The churches of Revelation have always intrigued me. Of course, the letters written to them were specific to churches that existed at the end of the 1st century as Christ had the Apostle John address them directly. They also represent various church ages over the years as faith has waxed and waned and taken different shapes based on the times. For our purposes, they also seem to show us the state of the church in these latter days, depicting congregations – perhaps simply some of the people in them to an extent – and the final Words that Jesus wishes to convey so that they will take heed.
Briefly, let’s take a tour of these churches based on my – admittedly flawed – interpretation of how the Lord might view them in this final period before He returns.
A couple statements stand out for me based on Revelation 2:3-4:
“I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
This church has endured patiently but has abandoned its first love.
It’s been around for a long time and persists because of that. Yet, the love of Christ isn’t in it. These churches have largely fallen away from true faith. This could be a picture of the mainline Protestant denominations of today in many respects.
Revelation 2:9-10 depict this church:
“I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) … Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
This is an accurate picture of the persecuted church of today, particularly in the 10/40 Window. Believers in that area in the midst of Islamic and Hindu religions have experienced great suffering. In the trials they’ve gone through, their faith has held, and that has made them extremely wealthy in God’s sight. Persecution is their fate as believers, but the Lord’s reward for them will be more than worth it. Jesus has no harsh Words for this church, only encouragement.
This is an odd mixture depicted in these verses. The key pieces that I see in Revelation 2:12-15 are:
“… Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith … But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam… So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
There are some faithful in this church, yet it is a hotbed of apostasy. The teaching of Balaam refers to his stirring up sexual immoralty, while the teaching of the Nicolatans is probably one of occult mysteries. Among those in this church are people who don’t hold to God’s Word regarding the purity of sex. There are also those who have embraced Eastern religious concepts. This description has the flavor to me of churches that are quite liberal, with many that have gravitated to New Age ideals.
This is one of the easiest churches for me to pigeonhole. Here are portions of Revelation 2:19-20,22 that provide a clear understanding of this church:
“… your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality … Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works… “
This is a church of works and service. However, there is a pagan spirit that has become integral to its worship. This has led to serious sexual transgressions and extreme deviation from the truth of Scripture. The Lord is telling the people in this group that without serious changes (which we know won’t happen), it is a major church body that will go into the 7-year Tribulation.
Isn’t this a picture of the Catholic church? It has a long reputation of service, but it also has deep and serious doctrinal issues. Consider the extremes of sexual immorality that have taken hold among its priests and leaders. Additionally, Catholicism reveres Mary as the mother of Jesus, but has made her the object of worship rather than Christ himself. Because of this there is a significant demonic presence within this church. It is the Catholic faith, guided by the Vatican and the pope, that will be the primary church leading the ecumenical movement that morphs into the Tribulation’s One World Religion.
This is one of the more difficult to label. Here are parts of Revelation 3:1-3 that speak to me:
“… You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead… I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God… If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
This gives me the sense of a church that many consider being filled with the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit have been exercised, and many exult in this. They bring healing, deliverance, and much more. However, there is something lacking. Perhaps the people look to the experience of the gifts more than to the Person of Christ. Because of this concentration on results, there is doctrinal weakness. This is a church that doesn’t seem aware of Bible prophecy which shows the return of the Lord Jesus as an imminent event. They’re so focused on making an impact in the world that they’ve forgotten the promise of Jesus that He would return in the clouds for those who love Him.
In my view this could be the Evangelical/Pentecostal church of today. Don’t these churches have the reputation of being alive? Yet, they also seem clueless as to the pre-Tribulation Rapture and what Jesus said in this regard.
If Smyrna is the faithful church in the 10/40 Window persecuted for adhering to the Words of Christ, Philadelphia is the church in the West that continues to follow hard after Him. Here from Revelation 3:8,10-11 are the wonderful Words of Jesus:
“… I know that you have but little power, and yet 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. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.”
Few heed this church today. It preaches the Word of God that no one wants to hear. True faith is rare these days. Those who read the Bible and do what it says are almost an oddity in this day and age, but these are true, Bible-believing followers of Jesus Christ. They’re holding on as the world grows darker and lawlessness increases dramatically. Many of these believers know from Bible prophecy that Jesus is coming soon and look forward to His return. They know that He has promised to keep His faithful from the horrors of the Tribulation, and that He will snatch them from this alien place called earth into the clouds with Him in the pre-Tribulation Rapture.
The people in this group can come from any denomination – any church. They are few. They read their Bibles regularly. Many are aware, awake, and anticipating the coming of Jesus at any moment.
In the verses describing this church, we get a sad picture of faith in these latter days. The pertinent passage is Revelation 3:15-16:
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
This is a terrible indictment. Many of the people in this group are fence-sitters. They have one foot in the church and one foot in the world. Sitting on this proverbial fence like this tends to castrate them. They become spiritual eunuchs and of no use to the Lord. He tells them to get off that fence. Either go all in for Him or follow the ways of the world. They can’t follow two masters as they’re trying to do. This condition is one that causes deception. They think they are operating in the favor of God and have His approval in all things. The reality is that He sees them as extremely needy and having nothing of worth.
Several churches come to mind in this description. In some respects it makes me think of those in the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) movement. They boast that they operate in the gifts of the Spirit and are doing the will of God in all things because of this. This depiction in some respects could also include churches embracing the social gospel. How proud they are that they are tending to the needs of the world! In addition, I see the prosperity gospel movement here. They have the appearance of holiness but corrupt God’s Word. They concentrate on their best life now, thinking that the riches of the world are His blessings. In all these people there is a serious deficiency in their relationship to Christ. He wants them to follow Him and not all the things that surround and entice them.
What I’ve described here in categorizing churches and peoples of today is by no means a universal understanding among Bible teachers. Of course, what I like to say is that not a single one of us who read and interpret Scripture – particularly Bible prophecy – is going to get 100% of it correct. The Lord knows it all and we don’t. All we can do is try our best using what He has given us.
The takeaway message in reading of these seven churches is that God wants us to do two things based on His Word to the church of Smyrna and to the church of Philadelphia:
- Smyrna: Be faithful unto death
- Philadelphia: Hold fast what you have
I’d bet that if God’s people kept these simple commands, more of us would please Him. We would demonstrate conclusively that we are His children – different from the world – and ready for Him to bring us home. What a concept!