The Seven Churches
In Revelation, the first three verses of chapter one, act as an introduction to the book itself. The next verses serve as an introduction to the seven churches. In this introduction to the seven churches, John saw seven candlesticks and “in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man” (Rev. 1:13; cf. 2:1). This places the introduction to the seven churches in the holy place. The “seven lamps of fire burning before the throne” are said to be, “the seven Spirits of God” (Rev. 4:5). This seven-fold description of the Holy Spirit was represented in the earthly sanctuary by the seven-headed candlestick – located in the holy place.
The seven candlesticks are also said to represent “the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20). This is entirely appropriate, because the Holy Spirit is the One who brings light, and the avenue He uses to bring this light to the world is the church. Jesus said to His followers [the church]: “Ye are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14).
We now know why there are seven churches. Not six, or eight – but seven. It is to symbolize the work of the Holy Spirit. It is to illustrate the progress of Christ’s kingdom, directed by the Holy Spirit, in the history of the world, from John’s time to the end of time – seven representing the completing and perfecting of the Holy Spirit’s work in the church.
Literal or Spiritual?
How are we to understand the seven churches? Are they literal or spiritual? It would seem strange that the book of Revelation would concern itself with a relatively small geographical area, where all seven churches were originally located, in what is now south east Turkey. This becomes all the more apparent when we realize that not one of these churches are in existence today – and have not literally existed for hundreds of years. Therefore, the emphasis must not be allowed to dwell on the literal location of the cities. It is almost universally concluded that these seven churches represent seven different historical periods from John’s time to the end of time.
It would appear that the reason each city was chosen to represent a separate period in the church’s history, is because the name of the city, and characteristics and features, found in the city have a corresponding symbolic significance to each of the historic periods. For example, the Laodicean Church is described as being spiritually lukewarm – the literal city of Laodicea had naturally occurring lukewarm springs. The name Philadelphia means ‘brotherly love’ which is prophetically apt for this church, because it receives no condemnation from Jesus etc. Ellen White confirms that the seven churches need to be understood spiritually:
The names of the seven churches are symbolic of the church in different periods of the Christian Era. The number 7 indicates completeness, and is symbolic of the fact that the messages extend to the end of time, while the symbols used reveal the condition of the church at different periods in the history of the world. AA 585.
The number seven is prophetically important, in the sense that. it points forward to completion and perfection. This would appear to be the main thrust of the Saviour’s ministry to all the churches. He ends every message in the same way, with the same exhortation – to “overcome.” In other words, Jesus is encouraging His kingdom to grow spiritually – to reach spiritual maturity. The progress recorded under the seven churches is just the beginning. The work continues – repeated and enlarged upon in the seals and the trumpets.
The First Five Churches
It is not always possible to give a clear definitive date to when each of these churches began and when their era ended. Some transitions are abrupt and others are more gradual. Ephesus being the first church, represents the apostolic age, and would have come to an end with the death of John, the last apostle.
Smyrna, the second church, is a church suffering from persecution [Polycarp, one of the early church fathers was martyred in Smyrna]. During the Smyrna period, the church suffered much at the hands of the pagan Roman Empire. But when the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, and later, supposedly, converted to Christianity, persecution from the Roman State ceased and the Smyrna era came to an end around 313 – 325AD.
With the end of persecution, the church slipped into a time of compromise. The church was now the state religion. The clay was beginning to mingle with the iron – this is the period of the Pergamos church (sometimes called Pergamum). The role of the church, as the state religion, at this time, was to unite the people of the empire. Therefore, pressure was inevitably brought to bear on the church, to make it less exclusive, and to be more accommodating toward the beliefs and practices of other Roman citizens, who were not Christian (see the historical prologue, for more information about this period).
This Pergamos period of “mingling” (see Appendix 1 for information on the iron and the clay), continued until the effect of the “mingling” resulted in the “full-blown” birth of the papacy, established in 538 – which marks the establishment of the Thyatira Church, and the beginning of a 1260-year period of supremacy ending in 1798.
