Category: What do the seven churches in Revelation stand for?


The seven churches described in Revelation 2-3 are seven literal churches at the  time that John the apostle was writing Revelation. Though they were literal  churches in that time, there is also spiritual significance for churches and  believers today. The first purpose of the letters was to communicate with the  literal churches and meet their needs at that time. The second purpose is to  reveal seven different types of individuals/churches throughout history and  instruct them in God’s truth.

A possible third purpose is to use the  seven churches to foreshadow seven different periods in the history of the  Church. The problem with this view is that each of the seven churches describes  issues that could fit the Church in any time in its history. So, although there  may be some truth to the seven churches representing seven eras, there is far  too much speculation in this regard. Our focus should be on what message God is  giving us through the seven churches. The seven churches are:

(1) Ephesus (Revelation  2:1-7) – the church that had forsaken its first love (2:4).

(2) Smyrna (Revelation  2:8-11) – the church that would suffer persecution (2:10).

(3) Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17) – the church that needed to repent  (2:16).

(4) Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) –  the church that had a false prophetess (2:20).

(5) Sardis (Revelation  3:1-6) – the church that had fallen asleep (3:2).

(6) Philadelphia (Revelation  3:7-13) – the church that had endured patiently (3:10).

(7) Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) – the church with the lukewarm faith  (3:16).

(How many of the seven Churches of Revelations sound like the church of today?)

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Revelation 2 begins a series of brief letters to seven churches that existed during the apostle John’s time in Asia Minor  (modern-day Turkey). Each of these messages includes information apropos to each  church, and from these messages we can draw lessons applicable to our own lives  today. The first letter is to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a city on the  western coast of Asia Minor, near the mouth of the Cayster River. The city was  famous for its temple of Diana (or Artemis, Acts 19:27),  and pilgrims came to Ephesus from all over the Mediterranean world to worship  the goddess. The first thing to note in this letter to the Ephesian  church is that the message is from the Lord Jesus Christ: “To the angel [or  messenger] of the church in Ephesus . . .” (Revelation  2:1). This is not John’s message to the Ephesian believers; it is a message  from the Lord, the One “who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks  among the seven golden lampstands.” The lampstands are the churches themselves,  set as lights in a dark world; the stars are the pastors of the churches, held  in God’s hand. Jesus affirms the Ephesians’ positive actions: “I know  your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot  tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are  not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships  for my name, and have not grown weary” (Revelation  2:2-3). The Ephesian church was a hard-working group of believers full of  fortitude. Also to their credit, they were gate-keepers of the truth and did not  compromise with evildoers, and they showed patient endurance in bearing up under  hardship. However, Jesus also notes their shortcoming: “Yet I hold this  against you: You have forsaken your first  love” (Revelation  2:4). They were hard working, but they no longer had the same passion for  Christ as when they first believed. Their work was no longer motivated by  love. Jesus called the Ephesians to repent: “Remember the height from  which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:5). In this  case, the corrective was to remember the heights of their former love, repent  (change their mind about their current status), and return to their previous way  of doing things. It was time for revival in the church. Jesus warns His  church of impending judgment if they did not repent: “I will come to you and  remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation  2:5b). In other words, their punishment would be the disbanding or  destruction of the Ephesian church. The light in Ephesus would go out. Jesus adds another commendation concerning doctrinal purity: “But you have this  in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6). We don’t  know much about the Nicolaitans and their  doctrine, except that it was heretical. Irenaeus, an early church father in  Lyons (modern-day France), wrote that the Nicolaitans promoted fornication and a  compromising position on eating food sacrificed to idols, leading many into an  unrestrained, carnal lifestyle. Jesus then promises a blessing to those  who heed the word: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the  churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of  life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation  2:7). The “tree of life” and the “paradise of God” refer to the new heavens  and new earth, discussed in Revelation 21–22. Those who conquer, or the  “overcomers,” are simply believers (1 John  5:4-5). The Ephesian believers could look forward to the future glory of  eternity with the Lord. Like the Ephesian church, we can easily fall  prey to a cold, mechanical observance of religion. Like the Ephesians, many tend  to focus solely on doctrinal purity and hard work, to the exclusion of true love  for Christ. As this letter shows, no amount of zeal for the truth or moral  rectitude can replace a heart full of love for Jesus (see John 14:21, 23; 1 Corinthians  16:22).

