2. The Dispensation of the Church

Seven letters of encouragement and admonition were sent by Christ to the Church of the New Testament. At a time when more than a hundred congregations had been established, He selected seven that reflected the typical characteristics representative of the entire Church in the current dispensation. No hidden reason, therefore, exists why most of the congregations did not receive letters from Christ. Each Church, as well as every individual Christian, can identify with one or more of these congregation types and take the message therein to heart.

Revelation 2 and 3 furnish a vertical as well as a horizontal perspective of the Christian Church. Should a vertical 'cutting' be made of the Christian Church at any stage, it would reveal seven different layers. Such were the characteristics of the early Church when these letters were written, and the same seven categories remain the distinguishing marks of the end-time Church as well.

Besides this perspective, a horizontal division can be made of the Church in successive periods. Although these Church types were all in existence throughout the entire dispensation, the general characteristics of the Christian Church have, with the passing of time, followed the course of these seven types. In terms of this view, there are seven distinctive periods in Church history. We currently find ourselves in the period of Laodicea, the last of the seven Churches. While certain denominations still display characteristics of the first six types, the end-time Church can predominantly be described as Laodicean.

As will be evident from the discussion that follows, there is a great difference between the Church of Christ and the Christian Church. The former includes those who sincerely belong to Christ because they have been washed in His blood of their sins. The latter includes all those who belong to Christian Churches – also the nominal Christians who are not yet saved. In the spiritually degraded situation that is rife in all the large Churches, most of the members are nominal Christians who have a mere form of godliness. It is with them in mind that the Lord sends messages of repentance to five of the seven Churches.

1.   Ephesus – The backslidden Church

In the year 95 when John received these messages, there were clear indications of backsliding in the Christian Church. The fervent congregations about which we read in the book of Acts, had waned and their zeal had reverted to a form of godliness in which Christ was no longer the central figure. Most Church activities were still practised, but the love of the Lord Jesus was no longer the basic motivation. Christ cannot tolerate this spiritual formalism, even though the members were extremely active. He lays His finger on the very gist of the problem when He says:

“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” (Rev. 2:4-5).

The Lord calls the Church to repent from the situation into which it has fallen. Humanly-motivated works done for the Church by its members are not acceptable to God. A buoyant Church is one in which the members serve God under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The congregation is called to return to its first works. Should they not do so, says Jesus, He will withdraw His Holy Spirit from them. Then there will be no light to their lamps, and total spiritual darkness will descend upon the Church. As an organisation controlled by human beings they could continue to survive, but they would no longer be a mouthpiece for Christ. He will transfer His lampstand to another Church that is prepared to serve Him in Spirit and in Truth.

What is the true nature of your Christian experience? Do you serve the Lord under moral or social pressure and by your own effort, or does the Holy Spirit urge you to proclaim the excellence of your Redeemer? Let your light therefore so shine that all may see it and in this way be drawn closer to Him.

A positive aspect of the members of this Church is that, in spite of their spiritual relapse, they didn’t open the door to the sects. They strongly denounced the Nicolaitans, who were hateful in the eyes of the Lord. The Nicolaitans aspired to power and prestige in society, but they were very carnal and known for their loose moral practices. They endeavoured to establish an order of priests in line with the Old Testament division of the people into priests with special privileges, and lay people without any religious standing. Instead of mere shepherds, an exalted order of holy men ruled the Church. This principle is reflected in the name Nicolaitans, which is derived from niko (to subject) and laos (the laity or people).

This sharp division is foreign to the New Testament practice since it would restrict the spiritual growth of the believers. Ordinary members of the congregation would be inhibited and discouraged in their calling as witnesses of Christ. Under such circumstances the Church cannot effectively evangelise the world.

The condition in Ephesus is characteristic of the early Christian Church until around the year 100. It applies as much to their initial love for their Lord as to their subsequent spiritual deterioration.