It is because of this “mingling” that Jesus rebukes both the Pergamos and the Thyatira Churches for allowing the doctrine of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, to be taught in the church, and for permitting the presence of “that woman Jezebel” in the church (Rev.2:14,15; 3:20). These things are the realization of what Paul warned would happen, when he spoke about men rising up and “speaking perverse things” (Acts 20:30). It was a time when the people lost their “ears to hear” and corruption began to flourish. Balaam was working with Balak again to destroy the people of God.
The Doctrine of Balaam – the Iron and the Clay – Church and State
Balak, the King of Moab wanted a weapon to defeat the people of God with – so, he called on Balaam to come and curse the Israelites. Balaam was constrained by God, and all he could do was bless the people. However, he advised Balak, if he wanted to defeat the Israelites that he should seduce them into immorality and Balak proceeded to do so by sending women into the Israelite camp (see Num. 25:1-9; 31:16). Since this incident at Shittim occurred, whenever God’s people have apostatized, the Bible uses sexual immorality as a symbol of the apostasy – sometimes called “whoring after the world” (see Ex 34:12-16; Jud. 2:17; 1 Chron. 5:25; Eze. 6:9 etc.).
Uniting with the world falls into the same category as adultery and fornication. Both are illegal unions. This is because the relationship God has with His people is like a marriage. When His people choose to follow other “gods,” or ally themselves with ungodly people or institutions, God considers this a flagrant breach of the “spiritual marriage” [the covenant] that His people have entered into with Him. The violation of this spiritual marriage contract is the equivalent of “spiritual adultery.” The same principle applies when God’s people, enter into “working relationships” with worldly institutions, such as the governments of the world – this too, is spiritual adultery.
This representation of spiritual adultery is a repeat and enlargement of what Daniel had already seen in vision. Daniel saw this same period of apostasy that began with the Pergamos Church, in his vision of the “iron and the clay.” The mingling of iron and clay is another unnatural union and it is illustrating the same truth – a violation of the marriage contract leading to spiritual adultery. The mingling of the iron and the clay – the mingling of church and state – is the doctrine of Balaam.
Jesus condemns the Pergamos church for promoting the “doctrine of Balaam who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication” (Rev. 2:14). Here is the pattern established from the early history of God’s people that has reverberated down through the history of God’s people. Balaam represents the apostate church [he was once a true prophet of God – but he was seduced and corrupted by worldly gain]. Ellen White described Balaam as an apostate prophet of God:
Balaam was once a good man and a prophet of God; but he had apostatized, and had given himself up to covetousness; yet he still professed to be a servant of the Most High. PP 439.
Balaam is used in Revelation as a spiritual representation of the apostate church. Balac was the king of Moab and as such he represents the state. Notice must be taken of how this church/state relationship works. Scripture says that Balaam “taught” Balac. In other words, the church plays the lead role. The church instructs the state. The church is the power behind the throne. And what is it that Balaam taught Balac? He taught him how to corrupt the true people of God.
Balaam is the type. The religious institutions that have allied themselves with the state, from his time onwards, are the antitype. Just like Balaam, many churches, organizations and institutions were once “good” and “spoke” on behalf of God. But just like Balaam, many have decided to ally themselves with the state for the same reason – covetousness. This is because when obedience is lacking, so too, is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. To compensate for the lack of Heavenly support, churches turn to the state – they covet the financial support that the state is able to give them [tax exemption, bequeathals, salaries etc.]. Of course, it comes at a price. The state expects the church to support it in return. In this transaction, the church gains the approval of the state and loses the approval of Heaven.
Scripture tells us that this same combination, church and state, worked together against God’s people in the time of Elijah. Again, it was the same combination that accomplished the crucifixion of Christ. And again, the book of Revelation reveals that this apostate combination would prevail in the world for a period of 1260-years. And yet again, it will be repeated and enlarged upon on a universal scale, in the last days. Balaam and Balac worked together to prevent God’s people from entering the Promised Land. The same combination of church and state will rise again to try and prevent God’s people from doing the same. They will work together again, to prevent the last generation of God’s people from entering heaven.
We are told in Daniel’s visions that church and state began to mingle together after the supremacy of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was the iron – it was the legs of the figure seen in vision. However, as history progresses and moves into the feet of the figure, the iron begins to mingle with the clay. The Roman Empire did not fall and disappear. It continued on in a metamorphosed manner. The Roman Empire continued on in the form of the Roman Catholic Church.
