The book of Revelation was originally written by the apostle John to the "seven churches which are in Asia" (Rev. 1: 4). These were not modern denominations but separate local churches. John wrote to these churches regarding "things which must shortly come to pass" and events that would be "hereafter" (Rev. 1: 1, 19, 4: 19). These churches are identified as:
"10: I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, 11: Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea" (Rev. 1: 11).
Each of these seven churches is addressed in chapters two and three. Ephesus is addressed (2: 1-7); Smyrna (2: 8-11); Pergamos (2: 12-17); Thyatira (2: 18-29); Sardis (3: 1-6); Philadelphia (3: 7-13); and the church at Laodicea (3: 14-22). Two of these churches are commended without any rebuke or indication of resident sin, Smyrna and Philadelphia. Five had sin and repentance needed to be experienced (2: 5; 16; 22; 3: 3; 19). Repentance had to be forthcoming or the "candlestick" (Greek, "lampstand") would be removed (cp. 2: 5). The lampstand is symbolic of light (cp. I Tim. 3: 15). "Lampstand" seems to also stand for the church itself or God's recognition of the church (1: 20). These seven churches seem to be selected because of the completeness of possible situations characteristic of them. In other words, the seven churches seem to represent every possible condition of local churches. One commentator wrote:
"The territory here called 'Asia" was the Roman province embracing the western part of Asia Minor, of which Ephesus was the capital city. The seven churches addressed were in this territory. There were other churches besides those mentioned, for Colossae and Troas are referred to (Col. 1: 2; Acts 20: 5-7), but there was evidently some divine reason why letters were sent to the seven named. As seven is supposed to be a sacred number indicating perfection, it has been suggested that seven were addressed to signify the perfection of the instruction given; or, that the seven would represent the whole church and the combined instruction be complete and applicable to all congregations for all time. It is unquestionably true that the instruction given the Asiatic churches was for any and all churches in like conditions" (A Commentary on the Book of Revelation, by John T. Hinds, pg. 19).
Having established this brief introduction and frame of reference, let us now proceed to observe some obvious and intended lessons for churches today.
The lesson that Jesus knows the true spiritual status of churches. Jesus is figuratively described as having hair "white like wool" and his "eyes were as a flame of fire" (1: 14). He is presented as being in the "midst of the seven candlesticks" (1: 13). Such a description is indicative of Jesus' knowledge of the seven churches; hence, all his churches. Of Jesus it is repeatedly affirmed: "I know thy works" (2: 2; 9; 13; 19; 3: 1; 8; 15). Jesus is said to "search the reins and hearts" (2: 23). Jesus is the judge and will judge "according to man's works" (Ibid.). Man can and often does fool man. The church at Sardis had a name that it lived, but Jesus knew the church was dead (3: 1).
God's acceptance and recognition of local churches is conditional. If the five churches did not repent, they would cease being the Lord's church (2: 5). Man elects to leave God, God remains faithful (2 Chroni. 15: 1, 2; 1 Jn. 1: 6 ff.). Jesus extends an invitation to the church at Laodicea. "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock, if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come into him, and will sup with him, and he with me" (3: 20). Churches can and do change. Not many years antecedent to the writing of Revelation, the church at Ephesus had been strong (Acts 20: 17 ff., Ephesians). However, they have now "left their first love" (2: 4). Please appreciate the fact that God's acceptance and recognition of his people is based on their doctrinal and moral stand (Rev. 2; 3, consider 2: 14, 15, 16).
The lesson of good being done does not cancel out continued sin in other areas. The church at Thyatira had works, love, service, and faith (2: 19). However, they also allowed false teaching and immorality (vs. 20). A similar situation prevailed in the church at Pergamos (2: 13, 14). Notwithstanding the good in these churches, Jesus said "I have a few things against thee repent " (2: 20, 16). Too many local churches operate on the philosophy of "we know there are matters that are not right, but look at the good we are accomplishing."
