The seven churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3 were real churches at the time of writing (in the 90s…90s A.D., not the 1990s, John did not write this whilst listening to the sweet melodic tunes of the Backstreet Boys…).
There were others in the region that were not written to (Colosse for example). So, the fact that Jesus spoke to this seven is significant. Theories abound on this; for example, the order of the seven churches is representative of the pattern of church history. Interestingly, Paul also wrote to seven churches (bonus points if you can name them in the comments below) and Jesus Himself gave seven “Kingdom Parables”.
Big word time; Jesus is not capricious in His choice here. Simply, He chose these seven churches for a reason. Why, we are not told explicitly so there has to be a certain amount of reasoned and considered conjecture.
The church age theory is very interesting;
Ephesus – Apostolic age
Smyrna – Age of persecution (remember Polycarp)
Pergamos – Imperial Church age
Thyatira – Age of Papacy
Sardis – Reformation age
Philadelphia – Missionary age
Laodicea – Age of apostasy
Alternatively, we could consider the overall characterisation of each church as key;
Ephesus – backslidden church
Smyrna – persecuted church
Pergamos – promiscuous church
Thyatira – lax church
Sardis – dead church
Philadelphia – favoured church
Laodicea – lukewarm church
If we take just the final four – Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea – there is certainly a lesson for us to take from this.
- We can be unrepentant and unfaithful as a body of believers, not taking our call to be holy and separate seriously.
- If this were us, the Great Tribulation awaits.
- We could be empty in our practices, be a church of head but not heart, present in the body but absent in the Spirit.
- If this were us, empty religious practices would characterise us.
- We could remain faithful to the Word of God, seek to love and care for others above all our own personal wishes and desires.
- If this is us, the promises of the true and faithful witness will be ours.
- We could be lukewarm, feeling that we are actually doing well but in actual fact causing our Lord and Saviour to spit us from His mouth.
- If that doesn’t jolt us back into line, so to speak, I’m not sure what will.
We are encouraged, repeatedly, to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. There is something for us to take from each of the seven churches written to in the then-present day immediate context of Revelation. The problem with the church age theory is that, in the words of Joseph Seiss,
‘There are…holy ones in the midst of abounding defection and apostasy, and unholy ones in the midst of the most earnest and active faith; light in dark places, and darkness in the midst of light.’
We do, though, have characteristics of all the churches, both good and bad.
It is the responsibility of all of us to work together to make our local expression of the wider, global, capital C Church a church that our Lord looks at and says you have kept my word and have not denied my name…because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.
What can we do to help that today?