Seven Addresses to Seven Churches

 •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 9
With the Lord’s help we will now look at the letters to the seven churches (or assemblies), addressed to them by the Spirit of God through God’s servant, the Apostle John.
There were seven companies of Christians meeting in seven different cities in Asia Minor, and in each there was a different spiritual condition, and this is used by the Spirit of God for our instruction. They are also given in a special order, to give us a prophetic outline of the church’s history from the days of the apostles till the Lord comes to call His own home to glory. (We can see the Lord’s coming in the beginning of chapter 4, for we read there of the call, “Come up hither,” and John is taken to heaven a picture of the Lord’s coming for His own; see 1 Thessalonians 4:16-1816For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. 18Wherefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:16‑18)).
This is the first assembly addressed. We know from the epistle to the Ephesians how much wonderful and precious truth had been committed to that assembly. They were very responsible, for the Bible says, “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” (Luke 12:4848But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more. (Luke 12:48)). It is beautiful to see how the Spirit of God commends all He can first, before pointing out what grieved Him.
There were works, labor and patience, rejecting too what was evil and caring for the Lord’s things with endurance. But the main spring was lacking, for they had lost their first love. We can be faithful in a legal way but not with love. We should, as Ephesians 4:1515But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: (Ephesians 4:15) tells us, speak and hold the truth in love. Those in Ephesus are called upon to repent, lest the Lord would remove the candlestick out of its place. We cannot compromise God’s truth, but in divine things true love and obedience go together.
Love to the Lord and His people is expressed as we walk together in the path of obedience, for we read in 1 John 5:22By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. (1 John 5:2), “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep His commandments.” Looking at these letters in a prophetic way, we see that the beginning of getting away from the Lord is when we lose our first love, and this began very early in the church’s history. “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:2323Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23)).
The one who overcomes in Ephesus is pointed on to the glorious future scene in Revelation 22 where the tree of life is for the healing of the nations. All that is lacking now will be set right in the glory above (Rev. 22:1414Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. (Revelation 22:14)).
The believers addressed here were going through a time of persecution for Christ’s sake. While there is a warning given as to the danger of their going back to Judaism instead of enjoying the full blessedness of Christianity, the letter is mainly one of encouragement, and a reward, the “crown of life,” will be given to the overcomers, those who would be martyred for their faithfulness to Christ.
It is interesting to see how God puts a limit on their time of suffering ten days. These ten days no doubt refer to the ten Roman emperors who persecuted the Christians. The Lord knows all beforehand and controls even the passions of men (Psa. 76:1010Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain. (Psalm 76:10)).
In each of the letters there is a message to the overcomer. When there is a time of testing among the people of God, there is always a danger of being discouraged and not continuing to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:1212Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6:12)). It takes real purpose of heart to go against the current. One who overcomes rises above the state of things in his soul and continues in faithfulness to the Lord. So here the overcomer might die for his loyalty to Christ, but he would not be hurt of the second death. A “crown of life” will be his portion in the day of manifestation and reward.
Coming to this letter we find it containing a sad note. No doubt prophetically it refers to the time of the Roman emperor Constantine. He put a stop to the persecution of the Christians, but it was a time when the church and the world came together. Up to that time Christians were a separated people, but when it became popular to be baptized and become a Christian by profession and not by new birth, then it cost much to be faithful to Christ.
Antipas was a martyr for his faithfulness to Christ among professing Christians. What a sad and solemn condition truly Satan had changed from a “roaring lion” to an “angel of light.” The system of clergy began here with the Nicolaitans (which means “conquering the people”).
The overcomer is encouraged to have in his soul the secret sense of the Lord’s approval, though misunderstood and persecuted for his faithfulness to Christ. J. N. Darby’s hymn expresses it so nicely:
Called by that secret name
Of undisclosed delight,
(Blest answer to reproach and shame);
Graved on a stone of white.
This church gives us a very dark picture. The Lord Jesus presents Himself in the character of a judge, yet in spite of this sad state of affairs, there was among them an extra amount of activity in charitable works. How often this kind of activity is seen in the world when there is little or no heart for Christ. The assembly in Thyatira allowed Jezebel to teach. We know that in God’s order the church does not teach. It was to be taught from the Word of God by men who earnestly contended for the “faith... once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 33Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. (Jude 3)). The church’s responsibility is to be the place where the truth of God is held. “The pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:1515But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15)). “Thy word is truth” (John 17:1717Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. (John 17:17)). Thyatira became part of the world system, committing spiritual “adultery” with the world, instead of being true to Christ, the Bridegroom of the true church. We can see how this figures to us the time when the church (so-called) became a great world system. Although there were real Christians who remained in the system, they are called upon to come out before the mass are judged (Rev. 18:44And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. (Revelation 18:4)). The call was given and a “space to repent” when God raised up men like Luther and others among them who proclaimed the truth, but they rejected and persecuted these men of God. This church system, Thyatira, reigns over the kings of the earth (Rev. 17:1818And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth. (Revelation 17:18)) and the overcomer was encouraged to know that, when the Lord Jesus takes the kingdoms of this world, believers will reign with Him (Rev. 20:66Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years. (Revelation 20:6)). Then the kingdoms of this world will be ordered by His righteous rule (Rev. 11:15-1715And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. 16And the four and twenty elders, which sat before God on their seats, fell upon their faces, and worshipped God, 17Saying, We give thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come; because thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned. (Revelation 11:15‑17); Isa. 32:11Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment. (Isaiah 32:1)). How important that we walk in separation from the world.
