by Mike Stine
Hidden in the back of your Bible is a book many of you are scared to read. Hidden in the opening chapters of this book is a story of seven very different churches. If you’ve read the book of Revelation, and many people haven’t just because of the difficulty of understanding it, you probably gave little to no time pondering the seven churches found in chapters 2 and 3. A wealth of information can be found in these chapters and by studying them, we can learn a lot about our church, ourselves, and others in our church.
The book of Revelation is broken into three parts; past, present, and future. In chapter 1, John describes what had already happened. Christ had come and gave himself as a sacrifice for the lost. Chapters 2 and 3 are the present. When the book was written, all seven churches were literal and in existence. More importantly, they are representative of all churches as we’ll see in a moment. Chapters 4-22 discuss what will take place in the future.
The book of Revelation was written as a letter and it was intended to be circulated around to the churches. The seven churches mentioned are located in Asia Minor , which is modern day Turkey. Going in order from Ephesus, all the way around to Laodicea would create a loop. In all likelihood, the letter was originally circulated in this way.
While each church is addressed individually, all seven messages are important for each church to read. At the end of each address to an individual church John writes, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. If the warning was directed at one particular church, it would have been easy to have said, “ Ephesus , listen to what Christ has to say to you church.” Instead, the call to be heard is repeated seven times that all the churches should hear what Christ has to say.
Because of this, readers needed to heed what was said to all the churches. Obviously not everyone in the church of Ephesus had left their first love, but the majority. Some in the church of Ephesus were probably better characterized by what Christ said about the church of Smyrna or Pergamum .
The seven letters to the churches in Revelation depict many things. First, they depict the state of affairs of seven literal churches. Some are ok with some bad points, some are good, some are bad. Secondly, each church is representative of a span of time during the church age, beginning during the apostles’ time going until the church is removed at the time of the rapture. Thirdly, every Christian can be categorized by one of the seven churches. Finally, every church that exists today falls under one of these seven categories.
The purpose of studying these seven churches is to evaluate ourselves and our churches in light of the evaluation Christ made of these seven churches. By the end of this sermon, you should be able to determine what church you best relate to and what church your own church is most like. Upon doing this, you may need to make some adjustments in your life and in your church, just as Christ admonished these churches to do.
Read Revelation 2:1-7.
The church of Ephesus looked like it was in a great place. It was in the most affluent city in Asia Minor. It had a long line of well known preachers; likely founded by Priscilla and Aquilla, served by Paul, Timothy, and after writing the book of Revelation, even John is believed to have called Ephesus home.
The church had numerous good things said about it. They are hard working and persevering. They cannot tolerate wicked men. They tested those who claimed to be apostles but are not and found them to be false. They endured hardships for the name of Christ and did not grow weary. Finally, they hated the practices of the Nicolaitans which Jesus himself hated.
Little is known about the Nicolaitans but writings by others at the same time mention that the group was short lived. They were a heretical sect that taught that spiritual liberty allowed them to practice idolatry and immorality. The church of Ephesus had stood against this group and they were commended for it.
However, there is something wrong with the church. Verse 4 declares, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.” The church of Ephesus suffered the same problem as many Christians today.
When the church began, they were excited about their salvation. They proclaimed it in the pagan streets of Ephesus . Then time began to take its toll. The church matured in knowledge. They learned right from wrong. And they acted upon it. What followed was a ritual obedience to the teachings of Jesus.
The church at Ephesus was doing the right things. They stayed away from the practices of false teachers and endured hardships for the name of Christ. However, they had forgotten why they did it. It was not for their first love, their true love that they labored. The church did not obey Christ’s teachings because they loved him. It had either become something that they did to look spiritual in front of the other Christians in the church, or they had simply become legalistic in their approach to life. They did what was right and did not do what was wrong because they had been told so. They did not act in love.
Because of this, Jesus says, “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things which you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. If the church of Ephesus did not regain its love of Christ, the church would be removed. There is reason to believe that the church did repent as it flourished until 449 AD when the church faded away after the Third Council of Ephesus. Ultimately, the church’s lampstand was removed just as prophecy had warned.
Read Revelation 2:8-11
The church of Smyrna is one of two good churches in this group of seven. There is no condemnation of this church listed as it is doing as it should. Jesus said, “I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich!” This church was poor and afflicted, however, they had become spiritually rich.
It is ironic the name of the city is derived from myrrh. Myrrh was used in the embalming and burial process and it was in this city that many Christians would die. As a city known as one of the founders of emperor worship, persecution came early. In 155 bishop Polycarp, a student of the apostle John, was executed in Smyrna.
Jesus said that he knew of “the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” There were apparently Jews in the area who spoke falsely of those in the church. This is a problem that has plagued Christ’s church since the beginning. People do not like what is different from themselves and they are often afraid of it. Because of this, lies and rumors quickly spread about the church. Jesus reveals that the true source behind this slander is Satan himself.
Nevertheless, the church of Smyrna is not to fear the persecution that would come. They are warned that they would be put in prison in order to test them. If they are faithful, even to the point of death, they would receive the crown of life.