2.   Smyrna – the persecuted Church

Smyrna means bitterness, and is indicative of the ruthless persecution and intense suffering of the Church under the Roman yoke. There was hardly any conceivable method of humiliation, persecution and martyrdom that was not used against the Christians. Public scorn, derision and heavy fines, discharge from employment, and expropriation of property numbered among the lighter forms of persecution. More generally, imprisonment in musty dungeons under situations where hunger, disease and torture prevailed, as well as execution on charges of heresy, was the order of the day for thousands of Christians. At times the prisoners were let loose in the large arenas to be torn by lions and other beasts of prey. No value was placed upon their lives, and during the public executions callous spectators even derived amusement from these tragic and macabre scenes in the arenas.

The Lord cherishes an intense sympathy for these martyrs because He, too, walked the path of suffering and drank the bitter cup of persecution to the last drop. To this Church He introduces Himself as the One who was dead but is now alive. He urges them to take a firm stand in the midst of suffering, because they will be rewarded with the incorruptible resurrection life if they remain faithful. In Revelation 2:10, He says to the martyred Church:

“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.”

The ten days probably refer to the persecution of Christians during the rule of ten successive Roman emperors – from Nero in 64 AD, until Diocletian in the year 305. With the commencement of the Smyrna period the persecution had already started, and it would take its course for the next two centuries. The last two years under Diocletian were the bloodiest. This tyrant, like most of his predecessors, deified himself. He even took a step further and expected people to fall on their knees at the sight of him, to kiss the seam of his garment and exclaim: Dominus et Deus! (My Lord and my God!). In the year 305 he proclaimed an edict by which Christians should all be divested of their possessions and civil rights, and in terms of which all Christian Churches were to be closed. The accompanying persecution is considered the bloodiest of all Christian persecutions. After the abdication of Diocletian in 305, the campaign to eradicate Christianity continued until the year 312.

3.   Pergamos – the compromising Church

An important turn of events occurred in 312 AD when Emperor Constantine made an end to the persecution of Christians, by recognising and accepting the Christian faith. It is believed that while on one of his wars of conquest he saw a cross in the sky, as well as the following words: In hoc signo vinces (In this sign you will find victory). After this experience he obtained significant military success, and because of it he adopted the Christian faith. Through the Edict of Milan in 313 he granted equal rights to Christianity on the same level as all other religions. However, his personal involvement with Christianity raises serious doubts because he did not condemn the heathen religions, and was baptised only shortly before his death.

At any rate, the change in the religious sphere was enormous. Suddenly the persecuted Church had to fling open its doors to high-ranking officers and prominent citizens, including the emperor. All of them were prompted to become ‘Christians’. The requirements of the Gospel were scaled down to make the message more popular and acceptable with the new audiences. Large sums of money were voted to the clergy by the emperor, and with the generous financial aid they erected imposing church buildings.

At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, a body of bishops obtained control over the Church. This development opened the way for the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, harking back to the Church at Ephesus, to be introduced. The initiative for ordinary members to operate independently was gradually suppressed, and in due course everyone had to conduct himself according to the directions and rules laid down by the bishops and priests. In this way the Church encroached upon the authority of the Word of God and on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.

The compromise that the Church made with the secular world has inevitably given rise to disloyalty and infidelity among members. The emergence of this situation is also reflected in the name Pergamos, which means marriage. During the reign of Constantine the Church and state contracted a marriage, but in the eyes of God an attachment of this nature amounts to spiritual adultery:

“Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that the friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4).

The Lord refers to this compromise as “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” (Rev. 2:14). According to Numbers 22 to 24, Balaam was hired by Balak, king of the Moabites, to pronounce a curse upon Israel. However, Balaam refused to do so and persuaded Balak not to resort to curses and military confrontation, but to tempt Israel by means of compromise to partake in the feasts of Baal.

This strategy brought success, and we read in Numbers 25 that Israel accepted an invitation to attend a feast for Baal in Moab. Passion prevailed and soon this new friendship induced the Israeli men to commit sexual immorality with the daughters of Moab, and to pay homage to their idols. This provoked the Lord’s anger against Israel and He caused a plague to come over them in which 24 000 people died. Balak exulted over this tragedy since he had succeeded in bringing the wrath of God upon Israel. Afterwards Moses expressed his resentment against Israel’s discarding of principles through their permissiveness. In Numbers 31 he said:

“Have you kept all the women alive? Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord” (Num. 31:15-16).

