There are those who believe the seven churches of Revelation represent seven “church ages.” While I’ve considered this possibility, I’m not convinced. I believe these seven literal churches represent the struggles and pitfalls churches continually face throughout the entire church age (singular) until the return of Christ. I think each of us would be wise to prayerfully and honestly read Revelation 2-3 and let the Holy Spirit reveal to us the unpleasant realities of our own hearts and the awful conditions of many of our churches. We’d be wiser still if we repent of all sin He reveals.
The words to the churches are instructions, warnings, and encouragement for us as much as they were to them. Of the seven churches, only two received complete commendation. Two received only rebuke, while the rest received both. Most of our churches fall into the latter groups. May we take Jesus’ words to heart.
- Jesus walks in our midst. This truth, if churches really believed and understood this, would challenge attitudes, thoughts, words, and behaviors. Jesus notices every detail going on in churches, whether it’s during services, meetings, or behind closed doors—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Behind the talk, the actions, and the motives, everything is perceived by His scrutinizing eye.
- Love is as important as sound doctrine (and vice versa). Which is more important, love or sound doctrine? The question is like asking which is more important, air or water? Neither is more important but both are vital. The church of Ephesus was commended by Christ for holding firmly to sound doctrine but sternly rebuked for losing love for Him. The church in Pergamum was commended for holding fast to His name but sternly rebuked for permitting false teachers and their teachings. For churches to be healthy and truly Christ-honoring, sound doctrine and fervent love for Christ. To surrender one is like giving up air or water—too long without either is fatal.
- Suffering does not equal God’s displeasure. The church in Smyrna was highly commended by Christ with no rebuke, although it had to endure tribulation, poverty, and intense suffering. This truth goes directly against the heresies of the modern “prosperity” gospel and teachings that God’s favor is evidenced by the comforts of this world.
- Jesus will judge idolatry and sexual immorality if not repented of. Jesus doesn’t turn a blind eye to idolatry, immorality, perversions, or the seduction of His people into such practices. The churches in Pergamum and Thyatira were severely rebuked by Christ for permitting idolatrous practices and sexual immorality. Jesus commands repentance and threatens severe consequences for those who refuse to repent. This should sound an alarm to churches today who permit idolatrous teachings (e.g., yoga, goddess worship, pluralism, etc.) and sexual immorality of various kinds or who turn a blind eye to sexual abuse. Jesus’ command of repentance is just as valid today as back then.
- Jesus searches the mind and heart, not just actions. To the church in Thyatira, “the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire” (2:18), declares, “All the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (2:23). Jesus not only sees the works and actions, but He also sees the motives, lusts, and ambitions behind all the pretensions. He threatens tribulation and commands repentance. For all who refuse to repent, the consequences only become more severe. Jesus is not speaking to the world here, but to His church.
- Having a reputation of being alive does not mean God is pleased. Many churches appear to be thriving today. They have large numbers of people and programs. From all accounts they appear alive and hopping. The church in Sardis had a reputation of being alive, but Jesus says it was dead and lethargic. Seeing is not always believing, and perception doesn’t necessarily capture reality.
- Jesus honors love and faithfulness to Him. Of the seven churches, only two received only commendation. All the others received rebukes of some kind. So Jesus had some grievance against over 70% of the churches. Very few churches possess the caliber of faith and loving devotion as Smyrna and Philadelphia. Although such churches usually face trials of different kinds, Jesus promises His faithfulness and reward for these churches.
- Our perception can differ greatly from God’s. Just as suffering doesn’t necessarily mean God’s distance or displeasure, affluence doesn’t necessarily mean God is pleased. The church in Laodicea was rich and prosperous, but Jesus rebuked it, saying, “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17). Churches can be presumptuous, thinking God is pleased because attendance has grown and the cashflow is coming in. Ironically, these can be evidence that things are severely wrong.
May we, today, have an ear, and hear what the Spirit says to the churches today.