God's Church in Prophecy
For whom was the book of Revelation written? The first verse tells us: It was inspired by Jesus Christ "to show His servants-things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John" (Revelation 1:1).
In other words, it is written for God's servants, the Church of God. So it should come as no surprise that the Church itself is the primary topic of discussion in the first three chapters. (See "What Is the Church?")
Jesus commissioned His Church to be the "light of the world" (Matthew 5:14-16). Here in Revelation He symbolically introduces seven specific congregations of the Church as seven lampstands (Revelation 1:12, 20).
This imagery reminds us of the lampstand, with its seven branches, in ancient Israel's tabernacle and later the temple (Exodus 25:37; Zechariah 4:2). Now, however, God regards the Church itself as His spiritual temple (Ephesians 2:19-22).
Since seven represents completeness, these seven lampstands seem to portray a composite picture of the Church of God, the light of the world. Paul explains that the Church is one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Ephesians 4:4). However, it has multiple congregations and members scattered throughout the nations. Therefore, these seven specific assemblies of believers appear to effectively represent the totality of the Church.
It appears likely that the prophecies of the Church in Revelation 2 and 3 have multiple meanings and applications. As one authority on the book of Revelation writes:
"There has been some debate concerning the theological significance of these seven churches. It is obvious, as there were many churches located in the area where these churches were found, that God divinely selected seven and seven only, and did not send messages to other churches that conceivably might have been more important ...
"There were from five hundred to one thousand townships in the province of Asia in the first century, some of them far larger than the cities of Thyatira and Philadelphia, and undoubtedly a number of them had Christian churches ... It is understandable that the number of churches should be limited to seven as this is the number of completeness or universality in the Scripture, but there undoubtedly were other principles which determined the selection.
"First of all, each church needed a particular message, and the spiritual state of each church corresponded precisely to the exhortation which was given. The selection of the churches was also governed by the fact that each church was in some way normative and illustrated conditions common in local churches at that time as well as throughout later history. The messages to the seven churches therefore embody admonition suitable for churches in many types of spiritual need.
"Along with the messages to the churches were exhortations which are personal in character constituting instruction and warning to the individual Christian. Each of the messages as given to the churches therefore ends in a personal exhortation beginning with the phrase 'He that hath an ear, let him hear.'
"Many expositors believe that in addition to the obvious implication of these messages the seven churches represent the chronological development of church history viewed spiritually. They note that Ephesus seems to be characteristic of the Apostolic Period in general and that the progression of evil climaxing in Laodicea seems to indicate the final state of apostasy of the church ... The order of the messages to the churches seems to be divinely selected to give prophetically the main movement of church history" (John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 1989, pp. 51-52).
The overall message is, of course, that Christ reveals the dominant strengths and weaknesses of the Church both in John's day and through the ages. He plainly tells each congregation, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 2:7). He reveals what appears to be a sweeping picture of the future of His Church. In the midst of the seven lampstands representing His Church until the end of this present age, He appears in all His glory as its Head and High Priest (Revelation 1:13; Ephesians 4:15; Hebrews 8:1-2).
Responding to the Church's intense persecution of the time, Christ assures His faithful servants their suffering is not in vain. He, too, had suffered persecution and death. So He reminds them: "I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades [the grave]" (Revelation 1:18, New Revised Standard Version).
Then He urges: "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10).
At that moment in time Christ's true followers were a persecuted and discouraged body. They longed for Jesus to return in power and glory to judge their adversaries and establish the Kingdom of God. They desperately needed encouragement and desired a better understanding of what their future held.
They also needed to be put back on the straight and narrow spiritually. That was exactly what Christ did for them through this book. During this time of extreme adversity, directly instigated by Satan, Christ was revealing to John the framework of future events and reminding His faithful servants what He expects of them.
Works and faithfulness evaluated
Each congregation exhibits its own set of characteristics. But within these seven assemblies are common virtues and problems that Christians in all generations should either emulate or avoid. These messages make it clear that some congregations and individual members of the Church were developing serious spiritual deficiencies-some even allowing Satan to lead them away from their calling. Christ clearly distinguishes the spiritual works of those acceptable to Him from the works of those flirting with the "depths of Satan" (Revelation 2:24).
He begins with the congregation in the city of Ephesus: "I know your works, your labor, your patience ..." (verse 2). In the following verses Jesus evaluates the works and faithfulness of each congregation. He compliments the members for their strengths. But He also uses expressions like "Nevertheless I have this against you ..." (verses 4, 14, 20). He tempers His praise with words of warning.
