“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (Revelation 2:7).
by Nathan Austin
Listen to audio
The messages of Jesus Christ to the seven churches are powerful and extremely meaningful to us as we consider the development of the church throughout the entire Gospel Age. The care and feeding of each of the church periods, by Jesus Christ, begins immediately following his sacrifice on Calvary and continues through our present day.
In the case of each church, we will present: (1) a suggested messenger, (2) an approximate time frame, and (3) the message to that church, which will be meaningful and applicable both to the church of that time as well as to us at the end of the Gospel Age.
Furthermore, we suggest that each period begins with the message as presented from that messenger. Thus, the dates will be tied as closely as possible to their unique message, as opposed to other world events. Might the first period have ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70? It is possible. Nonetheless, we will propose an ending of between 70 and 90 AD, the approximate date of the writing of the book of Revelation and the beginning of the message to the subsequent church.
Ephesus — 1st
The first seven verses of Revelation chapter 2 delivers the message to Ephesus. There is almost unanimous agreement that the messenger to this first church was likely the Apostle Paul. Though some may suggest other candidates, clearly Paul was one of the most prominent authors of the New Testament and his letters would have been among the most influential writings during this early phase of the church. Furthermore, we suggest that the period of Ephesus began immediately at Pentecost and continued until somewhere between 70 and 90 AD.
The Apostle Peter is the other possible messenger to this first church. “Thou art Peter [Petros, a little stone], and upon this rock I will build my church … I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). Peter delivered the Gospel first to the Jews at Pentecost, then to the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17), and then to the Gentiles with Cornelius.
Though the church at this time is praised for patient endurance and discernment, it apparently had allowed its zeal to wane: “Yet I have this against you — that you no longer love me as you did at first” (Revelation 2:4, Weymouth). Early persecutions, perhaps, led them to rely (quite rightly) on Jesus. However, after these persecutions lessened, the early Christians may have grown more self-reliant and distracted from the true goal. Additionally, they are commended for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which seems to be a symbolic name for those who “conquer” or “put down the people,” the meaning of the Nicolaitans. In this, we see reference to an early push toward hierarchy and “lordship” over others within the church (3 John 9), which of course is counter to the sentiments of leadership through example (1 Peter 5:1-3). Thus, we see in these verses both an exhortation to be watchful lest our zeal fade, as well as an encouragement to maintain brotherly love and a spirit of cheerful co-laboring, no matter what our role in our ecclesia or our gifts may be.
Smyrna — 2nd
A good candidate for the messenger to the church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11) is John, author of the book of Revelation. This book was written sometime between 70 and 90 AD, though it is difficult to be exact. We think that the period of Smyrna extended until 313 AD.
The root of the name Smyrna means “bitter,” and this is a good descriptor of the bitter persecution endured by the church during this period. The Roman Empire had very little tolerance of the Christian faith and hundreds, if not thousands, were martyred over these intervening decades. Our Lord begins with a message of encouragement, recognizing the tribulations and the want suffered by his people, including those who falsely claim to be his chosen people. But he points out that they really are rich (in precious promises) and that although they will suffer for a time, those who are faithful unto death will have a crown of life (Revelation 2:10).
True believers, properly following our Lord’s will and commandments, were being subdued by increasingly influential false Christian groups. Some of these sought to profit from their faith (not unlike 1 Corinthians 4:8-10). Under Nero, Diocletian, and others, hundreds were martyred and deaths seem to have numbered in the thousands (estimates vary widely).
Interestingly, though persecution was instigated by the Roman leadership, many outlying magistrates were less motivated to follow suit. This led Christianity to be downtrodden, but not extinguished. Though the persecutions were sporadic, and they caused a great deal of pain and death, this period remains one in which the Church grew and even prospered to some extent. Though they were persecuted, and we may be persecuted at times today (usually to a much lesser extent), the most important thing to remember is that there are riches beyond counting in store for those of us who are faithful — a crown of life!
