The 7 Churches of the Revelation – Part 1 of 4

Hi all,

The Lord’s messages to the 7 churches in The Revelation, chapters 2 and 3, have been understood in different ways for centuries. Some of what the Lord says seems very harsh, including a threat to one church to blot their names from the Book of Life. 

They are filled with cultural references that we, over 1900 years later, miss. Some understand the 7 as church ages, with our time being the last, the time of Laodecia, the rich church that thought it needed nothing. This series is not about debating views, but will focus on the cultural elements which when understood, make for an ‘ah ha’ moment and ‘now that makes sense’. 

The situation

In The Revelation 1:10 the apostle John, who has been exiled to the island of Patmos, off the coast of modern Turkey, has a visitation from the Lord. More than that, he says “I was in the Spirit” and saw the Lord in glory. He uses the same term later, in 4:2 when he was ‘in the Spirit and heard a voice saying, Come up here’ and was taken to heaven. 

There in chapter 4, he saw the Father on His throne, with the rainbow over it, the clear flooring before it, and the cherubs crying out ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ around Him. In chapter 5 he sees the Lamb that had been slain but is now alive, ‘take the book out of the right hand of Him who sits on the throne’ – so we see the Father in chapter 4, and the Lord in chapter 5, given the scrolls and opening them one by one, which is the rest of The Revelation of Jesus ‘which the Father gave to Him’. (1:1)

Being ‘in the Spirit’ can mean a couple things, including being taken away out of one’s body in the Spirit realm to heaven, or seeing the Lord in glory – a glory that might kill the frail earth body if a person were to see the Lord in glory. Moses we are told spoke to God face to face as a man speaks to a friend, and clearly he was ‘in the Spirit’ when that happened. Later, in the flesh, he had to be physically moved to a cleft in a rock to shield himself from the glory of the Lord. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 12: 2 that when he went to heaven he didn’t know if he was in his body or out of his body. Such is the way of being ‘in the Spirit’. 

When you are ‘in the Spirit’ our earth body is not a factor and you can experience things you wouldn’t be able to if you remained in your body. One day we will receive glorified bodies, which Paul explained in I Corinthians 15, which are made of heavenly material in a higher state of existence, so can handle the unshielded glory of God. As the apostle John wrote in I John 3:2: “…we will see Him as He is” on that day. 

John sees the Lord in glory

John says in 1:11 he was ‘in the Spirit’ and heard a voice behind him – the Lord in glory – saying, “What you see, write it down and send to the 7 churches in Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicia.” 

In v16-18 the Lord says “I am the one who was dead but now is alive forevermore” and that He held 7 stars in His right hand. The significance of this is that the Emperor Domitian had issued a coin that had an image of his dead son. He claimed to talk to his dead son in seance’s and issued a coin showing his dead son holding 7 stars, which stood for the 7 main regions Rome had conquered. So when John sees Jesus and He says “I was the One who was dead but am now alive forevermore”, and He has 7 stars in His right hand, it is an ‘in your face’ rebuke to the Emperor and assurance to the believers the True and Living King is theirs!

Chapter 2: 1-7 is the letter to Ephesus

Acts 19 records the amazing things that happened in Ephesus. It was the principle city of a Roman state in modern Turkey known as ‘Asia’. It was a small state on the western-central coast, and the 7 principle cities are the ones the letters are directed to. 

When he first went to Ephesus Paul found about 12 men who he assumed were believers, but they told him they had only heard of John the Baptist. Paul had asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit since they believed – showing us that even then there was often a time gap between being born again and receiving the Holy Spirit. I find it amazing that upon first meeting these men, that’s what Paul is most concerned with – have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed? It was important to him, maybe a good point for us as well. 

Paul ended up teaching in a school for 2 years, and the Word spread throughout the state of Asia. That region had a ‘siesta’ from about 11am until 4pm (16:00), so most likely that is when Paul taught. People were so zealous for the Lord they burned their books on the occult, and caused a huge disruption in the economy. 

The estimate is that Ephesus had about 250,000 people, and it is beautiful even in ruins. The temple to Diana was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. Covered and tiled sidewalks with inlaid mosaics, a 24,000 seat amphitheater which has been used even in modern times (Elton John and Sting played there, and it’s still in use today). When they burned their occult books a riot ensued with many gathered in the amphitheater demanding answers. Paul wanted to address them but had to be taken out of town for his own safety.

With 250,000 people in the city, I’ve seen estimates that for the economy to have been affected to the point a riot broke out, about 10% or 25,000 people were probably believers. That’s huge! Paul’s later letters to Timothy were about organizing resources among the (house) churches of the day, and how to raise up leaders, dealing with those in need and much more. If we allow 50 people per house church, that’s 500 house churches they had to organize, with some becoming full time in ministry serving and coordinating resources for all the needs. 

Timothy died in Ephesus in the year 97, shortly after John was exiled to Patmos. He preached to a crowd who then turned on him and beat him severely, and he died 2 days later from his injuries.

It is shortly after his death that John receives a word from the Lord for Ephesus: “You’ve lost your first love. Repent.” Get it back. You’re doing good things, but in your heart, repent and put me back on the throne of your heart, in so many words. He said to remember the former days, and that is good instruction for us. Religion makes us ‘human doings’ instead of ‘human beings’. And that is what Ephesus was guilty of – in their hearts they had lost their first love even while doing good things for others. On the outside all looked good, but the Lord sees the heart. 

He also commended them for hating the teaching of the Nicolaitanes, which He also hates. That word has been debated for centuries, for it means ‘victory of/over the people’. The company Nike and the name Nicolas have the same root – thus ‘victory’ (nike) over the or of the people’ (laity) – nicolaitane. 

This would suggest it was about a growing tendency to form a hierarchy, taking authority and participation away from the people. It would complicate their simple home gatherings, transforming them closer to the auditorium structure of today – into a 1 person speaks at each meeting with a few others with authority to do so as well. And some without that authority to participate. It could be argued that tendency towards hierarchy came into fullness when Christianity was legalized about 200 years later. Constantine took over pagan temples and turned them into buildings for the people of God, called people out of the home meetings – that new structure required such a hierarchy like the pagans for such a structure.

Jesus threatened to take away their candlestick unless they repented. He would shut the church down if they continued in their error – that was the threat. Ephesus was indeed destroyed in 262 by the Goths, and later abandoned when its harbor silted up. It is in ruins today. 

The take aways are that they had lost the zeal in their hearts for the Lord while still doing ‘Christian’ things. They (perhaps) were becoming lazy, allowing selected individuals tell them what God was saying rather than the participation oriented house church format of sharing what He was doing in their hearts. Jesus concludes His instructions in 2:7: “Let him who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches…”

The same is true in our day – some would have no doubt read the letter John sent to them, and repented. Others ‘didn’t have an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying’, and went about their business as usual. For us, don’t stir up guilt or condemnation or self-doubt for that’s not in you by the Spirit. The Lord convicts, not condemns. Conviction is all about God and brings us to Him. Condemnation is all about you and drives you away from God. 

More cities, more lessons to glean next week….until then, blessings,

John Fenn

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