Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Christ's Message to the Seven Churches

Alice C. Linsley

The purpose of the Apocalypse of St. John is to encourage the followers of Jesus Christ at a time of great trial and persecution. The central message is that Christ is victorious over sin and death and is the sovereign ruler over all things. Those persecuted by earthly rulers, even emperors who claim to be divine, have nothing to fear if they remain faithful to Christ. John says concerning Christ that he is "the ruler over the kings of earth." (Rev. 1:5) All earthly rulers will perish, but Christ died and is risen "the firstborn" from the dead, proving to be the Immortal One whose coming was long expected.

The oracles to the seven churches stress Christ's ultimate victory and his eternal rule. Those found faithful among the churches will reign with Christ in his eternal kingdom. The Apostle Paul elaborates on this when he speaks of how we will be joint heirs with Christ. The term "joint heir" is a legal term which means that we will share all things together. Those who endure, holding fast to the faith of Jesus Christ, will have their names preserved in the Book of Life and they will not experience the second death.

The directness of Christ's message is expressed in the phrase "I know...", emphasizing that nothing is hidden from the Risen Lord. The Lord appeared to John on the Lord's Day while he is standing in worship, possibly with his back to the East. John heard the Lord's voice behind him "as a trumpet" (Rev. 1:10) and turned to behold One like the Son of Man and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword. (Rev. 1:16)

Christ told John to write what he sees in a book and send it to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Each of the churches is given an oracle directly from Christ. Each oracle ends with the exhortation to hear and listen to what the Spirit says to the churches for the Spirit gives understanding.

Symbolism of the Apocalypse

The Apocalypse of Saint John is rich in symbolism. Besides the symbolism of numbers, there are symbols that spoke directly to the communities to which the oracles were directed. These include sacred mountains, crowns, the two-edged sword, the open door, sacred banquets, and sacred scrolls. The scroll with the seven seals expresses the ancient three-tier cosmology. "But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it." (Rev. 5:3)

Much of the symbolism is rooted in ancient cosmological perceptions of seven stars/planets as celestial messengers or angels. One of these is the "morning star" or Venus (Rev. 2:28). The other "stars" of the ancient world were Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Saturn, and the Sun and the Moon. All can be seen by the naked eye near the ecliptic.

In the ancient world these seven celestial bodies were referred to as bowls. They were perceived to hold both blessings and curses. In Revelation 16:1-21 the bowls pour out curses that resemble the plagues of Egypt. 

Likewise the seven churches, represented by the seven lampstands, have a cosmic dimension. Jesus Christ who stands at the sacred center of the cosmos is also at sacred center of the churches. The sacred center in Biblical theology is both temporal and spatial, both in time and outside of time, and this is critical to understanding the meta-historical aspect of the Apocalypse. Revelation 1:12 states the Christ is in “the midst” of the seven golden lampstands. This is the same wording found in Genesis to describe the Tree of Life at the sacred center of the Garden. Note that the Tree of Life was never forbidden to Adam, only the tree of the knowledge of good and evil by which Man hoped to become like God, knowing all things.

The Seven Churches

“The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.” (Rev.1:20)

The seven churches are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. All were located on a commercial highway and Hebrews (Habiru) had lived in these towns for many generations. It is to these mostly Jewish communities that Christ directs his warnings. He knows the spiritual condition of each community and the consequences of their condition unless they repent and persevere in the Faith.

Besides the seven churches (lamp stands), there are seven stars (celestial messengers), seven oracles, seven seals and seven bowls. The number seven speaks of perfection in the sense of cosmic wholeness and parallels the seven days of creation. In Revelation, the number seven symbolizes the new creation, the restoration of Paradise, or the eternal Sabbath to be enjoyed by the Redeemed.

Message to Ephesus
Icon drawn by Constantina
(Apocalypse Icons)
The population of Ephesus in Paul's time was about 350,000. Paul planted the church here around 53-56 A.D. In addition to Paul, the church received help from Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos, Tychicus, and Timothy. According to Tradition, the Virgin Mary lived here with John. When St. John penned The Apocalypse the church was about 41-42 years old and was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles.

Christ praises the church at Ephesus for discerning false prophets and for resisting the Nicolaitans. St. Ignatius of Antioch commended the Ephesian Christians for their continuing resistance to Gnosticism and heresy. Nevertheless, Christ admonishes his followers to repent and "do the first works" and to return to their "first love."

From this church, those "who overcome are granted to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God." (Rev. 2:1) Christ says, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God." (Rev. 2:7) Verse 7 recapitulates verse 1. The Tree of Life alludes to Genesis 2 and speaks of Christ who, like the Tree in the center of the Garden, is the sacred center for the Church universal.

Message to Smyrna
Icon drawn by Constantina
(Apocalypse Icons)
Smyrna (modern Ismir in Turkey) was known as "the Crown City" because the temples encircling the top of Mt. Pagus resembled a crown when viewed from the city. The city took pride in this, but Christ directs them to an everlasting crown. To this church he declares, "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." (Rev. 2:10) It is his to give because he alone is "the First and the Last, who was dead and came to life." (Rev. 2:8) 

Christ knows the blasphemy of the Jews in Smyrna. Apparently they were responsible for the persecution of the faithful. Likely, they used the same strategy against Messianic Jews that the Sanhedrin had used against Jesus and his followers in Jerusalem. They turned them over to the Roman authorities on false charges. Christ admonishes them not to fear the "synagogue of Satan" nor the time of trial, but to persevere and win the crown of life. 

The blessed Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, testified, “He will raise us from the dead … we shall … reign with Him.” When brought before the Roman governor and commanded to curse Christ's name, he replied: “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me nothing but good; and how could I curse him, my Lord and Savior?” He was burned alive in 155 A.D.

