Seven Churches of Revelation
History of the True Church
Where has the True Church been for the last nearly 2,000 years? After decades of studying Church history, I still ask myself that question. Religious history gives the story of apostate, fallen Churches in minute detail, but only gives fleeting glimpses of believers in the true gospel and correct Biblical doctrines. And where you find some who held kernels of spiritual truth, so many of their associates held damnable heresies. Finding true believers in the pages of history is more difficult than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
The Seven Churches of Revelation are pivotal to an understanding of Church history, as well as to seeing the characteristics, or identifying signs, of the true Church. Revelation 2 and 3 are the only 100% reliable records of Church history we have. These love letters from the Savior to the Churches should give us hope and encouragement through the long periods of spiritual darkness we face.
Worldwide Church of God Church History/Era Teaching
Herman L. Hoeh, author of "A True History of the TRUE Church," (Radio Church of God, 1959), succinctly sketched Church history from A.D. 31 to the present, as outlined by the letters to the seven Churches. Lessons 49-53 of the original Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course, written by Hoeh with Lawson Briggs, Richard Sedliacik, and William F. Dankenbring, published 1967-69, give further details. Books on Church history, by Lawson Briggs and Dean Blackwell, are sources of additional historical material.
The seven Churches are a type of the entire Church founded by Jesus Christ, who dwells in the midst of the seven candlesticks, Revelation 1:12-13. He does not dwell outside these seven Churches. The seven represent the various conditions of Godís people in all ages. Each Church, with its unique characteristics, was also typical of the successive stages of Church history and dominant characteristics that would successively exist up until the return of the Messiah.
The true Church is not a powerful political organization, exerting influence among world governments. Instead, we are to "Come out from among them, and be ye separate," II Corinthians 6:17, not being of the world, John 17:9-16, but as Ambassadors for Christ, doing the work of God to spread the gospel, never compromising with the worldís evil ways.
The true Church was prophesied to be small, persecuted, and scattered, Daniel 11:33-35, 12:7; Mark 14:27; Luke 12:32; John 15:20, 16:32; Acts 8:1; II Timothy 3:12. The many would depart from the faith once delivered and be deceived into a false Christianity, Matthew 24:4-5, 7:13-14; Mark 7:7, 13; Revelation 12:9.
"The true Church is the collective body of individuals, called out from the ways of this present world, who have totally surrendered themselves to the rule of God, and who, through the Holy Spirit, become the begotten sons of God (Romans 8:9) . . . . The true Church is not some politically organized denomination which one joins, or becomes a member of, in order to be Ďsavedí . . . . You canít join the true Church; only God can put you into it by His Spirit," I Corinthians 12:13 (see True History of the True Church, p. 5).
The Church is the body of Christ, a spiritual organism, with the Messiah as the living active head, Ephesians 5:23, 32. Those who are called, repent, and are baptized, become part of the spiritual body of Christ when they receive His Holy Spirit, Acts 2:38. The true Church of God is continually guided into truth as God reveals it, and admits mistakes when it is proven wrong, John 16:13. When a Christian ceases to grow, the Holy Spirit ceases to live in him.
Mass Departure from Truth Predicted
The New Testament is full of predictions that the first century Church would largely fall away from the revealed truth, Acts 20:29-30; II Timothy 4:3, 4; II Thessalonians 2:3; Titus 1:16; II Peter 2:2; Jude 3, 19; I John 2:18-19; II John 7; III John 9-10. The messages to the seven Churches continue this theme:
Ephesus: Found false apostles to be liars, but didnít give up. In later period, there was a general leaving their first love of the truth.
Smyrna: Faced tribulation 10 days, some cast into prison. They recognized the blasphemy of those of the Synagogue of Satan.
Pergamos: Lived where Satanís seat was, Antipas was martyred, wrestled with false doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitanes.
Thyatira: Allowed "Jezebel" to teach and seduce true believers to commit fornication; some went into the "depths of Satan."
