(Revelation 2 and 3)
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. There is no hidden reason, therefore, why most of the congregations did not receive letters. Each church, as well as every individual Christian, can identify with one or more of these congregations 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. All denomination fit into one or more of these groups.
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 characteristic of the Christian church has, 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 be described as predominantly 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 from their sins in His blood. The latter includes all those who belong to Christian churches – including the nominal Christians who are not yet saved. In the spiritually degraded situation that is rife in all the major denominations, many if not 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 to five of the seven churches calling for repentance.
Ephesus was a prosperous seaport in Asia Minor (the present Turkey) with about 225 000 inhabitants. The city was famous for its impressive temple of Diana. The people were loyal worshippers of their goddess Diana and bought silver images of her to exhibit in their houses. The silversmiths who made these images had a thriving business (Acts 19:24).
On his third missionary journey in about the year 53 A.D. the apostle Paul established a congregation here. In spite of fierce opposition he continued for more than two years to conduct meetings here and to train disciples. (Acts 19:8-10) God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul. (Acts 19:11) A significant breakthrough was also achieved among people who were involved with magic. They repented to God and publicly burned all their books about occult powers. (Acts 19:19) Idolaters also repented to the Lord.
Since the day of its inception this congregation caused a big uproar in the city and the people were very conscious of its existence. The income of the silversmiths decreased as fewer people bought their works of art. For the first time the worshipping of the goddess Diana met with serious opposition. A mass meeting was held, and for about two hours the people shouted: “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” The city clerk had to intervene to calm the people (Acts 19:23-41).
The opposition did not discourage this young congregation. Undaunted they fearlessly exposed and rebuked the abominations and false religions of their day. This they did in a spirit of true love towards Christ and the brethren. When the time came for Paul to leave he had a long meeting with the church council in which he encouraged the elders, but also exhorted and warned them against deception. He knew that the great adversary of the church of Christ is not asleep, and that he would wait for the right opportunity to infiltrate the congregation with false teachers in order to seduce and confuse them. Paul said to the elders:
About 40 years after Paul left Ephesus, and 35 years after he wrote his epistle to them, John received the command on Patmos to write a letter to this congregation. In the letter they are commended for their tireless efforts, their patience, and for the fact that they rejected false apostles, and also hated the activities of the Nicolaitans.
The Nicolaitans were hated by God. They strove to attain positions of religious power, and also wished to be honoured and followed by people, but they lived immoral lives. In accordance with the Old Testament pattern they endeavoured to institute a priestly order of men who would enjoy privileges and rights above the ordinary members of the congregation who were to be regarded as laymen without any status or rights. They did not want to be shepherds to the flock but lords over the congregation (1 Pet. 5:2-3). This attitude of superiority and domination is also reflected by the name of the Nicolaitans, which is derived from nico (to subject) and laos (the laity or people).
This structure was foreign to the New Testament pattern as it would inhibit the exercise of faith, witnessing, and spiritual gifts by ordinary members. Active Bible study and participation in the proclamation of the gospel by ‘laymen’ would be restricted, and under conditions such as these the church would never succeed in its calling to actively evangelise the world. An elevated hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals and other office-bearers would assert unjustifiable authority over members and even become self-imposed mediators between man and God. As such they would be stumbling-blocks to the proper functioning of the church of Christ.
All the commendations that the congregation in Ephesus received were heavily outweighed by the serious charge of spiritual backsliding against them. Jesus Himself said:
The word “agape” is used here, which denotes a divine standard of love. This lack of true love is in sharp contrast with what Paul wrote to them earlier:
Now it was 35 years later and the congregation consisted mainly of second generation Christians. Although they still maintained doctrinal purity and were diligent in their work, there was a serious lack of commitment towards Christ. They served the Lord with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him – their love for Him had grown cold.
It is not acceptable at all to the Lord Jesus that His church on earth should degenerate into an organisation with only a form of godliness, in which He is only nominally worshipped but, in effect, has been pushed aside by office-bearers, ecclesiastical structures and human organisation. He clearly expresses His dissatisfaction with this state of affairs and says that if they persist with their backsliding He will remove their lampstand from them:
The lampstand symbolises the light of Christ in the congregation and its witness to the world outside, while the oil refers to the Holy Spirit who is able to fill the lives of members to make them shining lights in a dark world.
The Lord calls on the church to repent from the situation into which it has lapsed. 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, i.e. those done out of love for the Lord Jesus. Should they not do so, Jesus says He will remove the lampstand from them. As an organisation controlled by human beings they could continue to survive, but they would no longer be a mouthpiece for Christ. He will raise another church, or congregation, that will be prepared to serve Him in Spirit and in Truth.