In modern times, the same change in strategy by the enemies of God has also wreaked havoc among believers. By substituting the strategy of confrontation and persecution with that of compromise, large sectors of the Christian Church have been lured into various practices of fornication with the non-Christian religions, and with the world. Severe persecution couldn’t destroy the Christian Church in Communist countries. However, in the Western world Christian Churches had, with a few exceptions, apostatised and became so materialistic and worldly‑minded that they have largely forfeited the favour of the Lord. Instead of spiritual blessings, they are bringing the wrath of God upon themselves because of their fornication and compromise with an evil world.

The warning to the Church of Pergamos not to resort to friendship with worldly concerns, should be viewed in a very serious light. Their city was so wicked that the Lord referred to it as the place where Satan had his throne (Rev. 2:13). The city housed a library with 200 000 books, which contained many volumes with a strong impact of Greek philosophy. Polytheism was promoted, as well as Plato’s metaphysics, that lead to a belief in various kinds of supernatural powers. The city also had several temples, among others the temple of Asclepius, a heathen god of healing symbolised by a snake. There were also images of the deified emperor in the city, and people were to bow in reverence before it.

In ancient times during the fall of Babylon, the Chaldean priest-king and his followers took refuge in Pergamos. Because Babylon was an important centre for pagan religions, one of the thrones of Satan was, because of this event, transferred from Babylon to Pergamos. The unbiblical tradition of the affording of political status and domination to religious leaders, thus became established in the city. Prompted by the Babylonian institution of an order of priests headed by a priest-king, a priestly hierarchy of men who also aspired to secular leadership, was introduced to the Christian Church.

Besides this, the Babylonian tradition of homage to the sun-god and the queen of heaven with her darling son, exercised their influence upon Christian circles. It eventually led to the veneration of the Madonna and her Child and the deification of Mary, mother of Jesus. The Church was thus assailed and misled from a variety of fronts. Those who would not compromise or associate with these heathen traditions, were persecuted and became martyrs for their faith. Like Antipas, they paid the highest price for refusing to compromise with unbiblical beliefs. In this letter, the Lord Jesus Christ commends people like Antipas as faithful witnesses (Rev. 2:13). Antipas means against everything. In the godless city of Pergamos, Antipas had little choice but to denounce just about everything.

4.   Thyatira – the apostate Church

According to Alexander Hislop (The Two Babylons) the headquarters of the Babylonian priestly order moved from Pergamos to Rome – and with it the throne of Satan with its pagan religious system. In the year 606, Bonniface III was crowned as Universal Bishop. This occasion introduced a long period of Roman Catholic domination. During the dark Middle Ages the Church was ruled by a power-hungry hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes. The authority of the Church was elevated above that of the Bible, and the rule of infallibility was applied to the pope’s ex cathedra pronouncements. The position of Christ as Mediator was phased out as a result of this reform, and eventually people were forced to confess their sins to the priests.

As a result of the Babylonian influences conveyed to the Roman Catholic Church through a number of avenues, serious theological divergence and compromise with pagan customs occurred. Among these is the worship of Mary, which is merely a Christian replica of the Babylonian queen of heaven, Semiramis. Mary was deified in the year 381, based on the assertion that she had ascended to heaven. This view is still maintained by the Catholic Church, and the present pope declared the period from 17 July 1987 to 15 August 1988 as a special year for the veneration of the Madonna. She is called the sinless Mother of God as well as the heavenly Mother of the Church.

In the letter to Thyatira the Lord compares this type of infidelity with another woman, Jezebel, who seduced the people of Israel to the service of Baal, and to adultery. In the introduction to this letter, Jesus reminds the Church that He is the Son of God. To them He is merely the son of Joseph and Mary, but at the same time they wrongly assign divinity to Mary.

To the faithful believers who would become victims of the power-hungry and tyrannical Roman Catholic Church during the holy wars, the Lord had a special word of encouragement in the letter to Thyatira:

“But to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, and who have not known the depths of Satan, as they call them; I will put on you no other burden. But hold fast what you have till I come. And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations – He shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the potter's vessels shall be broken to pieces – as I also have received from My Father. And I will give him the morning star” (Rev. 2:24-28).