Sardis: Almost died out, except for the true name.
Philadelphia: Had to face those of the Synagogue of Satan, and those trying to shut the open door before it.
Laodicea: A lukewarm, compromising, Church about which there was nothing good to say.
Sometimes I get discouraged because of the all the false doctrine being proclaimed, even among Sabbath-keeping Churches. The letters to the seven Churches gives me encouragement that Christ walks in the midst of the candlesticks (Churches), and that down throughout its history, the true Church has always wrestled against false teachers.
Rewards to Overcomers
Also, it is very encouraging to read the seven messages to the Churches and note that those who overcome are promised great rewards:
Ephesus: Eat of the tree of life, Revelation 2:7
Smyrna: Crown of life, not hurt by second death, 2:10-11
Pergamos: Eat of hidden Manna, receive white stone with new name, 2:17
Thyatira: Power over nations, rulership with rod of iron, morning star, 2:26-28
Sardis: Clothed in white raiment, name not blotted out of the Book of Life, name confessed before the Father and His angels, 3:5
Philadelphia: Spared from hour of temptation to come on all world; pillar in Godís Temple and will remain there; write on him, name of God, name of city of God, new name, 3:10-12
Laodicea: Sit on Christís throne with Him, 3:21
We can claim our designated reward, IF we overcome!
Church History Dates
"Jesus founded His Church by sending the promised Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, Monday, June 18, 31 A.D. . . ." (THTC, p. 10). The Church at Ephesus pictured this Apostolic Church, which did a marvelous job of proclaiming the gospel throughout much of the known world, from England to India. Here are some possible dates in Church history that we consider meaningful.
31 Church founded Monday, June 18, Pentecost.
33 Simon Magus "dunked."
35 Paul converted on road to Damascus.
42 James martyred.
45 Simon Magus goes to Rome.
49 Jerusalem Church Council, Acts 15.
50 Paul went to Europe about Pentecost time.
56 Paul writes Epistle to Romans.
59 Paul arrives in Rome, released in 61.
64 Nero burns Rome, falsely charges and persecutes Christians.
67 ca. Paul seized near Troas, II Timothy 4:13, later brought to Rome where he was martyred, about 68. Peter also martyred about this time.
69 On Pentecost, an angel warned, "Let us remove hence," (See Josephusí Wars of the Jews, VI, v, 3). The Christians fled to Pella, beyond the Jordan. From that time forward the organized power of the Church of God to spread the gospel of the Kingdom ceased. The Jewish Wars, begun in A.D. 66 led to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
69-169 "Lost Century" of Church history.
80 Monument to a "Peter" dedicated at Rome. Apostasy in the Western Roman Empire develops rapidly.
90s John writes his Gospel, Epistles, and Revelation.
98 death of John.
132 Another Jewish Revolt.
135 Most of Pella congregation apostatizes.
155 Polycarp of Smyrna burnt to death.
195 Polycrates and other "Quartodecimans" excommunicated by Victor, Bishop of Rome.
303-13 ten years persecution of Christians in Eastern Empire, Rev. 2:10.
325 Council of Nicea, Constantine causes false Christianity to become the State Religion of the Roman Empire, the "Synagogue of Satan." Constantineís persecution of "judaizers." This false Church began 1,260 years of Tribulation against the scattered remnants of the True Church.
600s Church of Armenia still has a few faithful Quartodecimans, called Athyngani and Paulicians. See The Key of Truth, A Manual of the Paulician Church of Armenia, translated by Fred Conybeare.
1000 Peter de Bruys preaches in southern France, observes Law and Sabbath.
1100s Peter Waldo preaches.
1315 Walter Lollard, German Waldensian preacher, carries truth to England.
1664 Stephen Mumford comes from England to Newport, Rhode Island. Seventh Day Baptists flourish in America.
1844 Adventist movement fails when Christ doesnít come on October 22, 1844, as predicted by William Miller. Some Adventists accept Sabbath from Seventh Day Baptists, and continue a work.