The Lord declares the church at Smyrna spiritually rich: “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev.2:8-11).

Message to Pergamum
Icon drawn by Constantina
(Apocalypse Icons)
Pergamon was the first city in Asia Minor to build a temple to Caesar and as such is called "Satan's throne" (Rev. 2:13). Here it was common for people to eat food offered to Caesar. The city had many street sanctuaries dedicated to the different cults.

Pergamon was the seat of Rome's Proconsul who had authority to issue edicts for the whole of Asia Minor. He held an upright sword as the sign of his authority. When the sword was lowered, it meant that someone was about to be beheaded. Antipas, one of the leaders of the church, had been martyred, probably by beheading.

Until 190 B.C. Pergamon was under the control of the Syrian king Antiochus III and many Jews lived in the city. The Apostle Paul probably evangelized among the Jews of Pergamon during his third missionary journey.

Ancient Pergamon was built at a high elevation (shown below). The modern city of Bergama, Turkey rests below the high place. As was true of ancient high places, Pergamon had a permanent water source. The sacred springs were visited by the Roman emperor and the philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

To the church at Pergamon the meaning of Christ with a two-edged sword (Rev. 1:16) would have been obvious. The sword represents Christ's authority and the Word of God. This sword comes from the mouth of the One who holds the seven stars; the God who shines brighter than the sun, whose authority is cosmic.

Warning against the Nicolaitan teachings, Christ reminds the church at Peragmon that he has the two-edged sword (Rev. 2:12) and says, "Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth." (Rev. 2:16)

Besides heeding false prophets, typified by Balaam, some of the Christians ate food offered to idols. To those who refused to eat such food, the Lord promised the hidden manna. (Rev. 2:12-17)

Message to Thyatira
Icon drawn by Constantina
(Apocalypse Icons)
The church at Thyatira was the smallest of the seven churches and yet it received the longest of the seven oracles. From this we understand that the smallest mission is not the least in importance to the Lord.

The church had numerous problems, including a false prophetess who is typified by Jezebel who introduced idolatry to Israel during the reign of her husband King Ahab (869–850 BC). The church is admonished to repent for allowing this woman who promoted sexual immorality and the consumption of foods offered to idols. The church was also troubled by the Nicolaitans, whose teachings are described as "the deep things of Satan" (Rev. 2:24).

The faithful at Thyatira are praised for their works, love, service, faith, and patience. Christ knows the trials and challenges facing these faithful ones and tells them, "I cast no other burden on you. But what you have, hold onto until I come." (Rev. 2:24, 25)

From this church those who persevere to the end will be given power over the nations and the "morning star" (Venus, the brightest starlike object in the morning sky.)

Message to Sardis
Icon drawn by Constantina
(Apocalyspe Icons)
Sardis was one of the most ancient and renowned cities of Asia Minor. Ancient Sardis was built on top of a 1500 foot high precipice on the northern side of Mt. Timolus. The sides of the hill were perpendicular and impossible to scale. The citadel was accessible only through a narrow passage that was easily defended from above. 

Although considered impregnable, Sardis was captured twice; first in 549 B.C. by Cyrus, and later in 218 B.C. by Antiochus the Great. On both occasions the citadel fell at night due to failure of the tower watchmen. This is why Christ admonishes the faithful to wake up and be watchful lest he comes as a thief in the night. (Rev. 3:3)

From this church, those who overcome will be clothed in white garments, and their names will be confessed before the Father and His angels. (Rev. 3:1-6)

Message to Philadelphia
Icon drawn by Constantina
(Apocalypse Icons)
Amman, Jordan was named Philadelphia during the time of the Apostles. It was originally built on seven hills. It received its named from Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Macedonian ruler of Egypt.

Philadelphia was culturally Nabataean until 106 A.D. when it came under Roman control and joined the Decapolis. Petra was the principal city of the Nabataeans and it rivaled Jerusalem in grandeur. Petra reflects the Horite architecture of the Edomites mentioned in Genesis 36.

To the church at Philadelphia the Lord says: “Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (Rev.3:10-13).

This church is to the Kingdom of God what Heliopolis was to the ancient Horites. It is the place of true worship, characterized by many pillars (iunu) in the temple. Iunu refers to the pillared temple of Heliopolis (Biblical On). The pillars represented the righteous ones in the temple of God. Exodus 24:4 explains that the twelve pillars in God's house represent the twelve tribes upon which God has inscribed the holy Name.

Message to Laodicea
Icon drawn by Constantina
(Apocalypse Icons)
Laodicea is the only church among the seven which receives no commendation from the Lord. In the Lord's sight this church is naked. Therefore Christ instructs the church to buy white garments that their shame might be covered. (Rev. 3:18)

Laodicea was situated in an area known for its hot springs, especially those at Hieropolis, only six miles from Laodicea. These hot springs brought people from great distances to the area. The church at Laodicea was lukewarm and not likely to attract anyone. Therefore Christ admonishes the church to repent from being lukewarm and to be zealous for the Lord.

In Laodicea there was a school of medicine famous for its production of Phrygian powder, an eye salve. Christ urges the Christians at Laodicea to buy His ointment that they may see.

Christ is described as "the Amen" because he is the fulfillment of all the Father's promises from Genesis to the Apocalpse. St. Paul explains, "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ. And so through him the 'Amen' is spoken by us to the glory of God." (2 Cor. 1:20)

From this church, those who overcome will be granted the opportunity to sit with the Son of God on His throne. (3:14-22)

Related reading: The Seven Bowls of Revelation 16The Seventh Seal and Silence in HeavenNumber Symbolism in Revelation; The Sacred Center in Biblical Theology

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