In the opening chapters of Revelation, the Lord Jesus instructs John, the apostle and author of the book, to record a series of letters to seven churches that were located in Asia Minor (the region of modern day Turkey). These churches included: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. During the first century there were Christian congregations in all of these cities. Some of the churches, like Ephesus, were planted during the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul. Tradition tells us that the Apostle John ministered to the churches of this region towards the end of his life, and so at one time or another he may have visited many of these congregations in person. The letters follow a pattern. Each one reveals something to us about the nature of Christ. The letter evaluates the ministry of each congregation, both the good and the bad. There is encouragement to stay true to the Lord, and correction where needed. The Lord promises a reward to those who remain devoted in the midst of opposition. The reader is then commanded to hear, i.e. pay attention and listen up, to what the Spirit says to the churches.
It is easy to gloss over these chapters, as one rushes towards the visions of things to come. However, it is good for Christians today to heed the command made repeatedly throughout this section: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” (Rev. 3:13). Yes, these were real churches that existed 2,000 years ago during the days of the apostle John. Jesus addresses some of the challenges they were facing in their specific contexts. But we are not all that different from those who have come before us. Churches today face the same kinds of struggles or temptations. Our devotion to the Lord Jesus is constantly tested as we strive to live for God in a world that is often hostile towards the gospel. There are distractions that would take our focus away from the One who is holy and true. We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). That means the Holy Spirit continues to speak through these verses to God’s people today. He is calling us to remain faithful in our context, whatever it might look like.
Many Bible commentators have also observed another possible way to understand Revelation 2-3. As we look back on the past 2,000 years, it seems as if the different stages of church history align with the descriptions of these seven churches. In this view, each church, mentioned in Revelation 2-3, would not only describe an actual congregation during the days of the Apostle John, but the congregations also represent a different era of church history and the condition of Christianity at a specific time in history. This would include the early church of the apostles (1st century), the persecuted church under harsh Roman emperors (late 1st-4th century), the church that became enmeshed with the state when Christianity was legalized under Constantine (4th century), the sacramental church (4th century through present), the church of the reformation (14th century), the missionary movement (18th century), and the modern church (20th-21st century).
This is a very intriguing suggestion, as the Church certainly has undergone various struggles during the course of history and sadly has not always remained as passionate for Christ, faithful to it’s mission, and committed to God’s Word as the Lord commands. A study of church history helps us to learn from both the failures and successes of the past. The familiar adage reminds us that those who do not study history are destined to repeat it. There is also a very serious call to urgency here, which is present throughout the entire book of Revelation. The Lord is coming quickly. The time is getting shorter by the day. What kind of church do we want to be? What kind of people do we want to be? Will we stay true to our first love? Will we fold under the pressure of persecution? Will we allow ourselves to grow lukewarm in our devotion?
One of our leaders, Dr. Jeff Price, has recently done an extensive study of these churches and shared an overview of Revelation 2-3 during the message on November 28th and December 5th. These sermons can be found here on our website or our You Tube channel. He has shared the slides from his Sermon – The Seven Churches (1) which contain a great deal of information. Click on the link to download the pdf or to view in your browser. Pastor Troy will also be spending time with him in the days to come on our church podcast to dive deeper into each of these churches. I encourage you to check out these resources, and take the time to read these letters thinking about where you might fit in, as we each measure our passion and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.