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This chapter begins the messages to the seven churches. Each had need of instruction, advice, warning, promise, and encouragement. These seven churches were the field of John's oversight. Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province "Asia" was John's home in his later years, and the center from which he superintended the adjoining churches. In making an itinerary of these churches, one would travel in a curve much resembling a horseshoe. Starting with Ephesus and traveling north forty miles, one comes to Smyrna for which the Greeks and Turks have lately been contending. Then going sixty miles farther north, we find Pergamos. These one hundred miles constitute the west side of the curve. Then the course leads thirty miles eastward to Thyatira, thence southeast, through Sardis and Philadelphia, to Laodicea; the eastern side being slightly longer than the western. How often John made this itinerary, what experience he had, what dangers, hardships, sorrows, triumphs, and joys, all this affords scope and theme for lively imagination.
There were other cities and churches in that region; e. g., Colosse, but they do not come within the range of this book. These cities and churches were well known in John's day though most of them have perished long ago. Who founded them we do not know. We know that Paul passed through Asia Minor and dwelt at Ephesus, though nothing is said of his having founded these churches. But in subsequent years they evidently came under the supervision of John.
These messages are just plain letters to the seven churches with their consequent lessons to all churches in all places and times. Some extravagant notions have been entertained in regard to these messages. Dr. C. I. Scofield says:
"The messages to the seven churches have a prophetic application, as disclosing seven phases of the spiritual history of the church from, say, A. D. 96 to the end. It is incredible that in a prophecy covering the church period there should be no such foreview. These messages must contain that foreview if it is in the book at all; for no church is mentioned after 3:22. These messages do present an exact foreview of the spiritual history of the church and in this precise order. Ephesus gives the general state at the date of the writing; Smyrna, the period of the great persecutions; Pergamos, the church settled down in the world "where Satan's throne is," after the conversion of Constantine, say A.D. 316. Thyatira is the Papacy, 500 to 1500 A.D. Sardis is the Protestant Reformation whose works were not "fulfilled." Philadelphia is whatever bears clear testimony to the Word and Name in the time of self satisfied profession represented by Laodicea.
"It would seem from this that Laodicea represents the present day of lukewarm and indifferent church membership, and being the last of the seven, we are therefore at the end of the age in dire apostasy."
If Dr. Scofield finds such a scheme in these chapters, he must have use of a microscope that ordinary men do not possess. This is all sheer invention. By these methods one can prove anything; and find anything in the Scriptures whether it is there or no. Such interpretations are almost as rationalistic as the rationalism they condemn. A recent writer gives us an example in his reference to Joseph: Joseph is a type of Christ; He marries Asenath, a type of the Gentile church. This occurs before Joseph's brethren arrive in Egypt and become reconciled to him; thus the conversion of the Gentiles must precede the conversion of the Jews which will occur only when they meet Christ at his second advent. To make such farfetched arguments, is the extreme of allegorical interpretation. We might proceed with this kind of argument and say that since Joseph died and left his brethren in bondage, therefore the conversion of the Jews will result in their servitude to Satan; a reductio and absurdum, but quite as legitimate.
The arguments to prove this typical view of the seven churches, are entirely inconclusive. The number seven; the similarity traced between these churches and the ages they are supposed to represent; the increasing strength of the promises given to the faithful in the latter group of churches, all this proves nothing, or at least is inadequate to validate the interpretation.
A recent Premillennial writer has said that there are difficulties in this view. He should have said that the chief difficulty is that there is not one syllable in the whole book of Revelation that says any such thing. It is not evident that the promises climax in the latter churches of chapter three. Similarities may be traced between these churches and almost any kind of human institutions. Of course we can find a likeness between the luke-warmness of the church today and the luke-warmness of Laodicea which Christ was ready to spew out of his mouth. And the lukewarmness of today is just as abominable as that of Laodicea, and Christ is just as ready to spew it out of his mouth now as then. But while there are these similarities and these lessons that are eternally true, we are not to read the whole history of the world into these seven churches.
And while the word 'church' may not be found in chapters four and eighteen inclusive, yet the church is there as really as if mentioned by name, woven into the narrative and represented by symbol.
