The Seven Churches

The Seven Churches

This is the second of four articles examining the Seven churches expositionally and practically. The Lord Jesus, the One in the midst of the seven lamp stands, is seen in all His glory. The lamp stands are interpreted for us in 1:20 as the seven churches. The Lord Jesus is in the central place, the place of concern, cognizance and control.

He views the various churches and sees them as they really are from heaven’s perspective. He looks to commend what can be commended and also adds words of condemnation and correction where needed. The Lord gives a call to hear and also offers compensation to those who belong to Him.

The letters to Smyrna and Pergamos or Pergamum (depending on your translation) give insight and particulars about each assembly. In interpreting these passages particular attention must be paid to the circumstances, the culture and the content of each letter, Sound exegesis demands that the one interpreting consider how these believers in these local churches would have interpreted the message in their day. This is the most pertinent and practical way to view these epistles.

By way of application one could view these letters as applicable to all assemblies spanning all of time. The pattern could apply though the particulars may be unique for each assembly. The superintending work of the Lord Jesus should speak to all assemblies of all time.

There could and indeed should be application for the reader individually or personally. The letters let us know the Lord Jesus is cognizant and concerned about what is happening in our own lives. That all things are naked and bare before the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do.

If these letters were to be viewed progressively, representing the progress of the church age, these two would depict the early days of the church. Smyrna would represent the era of persecution, ten emperors from Nero to Diocletian, who persecuted believers. This would be the time of the martyrs those burned alive or thrown to wild beasts because of their faith in Christ.
The church at Pergamum would take us to the church in the time of compromise. When Constantine became Emperor in 313 AD he made Christianity the state religion. He became the head of the church while being at the same time the high priest of the mystery religion that originated in ancient Babylon. This led to great compromise as it was necessary to embrace Christianity in order to get a government position.

The Church at Smyrna:

The City: Smyrna is 56 kilometres north of Ephesus, also a seaport, on a large bay of the Aegean Sea. It was a city of great importance and competed with Ephesus and Pergamum for the title of chief city in Asia. Due to trade it became, for a number of centuries, a wealthy and well ornamented city. As the harbor of Ephesus silted up and caused that city to decline Smyrna grew in importance as a commercial center and also in wealth as a result.

It was the first city in the Roman Empire to introduce the worship of Caesar. Citizens were required to offer a pinch of incense and proclaim “Caesar is lord.” This was primarily a political act of loyalty but it became a matter of conscience and of loyalty to Christ for the believers. The lure or temptation was that citizens were allowed to worship any god or gods as long made this offering.

This act of devotion to Caesar was to be done once a year and would grant the one doing it a certificate as a citizen in good standing. The lack of this certificate would brand a person as a Christian and thus subject to prosecution and persecution.
The name Smyrna is thought to have come from the Greek word that means, “myrrh.” Myrrh was included in the incense used in the Tabernacle, and was also given as a gift by the Wise-men. It was a bitter spice that produced a sweet fragrance when put to a flame. Perhaps a fitting association for the number of believers that suffered and died in the persecutions that took place there. It is generally accepted that Polycarp lived, and died as a martyr in Smyrna. The time of his death would be around the middle of the second century.

In most of the letters the characteristics of the city are seen in the church. For example, the lukewarm water that flowed into Laodicea was compared to the condition in the church. The church in Smyrna shows the least similarity to the characteristics of the surrounding culture and circumstances. It is perhaps for this reason that these people were the most persecuted of all the local churches. This church is often designated as “The Persecuted Church.”

The Christ: The Lord Jesus is here presented as the First and the Last, similar to Revelation 1:11 and 17. The implication of the title “First and Last” are tied to the name Jehovah, the eternal self-existent One. For a persecuted people this would be a great encouragement to know that the One they were living for and may indeed die for is the unchanging One.

The next phrase would also be a comfort, that the One who died for them did conquer death and is alive. According to Darby and others the implication in the original is, having entered death, or “who became dead,” (JND), and conquered death, “came to life again.” (NIV). Reminders of Paul’s quote, “O death where is your sting, O grave where is your victory.” (1 Cor. 15:55). For those who were going to martyrdom what a blessing to know they served a living Savior.