Smyrna was a large, important city on the western coast of Asia Minor, famed for  its schools of medicine and science. The words of Jesus to the church in Smyrna  in Revelation  2:8-11 offer insight into the life of a first-century congregation, and  there are many applications for today’s believers.

The message was from  the Lord Jesus Christ: “These are the words of him who is the First and the  Last, who died and came to life again” (Revelation  2:8). The identity of the first and the last and the resurrected one could  only be Jesus Christ (see Revelation  22:13).

Jesus starts by acknowledging their trials: “I know your  afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who  say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). In their  physical poverty, however, the church of Smyrna was “rich”; that is, they had  spiritual wealth that no one could take away (Matthew  6:20).

As for the identity of the “synagogue of Satan,” there are a  couple of views. One is that this was a group of Gentiles who called themselves  “Jews” (i.e., the chosen people of God). Instead of following Judaism, however,  these self-proclaimed “people of God” worshiped the Roman emperor and spoke out  against the Christians in Smyrna.

Another view is that the “synagogue of  Satan” was a group of physical Jews who followed tradition and the Mosaic Law  yet in reality did not know God. They were “not” Jews in the sense that they did  not have the faith of their father Abraham (Luke 3:8; John 8:40), and they were “of  Satan” in that they had rejected Jesus Christ (John 8:44).  Jesus dealt with many such religious leaders, as did the apostle Paul (Matthew  23; Acts 18:6). In  fact, Paul differentiates “true” (spiritual) Jews from those who can only claim  a physical connection to Abraham: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one  outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew  if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the  Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans  2:28-29).

Adding weight to the latter view is the fact that Polycarp  was martyred in Smyrna around A.D. 155. At Polycarp’s trial, the unbelieving  Jews of Smyrna joined with the pagans in condemning him to death. Eusebius  writes that “the Jews, being especially zealous . . . ran to procure fuel” for  the burning (The Ecclesiastical History 4:15).

After commending  the church in Smyrna for their spiritual victories, Jesus warned of coming  persecution: “You are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of  you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days” (Revelation 2:10). Some  of the church members would be imprisoned, and this wave of persecution would  last for ten days. However, Jesus gives hope to His church: “Do not be afraid,”  He says. The Smyrnan believers would have the courage to face the trial (Matthew  5:11-12).

Jesus calls them to remain faithful in their suffering:  “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life”  (Revelation  2:10). Here, a specific crown is mentioned for those who die as a result of  suffering for Christ. This same “martyr’s crown” is also mentioned in James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under  trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life  that God has promised to those who love him.”

Jesus makes a final  promise to the believers in Smyrna: “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by  the second death” (Revelation  2:11). The overcomers, or “conquerors,” refer to all believers (1 John 5:4-5). The second  death is a reference to the final judgment of the wicked (Revelation 20:6, 14; 21:8). Believers will  not be hurt “at all” by that judgment; their sin was judged at the cross, and,  in Christ, there is no more condemnation (Romans  8:1).

Revelation 2:12-17 continues with the third of seven  messages to the churches of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) during the  apostle John’s time. Each of these messages includes a specific word to a  specific church, but there are also lessons applicable to the lives of believers  today. This third letter is to the believers in Pergamum (or Pergamos), which  was a beautiful and art-filled city in the province of Asia built along two  tributaries of the Caicus River. Pergamum was a center for the worship of  Dionysus, Zeus, and other pagan gods.

The message to the Pergamene  church was from the Lord Jesus Christ, specifically addressed to the “angel” (or  “messenger”) of the church: “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:  ‘These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword’” (Revelation 2:12). This  was not John’s message to the believers at Pergamum; it was a message from Jesus  Christ. The depiction of Jesus holding a sharp, two-edged sword refers to the  Lord’s readiness to bring judgment (cf. Revelation  1:16).

First, Jesus affirms the church’s positive actions: “I know  where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You  did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful  witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives” (Revelation 2:13). The  Pergamene believers lived in a difficult place, surrounded by pagan influences,  yet they held fast to Christ’s name and did not deny Him during difficult  times.

