Seven Letters to Seven Churches

Introduction and Ephesus

Introduction

Christ’s message to the Seven churches

“John to the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev. 1:4)

As the leader of the Asian church, John was targeted by Roman authorities under the Emperor Domitian and exiled to Patmos (Rev. 1:9). Christian tradition holds that Domitian (AD 81–96) had John boiled in oil, but John was miraculously protected, so Domitian then had John banished to Patmos. Another Christian tradition states that when Domitian died his successor, Nerva (AD 96–98), released John and he returned to live out his day in Ephesus. It was during his time in exile on the island of Patmos, that John received his apocalyptic vision, which included the spiritual situation of seven Asian churches, the future of the Church and the End Time revelation.

The letters to the seven churches in Revelation contain the last written message directly from Jesus Christ to His Church. These seven short epistles are the words of Jesus for His Church; therefore, they should be equated with His gospel messages, teachings and prophecies. Jesus emphasizes the importance of the messages within the epistles by His seven-fold command, to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches”. Despite this clear command by Jesus to pay close attention to the contents of these seven letters, they have been largely ignored by the Church over the centuries. The words of Jesus contained in these seven letters should speak urgently to us, as they address the spiritual challenges and problems faced by every church and Christian, of every age. They also warn of the five stage plan that Satan would implement to contaminate and corrupt the Church.

The seven churches existed during the first century in the geographic region of Asia Minor (Turkey). The obvious question that needs to be answered is, why did Jesus choose to send messages to these particular seven churches? The Apostle John was Bishop of the area and had many churches under his care. For example, the epistle of Colossians is written by Paul to three churches in the Lycus river valley, Hierapolis, Laodicea and Colossae. All three churches were being contaminated by syncretism (amalgamation of man’s wisdom with God’s Word), yet only Laodicea is targeted. The book of Revelation addresses the seven churches for a specific reason. The first century churches were undergoing a series of spiritual problems and challenges which the Lord addresses with chastening, warnings and promises. These seven individual churches were chosen because their specific problems and conditions were characteristic of the spiritual situation of the Church at that time. They are also characteristic of the spiritual situation of the Church at various times throughout the millennia. The seven churches in Asia Minor chosen to receive letters from Jesus are: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.

The Seven Churches in Asia Minor

Application to Actual Churches

“Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this” (Rev. 1:19).

So, John is told by Jesus that there are “things which you have seen,” “things which are,” and “things which are to take place.” These seven churches, which actually existed in the first century (“things which you have seen”), also represent seven broad types of churches that have existed throughout history (“things which are”), and seven generally overlapping periods of history (“things which will take place”). These letters to the seven churches therefore can be applied in six main ways:

  • They existed literally and historically at the end of the first century AD, and were churches under John’s care as Bishop of Asia Minor. The churches were founded three decades earlier through the missionary work of the Apostle Paul. These churches struggled from the outset, having to deal with exterior attacks from paganism, idolatry and Roman persecution, and from interior problems that worked to break down their faith, such as the hubris of man, syncretism and heresy. The same struggle for obedience and spiritual faithfulness continues in the Church throughout history. Also, the problems that afflicted the seven churches are still found in local congregations to this day. The two-thousand-year-old message is therefore still relevant.
  • They are seven types of church which exist at any time throughout history. The prophecies of the book of Revelation are addressed to the seven churches because they represent the greater Church. The Lord tells John, “To write the things he has seen… the mystery of the seven stars,” if the letters were only for the seven churches, with no prophetic message to the universal Church, it would not be amystery”. The conclusion of the letter to Ephesus – the first church – contains an address to the universal Church: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7).
  • They correspond to seven periods of Church history. All seven churches have existed through the two-thousand-year history of the Church, but in turn, through the passage of time, each church has become the dominant type of Church for that age. We are now in the last “Church age,” which is Laodicea, the wealthy apostate church that believes they are rich, but are told by Jesus that they are “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked”.
  • They represent seven types of church that will exist at the end of the age. Although the dominant End Times Church will be the Laodicean church, influenced by syncretism and prosperity, all seven churches will be present in the Last Days.
  • Of the seven letters, only two churches do not receive a rebuke from Jesus. The other five churches, through an analysis of their rebukes, document a step-by-step process that Satan would follow in his efforts to establish the apostate Last Days church. The Church that will be the foundation for the counterfeit messiah, the Antichrist.
  • The letters convey universal lessons that describe and deal with universal human tendencies, which can aid the individual Christian in their walk with the Lord. The spiritual problems and challenges faced by these seven churches speak to Christians in every age. The message from Jesus is a call to awaken spiritually, to commit ourselves to a life of witness and obedience. An example would be Christ’s warning to the church of Ephesus, we must continually ask ourselves if our church attendance has become a duty, or a tradition we follow because we “have lost our first love.”