The iron and the clay began to mingle after the conversion of the Roman Emperor, Constantine. Slowly, the power of the papacy supplanted the rule of emperors. The very foundation of papal power rests on the premise that the popes have jurisdiction over both the temporal [inherited supposedly from the Roman emperors] and the spiritual [inherited supposedly from Peter] realms on this earth. This doctrine of papal supremacy is known in the Bible as the “wine of her fornication” (Rev. 17:2; 18:3). Again, the imagery of sexual immorality is used to illustrated that this is an illegal or unnatural doctrine, and therefore contrary to the will of God. The prophetic picture uses this imagery to illustrate that the whole world has been [and will be again] “seduced” into believing that these papal claims are legitimate.
Just when Daniel’s vision said the unholy mixture of iron and clay would arrive – it did. The people from Constantine’s time onward were once again following the counsel of Balaam. And God’s people once more were accepting the “women” that Balak was sending into the “camp.” Thus, the church “opened its arms” and “embraced” the customs and religious beliefs of the people around them.
Just as this “embrace” led to apostasy and a “falling away” from the truth, in Balaam’s time – it had the same result in the Pergamos and Thyatira churches. And like the slow working HIV virus eventually develops into full-blown AIDS, the doctrine of Balaam, ultimately led to the full-blown development of the papacy – the union of church and state. The compromising spirit of the times has been documented by the well-known Roman Catholic authority, Cardinal Newman, where he admits that the church even took the “instruments” of demon worship and “converted” them to its own use [supposedly without contamination to the church]:
Confiding then in the power of Christianity to resist the infection of evil, and to transmute the very instruments and appendages of demon worship to an evangelical use… the rulers of the church from early times were prepared, should the occasion arise, to adopt, or imitate, or sanction the existing rites and customs of the populace, as well as the philosophy of the educated class. Cardinal Newman, Development of Christian Doctrine, pp. 371,372.
The Doctrine of the Nicolaitanes
The third and fourth churches were not just suffering from immoral and illegal practices they were also suffering from immoral and illegal beliefs. Please notice in the above quote, that Cardinal Newman states that the church also adopted the “philosophy of the educated class.” This “philosophy” was/is broad and varied, but they all have the fundamentals in common [i.e. you can save yourself through good works etc.]. However, the belief system that Jesus focuses on and thoroughly condemns [because it is the most dangerous for the spiritual life of the church] is the doctrine of the Nicolaitenes.
Most church historians have identified the church deacon Nicolas (see Acts 6:3-5) as being the originator of the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes. The Nicolaitanes taught that grace freed them from the obligations of the law. Ellen White confirmed that this doctrine was alive and well even in her time:
In another article, she wrote that the sin of the Nicolaitanes turned “the grace of God into lasciviousness” (ST June 7, 1887). Webster’s Dictionary defines “lasciviousness” as: “Having wanton desires, lustful, lewd” and “producing sensual desires.” These qualities are what characterize those who apostatize from the true faith [go whoring after other gods] and are especially exhibited by the woman riding the beast in Revelation 17.
In commenting on the faithfulness of the Ephesian church, Jesus specifically commended their opposition to the heresy of the Nicolaitanes. He said to them: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate” (Rev. 2:6).
So, even though the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes was present in the Ephesus Church, the church is commended by Christ for resisting the doctrine. However, when we move on in history to the Pergamos Church, we find that apostasy has taken such a hold on the church that it no longer hates the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes. The Nicolaitanes are now tolerated. Jesus said to the Pergamos Church:
So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Rev. 2:15,16.
The “falling away” (2 Thess. 2:3) that Paul had warned about was already taking place. Men were rising up from within the church “speaking perverse things” (Acts 20:30). The iron was mingling with the clay – the church was flirting with Jezebel.
