Lesson 7 – The Seven Churches in Revelation (1)
Revelation is a book of prophecy (Rev. 1:3; 22:7), for the revelation it contains is in the nature of prophecy. Most of the visions refer to things to come. Even the seven epistles to the seven churches in chapters two and three, in the sense of signs, are prophecies regarding the church on earth until the Lord’s coming back.
I. THE CHURCH IN EPHESUS
The church in Ephesus depicts the end of the stage of the initial church during the last part of the first century. “Ephesus’’ in Greek means desirable. This signifies that the initial church at its end was still desirable to the Lord; the Lord still had much expectation in her.
The crucial words in the Lord’s epistle to the church in Ephesus are love, life, and light. The basic requirement for having the church life is our love toward the Lord. There is no problem, of course, with the Lord’s love toward us. He has loved us and He continues to love us. The problem is with our love toward Him. Although we have loved Him in the past and may love Him now, there is the danger that our love for the Lord Jesus might fade. The epistle to the church in Ephesus warns us of this. This epistle also gives us a clear revelation of the source of the degradation of the church life—the fading of the first love. Love gives us the position, the ground, the right, and the privilege to eat of the tree of life. Love gives us the supply of life. If we love the Lord, we shall have the full right to enjoy Him as the tree of life, as our life supply. Light always follows life, issuing out of the abundant supply of life. Life, therefore, gives us light. It is vitally important that we love the Lord. If we have love, then we shall have the life symbolized by the tree of life and the light signified by the lampstand.
The matter of eating the tree of life brings us back to the beginning, because at the beginning there was the tree of life (Gen. 2:9, 16). The tree of life always brings us back to the beginning where there is nothing but God Himself. In the church life, again and again we need to be brought back to the beginning, forgetting all other things and enjoying Christ Himself as the tree of life. But to enjoy Christ requires us to love Him with the first love. We must love Him above all things, above our work for Him and whatever we have for Him. By simply loving Him we shall be brought back to the beginning where we care for nothing except the Triune God Himself as our life supply in the tree of life. This is the proper way to maintain the church life and to be kept in the church life.
II. THE CHURCH IN SMYRNA
In Greek Smyrna means “myrrh,” a sweet spice which, in figure, signifies suffering. In typology, myrrh signifies the sweet suffering of Christ. Thus, the church in Smyrna was a suffering church, prefiguring the church under the persecution of the Roman Empire from the latter part of the first century to the early part of the fourth century.
The church suffered the slander of the Jews. In Revelation 2:9 the Lord Jesus said that He knew “the slander of those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.’’ This indicates that persecution came from religion, from the unbelieving Jews of the synagogue of Satan. The slander of the Judaizers toward the suffering church was their evil criticism of her.
To overcome in this epistle means to overcome persecution by being faithful unto death. The Lord said, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life’’ (2:10b). Here, as elsewhere in the New Testament, the crown denotes a prize in addition to salvation. The crown of life as a prize to those who are faithful unto death in overcoming persecution denotes the overcoming strength, which is the power of the resurrection life (Phil. 3:10).
“He who overcomes shall by no means be hurt of the second death’’ (Rev. 2:11b). The second death is God’s dealing with man after man’s death and resurrection. It is, therefore, the final settlement (Rev. 20:11-15). Because the overcomers have overcome death through their faithfulness unto death under persecution and have left nothing requiring further dealing by God, after their resurrection they will not be “hurt,’’ touched, by the second death, the death after resurrection. This indicates that those who do not overcome persecution will be hurt by the second death. This is for a believer to suffer some dealing from the Lord after he has been resurrected.
III. THE CHURCH IN PERGAMOS
In Greek Pergamos means “marriage,’’ implying “union,” and “fortified tower.’’ As a sign, the church in Pergamos prefigures the church which entered into a marriage union with the world and became a high fortified tower, the equivalent of the great tree prophesied by the Lord in the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32). When Satan failed to destroy the church through the persecution of the Roman Empire in the first three centuries, he changed his strategy. He sought instead to corrupt her through Constantine’s welcoming her as the state religion in the first part of the fourth century. Through Constantine’s encouragement and political influence, multitudes of unbelieving ones were baptized into the “church,’’ and the “church’’ became monstrously great. The church has been called out of the world and has been separated from the world to God for the fulfillment of His purpose. However, by being welcomed by the Roman Empire, the church went back to the world and, in the eyes of God, even married the world. Because the church, as a chaste bride, is the spouse to Christ, her union with the world is considered spiritual fornication in the eyes of God.
