The Bible text is full of layers. Anyone who studies it realizes something new every time reading it. It is impossible to get fully learned, to fully understand it in a lifetime. It is history, prophecy, a puzzle, artistic, and an intelligent constructed piece of literature at the same time as it is straightforward. It has been written by many authors living over hundreds of years apart. Yet it is consistent and it never changes values and key principles. In our modern age, we have seen how people change morals and understanding just from generation to generation, yet the Bible ignores the ever-changing society and holds its ground with God’s moral laws throughout.
This is the way the Bible stands out from any other religious book. One verse can give several different aspects and revelations. One sentence can reveal many different things. It has many layers. But the only way to know if you interpreted it correctly is if every different layer or message given all has the same conclusion. The conclusion, the right answers, like a sudoku puzzle, always have to be summed up the same way. If one layer or interpretation does not we know we solved it wrong.
One of the many-layered messages in the Bible is found in Christ’s revelation to His churches.
It is straightforward, it is prophetic and symbolic, it is historical, and it is personal. It fits with churches that exist at the same time as well as churches that historically follow each other. It even fits with one single church’s personal struggles. Sometimes one church faces all the different dilemmas described among its different church-goers. And we are going to take a look at how Christ masterly explains the Christian experience yet in every single layer the conclusion and message are the same. The sum is always the same.
Churches co-existing at Johns’s time.
In the time the book of Revelation was written there were several churches spread all over the Middle East, Greece, and
Rome. When Christ is seen as Head of the Churches and only seven is mentioned it is not to neglect all the other churches existing at that time. Christ had a church in Jerusalem, in Rome, in Antioch, and in different parts of Greece as well as other places. Christ is not saying only these seven churches in what is now known as western Turkey was His. The mention of only seven churches is because of its prophetic and symbolic value. In God’s law, seven is often used in connection with “cleansing something unclean”, when investigating if something is clean or not. It is also connected with judgment. The number seven was used if there was a suspicion of diseases or impurity on houses, on clothing, or a singular person. Like different types of mold. The time period of seven days was the time ordained to determine the state of the “house”, “clothing” or the “person”. A conclusion would come at the end of the time. Something another sequence of seven days was given in hope that what was unclean could be saved. If it could not be saved, the infected part was removed or the house was torn down, the clothing burnt, and the person exiled from the others (Lev.13 & 14).
As you can see, this is very fitting with the seven churches as a church is considered both “a house” as well as the people in it. Clothing in the Bible is a symbol of righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21).
So it is clear this is a reference to the cleansing laws in God’s law. The number seven also symbolizes peace and union with God as seen in the Sabbath day, the seventh day of the week. Seven is therefore all these things considered, in the Bible, a complete number.
So God chose only seven churches to address symbolic all the Christian churches in the whole world and throughout time. The seven churches God chose to serve as examples were all situated in what we now call Western Turkey. If you draw a line between them it starts by the coast and ends in the inland. It goes northward and then southward again. No doubt Christ found seven churches that in their day all had the characteristics mentioned which served as an example to be used for all churches. This means that most likely the state described in the message to the churches is fitting to the existing churches at that time. This is the first layer. The first-century churches were not all clean, this is clear through different letters now found in the Bible. One church would not even receive the apostle John and cast out those who would (3Jn 1:9-10). Paul told in his letters about division, false teachings, and sin in the churches. Even Christ’s own congregation with His twelve disciples had a traitor present in Judas. As long as sin is in the world it will affect the churches. They will never be without challenges. However, what does matter is what the majority does and how it affects the direction the church takes. Judas’ mentality did not change Jesus or the other apostles. But many churches have changed when many enough have had control they should not have had. Or if the churches took their eyes of Christ to be lead by man’s religious ideas.
Churches co-existing throughout time.
It should be easy to understand. Today we have hundreds of different types of churches displaying different characteristics and problems. The messages to the churches can help a church that is struggling and lacking God’s spirit to examine itself and discover in what state they are in and by the advice given to the church, what to do about it.
