What the Spirit Is Saying to the Churches

Cliff.smallBy Dr. Rick Flanders


“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”

(Revelation 3:22)

The final book of the Bible is addressed to seven churches in the Roman province called “Asia.”  These were local congregations formed in the evangelistic revival that began in Ephesus, described in Acts 19.  Paul had been used of God to lead this triumphant effort, and tradition says that John the Apostle spent his later years in this area.  Revelation 2 and 3 record messages sent by Christ through John to each of these churches: Ephesus (2:1-7), Smyrna (2:8-11)), Pergamos (2:12-17), Thyatira (2:18-29), Sardis (3:1-6), Philadelphia (3:7-13), and Laodicea (3:14-22).  Nearly every evangelical commentator treats these messages as having at least three applications: first, to the congregation actually addressed; secondly, to every church since Revelation was written; and thirdly, to individual Christians who read the book.  And for a century or so, a good number of those who comment on scripture have taught that the message to each church is also a prophecy concerning a particular era in the history of Christianity.  This last application of these chapters is not correct, and has misled many good people to draw false conclusions.  The most damaging effect it has had is its influencing Christians to question whether God is willing to send revival in our times.  Serious harm is done when good people lose hope for revival because of conclusions drawn from a misunderstanding of the Laodicean message.  Is there such a thing as “the Laodicean age,” when revivals cannot happen?  Biblically, there is no such age, and we certainly are not living in it!

It is almost impossible to find a Bible commentary written before the end of the nineteenth century which advocates the “history of the church” interpretation of these messages.  Perhaps a few influenced by Darby and the Plymouth Brethren did, but only them.  However, the influential Scofield Reference Bible (first published in 1909) popularized this view among Bible-believers across the world.  Dr. Scofield argued for it by asserting that the “messages to the seven churches” have a prophetic application, “disclosing seven phases of the spiritual history of the church from, say, A.D. 96 to the end.”

“It is incredible that in a prophecy covering the church period there should be not such foreview.  These messages must contain that foreview if it is in the book at all, for the church does not appear after 3.22.  Again, these messages by their very terms go beyond the local assemblies mentioned.  Most conclusively of all, these messages do present an exact foreview of the spiritual history of the church, and in this precise order.”

His headings in the text of the Scofield Bible identify the periods supposedly represented by each message.

  • Ephesus: “The church at the end of the apostolic age; first love left.”
  • Smyrna: “Period of the great persecutions, to A.D. 316.”
  • Pergamos: “The church under imperial favour, settled in the world, A.D. 316 to the end.”
  • Thyatira: “A.D. 500-1500: the triumph of Balaamism and Nicolaitanism; a believing remnant.”
  • Sardis: “The period of the Reformations; a believing remnant.”
  • Philadelphia: “The true church in the professing church.”
  • Laodicea: “The final state of apostasy.”

One weakness of this view is difficulty with which its advocates identify the messages with facts of history.  The applications to actual events are arbitrary.  The generalizations are debatable, the dates are indefensible, the admonitions in each message apply only awkwardly to the assigned period, and any hint of any application other than to the congregations addressed cannot be found in the text.  For example, the statements about Sardis seem to fit apostasy better than the statements about the church in Laodicea, which was lukewarm rather than dead but is supposed to represent apostasy.  Also we might ask if the compromises of the churches at Pergamos and Thyatira fit the Dark Ages of apostate Catholic dominance, while the deadness of the church at Sardis really represents the Reformation.  In regard to this problem, John R. Rice pointed out the similarity between the admonitions to Ephesus in Revelation 1:2-4 and to Pergamos in verses 13 through 14.  Would Christ say the same thing to the Christians in A.D. 96 and the corrupted ecclesiastical machine of the fourth century?  The messages to the churches in Asia don’t read like prophecies of future times.  They read like messages to local churches!

Perhaps this way of handling the messages arose among the early dispensationalists out of a dark view of their particular situation.  During the nineteenth century, many Christians thought that the great revivals of that time, along with the phenomenal advancement of the missionary enterprise, would bring in the Kingdom of God!  Of course, dispensational premillenialists learned from the Bible that earth will not have the visible Kingdom until the King Himself comes again.  But they were well aware of the powerful awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and of the great victories that had been won for the Gospel.  And they were also keenly aware of the apostasy that was growing in the once-evangelical church bodies because of the growing influence of “liberal” theology.  It was natural for them to conceive that a great era of Christian triumph was yielding to a terrible era of defilement in the churches.  Perhaps this is why some of them thought they were witnessing the close of the Philadelphian age and the dawn of the Laodicean age.

