The apostles were all dead. Only John remained, exiled to the island of Patmos. Living on this lonely rocky outcrop might have been a fate considered crueler than death to the Romans. But in his older age, it was where John could be absolutely alone with God, praying and meditating daily. The Lord through him was able to give us the most frightening and powerful book in the Bible, the deadly final judgment that punctuates the 65 books preceding it.
I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: (Revelation 1:10-11). John, the youngest disciple, was closer to Jesus than any other. He was the one who leaned upon Christ’s bosom at the Last Supper (John 13:23). Verses 12 and 14: And I turned to see the voice that spake with me…His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire. This awesome and frightening figure likely did not at all resemble the lowly carpenter with whom John had known so intimately, but he immediately recognized Him even in this glorified state.
Before Jesus, John had a vision of seven stars and seven candlesticks. Verse 20: The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches. The seven churches in Asia were represented by candlesticks. Churches themselves are not the light of the world; Jesus is. A candlestick does not produce light, but holds up the light. We are the candlesticks that bear the beacon of Jesus for all the world to see.
But while Jesus did have a message for each of the seven churches, He was also giving a profound prophecy of the future. The apostles, John included, had largely believed they were living in the last days, and the Rapture would take place any moment (I John 2:18), even as the years had passed and now most of them were dead. Many of them even believed that the antichrist was already revealed in Nero. But the message to the seven churches showed that seven church ages would pass before the coming of the Lord. Each of them, in subsequent order, represented the future of Christianity over the course of almost 2,000 years.
Revelation 2:1-3: Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. The stars are the angels over each church, but even they are so small compared to Him that they fit in the palm of His hand. And yet He is also described as dwelling among the seven candlesticks. Christ holds the celestial bodies in His hand, yet He is also lowly enough interact with us in our church services and day to day lives.
The picture for the church in Ephesus seemed rosy. They worked hard and did not tolerate false doctrine. The message from Christ seemed to be uplifting, but He was setting them up for a harsh warning. Verse 4: Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Loving Jesus is the first and most crucial point of the Christian walk, and while the church in Ephesus did great works for the Lord, they had fallen out of love with Him.
The name “Ephesus” means “desirable one.” The Ephesus Age was the Early Church. For the first 100 years, they were on fire for God. They labored and suffered great hardships for His kingdom, winning many souls and doing great works. But eventually, after all the apostles were gone, their fire began to fade and they left their first love.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; (Revelation 2:7). In between each message, Jesus repeats this phrase, reminding us to keep our ears open to hear what the Holy Ghost is trying to whisper into our spirits.
And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (Revelation 2:8-9). The church in Smyrna was greatly persecuted. Jesus wanted to remind them that He was with them during their suffering and could hear their cries of affliction. He gave them a great word of encouragement in verse 10 that their hardships were not in vain: Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
The name “Smyrna” means “myrrh,” a spice commonly used in Jewish ceremonies. Myrrh is a plant that produces a sweet odor after being thoroughly crushed and ground. The Smyrna church was being savagely beaten and tormented by persecutors, but in their suffering they were producing a beautiful fragrance before the Lord. The Smyrna Age lasted from Nero to Constantine, bringing great persecution during the reigns of ten Roman tyrants. Millions were imprisoned and executed in grisly manners. Christians were fed to lions and crucified in front of cheering crowds. But no matter how hard the devil tried to extinguish the church, it just kept growing. And eventually he was forced to try a new tactic.
Verses 12-14: And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is…But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. Pergamos was the capitol of the Roman province in Asia, a large city rich with evil. It was a melting pot of different cultures, filled with idol worship and witchcraft. God acknowledged that this church was sitting in “Satan’s seat,” but He then warned them of the dangers of allowing the influence of the world to infiltrate them. He ominously let them know that because they were trying to mix pagan religion with Christian doctrine, they should Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth (verse 16).
In 312 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision of a cross hanging over his army, with the words “In this sign, conquer” scrawled into the sky. He claimed this caused him to convert to Christianity, and ended the persecution that had been taking place for the past centuries. However, with persecution gone, the church quickly became comfortable, and began to lose power. Over time, lukewarmth and idol worship took over, and Christians were praying both to Jesus and idol gods. Paganism and Christianity cannot mix, and the light of God was all but extinguished as the church became a shell of its former self. The Pergamos Age lasted over 200 years, ending around 538 A.D. But things were only going to get worse.
God’s warning for the church in Thyatira was His most dire so far. And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass; (Revelation 2:18). The Lord had few good things to say to them, and even invoked the name of Jezebel, the wicked queen, in His accusations. Verses 20-21: Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. God hated the spirit of Jezebel, and even accused this church of committing adultery with her. They had little love for God left, and were almost completely given to the world. He even promised to kill their children with fire.
The end of the Pergamos Age brought the Thyatira Age, or what we call the Dark Ages. This was the longest and most horrifying of all the Christian church eras, lasting over 1100 years. “Thyatira” means “continual sacrifice,” and it was aptly named. This was a period in which the church became bogged down with religious ritual, putting emphasis on good works, ceremony, and lifeless incantations. The Catholic Church during this time even forbade its congregations from reading the Holy Scriptures, and the world became starved for the Word. This was also the darkest time for humanity, as learning, independence, bathing, and hygiene were snuffed out. Cities became disease-ridden cesspools of human waste, and the long-coming Black Plague would wipe out a third of the population of Europe. God’s protection had been removed from a world that had no heart to serve Him.
But a rebirth was coming.
Next week we will discuss the final three church ages, and the dangers of living in the Laodicean Age.