One Christian in Pergamum named Antipas is mentioned as a  “faithful witness.” Church tradition says that Antipas was a physician suspected  of secretly propagating Christianity. The Aesculapians (members of the medical  guild) accused Antipas of disloyalty to Caesar. Upon being condemned to death,  Antipas was placed inside a copper bull, which was then heated over a fire until  it was red-hot.

The church was not perfect, however, and Jesus took note  of their sin: “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people  there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the  Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual  immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the  Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:14-15). The “teaching of Balaam” is  explained in the context, as Christians were eating food that had been  sacrificed to idols (religious compromise) and committing sexual immorality  (moral compromise). The original Balaam’s deceitful work is described in Numbers 25:1-3 and Numbers  31:15-16. The Nicolaitans are mentioned only  in this letter and in the letter to the Ephesian church (Revelation 2:6). They  were likely a group similar to those who held the teachings of Balaam, though  the exact nature of their doctrine and practice is unknown.

Jesus then  issues a clarion call to repent of their sin: “Repent therefore!” (Revelation 2:16). Our  Lord hates religious and moral compromise. He calls His people to live  differently.

Jesus notes the judgment that would take place if the  church of Pergamum did not repent: “I will soon come to you and will fight  against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation  2:16b). The Nicolaitans and those who were teaching Balaam’s error would be  destroyed, along with their followers, from the congregation at Pergamum. Jesus  desires purity among His people, and we have a responsibility to remove false  teachers from the church.

Jesus makes a final promise to the believers  in Pergamum: “To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will  also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who  receives it” (Revelation  2:17). The three blessings are hidden manna, a white stone, and a new name.  The precise explanation of these three items is disputed; however, all three  blessings must concern the believer’s victorious reign with Christ, consistent  with the blessings bestowed on the other six churches of Revelation 2–3. The  “hidden manna” is likely an allusion to the manna hidden in the Ark  of the Covenant, representative of God’s faithful presence and sustenance.  The “white stone” could be a reference  to the stones used for entrance into temple events in ancient times or to one of  the stones on the high priest’s breastplate (Exodus  28:21), although the exact meaning of the stone is uncertain.

In Revelation 2:18-29 Jesus sends His message to the church  of Thyatira. Thyatira was a wealthy town on the Lycus River in the Roman  province of Asia (modern-day Turkey).

The message was from the Lord  Jesus Christ through an angel (or “messenger”): “To the angel of the church in  Thyatira write . . .” (Revelation  2:18). This was not John’s message to the Thyatiran believers; it was a  message from the Lord. The description at the end of verse 18 verifies the  author of this message is Jesus Christ: “The words of the Son of God, whose eyes  are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” This  description removes any doubt of the identity of the One giving the  message.

After identifying Himself, Jesus affirms the church’s positive  actions: “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance,  and that you are now doing more than you did at first” (Revelation 2:19). Five  qualities are listed: 1) love, 2) faith, 3) service, 4), patient endurance, and  5) greater works.

Next, Jesus notes their sin: “Nevertheless, I have  this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a  prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and  the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (Revelation  2:20). Apparently, a false prophetess was leading believers into compromise.  The church was engaging in sexual immorality and dabbling in idolatry. It is  possible that “Jezebel” was her real name, but it is more likely the name was a  metaphorical reference to the Jezebel of the Old  Testament—another idolatrous woman who opposed God’s ways. Rather than rebuke  this false teacher and send her out of the church, the believers in Thyatira  were allowing her to continue her deception.

Jesus pronounces judgment  on this “Jezebel” and calls the church of Thyatira to repent of their sin: “I  will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery  with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her  children dead” (Revelation 2:22-23).

Then Jesus encourages those  who had remained faithful: “Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who  do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets  (I will not impose any other burden on you): Only hold on to what you have until  I come” (Revelation 2:24-25). The faithful believers did not fall  into Satan’s trap, and they only needed to remain faithful until Christ’s  return.

Jesus lists His promises to the believers in Thyatira: “To him  who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the  nations—‘He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces  like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give  him the morning star” (Revelation 2:26-28). These blessings would include 1)  authority over the nations, 2) victory over all enemies, and 3) the morning  star. This morning star is Jesus Himself, as Revelation  22:16 reveals. Jesus will give Himself to His church, and they will  fellowship together forever.

