Chapter 3

Church History


The Book of Acts tells about the history of the early church. The Epistles give instruction to the church. But it is in the book of the Revelation that a prophetic history of the church is given. The whole book is about prophecy, so it is understandable that the messages to the seven churches of Asia were meant not only for the actual churches of that day, but for seven periods of church history that would describe conditions from the beginning of the Church Age to the end of it.

The Book of the Revelation is unique in that the opening verses tell us that what follows was given to Jesus by His Father. Jesus then passed the contents to His beloved Apostle John (now an old man in exile on the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia, or modern Turkey). John recorded for us in vivid language what he saw and heard. The information was imparted to him partly by means of a series of great visions. Information about events transpiring in heaven are juxtaposed with happenings on earth. The book contains interludes and flashbacks, so understanding the order of events in the Revelation takes thoughtful care.

Genesis, the Book of beginnings, unfolds little by bit. Great themes of human history are introduced to us one by one. These themes branch out and are woven as recurring themes in the rest of the Bible. In the book of Revelation all these themes come back together in a great consummation.

The 404 verses of Revelation contain 800 Old Testament references! Many Jewish symbols and ideas which have not been used in the entire New Testament suddenly reappear in Revelation. Because of this, no one can hope to understand this marvelous last book of the Bible without reading the rest of the book--all that has gone before.

The Revelation gives an outline of its contents in Chapter 1, verse 19. "Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later." This verse may be considered the KEY to the Book. The three parts of the Revelation are:

1- What you have seen - The Person of Jesus - 1:1-18

2- The Things that are now - The Presence of Jesus Christ in This Age - 1:19-3:22

3- The things that will take place - The Program of Jesus Christ For The Future - 4:1-22:21

In this section we will only consider the second of these parts.

The Presence of Jesus Christ in This Age

Following the Ascension of Jesus, Acts Chapter 1, we do not again hear directly from the Lord Jesus Christ until we come to the last book of the Bible. There Jesus is depicted for us in priestly robes walking in the midst of, and judging, His church, during the present age. The aged Apostle John records:

On the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: "Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea."

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone "like a son of man," dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: "Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. "Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Revelation 1:10-20)

Insight about the Church: Revelation 1:19-20

These introductory verses portray the seven churches as seven golden lampstands--they were designed to shine the Light (which is God), into the darkness of the world. A message is to be given to each of these seven churches, and the messages to the churches follow a pattern. First, there is a description of Jesus Christ in terms that are especially important to each church. Second, there is affirmation of the good characteristics of the church. Thirdly, there is a warning for each church (except Smyrna, and Philadelphia). Finally, there is a reward promised to those in the church who are overcomers.

Instruction to the Church: Revelation 2:1-3:22

To Ephesus

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.

You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.
Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:1-7)

Ephesus, the first church, portrays the Apostolic period, from the birth of the church, at the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), until approximately AD 100.

During the Apostolic period there were false apostles. The early church was careful to identify true apostles and reject the false. This explains the need for the Apostle Paul to defend his calling as an apostle in 2 Corinthians, chapters 11-13. In chapter 11, verse 13 he also mentions people who were masquerading as false apostles.

Believers of this period also endured great hardships without giving up their faith. Christianity was considered false by the majority of Jewish people who had been blinded because of their unbelief (Romans 11). Those who followed Christ often had to do so against the wishes of their families. Jesus warned His followers that this would happen (Matthew 10:34-39). Opposition to early Christianity became so strong that believers were scattered and many were imprisoned and even killed. Before he was converted, Paul zealously persecuted the church (Acts 9:1-2, 21).

It is shocking that this early church had lost its "first love" for Christ. It shows that it is possible for any Christian to be distracted from his devotion to the Lord by the cares of the world. Jesus Himself gave the Parable of the Sower which teaches that some new Christians fail to develop deep roots, others are choked by the competing "weeds" that spring up around them, and others grow well and bear good fruit (Matthew 13:3-8).

The good news is that if a person, or even a whole group of people in a church, should lose their first love, they can be restored by repenting. To repent means to turn around and go the other way. Repentance requires honest self-appraisal. One must identify the sins that are separating him from the Lord, and then confess (Greek homologeo --" to say the same"). This means that the person agrees with God about the sin. When a person does this, God is faithful to forgive and cleanse him or her from sin (1 John 1:9).

The church of the Apostolic period hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans. This is a Greek word which means "conquerors of the people." This is probably a reference to the false apostles mentioned earlier, and their tendency to establish a ruling class over the rest of the people in the church. The proper Scriptural view is that the church is like a body, and different people in the church have different gifts from God, but all are of equal importance to the well-being of the whole spiritual body. There is no hierarchy in the Body of Christ, and no distinction between "clergy" and "laity"--all are called to work together in the ministry as one Body headed by Christ (1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4).

The promise to overcomers of this period is that they will eat of the Tree of Life which is said to now be in Paradise. Adam and Eve ate instead from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus rebelling against God and entering into sin (Genesis 3). Part of the result of this sin was to be banished from the Garden of Eden so that they would not eat of this tree and live forever in their fallen state (Genesis 3:22-24). Nevertheless, an overcomer will be delivered from this fallen state, and will be permitted to partake of this fruit, thus living forever as a redeemed person.