In Revelation 2:15 the Lord went on to say, “You also have those who hold in like manner the teaching of the Nicolaitans.’’ Nicolaitans is an equivalent of the Greek word nikolaitai, the root of which is nikolaos, composed of two words: niko, meaning “conquer’’ or “above others’’ and laos, meaning “common people,’’ “secular people,’’ or “laity.’’ Hence, nikolaos means “conquering the common people,’’ “climbing above the laity.’’ The Nicolaitans, then, must refer to a group of people who esteemed themselves higher than the common believers. In the church in Pergamos their works (Rev. 2:6) progressed into a teaching. They not only practiced the hierarchy but also taught it. This hierarchy destroys the function of the believers as members of the Body of Christ, thus annulling the Lord’s Body in expressing Him.
In 2:17 we have the Lord’s promise to the overcomers of this stage. To overcome here means specifically to overcome the church’s union with the world, the teaching of idolatry and fornication, and the teaching of the hierarchy. In 2:17b the Lord says, “To him who overcomes, to him I will give of the hidden manna.’’ Manna is a type of Christ as the heavenly food enabling God’s people to go His way. A portion of that manna was preserved in a golden pot concealed in the ark (Exo. 16:32-34; Heb. 9:4). The open manna was for the enjoyment of the Lord’s people in a public way; the hidden manna, signifying the hidden Christ, is a special portion reserved for His overcoming seekers who overcome the degradation of the worldly church. While the church goes the way of the world, these overcomers come forward to abide in the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, where they enjoy the hidden Christ as a special portion for their daily supply. This promise is fulfilled today in the proper church life and will be fulfilled in full in the coming kingdom.
IV. THE CHURCH IN THYATIRA
The church in Thyatira is the church in apostasy. Thyatira in Greek means “sacrifice of perfume’’ or “unceasing sacrifice.’’ As a sign, the church in Thyatira prefigures the Roman Catholic Church, which was fully formed as the apostate church by the establishment of the universal papal system in the latter part of the sixth century. This apostate church is full of sacrifices, as demonstrated in her unceasing mass. This apostate church will remain until the Lord’s coming back.
The church in Thyatira is a continuation of the worldly church, pre-symbolized by the church in Pergamos. The church in Pergamos had the teaching of the Gentile prophet Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans, that is, the teaching of a clerical system. The Catholic Church continues these teachings, the teaching of Balaam to bring people into idol worship and fornication and the teaching of the Nicolaitans to build up the hierarchy. In the Catholic Church today there is a strong teaching concerning the building up of a religious organization with its hierarchy. One of the crucial points in the epistle to the church in Thyatira concerns the woman Jezebel. The Lord refers to her in Revelation 3:20. “I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My slaves astray to commit fornication and to eat idol sacrifices.’’ This is the very woman prophesied by the Lord in Matthew 13:33, the woman who added leaven (signifying evil, heretical, and pagan things) into the fine flour (signifying Christ as the meal offering for the satisfaction of God and man). This woman is also the great prostitute of Revelation 17, who mixes abominations with the divine things. The pagan wife of Ahab, Jezebel, was a type of this apostate church
In verse 26 the Lord says that to the one who overcomes He will give authority over the nations. This is a prize to the overcomers of reigning with Christ over the nations in the millennial kingdom (20:4, 6). This promise of the Lord strongly implies that those who do not answer His call to overcome the apostate church will not participate in the reign of the millennial kingdom. In 2:28 we have another aspect of the Lord’s promise to the overcomer in this stage. He says, “I will give him the morning star.’’ The morning star here refers to the coming Christ. At Christ’s first coming, the wise men, not the Jewish religionists, saw His star (Matt. 2:2, 9-10). At His second coming, He will be the morning star to His overcomers, who watch for His coming. To all the others, He will appear only as the sun (Mal. 4:2). Only the hidden overcomers, those who enjoy Christ as the hidden manna, will see the hidden Christ appearing as the morning star to those who love Him.