He is particularly complimentary toward those who "have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake and have not become weary" (verse 3). He makes the point: "... The churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works" (verse 23). He appreciates those who "cannot bear those who are evil" and "have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars" (verse 2).
Notice Christ's promises to the faithful: (1) They will "eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God." (2) They will "not be hurt by the second death." (3) They will receive "a new name." (4) They will be given "power over the nations." (5) They will "be clothed in white garments." (6) They will be pillars "in the temple of My God." (7) They will "sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne" (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21).
These promises, along with similar assurances in the remainder of Revelation, must have greatly strengthened and encouraged those early Christians.
Historian Will Durant writes: "The influence of the Book of Revelation was immediate, enduring and profound. Its prophecies of salvation for loyal believers, and of punishment for their enemies, became the sustenance of a persecuted Church. Its theory of the millennium solaced those who mourned the long delay in the second coming of Christ. Its vivid images and brilliant phrases entered into both the popular and the literary speech of Christendom" (The Story of Civilization: Part III, Caesar and Christ, 1972, p. 594).
The Church's battle with Satan
But there is an ominous side to Christ's evaluation of His Church. He refers to the active influence of Satan in drawing Church members back into the idolatrous and sinful society from which they had just escaped. To "the church in Pergamos" He says, "I know ... where you dwell, where Satan's throne is" (Revelation 2:12-13). He also reveals that some in Thyatira had strayed into "the depths of Satan" (verse 24).
False teachers posed another problem. The congregation in Thyatira is censured for allowing "that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols" (verse 20). The congregation in Ephesus is also accosted by "those who say they are apostles and are not," but are "liars" (verse 2).
The Smyrna congregation experiences problems from "those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan" (verse 9). And Pergamos has "those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality." He adds, "Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate" (verses 14-15).
To most of the Christians in the city of Sardis Christ says, "I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead" (Revelation 3:1). He adds: "You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy" (verse 4). Most of the people of this congregation are Christians in name only.
Those in Philadelphia "have little strength" but they at least remain faithful (verse 8). But the Laodicean congregation is described as lukewarm, "neither cold nor hot" (verse 16). Christ tells Laodiceans: "... You say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'-and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked" (verse 17).
These many references and warnings tell us that, both from external sources and from within the Church of God itself, a corrupted form of Christianity was developing through the influence of the devil and some of those whom he had deceived.
Peter had warned of this dangerous development some years earlier when he wrote: "But there were also false prophets among the people [of ancient Israel], even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed" (2 Peter 2:1-2).
Satan controlled and manipulated an apostate religion that began to masquerade as Christianity as far back as the days of the apostles. The messages to the seven congregations in Asia Minor seem to imply that a counterfeit Christianity is destined to be one of Satan's main instruments of deception in the last days.
Warnings of a false Christianity
The idea of an apostate religion masquerading as Christianity may sound shocking. But Jesus Himself told His disciples this would happen. When they asked Him, "And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3), He stated that religious impostors would come in His name. "Take heed that no one deceives you," He warned. "For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many" (verses 4-5).
This prophecy of Jesus has been—and will be-fulfilled in two ways. First, religious leaders claiming to be the Christ—the prophesied Messiah—rise and gain followings for themselves. Second, and far more widespread, are those who come in the name of Christ, claiming to be His spiritual representatives but whose teachings in reality are contrary to His instructions and so lead people astray.
What, according to Christ, would be the consequences of this deception? "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many" (verse 9-11).
Faithful Christians were prophesied to become a distinct minority and, at the time of the end, be intensely persecuted by a much larger and far more powerful false religion claiming to worship Christ.
Throughout the book of Revelation this false religion, posing as the true religion, is presented as wielding incredible influence at the time of the end. The almost unbelievable power that will be displayed by the great "false prophet" of Revelation will be one of the major signs that the end of the age is imminent.
Jesus explained that, at the time of the end, "there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equalled again ... At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-if that were possible" (Matthew 24:21-24, NIV).
Christ reveals to His servants that, even during the lifetime of John, Satan was already developing a corrupted version of Christianity. He was already recruiting a following within the Church Jesus had founded. (You can read the history of these two entirely different forms of Christianity, one faithful to Christ and the other deceived by Satan, when you request your free copy of the booklet The Church Jesus Built.)
The prophecies given by Christ and His apostles concerning the development of a counterfeit Christianity came to pass just as they had predicted. This counterfeit even now dominates the world's religious scene-but to nowhere near the extent it will in the coming years.
Now let's examine why we should have confidence in the other prophecies contained in the book of Revelation.
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