Who then is an overcomer? John himself explains this:

For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (I John 5:4-5)

To Smyrna

To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.

I know your afflictions and your poverty--yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. (
Revelation 2:8-11)

Smyrna was a city, of course, but it's name is derived from "myrrh," a valuable spice used in the process of embalming. Myrrh symbolizes death and yet is a sweet fragrance. This is an appropriate word picture for the period of church history characterized by martyrdom. This period lasted from approximately 100 to 312 AD when Constantine established Christianity as the state religion of the empire. During these two centuries there were ten definable periods of persecution of Christians under ten of the Emperors of Rome. To these believers, Jesus identified Himself as the resurrected one!

There is no warning to this church, since it was a church constantly purified by the rigors of persecution. To put it simply, only a strong, dedicated Christian would be willing to die for Christ. A hypocrite would quit the church long before he would risk losing his life. True believers would be faithful unto death, and they would receive a crown of life. This is one of the special believers' crowns mentioned in the Bible. Faithful believers will be able to lay these at the feet of Christ in the future to prove their love for Him (Revelation 4:10).

Jesus had taught earlier,

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. "I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:2-5)

The promise to overcomers of this period is that, though they might need to die physically, they would not be hurt by the "second death." This subject is revisited in Revelation 20:12-15 where it is equated with eternal punishment and being cast into the Lake of Fire. The Biblical concept of death is not annihilation, but separation. When a person dies physically, the material part (body) is separated from the immaterial (soul and spirit). The person does not cease to exist. Spiritual death is seen in the Scriptures as separation from God (Genesis 3, Ephesians 2:1). Those who are spiritually dead may be brought back to life, that is, be born again. (Ephesians 2:2-10; John 3:3-18). See the Appendix - Do You Know Christ Personally?

To Pergamum

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.

I know where you live--where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city--where Satan lives.

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.

Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
(Revelation 2:12-17)

Pergamum, also known as Pergamos, had a colorful history as a major city of Asia Minor. It was steeped in pagan idolatry, serpent worship, and Caesar worship. See Satan's Throne at Pergamum for a description of the influence of ancient Babylonian mysteries on the city.

Pergamum means "thoroughly married." It represents the period of church history when the church became married to the world. Constantine, the Emperor of the Roman Empire probably meant well when he issued a decree that all his subjects should become Christians, but it actually did much damage to the church. The majority of people became Christian in name only, bringing their pagan practices and lifestyles into a compromised church. This merger of the church and state took place with the Edict of Milan in AD 313. This period lasted until about AD 500. During this time the Bishop of Rome assumed the title, Pontifex Maximus.

To this church Jesus revealed Himself as the one with the sharp double-edged sword proceeding from His mouth. Hebrews 4:12 calls God's Word a double-edged sword, able to divide even between soul and spirit. In the same book Jesus is considered God's ultimate Word (Hebrews 1:1-2). In John's own writings Jesus is called The Word (John 1:1,14). If the church would follow Jesus and His Word, they would be able to separate the truth from the pagan influences which had come in like a flood.

The warning to this church is about those who allowed the teaching of Balaam. This refers to a fascinating story from the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapters 22 through 24, where the prophet Balaam was hired by Balak, king of the Moabites, to curse Israel. He tried repeatedly, but God would not allow him to utter a curse against His people. However, he evidently advised Balak to involve the Israelites in worldliness and immorality (Numbers 31:16). Thus Israel could be corrupted from within. This, of course, is exactly what happened to the church during this period of time. They were corrupted by worldliness.

This church was also corrupted by the teaching of the Nicolaitans. These church clerics who lorded it over the people were first encountered above during the period of the church at Ephesus. They had now entrenched their position by their doctrine.

Overcomers are promised hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written upon it. The hidden manna might be the truth of Scripture which was in the process of being hidden by the worldly church. The white stone is a symbol taken from the ancient custom of giving a black stone to one judged guilty, and a white stone to one who is acquitted.

To Thyatira

To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.
I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.

Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan's so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you): Only hold on to what you have until I come.

To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations- 'He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery'--just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give him the morning star.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
(Revelation 2:18-29)

Thyatira stands for a dark period of the church from about AD 1000 until the time of the Reformation which began in 1517. During this time such unfortunate historical events, as the inquisitions and the Crusades demonstrated the deepening lack of spirituality of the church. It was also the time when indulgences were sold, whereby people could pay money to supposedly have their sins removed. This led to the posting of Luther's 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church and the beginning of the Reformation.

Even this church received at least a mild commendation for doing some things right, but it also was given a stern warning about the toleration of Jezebel whose practices included false prophecy, immorality, and eating food offered to idols. It seems unlikely that Jezebel was an actual person during this period of time. This is more likely another of the many symbols in the book. Jezebel, an Old Testament queen, was an incredibly wicked person who was known for her idolatry, immorality, and hatred of the true prophets (1 Kings chapters 18 through 21 and 2 Kings 9). This would then symbolize the church hierarchy with its growing spiritual unfaithfulness and idolatry which eventually caused the splitting of the church at the Reformation. It also prefigures the specter of the Woman Riding the Beast in Revelation 17.

