The 7 letters to the 7 churches in Revelation 2-3 has been a favorite portion of the dispensationalists pointing to 7 different ages of the church. But can not a scripture offer us multiple meanings?
I see these letters as all written to any church age—particularly our own. It represents to me the 7 failures of a dynamic, empowered, and inspired witness. Not any one church or one person is probably guilty of all 7. More likely: one of these 7 churches in particular profiles the characteristic weakness of a failing witness for any given congregation.
Are not the candlesticks in Revelation 1:20 references to the churches’ witness? And by witness, do we not mean, how they represent the message of the Cross offered to those in spiritual need of that message?
Are there some churches not failing in any of these areas? No doubt. But for the rest of us, here’s a thought to consider….
Ephesus was ardent in her zeal for right. She was a doctrinal force, a defender of the faith, notwithstanding the greatest challenge to the Gospel message. This was commendable. But her vision had changed. She became dogmatic rather than passionate. She lost the humble emphasis, the simplicity, of the message of Calvary and over time proudly trumpeted instead her beliefs now codified in a complex theology. Instead of focusing on Christ and His crucifixion and resurrection, she now saw purpose and meaning in legislating the righteousness of her doctrinal stance.
Smyrna was weak. The thought of confrontation frightened her into silence. She could be muzzled by the mere threat of persecution and opposition even though she knew that there has always been a price to pay for promoting the message of Calvary. She is encouraged to speak out for the Cross. Persecution is not forever. It will end. The message of Calvary she cherishes is to be preached from roof tops!
Pergamum was into cultural acceptance because she welcomed into her company compromising doctrines that made even the most wicked feel at home. The message of a sin-purging, forgiving, salvation was being compromised. The emphatic, unbending, unmixed message of Calvary was now tainted. The truth became an amalgamation, a mixture, of ideas, a mere ideology, a powerless theology, endorsed by sinners now made comfortable in the false hope that God requires no change of them. Instead of challenging their sinfulness with a powerful message of the Cross, the church now fits in with social change.
Thyatira compromised practice, not just doctrine. As a witness she was unrecognizable. Her heathen practices contaminated her christian ritual; it was no longer christian. Notwithstanding the church’s humanitarian work, the evil that was welcomed in the Pergamum pew was now welcomed in Thyatira’s pulpit. The relic of a christian message encased though it was in compromising ideas was at least still there in Pergamos. Now the message of Calvary is no longer mentioned, though there are those who remember when it was and they miss it!
Sardis’ witness was incomplete. She lost her vision or her faith in the work of God or her passion for it and failed to complete the tasks God assigned her in her world. She was appointed by God to be “the keeper of the vision,” God’s vision for His church, to promote the message of the Cross, but she simply ran out of interest. The truth was still there but weakened by other interests that seemed to generate more enthusiasm. She seemed bored with the simplicity of “the greatest story ever told.” She failed to keep the “Great Commission” relevant as her sole mission in life, to stay on point, to remain focused on what was, in her beginnings, her overwhelming joy to herald.
Philadelphia was easily discouraged and failed to see open doors of opportunity for service to the Lord. This congregation had the message and would do anything the Lord required of them, if only she had the chance. But money was short, workers were few, government regulations entangling, the needs of those around them overwhelming. Their faith needed to see that doors were not opened by chance but by God. He had the key and the door stop.
Laodicea traded body ministry for corporate enterprise. Success was no longer seen as an expression of her faithfulness to God, to live the message of the Cross. Success was measured in coin, on organizational charts or in property value. She saw the masses but not the individual soul in need.
The church is not an organization as much as it is an organism. The church does not need to be incorporated as much as it needs to be empowered. The church does not follow a constitution; it follows a commission. The church’s success was never dependent on finance but faith, not planning but prayer, not ritual but righteousness, not size but the Spirit, not government but God, not our vision but His.
If you think of it, these are the seven ways our witness and the message of the Cross can be minimized, the way to muffle the Word of Salvation through Christ and we have been warned in the opening words of the Revelator to listen.
“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Revelations 3:22