The Commendation: These words are based on the awareness of the Lord Jesus of the situation and circumstances facing these dear saints. To categorize the Lord mentions their persecution, their poverty and their persecutors. The majority of translations, (JND, ESV, NASV, NIV) omit the words “your works.” These words would be viewed by most scholars as an interpolation, put in by a scribe to match the format of the previous letter. J. Allen suggests in his commentary on Revelation that the absence of these two words suggests the Lord is more interested in their suffering than in their service.
Their persecutions or tribulations would be more severe than anything experienced in the Western world in our day. The level of opposition would increase through the whole of the second century. This would be in the form of social, religious, economic, and judicial opposition.

Their poverty would be similar to what the Macedonians are said to have experienced in 2 Corinthians 8 – except here in Smyrna there would be no relief. Without the certificate stating they had given allegiance to Caesar they would be barred from joining a trade guild and being able to earn a living. Each of the guilds would also be associated with a pagan deity posing an insurmountable problem for earnest believers. These dear saints also likely suffered the confiscation of their goods and would be subject to abuse.

The Lord encouraged them with these words, “but you are rich.” This is in contrast to His words to the Laodiceans who claimed to be rich and the Lord informed those folk that they were indeed poor. The saints in Smyrna were rich in faith, testimony and treasure in heaven. Wealth the world could not take away.

Their persecutors likely included trade guild members but the opposition seems to have been spearheaded by Jews. These people are decried as not true Jews because they have not accepted the Lord Jesus as their Savior. They instead slandered the Lord’s people and quite likely the word “blasphemy” extends to slander of the Lord Himself. The one behind the opposition is revealed as Satan in his effort to destroy the church in its infancy.

The Condemnation: Unlike most of the other local churches the Lord had nothing negative to say about these saints. They were faithful in the midst of tribulation. What is also missing is any word of correction, instead the Lord gives words of encouragement.

The Encouragement: The Lord reveals to them that He knows what they are facing and will face in the future. The Head of the Church tells of prison, of increased persecution and the possibility of death. The identity of the persecutor as the devil and the limitation of the time are indicators that the Lord is Sovereign.

The Compensation: There is included a word of counsel: “be faithful unto death.” It was more than just a possibility that these believers would face death for their faith in Christ. The promise to believers is “the crown of life.” This same phrase is found in James 1:12 where it is promised to those who endure temptations. Many see this as the martyr’s crown but it may have another connotation. It could be rendered, “the crown which is life.” In this case what the Lord is offering is what they could not have in Smyrna, that is, life in its fullness.

The skyline of Smyrna was apparently a thing of beauty as buildings circled one of its hills. This feature was called the “crown of Smyrna.” For these saint there is the offer of life beyond what this world can give.

The final word was that the overcomers, true of all believers, they will not be hurt by the second death. Darby puts it very emphatically, “shall in no wise be injured of the second death.” The point is that believers may face death here as a result of persecution but they have nothing to fear in eternity. All those in Christ have passed from death unto life.

The Conclusion: The fact that there is no word of condemnation for this assembly underscores the fact that the church is designed to function better under persecution than in prosperity. Persecution has the environment to exercise love, prove faith and give reality to hope. Our struggle is to live as these dear saints lived in the midst of a society, economy and culture where most believers are reasonably well off.

The Church at Pergamum

If the progressive view, the history of the church through this age, is followed, this church occupies the time from Constantine to the formation of the organized church. The time frame would be 313 AD through to 605 AD and the time of Gregory the Great. This church has rightly been called “the Compromising Church.” This title could be also applied to the time period mentioned.

The City: Pergamum was about 90 km north of Smyrna. It was not a seaport and was about 25 km inland. It was a city of great importance having been bequeathed to the Romans. As a result it functioned as an administrative center whose magistrates could impose a penalty without the accused having any recourse for appeal. This type of power was referred to as “the right of the sword.

