In preparation for those grand visions which would constitute the book of Revelation, the apostle John was confronted by the risen Christ on the island of Patmos.
Jesus was said to be “in the midst” of the seven golden lampstands that represented seven congregations of the Lord’s body in Asia (Rev. 1:13, 20). Later, Christ was characterized as “he who walks [present tense—constantly walks] among the seven golden lampstands” (Rev. 2:1).
Since the Lord ever moves among his people, one is not surprised to learn that he is intimately aware of what transpires within his churches. Accordingly, in the letters to the seven congregations, the Bible student is repeatedly reminded that the Son of God “knows” the nature of their circumstances (Rev. 2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15).
Based upon his perfect knowledge, whenever appropriate, Christ commended those qualities which were to be enhanced. Similarly, he addressed some changes to be effected, if heaven was to be finally obtained.
The Letters to the Churches of Asia
The epistles to the seven churches follow a general pattern of development. They contain:
- a salutation from the Lord;
- a commendation of virtues when justified;
- a condemnation of wrongs where such was needed;
- an exhortation to continued fidelity;
- and finally, a promise of exaltation to those who overcome.
Some of the churches presented an exception to the pattern. For example, there was no rebuke for either Smyrna or Philadelphia; but, by way of contrast, Jesus had nothing good to say regarding Laodicea.
It certainly is reasonable to conclude that whatever the Lord approved, or disapproved, in those ancient churches, he would similarly approve or disapprove in his congregations of today (cf. Heb. 13:8). Let us thus reflect upon these two broad categories.
Commendations for the Churches
Christ praised a number of qualities characteristic of the church in Ephesus. These were Christians who had labored diligently (to the point of exhaustion—for so signifies the term
kopos, “toil”). Moreover, in spite of persecution, they had remained patient. They had endured the hostilities of the enemy with fidelity.
Additionally, they were doctrinally sound. They had tested certain false teachers who claimed to be apostles but were not. Clearly, these brethren practiced church discipline. Finally, the Ephesians had persevered for the Lord’s name sake, and they had not grown tired of serving the Master (Rev. 2:2, 3).
Though the church in Smyrna had been subjected to severe persecution by those who feigned a relationship to Judaism and though they were economically destitute (cf. Heb. 10:34), these saints were spiritually rich in their service to the Son of God (Rev. 2:9). Clearly they were wealthy in good works (1 Tim. 6:18).
In Pergamum, the children of God held fast the Lord’s name. They did not deny his faith even though one of their number had suffered martyrdom. They were a courageous group (Rev. 2:13).
The church in Thyatira had several praise-worthy qualities. Unlike Ephesus, their love shined brightly, and that devotion expressed itself in service. Too, their faith (confidence, trust) was firm, and this allowed them to endure tribulation. Finally, these Christians had not simply “held their own” against their persecutors. Actually, they had grown spiritually so that their latter works were more than the first (Rev. 2:19).
Sardis was mostly a tragedy. There was no word of general praise for this church. There is but a brief recognition that a few souls in this city had remained pure. They had not defiled their spiritual attire (Rev. 3:4).
Though the church in Philadelphia had “little power,” possibly suggesting it was small in number, saints had faithfully kept the Lord’s word and had not denied his name. For this they were praised (Rev. 3:8).
Condemnations for the Churches
While Jesus was happy to render praise where praise was due, it is also a fact that he was compelled to rebuke church flaws as well. And from such descriptives we can learn the sort of attitudes and conduct that must be avoided. Again, though, we note that there was no word of censure for either Smyrna or Philadelphia—a remarkable commentary on the maturity of these two churches.
In spite of its commendable traits, the church at Ephesus had left her “first love.” Her devotion to God and the benevolence that ought to be exercised on behalf of his people that had characterized the earlier days of this congregation’s existence is lacking. Though active in many areas, their attitude was that of a fallen group. They were thus commanded to repent or else they would lose their identity as a church of Jesus Christ (Rev. 2:4, 5).
The church at Pergamum was contaminated by some who held to the doctrine of Balaam, an Old Testament character who taught the pagan king Balak how to corrupt the Israelite people in the matter of participating in idolatry and the commission of fornication. Others endorsed the teaching of the Nicolaitans, who apparently held a “like manner” doctrine (Rev. 2:14, 15). Again, repentance was demanded or else the Lord would come and make war against these rebels.
The congregation in the city of Thyatira was afflicted with a similar weakness. They were overlooking the wicked teaching of a woman called “Jezebel” — doubtless a symbolic appellation for an evil woman who was reminiscent of the Israelite queen who corrupted Israel through her spineless husband. This Jezebel feigned being a prophetess, and through her teaching she led Christians into idolatry and sexual misconduct (Rev. 2:20, 21). The Lord threatened to destroy those thus involved in order to demonstrate “to all the churches” that he knew of their depraved conduct and that he had the authority to judge them.
In Sardis, the situation was lamentable. Members of the body in this city had the reputation of being a very lively group. They were “on fire” for the Master. However, the Lord, who sees not as man (1 Sam. 16:7), knew that in reality they were spiritually dead. Too, this was a start-and-stop church. They were erratic, ever initiating projects, yet not bringing them to fruition. Christ therefore admonished them to “establish the things that remain,” i.e., they were to stabilize themselves and proceed with doing God’s will (Rev. 3:2).
The church in Laodicea was a disaster and the members thereof were utterly oblivious to this fact. Though they boasted of their wealth and took pride in their independence, the Lord saw them as wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev. 3:17). The Laodicean congregation was lukewarm (Rev. 3:16) — a condition that made Christ sick. Their apathy was such that they had excluded the Son of God from their fellowship and he begged for re-entry (Rev. 3:20).
Christ’s Pattern for Faithful Churches
A consideration of the foregoing commendations and condemnations would lead to the conclusion that Christ desires churches that:
- are obedient to his word
- are energetic
- endure against opposition
- are sound in doctrine
- are tireless in their labor
- are courageous in the face of death
- are loving in disposition
- are confident, trusting God
- serve the needs of others
- grow spiritually and numerically
- are pure
- are penitent
- refuse to tolerate false teaching
- discipline wayward members
- are stable
- are zealous
- practice self-evaluation
- welcome Christ as an abiding presence
A careful consideration of both the desirable and undesirable traits of these primitive churches can be of supreme value today. May God help us improve our congregations and strive for the divine model.