There is a paradox shown in the church of Smyrna that Jesus talked about in his ministry. In Matthew 16:25 he says, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Many of the church would lose their life, however, they need not be afraid because through it, they would gain eternal life. For the one who overcomes, they will not be hurt by the second death.
Read Revelation 2:12-17
Unlike the cities of Ephesus and Smyrna, the city of Pergamum was not known as a commercial city. It had been given a rare gift by the Roman government, the ability to enact capital punishment. Capital punishment was symbolized by the sword in Roman times and the numerous references to swords link the city to capital punishment.
Jesus recognized the difficulty that the church lived with. He referred to Pergamum as “where Satan has his throne.” In the city was a 40 foot altar to the god Zeus and the city was also well known for its emperor worship.
Nevertheless, the church stood firm even when Antipas was put to death in the city. According to tradition, Antipas died a gruesome death by being slowly roasted to death in a bronze kettle. This was likely a recent occurrence at the hands of Emperor Domitian, the Apostle John’s tormentor as well.
Despite the faithfulness to the name of Jesus, there was a big problem in the church. Compromise had crept into the church. There were those in the church who were following the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans.
Both groups led the church astray into idolatry and into immorality. These groups fall under many different names in the church today, and are often not even named. However, the problem is very real.
Satan had directly attacked both the churches of Smyrna and Pergamum and found that the believers were not afraid of persecution and death. However, he introduced small doctrinal errors into the Pergamum church. The church held to the name of Christ and stood up for it. However, it did not follow all of his teachings and believed that as long as they did 75% of what Christ had taught that they were alright.
Many churches today teach about Christ but they are wrong issues such as homosexuality, divorce, abortion, and evolution. They believe that they are okay and as long as they teach about Christ the rest of the truth is not as important.
Jesus calls on the church of Pergamum to repent; or the consequences would be dire! Jesus himself would come and fight against those who followed the misguided teachings of these groups. And so there is no mistake about it, they will be struck down as they are in Revelation 19.
The need to make sure the church is following correct doctrine and not being led astray cannot be understated! If there are false teachers in the church, they need to be thrown out!
Read Revelation 2:18-29
The city of Thyatira is the least significant of the seven cities of the seven churches of Revelation. It was away from the main commercial routes and likewise did not hold much religious significance. The church is likewise small. Nevertheless, it has a big problem.
There is little good to say about the church at Thyatira. Jesus knows their deeds, their love, faith and service. They are doing more than they did at first – the exact opposite of Ephesus which has left its first love.
A woman, referred to as Jezebel, has entered the church and caused problems. The name Jezebel immediately links the reader to Queen Jezebel who lead her husband Ahab deep into idolatry. This woman, calling herself a prophetess, has done the same to the church at Thyatira.
The church has fallen into idolatry and sexual immorality. Some interpret sexual immorality to be spiritual adultery, leaving Christ for another god. However, the sin mentioned may very well be literal as well as metaphorical.
What angers Christ the most is that the woman and the church has been given the opportunity to repent and has not. Because of this, judgment will fall. The woman will be cast upon a bed of suffering. Her children, best interpreted as her followers, will likewise be put to death.
In spite of all this, there is a remnant left in the church. Jesus places no additional burden upon them other than to simply hold onto what they have until he comes.
It is interesting to note that he does not tell them to leave the church. While the tendency today is to flee to a church that better suits us the moment something goes wrong, the true Christians in this church are instructed to stay where they are. The sinful men and women around them would be removed through judgment.
Once again, a church that has compromised with sinfulness is dealt with harshly. However, those who are true to Christ are to remain where they are and will be spared the judgment falling around them.
Read Revelation 3:1-6
The city of Sardis was once a great city and even capital of the kingdom of Lydia. However, this was relegated to 500 years before the writing of this letter to the church. At the time, the city was still commercially important but had nothing near the prominence it once had. Instead, its citizens seemed content to rest on the fact that lived in a once great city.
The church of Sardis is dead. Much like its city, while its accomplishments may have been great at one time, it was now resting on what it had done and was doing nothing at the time.
Jesus said it had a reputation for being alive but was in fact dead. There are numerous churches today that look alive and vibrant on the outside but are dead in their deeds. These churches may be full of people and have moving worship services but the same people are never drawn to act on their feelings they supposedly have when they worship Christ.
Condemnation for this church is short and to the point. If they do not wake up and strengthen what little remains Christ will come like a thief. Christ has judged the church of Sardis as being incomplete in their works and if they did not repent, they would suffer the same fate as Ephesus, Christ would come and the result would not be pretty.
Fortunately for the church of Sardis, there is a remnant left in the church, just as there was in Thyatira. These people have not soiled their clothes in the filth that surrounds them. Those who overcome will walk with Christ and be clothed in white.
Read Revelation 3:7-13
The name Philadelphia means the same as it does in the United States. It was known as the city of brotherly love. The city was named after a king who was known for loving his brother. The name could hardly be more fitting for the church of Philadelphia .
Of this church, Jesus says nothing bad. They are the church that every church should strive to be like and every member should want to be. Jesus has opened the door to them and no one can shut it. The church of Philadelphia has kept Christ’s word and not denied his name.