Pergamos — 3rd
In 313 AD, we see the rising influence of Arius, a priest from Alexandria, Egypt. Though the ideas he expressed and the spiritual stand he took did not originate with him, he became a vocal opponent of immorality, of the hierarchy of the Church, and of the creeping error associated with the doctrine of the Trinity. (The Nicene Creed was adopted in 325 and later revised in 381.) Thus, we consider him a solid candidate for the messenger to the church of Pergamos. The name Pergamos contains the meaning “earthly height,” and during this time period, we see the rise to prominence of church leadership and the papacy.
The true church of this time is recognized as dwelling amidst Satan’s throne, which seems a reference to the consolidation of leadership in Papal Rome. Though they are mixed up as wheat amidst the tares of error, they are praised for not denying the faith, even as those who most vocally opposed the rise of the papacy (verse 13, Antipas = anti papas, “against the fathers”) were silenced.
A further challenge of this time was the subtle corruption of beliefs. Gone now is the direct persecution, and in its place is distraction and diversion. There is an increasing push to blend Pagan things with the Christian (think Easter, Trinity, Christmas, worship of Mary, even the immortal soul, all having pagan origins). Although the Church appeared to be growing in popularity, the true Christian was forced to struggle against a tide of devious corruption.
We see these things happening to us today (the mainstream acceptance of selfishness, pride, mental illness, and a whole range of sins). We recognize that though we are in the world, we must not partake in its pursuits. We take hold of the promise given to Pergamum (verse 17 NASB): “To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna” — the incorruptible word of God, providing spiritual sustenance and immortality to those who are found faithful.
Thyatira — 4th
Next is the church of Thyatira, which means “sweet perfume of sacrifice.” You might imagine this period as the burning incense of a long period of suffering for the sake of righteousness. In the vicinity of 1160 AD, a series of life-changing events led Peter Waldo to abandon his trade as a wealthy merchant and instead seek a spiritual path. He paid a cleric to translate the New Testament from Latin into French, which led him to realize that papacy had encouraged deviation from scripture for their own ends. He gave up his property to his wife, gave the bulk of his remaining possessions to the poor, and devoted himself to a simple life of public preaching and teaching.
This period and the actions of the faithful at this time were characterized by throwing out the self-serving rituals and traditions embraced by the Catholic Church — confession, indulgences, infant baptism, transubstantiation, etc. Waldo, and those that followed him, even described the various Papal excesses as evidence of “the harlot” of Revelation! This was a trying time to challenge the political might of the Catholic Church since the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church was well established, and hence framed any questioning according to scripture as heresy. Thus, those in power applied corrupted human reasoning to the scriptures, and the resulting erroneous interpretation became held as “the perfect word of God.”
These are warned, through the prophecy in Revelation, not to tolerate Jezebel, “the harlot.” Many only passively resisted Jezebel instead of actively exposing her false claims. Still, the message makes clear that those who commit spiritual adultery with Jezebel, including her children (Protestant offshoots), will be cut off (Revelation 2:22-23).
Those who endure are asked to hold fast to the truth, even in the face of erroneous teaching, and are promised that the tables will eventually be turned. Those who were ruled harshly with a rod of iron will eventually become the ones ruling firmly over the upended and dethroned usurpers (verses 26-27). Clearly, this is a promise that has a parallel to the present day. We can see before us now the need to remain firm when faced with error and we know that the last shall be made first and the first made last.1
(1) Editor’s Note: Some of the Herald editors think the 4th Church of Thyatira continued until 1517 AD, and Sardis was from 1517 AD to about 1700 AD when Protestant evangelizing began worldwide.
Sardis — 5th
The church of Sardis (a “remnant” or “that which remains”) symbolizes the husk or shell of a formerly vital creature. This period is made up of that remnant still faithful after the period of Thyatira. Due to his efforts on behalf of God’s Word, it seems that John Wycliffe may have been the messenger to this period, beginning somewhere around 1367 AD as England fought to break out from under the thumb of the Pope. Using scripture to attack the basis of the papacy, he was viewed as a clear enemy of the Catholic Church.