Revelation 2 begins a series of brief letters to seven  churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) that existed during the apostle  John’s time. Each of these messages includes specific information for each  church, and there are lessons in each letter for believers today. The fifth  letter is to the church in Sardis (Revelation  3:1-6). Sardis was one of the oldest and best defended cities in the region  and the wealthy capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia.

The message to  Sardis is from the Lord Jesus Christ through an angel or messenger (possibly a  reference to the pastor): “To the angel of the church in Sardis write . . .” (Revelation 3:1). This was  not John’s message to the church at Sardis; it was a message from the Lord. The  description at the end of verse 1 further verifies the author: “These are the  words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” Only Jesus  has the seven spirits (or “seven-fold Spirit,” meaning the complete or perfect  Spirit of God), and only Jesus holds the seven stars, i.e., the seven angels (or  pastors) of the seven churches (Revelation  1:20).

Jesus quickly and clearly condemns the lifeless state of the  Sardian church: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but  you are dead” (Revelation  3:2). This church may have had a good reputation, but they were spiritually  lifeless. In other words, the church was filled with unsaved people going  through the motions of religion. There were many tares  among the wheat (Matthew  13:24-30).

Jesus then calls them to repent of their sin: “Wake up! Strengthen what  remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the  sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you received and heard; obey it, and  repent” (Revelation  3:2-3a). To “wake up” means to start paying attention to their need of  salvation, to stop being careless about their heart’s condition before  God.

Jesus notes the judgment that would take place if they did not  repent: “If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know  at what time I will come to you” (Revelation  3:3b). A dead church, and one unrepentant in its deadness, will be  disciplined by Jesus Himself.

After the warning, Jesus encourages those  in Sardis who had remained faithful: “Yet you have still a few people in Sardis  who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for  they are worthy” (Revelation  3:4). The faithful remnant had not soiled their garments (participated in  sin). They are “worthy.” The idea of walking worthily is also found in Paul’s  teaching in Ephesians  4:1; Colossians  1:10; and 1  Thessalonians 2:12. To be “worthy” is to “match up” with something—the  profession of faith in the mouth matches the reality of faith in the heart. The  faithful ones are promised to walk with Jesus in white (see Matthew 22:11-12; Revelation  19:8).

Jesus makes a final promise to the believers in Sardis: “He  who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his  name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and  his angels” (Revelation  3:5). The one who “overcomes” is anyone who is born again (1 John 5:4). The overcomer  will receive a white garment (a token of righteousness), he will never have his  name removed from the book of life (a promise of  eternal security), and he will be confessed by Jesus in heaven (cf. Luke 12:8).

Revelation  3:7-13 records Christ’s message to the sixth of the seven  churches addressed in Revelation 2–3. The Philadelphian church is the  recipient of this letter. Philadelphia was a city in Asia Minor (modern-day  Turkey) on the Imperial Post Road, an important trade route.

The message  is from the Lord Jesus Christ through an angel or “messenger” (likely a  reference to the pastor): “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write . .  .” (Revelation  3:7). This was not John’s personal message to these believers; it was a  message from the Lord, who identifies Himself as “him who is holy and true, who  holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one  can open.” This description of Jesus emphasizes His holiness, His sovereignty,  and His authority. The reference to the key of David is an allusion to the  Messianic prophecy of Isaiah  22:22. Jesus is the one who opens and shuts, and no one can say Him  nay.

Jesus affirms the church’s positive actions: “I know your deeds.  See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you  have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8). The  church of Philadelphia was weak in some respects, yet they had remained faithful  in the face of trial. Because of this, the Lord promises them an “open door” of  blessing.

Jesus’ letter then condemns the enemies of the Philadelphian  believers: “I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be  Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at  your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you” (Revelation  3:9). Those who persecuted the believers (the persecutors were religious  hypocrites in this case) would one day realize Christ loves His children. The  church of Philadelphia would be victorious over its enemies.