There are at least three other serious problems with this interpretation of the second and third chapters.  One is the imminence of Christ’s return for His own.  The clearest teaching of Jesus about His coming again is that nobody can know when it will be.  We will not know the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36-42), and we cannot even discern the times or the seasons (Acts 1:6-8, First Thessalonians 5:1-2).  We are to be constantly ready (Matthew 24:44), always watching for the Lord to come back (Mark 13:33-37).  Paul followed the instructions of the Lord Jesus by looking for the Rapture in his day (First Thessalonians 4:16-17).  James said that the return of Christ was imminent (James 5:7-9).  It is part of the Christian life to wait for the coming of the Son (First Thessalonians 1:9-10).  Now if the coming again of Jesus for His own (John 14:2-3, Second Thessalonians 2:1-2) has been imminent (could happen any moment) since He went back to Heaven,  why would God lay out in scripture seven eras of the church age between the first and second comings, indicating that the Rapture could not occur until all seven had passed?  As far as scripture is concerned Jesus could have come a thousand years ago.  But the seven-era theory will not allow it.

The way Scofield and other teachers deal with the word “church” has no scriptural support.  The word in the Greek New Testament that is translated “church” means a congregation.  Sometimes it seems to refer to the gathering of all the saints at the return of Christ, but nearly always it refers to a local Christian assembly.  It never means “the Church” in the historical sense, a broad reference to all ecclesiastical bodies as they exist at a given time.  References to the visible, universal, historic “Church” are made in books of history, but never in the books of the Bible.  To make a local church in a certain town into the visible Church universal in a particular time has no Bible precedent.  It might make sense to a student of history living now, but it would make no sense to first-century Christians.

Another problem has to do with the divine promises in regard to revival.  God presents Himself as always ready and willing to revive His people (see Psalm 85, for instance).  Have these promises expired?  Does the arrival of some “Laodicean age” negate the promises for revival?  No, they cannot be cancelled.  Christians who abide in Christ in any period will bear much fruit (John 15:5).  Churches that agree as touching what they ask in prayer will always see the Father do it for them (Matthew 18:18-20).  Those who believe will do greater works, no matter when they live (John 14:12-18).  Those who seek the Lord will always find Him (Deuteronomy 4:29).  Those who draw nigh to God will always have Him draw nigh to them (James 4:8-10).  Believers who ask to be revived may always expect the Great Reviver of His people to hear their prayers (Habakkuk 3:2).  Anybody who turns to the Lord will have Him turn to them (Zechariah 1:3 and Malachi 3:7).  Even the first-century church of the Laodiceans could claim these very revival promises for themselves.  See what Jesus told them in Revelation 3:19.

“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”

He called on them to repent and indicated in verse 20 (read it) that He would respond to their repentance by restoring them to fellowship with Him.  In verse 18, He counseled them to turn around and forsake the folly of lukewarmness (as described in verse 17), and He indicated that He would respond by providing them with refined gold, white raiment, and spiritual sight.  The message to the Laodiceans is a call to revival.  It cannot be used to deny the promises of revival to Christians living in an unfortunate era of church history.  The truth is that there never was a no-revival era in the history of God’s dealing with man, and no such era has been prophesied.  And we are not living in one.

Many good Christians have been mistaken about the interpretation of the messages to the churches in Asia, and have lost hope for revival in our day.  We have not seen many widespread revivals of New Testament Christianity in recent years (although there have definitely been some), but the problem has not been God’s suspension of His promises for the Laodicean age.  The original readers of Revelation would never have understood these messages to be prophetic in any way.  They address problems found in local churches throughout the centuries.  Each of the seven churches is a typical church, and five out of the seven are in need of a revival.  The Ephesian church must repent of a cold heart.  The church of Pergamos must repent of tolerating evil.  Members of the church at Thyatira are called to repent of grievous personal sins.  The church at Sardis must repent of departing from the Faith.  The Laodicean church is called to repent of lukewarmness.  The suffering church at Smyrna and the faithful church at Philadelphia are not called to repentance, but instead are encouraged by their Lord to press on in faithful service.  Revelation 2-3 is actually a great revival passage.  If we read it the way it is written, and moved up to the level of submission to Christ that He wants, we could see a spreading revival that would lead to the greatest awakening in history.  May God help us to see the error of misapplying the messages sent to these congregations.  May godly people see again that these passages are telling us what “the Spirit saith [is saying] to the churches” of our day.  The Holy Spirit is calling us to revival.  Let us heed His voice!

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