1861 Seventh-Day Adventists organize, Ellen G. Whiteís prophecies elevated to a test of faith. A few "Church of God" Sabbath-keepers remain.
1860s Gilbert Cranmer preaches in Michigan. Hope of Israel published.
1880s Church of God, Seventh Day General Conference formed.
1933 Church of God, Seventh Day splits into Salem and Stanberry factions, Herbert Armstrong begins preaching "World Tomorrow."
1940s Armstrongís "Radio Church of God" breaks remaining ties with Church of God, Seventh Day, moves Church from Eugene, Oregon, to Pasadena, California
1949 Merger Group of Church of God, Seventh Day, formed.
1967 Death of Loma D. Armstrong; World-wide Church of God begins to liberalize.
1974 Major doctrinal changes (Pentecost, divorce), mass exodus from Worldwide Church of God.
1986 Herbert Armstrong dies, Joseph W. Tkach leads Worldwide Church of God. Doctrinal changes accelerate, Church becomes more and more like Protestants in doctrine.
1995 Worldwide Church doctrinal changes accelerated; United Church of God formed.
Seven Church Eras, According to Worldwide Church of God
According to Herman Hoeh and the Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course, the following are roughly the dates of the seven Church historical eras:
31-135 Ephesian Era.
135-325 Smyrna Era, Church of poor Ebionites.
325-900s Pergamos Era, Church of Armenia, Paulicians, Bogomils of Albania & Bulgaria.
1000-1600s Thyatira Era, Waldensians.
1500s-present Sardis Era, Anabaptists, Seventh Day Baptists, Adventists, Church of God (7th day).
1933-1972 Philadelphia Era, Herbert W. Armstrong, and Worldwide Church of God.
1972-? Laodicea Era, to come out of the Philadelphia Era; the lax and lazy, headed for the Great Tribulation unless they repent.
Herman Hoeh and Lawson Briggs have done a remarkable job of piecing together Church history. It is impossible to prove the dates for the above "Church eras." Nevertheless, in broad general periods, it does appear that there is an element of truth in the "Church era" teaching. It should be noted that since about the mid 1970s, "Church era" teachings have been discarded by the Worldwide Church of God. Prosperity and materialism accelerated in the 1990s, which created a "Laodicean" atmosphere, which no doubt influenced the Church.
1260 Year Periods in Church History
Hoeh believes there were two 1260-year prophetic periods: (1) The "little horn," identified as the Papacy, would "wear out the saints, and think to change times and laws, for 3 1/2 times, that is, 3 1/2 prophetic years of 360 days each, or 1,260 years in prophetic times (see Daniel 7:25 and Revelation 12:6). This is said to be from A.D. 325 (date of Constantineís Council of Nicea forcing true believers to flee Roman Empire in order to continue obeying Godís seventh day Sabbath) to 1585. In 1588, with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, England was finally free from papal power once and for all. Thatís where Sabbath-keeping Churches began to flourish during this time.
(2) The other 1260-year period, A.D. 554 to 1814, covered the period when the revivals of the old Roman Empire were dominated politically by the Papacy, Revelation 13:5.
In both cases, the 1260-year periods were times of trial for true believers. Bible prophecy points to an even greater persecution in the future. Thatís a major reason to study the seven Churches and Church history. Itís a big part in "watching" so that we may be accounted worthy to escape all these things to come to pass, and to stand as a profitable servant before the Son of man when He comes, Luke 21:36.
Unless we are thoroughly grounded in Church history, "that day" may overtake us, unaware of what the Almighty is doing. Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.
Church Scattered, Fellowship Rare
In 1959, Herman Hoeh wrote, "The Church Jesus founded was prophesied to be a scattered Church, small in number, rejected by the world, its people often without personal fellowship with other brethren!" (True History of the True Church, page 28). Thatís certainly not true today about the Worldwide Church of God in North America. But it is true about the scattered remnants such as ourselves. Notice in Hebrews 10:23-25, we are commanded to not forsake "the assembling of OURSELVES together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching."