Ephesus not only lost their lampstand, but the congregation itself ceased to exist after the 5th century, as did the city also. The entire surrounding area became part of the Muslim world.
What the Lord says to each of the seven churches He also says to you and me: “I know your works.” He is the One who walks among the seven lampstands and is intimately aware of our works – yes, even the intentions of our hearts. He sees everything and knows our thoughts afar off. What is the motivation of your service to the Lord – to be seen and honoured by others and to be recognised by men, or because you truly love the Lord Jesus? He is not satisfied with an outward form of godliness that emanates from a cold and impure heart. If your heart is not perfect with the Lord, then pray the prayer of David:
What is the true nature of your Christian experience? Do you serve the Lord under moral or social pressure and with your own effort, or does the Holy Spirit inspire 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.
The Lord is not only aware of wrong motivation and carnal works, but also of the works of true dedication to Him. It is often with great effort and sacrifice that something is achieved for the kingdom of God, but people may not see or appreciate it. In your heart you may be deeply hurt because of the ignorance and insensitivity of others but you should find comfort in the words of Jesus: “I know, I see, I know your works!” Your lonely labours and sacrifices may be unnoticed by other people but not by Jesus. He said: “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work” (Rev. 22:12). Isaiah also referred to these rewards when he said: “Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him; behold, His reward is with Him” (Is. 40:10).
To the faithful members of Ephesus, who did not forget the Lord Jesus and were not carried away by the strong current of dead formalism, the following promise is given:
The condition of the church in Ephesus is characteristic of the early Christian church until around the year 100. The comments apply equally to their initial love for the Lord and to their subsequent spiritual deterioration.
Smyrna is a large seaport city about 60 kilometres north of Ephesus. It still exists today. During the Roman era it was one of the flourishing cities of Asia Minor. It is an attractive and well-planned city built on the slopes of the Pagos in a curved bay. The inhabitants were loyal allies of the Roman Empire. Since 195 B.C. the city was an important centre for Caesar worship. A large statue of Caesar Tiberius was erected here. The city also had a number of heathen temples for the gods Zeus, Apollo, Nemesis, Aphrodite and Bacchus, amongst others.
Smyrna means bitterness, and is indicative of the ruthless persecution and acute 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.
It was also in Smyrna a criminal offence to be a Christian. They were mercilessly persecuted, oppressed, deprived of their possessions, and also killed. Many of them became beggars. With reference to their misery the Lord says to them: “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty – but you are rich” (Rev. 2:9). Although the congregation was materially poor, they were spiritually rich because they shared in the riches of Christ:
Are you a partaker of the spiritual riches of the Lord, and are you still gathering riches in heaven through a life of dedication and service to the Lord? During a big depression a wealthy Christian lost all his possessions. During his time of affluence he made big financial offerings for the work of the Lord. During his subsequent loss the question was asked to him whether he didn’t regret the big offerings that he made for the kingdom of God. “No,” he replied, “that is all that I still have!” That investment can’t be taken away from him. The church in Smyrna also experienced the same situation. They lost everything that they had on earth, but they were rich in heaven because they suffered as Christians and bore His reproach in a godless world.
There is also another meaning hidden in the name Smyrna. It is derived from the Hebrew for myrrh, which is a bitter herb. When it is pulverised it releases a sweet fragrance. When Jesus suffered persecution and His body was bruised and wounded on the cross, He blessed people and prayed for the transgressors. When Stephen was stoned he ask the Lord to forgive his murderers. How do you react when you are subjected to persecution, insults and slandering? Do you return the insults or do you spread the fragrance of His knowledge in every place?
Persecution for the sake of Christ will be rewarded in heaven. The Lord promises the martyrs the crown of life. In the sermon on the mount He promised the following blessing:
Peter said: “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter” (1 Pet. 4:16).
Polycarp, one of the martyrs in Smyrna, was a dearly loved preacher of the congregation. He was one of the students of the apostle John who believed in a literal thousand year reign of peace on earth, and also proclaimed it. He loved the Lord Jesus and refused any form of compromise with the non-Christian religions. In the year 155 A.D., when Polycarp was 86 years old, he was executed on the stake for refusing to deny Christ and worship Caesar.
Polycarp could have fled if he wished to, but the Lord prepared him in a dream for what was awaiting him. His servant succumbed to severe torturing and told the police where Polycarp was. When they traced him, he had a meal prepared for the police and asked them one hour for prayer. The police pleaded with him: “Only say: ‘Caesar is God’. That is not so bad.” But he politely refused.