Historical throughout time.
The churches also represent the direction the Christian church took from John’s time and up until Christ’s second coming.
The first church, Ephesos, represented the first Christian movement after a little time had passed. They had zeal, they sacrificed, they loved but after some time their love had lost its spark. Their zeal was dimming. God commend them for everything they have been through and endured for His sake. But He saw trouble on the horizon if they did not return “to thy first love”. The church could only stand through what was ahead if their love for Christ and His truth carried them forth. Their power to resist evil, to distinguish false teaching, and endure persecution lied in their love for Christ and little else. By this, they would stand or fall.
The next message to the church in Smyrna represents the time period were the Christians very suffering within the
Roman empire. They are poor, they have tribulations, they are put in prison and some are killed for their faith. Christ, the compassionate High Priest of the churches has no critic to give the church at this time. He only encourages them to stay faithful. Christ knows they are under hard trials and all He does is encourage them. This is the second phase of the Christian church after its bold beginning. The hard tribulation and hate from the then world.
The third church, Pergamon, describes the third phase the church entered. After the hard tribulation, the Christians started to get sympathy and they also started growing in number and influence because of the sympathy. This was a dangerous time. They had as a church past trauma and with the trauma came the fear of further persecution. They were tempted at anything that could make them feel safer. The need for position and recognition caused them the become targets of deceptions and false teachings. We see part of this church is described to be deceived by “Balaam”. This is of course prophetic and he was long dead at that time. Balaam is a person in the Old Testament who caused a curse to come over God’s assembly. When he first tried to say the curse (persecution) God caused him to fail and the intended curse became a blessing. But then he changed strategy and plotted a plan to make Israel sin by mixing idolatry with true faith. By seducing them to make a compromise with the then worldly religions he made them put a curse on themselves. This is exactly what happened to the Christian church in its third phase after the most severe persecutions and having to suffer segregation. They started to compromise with the world, giving up its purity for the sake of recognition. When the church got sympathy and more influence, half converted pagans came into the church and the church was now going in a fast phase towards a great falling away. To this church, Christ says: “repent”. A Christian church then nor now, should never take God’s “holy truth” and mix it with worldly theories. When we do, we are on the wrong path. We fall into the trap of Balaam and place a curse on ourselves.
This leads to the fourth church and fourth phase, Thyatira. Here is the result of the mixing of truth and error in the previous phase bringing on a huge division in the next phase. Here the “son of God” is described with “eyes like unto a flame of fire” showing Him as a judge of His church.
Part of the church now is described as followers of Jezebel. Remember this is still a message to a church, meaning they have not gone pagan, they are mixing truth and error. Jezebel was a pagan woman who moved from her pagan city and family to marry the King of Israel and live there. Under her reign, she managed to persecute God’s pure true priests and replaced them with pagan priests. How can you have pagan priests in a church? This is exactly what happened during the fourth phase of the church. After Christianity gained favor in Roman society and even with the emperor many pagan people joined the church and a union of the two religions were formed. A “religious marriage”. Christian “Israel” was married to “Paganism”. And this marriage resulted in people adopting pagan practices within the church. Old pagan rituals were now part of the Christian service. In this phase, the church unites with the state and it gets a Pope, a replacement-head for Christ. No longer defending God’s law and doctrines, but making its own laws and rituals in “Christ’s name”.
Here we see Christ explain that He now is ready to reject the part of the church that refuses to repent. He says “I gave her space to repent of her fornication”, meaning Christ as always is long-suffering with the folly of the Christian church. Yet in the end, He has to divide and continue with the faithful. This phase of the church is very fitting with the dark ages. Those who wished to follow the Bible were persecuted by the Papal state who claimed to be the only one fit to rule the Church and to interpret the Scriptures. Paganism and Christianity continued on one hand and the persecuted Christians who refused to comply were on the other side. They became a reject in society.