That Woman Jezebel
The Bible speaks about a 1260-year period of tribulation for God’s people. This time period itself is mentioned seven times in prophecy. In addition, Jesus called this 1260-year period a ‘time” of tribulation’ in His Olivet discourse and Scripture repeats and enlarges on it in the New Testament, recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21.
|Dan. 7:25||a time, and times and the dividing of time|
|Dan. 12:7||a time, times and a half|
|Rev. 11:2||forty and two months|
|Rev. 11:3||a thousand two hundred and three score days|
|Rev. 12:6||a thousand two hundred and three score days|
|Rev. 12:14||a time, and times and half a time|
|Rev. 13:5||forty and two months|
|Matt. 24:21||then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.|
|Matt. 24:22||and except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved.|
|Matt. 24:29||immediately after the tribulation of those days…|
Jezebel brought three and a half years of persecution and tribulation upon God’s people. This literal period of three and half years and the period of tribulation during that time, is the antitype for the three and a half year period of papal supremacy – only this period of papal supremacy is spiritual, and because of the “year day principle” it is 1260 years.
The reason why Jezebel appears in the message to the Thyatira Church is because the apostasy represented by the mingling of iron and clay had reached its zenith. Jezebel and the priests of Baal are reigning over Ahab again, complete with the worshipping of idols and sun worship. During this time the people of God, had to flee and hide, wherever they could find a refuge. And just as Elijah fled the centre of God’s kingdom, at that time, and dwelt in wilderness areas and on the periphery of the kingdom, so too, did God’s people during this 1260-year period of persecution.
Once again, we find sexual immorality used to describe the illegal activities practiced during this 1260-year period. Jesus said of the Thyatira Church:
Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works. Rev. 2:20-23.
The reign of Jezebel, over the nations of Europe and beyond, came to an end in 1798, when she received a “deadly wound.” However, prophecy points forward to the time when the wound would be healed, and she would once again marry Ahab, seduce the nations of the world, and persecute God’s people one more time (see Rev. 17).
Remember What You Have Received
Many courageous individuals opposed the influence of Jezebel and many attempts were made to reform the Thyatira Church. These attempts culminated in a rediscovered reliance on the Bible and the essential truths about salvation contained therein. These discoveries resulted in the formation of new churches, collectively called Protestant, because they protested about the presence of Jezebel’s doctrines, and other abuses practiced by the church at this time. These Protestant Churches are represented historically and collectively, as the fifth period known as Sardis.
However, their protest did not continue long enough, or far enough. The fervent zeal of the original reformers was not carried on by their successors. Jesus said:
And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Rev. 3:1, 2.
Jesus continued by encouraging the members of Sardis to “remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent” (Rev. 3:3). In other words, remember how passionate and enthusiastic you were for the truth. But the Protestant Church’s focus began to shift away from the “truth of the gospel” and they began to get involved in the same arena that led to the downfall of the “mother” church.
The Lutheran Church became the state church of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. The Anglican Church became the state church of England, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and the Dutch Reformed Church of Holland, etc. The very nature of a state church is to promote the interests of the state. This compromises the church’s allegiance to God, and robs it of its vitality and power. The “truth of the gospel” cannot be upheld when the proponents of the gospel are operating contrary to the gospel. Jesus said:
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Matt. 6:24.
The word mammon means “riches” or “treasure” and there is no question that these state churches grew rich, under the favor of the state. But they paid a high price – by gaining the approval and support of the state – they lost the approval and support of Heaven.
Scripture tells us that: “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). God reserves the right, to rescind promises that He has made to those who refuse to do His will (see Jer. 18:1-10) and appoint those who will do His will. Sadly, the Sardis church eventually, fell into the category of “weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
Jesus says, that He did not find the Sardis church’s works “perfect before God” (Rev. 3:2). This failure on the part of the Sardis church necessitates the rise of yet another church to carry on the work of God’s kingdom. God will not allow the seeds that Jesus sowed during His ministry on earth, to cease their growth – the plant will reach maturity. Therefore, it is necessary at this time, in the history of God’s kingdom, to remove the torch, once bourn proudly aloft by the fifth church – and pass it to the sixth church – the Church of Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, the Protestant churches did not have “ears to hear” over the church state issue. Daniel’s vision said that the iron and the clay would be mixed together until the second coming of Christ, and this is illustrated in the history of the Protestant Churches. They followed the corrupt example of the Roman Catholic Church and allied themselves with the state and became official state churches.