The Dispensations

Part Four
The Lord’s Message To The Seven Churches
(Revelation 2-3)

By Alfred Bouter

In our three previous studies we briefly looked at the seven days of creation, the seven Feasts of the LORD, and the seven parables about the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13. Now we turn in our study to the Lord’s messages to the seven churches in Asia, encouraging believers to be true overcomers.

At the time, this Asia was a province of the Roman Empire in present day Turkey. The assemblies1 addressed by the Lord (Rev. 2-3) had their beginnings when Paul was working in Ephesus. They were probably visited by Peter, and about 20-25 years later the apostle John lived and ministered in the same area.

The book of Revelation is part of John’s ministry, as are his gospel and three epistles. All of them are characterized by a special emphasis on Christ’s personal greatness. John’s gospel does not mention its writer by name, instead he is presented as the disciple whom Jesus loved,2 with a profound understanding of the greatness of His Person. Therefore, speaking of the Lord we read of Him as:

  • The Son of Man talking with Nicodemus, to whom He could say, referring to Himself, “Who is in heaven” (Jn. 3:13),
  • The only begotten Son (1:18), and
  • The eternal Son of God, the Son of the Father and the eternal life (1 Jn. 5:20).

John’s special task was to unveil3 to the believers Christ’s greatness and glory, against the background of a world-system in which the Lord Jesus has been and still is rejected.

Do we realize that this “outcast,” despised and rejected by men (Jn. 1:10-12; Isa. 53:1-3), will be reintroduced into this same universe (Heb. 1:6) and every knee will bow before Him (Phil. 2:10-11)? It is this divine program that is unveiled, or uncovered, in Revelation. However, before John gets to write about it, he shows Christ’s greatness (Rev. 1), which is a study in itself. Then, before speaking about those future events, John becomes Christ’s spokesman to address the assemblies of his day, including the believers ever since – even you and me today!

How To Interpret Revelation
Much confusion exists about this, but the key lies at the door. It is found in Revelation 1:19, showing that this book has three main parts: past, present and future. Chapter 1 refers to Christ’s first coming in grace when He was rejected despite His greatness. From Revelation 4 and onwards the same glorious Person is reintroduced, and in the process will be accepted by all, willingly or unwillingly. In between (Rev. 2-3), the Lord addresses the seven churches.

Furthermore, Revelation provides the framework in which all Old and New Testament prophecies fit. This helps us understand the meaning and order of all those Scriptures. In other words, having this framework we are able to put all the bits and pieces of prophecy together in an understandable outline or plan.

At the same time, Revelation’s main purpose is to show that our Lord Jesus will manifest His glory through and in the events the book describes. For this reason, even in this book of judgments, we read of a threefold blessing at the beginning (1:3) and of six more blessings afterward, in a variety of contexts. How good it is to be occupied with this wonderful and glorious Person, and to consider Him in His greatness as Judge, King, Priest, Executioner of God’s judgments and the One who will be seated on the great white throne (Rev. 20). He is the Alpha and Omega, who is everything, speaks everything and works everything – the eternal “I Am” (22:13 NKJV). The book also shows that He is the One who is the great Lover of our souls, our Bridegroom (Rev. 19, 21-22). His voice thrills the hearts of those who read this book and know Him as their Creator-Redeemer (Rev. 4-5). It is therefore no wonder that the book of Revelation starts with an outburst of praise the moment He is mentioned (1:5).

John responded in the only right way: “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead” (1:17-19). In other words, there is no room left for self, the flesh, man’s glory, selfishness, man’s agenda, or whatever else there may be. Through his death-like experience, John had the privilege to be strengthened and instructed by his beloved Master (v.19). Thus he was made fit to communicate the glories of our Lord to us and the whole universe.

The Seven Letters And A Survey Of The History Of The Church
Between Christ’s first coming, “the things which you have seen” (Rev. 1), and His second coming (Rev. 4-22), or “the things which will take place after this,” we have the “things which are” (1:19). This expression covers the period of the Church on earth linked with Christ in heaven, from Acts 2 until the rapture. However, deviations started right from the beginning of the Church’s history, even while the apostles were still alive and present with the believers. Just before departing, Peter instructed his generation – and indirectly, ours today – to cling to the Lord and to grow in the grace and the knowledge of Him (please read 2 Pet. 1:3-21, 3:18).

In this context it is important to realize that John’s ministry gives what is essential, with the purpose to preserve the believers in the knowledge and the enjoyment of God’s blessings. In one word, Revelation introduces Christ and brings us back to our first love – our Lord Jesus, who has meant everything to us. The apostle presented to his readers the One who remains until the end, who gives us all that we need to be overcomers – not overcome by the world, the devil or the flesh.

The Church as a professing body has lost this sense of “first love” (Rev. 2:4). Even worse, it – including true believers – has forsaken that love. This does not mean that we can lose our salvation, but it means we can lose its enjoyment. What about you and me?

Whenever there is failure in the public testimony, or in whatever context, John’s writings instruct each individual believer to listen. It is not with the purpose to make him fit into a certain church hierarchy or a human ordained system, with all the good intentions that may exist. No, it is in order to restore each believer to the state of first love, and to keep him or her in this condition and relationship until the end – that is until the rapture of the Church.

Revelation is not intended to satisfy our curiosity about what is going to happen or how the Lord will return and reign in public display. Rather, the book is about the unfolding of Christ’s glory that produces a moral result, to make the Church ready for the Bridegroom so the Spirit and the bride may say, “Come” (22:17). Interestingly, “come” is the only word in the whole book that the bride says publicly. It is an expression of desire, longing, love and anxious waiting.

