 NASB) to exclusively be the apostle to the Gentiles while John was one of the twelve apostles to the early Messianic Jewish church.

Since the beginnings of the reformation "displacement theology" has existed in some form thus confusing the body of Christ as to its place in God's program during our dispensation of grace in this church age. Displacement theology is defined as when the church, as the body of Christ, takes the promises and blessings, meant for Israel, upon itself. An interesting note is that when the church does this it conveniently leaves all the curses with Israel! The promises of God to Israel and the numerous prophecies about Israel make it clear that God is not through with Israel, the "apple of His eye." The book of Revelation, and specifically the seven letters to the seven churches, is particularly to the Messianic Jewish church historically in the first century when in Asia Minor, and generally in the last days as the day of the Lord approaches. The body of Christ has the responsibility to understand and correctly interpret the book of Revelation in order to know its place in God's administration and its relationship to Israel and God's final plan for her, and His consummated redemption for mankind.

The Seven Churches

The seven churches to which the seven letters are sent are: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. Each church is assigned an angel ("seven stars") to watch over it (Rev. 1:20). An interesting note is that each letter begins with the phrase, "To the angel of the church in____write:" I.e., with each letter John is instructed to write to the angel of the particular church that that angel is responsible to (c.f., Rev. 1:19). The churches are symbolically depicted as golden lampstands. Here the root word for "lampstand" means a portable lamp--except these lampstands are probably far more exquisite. The ancient Jewish lamps used in New Testament times were oblique-oblong shape with a center fill hole and a small wick hole at the narrow end. Jesus "walks among" (Rev. 2:1 NASB; marginal note: lit., "in the middle of;" c.f., 1:13) these seven lamps. Lamp oil is understood to be needed to keep the lamps alight and oil (specifically olive oil) usually implies God's Spirit (c.f., Zech. 4:2-6). The seven lamps are presumably "seen" by John as in a circle like on a wheel rim, each with its brilliant fame kept alight by the One in the center hub. (In principle, when we, the body of Christ, allow Jesus within the center of our church and life our spirits are quickened and our light shines bright.) The symbolism used in these seven letters is rich with Jewish illustrations. Each of the Messianic Jewish churches is given a commendation, a reproof with a correction and a promise with a conditional reward if faithful:

Ephesus

Symbolic reference: "The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands" (Rev. 2:1 NASB). Again, the stars represent the angels over the churches and Jesus shows Himself, by allegory, that He is in the mist of the seven churches. In the OT lampstands were made for the house of God that was built by Solomom for Israel's worship (1 Kings 7:49; 1 Chron. 28:15; 2 Chron. 4:7,20; Jere. 52:19).

Commendation: This church did not "endure evil men," nor did they tolerate "false apostles". They "hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans." The Nicolaitans were followers of Nikolaus. Nikolaos from the Greek means "victorious over the people." Nicolaus was a heretic. They also have perseverance (patience) and endurance in faith (Rev. 2:2,3).

Reproof: This church has "left (their) first love" (Rev. 2:4). Probably, a more literal interpretation from the Greek would be, "you no longer have the love you had at the first for one another."

Correction: Remember where you went wrong, repent and continue in the love you had at the first (Rev. 2:5).

Promise: Jesus "will remove (their) lampstand out of its place--unless (they) repent" (Rev. 2:5).

Conditional Reward: They will be granted "to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God."

Jewish reference: The tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, will be within the New Jerusalem which itself is inundated with Jewish symbolism and will be the Hebrews' religious center (Rev. 22:2, 14 19). This term is also found seven times in the OT. Paradise of God as used here is a parallel to the "kingdom of God" that was a major theme in Jesus' gospel to Israel. The term "Paradise" was more often used and understood by the Hebrews for their soul's place of rest. The word literally means a park or a lush garden and is of Persian origin. The Hebrew OT equivalent is parades, translated forest or orchard. The LXX uses the word 46 times. Paul used the term paradise only once to describe his experience in the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:4; c.f., 12:2). The body of Christ's place is in the heavenlies (Eph. 1:3; 1:20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12).

Church principle: The principle here for the body of Christ is simply priorities! Although many churches today have a sound doctrine, they nevertheless have lost the love, they once had, for the brethren. The demands of family, world and attempting to live by "acceptable" standards in our society has caused our "eyes" turn from Jesus' love for the body and we've forgotten the priority too of our real need of love from one another and for one another. Of course, this would take precious time from our busy schedules and important church programs and social activities--only to simply learn how to love again.

Smyrna

Symbolic reference: "The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life" (Rev. 2:8 NASB). The statement that Jesus is "The first and the last" is not that He had a beginning or end, but that He is eternally before all things and eternally Lord forever. The second half of this verse is a reminder of Jesus' death on the cross and His resurrection.

