In the Lord’s Day
By Arlen L. Chitwood
The Seven Churches
To the angel of the church of Ephesus . . . Smyrna . . . Pergamos . . . Thyatira . . . Sardis . . . Philadelphia . . . Laodicea . . I know your works . . . To him that overcomes . . . . (Revelation 2:1ff)
Revelation, chapters two and three consist of short, to-the-point epistles written to seven churches in Asia during the first century, during the time in which the Apostle John lived. These seven churches were specifically chosen by the Lord to not only receive the message given to John in the future Day of the Lord but to also set forth certain evident, spiritual truths in the opening part of this message.
Near the end of the first century, at the time John was removed into heaven to receive “the Revelation of Jesus Christ,” it is obvious that there were many churches scattered throughout Asia [groups of believers in different communities, comprising various churches], far more than the seven referred to in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation.
There were some five hundred to one thousand townships in Asia near the end of the first century; and through the dispersion of Christians and the evangelistic fervor of the early Church, with much of this evangelistic fervor concentrated in Asia (cf. Acts 2:9; 8:1, 4; 11:19; 19:10, 26; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1), one could only conclude that there had to be numerous Christians, comprising many churches, in different communities throughout Asia by this time.
Thus, the seven churches appearing in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation could only have been chosen by the Lord from among numerous existing churches, and the Lord’s purpose behind not only selecting seven but selecting these particular seven becomes very evident as one studies the material in these opening chapters.
“Seven” is one of four numbers used in Scripture to show completeness (“three,” “ten,” and “twelve” are the others). Each one shows completeness after a particular fashion. “Three” shows divine completeness. “Seven” is somewhat similar to “three” in the sense that it is a number associated with deity. It is God’s number, and in this respect it is used in Scripture numerous times to show the completeness of that which is in view. “Ten” shows numerical completeness, and “twelve” shows governmental completeness.
When the Lord used the number “seven” in the first three chapters of this book, referring to seven churches in Asia, He, by this means, was also referring to the complete Church (the completeness of that which was in view, i.e., “the Church”). These seven churches are spoken of and dealt with in the book of Revelation in an all-inclusive sense (cf. Revelation 1:4, 11, 16, 20; 2:1ff). Insofar as revelation in this book is concerned, there were no other churches in Asia. These “seven” are looked upon as comprising a summation of the whole, the complete Church.
In this respect, any one of the numerous other churches in existence in Asia during John’s day could not be named or even alluded to in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation, for the complete Church is shown within the scope of the “seven” that are listed. This is the reason that there is a repeated reference to “seven churches,” no more, no less — calling them “the seven churches that are in Asia,” looking upon them, in actuality, as the only churches in Asia — in the opening three chapters of this book.
These seven churches show not only the complete Church in Asia during John’s day but also the complete Church in the world throughout the dispensation. This is evident by that which is shown at the very beginning of the book, in chapter one — the seven churches appearing in Christ’s presence in the future Day of the Lord. These seven are used to represent the complete Church — all Christians throughout the entire course of the dispensation — appearing in Christ’s presence to be judged in that future day when we all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10).
By having John send “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” to “the seven churches that are in Asia,” viewing these churches in an all-inclusive sense, the Lord clearly revealed that this message was for the complete Church, represented by the seven. It was also for the other congregations in Asia or any other part of the world during that time, as well as all congregations in the world during any intervening time since. The message in this book is thus for all Christians at any time during the dispensation.
1. An Overview of Chapters Two and Three
Two entire chapters of the book of Revelation are given over to material pertaining strictly to the seven churches. Seven short epistles — one directed to each of the seven churches — form all of the material comprising these two chapters. And each of the seven epistles follows exactly the same outline: (1) Introductory words, drawn from that which has already been revealed about Christ in chapter one, (2) the statement, “I know your works,” (3) certain things peculiar to each church, and (4) an overcomers’ promise to each church.
God has taken a rather lengthy segment of the book of Revelation to record a number of things to and about the seven churches in Asia, and these seven epistles can only be filled with meaning and spiritual significance. There are seven churches, there is an order to the way these churches are listed, and certain things are said to and about each church within this order.
Possibly the best way to illustrate what God did in His choice of these churches and the arrangement of material set forth in Revelation 2, 3 is to illustrate what He did prior to this time in establishing the types within Scripture. One was done exactly in the same fashion as the other.