A multitude of martyrs have found encouragement in these promises through the ages. If they remained faithful and did not deny their faith in Christ, they will reign with Him in His millennial kingdom. In this government no disorderliness, corruption and double standards will prevail as justice and righteousness will be observed at all times. The morning star is the promise of the Lord Jesus about a new day that will dawn upon the present, evil world in which people love darkness more than the light (Jn. 3:19).

The Thyatira period continued throughout the Middle Ages up to the Protestant Reformation.

5.   Sardis – the dead Church

It is apparently a paradox to refer to the Church of the Reformation as a dead Church in the prophetic application of this letter. Yet, the Lord says: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 3:1). During this period only a sector of the Church was theologically reformed, as Roman-Catholic errors were exposed and the concept of grace was reinstated. However, despite these necessary changes, real godliness still lacked in the Church at large. The reform movement did not reach out to all the levels of Church activities since dynamic, growing churches that could evangelise heathenism in the areas around them, had not been established. The Lord reproaches them for their indifference about this serious matter: “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain that are ready to die; for I have not found your works perfect before God” (Rev. 3:2).

Christ introduces Himself to this Church as the One who has the seven Spirits of God. This attribute of the Lord has a direct bearing on their problem, as they did not display the zeal for evangelism that may be expected from a Spirit-filled church. They made a good start, but they still needed the experience of full surrender to the Holy Spirit to get the power and motivation to fulfil the mission of the New Testament Church.

History confirms that during the 200 years of its existence, the Church of the Reformation did less evangelistic work than was undertaken within a mere 20 years in the succeeding Philadelphia period. This lack can be attributed to theological formalism without the required devotion and commitment to the One who has sent His Spirit to endue the Church with power from on high.

There were, however, also the exceptions. Many of the reformers faced tremendous personal threats, and they were prepared to defend the stand they had taken by stating their convictions in public. To them the assurance is given: “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (Rev. 3:4).

6.   Philadelphia – The evangelising Church

Philadelphia means brotherly love, and this was indeed the force behind the revival meetings and global missionary endeavours that were undertaken between 1750 and 1900. Filled with the Holy Spirit, men of faith became pioneers in carrying the light of the Gospel to the unknown regions of Asia, Africa, South America and the islands of the sea. Badly equipped and often in danger of their lives owing to hostile heathen, tropical diseases and wild animals, these missionaries accepted the difficult challenge facing them. Indigenous languages were learned with the greatest devotion. Translations of the Bible were made, schools were started and medical services rendered with the very meagre means acquired from congregations and missionary friends in their countries of origin.

In the face of all these problems the work progressed because the Lord was in it. This is what the Lord has to say to His faithful ambassadors: “See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name” (Rev. 3:8).

Among the heroes of faith who, in their time, set the world on fire with the message of Christ were names like George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Finney, D.L. Moody, Hudson Taylor, William Carey, Andrew Murray and many others.

The Lord encourages His servants who labour under difficult circumstances to endure and not to become weary along the way: “Behold, I come quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown” (Rev. 3:11; also refer to Heb. 11:24‑26).

It is worthy to note that only the evangelising Church of Philadelphia and the martyrs’ Church of Smyrna did not get any reproof from the Lord because of apostasy in their congregations. The true calling of the Church of Christ is fulfilled in faithfulness and self-denial under the most difficult conditions that may prevail on earth.

7.   Laodicea – the materialistic Church

The smug and lukewarm Church of Laodicea is typical of the Church in the twentieth century, and as such it reflects the last period of Church history. As in the previous periods, some elements of all seven Churches can be recognised, but the dominant type is that of Laodicea. An alarming situation prevails in most of the modern Churches. Satisfied with their outward form of godliness, they continue on a course of formal worship while being unaware of their spiritual poverty. In spite of their prosperity and well-organised activities, Christ is not worshipped with a sincere heart. The Lord dissociates Himself from such a man-made religion that aims only at outward appearance. He gives His reason for this attitude:

“So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth. Because you say, I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3: 16-17; see also 1 Tim. 6:7-12).