This church has little strength, but this is a commendation and not a condemnation. In today’s world, we look at numbers as the source of power. Larger churches have a bigger budget, can offer more programs, reach more people and bring more people into the kingdom of God. However, this is not a large church with many members. It is a small church that God has commended.
Not that all large churches are bad, but when one has size, they have power. When they have power, they have a tendency to forget God. Which church is more likely to continually seek God in prayer, the church of 1000 members with a million-dollar-plus budget or the church of 50 members that can’t afford to pay the pastor. A large church will have a tendency to say that their fundraising techniques raised the money they needed while a small church knows that it is through no ability of their own that they even remain a church. This was the Philadelphian church.
Because of their faithfulness Jesus would make the enemies of the church fall down at their feet and acknowledge that Jesus loved the church. This is a powerful testimony that the church has. We should all strive to live such exemplary lives that no matter how much someone dislikes you, in their heart of hearts, they still know and understand that God loves you. Even if they do not want to admit it, they will recognize that you are a Christian and you do what you do because you love God. That is what a light the Philadelphian church is to even its enemies.
Also, because of the faithfulness of the Philadelphian church, God would spare them from the “hour of trial” that would fall upon the whole earth.
Read Revelation 3:14-22
The city of Laodicea was the wealthiest in the province of Asia Minor and was well known for its banking industry, medical school, and textile industry. It was also known for its lack of good drinking water.
If the report on the church of Philadelphia was all good, then the report on the church of Laodicea was all bad. Jesus has nothing good to say about this church as it is the opposite of the Philadelphian church is many ways. At least the church of Sardis had a false reputation for being alive. The church of Laodicea did not fool anyone.
Jesus calls the church lukewarm and warns that he is about to spit them out of his mouth. This is a reference to the quality of drinking water in the area that the church would have been able to identify with. The church of Laodicea is the large church that I described with the church of Philadelphia. They are wealthy. They have no trouble meeting their budget every month. They say to themselves, “I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” What they need is Jesus.
Jesus calls this church wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. This description fits many of the churches of today. Churches are often looked at as a business and the bottom line comes down to money. Other times, numbers – conversions, baptisms, new members, youth group attendance – is emphasized as the bottom line. There are churches that have an incredible track record of producing converts, however the church never grows spiritually. If the maturity level of the church is at the same place it was five years ago, people are obviously not growing and chances are the converts are not even sticking around.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells a story of a sower who sows seeds on four types of ground. Some seeds fall on the rocks and they are snatched up by the birds before they ever take root. Other seeds land in shallow soil. A plant springs up quickly. The roots don’t have the ability to grow deep to withstand the heat and tough times. When tough times come the plant withers and dies because it doesn’t have the roots to support itself. Seeds land on a third type of soil and a plant springs up quickly. However, weeds are nearby and rob the plant of needed nutrients and choke it out. The weeds represent the cares of this world. Finally, some seeds fall on good soil. A plant springs up and produces much fruit.
The church of Laodicea is planting seeds. They are seeing plants. However, they are not taking care of their plants. They ignore the plants that have a shallow root system and let them wither and die. Likewise, they see weeds surrounding other plants, but they don’t pull the weeds. The allow the cares of the world to choke out young Christians.
The church of Laodicea counts how many plants they have spring up and determines that they are doing a good job. God, however, looks for fruit and sees that the church has failed to produce much fruit. He is ready to rebuke the church.
Like the other bad churches, there is a call for repentance. Jesus declares that he stands at the doors and knocks and will come in if anyone answers the door. Revelation 3:20 is a common verse used to discuss salvation. It is usually looked at as Jesus is knocking on the door of a person’s heart. This is a fair way to use the verse in the context of salvation. However, this verse is actually more condemnation of the church of Laodicea .
Jesus is standing outside of the church and knocking on the door. This is not a good thing for the church to have happen. Jesus should not be outside of the church. However, this is exactly what has happened in the Laodicean church. They have decided that they are self-sufficient and do not need God.
The seven churches of Revelation depict every church and every person of the church age. Every church loosely falls into one of the seven categories. Likewise every person. Now the task you must do is determine what this church is and what you are. If you are going to be good, you must match either the church of Smyrna or the church of Philadelphia.
To help you decide, allow me to quickly run through the seven churches once again with a phrase that best describes each. You may want to write this down.
- Ephesus – left its first love
- Smyrna – persecuted
- Pergamum – compromised with the world
- Thyatira – immoral with a remnant of good
- Sardis – reputation of being alive but is dead – only a remnant remains
- Philadelphia – weak but has kept the word of God
- Laodicea – believes it needs nothing – is about to be spit out
Of these seven real, historical churches one remains today. Can you guess which one? Philadelphia is today known as Ala-shehir, which means city of God, and is still a Christian town.
If we wish to thrive and wish to see our churches thrive, we must not compromise with the world, throw out the immoral leaders in the church and adhere to the word of God. It is my prayer that we have the courage and ability to do this in all of our churches or we will suffer the same fate as threatened of five of these churches. If we are able, we may share in the blessings of Smyrna and Philadelphia.