The fifth phase of the church is described in the message to Sardis. God still can not describe His church as pure like
the two first were complimented. Sardis is a damaged church trying to move on. This is a good description of the reformation period. After Rome had for a long time quenched the true Spirit, people started waking up and going back to Biblical truth. But the reformation movement, thinking themselves “woke” kept repeating the sins of the Roman church. They reformed some things but then persecuted those who continued reforming. The papal age had contaminated them with many false teachings. They still had a long walk from where they needed to be. They kept some of the pagan traditions and mentality, yet were trying to reform. Christ said to them: “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and are dead”. And “strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.» Christ then tells them to continue «repent» which means He is telling them to continue reforming. Repenting and reforming in the Bible is the same thing, as long as you are reforming back to God’s standard. And this church had been reforming and had a spirit of reform, yet kept stopping the reform and being satisfied before fully reaching back to the original state the church needed to be in.
But Christ says as He does about every phase, He always has among them a few who has not failed Him. A group that remains faithful no matter what happens.
The sixth phase of the church is given in the message of Philadelphia. Finally, for the first time since the second phase, God has no critic to give His church. This church has repented back to God’s principles and law. They have rejected the pagan-Christian mixture in full. The church is said to have kept “his word” and “not denied His name” (Rev.3:8). In the Bible, these two terms have a specific meaning. Keeping His word is keeping His command, His law, and ordinances. God’s names in the Bible describes His character. This means this church is finally is obedient but also reflecting God’s character, which is also manifested in His authority and law.
This is fitting only with a small percentage of the protestant churches. Only a few reformed all the way back to God’s original law and the doctrines of the first church. This small but growing group completely refused to follow Christ ordinances that came from the pagan-Christian roman church head and went back to Christ as the head and the lawgiver alone. They did not reflect traditions or popular culture but God’s word.
Christ commends them, gives them credit for doing all this spite having «little strength». In this description, we know this is a smaller church: «for thou hast a little strength» (Rev.3:8). This means they are low in number compared to other churches and have no governmental influence, yet they have chosen to follow Christ. He encourages this church to «hold fast».
Then comes the final and last phase of the church. The phase we are in right now, the time before Christ coming. The previous church had regained its purity and was praised for it. This last church receives no praise only critic and a plea for them to repent before it is all too late. There are no more phases. How the last church responds to this call will determine its fate forever.
So what happened from the church regained its purity in the sixth phase to the seventh? The last church has self-esteem and thinks they are enlightened. They are described as lukewarm, yet they do not identify that way. They are neither zealous or have abandoned the faith. Even worse, they think they have salvation and the truth yet they have fallen from it. This church is self-deceiving. Christ tells them: «Because 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». This no doubt refers to more than one thing. It is a church that thinks of itself as enlightened while being blind. It has material things but not spiritual power. They have influence in the world but not with God. They trust themselves and what they have and see no need for change or repentance. They think they are serving Christ yet Christ is «outside the door knocking» (Rev.3:20). They have not even noticed they have driven out Christ’s spirit and replaced it with foreign spirits and/or self-sufficiency. Christ tells this church that He can still save them if they ask for His help to see that they are poor and naked and in desperate need of emergency help. If they do not “let Him in” they will perish. If they hear this final call, Christ will pull them out of the fire and they will be saved.
Personal Christian walk.
Paul said «we are His temple» but also «you are a temple» (1. Cor.3:16-17; 1. Cor.6:16) 1 Peter 2:5). The seven churches do not just fit with seven churches in time but also with every Christians’ personal pilgrimage. That is if we complete our walk and start it correctly. Some start in one of the phases, such as those who are Christians because their family is, or out of traditions but never had a born-again experience themselves.
But the Christian who is born again represents the first church. At the first phase of newly born Christians, we see zeal and excitement. An eagerness to serve the Lord and tell others about Him. The first days or even years of this walk can be compared perhaps to a «honeymoon» phase. You love the Lord and you are eager to follow Him wherever He goes. The relationship is love-based.
