The Book of Revelation connects the past, present, and future of God’s Holy Church. In Chapter 2, John addresses seven churches of renown. In this episode we explore these churches from a historical perspective. It’s important to remember, as we journey toward a God-centered perspective, that the spiritual and personal implications that were true for these ancient churches are equally true for us today.
Today we’re going to start the seven churches.
Seven For Completion
I’ve counted about 40-something instances of the word seven in the book of Revelation.
Seven is the number of completion. The Jews have an entire methodology that they have for using numbers to interpret things. It’s called gematria. A lot of times it’s very subtle. But, there’s nothing subtle about this. This is the completion of the age of history.
Performance Review For His Servants
We saw in the last couple of weeks from chapter 1 that this book is written to his servants. This is written to the doulos, the people who are the servants of God. And the question is not, “Are you a servant?” in this book. The question is, “Are you a faithful servant or an unfaithful servant?” And that’s what we’re going to see in these seven churches.
He’s going to tell them some good things they’re doing and some bad things that they’re doing and how they should improve. In most cases it’s a performance review of the churches.
We saw that what God really wants us to be is faithful martyrs, or witnesses, martyreo. And to be a witness means to take a stand. Sometimes it will cost us our lives. Most of the time, it costs us acceptance with the world.
The God Who Was, Is, And Is To Come
We saw in chapter 1, this phrase first and last, beginning and end, was, is, is to come. And the whole idea of seven, it’s completion. It’s the God that started it all, it’s the God who has it all in his hand, it’s the God who’s going to finish it all. He already has it prescribed.
So even if things get really bad, God has it under control.
God Is A Paradox
However, God is a paradox. If we could explain God he wouldn’t be God. And, God, at the same time, is telling us in this book that he has everything under control. History’s already prescribed. He turns around to the seven churches and says, “you need to make a good choice. And if you make a good choice, this happens. And if you make a bad choice, that happens.”
We Have Free Will
At the same time God has everything under control, we have a free will. Our free will is going to determine something very important: The quality of our witness.
So this is a book of admonition, and it’s a book of comfort because it tells us God has history under control.
The Seven Churches
Let’s start with the seven churches. Chapter 2.
I’m going to try to go through these seven churches a couple of times. The first time I’m going to try to go through and look at it mainly from a historical perspective.
I’ve already mentioned that there’s two schools of thought about what these churches represent. One is that they represent periods of history. And another is that they represent churches at any point in time. You’ll have seven different kinds of churches. And my proposal is both schools of thought are correct.
What we’re going to see is the representation of the seven different kinds of churches in the Roman church, the western church, because we are still in the Roman era, although there’s a lot of the world that’s not Roman. But, the world has been dominated by the Roman culture.
I’m going to go through and give you my take on what these seven historical eras are. And that’s all it is is a model. History is far too complex to cover 2000 years in 45 minutes. But that’s what I’m going to try to do in the next 2 episodes. I’m going to try to use my personal examples of things I’ve learned to propose this model.
The church of Ephesus who left their first love, the underperforming church
So Romans 2:1. To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, ‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”’
So this church of Ephesus is the very first church.
Now, I’ve already mentioned that these seven churches go in a clockwise circle. Ephesus is the trading center. It’s the import-export center, which is appropriate because in this time in history, Christianity is going from a very small group of people in Jerusalem and spreading through the whole earth like wildfire. It’s a massive export operation.
Dr. Anderson says that one of the reasons that Christianity spread like wildfire is because it gave women so much power. It gave women so much of a place in the world. Because women have historically not been treated very well, as you might know; and here comes along something where women are honored as equals in the sight of God. And it just went crazy.
But it didn’t spread like wildfire just to the Jews, as you know. God appointed Paul specifically to take it to the Gentiles, so it’s going crazy across the whole earth.
This angel of the church of Ephesus—we’ve already mentioned this—but my proposal is each of these angels—the word aggelos just means messenger—it told us in verse one, blessed is he who reads, those who hear, and those who keep. And so the idea here is that a messenger is going to read, the people are going to hear, and they’re going to be blessed if they actually do. And that’s all this is. It’s a witness instruction manual: listen, hear, do.
So this is just the person who’s going to read the letter that’s the angel. The person who reads the letter is one of the seven stars, we learned that in chapter 1. The seven stars are in the hands of God.