The message to this church is that “you act alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Though initially effective in spreading their message, after the leadership died out, the movement began to decline. Therefore, they are encouraged to strengthen those things that are dying — the good works done and the truths exposed.
Over time, there was increasing pressure from both the Church and the Crown against this movement, and so the remnant became an underground church. Though weakened and attacked, the seed planted by Wycliffe never died. Still, according to Revelation 3:4, it seems that only a few remained faithful through these trying times. We, too, are promised that if we overcome we will be clothed in white (verse 5).
Philadelphia — 6th
The church of Philadelphia (“brother love”) comes on the scene just as a drastic increase in corruption occurs within papacy. In 1517 AD Martin Luther, the messenger at this time, posted his famed “95 Theses” — primarily attacking indulgences, but also striking at Papal authority. Not until this point were the false claims of the Antichrist so fully exposed. Luther looked past the automatic assumption that the “head of the Church” must be supported by God; and, in so doing, it became clear to him that the hierarchical system (and its head) was the enemy of true religion.
The brotherly love for which this period was named reflects that the success of the Reformation period largely depended upon a brotherhood spanning many diverse nations, classes, and beliefs. There was more of an egalitarian spirit and less of the “lordship” that for so long had plagued the church. Still, the Lord warns the true church about those who pretend to be Jews (spiritual Israelites), but instead dissemble (Revelation 3:9).
Near the end of this period came the Miller movement (the early to mid-1800s), with many expecting the end of the world in 1844 AD. When this failed to materialize, there was a challenge to the faith of many. Through being kept “from the hour of temptation” (verse 10), some maintained their faith until things became clearer. They (and we) are reminded of the necessity of being vigilant, lest we lose the prize for which we have been striving.
Laodicea — 7th
Finally, we come to the church of Laodicea — those who are in danger of being neither hot nor cold but lukewarm. Some believe this language refers to the temperature of zeal that would be manifested by this stage of the church. Perhaps a better interpretation favors the effect of the truth on the individual Christian heart. “Cold” indicates that the study of the word of God results in “refreshment,” while “hot” indicates a cleansing of character. A lukewarm Christian would neither be refreshed nor cleansed by the scriptures but would indicate a carelessness in their walk.
Blessed with meat in due season by the hand of C.T. Russell, the seventh stage of the church is given an understanding of the manner and purpose of the Lord’s Return. In or around 1877 AD, C.T. Russell decided to give up his earthly business in favor of pursuing a full-time spiritual calling. While we are familiar with many details of his writings, let us also remember the warning and diligence he counseled about walking circumspectly as children of the day. It is not enough to have a Bible, six volumes and reprints if we do not practice the principles of the Harvest Truth. Faithfulness is in hearing and doing, not just in hearing. The Laodicea of old was a rich banking and commercial center and, in a picture, felt they had need of nothing. Instead, let us remember that we have need of him always. We are only rebuked because he loves us (verse 19) and we know that the time is nigh, for he stands at the door and knocks (verse 20)!
Through our brethren in all seven church periods, we have wonderful historical examples of grace and faith under the pressure of severe trial. We are blessed with a retrospective view of the history of the Gospel Age, and in our day we enjoy an unprecedented understanding of the precious promises and the hope of the High Calling through the clarity of time. Let us learn from the extreme faith of our forebears and their encouragement to us through the testimony of their lives.
Let us use their example to be strong in faith and diligent to search the scriptures for a clearer understanding of the character building and ministry work that we are called to do. Finally, let us always remember the warning made specifically to us by Jesus Christ, making sure we are cleansed and refreshed by the power of the scriptures and by the power of the in-working of the Holy Spirit in our lives and ministries.