The first trial happens when you see the faces of those long in the church, their love has lessened, their eagerness died. You are met with people wanting to «tone you down» with their experience. Your first danger is what Christ says to the message to the first church: you need to have the first love intact to endure the trials ahead. Many lose their first love after some time or associating with those who have lost the «glow». Sometimes they lose it because of difficulties and worries.
In the second phase of the personal Christian walk, if you have done as you should and share Christ with others you will see the first effects of your conversion soon after. Resistance from friends and family, from people you work with or go to school with. You become less popular, you are talked down to or bad to. You are misunderstood, your motives are questioned. People you have never done anything towards suddenly despise you (Luke 6:22). This is every open Christian’s personal first tribulation. It does not sound as severe as the persecution the early church suffered from Rome, but they were not just put in prison. Families were torn apart, family members went against family members, society stigmatized them and hated them (Luk_12:53). We can in a different way experience the same from our community when becoming a born-again Christian. The more laud and open you are with your faith the more rejection you will get. Those you thought would «love» to hear about your experience, and who even liked you before, now turn their back on you. This is a hard personal experience for a church but also for an individual. Rejection is one of the most powerful tools to break someone psychologically. Every human longs for recognition of sorts. If completely deprived of it many can not remain sane. Few can handle consistent rejection.
This leads us to the third phase.
When you see you are not excepted as before by the people in your life, when you see the world looks down upon you, many feel the need to start compromising to not lose loved ones. They tone down, some become silent Christians, some put down part of their zeal. Some feel forced to give «the world» a little and then Christ a little. Hoping to gain favor from both Christ and the world at the same time.
Many Christians who have had a born-again experience and shared their faith openly will suffer the treatment mentioned and will have to make the decition to either compromise to maintain peace or to suffer the stigma and the rejection. We start convincing ourselves that Christ wanted peace. That He is love and we use that to excuse our compromise with the truth. We convince ourselves that their bad opinion of us when we are zealous is our fault for being a bad example and if we compromise and make them happy they might like Christ more and become Christians themselves. We show that no sacrifice is needed and therefore the decition should be easy.
Our growth in Christ is stopped in the pursuit of worldly happiness and acceptance. Many disappear in this phase. We see Christians today who dress, talk, and do exactly what the world does. We can also see how they receive compliments and are accepted by non-Christians. «If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you» (John.15:19) If you see the world praising and favoriting some Christians above others, notice how it happens because the Christians are giving them what they want to hear. Except towards their values and their ideas. Then the non-believers exclaim and give them attention back and tell the world that these are the Christians that are doing it right. But God tells us to stay true during such temptations.
This leads the Christian to the fourth phase of their experience. The great split is mentioned in the church to Thyatira. Here you see the Christians who chose compromise and have changed to worldly practices now causes tribulation to those who won’t. The pressure is on. Because rejection is such a powerful tool, having a community or congregation with other believers is so important for an individual Christian to stay spiritually healthy. But when there is a split this sanctity is broken.
Before, the former phase, the pressure was from the non-Christians in your life. But when those who are calling themselves Christians are pressuring you the trial is even greater. For they were the ones who were to stand with you. Yet now they turn against you. They claim to represent Christ and that you don’t. They claim Christ is of the world and you are a fanatic if you do not join them. They push you away, talk badly about you, refuse to give you room to speak. Some are cast out of their churches. What you had hoped was a new family turns on you and in some cases gives you worse treatment than those outside the church did.
Again here many going on their personal Christian walk disappears. Scared to lose their religious family, their congregation, support from other believers, they compromise and partake in the worldly forms. Many put away their zeal for Christ and truth and follow church leaders and church mainstream instead. Many of those who do stop reading the Bible, although might be found carrying it to church. For they can not bear to read the plain truth found in it knowing it is a confrontation and judges them. So they keep it shut and listen to their preachers tell them «peace and safety» instead (1. Thess 5:3, Jer.6:14). This secularism or worldly religion helps you have peace «in both worlds» and you feel Christian because no one has anything bad to say about you. And if no one says anything bad then it means you are good right?