Ephesus – Duty without love

Revelation 2:1-7

“1 To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God’”.

Context

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write (Rev. 2:1)

Outside of the Promised Land itself, the city of Ephesus was the most important city in the life of the early Church. The Apostle Paul established the Church at Ephesus (Acts 19 & 20), and the Apostle John who later became the Bishop of the churches of Asia, had his home church in Ephesus. As Jesus entrusted the care of His mother to John, it is believed that Mary resided in Ephesus with John. The assembly enjoyed great leadership with Paul, Barnabas and Timothy as church elders, and later Polycarp also ministered there.

The ruins of the Amphitheatre at Ephesus

Ephesus was Asia Minor’s most important city, being a religious, political and commercial centre, with the region’s greatest port. Although Pergamum was the capital city of the province of Asia, Ephesus was much larger, with a population of around 250 000. It was considered to be the fourth largest city in the Empire after Rome, Alexandria and Syrian Antioch. Four trade routes converged there, with roads from Colossae, Laodicea and Galatia reaching the Mediterranean at Ephesus, via Sardis. This also meant that Ephesus was the port where persecuted Christians from throughout Asia would board ships bound for the Colosseum in Rome. The church father, Ignatius of Antioch (AD 35-110), dubbed the route “the highway of martyrs,” Ignatius would later travel on that “highway” to the Roman Colosseum, his ticket being paid for by the Emperor Trajan.

Ignatius Martyrdom by Lions in the Colosseum, a 2nd Century A.D. Bishop of Antioch.
This painting is of an illuminated leaf from the Menologium of Basil II. Eastern Church service book.

The city boasted fabulous architecture and impressive roads, including a 21-metre-wide tree-lined road running down to the harbour. Ephesus was a cosmopolitan city with large Jewish, Roman and Greek populations within the city; it served as a Roman political, military, and commercial centre.

“The city boasted fabulous architecture and impressive roads.”

Ephesus was home to a 25 000-seat theatre, and the temple of the Roman goddess Diana (the Greek Artemis), which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Built entirely of marble, it was the largest building in the entire Greek world. 36 of its 127 pillars – each sixty feet high – were over laid with gold. The temple was hugely extravagant and impressive to the people of the time. Diana’s temple was dedicated to a black meteorite that fell on Ephesus, it was a big, shiny, black block of material covered in lumps, each shaped like a female breast. This was regarded as a sign from Diana, and so a cult of female breast was developed in Ephesus. This many breasted meteorite was set on an alter and miniature silver productions of it were sold to tourists, who would then take these miniatures home and worship them along with their other household gods.

Diana of Ephesus

There is no coincidence in the fact, that it was at the council of Ephesus in the fifth century, that Mary was later proclaimed “Queen of heaven” and “Mother of God,” in imitation of the pagan worship of Diana (Artemis in Greek mythology) of Ephesus. This title came about even though the Greek term “Theotikos” – or “mother of god” – is nowhere to be found in the New Testament. One need only read Acts 19 to see how precious Diana/Artemis was to the Ephesians; this devotion is now directed towards Mary.

The worship of Diana the “virgin goddess,” appears to have been fused in Ephesus with the mother goddess of Asia Minor. The result was that Diana was patron of all prostitutes, and with her many bosomed images she represented fertility and sexuality. Many rites of ancient times described the immorality of the city. Ephesus was also a centre of witchcraft, superstition and demonism, having a weird mixture of black arts, demon worship, astrology and occult practices of various kinds. Image cults flourished in Ephesus, and one kind of Magic formula was actually called “Ephesia Grammata,” with magical formulars being inscribed on the statues of Diana.

The city was also a centre of emperor worship having temples to emperors Claudius, Nero and Domitian. Domitian’s temple housed a statue of the emperor four times larger than life-size, depicting Domitian as Zeus, the ruler of the gods.

The Ephesian Christians were converted to Christ out of this terrible atmosphere of demonic bondage. Some of them continued their occult involvement even after they had come to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Only when the demonic encounter with the sons of Sceva (Acts 19:14) occurred did the situation begin to change. Sceva a Jewish chief priest (Acts 19:14), and his sons began invoking the name of Jesus in their attempt to cast out demons, saying, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out” (Acts:19:13). This ploy to use the name of Jesus as a magical invocation to control demons backfired when a demon-possessed man overpowered them and severely beat them. The result of this misadventure was that the population of Ephesus was “seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour” (Acts 19:17). The new converts then began to break with their occult magical practices. However, this city that identified so closely with the apostolic church, became foundational to the later paganising that saw mainstream Christianity transformed into a paganised and politicised Christendom. The clear implication being, that churches that do not continually do spiritual warfare against the strongholds over their area, will eventually lose any spiritual ground gained to the very patient demonic powers.