When Polycarp was escorted into the stadium, the crowd was already incited to a level of insanity. They shouted: “Away with atheists! Away with Polycarp!” The proconsul put him before a choice by saying: “I respect your age, but curse Christ and worship Caesar, or die in the flames.” His answer was: “I served Him all these years and He never harmed me in any way. How can I blaspheme my King, Jesus, who saved my soul?”
A stake was quickly prepared. Polycarp refused to be tied with ropes, and he prayed while he was burned alive: “O God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed child, Jesus Christ, God of angels and powers, and of the whole creation and all the righteous people, I worship You!” While the flames ascended around him and enfolded him, he clung to the Lord Jesus and gave glory to the God of heaven.
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. Jesus says to the martyred church:
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.
Pergamos, about 30 km. inland from Smyrna, was a large and popular city that was for about 400 years the capital for the region. It was such an influential centre for heathen religions that the Lord calls it the throne of Satan (Rev. 2:13). From the following five points of view this was a very suitable description for the city:
A large altar for Zeus was built on top of a hill. It was 13 metres high and from a distance it resembled a throne. Zeus was the supreme god in the Greek Empire. In the Roman time he was commonly called Jupiter. To the Romans he was the supreme god of the heavens and of thunder, the highest ruler of the universe. He was worshipped in many cities and countries. In Acts 14:13 we read about an occurrence in Lystra: “Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes.” Zeus was honoured as the patron, or protector-god, of the cities where his imposing shrines were erected. As such he was a type of the devil who rules over a fallen world.
A large temple for the god Asclepius was also erected in Pergamos. He was the god of healing and was represented by a snake. Many people served the snake, which is also a disguised form of Satan-worship. The symbol of the snake is still used by some medical organisations.
There was also a temple in honour of Caesar Augustus in the city. In the Roman Empire, like the other Caesars, he was the god of this world who demanded the worship of his followers. Refusal to do so was punishable by death. In his capacity as religious head of the empire Caesar was a type of the Antichrist who gets his power from Satan to rule the world, to promote idolatry, to outlaw Christianity and to try and eradicate this religion and its followers as they will not bow before images of Caesar or any other gods.
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 turn of events, transferred from Babylon to Pergamos. The unbiblical tradition of affording 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. In this way, the throne of Satan was transferred from Pergamos to Rome. In the coming tribulation period, under the reign of the Antichrist, the “throne of Satan,” which refers to the power of a false world religion, will be transferred back to the rebuilt Babylon.
There is another reason why Pergamos acquired the title of “the throne of Satan,” and that is the heathen philosophy that formed the basis of its educational system. The city boasted of a university with a collection of 200 000 books, mostly inclined towards the Greek philosophy. Polytheism (a belief in many gods) was promoted, as well as Plato’s metaphysics which gave rise to a belief in undefined supernatural forces, including witchcraft. This philosophy and empty deceit was the contributing factor to the spiritual decadence of the dark Middle Ages. It gave Satan a firm grip over the nations of the world.
The church was thus assailed and misled on a variety of fronts.
With the exception of a small core group of Christians who remained true to the Word of God, the congregation of Pergamos became theologically liberal and started compromising with the heathen religions around it. Most of them adopted the attitude of Lot, by saying: “I want to be a Christian but I also want to accept what the world offers me.”
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:
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 upon 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:
In modern times, the same change in strategy by the enemies of God has also wreaked havoc among believers. By adopting the strategy of compromise in place of confrontation and persecution 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 have, with a few exceptions, apostatised and become so 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.
Those who would not compromise or associate with the heathen traditions of Pergamos, or worship the Emperor, were persecuted and became martyrs for their faith. Like Antipas, they paid the highest price for refusing to compromise with unbiblical beliefs. Antipas was executed in a hollow bronze calf under which a fire was made, causing him to burn to death inside. The calf had an open gullet, allowing the horrifying screams of the dying martyrs to be heard by the amused crowds. But Antipas didn’t open his mouth while he was dying. In this letter, the Lord Jesus Christ commends Antipas as My faithful martyr (Rev. 2:13). Antipas means Against everything. In the godless city of Pergamos, Antipas had little choice but to denounce just about everything from Caesar worship to the godless educational system.
The Lord Jesus reveals Himself to this congregation as the One who has the sharp two-edged sword (Rev. 2:12). The sword of His Word clearly separates righteousness and unrighteousness. It quickens the conscience of mankind by helping us to distinguish between right and wrong:
The Word of God is not only meant to create certain impressions in the heart of a person; the Gospel of Christ is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). James says: “…receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21). But this word is also related to the judgements of Christ upon the wicked. Included in this group are the apostate compromisers in Christian churches. In Revelation 19:21 we read that the enemies of God will be killed with the sword that proceeds from the mouth of Him who sits on the horse.” His name is: “The Word of God” (Rev. 19:13).
