In days of much speculation and discussion regarding the end times, the book of Revelation continues to be the focus of many Christians attention and interest. Opening with a magnificent vision of one "like unto the Son of man" in ch.1, John is instructed in v.19 to "Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter". Chapter 4 opens with John transported into heaven to see these " things which must be hereafter". They consist of a glorious investiture of the Lamb and His taking the title deeds to the whole creation in chs.4 and 5, followed by a detailed description of a period of tremendous tribulation and judgment from chs.6 to 19, and then details of the millennial kingdom and eternal state in the closing three chapters.
Seven local churches
But immediately prior to these revelations, chs.2 and 3 contain the "things which are". They are the intimate instructions of the Lord Jesus to seven companies of Christians in what we now call Turkey. These letters have been the subject of countless books, Bible readings, and teaching. Much time is spent discussing who the "angel" of each church is as well as debating the different ways of looking at the churches, whether historically, practically, or prophetically. In particular much has been speculated that the conditions of these churches can be traced through the last 2,000 years of history representing various stages and conditions right up to the present time. Interesting though these aspects may be, in this series of articles it is not our intention to focus on these issues but simply to look at the practical impact of the letters for us.
Primarily these letters are to seven companies relatively close to each other geographically and displaying very different conditions all at the same time. They are presented to us immediately prior to John being caught up to heaven, and as such we are going to consider them in the light of the conditions which can and do still exist among companies of Gods people today. It is our hope and expectation that we also are on the brink of being called up to heaven " with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and [like John] with the trump of God ". This makes these letters very applicable for the present, especially as the Lords return is certainly much nearer now than it was then. These letters tell of us of seven real sets of conditions all of which existed concurrently and indeed can still all be found nowadays. This is what makes the messages to them so relevant to us.
The condition of these churches
What we must remember is that the letters contain the real condition of these churches. It is not what those around them thought of them, nor what they themselves believed their condition to be. Neither is it what the companies thought of each other, something we are far too often taken up with, or even what the Apostle John thought of them. No, this is the Lords assessment of them: it is the view from heaven not earth, and it is not coloured by prejudice or opinion but is the pure, righteous, honest appraisal of the risen Lord! For this reason we do well to examine His words carefully, apply them to ourselves, and take His instruction and correction where necessary.
In the remainder of this article we will consider their applicability as a whole, before considering each company separately in future studies, God willing.
First, we must draw some lessons from the historical situation in which they are found. Geographically their locations roughly form a semi-circle in what we would now call south-west Turkey. Only one of them, Ephesus, is the recipient of a separate letter found elsewhere in Scripture, although, at the close of Pauls letter to the nearby saints in Colosse, Laodicea is referred to as also receiving one. Galatia and its churches are also found in modern day Turkey although some way north of these. In addition to these seven letters, and Pauls mentioned above, Pauls letters to Timothy and Philemon were similarly sent to this locality, and Peters first epistle was addressed to those scattered through this region and the rest of modern day Turkey. Thus, a remarkable proportion of our New Testament was written to Turkey, but this should not surprise us as much of Pauls missionary journeyings involved this area. But what a lesson we can learn from this today!
The present day situation
We must ask, "What is there of assembly testimony in Turkey today?". Less than 50 years ago, assembly missionaries from North America went to Turkey. Not only were they unable to find any companies corresponding to those from which they had come, sadly they could find no evidence of any true believers anywhere. This is in a land which could well be described as one of the "cradles" of New Testament Christianity. Could such a thing happen in our land today? Unfortunately we now live in a society often described as "post Christian" in which atheism, evolutionism, new age religions, and false cults are all booming. In many places companies of true believers are small and weak, and over the last few years many have closed completely. Often we attribute this to the conditions in the world and the result of faithfulness, but could issues like those in the seven churches also be contributing?
Like many of the "sevens" in Scripture these letters follow a pattern. The first and last churches are the only two warned of their imminent removal or rejection, yet they seem to have little else in common. Ephesus no doubt thought all was well because everything appeared to be doctrinally correct: they were faithful and hard working, yet they had been overtaken by mere formality and observance having lost the devotion which once marked them. In contrast, the Laodiceans thought that all was well because they were prospering and perhaps numerically strong and thriving, but the Lord considered them lukewarm and false and in need of individual response to Him. Could their demise have lessons for us today, where similar conditions seem to exist all around us?
The second and sixth churches are the only two to receive no criticism. Smyrna was suffering and materially poor, while Philadelphia, though faithful to His Word and name, had only "a little strength" and were urged to "hold fast". Could it be that these conditions result in commendation without censure and we should learn from this? Are we so taken up with the material side of life that we are neglecting the spiritual? Are we so comfortable in this world that we are not so dependent on the fellowship and "brotherly love" (implied in Philadelphias name) of our fellow saints, as we need to be? It is certainly true that our poor and suffering brethren in other lands, though afflicted from outside, are not beset with many of the self-created problems that we seem to have.
The central church, Thyatira, receives the largest letter. It, and Pergamos and Sardis on either side of it, are marked by serious departure from sound teaching. They are, in order, criticised by the Lord for their "doctrine", falling into "the depths of Satan", and being "defiled". This terminology shows how seriously He views departure from His Word and should exhort us to avoid the same mistakes. The tendency today is much like that found in these three churches - to compromise and flirt with the world, whether socially or ecclesiastically. We too are in danger of losing our distinctiveness, and as a result one of our main reasons for being here.
Truly these things written before really are for our learning. The value of the instructions in these letters is not to cause debate among Christians or to come up with clever analyses. No, it is to warn of us of the consequences of continued decline, and the real danger that the Lord may indeed " remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent" (Rev 2.5). As we look at these letters over this series, may we respond, individually and collectively, to the appeal of our soon coming Lord, as expressed, for example, to some of these companies: "Repent, and do the first works", "Strengthen the things which remain", and, "Hold fast till I come".
To be continued.