They confess the Name of the Lord with their lips, but in their hearts they are full of themselves and glory in their own excellence. That is humanism in its most extreme form. Laodicea is the only one of the seven congregations that does not receive a single word of commendation from the Lord Jesus as He is unable to praise them for any aspect of their religious lives. They are as loathsome to Him as lukewarm water in one’s mouth. The ancient Laodiceans understood this symbolism because the water for their city came through a pipeline of a few kilometres from Hierapolis. By the time the water reached Laodicea it had become so much heated that it was repulsive to drink before it had cooled down. The Lord wants His disciples to be burning with zeal in His service. If they are not ‘hot’, they should rather be ‘cold’ towards Him, like Paul on the road to Damascus, and therefore candidates for salvation.

The wealth that features so prominently in Laodicean churches amounts to more than mere material possessions. It also refers to the intellectual achievements of modern man, and his aptitude for psychological solutions to his problems. Enchanted with his self-righteousness, he is reluctant to acknowledge his dependence upon God, and he is also too proud and unwilling to bow before Him.

Laodicea means human rights and clearly reflects the humanistic nature of this Church. As an institution, the Church is now controlled by man and is utilised as an instrument for the creation of a more humanistic (man-centred) society. The result is that the whole institution reflects a mere form of religion. Man becomes his own god, and he preaches a man-made prosperity gospel based on the accumulation of secular wealth and humanistic achievements.

Laodicea portrays the image of rational man without faith. He argues everything with his mind. Consequently, his religion is limited to an intellectual knowledge of the Bible. The real experience of faith, involving the acceptance of God’s promise of a rebirth, is foreign to him. With his allegorical and relativistic interpretation of the Bible, he can bypass these basic spiritual demands and teach his followers to do the same. This approach leads to the establishment of a nominal Christianity and churches that evaluate themselves solely according to human standards. In terms of their academic parameters they regard themselves as exceptionally good.

Self-deception of this nature has very serious consequences. People with self-imposed righteousness without a spiritual rebirth, do not belong to the Lord. Some of them who suspect that there may be some shortcoming, either rationalise about their faith or take their refuge to some church ritual such as baptism or Holy Communion. Such acts are also misleading since these rites have been instituted to strengthen or confirm the already existing faith of a believer. It does not generate faith and cannot, in itself, establish a relationship with God. A true commitment to a life of faith is done in a sincere prayer and received as a gift from God.

We read in Revelation 3:20 that, although the Lord Jesus dissociates Himself from the hollow Laodicean worship, He is much concerned about these deceived people and earnestly calls them to repentance. It is for this reason that He stands at the door of the twentieth century Church and knocks, that those people inside may realise their spiritual hunger and accept His invitation to a life-giving feast: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”

Except for some churches and congregations that can certainly not be classified as Laodicean, it is a fact that most of the leading churches are compromising with the world. They are engaged in concerted efforts to seek solutions for the deepening political, economic and social problems of our time. The theological decline and ‘new’ spiritual values that accompany the humanistic reforms manifest in various false religious movements, or cults, and will continue unabated until the Lord appears to take His faithful ones away.

Because of its self-centred attitude and heavy involvement with human affairs, the Church of the end-time is spiritually deceived and prophetically without a vision. The rapture of the true believers will therefore come as a tremendous shock to theologians, ministers and Church members alike. It will be a supernatural event that will defy rational explanation and force people to make an honest re-appraisal of fundamental biblical facts. Blessed are those who turn to the Bible for answers, and are reconciled with the Saviour. The others will continue on the path of deception and become members of the false world Church of the Antichrist.

Did you give heed to these personal letters from the Lord Jesus to His Church on earth? If so, your own spiritual weaknesses will have been identified and the correct solutions offered. In the light of these facts you will know if you are on the right way. If so, you need not have any fear for the future.

If you are unsaved or spiritually in a lukewarm state and have not yet taken the Lord’s admonitions and calls to repentance seriously, you are heading for disaster. Whether you realise it or not, condemnation and eternal darkness are awaiting you. The dispensation of the Church is drawing to a close and soon we will all have to give account of our faith, or lack of faith. “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near” (Is. 55:6).