The Book of Revelation contains the prophecies of the last days, before the New Heaven and the New Earth go on into eternity, with believers living for their God with no sin, no sorrow, and no pain. Much of this prophecy is shrouded in description that can be confusing, and many theologians debate the extent of what is symbolic and what is literal in the visions described by John the Apostle.
One such section is at the very beginning, where John addresses the seven churches in Asia - an area in modern Turkey. The Lord Jesus commands John to write a message to each of these churches.
These churches were seven real churches at the time, and some believe they represent seven church ages, while others argue they represent seven church types that have existed since the church began, and will exist until Christ returns.
Where Does the Bible Mention These Seven Churches?
The seven churches are the primary focus of the first three chapters of Revelation. They are represented by seven golden lampstands, and the seven angels – or messengers – of the churches, represented by seven stars in the right hand of Jesus. Only one of the churches is in another part of the Bible. The Church at Ephesus received a letter, the Book of Ephesians, from the Apostle Paul.
The three approaches to understanding these churches all agree they were existing churches that received copies of the Revelation at that time. They differ on how these churches may or may not apply to church history, including the modern body of believers.
There is one perspective that these messages only applied to those seven specific churches and the messages have no lasting significance. One of the criticisms of this theory is that it dismisses the prophetic nature of the messages, and reduces the significance of the prophecies coming from the glorified Christ.
There is also the chronological perspective. According to this view, each church mentioned in these chapters represents a period in church history. Each of these periods can be traced and assigned to a specific phase of the growth and change of the body of Christ over time, from its inception, to its decline before Christ’s return.
These seven church periods are:
1. The Apostolic Church ≈ 30 - 300 A.D.
2. The Martyr Church ≈ 100 - 313 A.D.
3. The Compromising Church ≈ 314 - 590 A.D.
4. The Roman Catholic Church ≈ 590 - 1517 A.D.
5. The Reformation Church ≈ 1517-1700
6. The Revival Church ≈ 1700-1900
7. The Worldly Church ≈ 1900- Rapture
Some criticism of this view include that it is difficult to line up certain movements in the church with the descriptions in Revelation. The periods overlap in a way that is messy, pro-Reformation, and can only be applied with difficulty in retrospect. It also only includes a western perspective; it does not take into account movements in Africa, Asia, or South America. Nor does it seem to include Orthodox church movements.
The other point of view is that each church would represent different kinds of churches through history. These seven historical churches also serve as archetypes of churches all over the world throughout history. One church may have the hard work and patience of Ephesus, while another the lukewarm attitude of Laodicea.
A critique of this perspective is that it is too vague, and general for such specific descriptions and prophecies. Some theologians ascribe to a combination of these three theories, while others have their own, but these three are prominent.
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What Are the Seven Churches Mentioned in Revelation?
The first church mentioned is the Church of Ephesus. To this church, Jesus commended them for their endurance, their longsuffering, and their dislike of false doctrine and evil behavior. He chided them however, “...you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4b). They no longer had the burning, consuming passion for their God they had when they were first saved and settled into the routine of the faith. He encourages them to find that fire again and continue where they were doing well.
The Church of Smyrna received words of comfort. They were mocked and persecuted for their faith, and it was going to get worse before it got better. It was not a wealthy church either, with opportunities to flee and take refuge somewhere else. Theologians believe many of the laborers of this church were expelled from their labor guilds - and unable to legally work in their craft - because of their conversion. The Lord said, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). Though they would suffer in this life, God had a reward for them.
The Church of Pergamum was surrounded by wickedness in their city, but they held fast to their beliefs. Their location was so full of wickedness the Bible calls it, “where Satan’s throne is...the place where Satan dwells” (Revelation 2:13). However, there were members of the church who still held onto their former traditions, not willing to let go of their idols. Others indulged in false doctrine. Jesus calls on this church to stop these sins. They did receive consolation as well because many from this church had been martyred.