It was a city of academic importance containing a library that was second only to the one in Alexandria. Pergamum was also a center for medical study and the god of medicine, Asclepius, was worshipped. The symbol associated with this god was a serpent wrapped around a sapling or a pole.

Religiously a large number of gods were worshipped. The city had a large altar to Zeus and he was given the title, “Zeus our Savior.” The inhabitants were also strongly committed to the worship of Caesar and were the first to erect a temple for this purpose. The trade guilds were stronger here than in Smyrna and so the pressure to conform was more intense.

The Christ: Attention is drawn to the sharp two-edged sword. This was seen in 1:16 coming out of the mouth of the Lord Jesus. It is again in view in chapter 19 as a feature of the conquering Christ. It is this sword that brings death to the armies gathered to do battle with the returning Christ.

To the saints here in the “city of the sword” that functions by imperial edict as “the right of the sword,” this presentation of Christ is most appropriate. There is in this feature of Christ a reminder of the One who is Sovereign, as in His appearance to Joshua, the Captain of the Lord’s hosts.

The Commendation: The Lord takes note of their circumstances and the conflict they face.

Their circumstances were less than ideal in that they lived where Satan dwelt and where His throne was located. Satan lacks divine attributes and as such is not omnipresent so is limited to a particular locale. If these words are taken literally, Satan did indeed dwell there. If taken figuratively it could refer to the prominent place given to the worship of the emperor. The Babylonian mysteries were centered in Pergamum at this stage in history.

The conflict was life and death. Antipas was marked out as a faithful witness in life and faithful martyr in death. These saints held fast to the name of Christ and did not deny faith in Christ.

The Condemnation: The word “but” in verse 14 is a strong adversative that introduces the contrast between what is commendable and what is condemnable. The few things the Lord raises have to do with false teaching which seems to have been tolerated by the assembly. The first of these relates to the compromises that likely brought some lessening of persecution.

Balaam is mentioned three times in the New Testament with a progression of thought, the way of, the error of and the doctrine of Balaam. The doctrine of Balaam would be to mix with the world and lose any sense of separation. Perhaps the teaching here was just to offer the pinch of incense to Caesar and still worship the Lord Jesus. This would be a level of compromise that would make their testimony in the world ineffective.

The doctrine of the Nicolaitans is not known and lacks historical documentation. The word means “conqueror of the people.” The most likely possibility would be the introduction of clergy and laity. This would involve the saints submitting to a rule other than what the Lord had raised up. Historically this has been a great source of conflict and compromise.

The Correction: It is a short command – repent. Repentance involves the mind in that intellectually there must be agreement with God. It also involves the emotions as godly sorrow is part of the process. But it must also touch the will in that there is a change of direction. Thus true repentance is intellectual, emotional and volitional. If this warning is ignored the Lord will come quickly and deal with those promoting these false doctrines. This is perhaps similar to the situation in Corinth where the Lord intervened in judgment.

The Compensation: Two things are promised to the overcomer. The first is to eat of the hidden manna. This speaks of commune and fellowship, feeding on the bread of heaven. While faithfulness may exclude them from pagan feasts they would have enjoyment that the world cannot comprehend.

Those faithful believers would also be given a white stone engraved with a new name. There are many suggestions as to what the stone and name indicate but there is a lack of historical identification. It may be related to some sense of privilege extended to someone in good standing in Pergamum. Those who refused to offer incense to Caesar would be ostracized. However the Lord Jesus offers them a stone and a name, position, privilege, preciousness, and proximity to Him.

The Conclusion: Satan’s tactics in the first few centuries of the church were to oppose it and try to eliminate its witness through persecution. The more intense the persecution the more the gospel spread as the light shone. When Constantine came on the scene the tactic changed to the doctrine of Balaam – compromise. The old saying was applied, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” The Church lost its zeal even as it grew in size and political influence.

The lesson for today is that there must be separation for the sake of sanctification. The Church and individual Christians must not adopt the world’s methods, manners or motivation. There may be a price to pay for this separation but the rewards for the church outweigh any recompense the world seems to offer.

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