The church of Pergamos can prophetically be applied to the church period between 312 and 606. An important turn of events occurred in 312 AD when the Emperor Constantine brought to an end a long period of the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, 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 achieved 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 (freedom to all religions). However, his personal commitment to Christianity is in doubt. Though he ended Emperor worship 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' for the sake of expedience without proof of genuine faith. 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 this 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 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 themselves according to the directions and rules laid down by the bishops and priests. In this way the hierarchy of the church encroached upon the priesthood of all believers, the authority of the Word of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.
To His faithful witnesses in this godless city, Jesus said:
The hidden manna refers to Jesus Himself as the true bread of life (Jn. 6:32). He is the Word that became flesh to dwell among men on earth to offer to them eternal life. Everyone who seeks the Lord will find Him and experience satisfaction for the spiritual hunger of their souls.
The white stone was something special during the time of John. In the palace of Caesar the holder of such a stone was entitled to come to the palace every day to have all his needs fulfilled free of charge. The Lord Jesus also gives such a stone to His disciples, with the promise: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (Jn. 15:7). That is our wonderful privilege if we truly belong to Him!
Another use of stones was in court cases. Members of the jury each received a white and a black stone so that they could indicate their verdict by producing the appropriate colour stone. The black one indicated that the accused was guilty and therefore condemned him if it was produced. By the white stone he was declared innocent and discharged. The Lord Jesus gave to every blood-washed child of His a white stone which indicates his acquittal. His debt has been paid and he is accounted righteous (Rom. 4:5). On this stone a new name is written. It was common practice in biblical times to give to believers new names in order to indicate their new status and identity as children of God. In this way, Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Saul became Paul, and Simon became Peter. Every person on earth who is saved, becomes a child of God. He is called a Christian because he is a new creation in Christ. Has the Lord made you a new person?
The longest of the seven letters is directed at Thyatira which was the smallest and most insignificant city of the seven. It is situated on the road between Pergamos and Sardis. Despite its small size it was a flourishing commercial centre in which the most important products of trade were purple dyestuffs, wool, textiles, rope, ceramics, leather, linen, and copperware. A person had to belong to a guild, or trade union, which, apart from its industrial function, was also associated with the worship of a heathen god. To the Christians, this religious connection posed a big problem. They were confronted with the choice of either going along with the guilds and their veneration of idols, or to break with them and suffer economic loss as a consequence.
However, people were not so fanatical about their gods as was the case in Pergamos and Smyrna. They did have a number of heathen temples, but apart from the conditions attached to the membership of guilds there was no strong coercion on people to worship idols. The persecution of Christians, therefore, occurred to a much lesser extent.
The first person who was saved in Europe, came from Thyatira. It was Lydia, the seller of purple (Acts 16:14). She probably had a big share in establishing the local Christian congregation.
Jesus Christ introduces Himself to this church as “the Son of God who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass” (Rev. 2:18). A letter that starts in this fashion will most definitely not be filled with comforting thoughts. We are here confronted with the holy Son of God who speaks with great authority to a congregation that was grossly at fault. His eyes are like a flame of fire and can see through every covering and disguise. He sees deep into the hearts of all, He knows the mistakes of the congregation, and He is aware of the most hidden thoughts and motives of every individual. They all stand unmasked in His holy presence. His feet like fine brass allude to the furnace of God’s judgements. He cannot tolerate sin – least of all in His church! The works of Jezebel must be exposed and condemned.
A woman, who was accepted by the majority of the members, introduced serious spiritual deception to this church:
The woman, Jezebel, proclaimed false teachings in the church. She was a prominent woman with a strong personality, who simply took over and deceived the congregation. It spread like leaven and had disastrous consequences in the lives of people. In conflict with the ruling of 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man,” Jezebel was tolerated and accepted. The Lord strongly reprimanded the congregation because of this. They were also warned that this false religion and its followers are heading for great tribulation:
There are striking similarities between Jezebel of Thyatira and Jezebel of the Old Testament who was notorious for her harlotries (2 Kgs. 9:22), and who also influenced Ahab her husband to worship Baal (1 Kgs. 16:31).