The Order Of Events
The history of the Church found in Revelation 2-3 may be summarized as follows:

  1. In what was written to Ephesus we see that the Church as a whole left her first love. Historically, this took place at the end of the first century.
  2. Because of what happened in Ephesus, the Lord allowed persecutions – Satan acting as a roaring lion (1 Pet. 5:8) – especially in the second and third centuries. Smyrna means “myrrh,” and this fits with the many sufferings of those centuries.
  3. Perhaps because of the many faithful martyrs and since the Church kept growing, Satan attacked it in a different way, changing his strategy. He acted as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14) having the plan, “if you cannot oppose them, try to join them.” Through this, the believers were placed under the protection of the world when the Roman Emperor became the head of the professing Church. This sad development is in the letter to Pergamos, meaning “fortress,” corresponding historically with events in the fourth century and later.
  4. The link with the world gradually gave rise to the desire of the professing Church to rule over the world. This ambition came to pass in Thyatira (sacrifice, odor of affliction). It ties to the 12th century and onward when the absolute authority of the papal system climaxed and the moral corruption worsened. The final climax will be the great Babylon of Revelation 17-18, after the rapture.
  5. In Sardis, signifying “escape,” a remnant was led out of the degenerated system as in the Reformation of the early 16th century. However, the Lord’s message to Sardis addressed the condition that existed approximately 100 years after the Reformation, when a general state of spiritual decline characterized the national churches that often called themselves Protestant as a protest against Rome. The true believers, living or risen from the dead, will go with the Lord when He comes, but the unbelievers will remain here.
  6. In sovereign grace the Lord will raise a remnant, as it were, from among the spiritually dead, as seen in Philadelphia (brotherly love). That church was a glowing revival and testimony for Himself, but with little strength because of man’s failure. It was a witness nonetheless and distinguished by faithfulness to His name and the Word of God, as was also seen during the 19th century, while waiting for His coming (1 Th. 4:16-18).
  7. Then we come to the last phase in this development: Laodicea, meaning “the people decide.” It is where the Lord, who was everything for Philadelphia – the church which was a collective restoration to first love – had to leave. Outside, He is knocking at the door to still reach out. Even though we know of the Church’s decline, and that we are almost at the end of its long history, does it not shock us to see the Lord standing outside?

An Important Note
A true believer can be restored to first love, even in Laodicea, but the unbelievers will continue in their hardening until the day of judgment. The true believers are in four different groups, developing after Pergamos and going through Laodicea. Each group is distinct, but they are one in Christ and are to be raptured together. The unbelievers, including professing Christians who do not truly trust the Lord, will continue on earth throughout the tribulation period. We always need to distinguish between the true Church and the Church of mere professors. At the rapture these last ones will be “left behind” on earth and develop into the great Babylon.

A Few More Points
In suggesting our outline of the seven churches we do not limit the teaching of Scripture (Rev. 2-3) to this particular flow of events. Each of the Lord’s seven messages is for every believer at any time in the history of the Church. The letters contain a tremendous wealth about which many books have been and still may be written.

Another point to emphasize is that these seven local assemblies, or churches, with all their distinctive features coexisted at the time John wrote. Yet they have all disappeared, which brings us back to the point that only the Lord is, and remains, faithful. There are no failures or shortcomings with Him!

In addition, is it not encouraging to notice the patience of our Lord as He persistently knocks at the door (Rev. 3:19-20)? He does not try to force Himself inside. He does not cry or shout (see Mt. 12:19), but He shows patience, grace, gentleness, faithfulness, care and love. He is “the Wisdom from above” (Jas. 3:17), with many wonderful qualities that we need.

How solemn that this challenging message, “Behold, I stand at the door …”, was given right after the revival that characterized Philadelphia – where Christ is everything and will continue to be until the rapture. In Laodicea, however, human resources, solutions, methods and inventions gradually replaced Him.

Today the Lord challenges us to examine ourselves in heart and conscience with the desire to restore us to first love and bring us back to Himself so that He may be everything to us – fresh, new, vibrant and wonderful. In submitting to God’s thoughts and ways, we will be brought to an acknowledgment of the LORD’s greatness, as Job experienced many years ago. We may also see a parallel between Laodicea and the days of the last Old Testament prophet, Malachi, who addressed the failure of God’s people who had returned from the Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place of His choosing. They were at the right place, or in the right position, but they were not in the right spiritual condition, except for a remnant among them formed by God’s grace (see Mal. 3:16). Our blessed Lord is looking for a response from willing hearts, of believers who with love answer to His gentle knocking, even though their answer may be weak. “Lord, help us!”

1. “Assembly” means “a company of called out ones” – called out of Paganism, Judaism or whatever -ism. As far as language is concerned, the word “church” is related to the word “Lord.”
2. John had the privilege to rest in Jesus’ bosom while here on earth and was the disciple who was most intimately acquainted with our Lord. He was the one who followed Him quietly as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 21:20) and the one of whom Jesus said, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?” (v.22). Is it not fitting that it was this disciple who saw the Lord in all His greatness – as the future Judge and King and as the One who walks right now among the candlesticks of Revelation 2-3?
3. The Greek word “apocalypse” is often translated as “revelation,” and it may also be translated as “unveiling.” In this book the Lord Himself unveils what is hidden, past, present and future, whether about us, the world or Himself.