Mary in Ephesus
The house of the “Virgin Mary” at Ephesus

In the Gospel of John (19:26–27) we read that Jesus entrusted Mary to John’s care while on the cross. Church tradition held that John took Mary to live with him in Ephesus, when he became leader of the Ephesians church community. The Catholic Church, as it always does, has claimed a house in Ephesus to be Mary’s house, and turned the building into a money-making shrine to Mary. The religious spirit that so dominates orthodoxy, dictated that it was in this selected building that Mary lived and died in Ephesus. That was until a great concern as to what happened to Mary arose in 1950. The Bible says “the wages of sin is death,” so, if Mary was without sin, how could she have died? This mystery was conveniently solved by Pope Pius XII in 1951, who proclaimed that Mary’s body saw no corruption, but was taken up to heaven. According to him, Mary fell into a deep sleep, and in this dormant state there was no corruption of the flesh. The Dormition Church on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, was built to commemorate this event. Mary then, according to the Pope, was eventually raised by angels into heaven where she took her place of authority next to Jesus. Scripture, however, makes no mention of this, but clearly states that Jesus is seated on the right hand of the Father (Mark.16:19). Also, John’s view of the throne room of God in Revelation 4, has God the Father, Jesus, angels and Elders, there is no sign of Mary.

Description of Christ

“…These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Rev. 2:1).

The seven stars are the seven angels, or messengers to the seven churches. Jesus holding these seven stars in His right hand, symbolizes strength and protection:

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10; cf. Psalm 18:35, 20:6, 63:8).

 In other words, Jesus is the guardian over the angels of the churches. He alone is the head of the Church, the head shepherd. In Biblical times the right hand was the work hand, which therefore also means that by Jesus holding the churches in his right hand, it is He who works with His Church. The Church at Ephesus may have had a stellar leadership, but Jesus is the one who holds the stars.

“… and who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands(Rev. 2:1b).

Jesus first appeared in Revelation 1:13 & 20, in the midst of the lamp stands, or churches, as the “Son of Man”. As in the menorah, Jesus is the supporting base to the branches that hold the lamps, which represent the churches, or the assembled believers of Christ:

“For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).

What Jesus Knows and Commendation

“2 I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (Rev. 2:2-3).

There was much in this church to commend and praise. The believers were zealous for good works and service for the Lord. Twice the letter speaks of how they laboured and persevered through hardship; these saints knew how to trust the Lord consistently under trial. The church was also very capable in their exposing of false apostles. The word apostle means “sent one,” so these men would have arrived at the church claiming to have messages or prophesies from God for the church body. The Ephesians were able to expose them as false apostles because they were doctrinally sound, and firmly grounded in the Word. The excellent leadership of the church had ensured that measures were put in place, where the fellowship were instructed in God’s Word. The Ephesians not only tested the claims of false apostles, but they were also militant in their stand against false teaching. The church in Ephesus would have no shortage of “wicked people” to deal with, the city covered the complete spectrum of the evil of man, from rampant debauchery, to the darkest of occult activities. The Ephesians labelled immorality for what it was, and cast out the false apostles.

“And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Cor. 11:12-15).

Rebuke

“4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4).

Jesus criticizes the church at Ephesus for abandoning their “first love”. Their doctrine was uncorrupted, but their passion for the Lord who had saved them was growing dim. Their focus had moved off Jesus onto works. The foundation of a successful relationship in marriage is love, true love is selfless and provides the warmth of companionship. A husband who has a wife who does not love him, will not be satisfied with a partner who is cold and distant and goes through the motions of being a wife out of a sense of duty. Marriage is not static, a partnership based on love grows and matures over time, becoming richer and deeper. When a husband and wife start to take each other for granted, and their married life becomes a routine, then their marriage is in danger.

The author of Hebrews encourages immature believers to “graduate form elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity” (6:1-3). He then gives them six foundation stones on which to focus on, the first foundation stone being “repentance from dead works”.  Whatever efforts are extended by a believer or a church, if not done with a basis of love for our Lord – are dead works. The Ephesus church needed to repent of their dead works, their service through duty, and return to their first love.