Commendation: "I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)..." (Rev. 2:9a). Here Jesus is sympathetic to their suffering and poverty, then by false Jews and in the tribulation to come. But this church is spiritually rich! To say "those who say they are Jews and are not" is to distinctly imply that Smyrna is indeed a Messianic Jewish church. I.e., the false Jews were attempting to infiltrate the true Messianic Jews. "Those" false Jews are among a synagogue (Gr., assembly) of Satan's; i.e., this mob is under the adversary's influence.

Reproof: None--a commendation in itself!

Correction: "Do not fear..." the devil is about to cast some of the church into prison that they may be tested. This church will go through the tribulation to come, for "ten days" (Rev. 2:10a,b). The number "ten" here represents perfection or completeness within a period of time.

Promise: "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10c). In James' letter to the twelve tribes (i.e., Messianic Jews), he writes, "Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him" (James 1:12 NASB).

Conditional Reward: "He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death" (Rev. 2:11). "Second death" is eternal separation from God in the lake of fire (c.f., Rev. 20:14).

Jewish reference: "Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years" (Rev. 20:6 NASB). The term "second death" is found only four times in the bible with all four references in the book of Revelation. With the reference "priests" will reign with Jesus "for a thousand years;" only the Jews are given this promise of becoming priests and reigning with their Messiah during the millennium: "But you will be called the priests of the LORD; You will be spoken of as ministers of our God. You will eat the wealth of nations, And in their riches you will boast" (Isaiah 61:6 NASB; future promise given to a redeemed Israel). Again, the church as body of Christ's place is in the heavenlies (Eph. 1:3; 1:20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12; c.f., Rev. 7:9-17).

Church principle: Far better if the body of Christ were poor and rich spiritually like the church in Smyrna! In the US and western world, each generation seems to expect and demand a higher standard of living than the generation before. As a result the church has become spiritually bankrupt. Our god has become mammon--materialism. I know of people who get desperate if they don't get their daily Wal-Mart fix; it would be far better if we would turn from our "right" to wealth and place our trust solely in Jesus.

Pergamum

Symbolic reference: "The One who has the sharp two-edged sword..." The sword is the word of His truth and judgment. "For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb. 4:12 NASB).

Commendation: "I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith, even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells" (Rev. 2:13). "Where Satan's throne is"--a reference to Pergamum's worship either of the Roman emperor and/or of Zeus at his altar on the local acropolis. "Antipas" is a contraction of Antipater, an early Christian martyr.

Reproof: This church in Pergamum "hold(s to) the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching the ways of Balak (Rev. 2:14). The "error of Balaam" is the rejection of God's offer of forgiveness through Christ. Balaam hired himself out as a prophet and epitomizes deceit and covetousness (cf. Num. 22-24; Jude 1:11; 2 Peter 2:15). Balak (Fr. Heb., Balaq, devastator) was a Moabite king. Unlike the church in Ephesus this church "hold(s to) the teaching of the Nicolaitans" (Rev. 2:15; See: "commendation" notes on church in Ephesus).

Correction: "Repent therefore..." (Rev. 2:16a).

Promise: "...or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth" (Rev. 2:16b NASB). This is more of an indictment than a promise-or-a promise of indictment.

Conditional Reward: "To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it" (Rev. 2:17 NASB).

Jewish reference: Manna was for the Hebrews' sufficiency during the wilderness wanderings in the OT. The white stone refers to the custom of voting for the acquittal of an accused person by using a white stone. The twelve apostles are promised a place with Christ to rule and judge the twelve tribes of Israel during the millennial kingdom (Matt. 19:28). Nevertheless, this reward is an OT promise to the nation of Israel. "And the nations will see your righteousness, And all kings your glory; And you will be called by a new name, Which the mouth of the LORD will designate. You will also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, And a royal diadem in the hand of your God" (Isaiah 62:2,3 NASB).

Church principle: Like Pergamum, mainstream Christianity today tolerates evil. Secularism and liberalism, by condemning the church of "intolerance," have caused the church to compromise on principle and sound doctrine. Many churches today embrace infanticide, homosexuality, euthanasia and all sorts of evil by having allowed their moral base to be eroded and by tolerating false and immoral leaders.

Thyatira

Symbolic reference:
Commendation:
Reproof:
Correction:
Promise:
Conditional Reward:
Jewish reference:
Church principle:

Sardis

Symbolic reference:
Commendation:
Reproof:
Correction:
Promise:
Conditional Reward:
Jewish reference:
Church principle:

Philadelphia

Symbolic reference:
Commendation:
Reproof:
Correction:
Promise: This church will be kept "from the hour of testing ...which is about to come upon the whole world." I.e., They will be protected from the tribulation that is about to come upon the entire earth in the last days.
Conditional Reward:
Jewish reference:
Church principle:

Laodicea

Symbolic reference:
Commendation:
Reproof:
Correction:
Promise:
Conditional Reward:
Jewish reference:
Church principle:



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