Degeneration of purity and power in the Church
I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.
- Revelation 1:10ff [KJV]
Three books in the Bible contain mystical symbolism, colorful metaphors, and general, overall obscurity. These books are known collectively as the apocalyptic books: Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation.
It is unwise to build your biblical faith on these books. There are plenty of crystal-clear passages in the Bible, and building a foundation of unambiguous, objective passages should establish your personal faith and the way you live, not ambiguous, subjective passages like those of the apocalyptic books. Difficult and obscure portions of the Bible require advanced interpretation. The true meanings of these passages are not known precisely, and people with wrong motives can easily bend them to support almost any desired position. Therefore, caution is in order. Nevertheless, they cannot be ignored, because they are part of the Bible and reading them brings God's blessing (see Revelation 1:3).
In this short article you will find a shallow treatment of the seven churches of the Revelation. Use it to broaden and strengthen your knowledge of the Bible, but do not use it to focus your knowledge of the Bible. Be sure you study the entire Bible, not just the juicy parts like this one. Indeed, all the Bible is delicious:
How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
- Psalms 119:103 [KJV]
At the end of this article you will find suggested reading of the crystal clear variety: articles on prayer, Heaven and Hell, and biblical interpretation.
Characteristics of Church Purity and Power
Revelation chapters 2 and 3 deal with local Christian churches. In his respected book Systematic Theology, Dr. Wayne Grudem lists several characteristics and properties of local gatherings of Christian believers. Here is a summary:
- Love for Jesus Christ
- Teaching of the Bible
- Personal holiness of individuals in the church
- The Lord's Supper (communion)
- Church discipline
- Witness (evangelism)
- Fellowship among people in the church
- Spiritual gifts of the people of the church
- Biblical organizational structure
- Care of less fortunate individuals
- Spiritual power in ministry
This is an important list. If you attend a church, it would be a good idea to rate it using Dr. Grudem's list. Every local church, that is, every localized assembly of Christian believers, should make a '10' in each category. None do. No church can be perfect, because churches are made up of men and women, and the Bible concludes that no man or woman meets God's high standards of right behavior:
There is none righteous, not even one [Romans 3:10, KJV]
The Seven Churches
Wikipedia has a summary of Revelation's seven churches:
- Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7) - the church that had forsaken its first love
- Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11) - the church that would suffer persecution
- Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17) - the church that needed to repent
Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) - the church that had a false prophetess
- Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) - the church that had fallen asleep
- Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) - the church that had endured patiently
- Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) - the church with the lukewarm faith
Like most apocalyptic passages, there are several ways to interpret God's dealings with each of these seven churches. We highlight five interpretive methods, but there are many more than we present here.
Historical - Most theologians and historians agree that the seven churches of Revelation were real, active churches populated by people from each home city. A historical interpretation of Revelation 2 and 3 is just that: the Bible records the history of each church. It describes their characteristics (i.e., how they measure up to Dr. Grudemn's list above), and how God dealt with them based on those characteristics.
Representative - This is the same as the historical approach, but it applies to modern churches with characteristics similar to those of the churches in Revelation. The churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicia represent churches with similar characteristics today.
Church Degeneration - In this approach Revelation chapters 2 and 3 are interpreted to record the degeneration of one particular local church. The church starts well, but loses its love for Jesus Christ. This initiates a downward spiral to a completely dead church, deleting godly characteristics and adding ungodly ones at each step along the way. We present here a summary of Death of the Loveless Church by John MacArhtur.
Prophetical - The prophetical approach interprets the progression from Ephesus to Laodicea as a prophetic prediction of Church history from the time of Jesus Christ to our current day. The general decline of godly characteristics is reported over the centuries. We present an abbreviated summary of one such progression known as the Seven Church Ages by William Branham. See also ProphecyUpdate.com.
Parallel - It is possible to construct parallels between the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 and other passages in the Bible. The parallel to Psalm 23 comes from TeachingHearts.org
The table below outlines each of these five interpretative approaches. Since there are so many interpretations, it is difficult to know which is closest to the truth. A good guideline for proper interpretation is to always consider the context of the passage. In this case the context is clearly stated in the very first sentence of the book of Revelation:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; [Revelation 1:1(a), NASB]
The context is clearly the revelation, i.e., the revealing, the un-covering, the disclosure of Jesus Christ as things take place sometime after the book was written. Interpretations not within this context do not carry as much weight as those that address Jesus Christ in a prophetical (future) sense. For this reason, AFTB rejects the Historical and Parallel approaches, and favors the Representative, Church Degeneration, and Prophetical approaches. For a discussion of Bible interpretation and 'who is right?' see our article on Bible Hermeneutics.
| ||Historical and Representative||Church Degeneration||Prophetical (Church Age Model)||Parallel (Psalms 23)|
|Ephesus||Works hard, longsuffering, intoleratant of evil, perceptive, shuns heresies. But love for Jesus Christ wanes.||Spiritually strong, biblical church, alive, good leadership. But spark of love for Jesus Christ goes out.||Faithful, God-powered, God-led church of the apostles. Biblical organization, loving, laboring for Jesus Christ. But trouble creeps in.||The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want|
|Smyrna||In trouble, appears poor but is really wealthy. Tests of faith are coming.||Tribulation and tests inhibit decay.||Violent beginning of organized religion, man-made organization, legalism, mixing with secular society.||Rest in green pastures, calm waters|
|Pergamum||Holds fast to God in the face of evil. But personal holiness suffers. Some scheme, compromise, and embrace heresies.||Compromise with the secular world causes decay.||More humanistic systemization, mixing, pollution. Formal marriage of church and state.||Restores the soul|
|Thyatira||Growing in love, faith, service, perseverance. But many people are sexually immoral and satanic. Without repentance, death is sure to come.||Never confronts, but tolerates sin. Gospel message disappears.||Truth exchanged for darkness and corruption. Large, religious power dominates. A reign of death. Few are faithful.||Paths of righteousness, no fear in valley, rod and staff comfort|
|Sardis||Only a few are alive spiritually, most are dead.||Content with church social programs only. Busy being dead.||Reform brings partial return to first love, but deadness and lethargy prevail.||Table prepared, cup runs over, goodness, mercy|
|Philadelphia||Keeping God's word and holding fast to Him. God will act on behalf of this church.||Evangelizing. No decay.||Increased separation of holy and unholy. Increase evangelism, fraternity among believers, worldwide missions, expectation of Jesus' return.||Live in the house of the Lord forever|
|Laodicea||Lukewarm in all areas. In desparate need. Individuals hearing God's voice and responding will be blessed.||Dead apostate church, playing religious games.||Organized church dieing or dead. Emphasis is on individual believers.||Amen.|