The first big section of Revelation is the messages to the Seven Churches. John “heard a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying, ‘What you see, write in a book, and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea” (Revelation 1:10,11).
There really were seven churches in Asia minor and these churches had serious issues that John addressed. But there are several reasons why these messages are much more important than just good advice to some small first-century churches.
First of all, everything else in Revelation has to do with universal, cosmic issues that affect the eternal status of the whole universe. The Revelation narrative concludes with sin being eradicated and the eternal kingdom of God being established with its capital, the New Jerusalem, on planet earth.
The seven churches in Asia, on the other hand, are so obscure that besides the church at Ephesus, we know essentially nothing about them.
Some commentators go into detail about the characteristics of the cities these churches were located in as if the churches must have the same characteristics as their cities.
But churches are often a contrast to their cities, not a reflection of them. Imagine, for example, what the members of a church in Las Vegas would say if you assumed that they must have a gambling and sin problem because they live in a sin city.
Likewise, knowing that Thyatira, for example, was a major commercial center does not tell us anything about the church at Thyatira, nor does it give us insight into the significance of the message to the church at Thyatira in Revelation.
The point is that the Book of Revelation addresses cosmic issues, not obscure local problems.
This is supported by the sanctuary scene that introduces the messages to the seven churches. John saw Jesus walking in the midst of seven golden lampstands. Jesus Himself told John, “The seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.” Jesus walks in the midst of the universal church in all places and at all times, and this is emphasized by the universal number seven.
Seven is used prominently in Revelation; there are seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders, and seven last plagues. All of these sevens are prophetic; they deal with issues that affect the whole world. It would be strange if the seven churches were the only series of seven that was not prophetic in some way.
And as we saw in the third Revelation of Jesus video, the visions of the book of Daniel, which are the model for the Book of Revelation, always start with a prophetic overview of the history of the world that most affected God’s people, from the time the vision was given until the time of the end.
Why does God start with history?
Well, keep in mind that when the vision was given it wasn’t history; it was the future, and God provided a seamless bridge from the first century to the last days. When events are extremely negative for believers, and much of the historical prophecies of Daniel and Revelation are, it is easy to think that God is absent or indifferent to our suffering.
A review of our history allows us to see the bad things that happened in the larger context of the conflict between good and evil. God knew and predicted the history of the world before it took place, and we can also be sure that He already knows about our present and future situations. His promises to bless and save His followers are sure, despite the tribulation we may face during the process.
With all of this in mind, I believe that the messages to the seven churches tell the story of the Christian Church from the time John wrote Revelation, near the end of the first century, until the Great Tribulation. Each church represents a particular period in that history.
This video is about the first message, which is directed to the church of Ephesus. According to tradition, John was a part of the Ephesus church before he was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation.
Jesus told the church of Ephesus, “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” (Revelation 2:2,3).
At first glance, the church of Ephesus looks pretty good. They are doing good works, laboring to spread the gospel and patiently enduring trials. They are striving to maintain the purity of the church, protecting it from evil liars and false apostles. They are persevering and not growing weary. Jesus commends them for this.
But something essential is missing that spoils all of their good works. “Nevertheless, I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4).
This lack of love is not a minor issue; it is so serious that Jesus warns, “Remember therefore from where you are fallen and repent…or else I will come to you quickly, and remove your lampstand out of its place” (Revelation 2:5). The Christians of Ephesus church were in danger of losing their salvation over a lack of love.
The early Christians who had known Jesus first-hand loved God with all their hearts, and this resulted in loving their neighbors as themselves. “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). They “were all with one accord in prayer and supplication” (Acts 2:1) “and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness” (Acts 2:46).
But before long frictions began to develop, and unfortunately these were along racial lines. “There arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists” (Acts 6:1). Later bad feelings arose when believing Jews tried to “compel Gentiles to live like Jews” (Galatians 2:14), “saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).
The early church, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, found solutions that actually strengthened the church, but these internal problems were nothing compared to the difficulties they faced from unbelieving Jews. For example, “The unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren…a violent attempt was made by both the gentiles and the Jews, with their rulers, to abuse and stone them” (Acts 14:2,5). Christians were despised and harassed by the Jewish establishment, and as time passed and the church became mostly gentiles, they began to see the Jews as their enemies.
Although we don’t have a lot of Christian writings from the Ephesus period, those that we do have show an increasing hatred of the Jews.
According to the Epistle of Barnabas, which was written in the AD 130’s, “the Jews are wretched men who were deluded by an evil angel and who were abandoned by God because of their ancient idolatry”. Justin Martyr was a Christian philosopher who wrote during the first half of the Second Century. He asserted that “The Jews are a ruthless, stupid, blind, and lame people, children in whom there is not faith”.
In his letter to a Jew named Trypho he wrote, “The custom of circumcising the flesh, handed down from Abraham, was given to you as a distinguishing mark, to set you off from other nations and from us Christians. The purpose of this was that you and only you might suffer the afflictions that are now justly yours; that only your land be desolated, and your cities ruined by fire, that the fruits of your land be eaten by strangers before your very eyes. It was by reason of your sins and the sins of your fathers that, among other precepts God imposed upon you the observance of the Sabbath as a mark”.
The Jews eventually came to be considered “Jesus killers,” and when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire they were ruthlessly persecuted.
The apostle John himself had warned that this kind of hatred is deadly: “If someone says ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1John 4:20).
This loss of love had severe consequences for the church. In despising the Jews, they also began to despise the story of the Jews, the Old Testament. They began to downplay the Jewish 10 commandments and emphasize the law of the church. For example, the Sabbath, which had been kept as the primary day of worship during the apostolic era, was gradually replaced by Sunday.
Images, which were forbidden in the 10-commandment law, were allowed and encouraged by the law of the church. The full outworking of these trends was still in the future, but the beginning was when the church allowed their hatred of their persecutors to quench their first love.
The lesson for us is that good works are not enough, and not even the real issue. We are not human doings, we are human beings, and what we should be is like Jesus. God is love, and if we lose our love for God and our neighbors we are no longer the lampstand that He intended us to be.
Jesus is the light of the world, and he calls upon us to lift Him up to the world by putting away our human prejudices, resentments, and hostilities and letting Him, through us, love even our enemies.
The message to the church of Ephesus ends on a more hopeful note. “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” (Revelation 2:7). Every one of the messages to the seven churches ends with a plea to overcome.
This is because these messages are the story of Satan’s attempts to invade and corrupt the church of God, to make us no different than the rest of the world. But although Satan is wily and powerful, he is a defeated foe. Jesus assures us that ultimately the church will share in His victory. “In this world you will have trouble. But be of good cheer: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
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There is more information about the messages to the seven churches in the book “a Revelation of Jesus” by David Lackey. It is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online bookstores.