These messengers, God is holding them in his hands, and he has these seven lampstands that represent the seven churches in his presence. It’s kind of fascinating that you have such a connection between heaven and earth. And we’ll talk more about that as time goes on.
So, you have this church, and it has all these wonderful things. In fact, if you look at this list, patience, labor, perseverance, rooting out false teaching, it’s kind of hard to top that.
And then he says, but you’ve left your first love, and if you don’t repent, I’m going to take your lampstand out, which is kind of remarkable. Because if you have this list of all these wonderful things, you would think it would be good enough.
What is the first love? He doesn’t say. This is the first agape. My proposal is that this is the same kind of use of agape as we see with Martha and Mary and Lazarus. Jesus is said to have loved or apaped Martha, Mary…
If that is like the kind of love where you love the unlovable, that wouldn’t make any sense. But the word agape is also used to apply to the Pharisees when it says the Pharisees agaped the positions of influence.
So it’s something you give great weight to. Something you really elevate in terms of what you care about. And the Ephesian church, I would propose, had really started off caring about something that Jesus cares about too, and then suddenly the priorities got shifted.
Now what is that, and what period of history is this? Well, I’m going to propose that this period of history goes from Pentecost to John’s death. This would be roughly 33 AD to 100 AD. And during this time in history, you have Christianity going from a very small group spreading through the whole earth.
Trip To Rome
We went to Rome and saw the catacombs. The catacombs are tunnels underneath the ground where people buried their dead, the pagans buried their dead. It was common for people to go down on a birthday or a special day and light candles and have a meal with the dead. That was common.
So what the Christians could do is go down and light a candle, and have a communion, and have church, and sing and so forth, and it wouldn’t necessarily be rooted out as an illegal gathering, even though Christianity was illegal. This to me was a picture of what the people went through during this era, roughly 65 AD. Nero took Christians and put them on crosses, and dipped them in tar, and burned them for torchlights.
We also had a guide in Rome. I asked the guide something that had always been a curiosity to me. Why did Constantine inaugurate a new capital? Rome was the center of the earth. It was the most powerful place on earth. Why would you start a new capital? Can you imagine all the bureaucracy in Washington DC packing up and moving to Omaha all of a sudden? I wouldn’t understand it.
She said something very interesting. She said Christianity had so infected the population by that time that it was clear to the emperor he was not going to be able to control people anymore, because the Christians were happy to die.
If you’re a totalitarian dictator and people don’t mind being beaten and killed, there’s nothing you can do to control the population. So he went somewhere where they would worship the emperor. Very interesting answer.
During this time period, when the Christians are being martyred in the coliseums and so forth, the church had a little bit of a problem, because the people began to angle to get martyred in the coliseum. They were like, “Arrest me! Arrest me!”
And the church had to stand up and say, “No, don’t try to get arrested.” And it’s because the people understood so well the message of Revelation: To be a faithful witness, and the immense joy it gives God, and the tremendous fulfillment that it brings to us to be a witness.
The First Love That They Left
During this time period something started to erode that orientation. I don’t know what it is, but I’ll make a suggestion. We can deduce what it might have been from the books of Romans and Galatians. What is it that Paul’s fighting in the books of Romans and Galatians?
Let’s look at Galatians 2:17.
But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves are also found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!
I often play this trick on people to say, “Is it a good thing or a bad thing to seek to be justified by Christ?” Your immediate answer is almost always yes, right? Because it is a good thing to be justified by Christ.
But, what if you’re already a believer and you’re seeking to be justified by Christ, as the Galatians were? Then is it a good thing to seek to be justified by Christ? No! Because you’re already justified by Christ.
So, if you’re already justified by Christ and you’re seeking to be justified by Christ, what does that mean you’re doing? You’re adding. You’re saying, “I also must…” in this case be circumcised and fulfill the Jewish law, but it could be anything. I also must do these religious observances. And when we do that, the inevitable result is the attention comes off of Jesus and on to our own actions. And that’s exactly what began to infect the church.
So, first period, Ephesus. Again, I’m going to come back through this and unpack a lot more stuff in these verses, I hope, in future episodes. But this first period, you have this amazing spread of Christianity, all these terrific things that people did. But, they began to lose their emphasis on faith in Jesus and start adding stuff.
Dr. Anderson says that in the writings of the early church fathers, he cannot find the idea of grace in those writings. That by the time of the second century the church had already fallen into legalism.
Again, it’s just a model. But I think it’s a reasonable suggestion based on what we see the fight being in the first century that Paul’s trying to stave off, this orientation towards legalism.