We must not assemble with the blinded, deceived people of false churches descended from Babylon the Great, Revelation 17:3-6, 18:4; II Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:11; II John 10-11. Our real fellowship is with God the Father and with Jesus Christ first of all, and with one another only in and through the Spirit of Christ, John 1:1-7. We should withdraw from all spiritual fellowship except with those who are in Christ, and are being led by Christ. Good fruit in our lives cannot come from bad associations!
Yes, there is a need for ministers. But where a minister is not available locally, brethren should carefully and prayerfully meet together when they can, and encourage one another. Using a prepared Sabbath Bible Study lesson, such as The Bible Home Instructor, simply reading scriptures and discussing the meaning, is the best way. In a time of a spiritual famine of the Word, such fellowship can be like a drink of cool water on a dry hot day.
Will We Hear the Warnings to the Churches?
To each of the seven churches, Jesus repeats almost the exact same general warning: "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." Some do not have "spiritual ears." They cannot learn the lessons of the history of Godís people. They are the type who use the excuse of the recorded sins of Abraham, Moses, and David to commit the same sins, rather than learn the lessons God wants us to learn from sins of His people, I Corinthians 10:6-12; Deuteronomy 8. Will we learn what the Spirit says unto the Churches? Briefly, here are the specific warnings Jesus gives to these seven representative Churches:
Ephesus: Donít leave your first love for the truth. Remember from whence you have fallen and repent and do the first works of the Apostles, or else your candlestick will be removed.
Smyrna: Donít fear persecution; be faithful unto death.
Pergamos: Repent of the doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitanes, or Jesus will come quickly and fight against you with the sword of His mouth.
Thyatira: Donít go into the depths of Satan. If you do, you will go into great tribulation unless you repent of your fornication. Hold fast what you have.
Sardis: Wake up spiritually, strengthen what you have, hold fast to the truth and repent of letting down. Watch, or Iíll come upon you as a thief in the night.
Philadelphia: Hold fast that which you have. Beware that no man take your crown.
Laodicea: Stop being lukewarm, be zealous and repent.
Its interesting that five out of the seven Churches are admonished to repent. And, five out of seven are told to hold fast or stir up the Holy Spirit and do greater works. This is the warning message Jesus Christ gave to His Church down through the ages. Will we hear what He says to His churches?
Lessons of Each Church Apply to Us
Robert Murray MíCheyne saw lessons in all the seven churches for us. But Sardis, he believed, applies best to us. MíCheyneís book, The Seven Churches of Asia, organizes each letter into several sections. It is amazing that the pattern is much the same from letter to letter, although the message differs. First, each letter describes the character Messiah takes to Himself. Second, Christ describes the character of the Church. Third, He praises or points out the blame in the Church He addresses. Fourth, the Savior gives counsel and/or promises to the Church.
Let us follow MíCheyneís synoptic view of the seven Churches:
Character Christ Takes to Himself
Ephesus: Holding the seven stars in His right hand, and walking in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.
Many have pointed out that the word for "star" here is the same word for "messenger," which can refer to Godís ministers or to angels. People look too much to human ministers, instead of to Christ. The function of the ministry is to hold up Christ, not be worshipped. Jesus is in the midst of all seven Churches.
Smyrna: Christ encourages them: I am the first and last, which was dead, and now is alive. Those who faced cruel martyrdom, such as Polycarp, can confidently face their end, knowing Christ is alive forevermore.
Thyatira: These things saith the Son of God, who hath His eyes like fire, and His feet like brass. Christ not only searches, He searches through the reins and the heart; He knows everything we do. Christ is not only a Savior, He is an avenger too, and will tread the wicked under His feet.