Satan’s Plan: Stage 1

John MacArthur introduced the concept of Satan’s planned attack on the Church being exposed within the seven letters:

The first stage of Satan’s attack on the Church was to introduce “orthodoxy,” where man’s traditions become more important than God’s word, which results in dead works. The Ephesians began to serve the Church through duty, and community pride; they did not serve through a love for their Saviour; this formed the cracks in the Church through which doctrinal error could flow. The relationship the Church had with Jesus was replaced by Church tradition – the life of the Church was determined by events manufactured by man. The natural consequence was that being a member of the Church and following the traditions of the Church, from baby baptism to last rights, determined one’s salvation.

Counsel and Exhortation

“5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5).

The Ephesians are exhorted to remember and to repent. These are two very significant words, because many Christians suffer from short memories! Each time these Christians experience hardship, they forget how the Lord has been with them in the past. How He supported them, met their needs and guided them through the difficult times. He was faithful to them in the past and will be faithful to them in the future. The Ephesians are required to remember that love is the foundation for all aspects of Christian living.

Biblical repentance is not only an expression of regret and remorse, it is a surrender to the will of God. The Ephesians needed to repent of their pride in duty and service, where they would have been making rules and regulation to administer the Church, instead they were required to turn back to being a servant of the Lord, a Church that looked to bless their Saviour.

What They Had

“6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Rev. 2:6).

Nicolaitans preached a separation of clergy and laity, attempting to recreate the hierarchy of the Old Testament priesthood. Before Satan succeeded in introducing pagan practices into the Church, he tried to Judaize it. They sought to establish a priestly authority over laymen. The word “Nicolaitans” originates from the Greek Nike meaning “victory,” and laity meaning “people.” It suggests a group of people who seek to elevate themselves above other believers into a special class of priesthood. So instead of a priesthood of all believers, the Nicolaitans introduced a separate priesthood, a ruling class. Nicolaitans did eventually infiltrate the Church along with other pagan practices, and could be seen as a counterfeit of the pagan style hierarchy of priests, which took hold of the Church after the time of Constantine. The end result being that the Church slipped downward into the “Dark Ages”.

Note that false Apostles and the Nicolaitans are linked, in that, when there is a ruling class of priest, invariably the church will become tainted by false apostles with false doctrine.

Promise

“7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7).

Jesus promises those that listen and overcome, that they will “eat from the tree of life,” in God’s everlasting paradise. An overcomer, John tells us in 1 John 5:4-5, is someone who believes that Jesus is the son of God and receives Him as their Lord and Saviour. The exhortation therefore points the believer to an eternal mind set, i.e., when we believe that Jesus is our Lord, we are focused – not on the things of this world – but, rather that the purpose for our life on earth is to earn eternal rewards.

The Tree of Life is in the first book of the Bible, where it is lost to mankind, and in the last book of the Bible where it is restored to mankind – through the sacrificial Work of Jesus. The “Tree of Life” is a divine gift to mankind, it imparts God’s own life force, so, those that partake of the “Tree of Life,” share in His power and presence for eternity.

The Ephesian Age

Prophetic application: Pentecost to about AD 100

Ephesus differs from the other six churches in that it refers to the Apostolic or Ephesian age of the Church up to the close of the first century AD. Hence, unlike the other six churches it has no future prophetic application to another age, although the principles for which Christ commends and admonishes it apply to all ages. The original time frame of Ephesus is the age in which the church existed at the time of John’s vision.

The Ephesian church is therefore a picture of the Apostolic church, the dominant characteristics being an era marked by correct doctrine, an awareness of the enemies’ deceptions, and a commitment to serve the Lord. Unfortunately, the negative was a waywardness in heart attitude, where service became a sense of duty – they believed their relationship with the Lord depended on their performance for Him. This belief opens the door for man’s wisdom to interfere with God’s Word, and as in the case of the Ephesians, man starts to establish traditions for service.

Note: God’s wisdom is that vital faith requires pure motives, i.e., service in Love – as Christ loves us so we must love him, and others in the same way. The two most important commandments: “Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind… and Love thy neighbour as thyself”. Man’s wisdom says that service to the Lord is to be performed out of a sense of duty, which requires regulation.

Summary:

Summary TopicEphesus Revelation 2:1-7
Period describedThe early Church.
OpeningTo the angel of the church . . . write.
Description of ChristHolds 7 stars, walks among 7 lampstands.
What Jesus knowsWorks, labour and patience.
CommendationTested false Apostles, and perseverance.
RebukeThey abandoned their first love.
CounselRepent, and do the works you did at first.
ExhortationTheir lampstand will be removed.
What you haveHatred for Nicolaitans.
PromiseTo eat from tree of life.
Other promisesNone.
ClosingListen to what the Spirit says to the churches

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