Jesus sees the faithful core group in the church and commends them for their works, their love, their service, their faith, and their patience. In the midst of all the deception and backsliding He sees this group that remains loyal and faithful to Him. They are encouraged not to follow the majority in that which is wrong, by refraining from exposure to the depths of Satan through involvement with sexual immorality, the occult and idolatry. (Rev. 2:24) They should persevere in holding fast the truth and abstaining from evil despite the possibility that they may become outcasts. The future expectation of a government of righteousness in the millennium was offered to them. Here they will not be a despised minority group but co-rulers with Christ:
The morning star is Jesus Himself. In Revelation 22:16 He says: “I am the Root and Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.” After the present night of sin and unrighteousness Jesus will return to usher in a new day of righteousness in His millennial reign on earth.
It is noticeable that the Lord tells the faithful few to hold fast until He comes. The Thyatira aspect of the professing church on earth will, therefore, continue at least until the rapture – as indeed will all the other church types. The prophetic application of each church type indicates its period of dominance in the church history.
Thyatira depicts the deceiving of the Christian church during the Middle Ages. In the year 606 Bonniface III was crowned as universal bishop. This occasion commenced 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 claim 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 absorbed into the Roman Catholic Church through a number of avenues, serious theological divergences 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.
Various reports were published in Marian Update (1994) of appearances of 'Mother Mary’ to her special devotees in Italy, Switzerland, Kentucky, Arizona, and the Ukraine. In these supernatural appearances she allegedly said, amongst other things, that the Roman Catholic Church should be heading an ecumenical alliance of world religions.
It is obvious that Jezebel has returned in the guise of Mary to perpetuate her false teachings. The religious falsehoods for which Thyatira and the church of the dark Middle Ages were notorious are again strongly revived in the end-time. Jezebel and her deceived followers will have to bear the consequences of their religious falsehoods in the coming great tribulation.
The Thyatira period continued throughout the Middle Ages up to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
Sardis was the capital of Lydia and a very prosperous commercial centre. But the city was captured by the Persians and robbed of its treasures. The invaders also confiscated the weapons of the inhabitants and left them defenceless. In 17 A.D. Sardis was virtually destroyed by a big earthquake. The city was never restored to its former glory. In the time when John wrote his letter to the local congregation, Sardis had already greatly deteriorated and was economically and politically of very little significance. It only had a name and its past glory to boast about.
The same deterioration also occurred spiritually in the local church. The Lord said to them: “..you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” (Rev. 3:1) The congregation was probably quite active, and outwardly created the impression that they were a dynamic and lively group. But this was a misleading perception. According to His evaluation, the Lord Jesus did not find their works perfect before God (Rev. 3:2). They were merely human works and not works done through the power of the Holy Spirit; that is why He could not accept it. We cannot please God if we serve Him in the power of the flesh, even though our organisation or church may outwardly appear to be successful and alive. Jesus is the One who can fill us with His Holy Spirit to equip us for service in His kingdom. Without the anointing with power from on high our works will never be acceptable to Him or perfect in His sight.
The congregation of Sardis was not denounced because of idolatry or compromise with the world, but because of the deadness of their outward form of godliness. A dead church is just as unacceptable to the Lord as a false or worldly church. Before the members are truly born again and filled with the Holy Spirit they are of no advantage to the kingdom of God. They are spiritually dead and need something more than the reputation and good name of the founders of the congregation to be successful from God’s point of view.
The Lord Jesus said: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Lk. 13:24). A person must get to the end of himself by discounting the spiritual value of his own virtues, remembering that unless he is truly born again “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” in God’s sight (Is. 64:6). He must repent, lay down the burden of his sins at the foot of the cross, and stop trusting in his own works and past achievements before he will be able to pass through the narrow gate. After he has passed through the gate of salvation the Lord will endue him with the power of the Holy Spirit to do works that befit salvation.
The prophetic application of this letter indicates that the Sardis period refers to the church of the Reformation. To describe this church as a dead church, is apparently a paradox. 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 justification by faith through grace was reinstated. However, despite these necessary changes much of the trappings, formalities and hierarchy of Rome had been retained and real godliness was still lacking in the church at large. The reform movement did not reach out to all levels of church activities since dynamic, growing churches that could evangelise the heathendom 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 evangelisation 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 rid themselves of the ‘baggage’ carried over from Rome and to fulfil the mission of the New Testament church.
