Somewhere in the latter half of the first century of the Christian era, the apostle John was given a set of warnings to be delivered to seven local church congregations of that day. That message is as timely and meaningful today as it was when originally given.
The book of Revelation is one of the most incomprehensible books in the Bible — and one of the most fascinating! Scholars have long debated the meaning of the fantastic science-fiction-like visions given to the apostle John. The book itself has both historical and prophetic significance. Revelation 1:19 confirms this point: "Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter." Some things pertained to that day and age particularly, and others were concerned with the near and distant future from John's time. Some events in the prophecy were to occur "shortly" (Rev. 1:1), and other events were set in the distant future. The message as a whole was addressed to seven specific congregations which existed along the Roman mail route in Asia Minor at that time. "... What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus... Smyrna... Pergamos ... Thyatira... Sardis... Philadelphia... Laodicea" (Rev. 1:11). These were literal congregations which, in some cases, had been addressed by Paul and others in earlier epistles (for example, Ephesians). Each congregation had its own unique spiritual problems — and each had its good points. As Jesus Christ looked down on these congregations, He was moved to give John a message for each of them. We have thought, in the past, that these churches may not only be historical congregations, but also types of seven successive church eras existing throughout the period from Christ's resurrection until the time of His return. This may well be true. The purpose of this article, however, is not to discuss the prophetic possibilities of these passages. It is to show that there is a powerful message for today's Church of God in these letters to the seven churches! Therefore, for the purposes of this article we will focus our attention on the historical aspects of the message. Each of the seven church congregations was given a warning. Those warnings may be applied to the Church of God as a whole today. Speaking to all Churches of God in all ages, the prophecy says: "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein... " (Rev. 1:3). You and I can read that entire prophecy today. We can heed and keep the things which are written there — and we can receive a blessing for so doing!
Ephesus — First Love Lost
The church at Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7) was one of the leading congregations in Asia Minor. The apostle Paul had earlier used that city as a base of operations for his evangelistic efforts throughout the entire region. They had been given a great deal of knowledge and insight into God's will for Christians. They had started off with a burst of spiritual zeal and then had begun to fizzle out. They had lost much of their initial zeal and fire for the Word of God and the way or life they had embarked upon. Therefore God warned them: "... Thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works...." (Rev. 2:4-5). Here is a vital warning for today's Christian! Many Christians start out with a burst of zeal when they are discovered by Christ. The new knowledge of God and His way is often heady wine to the tyro. He often preaches to his friends and relatives with evangelistic fervor. (And frequently alienates them in so doing!) He loves his Saviour, Jesus Christ, with his whole being. But after a while the "novelty" wears off. His adoration of Jesus Christ begins to wane. Everything becomes "old hat." He knows it all. The flame of initial excitement flickers and diminishes. Examine your own Christian life. Did you begin with great zeal for the truth of God only to find yourself drifting into spiritual lethargy as the years pass? This spiritual drift can be fatal. The church' at Ephesus was commanded to repent. Will you?
Smyrna — "Faithful Unto Death"
The town of Smyrna was the site of another congregation of the Church of God (Rev. 2:8-11). Christ commended them for their works (who says Christians are not supposed to have works?). He prophesied of a time of intense persecution for them. Satan, he said, would actually deliver many of them into prison. They were told to "be thou faithful unto death." Are you a "fair-weather Christian"? Does your Christianity remain intact only so long as the going is easy? Do you falter in a time of adversity? God says: "If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small" (Prov. 24:10). Are you committed to Christ and His Church? Or will you endure only so long as the going is comparatively easy? The apostle Paul encouraged the congregation at Rome to allow nothing to separate them from the love of Christ. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.... I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:35-39). The time may well come in your lifetime and mine when true Christians will again be martyred for their beliefs. Those who will persecute us will actually become convinced that they are doing God a service in persecuting the Church of God! (Compare Matthew 10:21-23, 28; 24:9-10; John 16:2.) God's warning to the congregation at Smyrna was "be thou faithful unto death"! And it's also a message that comes ringing down with ominous import and significance for today's Christian!
Pergamos — Idolatrous Doctrines
The congregation at Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17) was guilty of several fundamental errors in God's sight. "But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate" (verses 14-15). The church at Pergamos had a liberal attitude toward idolatrous practices similar to those long ago condemned in the Word of God (compare Numbers 25:1 and 31:16). God hates idolatry and all of its associated accoutrements! Most of the pagan, idolatrous religions were associated with rank, hedonistic sexual promiscuity. Temple prostitutes were frequently involved. Many of today's so-called Christian practices — such as the observance of Christmas and Easter, with the accompanying "kissing under the mistletoe," hot-cross buns, "Ishtar" bunnies, sunrise services, etc., have their origins in paganism. The same is true of Valentine's day, Halloween, and other special days. God seeks those who worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). He does not accept the "Christianization" of pagan practices in His worship. He thunders: "Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen.... For the customs of the people are vain..." (Jer. 10:2-3). (Be sure to read our free booklets The Plain Truth About CHRISTMAS, The Plain Truth About Easter and Pagan Holidays - or God's Holy Days - Which?)