The promise to overcomers is to give authority over the nations. This stands in contrast to the deep secrets of Satan which may be a reference to the unholy alliance between the church and various governments. God was not pleased with Papal influence over the nations, but He will be pleased to allow His righteous followers to rule and reign with Christ when He returns as King of Kings (Revelation 19:11-16).

The overcomer will also receive the morning star. Jesus calls Himself the morning star in Revelation 22:16.

To Sardis

To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.

Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.

He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
(Revelation 3:1-6)

The Sardis church represents the Reformation church from 1517 until the mid-1700's when the great revivals and modern missions movement began. This was a time when the church had a reputation for being alive, but, as God saw it, they were really dying. History reveals that, though the churches of the Reformation did break away from problems in the Roman Catholic Church, they still did not return to thoroughly Biblical practices, and had many problems of their own, including the union of church and state and the persecution of other reformers such as the Anabaptists who practiced believer's baptism and were pacifists. The Reformation churches did not in general deal with the faulty eschatology held by the Roman Church since early times.

Jesus reveals Himself to this church as the one who holds the Seven Spirits (The Holy Spirit - see Introduction to Revelation), and the seven stars, identified earlier as the angels of the seven churches. These images indicate His sovereignty and His right to tell them to repent and change their ways.

The overcomer will be given white garments and his name will not be blotted out of the Book of Life. It seems that each person's name is already in the Book of Life, but those who are not true believers will have their names blotted out. This book is also mentioned in Revelation 20:12 where those not found in it are cast into the Lake of Fire.

To Philadelphia

To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.

I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars--I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.

Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.

I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.

Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
(Revelation 3:7-13)

Philadelphia is the missionary church. It began in the mid 1700's with the great revivals and the modern missions movement and it gradually lost its power during the early years of the 1900's. Philadelphia means brotherly love. It is this love that causes the desire to evangelize others (Romans 5:5). Jesus is seen as having the keys of David. He was of the line of David, and thus eligible for the throne of Israel. The key is for opening the door of opportunity for missions. No one can close what He has opened. No one can open what He has closed.

There is no warning to this church, but many promises including these: "I am coming soon.", and a promise to keep them from the hour of trial that is coming on the world. These are definite allusions to the Rapture and to its timing: before the trials of The Tribulation. There is also a warning not to let anyone take their crown. This refers to one of the believers' crowns: possibly the crown of life which was promised to the overcomers of the Smyrna church above.

To the overcomers of this period there is a promise of a new name and permanent residence in the New Jerusalem.

To Laodicea

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation.

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
(Revelation 3:14-22)

The Laodicean church is the last church of the seven, and stands for the last of the church periods. The name Laodicea means "rule of the people." It is a picture of a church controlled by the people instead of being controlled by God. It is the church of the Apostasy, or the great "falling away" of believers.

Jesus reveals Himself as ruler of all creation, and as the faithful and true one in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Laodiceans. He says they are neither spiritually hot or cold, but lukewarm, and that He will spit them out of His mouth. This is shocking news to a people who have a very good feeling about themselves. They say they are rich, but they are poor and wretched and blind. If they were spiritually "hot" they would be like the flaming evangelists of the Philadelphia church. If they were "cold" perhaps they would recognize their spiritual plight. But they are active in their church work, doing what they want instead of what God wants. They are like those about whom Jesus warned--they call Him Lord, but He never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23).

Jesus counsels them to buy gold, symbolic of faith (1 Peter 1:7), white garments, which are like the linen of imputed righteousness with which the Bride of Christ is dressed (Revelation 19:7-8), and eye salve, showing dependence on God's spiritual healing for their blinded eyes.

To this church Jesus says He is standing outside the door, knocking. If they will open the door, He will come in. This is a church full of unsaved people. Since it comes at the end of the church age, it is easy to see that there will still be many who call themselves Christians left behind when the Rapture takes place.

Still, there are overcomers even from this church. Those who will open the door to Christ will be overcomers. To them, Jesus will grant the right to sit with Him on His throne. This is undoubtedly a reference to the future privilege of believers to reign with Christ.

Many Bible commentators note that the Seven churches are representative of various congregations that can be found on the earth at any one time during the entire 2000 year history of the church. These distinctively different congregations each has strengths and weaknesses, and each has a core of faithful believers within them--designated by the word "overcomers." Also, each of the Seven churches has enjoyed its season of prominence as the dominant church during a given period of time. Most scholars who hold to this view believe we are now moving, or have already moved, out of the Philadelphian age into the final stage of church history before the rapture, that of Laodicea.

Next Chapter

 Index Page Prefatory  Chapter 1
  Chapter 2   Chapter 3   Chapter 4
  Chapter 5   Chapter 6   Chapter 7
  Chapter 8   Chapter 9   Chapter 10
 Chapter 11   Chapter 12   Chapter 13
 Chapter 14   Chapter 15  Appendices