There were many Christian churches in Asia during the first century of the Christian era; and God chose seven of them to represent the seven periods of His church during the remainder of the time.
THE SEVEN CHURCHES
Rev 1:1 “The Revelation of Jesus Christ ….”
Jesus Christ, the Saviour of sinners, founded the Christian Church after His baptism, when He began His earthly ministry in 27 A.D. The Bible tells us that Jesus ordained His disciples and organized the Christian Church to carry on the good news of salvation.
Luke 6:12-16 “And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also named apostles; Simon (whom he also called Peter,) and Andrew his brother, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James, and Judas Iscariot, which was also the traitor.”
For three and a half years the Master was educating His disciples for the ministry by His example of doing good, healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, and preaching the gospel of salvation. The disciples were also engaged in this wonderful work. After the death and resurrection of the Lord, we read in the book of Acts that He bade them to continue with the work of preaching the gospel.
Acts 1:8 “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
The enemies of the truth wished to silence the news of salvation. The apostles were persecuted, imprisoned, and some of them were put to death. We remember the experience of Peter and John in Acts 4 and 5, of Peter in Acts 12, and of Paul and Silas in Acts 16. The first standard bearers were martyred, but the gospel triumphed. The Spirit of Prophecy says:
AA 597 “One after another the foremost of the builders fell by the hand of the enemy. Stephen was stoned; James was slain by the sword; Paul was beheaded; Peter was crucified; John was exiled. Yet the church grew.”
All the disciples of Jesus were martyred except John, the beloved apostle. But he also had to suffer persecution. In order to silence the voice of the truth and the proclamation of the risen Saviour the Roman Government cast John in boiling oil:
AA 570 “John was cast into a cauldron of boiling oil; but the Lord preserved the life of His faithful servant, even as He preserved the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace.”
The beloved apostle survived the persecution. He was one of the disciples still living when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. He witnessed the martyrdom of many of his Christian brethren.
When the enemy (Satan) could not destroy the truth nor kill the beloved servant of the Lord, he used the emperor of Rome as an instrument to banish John to a rocky island, which at that time was called Patmos.
AA 570-571 “Patmos, a barren, rocky island in the Aegean Sea, had been chosen by the Roman government as a place of banishment for criminals; but to the servant of God this gloomy abode became the gate of heaven. Here, shut away from the busy scenes of life, and from the active labors of former years, he had the companionship of God and Christ and the heavenly angels, and from them he received the instruction for the church for all future time.”
John comments on his exile in the first chapter of the book of Revelation as follows:
Revelation 1:9 “I John, who also am your brother and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
The apostle testifies that he was on that island because of the preaching of God’s word and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Men believed that they could silence for ever the oice of the gospel, but as we can see God works in a different way. In that solitary place the Lord gave the apostle the most wonderful revelation of the history of the Christian Church.
We thank God that we have the book of Revelation in our Bibles. Many Christians do not understand the prophecies contained therein, and say that the Book of Revelation is a mystery, and in fact all the prophecies of the book are mysteries. But the title itself tells us that the book is a Revelation. That which is revealed is not a mystery, is it? But if it is a mystery to some, it is to those who are lost (2 Corinthians 4:3).
The book of Revelation begins with the words:
Rev 1:1-3 “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.”
The author of the book of Revelation is God Himself. Things to come were revealed to the angel through Jesus Christ, and the angel revealed it to John. Which things were revealed? Things “which must shortly come to pass.” A blessing is resting upon those who study and understand the book of Revelation. Blessed are they that read, they that hear and they that keep the things written therein.
On a Sabbath day the first vision was given to John, and he describes that wonderful experience as follows:
Revelation 1:10-16 “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea. And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two‑edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.”
In this special vision Jesus was speaking to John. He introduces Himself as the “Alpha” and the “Omega,” the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet, that is the first and the last, the Eternal One. He bade John to send the message to the seven churches of Asia.
That John was taken in vision on a Sabbath day is evident from the fact that he called that day the “Lord’s day.” The Greek word in Revelation 1:10 is Kuriake Hemera which means the day of the Lord. It means that it is a possession of the Lord. In the Bible the only day the Lord calls “My holy day” is the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath.