Thyatira — Idolatry and Adultery
The Thyatirans (Rev. 2:18-29) were apparently allowing similar idolatrous practices to creep into their worship of God. They were influenced by a self-proclaimed "prophetess" named Jezebel. Like the Jezebel of old, she was an idolatrous person who seduced the leaders of God's Church in that congregation to permit evil practices within the Church. The term "fornication" in verse 20 probably applies to such practices as temple prostitution and sexual promiscuity in connection with idol worship. The church was permitting this harlot of a woman to actually influence the leaders of the congregation! While such practices are not commonplace in the Western world today (i.e., temple prostitution and gross idol worship), we certainly do have our "sophisticated" versions of such things. Anything or anyone allowed to come before God in the Christian's life becomes an idol! We are called to worship God — not angels, men, or objects of wood and stone. God has never sanctioned bowing down before carvings of "saints" or members of the divine family. In fact, the second great commandment specifically forbids it (Ex. 20:4-5). The last thing the apostle John wrote in the first of his three epistles was: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen" (I John 5:21).
Sardis — Spiritual Senility
The congregation at Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6) was indeed a part of the Church of God. "... Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead." Here was a weak congregation. One by one they were letting the basic tenets of their faith slip through their fingers. There were a few zealous ones in that church-a tiny minority who were still zealous of God's way. "Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments..." (verse 4). But the majority of the congregation was dying on the vine. Spiritual senility was setting in. They had one foot in the grave. God warned them to "Be watchful [vigilant], and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die..." (verse 2). The Church of God today must take serious heed of these words. We too must constantly strengthen and reaffirm the basic tenets of our belief. We must continually renew our relationship with God and maintain zeal and enthusiasm for God's way of life. As Paul wrote to the Galatian congregation: "And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not" (Gal. 6:9). He told the Thessalonians the same thing (II Thess. 3:13). God's people today must never tire of doing the Work of preaching Christ's gospel. We cannot let down in our efforts to overcome our own personal character flaws. We must always maintain a spiritual "high" in our relationship with God and with His Church. There is no place for "spiritual senility" in this dynamic age of dramatic happenings. The Church of God must march on with ever increasing zeal and drive toward the ultimate goal of the glorious Kingdom of the living God!
Philadelphia — Hang On to Your Crown!
Jesus told the disciples: "In my Father's house are many mansions .... I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go... I will come again..." (John 14:2-3). God is even now preparing positions of rulership in His Kingdom for those who have been called in this age. Each born-again son and daughter of God will be granted a crown of rulership in the coming Kingdom of God. God's only warning to the Philadelphian congregation was "... hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown" (Rev. 3:11). Perhaps God had a particular collective responsibility in mind for that congregation. But the warning was also to the members in particular. Each member of God's Church has a position of rulership awaiting him in the Kingdom. If he does not realize and claim that reward, it must be given to someone else! God warns all Christians to hang on to their individual crowns. Don't let go of the things which God has given you. Don't flake out. Don't give up on God and His way of life — ever! No matter what happens — never let go! Claim your personal crown of life for yourself. Don't allow it to be given to anyone else because you failed to remain faithful!
The church congregation at Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22) was lukewarm and self-satisfied. They thought of themselves as "having it made." "... Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked" (verse 17). The Laodiceans were blind to their own spiritual condition. They did not realize how far down the road they had gone into lukewarmness and spiritual lethargy. They measured their spiritual state or condition by their material wealth, which is a false criterion. They were counseled to refine their character — to "buy of me gold tried in the fire..." (verse 18). They were admonished to seek the true riches which come only from God (see Luke 16:11). A spirit of complacency — of self-satisfaction — is dangerous to any Christian. There will never come a time in this life when the Christian can sit back on his laurels and say with smug self-approval, "I've got it made." Never! Even the mighty apostle Paul himself said: "... I count not myself to have apprehended..." (Phil. 3:13). Paul didn't think he had it in the bag. He pressed toward the ultimate goal of his calling. He was never content to coast on into the Kingdom. Every day was a battle against sin, temptation, the devil, and the influence of an evil society. Paul fought, wrestled and waged war against the spiritually wicked influences by which he was surrounded in his day. He was a titanic example of zeal. He fought the "good fight." He ran his race with the intention of winning. And he won! But you and I are still struggling in this physical life. We still have the Kingdom ahead of us. We have not yet been apprehended. We must never let down and allow ourselves to become self-satisfied and complacent. We owe it to ourselves to heed the warning given to the church at Laodicea.
It is evident that the warnings given to all seven of the church congregations located in Asia Minor in the first century have powerful and significant meaning for today's Church of God. Today's Christian must attain to the "faith once delivered." He must strive to gain a clearer understanding of that faith. He must keep himself free from false doctrine, idolatry, sexual uncleanness, impurity in any form, and be wary of the influence of false teachers. God's people today must avoid the pitfalls of spiritual senility — of laziness and self-satisfaction. We must remain zealous and enthusiastic about the faith we have been given. We must let no one else claim the crown which God has reserved for each one of us! "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches"!