Each local church was autonomous. The New Testament clearly teaches the autonomy or self-government of local churches (I Pet. 5: 1-3). Denominationalism exists and functions on the principle of each local body being tied to others and, in most cases, all the bodies having a central overseeing body. The headquarters decide many matters, often what is to be believed and practiced by each local "church." This is why when there is a certain decree made by the authoritative body, each church is seen lining up to do as they are told. It is obvious that the seven churches in Asia were indeed separate in this regard. Such is apparent because they did not have the same sins and shortcomings. Had they been denominations submitting to a governing body, they all would have held to the "doctrine of the Nicolaitanes," for example (2: 15). However, this troubling doctrine appears to have only characterized the church at Pergamos.
Having noticed the autonomy of the seven churches, we hasten to point out that self-government was not tantamount to immunity. Some today are contending that one not a member of a particular local church has no right to question, reveal, or challenge sin within that local church. I trust all will appreciate the fact that each of the seven churches is able to read about the other churches in their area. Therefore, they came to learn of the good and bad of the surrounding churches.
The lesson that a local church can be doctrinally and morally correct, but still be wrong. As we have seen, being correct doctrinally and morally is a necessity to God's acceptance and recognition. However, one can "have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof" (2 Tim. 3: 5). The church at Ephesus is an example of a church that was doctrinally and morally correct but still not right."1: 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; 2: 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: 3: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. 4: Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love" (Rev. 2)
It is possible to perform the externals and the acts be correct, but without the basic and proper motivation, the "first works," love, etc. (vs. 4, 5).
The non-participants in false doctrine and immorality in the local churches were held responsible. Fellowship requirements not only involve avoiding participation in that which is wrong, but the reproving and making known of the wrong (Eph. 5: 10, 11). Please observe that the command to repent is addressed to the non-participants at Pergamos and Thyatira (2: 14-16; 19-20). They had not directly participated themselves, but they had "suffered" or allowed these sins to go unchallenged (cp. I Cor. 5). Hence, they also were in danger of losing their souls.
A question is sometimes raised regarding the non-participants at Sardis. The church at Sardis was said to be spiritually dead (3: 1-3). Nonetheless, "thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy" (vs. 4). Since the non-participants are not condemned at Sardis as they were at Pergamos and Thyatira, there appears to have been a significant difference in the situation regarding the "faithful few" at Sardis. Two suggestions are tenable. First, the non-participants at Sardis were doing what they could to challenge all tangible irregularities at Sardis. The second explanation is that the prevailing condition at Sardis was different than the circumstances at Pergamos and Thyatira in that in the latter case, the problems were conspicuous and tangible. In this circumstance the faithful remain faithful amidst a situation that is not spiritually acceptable.
When one more closely examines the recognized classes at Thyatira, a third class appears to emerge. In addition to the non-participants and the errorists, there is, "But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden. But that which ye have already hold fast till I come" (Rev. 2: 24, 25, cp. vs. 18-23). This third element seems to be those who did not participate, but unlike the other non-participants, these Christians spoke out against the practiced sin and refused to tolerate it. Some scholars believe the expression "as they speak" refers to these in their speaking out against the spiritual corruption. These, then, could correspond to the "faithful few" at Sardis (see first offered explanation in the immediately above paragraph regarding the faithful few at Sardis). It must also be realized that after Jesus warns the non-participants at Pergamos and Thyatira to "repent," he extends a potential blessing in the anticipation of their forthcoming repentance. Otherwise, the command to repent would be meaningless (cp. 2: 16 with vs. 5).
We have observed only a few of the lessons and truths seen relative to the seven churches of Asia. There are many other lessons such as triumph is possible with Jesus; God does not "overburden" his people; and God allows "time for repentance" (2: 10, 11; 2: 24; 21). Regarding "space to repent," man must not use this truth to defer repentance. God, not man, knows the time or space allowed before the lampstand is removed (see "quickly" in 2: 16).