History confirms the tragic fact 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:
Philadelphia is the youngest of the seven cities that are mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3. It was established by Attalus, the ruler of Pergamos. He had such a great love for his brother that his nickname was Filadelfos – He who loves his brother. Because of this, the new city was called Philadelphia, which means Brotherly love. The church in Philadelphia, together with the one in Smyrna, are the only two that were not rebuked by the Lord because of sin, dead formalism, idolatry, worldliness, or a lack of love. They are encouraged to persevere with the proclaiming of the gospel message despite their small numbers, their lack of influence and their meagre resources. Through the ages it has always been the small groups of dedicated disciples who were used by the Lord to do His work. They are deeply dependent upon Him and also faithful to His Word. The Lord Jesus promises to them that He will give to them an open door that nobody can close:
Throughout the church dispensation it has been a feature of evangelical Christians that they do not deny the Name of the Lord and always honour His Word. They believe in the inerrancy and divine inspiration of Scripture, and also accept its promises in faith. They venerate the Name of the Lord, they confess and proclaim the virgin birth and Deity of Christ, and desire to know more of His wonderful attributes that are revealed in the Bible.
Because they are faithful in the fundamental aspects of their relationship with the Lord, He blesses and encourages them, and open to them doors of opportunity in His service. How different it is today, with so many theologians and pastors who do not accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God. To compound their sins they also deny the Deity and virgin birth of Jesus. But such were not found in the church of Philadelphia – they would more likely be encountered in Thyatira, Sardis, or Pergamos. Those in Philadelphia truly loved the Lord and the brethren, and they also honoured the Word of God.
The Lord encourages His servants, who labour under difficult circumstances, to endure and not to become weary along the way. He also gave them the most wonderful promises:
The faithful servants of the Lord are encouraged to prevail to the end by guarding against despondency, backsliding and the cooling of their love for the Lord. They must hold fast what they have, that no one may take their crown. The devil is the robber who subtly influences Christians to relax their vigilance, and ultimately to backslide and lose their rewards of grace. Before John was exiled to Patmos, he admonished the Christians by saying: “Look to yourselves, that we do not lose things that we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward” (2 Jn. v. 8).
Paul said: “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Gal. 6:9). Let us therefore persevere to the end and stand immovable on the Rock, Jesus Christ. And may He find us busy with His work when He comes. His faithful disciples will reign with Him in His kingdom, therefore He will say to them: “Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities” (Lk. 19:17). Unfaithful servants who were not motivated by love to work in the kingdom of the Lord, will stand empty-handed on that day. They will be seriously reprimanded and saved yet so as through fire (Lk. 19:20-26; 1 Cor. 3:15).
The brotherly love of Philadelphia manifests the love of God that was poured out in the hearts of His children for their fellow brethren, but also for a lost world. It was 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 that faced them. Indigenous languages were learned with the greatest devotion. Translations of the Bible were made, schools were started and medical services rendered with the meagre means acquired from congregations and missionary friends in their countries of origin. Despite these problems they persevered with the work because the Lord was in it.
Among the heroes of faith who in their time set the world on fire with the message of Christ, were great men like George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Finney, D.L. Moody, Hudson Taylor, C.T. Studd, William Carey, Andrew Murray and many others.
Some of these revival preachers were rejected by the large denominations of their time because they were strongly outspoken against the deadness of the outward form of godliness that prevailed, and challenged the complacent members to put their lives right with the Lord. These preachers had to trust the Lord for their financial and other needs, and often suffered because of meagre resources. Also when they were faced by closed doors they could only call on the Lord in prayer. It is He who promised to His faithful disciples: “See, I have set before you an open door” (Rev. 3:8).
Evangelical congregations like the one in Philadelphia were very common until the beginning of the 20th century. But as this century progressed, dead formalism and apostasy greatly increased while the Laodicean period of church history was established. But in spite of this general trend there will be evangelical Christians who remain true to the Lord right to the end of the church dispensation. They have the promise that they will be kept from the hour of trial that shall come upon the whole world. The hour of trial refers to the coming tribulation period under the rule of the Antichrist. The promise of escape is also given in Luke 21: 36: “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
These promises confirm the premillennialist conviction that the private coming of the Lord for His church, the rapture, will precede the advent of the Antichrist and the tribulation period. The true church restrains the coming of the Antichrist.
The prosperous industrial and commercial city, Laodicea, was situated about 65 kilometres south-east of Philadelphia on the road to Colosse. In 60 A.D. great destruction was caused by an earthquake, but because of the wealth and entrepreneurship of the inhabitants the city was completely rebuilt. They relied on their own ability to do things, to the extent of being arrogant and boastful about their own achievements. The Laodiceans argued that they did not need anyone’s assistance as they were the masters of their own destiny.