God, in His sovereignty, allowed certain things to occur (beginning with the sin of Satan and the subsequent ruin of the earth prior to the creation of man) in order that He might have these occurrences (and also the subsequent experiences of Adam and his descendants), forming the types within Scripture, to draw upon as object lessons to later teach His people the deep things of God. Everything occurred within the scope of God’s sovereign control of matters. God does not draw spiritual lessons of this nature from haphazard experiences.
And it is the same with the seven churches in the book of Revelation. God, in His sovereign control of matters, allowed certain things to occur within seven particular churches in Asia during the first century for particular purposes — that at the end of the first century He could have these seven churches and the things peculiar to each to draw upon in order to teach His people, for the next nineteen centuries, numerous spiritual truths surrounding the Church.
2. A History of the Church
With the seven churches pointing to the complete Church as shown numerically, one would naturally be led to look for a fore-view of the history of Christendom during the dispensation, and even more so since the first and seventh of these epistles fit perfectly within the framework of that which Scripture elsewhere reveals about the beginning and end of Church history during Man’s Day.
It is entirely by divine design that Ephesus (which had left its “first love”) is mentioned first and Laodicea (which had never known a “first love” but, rather, is presented as “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked”) is mentioned last. The dispensation began after a fashion described by Christ’s words depicting conditions in the church in Ephesus, and it will end after a fashion described by Christ's words depicting conditions in the church in Laodicea.
During the Apostolic period, “the hope of the gospel” (which has to do with “the mystery” revealed to Paul [“Christ in you, the hope of glory”]), was proclaimed to “every creature [‘the whole creation,’ Weymouth] under heaven” (Colossians 1:23, 26, 27). But Scripture presents conditions in Christendom at the end of the dispensation in a completely opposite framework.
The departure of Christians from their “first love” eventually resulted in complete apostasy in Christendom — Christians refusing to have anything to do with “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” i.e., Christians departing from particular biblical truths that were widely proclaimed by the Church during the Apostolic period but would not be proclaimed by the Church at the end of the dispensation (cf. Jude 3, 4).
It was the Lord Himself who asked the question while on earth the first time,
Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find [the] faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8)
The way the question is worded in the Greek text necessitates a negative answer. When the Son of Man comes He will not find “the faith” on the earth (an expression in Scripture peculiarly related to the Word of the Kingdom, the salvation of the soul, or, as in Revelation 2, 3, overcoming and subsequently occupying a position with Christ in the kingdom [cf. 1 Timothy 6:12; Jude 3]). Rather than finding “the faith” on the earth when He returns, the Son of Man will find conditions in Christendom exactly as described in His words to the Church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:15ff.
(Note the section dealing with the Messianic nature of the Lord’s title, “the Son of Man,” in Part 2 of this series. It is “the Son of Man,” the One about to possess dominion over the earth, who will not find “the faith [the message concerning Christians having a part as co-heirs with Him in His dominion]” being proclaimed by the churches at the time of His return.)
The thought of a history of Christendom being presented in Revelation 2, 3 must be understood within the framework of the subject matter in these two chapters. The seven epistles deal with the works of Christians in relation to overcoming or being overcome, with a view to the coming judgment of Christians and the Messianic Era that follows. In short, the epistles deal with the Word of the Kingdom; and that part of Church history that is covered within the scope of these seven epistles must, contextually, center on the direction that Christendom takes over a 2,000-year period in relation to this message.
3. Present Conditions in Christendom
The Word of the Kingdom is the central message that is supposed to be proclaimed by pastor-teachers in the churches of the land during the entire dispensation. This is the message that was proclaimed throughout the entire known world during the Apostolic period and the message Christ will not find even being proclaimed in the world when He returns. And it is this central thought that must be kept in mind when viewing a panorama of Church history in Revelation 2, 3. Church history is not covered in a broad sense in these two chapters. Rather, it is covered in a very restricted sense.
Why has Church history gone in this direction? Why did the Church leave its “first love” and eventually end up in its present apostate state? The answer is very simple. The leaven that the woman placed in the three measures of meal in Matthew 13:33 has progressively done its damaging work during two millennia of time. And not only is this the case, but once the working of the leaven had brought Christendom into the state described by the seventh church, the Laodicean church, the leaven could then rapidly finish the work that it had begun almost two millennia earlier.