The condition of this assembly is prophetic of the time of the Reformation when the truth of justification by faith was restored, and they are exhorted to hold fast to this precious truth. Since the Lord’s coming is mentioned in the letters to these last four churches, we know they will continue until He comes, but there are many who have a name to live but are “dead in trespasses and sins.”
The Spirit of God takes notice of faithful men in Sardis and they are encouraged that the Lord knows those who are His, amid the mass of profession. There is a book of profession, but no true believer’s name will be blotted out of the Lamb’s book of life.
It is refreshing to come to this letter. I believe it answers to the time of the recovery of “the faith... once delivered unto the saints.” The precious deposit of truth committed to the early church called “the apostle’s doctrine” (Acts 2:4242And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:42)) and especially that committed to Paul called “my gospel” (Rom. 16:2525Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, (Romans 16:25)) has not changed with the changing years. “The church of the living God” is responsible to hold fast to the deposit of truth committed to it till the Lord comes (1 Tim. 3:1515But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15); Rev. 3:1111Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. (Revelation 3:11)).
This is what characterized Philadelphia, and though there was only “a little strength,” they are encouraged to be faithful to the precious truth that had been recovered. The Lord had set before them an open door, and in His goodness He has granted great liberty for the spread of the truth in these last days. It is not for us to boast of position but to have a sense in our souls of what the Lord values, seeking grace in these days, when the truth is being given up, to hold it fast and walk in it.
The message to the overcomer is very special in this assembly, for if we walk in the truth in these last days, we will not get much public recognition. Like David’s mighty men, we must wait the time when the Lord rewards faithfulness to Him and obedience to His Word.
This is the last church, and it shows us the sad state of things before the Lord comes. They did not realize their real spiritual condition, for it was a time of earthly prosperity “rich and increased with goods”; they had “need of nothing.” But the all-seeing eye of the Lord described them as “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:1717Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: (Revelation 3:17)).
It is beautiful to see that the Lord loved them, and it was because of this He rebuked them. He counseled them to “buy” of Him gold tried in the fire (divine righteousness) and white raiment (purity) that in a practical way they might pay the price of godliness. Those who were mere professors would be spued out of Christ’s mouth. Even when these sad conditions exist among those who profess His name, an individual can enjoy personal communion with the Lord. I “will sup with him, and he with Me” (vs. 20).
There is a very special message here to the overcomer in this last assembly. The blessed Lord Himself walked here on earth in a very dark day, and He overcame, for He always did the things that pleased His Father (John 8:2929And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him. (John 8:29)). There are times for us, too, when we need to be satisfied in having the Lord’s approval in order to be an overcomer. The true church is “not of the world”; it is espoused to Christ as His bride (2 Cor. 11:22For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:2)) and is to be a testimony to this during the Lord’s absence.
These seven assemblies, which we have considered, form a prophetic outline of the church’s history, as such, and also of the faithfulness of God in caring for her.
God had granted two major revivals in Israel’s history, one in the time of Hezekiah with an emphasis on the passover and the other in the time of Josiah with restoration of the passover in its proper order and also the importance of the Word of God which had been lost. In addition to this He gathered a company back to His center at Jerusalem in the time of Ezra, and a testimony was preserved there in great weakness till the Lord Jesus was born.
As we trace the history of the church in these seven assemblies we can see in Sardis a revival of the truth of the value of Christ’s work of redemption, and in Philadelphia of the importance and privilege of keeping His Word and not denying His name. No doubt these revivals are very similar to the revivals in Israel’s history, encouraging us in our day to hold fast till we hear the shout, when the Lord Jesus comes to call us “home” to the Father’s house: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:2020He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. (Revelation 22:20)).
Lord Jesus, come!
And take Thy people home;
That all Thy flock, so scattered here,
With Thee in glory may appear;
Lord Jesus, come!
G. H. Hayhoe
Editor’s Note: Two other articles by our brother Hayhoe on the seven feasts in Leviticus 23 and the seven parables of Matthew 13 may be found in the May, June and July 1999 issues of the Christian Shepherd.