So the second church, the persecuted church, if you have a Bible with headlines, it will probably have something about each church. They call Ephesus the loveless church, which I think is completely unfair because you have this church that’s really awesome. These guys were so fantastic that God held them to that standard. It’s amazing. I don’t think you’ll see a church in here that exceeds what the listing of the things the Ephesians church did. But, what Jesus has against them is they’re starting to revert. They’re starting to go down.
Once we get to a particular spot in our maturity, the idea of “now we’re going to coast” is not something that the Bible really gives us leeway for. It’s a really fantastic church, and, of course, they did have their lamp removed eventually.
I would call this the underperforming church. Very, very high standard, but they just didn’t measure up. It would be like a fantastic team that wins their district and wins area, but loses to a team they had no business losing to because they were so good, because they just didn’t play as a team.
The Church In Smyrna, The Persecuted Church
OK, the second church, the persecuted church.
Revelation 2:8. And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, ‘These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”’
Now again, I’m going to go through the spiritual things at another time, but the historical aspect of this, I think, Smyrna is a—the root word is mir, and it means bitter. And this was a time of great bitterness in the church.
You’ll notice that there’s no real criticism here of this persecuted church because this period, is the period from 100, John’s death, until 330 when Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople.
During that period there was tremendous persecution of the church. It began in the first century and continued on for the next couple of centuries. And during this time period, was when Christianity defeated Rome. It defeated Rome with the blood of the martyrs.
Now, during this time period, Constantine ascended to the throne in 312, and in 313 he issued the Edict of Milan, which ended official persecution against the Christian church.
In 410, which is the next era we’ll get into, the Visigoths sacked Rome and there was a popular notion around the Romans that it was punishment by the pagan gods for converting to Christianity. And Augustine wrote a book called The City of God to defend against that criticism.
Well, people don’t make criticisms without some basis. And the reality is Rome did fall to Christianity.
When we were in Rome, I was asking this guide about why did they have a second capital, and she said because they wouldn’t worship the emperor anymore because of Christianity. And she showed us a frieze or a piece of art that showed a historical instance that may or may not be true, but it’s indicative of this idea she had of Constantine handing the keys of Rome to the Bishop of Rome when he left to go to Constantinople. And the idea is, the church became the dominate force at the end of this period of persecution. And it was, a time where Christians showed us what it means to really take a stand.
And all Jesus asked them to do is just stay faithful until death, because they were under persecution.
So, this I would say, is the second era. And during this time period, we’re going to get to chapter 17, and we’re going to see that there are seven kings, five have been, one is, and one is to come. And I’m going to propose that when we get there, this mainly happens during these first two eras where we have these kings. They’re representative kings.
The Church In Pergamos, The Compromising Church
So then we go to the compromising church. I’m going to call it the syncretizing church, and that’s Pergamos.
Revelation 2:12. “And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write, ‘These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword: I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitians, which thing I hate. Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.”’
So Pergamos is the third city going up the coastline, and Pergamos was the capital of this Roman province of Asia. Ephesus, is the import-export center, Pergamos is the capital. So it was the center of Roman power.
It’s interesting, it says, this is where Satan dwells. And in previous episodes, we talked about this instance in Daniel where the angel comes to tell Daniel the answer to the dream, and he got held up for 21 days by the prince of Persia, who is the angel over the Persian empire. And Daniel works for the physical king. And there is this tremendous connection between the spiritual and the physical.
So even though there is a Roman governor who actually rules in Pergamos, what Jesus says is, “That’s where Satan dwells.” Because there’s this connection, and Satan is still the prince of this world even though he’s a lame duck at this point in time.
And he says, I’ve got some few things against you. There are some faithful things you’ve done. There’s some good stuff going on, but there are a few things against you, the key of which is you’ve got Balaam in there, and you’re tolerating Balaam.
Now Balaam was a character in the Old Testament. He was a prophet. There is some controversy about whether he’s a true prophet or a false prophet. He was a prophet that spoke on behalf of God, and God dealt with him. He wanted to keep his prophetic station in which he understood—”I can’t say something that’s not true”, but he also wanted the reward that was offered to him for cursing the Israelites.
So, he went to try to figure out a way to curse the Israelites, and get this big reward. God wouldn’t let him do it. He blessed the Israelites. So he went to the king and said, “If you will get the Moabite women to go over and seduce the men into sexual immorality, God will judge them himself, and you’ll curse them that way.”