The same spirit of pride, arrogance, and self-reliance prevailed in the church of Laodicea. They confessed the Name of the Lord with their lips, but in their hearts they were full of themselves and gloried in their own excellence. That was humanism in its most extreme form, as also implied by the name Laodicea which means Human rights. Their attitude and condition was so repulsive to the Lord that He completely dissociated Himself from them:
Laodicea is the only one of the seven congregations that does not receive a single word of commendation from the Lord Jesus and He is unable to praise them for any aspect of their religious lives. They were as loathsome to Him as lukewarm water in one’s mouth. The 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 it before it had cooled down. The Lord wants His disciples to be burning with zeal in His service, i.e. to be ‘hot’. If they are not, they should rather be ‘cold’ towards Him, like Paul on the road to Damascus, and thus candidates for salvation. But for His professed followers to be unenthusiastic about Him and even apathetic towards Him because they are more interested in their own virtues and achievements, is nauseating to Him. He spews them from His mouth.
Although Paul was never in Laodicea, their arrogance and lack of true godliness came to his attention and brought great grief to him. He prayed God that they, together with the Colossians, would search for God’s hidden spiritual riches instead of only pursuing the secular prosperity, wealth and humanism that was so important to them:
The Lord gave to this congregation a very explicit solution to their serious problems:
The spiritual asset that the Lord offers to them is a genuine faith which is more precious than gold that is tested by fire (1 Pet. 1:7). That is a form of wealth which the prosperous economy and rich Laodicean banks could not offer to them. They are also counselled to obtain a robe of righteousness from the Lord. That was something which the weave and textile industry of the city could not supply to them. This industry was known for a black garment which they made of black wool. The garment that Jesus offers to them is made of pure white linen. The Lord Jesus also says that He can give to them eye salve that will restore their spiritual vision by giving them enlightened eyes of the mind. For their spiritual blindness, the eye ointment supplied by the Laodicean medical school in the temple of Asclepius, where the snake of healing was worshipped, is of no avail.
So there is a clear solution for this dead and self-satisfied church. First of all they must be made aware of their shortcomings because they do not even know that they are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. They need to be zealous and repent. Jesus is ready with the solution, that is why He is knocking at the door of this church, offering to save any individual who will open his heart to Him.
The smug, lukewarm, self-centred and spiritually bankrupt congregation 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 this church. As a result of their humanistic orientation they only have a horizontal view of religion which focuses on human rights as well as the political, economic and social aspects of life. The vertical, man-God relationship receives virtually no attention as man occupies the supreme position in the humanist philosophy as the master of his own destiny. That is why he allows himself the freedom and self-imposed right to denounce the Bible as an imperfect human book and to openly challenge the virgin birth, the Deity and the expected personal appearance of Christ at His Second Coming.
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. His name is frequently used, but there it also ends. The Lord dissociates and withdraws Himself from such a man-made religion that is only based on intellectual arguments, secular norms, and material achievements. He also plainly states the reasons for rejecting this useless, corrupt and hollow human organisation that presumptuously refers to itself as the church of Christ.
The prosperity gospel of Laodicea, in terms of which they say: “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” is founded on self-justification and a comfortable earthly life, but it is characterised by spiritual bankruptcy. The preaching by equally materialistic and puffed-up preachers is only aimed at pleasing their unsaved audiences who have itching ears that have already been turned away from the truth of God’s Word (2 Tim. 4:3-4). The result of this worldly attitude and spiritual decline is that the younger generation are largely mastered by a Laodicean spirit of self-exaltation and the gratifying of their lusts. Within the humanist theological framework the matter of sin has become irrelevant as the desires of the self take precedence over the precepts of the Bible. The god of this world, who is also called Mammon, sways his sceptre over the wayward Laodicean church that Christ spewed from His mouth. Mammon deceives the modern generation into pursuing material wealth, popularity, success, and a worldly self-image. In this liberal life-style there is ample room for arrogant self-exaltation, boasting about one’s own achievements, and the liberty to give free rein to one’s carnal craving for liquor and all the other sins that emanate from the present evil world.
The self-satisfied modern man who fulfils his own needs doesn’t readily recognise his dependence on God and will not easily bow the knee before Him. The church as an institution stands in the service of humanity, and assigns itself with the supreme mission of reforming society even further along humanistic lines, with the result that only a vague form of godliness remains.
The gulf between the human rights ideology and the gospel is unbridgeable. Humanists start from the premise that man is inherently good and any wrongdoing is the result of negative external factors for which he is not to blame. To the contrary, the gospel of Jesus Christ clearly states that all people are spiritually depraved, being sinners by nature. They must be spiritually born again and, as a result, inwardly changed before they can be called children of God. This view of human beings is completely unacceptable to humanists, who are strongly offended by it.
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 imperatives 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. Another aspect of this self-deception is the triumphalism of the signs and wonders movement who believe they are going to take over the world for Christ!