The Spirit of Prophecy confirms that the first vision was given to John on a Sabbath day:
AA 581 “It was on the Sabbath, that the Lord of glory appeared to the exiled apostle. The Sabbath was as sacredly observed by John on Patmos as when he was preaching to the people in the towns and cities of Judea.”
According to many commentators John wrote the book of Revelation in 97 A.D. Many years after the death of Jesus he still acknowledged the Sabbath as the “Lord’s day.” In the gospel, John never called Sunday the Lord’s day, but simply the “first day of the week.”
In this vision the Lord commanded John to write and send all that he had heard to the seven churches in Asia Minor. At the first glance it seems that in Asia there existed only seven churches. But we know that oher churches existed there besides the seven mentioned in verse 11. The churches of Colossae, Antioch and others were not included here. The messages to the seven churches should be written in a book, and all churches should know its content. Seven cities where Christian churches were established were chosen, because they properly represent the Christian Church in all its phases and periods. The seven churches represent but one Church, the Christian Church, from the time of its establishment to the end of time. The Spirit of Prophecy makes this very clear:
AA 585 “The names of the seven churches are symbolic of the church in different periods of the Christian era. The number seven indicates completeness, and is symbolic of the fact that the messages extend to the end of time, while the symbols used reveal the condition of the church at different periods in the history of the world.”
Rev 1:4 “John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;”
Rev 1:11 “Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.”
We should understand that the seven churches are not seven denominations or seven organizations from the time of Jesus to the time of the end. They represent seven periods of time in which the Christian church would exist. These seven names were chosen to represent the condition of the church in each period. We must not make confusion between period and condition of the church.
BibleReadings 282 “John’s letters to “the seven churches which are in Asia” were addressed to actual groups of Christian believers in the Roman province of Asia. These messages describe conditions existing in these churches in John’s day and provide counsel appropriate to their particular needs. But because there were actually more churches in “Asia” than the seven named, and because the number seven recurs repeatedly in the Revelation in what is evidently a symbolic sense, these seven particular churches are to be understood as representative of the church as a whole and the messages addressed to them as applicable also to seven periods or states of the church reaching from the first advent of Christ to the second. Throughout Scripture the number seven, when used symbolically, is generally understood to indicate completeness. A study of history reveals that these messages are indeed applicable in a special way to seven successive periods that cover the entire history of the Christian church.”
John saw Jesus “clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.” He was seen in the first apartment of the heavenly sanctuary. He wore robes that the common priests used to wear in the holy place, the first apartment of the sanctuary, for the daily sacrifices.
QD 667 “As the high priest laid aside his gorgeous pontifical robes, and officiated in the white linen dress of a common priest, so Christ emptied Himself, and took the form of a servant, and offered the sacrifice Himself the priest, Himself the victim.”
The description of Jesus as given by John is in harmony with the office that Jesus entered into after His ascension. The garments of Jesus, as a High Priest, after 1844, are different from those mentioned by John. We read about them in the Spirit of Prophecy:
EW 251 “I was shown what did take place in heaven at the close of the prophetic periods in 1844. As Jesus ended His ministration in the holy place, and closed the door of that apartment, a great darkness settled upon those who had heard and rejected the messages of His coming, and they lost sight of Him. Jesus then clothed Himself with precious garments. Around the bottom of His robe was a bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate. A breastplate of curious work was suspended from His shoulders. As He moved, this glittered like diamonds, magnifying letters which looked like names written or engraved upon the breastplate. Upon His head was something which had the appearance of a crown.”
Besides the difference between the garments of the common priest which Jesus wore and that of the high priest, there is another remarkable evidence that Jesus did not enter the most holy place when He ascended to heaven. John saw Jesus ministering in the first apartment of the sanctuary, the holy place, where the candlesticks were. It is true that the candlesticks described in Revelation represent the churches as we will see further, but it is also a fact that candlesticks were never found in the most holy place. The only apartment where the candlesticks were was the holy place, and in that apartment was Jesus ministering from the time of His ascension until 1844.