In Thyatira, the church was also having problems with false teachers. There was a woman in the church who claimed to be a prophetess, who committed sins of sexual immorality, and whose behavior was reminiscent of Jezebel, Ahab’s wicked wife, whose story is told in 1 Kings. Despite the church’s love, patience, and endurance, they tolerate this wicked woman taking an inappropriate role of leadership, giving false prophecies, and being flagrantly sinful. God has given this woman, and the church, time to turn from this sin; “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:21). The message ends with encouragement for those who did not follow this prophetess.
Sardis was a seemingly active church, full of good works. The city of Sardis was also a city of wealth, known for the carpet industry and for minting coins. However, the wealth and good works of this church meant nothing because the church was spiritually dead. They epitomized a church that seemed good, but many had cold hearts toward the Lord. They most likely put their faith in their works, prideful and assuming they were saved, or in good standing with the Lord. The message is, “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:2). The church was not beyond hope, but it needed to find that passion for Christ again.
The next church, in Philadelphia, receives encouragement and affirmation in their message. Despite poverty and hardship, they stayed true to God. “I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8). Jesus wanted this body of believers to continue as they were, and they would spend eternity in Heaven with Him.
Finally, John addresses the Church of Laodicea. While the other churches received some encouragement or commendation from the Lord, this church received no positive words. Like Sardis, Laodicea had an abundance of resources but held an indifferent spirit - described as lukewarm - toward the Lord. He wants them to grow hot or cold toward Him, but not to remain lacking in any passion toward the faith. While they were doing well in an earthly fashion, they were spiritually lacking. Here, Jesus asks for them to let Him in. “ Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Despite their lack of spirituality, Christ waits expectantly for them to open their hearts to Him.
Why Are These Churches Significant?
These seven churches were some of the most prominent churches at that time to which John the Apostle would have been close enough to communicate effectively. John was exiled to the Island of Patmos by the Roman Empire. The Jerusalem Church was scattered, and his writings to Rome would have been scrutinized. They were also in one of the central hubs of trade, commerce, and communication. The messages could have been easily passed onto other believers. It was also God’s divine will to communicate with these seven churches.
So why seven? Seven is the number of perfection or completion in the Bible. The Lord had seven messages to give before He revealed the visions of the End Times to John, which set the pattern of seven throughout the book. There were seven stars and seven lampstands. There are also seven angels blowing seven trumpets which herald seven judgments. These trumpets follow seven seals of judgements. The Tribulation period lasts seven years.
This number shows the completeness of God’s wrath, as well as the perfection of His love throughout the Bible, and becomes a motif in the Last Days. The messages to the church played their part in God’s perfect plan historically, and may still be a part of it currently, depending on which view of the Book of Revelation and the churches an individual takes.
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Where Are the Seven Churches Located Now?
While there are still some believers in these cities, they all exist in modern day Turkey, an Islamic nation. Through the centuries, these churches have increased and decreased, and experienced persecution. Some of these cities do not exist today like they did during John’s day, such as Pergamum.
Through time, theologians, historians, and even lay-people in the church have tried to come up with a certain, definitive answer about what the messages to these churches, and the churches themselves, mean beyond their historical existence. New religions and end of days cults have sprung up around some of these theories.
Still others spend their entire lives attempting to interpret this final prophetic word from the Lord. Are there seven church ages? What action items should the church take in light of these seven messages? Which kind of church is best?
Some of these questions may not have good answers until the Lord returns. Ultimately, Christians should meditate on these things, but not allow the unanswered questions to dictate their lives. In his second letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul answered some questions they had about the days. To them, he gave this advice, “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12).
Modern Christians should study the example of these four churches, and even ponder their contemporary significance, but ultimately, they should strive to live in obedience with the Great Commission, and follow God’s leading. Looking forward to Christ’s return, Christians are called to live for Him, even if every question about the Book of Revelation remains a mystery.
Barnhouse, Donald. Revelation, An Expository Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971.
McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Vol. 58: The Prophecy (Revelation 1-5). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1991.
Ryrie, Charles. Revelation. Chicago: Moody Press, 1968.
Walvoord John F. and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament. USA: Victor Books, 1984.
Wilmington, H.L. Wilmington’s Guide To the Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers Inc., 1981.
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.