Jesus  encourages the Philadelphian believers regarding His future coming: “Since you  have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of  trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the  earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your  crown” (Revelation 3:10-11). The church’s faithful endurance  would serve as a blessing. Jesus would take them to be with Him before the  coming tribulation (1  Thessalonians 4:13-18). He also exhorts them to remain faithful, because  this would lead to rewards in the afterlife. Based on this and other passages,  many Bible interpreters conclude that the rapture is  an event distinct from the second  coming of Christ. The fact that the Philadelphians are promised to be  preserved from the time of the tribulation corresponds with the pretribulational  view of the rapture.

Jesus provides a final promise to the believers  in Philadelphia and to all believers: “Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in  the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name  of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming  down from out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name”  (Revelation  3:12). Professor Thomas Constable notes, “God promised that He will not just  honor overcomers by erecting a pillar in their name in heaven, as was the custom  in Philadelphia. He will make them pillars in the spiritual temple of God, the  New Jerusalem (21:22; cf. Gal. 2:9; 1 Cor.  3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-10).” (Source:  Thomas Constable, Notes on Revelation at http://soniclight.org/constable/notes/pdf/revelation.pdf.)

So, those who struggled with weakness Jesus makes everlasting pillars in the  house of God. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).  Jesus’ words of comfort certainly would have been a blessing to the  Philadelphians who had faithfully stood for Christ in their pagan culture. His  words continue to serve as an encouragement to faithful believers today.

The seventh and final letter to the churches of ancient Asia Minor is to the  church in the city of Laodicea. This last message is found in Revelation 3:14-22.  Laodicea was a wealthy, industrious city in the province of Phrygia in the Lycos  Valley.

The message is from the Lord Jesus Christ via an angel or  messenger (likely a reference to the church’s pastor): “To the angel of the  church in Laodicea write . . .” (Revelation  3:14). This was not simply John’s message to those in Laodicea; it was a  message from the Lord. Jesus identifies Himself thus: “The Amen, the faithful  and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.” These titles emphasize the  Lord’s faithfulness, sovereignty, and power to bring all things to their proper  completion (the “Amen”).

In contrast to the other six churches, the  Laodicean church has nothing to commend it. Jesus begins the message with  condemnation: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you  were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor  cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have  acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are  wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:15-17). Jesus emphasizes their “lukewarm,”  apathetic nature three times. As a result of their ambivalence to spiritual  things, Jesus would have nothing to do with them. He would “spit them out,” as  the people of Laodicea would spit out the tepid water that flowed from the  underground aqueducts to their city. With their apathy came a spiritual  blindness; they claimed to be rich, blessed and self-sufficient. Perhaps they  were rich in material things. But, spiritually, the Laodiceans were in a  wretched, pitiful condition, made all the worse in that they could not see their  need. This was a church filled with self-deceived hypocrites.

Jesus  calls the Laodicean church to repent of its sin: “I counsel you to buy from me  gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so  you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can  see” (Revelation  3:18). Their material wealth had no eternal benefit, so Jesus commands them  to come to Him for true, spiritual riches (see Isaiah  55:1-2). Only Christ can supply an everlasting inheritance, clothe us in  righteousness, and heal our spiritual blindness.

Jesus then notes His  concern for His church in Laodicea: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone  hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with  me” (Revelation 3:19-20). His rebuke is not born of animosity  but of love. “The Lord disciplines those he loves” (Hebrews  12:6). The desired response to God’s reproof was zealous change and true  repentance.

Verse 20 is often used as an evangelistic appeal, yet its  original context communicates Christ’s desire for fellowship with His lukewarm  church in Laodicea. The church is nominally Christian, but Christ Himself has  been locked out. Rather than turn His back on them, He knocks, seeking someone  to acknowledge the church’s need and open the door. If they would repent, Jesus  would come in and take His rightful place in the church. He would share a meal  with them, a Middle Eastern word picture speaking of closeness of  relationship.

Jesus then makes a promise to the believers in Laodicea:  “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just  as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21). The  “overcomer” refers to any believer, and the promise is that he will share  Christ’s future kingdom.

In summary, the church at Laodicea had become  apathetic in their love for Christ. They were allowing “the deceitfulness of  wealth and the desires for other things [to] come in and choke the word, making  it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19).  Christ called them to repent and live zealously for Him, to “choose for  yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Joshua  24:15). The Lord Jesus issues the same call to those who say they follow Him  today.