GC 420-421 “The ministration of the priest throughout the year in the first apartment of the sanctuary, ‘within the veil’ which formed the door and separated the holy place from the outer court, represents the work of ministration upon which Christ entered at His ascension…. For eighteen centuries this work of ministration continued in the first apartment of the sanctuary.”
In his first vision John saw the majesty of the Lord. His appearance was different from that which He had when He was on earth, despised by all men, ridiculed, rejected, and put to death. Now John beholds Him in His glory, and as One having authority. When th apostle beheld the glorious scene he fell as dead. Jesus lovely voice encouraged him saying: “fear not.” The Lord bade John to write the things he had seen, things which are, and the things which would come after that time.
Jesus explains to John the meaning of the stars and the candlesticks that He holds in His right hand. In verse 20 we read:
Rev 1:20 “The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.”
AA 586 “Christ is spoken of as walking in the midst of the golden candlesticks. Thus is symbolized His relation to the churches. He is in constant communication with His people. He knows their true state. He observes their order, their piety, their devotion. Although He is high priest and mediator in the sanctuary above, yet He is represented as walking up and down in the midst of His churches on the earth. With untiring wakefulness and unremitting vigilance, He watches to see whether the light of any of His sentinels is burning dim or going out. If the candlesticks were left to mere human care, the flickering flame would languish and die; but He is the true watchman in the Lord’s house, the true warden of the temple courts. His continued care and sustaining grace are the source of life and light.
“Christ is represented as holding the seven stars in His right hand. This assures us that no church faithful to its trust need fear coming to naught; for not a star that has the protection of Omnipotence can, be plucked out of the hand of Christ.
“`These things saith He that holdeth the seven stars in His right hand’. These words are spoken to the teachers in the church, ‑ those entrusted by God with weighty responsibilities. The sweet influences that are to be abundant in the church are bound up with God’s ministers, who are to reveal the love of Christ. The stars of heaven are under His control. He fills them with light. He guides and directs their movements. If He did not do this, they would become fallen stars. So with His ministers. They are but instruments in His hands, and all the good they accomplish is done through His power.”
We give this introduction before we read and comment on the letters Jesus sends to the seven churches. We wish to detail the contents of the letters, until we come to the last one, so it is not possible to give all the explanation in this column. We present this study in a series, and invite the readers to be with us to the end, so that the message contained in the letters to the seven churches may be understood and accepted. He that has an ear let him hear!
1. WHAT title is given the last book of the Bible?
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Rev 1:1.
2. To whom do those things which are revealed belong?
“The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever.” Deut 29:29.
3. For what purpose was the Revelation given?
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass.” Rev 1:1.
4. What great event, according to this book, is imminent?
“Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him.” Rev 1:7.
NOTE.—This book not only opens and closes with the subject of Christ’s second coming, but its eight lines of prophecy all reach down to this as the great culminating event to the church and the world.
5. What encouragement is given to study this book?
“Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.” Rev 1:3.
6. To whom was the book dedicated?
“John to the seven churches which are in Asia.” Rev 1:4.
7. What were the names of these seven churches?
“What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.” Rev 1:11.
NOTE.—These seven churches, and the messages addressed to them, apply to seven periods or states of the church reaching from the first to the second advent of Christ. “Under this emblematical representation of the seven churches of Asia,” says Vitringa, in the “Comprehensive Commentary,” “the Holy Spirit has delineated seven different states of the Christian church , which would appear in succession, extending to the coming of our Lord and the consummation of all things.” Their good qualities and their defects are pointed out, with admonitions, exhortations, and warnings suitable for each, all of which are also applicable to individual Christian experience.
8. By what title is the first state of the church distinguished?
“Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write.” Rev 2:1.
NOTE.—The meaning of Ephesus is desirable, and fitly describes the character and condition of the church in its first state, when its members received the doctrine of Christ in its purity, and enjoyed the benefits and blessings of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This applies to the first century, or during the lifetime of the apostles. See dates in the accompanying diagram, showing the beginning and close of the seven periods.
9. After commending this church for their good works, what charge did the Lord bring against them?
“Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works.” Rev 2:4, 5.