Vs. 1-7. Ephesus, once a leading scene of Paul's ministry, became the home of John, and there tradition locates his sepulchre. He strikes a note of commendation by telling them that they have had their trials with those who said they were apostles and were not and found them liars. These were evidently the same class of Judaizers that opposed Paul, and if so, this is evidence of the early date of the book. They met this difficulty and survived, to their praise; but "thou hast left thy first love." They were in some measure, backsliders. This was their sin. It is a sin of this age as well; and Ephesus has its similarity to our own age as well as Laodicea. And if they are backsliders they will not stand the trial that is coming upon them; and accordingly the Revealer says: "Repent or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out if its place." Observe that here is a coming which is not the technical second coming; and every judgment is a coming.
The candlestick was removed and the church of Ephesus perished. I have no record how soon that happened, but we know that for centuries that once proud city has been a ruin. Backsliding will prove fatal to any church.
Ephesus speaks to us. The church cannot commit suicide and still live. Besides there are a score of agencies at the throat of the church ready to destroy her when she slips from the protection of the God who upholds her.
Vs. 8-11. Smyrna is still a city. It has been called "the beautiful," "the Paris of the Levant." This church receives commendation. It had some trials and met them. "I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan." Judaizers they were no doubt; evidence that Jerusalem had not yet fallen since the Judaizing activities had not yet ceased.
"The devil will cast some of you into prison and ye shall have tribulation." Polycarp, the martyr, was bishop of Smyrna. The prophecy came true and no doubt in many more instances unrecorded. In addressing this church, Christ gives himself the title, "the first and the last which was dead and is alive." Perhaps this was to present the Christian fact in opposition to the fable that the idol Dionysus at Smyrna had been killed and came to life again. The practical lesson to observe in closing is that this city which had a faithful church was saved from destruction. Smyrna still stands.
Vs. 12-17. The church at Pergamos had "held fast my name and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr who was slain among you." The deluge of fire and blood had already begun. The Roman persecutions were making themselves felt to the boundaries of the empire, and these churches were facing a period of trial the worst they had ever known. In the next few years they would see such convulsions and tribulation as the world had seldom witnessed, if ever. The first baptism of blood had already fallen upon the church at Pergamos.
"But I have a few things against thee," eating things sacrificed to idols and committing fornication. Heathenism was saturated with immorality; even their worship; and converts were easily seduced. If they ate things sacrificed to idols that would be a stepping-stone to heathen associations and idol worship, and thus would they're drawn into its shameful immoralities. Christ would indeed have something against them if they should tolerate that; and therefore warns: "Repent or else I will come unto thee quickly," that is, to judge their sins.
Vs. 18-29. Thyatira, the home of Lydia, Paul's first convert in Europe, still exists as a small city of perhaps twenty thousand inhabitants. It is supposed by some that Lydia may have carried the gospel to her native town; but of this there is no certainty. There was something to approve at Thyatira. "I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first," 'Works' is mentioned first and last in the list, and the "last was more than the first." That is her last works were more and better than her first. Instead of retrograding from her first love and first works as Ephesus did, there was progress and commendable growth in Christian service.
But, "I have a few things against thee that woman Jezebel." Jezebel the wife of Ahab was bad in character and bad in influence seducing Israel to idolatry. This woman of Thyatira was called Jezebel for similarity of character and influence; that is, she was a second Jezebel. Pretending to be a prophetess or teacher, she was a bridge from the church to the temple of idols and the practices prevalent there. It is scarcely possible that the term indicates a collection of prophets, using the feminine for a plural.
The Alexandrine and Vatican manuscripts make "that woman" read, "thy wife." Whose wife? If this is the true reading, it would naturally imply the wife of the messenger or minister, the one to whom the message was addressed or by whom it was sent. It is quite possible, in the circumstances of mixed social life that the minister or messenger might have a heathen wife; and her influence in the church, with which she would necessarily come in contact, would seduce to idolatry and to the immorality associated with heathenism.
"I gave her space to repent and she repented not." Therefore judgment is determined upon her, for an example to all the churches. But while the wicked shall meet their doom the faithful shall gain their reward.
The tutelary god of Thyatira was the sun-god represented by rays of light and feet of burnished brass. Accordingly Christ introduces himself as one "having eyes like unto a flame of fire, and feet like fine brass;" and promises to him that overcometh: " And I will give him the morning star."
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the Second Week after Epiphany