He tried to keep is prophetic office and get the money from the world. So there’s syncretism.
And I’m going to propose this era is represented from 330—when Constantine started the new church and left the west to the Catholic Church—to 800. 800 is when Charlemagne ascended the throne of the Holy Roman emperor. So we have a reconstitution of the Roman church, this time a Christian empire. That will go into the next era.
So this syncretistic church, 330-800. The episode that kind of brought this home to me was when we were in Greece. And we had a guide in Greece, and the guide was a mocker. But, he made a good point. He said, we in Greece, we’re all Greek orthodox. We used to be pagan. Back when we were pagan, we were very ignorant. We used to have this 50-year-old guy with a beard and a pitchfork that we would worship to keep us safe at sea if we were sailors. We don’t have those superstitions anymore. No, now we have a 50-year-old guy with a beard and a staff called St. Christopher who keeps us safe if we’re sailors. You know, back when we were pagans and we were ignorant, we would go give money to the priest in order to have him go behind in the temple and say the magic words and come out, and we’d get what we want. We don’t do those silly things anymore. No, now we go to church, and we give money to the priest who goes behind the divider and says the magic words and turns the grape juice into the blood of Christ, and then we get the magic stuff.
You know, he’s really got a point.
What happened during this era was when Christianity became the official religion, suddenly, you had all these pagans—you probably had maybe ten percent Christians—and suddenly now everybody wants to be a Christian, and you have to fit in. So what do you do?
Now some of this, is completely legitimate. Let’s say you’re the leader, and you’ve come out of this persecution, so you’ve proven yourself. And someone comes to you and says ,”what do we do with all these people? They all want to come into Christianity, but they’re still doing the winter solstice where they do all the pagan stuff and the pagan sexual immorality and stuff. What do we do?”
“Let’s substitute it. We’ll put in Christmas there. We’ll celebrate the birth of Jesus.” “Well, Jesus was born in April.” “Well, yeah, but it’s just a celebration, right? We’re not trying to be historically accurate. We’ll put a substitute there. Good idea.” Well, I’ll say that is a good idea.
“Well, what do we do about Easter? It’s the really bad one. I mean, they have the lilies and they have the rabbits and the eggs, and all these pagan, really bad sexually immoral…”
“Well, why don’t we turn that into celebrating the resurrection, and we’ll say “new life” instead of fertility. We’ll have a different kind of new life. Spiritual new life.” Great idea.
And these things work. I mean you can still kind of see the vestiges of the pagan stuff bubbling around, but for the most part they became Christian things.
Other things didn’t work so good. Because the people wanted a human that they could interact with. So, we take these guys who had proven themselves during this time of persecution. We’ll have them be the intermediary. We’ll go ahead and have a priest. They’re used to having a priest intermediate. So they go ahead and have a Christian priest. And these guys are trustworthy.
Well, now what you’ve done is created a position of power. And when you create a position of power, the most unscrupulous among us are the ones who will eventually figure out how to get that power.
And, that’s what happened. You went from people who are shepherding to people who are controlling and pilfering.
And these same things that would drive the martyrs in the first two centuries to say, hey, persecute me. I want to die in the coliseum became, fundraising tactics. If you touch this splinter that we got from John the Baptist’s grave, you’ll get to avoid all those bad things that might happen to you which we’ll talk about in the next couple of episodes and you’ll get the good stuff.
If you have the priest, who you’ve been told is speaking on behalf of God telling you this stuff, maybe you believe it.
We visited a cathedral in Chartres, and it was built in 1100. And it was built in a decade or so when normally these cathedrals take a hundred and fifty years to build. How did it get built so fast? Well, normally, they go just at the pace the money’s coming in. But this cathedral had a phenomenal relic, and everybody wanted to get in on this relic.
So now we’ve gone from, we have this relationship with Christ, and we want to do whatever we can do to get the approval of Christ to, I want in on a relic. And it’s this syncretism of paganism coming in.
Augustine is the father of modern theology in the west. Not in the east, but in the west. And what Augustine did, arguably, at least this is my assertion, is bring Neoplatonism into Christianity and syncretized it. He had a lot of ideas that just aren’t biblical that he brought in from his Greek platonic thought process.
And so we have syncretism that comes in, and this church is the corrupt church because they’re trying to figure out a way to make it work with the world. Balaam. Make it work with the world, make it still work with God.