NOTE.—The “first love” is the love of the truth, and the desire of making it known to others. The “first works” are the fruit of this love.
10. What name is given to the second state of the church?
“Unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write.” Rev 2:8.
NOTE.—The meaning of Smyrna is myrrh, or sweet-smelling savor, and applies to the period of time when many of the saints of God suffered martyrdom under pagan Rome.
11. How is the closing period of tribulation of the church during this time referred to?
“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.” Rev 2:10.
NOTE.—The most severe of what is commonly known as “the ten persecutions” under pagan Rome, began under the emperor Diocletian, and continued from 303 A.D. to 313 A.D., a period of ten prophetic days.
12. What name is given to the third state of the church?
“To the angel of the church in Pergamos write.” Rev 2:12.
NOTE.—The meaning of Pergamos is height, or elevation, and fitly represents that period of the Christian church, beginning with the reign of the Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D., when the power which had put the Christians to death espoused the cause of the church, and by rewards, edicts, and promised promotions to office in the government, sought to induce the people to become Christians, thus bringing a flood of worldliness and corruption into the church. Many of the heathen rites and ceremonies previously introduced into the Christian religion, including the heathen festival, Sunday (sun’s day), were then established by law, resulting in the first day of the week taking the place of the Sabbath of the Bible.
13. How was the faithfullness of this church commended?
“I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast My name, and hast not denied My faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.” Rev 2:13.
NOTE.—Antipas comes from two Latin words, anti, opposed to, and papas, father, or pope and denotes a class of people who were opposed to papal rule. Regarding Pergamos, see note on page 256.
14. What title was given to the fourth state of the church?
“Unto the angel of the church in Thyatira, write.” Rev 2:18.
NOTE.—Thyatira means song of labour, or sacrifice of contrition, and points out the condition of God’s people during the long, dark period of 1260 years, beginning with the establishment of papal supremacy in 538 A.D., and closing with the downfall of that power in 1798. See notes on page 223. During that time, millions of the saints of God were put to death in the most cruel manner that wicked men and demons could invent. Christ referred to this time in His wonderful prophecy recorded in Matthew 24, in these words: “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” The tribulation of the 1260 years was cut short through the influence of the Reformation.
15. What promise did God leave for these persecuted ones?
“But that which ye have already hold fast till, I come. And he that overcometh, and keepeth My words unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of My Father.” Rev 2:25-27.
16. By what name is the fifth state of the church addressed? “Unto the angel of the church in Sardis write.” Rev 3:1.
NOTE.—Sardis means song of joy, or that which remains. A cause for joy at that time was the fact that the great tribulation of the people of God was at an end. It was only as a result of the Reformation that any of God’s people were left remaining. See Matt 24:21, 22, and note under question 14. The Sardis church continued from the close of the papal power, 1798 A.D., until the beginning of the great advent movement in 1833, which was marked by the falling of the stars on November 13 of that year, as foretold by Christ in Matt 24:29.
17. What endearing title is given the sixth church?
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write.” Rev 3:7.
NOTE.—Philadelphia means brotherly love, and applies to the church under the judgment-hour message. See page 251.
18. What words to this church show the second advent near?
“Behold, I come quickly: hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.” Rev 3:11.
19. What is Christ’s message to the last church?
“Unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; … I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot. … Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased in goods, and have need of nothing; … 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. … As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.” Rev 3:14-19.
NOTE.—Laodicea signifies the judging of the people, or, according to Cruden, a just people. This church exists in the time of the judgment and the proclamation of the final warning messages preceding Christ’s second coming. See Rev 14:6-16, and readings on pages 251-263. This is a time of great profession, with but little vital godliness and true piety.
20. What encouragement is given to heed this message?
“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.” Rev 3:20.
NOTE.—The pointed, searching messages to the seven churches contain most important lessons of admonition, encouragement, and warning for all Christians in all ages. The seven promises to the overcomer found in this line of prophecy (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 26-28; 3:5, 12, 21), with the eighth or universal promise recorded in Rev 21:7, form a galaxy of promises as precious, as comforting, and as inspiring as any recorded in the Scriptures. See pages 558, 762.