Is parental discipline a positive or a negative experience?
The fact that the seven churches are written to congregations in significant cities of Asia Minor shows that their presence and witness there was important to Christ. But the messages to the seven churches show a significant amount of literary importance, as well. They also reveal the general trend of Christianity throughout time via sequential epochs or movements.
All seven churches follow a similar pattern:
- Statement: “To the angel of the church in [the city of] ______________, write”
- Picture of Christ from chapter 1
- Confirmation that Christ knows their deeds
- A Statement of what he has against them (except the 2nd and 6th churches)
- Encouragement and/or a call to repentance and increased faithfulness
- Promise(s) to the one who overcomes
- Statement: “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches”
In general, the churches are ordered according to their faithfulness with Ephesus being most solid and Laodicea in the worst condition. At the same time, Jesus offers an increasing number of promises to each church as their spiritual condition declines, much like a parent might offer increased incentive to a wayward or delinquent child, in hopes of their reform. The only exception to this increasing number of promises is the church in the most dire need of reform: Laodicea, the final church. But their promise is the most significant—to sit on the Throne with Him as He overcame—as all other promises come in its wake.
There isn’t space or time to examine every church in detail in this study guide, but a few notes on each church must suffice.
1. 2:1-7: Ephesus (modern archaeological site Ephesus) – Overall, a good church, faithful and have tested false apostles. But they’ve lost their initial passion and love (either for Christ or each other, perhaps both). The solution for them is not to change their emotions, but their actions. Agape love isn’t about feelings, but kindness and loving treatment of others, especially enemies. It’s noteworthy that a failure to repent means their lampstand is removed, and implied is that God may have another to put in its place, reminiscent of Jesus’ parable about the vineyard in Matthew 21:33-44.
2. 2:8-11: Smyrna (modern Izmir) – Like Philadelphia, this church has nothing for which they must repent, but their future will be filled with difficulty and they must be prepared to remain faithful. Their time of tribulation is to be short—prophetically only 10 day!—but this doesn’t make it less trying. They receive a crown of life, and are hurt by the second death if they overcome.
3. 2:12-17: Pergamum (modern Bergama) – This congregation has a “Balaam” in their midst, who, after attempting to curse Israel for Balaak the Moabite (see Numbers 22–24) seems to have led them into idolatry and sexual immorality. These sins may be literal for Pergamum, but Revelation later applies both of these symbolically to worship of the beast and man-made systems or beliefs, and to illicit relationships between state powers and religious organization. The Nicolaitans comes from two Greek words: nikao=to overcome/conquer, and laos=people. Thus the Nicolaitans held a belief that overcame the people; more about them scholars do not know with any surety. Their promise is a new name, a white stone (possibly related to acquittal in a court setting), and some of the hidden manna, reminiscent of that which was “hidden” in the Ark of the Covenant.
4. 2:18-29: Thyatira (modern Akhisar) – If Pergamum allowed Balaam, Thyatira is worse, as they are a divided church. They are on the right track mostly, but they are tolerating Jezebel, a symbol of the Sidonian princess-wife of Ahab who led the entire northern 10 tribes into worship of Baal, God of storm, and whose worship included sexual immorality and sacrificial rituals. Was there a specific woman, or is it symbolic for this congregation of a larger movement? It’s difficult to know. But the parallel in the broader history of the church appears to be the rise of the beasts in ch. 13 and Babylon the great in ch. 17 whose actions are the same—false worship and immorality. This church is the longest message by far. But God is patient with both the church and “Jezebel.” Four promises to overcomers in Thyatira!
5. 3:1-6: Sardis (modern city Sart, and archaeological site Sardis) – This church is alive in reputation only. While a good reputation is better than gold (see Prov. 22:1), it must be based on reality. And the reality is Sardis is dead. The advice for those who are spiritually dead is to remember the message already given, and to do what they know is right. The warning of Christ’s coming as a thief reminds of Matthew 24, and Jesus’ warning that nobody knows the day or the hour of His return. This church that learns to confess Christ anew will find that Jesus confesses their name to the Father and the Angels.
6. 3:7-13: Philadelphia (modern city Alaşehir) – This church is presented an open door by the one who has power over opening and shutting. The only negative part of this congregation is their relative powerlessness; but opportunity is given to them to burn brightly for Christ. An indication in this church of a time of testing to come on the “whole world” suggests the messages to the churches have meaning beyond the 1st Century alone. This church escapes the time of testing, but how do they escape it? The text doesn’t say. Once again, the urgency of Christ’s coming is given, now closer than ever.
7: 3:14-22: Laodicea (modern archaeological site Laodicea near Hierapolis) –
Situated near the city of Hierapolis, the cities are fed by hot springs whose water would be transported via pipes to the masses, where the water arrived tepid, and often bad-tasting. The Laodicean congregation believes they have everything they could want, but lack what they need most: an accurate perception of themselves, and their naked condition. Without the truth about themselves, they are helpless to get the aid they really need. But Christ has now fulfilled His promise of coming (see Sardis and Philadelphia), and does so intimately inviting to a covenant meal together. This message reminds us that Christ doesn’t force a response from His church; He invites and woos and pleads. The action belongs to us.
How do you view Christ’s discipline of the church? Is it encouraging to you, or does Christ’s knowledge and intimate connection with the church feel intrusive? (Compare also Hebrews 12:1-12)
The final promise of the series given Laodicea (3:21), to sit on Christ’s throne as He overcame and sat with His father on His throne, is a transition to chapters 4–5 where we see Christ overcome and join His Father on the throne. The promise is fulfilled to the saints in chapter 20 during the millennium.