But those who follow Christ will not have peace in the world or in the church. They will be an unpleasant stench in the noses of those who hate the truth. Christ and His disciples were persecuted by both their own people and the worldly. Christ said He never promised us peace in the world if we followed Him: «Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid» (Joh.14:27) He also said that if we follow Him we will also be persecuted by people doing it in His name (Christians) (Joh.15:21).
It is not possible to be faithful to Christ without suffering these things. Having complete peace on all sides is a sign you are giving everyone what they want, everyone but Jesus. You are not to cause strife but when you preach the truth they will strife with you.
In this phase is described Christ warns of judgment. If you do not repent or if you wish to stay in this phase He can not continue the walk with you. Now everyone falls, also here Christ proclaim He has His faithful. If you have fallen as many do, you are called to repent and will have to go through the difficult next phase.
In the fifth phase, if you have compromised and become worldly, it is more painful and difficult to turn back to God than it was when you first became «born-again». The first time you felt God’s mercy and forgiveness, His love brought you to Him. And you felt «the new beginning» strongly. You really felt you got a clean slate. Although it is still God’s mercy and love that calls you to repentance you will have lost some confidence after falling away. For you chose Christ and you know you failed Him. On the other hand, you question why you made these mistakes all while praying to Him for guidance. So deep inside you can feel self-blame as well as distrust towards God. These thoughts can cause you to struggle and contemplating giving up. You tried and failed might make you think you will fail again. Following Christ might seem more of a burden and more difficult than what you first thought it would be. The first time your faith had been pure. Nothing feels like a burden when everything you do is inspired by love. But now you are confused, hurt, and might even be fearful. The first time you thought you got a new family, now you feel betrayed by this «new family» and you will struggle with a feeling of belonging. Where do you belong? You might question why God «allowed you to make these mistakes» and “is there really a truth” and “is there really anyone representing it”?. When praying to overcome sin in the beginning you experienced victory. This time you struggle to overcome even though you still pray. Your faith has become weak. You have distanced yourself from some of the hypocrisy and false teaching of Christian brethren, yet you are still full of faults yourself.
To this phase, Christ says clearly that you have to conquer or else you will be lost in it.
Many who have come thus far in their experience now leave the church for good. They have lost their courage, their hope. They see everything differently. Christ says to us in this phase of our walk: «Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God». These are hard words to hear, but if we do not receive the warning we will lose our faith. Some in this phase do not leave the faith but they do not act upon it either. They are left in a limbo state. Condemning the fallen church yet not able to be the better man yourself. Christ warns that on such He will come as «a thief», for they are not prepared. It is out of love and because God still has love and mercy to offer, He calls us to repent to escape this phase. Christ also let us know that even in this phase He has his faithful people.
If we continue, we don’t give up, we come into the sixth phase of our Christian experience. «With little strength» means we are walking among few with little support yet have decided to follow Christ all the same. Also with «little strength» as our confidence was wounded by the former phases and the tribulation we have faced. Yet we decide to reform back to God’s original truth, to be faithful and patient. Christ will in this state comfort us and as with this church, He gives no critic. He will heal our wounds and only care for us and encourage us. Our first love is awoken.
Then we will enter the final temptation in our walk with Christ. Lukewarmness. And in lukewarmness, we have a false sense of security. We think because we exposed false teachings, false churches, overcame what we overcame, and felt God’s comfort, that we are safe. Slowly as we «sleep» the enemy start planting «weed» in our hearts. God never meant for us to sleep, but to stay awake and alert. While «sleeping» the world has snuck its way back into our hearts. We think we have the truth, we might even preach it, but Christ is outside our hearts knocking asking us to let Him in. He has more to say, more to give. But our experiences have caused us to be so on guard we have pushed even Christ and His spirit away when they come to present the final preparation we need before Christ second coming.