Sardis: One having the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. Christ has the Spirit without measure, Hebrews 1:9. This Spirit enabled Him to preach the Gospel Truth, Luke 4:18-19. He promised this Spirit to be in us to accomplish the same, John 14:15-17; Luke 11:13. "Stars" may refer to His ministers. Christ gives ministers the power to preach the Gospel and feed His flock. He puts them in place, and can take them away, if we are not a godly people. We should follow the star like the wise men did, to Christ. Do not follow a false star or you will end up with a false Christ. We need to pray that the Eternal will give us stars (ministers) of His own hand. Look more to the Savior and less to man to accomplish His work.
Philadelphia: He that is Holy, True, has Key of David, opens and no man shuts, shuts and no man opens. Some erroneously think that God is so "Holy" they can never approach Him, but Christ they can come to, because He is more indulgent. Not true! Christ is HOLY! He cannot bear any sin. If He could have borne with it, He would not have come and suffered and died. He is a Holy Savior. He cannot bear falsehood and false doctrine. It is critically important that we believe in and obey true doctrine!
Isaiah 22:15-25 is a prophecy of Eliakim (High Priest), who is as a nail in a sure place, unlike the house of Levi who was taken captive. The Son of the Highest has the keys of the grave and death, Revelation 1:18. He is the head of all things in the Church. How blasphemous that a modern false "prophet" claims to be Eliakim! To say nothing of a great false church who says its "holy father" has the keys to the kingdom!
Laodicea: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the beginner of the creation of God. "Amen!" or "verily, verily," were some of the Saviorís favorite words. Christ is true to all He says, II Corinthians 1:20. He means what He says, and says what He means! Now the Savior makes two kinds of promises: threatening ones and comforting ones. He is a destroyer as well as a Savior. Sadly, for some people, their only hope is that Christ will NOT be true to His words.
Messiah gives a true witness of our condition. He never flatters. He always tells us our true state, making us no better than we are, and no worse. He is saying to Laodicea: "I am the Creator of Heaven and earth; if you do not repent, I will punish you." When Christ says He is the Creator, He seems to be speaking against the prevalent end-time belief in evolution and reincarnation.
Character of the Church
"I know thy works" is mentioned in every one of the seven Churches. The Savior is concerned about our works, so we should be as well! He knows all of our doing, good and bad, Psalm 139.
Ephesus: A Church of works, labor, and patience.
Smyrna: Christ measured their sufferings; He would not give them too much or two little.
Thyatira: The people of Thyatira are like Jeremiahís figs: the good are very good, and the bad are rotten. Their works were done in love, with the attitude of service and faith, more so at the last than the first.
Sardis: You have a living name, but are dead. People of Sardis "go to church" but do not have living faith. Where are the brethren zealously serving others? Where are ones like Dorcas, full of good works and alms-deeds?
Philadelphia: You have an open door before you which no man can shut, you have a little strength, have kept My word and have not denied My name. The "door" is a door of utterance of the Gospel message, Acts 14:27; I Corinthians 16:9; II Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3. It is Christ who opens the door for His ministers to go through. It is He who shuts the door when He sees fit. Some try to kick open the door by themselves, or try to shut the door on others.
Things that are little can do great and wonderful works. Faith as little as a grain of mustard seed can move mountains, Matthew 17:20. Keeping His word is the evidence that we really love Him, and that He lives in us, John 14:23.
Laodicea: You are neither cold nor hot . . . you falsely say you are rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing. The Laodicean church has two characteristics: lukewarmness and self-righteousness. The lukewarm have the form of godliness, but deny His power, they love pleasures more than God. Lukewarmness and pride always go together. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
Blame to the Churches
Ephesus: You have left your first love, and need to repent and do the first works. If you donít, I will remove your candlestick.
Smyrna: No blame whatsoever is given!
Thyatira: They allowed the false church, Jezebel, to teach and seduce their servants to partake of its false Lordís Supper.