Leaven works best in a place where the temperature is not too hot or too cold, and the “lukewarm” conditions existing in the Laodicean state of Christendom provide a very conducive atmosphere for the leaven to complete its work in a rapid manner. Because of this, the leaven today is actually doing its most rapid, damaging work of the entire dispensation.
This is the reason why a person can go into the churches of the land today and begin talking about any number of subjects, except one, and encounter very little problem or opposition. But let him begin talking about the one subject that was uppermost in the mind of the Lord before the inception of the Church, or uppermost in the minds of the Apostles and others in the early Church (before or about the time that the leaven began its work in Christendom) and see what happens. Let him begin talking about the Word of the Kingdom, and trouble will immediately surface. Apostate Christendom, brought into a place separate from “the faith,” will be antagonistic toward and will have nothing to do with this message.
Thus, don’t be surprised when you find Christians, even in so-called fundamental circles, who will not only reject but be antagonistic toward the things having to do with the coming kingdom of Christ. The leaven has been working toward this end for almost two millennia, and that which is very evident in Christendom today is the end result. The condition in which Christendom presently finds itself is exactly the condition in which Christendom had been prophesied to exist at the end of the dispensation.
Messages to the Churches
As previously stated, each of the seven messages to the seven churches follows exactly the same outline: (1) Introductory words, drawn from that which had already been revealed about Christ in chapter one, (2) the statement, “I know your works,” (3) certain things peculiar to each church, and (4) an overcomers’ promise to each church.
The messages to the seven churches are directed, not to the churches themselves, but to the angels of the churches: “To the angel of the church of [‘in’] Ephesus . . . Smyrna . . . Pergamos . . . Thyatira . . . Sardis. . . Philadelphia . . . Laodicea write . . . .”
These angels are heavenly messengers and could only be identified as angels from among the “ministering spirits” in Hebrews 1:14, ministering on behalf of Christians relative to “so great salvation,” “the saving of the soul” (Hebrews 2:3; 10:39) — or contextually in Revelation 2, 3, relative to overcoming and realizing a position as co-heir with Christ in the coming kingdom (cf. Revelation 2:26, 27; 3:21).
In Hebrews, chapter one, angels are seen as spirits ministering on behalf of individual Christians; but in Revelation, chapters two and three, angels are seen as spirits ministering on behalf of groups of Christians, comprising churches. Angels are thus presented in Scripture as ministering on behalf of Christians on both individual and corporate levels.
Though the different messages in Revelation, chapters two and three are directed to the angels ministering on behalf of the churches, the messages are for and concern the churches themselves, not the angels per se.
The material concerns the angels only in the sense that they have been placed over the churches and occupy positions in which they can minister on behalf of the churches in relation to that which is in these messages.
(For additional information concerning these angels, see the author’s books, Judgment Seat of Christ, chapter 3, and So Great Salvation, chapter 2.)
1. Introductory Words
Revelation, chapter one provides the background material for chapters two and three, and these two chapters would stand alone, in a non-intelligible sense, apart from chapter one. Chapter one provides numerous descriptive statements concerning Christ, but revelation in the chapter centers on John being removed into the future Day of the Lord and seeing the Church (the complete Church, all Christians [represented by the seven churches]) appearing in Christ’s presence to be judged.
Then chapters two and three also contain a number of descriptive statements concerning Christ. Each of the seven epistles to the seven churches begins with one or more descriptive statements, and each is drawn from material in chapter one.
The descriptive statements in these three chapters could all be looked upon under four different headings: (1) the deity of Christ, (2) His finished work of redemption, (3) Christ as Judge, and (4) Christ as King.
The One who is co-equal with the Father, the “I AM” of Scripture (cf. Exodus 3:13, 14; John 18:4-8), purchased the Church “with His own blood [the blood of God (Acts 20:28)]” with a purpose in view. And that purpose is intimately connected with His coming reign over the earth. However, prior to His reign, Christians must be judged. And it is with all these things in mind that the descriptive statements concerning Christ are given in the first three chapters of this book.
Chapter two, opening with the message to the church in Ephesus, begins by showing Christ in the midst of the seven churches and by calling attention to the angels of the seven churches (2:1). Since these angels are mentioned within the scope of the judgmental description of Christ in the first chapter (1:16, 20), the only logical conclusion would be that they will somehow have a part in Christ’s judgment of Christians. God has always used angels to carry out affairs in His kingdom, and angels will apparently be very active in events surrounding the judgment seat of Christ.