We might fear receiving anything new thinking we have all the truth we need. Is not that why Christ comforted us? We think we are «rich» but Christ sees that we have become naked and poor. We have taken the control into our own hands. We trust ourselves, our judgment, our current state.
This was the last stage the jews were in when they failed to receive Christ. The Jewish congregation went through all the same phases the Christian church did. Israel had a great beginning, then it compromised principles while seeking the approval of other nations, it then adopted Babylonian culture and religion mixing it with their own, the following escape from Babylon and all their false teachings, their great days when the temple was rebuilt and God reinstated them and they obeyed Him. And then the final stage where they thought they had the «law and the prophet», they thought their faith was pure, yet it was only defiled differently. They saw their past experience as people and recognized themselves as fully converted and better. It is a dangerous phase to be in, this last phase. It was the last phase of the Jewish congregation they met Christ and it is the final phase of the Christian church and walks we see Christ knocking.
The jews rejected their promised Messiah, and we might claim Christ’s name while He is on the outside of our hearts. They did not recognize Him and we might not recognize His calling either. This last phase was the close of probation for the Jewish congregation and it will also be the close of probation for the Christian church. At Christ’s second coming it has all been determined. What state we are in at this time will determine our destiny forever.
Will we in this last phase understand Christ’s call, understand that we are still not ready unless we let Him in? It is a self-deceiving phase, we think we «got this». But Christ tells us we are «naked», we need to be clothed in His righteousness. We need to see more clearly. We need to wake to receive the final truths for our day, the truth that will help us and secure us in the last phase.
The seven churches describe several aspects of the Christian journey. It is brilliantly authored with many layers. Some churches are stuck in one of the church phases, individuals are stuck in some of the phases and some are upright and sincere and are on different phases of the walk yet are on the right track. God’s people are judging each other, but we will all have to endure all these phases if we are upright. Patience with someone in a different phase than us is important.
But throughout Israel’s journey, the church’s journey, our journey, God’s truth is the same. The end goal of our experience is the same. The Shepherd the same, the Blood the same, the Law the same. God is the same. But the walk will be at times painful. The only thing that is not the same is how we choose to react to what happens. If we try to stay true to God no matter what, the promise at the end of the messages to the churches is sure. Christ says: “him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life,”He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death”, “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it”, “And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations. ..and I will give him the morning star”, “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels”, “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels”, and “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels”. (Rev.2-3)
God describing the Christian church’s journey till the end is impressive. Doing it while giving us a personal guide, in addition, is also impressive. Taking seven churches that were real and existed with all these charismatics and layering it all together was amazing. Perhaps what you can do, whoever you are or wherever you are, is look and see if you find yourself in one of these phases. Maybe you are stuck in one. Maybe you are moving forward but in distress. Look at Christ’s advice for your phase, know what the next phase will be, and be prepared. Hide in His wings as you continue. And know God’s mercy is new every day till the last. God called His people out of Egypt, but He also had to call them again out of Babylon. He knows we will stumble and fall, but He is more than willing to save us again. His patience is not over yet. He knows already that we would fall the day we first came to Him, He predicted our fall, our struggles and He has prepared all this time for our second exodus, our third. The greatest danger we can put ourselves in as a Christian is to think God has given us up. With that thought alone we lose the power to resist temptations, our faith and hope are what holds us up and keeps us going. It is knowing that Christ loves us that brings forth our own love. Our love results in faithfulness towards the One we love. God’s enemy knows this. If he can convince us that Christ’s love for us is weakened, if he can hurt our faith and quench our hope, our journey with Christ ends. It is over.
The last thing we must ever give up is the belief that God loves us and want us. The second and third thing we must hold on to till the end is faith and hope. If we do that, God can and will save us.