Self-deception of this nature has very serious consequences. People with self-assumed righteousness without a spiritual rebirth, do not belong to the Lord. Should they suspect that there may be some shortcoming, they either rationalise about their faith or take refuge in some church ritual such as baptism or Holy Communion, or the excitement of signs and wonders that makes them feel good, or even to psychological counselling and self-hypnosis. In this way they further drift away from the truth, as there is no substitute for true faith (Heb. 10:38).
Although the Lord Jesus dissociates Himself from the hollow Laodicean worship, He is much concerned about these self-deceived people. He even refers to His love for them 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:
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, economical and social problems of our time. The theological decline and shallow spiritual values that accompany this process of secularisation, will continue until the Lord appears to take the faithful ones away.
Because of its self-centred attitude and heavy involvement with secular affairs, the church of the end-time is spiritually bankrupt and prophetically without 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-evaluation 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.
If you are unsaved or in a lukewarm state spiritually, and have not yet taken seriously the Lord's admonitions and calls to repentance, you are heading for a tremendous spiritual disillusionment. 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, and of our obedience, or lack of obedience. Rather follow Isaiah's advice in times like these:
In the last days perilous times will come on earth and people will only have a form of godliness (2 Tim. 3:1- 5). Because iniquity will abound, the love of many will grow cold (Matt. 24:12). In the latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils (1 Tim. 4:1).
Clear discernment is needed when interpreting the signs of the times. Certain signs will only be fulfilled during the seven year tribulation period after the church dispensation. The signs that point to the end of the church relate to the consummation of the present dispensation, the moral, spiritual and social deterioration, the restoration of Israel, and preparations for Antichrist’s appearance and rule on earth. Although these signs are very evident, they cannot be fitted into a rigid time frame. They may unfold faster or slower, and there is always the possibility of more developments before the time is finally ripe to lower the curtain on this dispensation.
As shown in the list below, two sets of signs are given which indicate the end of the church age. The one set is related to the end of the existing order, and the second set indicates the restoration of Israel and the rise of a new world order in anticipation of the coming of the Antichrist. He can only appear after the stage has been properly set.
We are now witnessing the decay and collapse of the existing world order. The signs of decay cover a broad spectrum and include all walks of life:
· Economic decay is evident in collapsing economies, poverty, unemployment, and rampant inflation.
· Political decay is seen in the acceptance of humanistic constitutions, anarchy, chaos, and violence.
· Social decay leads to disintegrating social structures and the breakdown of marriages and the family.
· Religious decay is responsible for the increased darkening of peoples’ minds, immorality and spiritual confusion.
From the ashes of the old order, the global structures of a new world order will arise. They will constitute the framework for the global society, global economy, global religion, and global government of the Antichrist:
· A centralised global economy will be established in which PIN numbers for electronic funds transfer will be issued.
· Political unity in the form of a world government and a global peace-keeping force will emerge.
· Social unity among the internationalised planetary citizens will give further expression to the ideology of globalism.
· Religious unity will be based on the deceptive idea that all religions worship the same God.
Another form of build-up that must occur towards the end of the church dispensation is the re-establishment of the people of Israel in their own land, including the re-establishing of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state (Lk. 21:24). In 1948 when Israel became an independent state, biblical Jerusalem (the Old City, i.e. the City of David) was still under Jordanian control. The Old City was recaptured during the Six Day War in June 1967, and the entire Jerusalem was finally restored as modern Israel's capital in August 1980. These development set the scene for the last generation of the church dispensation.
Deconstruction of the old order
Build-up to a new world order
The old order is deconstructed and boundaries between all groups removed.
Final establishing of a new world order of international unity.
Widespread moral depravity, violence and break-down of family life occurs.
Humanistic freedom within a new charter of human rights.
Christian values and moral norms are rejected in the traditional Christian world.
A multi-religious orientation is promoted in all countries.
Excessive democratisation promotes anarchy as it undermines strong rule.
Nations lose their power and are ruled by a world government.
Individuals become free, permissive and unruly while demanding more liberties.
Mixed Babylonian societies emerge everywhere in the world.
Corruption and the abuse of power become general trends in all societies.
Military power is used to enforce the new world order internationally.
Crime and normlessness become a way of life in 'liberated' communities.
Crime is contained by force without instilling strong values.
Decline in biblical teaching on Satanism and occult practises.
Rejection of the Bible and an openness to occult practises.
The nations undermine their sense of cultural identity and emphasise globalism.
National cultures become submerged in an eclectic world culture.
Gender differences are denied in society and radical reforms are instituted.
Gender equality is enforced and homosexual rights constitutionally protected.
Israel is criticised and the hatred of Jews allowed to flair up everywhere.
Wars in the Middle East to enforce the new world order on Israel.