The scene beginning the second chapter of this book is thus one of judgment. Christ is presented as walking “in the midst of the seven lampstands [the seven churches]” with the angels of the seven churches in His presence, which is a judicial scene drawn from chapter one (vv. 13, 16).
The next descriptive statement concerning Christ in chapter two, beginning the message to the church in Sardis, centers around the eternity (deity) of Christ and His finished work of redemption. He is "the first and the last," and He is also the One who “was dead, and is alive” (2:8). The One who will judge the Church is described as the One who not only has existed from all eternity but has also redeemed the Church.
In messages to the next three churches, the churches in Pergamos, Thyatira, and Sardis, reference is made to things having to do with Christ as Judge. He is described as the One “who has the sharp two-edged sword,” “who has eyes like a flame of fire,” and “feet like fine brass”; and reference is again made to the angels of the seven churches, along with the “seven Spirits of God” (2:12, 18; 3:1; cf. 1:4, 14-16).
Then in the messages to the last two churches, the churches in Philadelphia and Laodicea, reference is made to Christ’s Kingship and to things surrounding His deity once again (3:7, 14; cf. 1:5, 6, 8).
God’s message in this seven-fold description of Christ is very simple: God is calling attention to the One existing from all eternity who will one day reign over the earth (2:8; 3:7, 14); but the One who will reign has first provided redemption (2:8), and He will also first execute judgment (2:1, 12, 18; 3:1).
2. I Know Your Works
God's judicial activity has always been and will always be on the basis of “works.” There is no such thing as God executing judgment apart from works.
God, for example, judged sin in the person of His Son on the basis of the Son’s finished work; and God is satisfied. This is the reason unredeemed man can come into possession of eternal salvation only one way — by receiving that which has already been done on his behalf.
The things surrounding Christ’s finished work can never enter into any future judgment of man, whether saved or unsaved. That is, no man can ever stand before Christ to be judged on the basis of his eternal salvation. Judgment surrounding this matter has already occurred in past time, and it can never occur again.
This is the reason we find in John 3:18 that the one believing on Christ “is not condemned [‘judged’],” but the one “that believeth not is condemned [‘judged’] already.” No judgment relative to eternal salvation can await the believer (it has already occurred [cf. Romans 8:1]); nor can judgment relative to eternal salvation await the unbeliever (it has already occurred also, for it is the same judgment, occurring at the same time, as for the believer).
God judged sin in the person of His Son once, never to be repeated; and unsaved man, in relation to God’s judgment upon sin in the person of His Son, has already been judged. A perfect tense is used in the Greek text in John 3:18, indicating that judicial activity surrounding unsaved man occurred in past time and presently exists in a finished state. Unsaved man has already been judged, and that’s the end of the matter.
Some Christians have sought to view the first part of John 3:18 and Romans 8:1 in relation to Christ’s judicial activity at His judgment seat, leaving them with a one-sided, erroneous view of this future judgment. God’s judicial activity in the past is one thing, and Christ’s judicial activity in the future is something completely different. Both have their basis in works; but they are completely separate judgments, surrounding completely different matters, occurring at completely different times, for completely different reasons, based on completely different works.
If a person, on the basis of Christ’s past finished work, is going to say that a Christian can never enter into any type future judgment (leaving the judgment seat of Christ operable only in the realm of rewards), he is going to be forced to say exactly the same thing about unsaved man relative to future judgment at the Great White Throne. Unsaved man can no more be judged at the Great White Throne on the basis that is being used (John 3:18; Romans 8:1) than saved man can escape judgment on this basis at the judgment seat of Christ.
Judgment that is waiting for both saved and unsaved man will be on the basis of works — their own works (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 20:12). There’s no other basis upon which they could be judged. Their prior acceptance or rejection of the finished work of Christ will only determine which judgment they will enter into. Their eternal destiny will have already been determined, and it can have nothing to do with that which will occur at either of these future judgments.
This is the reason that the works of Christians are mentioned first in each of the seven messages to the seven churches, immediately following the introductory words concerning Christ. “Judgment” is in view (from chapter one; note also how the first of the seven epistles is introduced in chapter two — Christ, as Judge, walking in the midst of the seven churches [2:1; cf. 1:13, 20]), and it can’t be a judgment on the basis of eternal verities. The eternal destiny of those being judged will have already been settled, on the basis of God’s past judgment surrounding the past finished work of Another.