Sardis: Your works are not perfect. Strengthen the things which remain, remember how you have received and heard, and hold fast and repent. If not, Iíll come upon you like a bandit in the night. Sardis is like Ephraim whose goodness lasts as long as the morning dew, Hosea 6:4, or like those who receive the Word of God gladly, but donít have any root to establish it firmly, Matthew 13:20-21. Hold fast to the Truth you have, donít let your own inactivity take it away! Christ did come and take away the star from Sardis, as it became a dead city. If we donít repent, He may do the same to us.
Philadelphia: Philadelphia is mostly given praise. Nevertheless, the Synagogue of Satan falsely say they are Jews, and they are going to be punished and forced to recognize that God loves Philadelphians.
Laodicea: I want you to be either cold or hot, but because you are lukewarm, I am about to spue you out of my mouth. You donít know that you are wretched, miserable, poor,blind, and naked. As a result, I am going to try you like gold in the fire to refine you. Better become clothed with righteousness and anoint your eyes with salve that you may see. Christ is the only way the blind can be made to see. The Laodiceans actually reject Christ, although they claim to be supporting Him and doing His work.
Praise for the Churches
Ephesus: You cannot bear those who are evil, and have proven which apostles are false, and have not given up doing the work.
Smyrna: You are physically poor, but spiritually rich! Wouldnít we all like the Savior to use these terms of us?
Sardis: You have a few names which have not defiled their garments. True believers are only a few. Yet, as with Antipas, Christ knows the name of every one!
Philadelphia: You have kept the word of my patience. The patience of Philadelphians will be tested in fires of persecution, Luke 21:19; James 1:3-4, 5:10-11. Patience in enduring trouble is also mentioned in regard to Ephesus and Thyatira, Revelation 2:2-3, 19. The Apostle John and all the saints learned patience the same way, Revelation 1:9, 13:10, 14:12.
Laodicea: Sadly, I canít list a single item to praise you for.
Promise and Reward to Churches
"He that overcometh" is an admonition given to each of the seven churches. Not to the laggard and lazy, but the persevering overcomers are promised a great reward.
Ephesus: I will give you to eat of the tree of life in the midst of the paradise of God.
Smyrna: Fear not; be faithful, and I will give you a crown of life. Christ is very tender to Smyrna.
Thyatira: I will give him the morning star. This is Christ Himself.
Sardis: They shall walk in white, for they are worthy. Their name shall not be blotted out of the book of life, but He will confess them before His Father and His angels.
Philadelphia: I will keep you from the hour of temptation, which shall try all the earth. I am coming quickly, hold fast and donít let any man take your crown. I will make you a pillar in the temple of God, and you shall no more go out, and I will write upon you the name of New Jerusalem and my new name. There were two pillars of the Temple of Solomon, one named Jachin ("He shall establish"), and the other Boaz ("In it is strength"). David said he would be glad to merely be a temporary doorkeeper in Godís house, Psalm 84:10. But the Savior promises Philadelphians to be permanent pillars, stamped with His own name forever. His new name is "King of Kings and Lord of Lords." Philadelphians will share in this awesome future reign with Christ ó a lasting, leading part in the city which has foundations! Hebrews 11:10.
Noting the similarities of Smyrna and Philadelphia, the two Churches in which Christ saw no fault, MíCheyne exclaims: "It is very remarkable to see from these two, that whosoever keeps the word of Christ, He will keep them."
Laodicea: I stand at the door knocking. If any man hear my voice and open the door to let me in, I will come in unto him and share a supper with him. Jesus has been long standing at the door of our hearts. He knocks at it in the Bible, every time you read it. He knocks at your door by godly friends, relatives, and ministers. Even more, He knocks by providence, events in our lives where we should see the hand of God. And especially, the Savior knocks on the doors of our hearts by the Seven Letters to the Churches. He is patiently waiting for us to open and let Him into our lives. "If a man love Me, he will keep My words [no matter what the cost]: and My Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him," John 14:23.
Seven Churches Beginning.