Consequently, something entirely different is being dealt with in these seven epistles when the works of Christians are mentioned.
A judgment of Christians, with a view to overcoming and occupying a position on the throne with Christ, is the only thing that could possibly be in view (and, contextually, it is clear that this is exactly what is in view); and the only basis for this judgment will be the works of those being judged. Thus, each of the seven epistles, after introductory statements concerning Christ, begins exactly the same way: “I know your works . . . .”
3. Peculiarities of Each Church
The “Nicolaitans” appear to occupy a prominent place in the facet of Church history depicted by the seven churches in Revelation 2, 3. These individuals are named in the first and third of the epistles to the seven churches (epistles to Ephesus and Pergamos), and there is a sharp deterioration in the attitude of Christians toward “the faith” in these epistles, which would seem to be connected with what is said about the Nicolaitans.
Outside of Revelation, chapter two, there is no known sect in Church history (biblical or secular) by the name Nicolaitans. Some early writers tried unsuccessfully to connect this group of individuals with Nicolas of Antioch; and others, following in their steps, try this even today. However, such a connection cannot be established, which leaves one with a sole method of identification — the meaning of the word itself.
The reference can only be to a group of individuals in the early Church whose practices and doctrine are self-explained by the term that Christ used to identify them. Apart from this method of identification, nothing can be known about the Nicolaitans.
The word “Nicolaitans” is a transliterated, compound word from the Greek text, derived from nikao (“to conquer”) and laos (“people”). Thus, the word simply means, “to conquer the people.” Using the meaning of the name itself after this fashion, the Nicolaitans would have to be identified as individuals in the Church who had subjugated the remaining Christians to their self-imposed authority — individuals comprising a ruling class (the clergy over the laity), something condemned by Scripture in no uncertain terms.
Authority within the Church must always be based solely upon “service.” Those occupying positions of leadership (elders, deacons) must always minister (serve) within this sphere of activity, which is to bear no relationship whatsoever to authority exercised by those in the world (cf. Matthew 20:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:15, 16). Nicolaitanism is simply a corruption of delegated authority within the Church, exercising this authority after a forbidden pattern — after the pattern set forth by the world.
Christians in the church in Ephesus were said to hate “the deeds of the Nicolaitans” (2:6), but this was not said about Christians in the church in Pergamos. Rather, in the church in Pergamos, Christ alone is mentioned as hating their “doctrine”; and the Nicolaitans appear to have found acceptance in the Church by this time.
Christians in the church in Smyrna — the church that Christ singled out after He mentioned the Nicolaitans in the church in Ephesus but before He mentioned them in the church in Pergamos — were exhorted to be faithful; but such was not to occur. By the time one reaches the epistles to the third and fourth churches (Pergamos and Thyatira), doctrinal corruption appeared to be rampant. The doctrine of Balaam was being taught, and a woman identified by the name “Jezebel” was being allowed to teach Christians things surrounding sexual immorality and idolatry (see the author’s book, Judgment Seat of Christ, chapters 7, 8).
Contextually, the “deeds of the Nicolaitans,” brought about through the working of the leaven, appear to have been the means by which the working of the leaven then produced the additional named corruption in the churches.
The fifth and sixth churches that Christ addressed — the churches in Sardis and Philadelphia — reveal that even though corruption of the nature set forth in the churches in Pergamos and Thyatira will exist during the dispensation, there will still be faithful Christians in various churches (3:4, 10). But the Church as a whole, in relation to the attitude of Christians toward the Word of the Kingdom, is going to exist at the end of the dispensation exactly as depicted by the seventh and last church that Christ addressed, the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14ff).
4. To Him Who Overcomes
The promise ending each message concerning what Christ will do for the one overcoming becomes self-evident when these seven messages are viewed in their proper perspective.
“Overcoming” is to conquer, to gain a victory. The promise is to Christians alone, to those comprising the seven churches, i.e., to all Christians. Christians, rather than falling victim to the various forms of corruption arising in the Church are exhorted to remain “faithful” (cf. Revelation 2:10; 3:4), and seven different overcomers’ promises are held out for those who so govern their lives.
The overcomers’ promises are all millennial in their scope of fulfillment, and they will be realized in the coming age when Christ and His co-heirs ascend the throne together.