Church history according to Jesus.
According to Revelation 1:11, the book was written to seven congregations in Asia, modern Turkey. For 2,000 years scholars have wondered why such an important message would be sent to these churches. They weren’t the most important of their day, let alone now. True, Ephesus was a leading city of the time, but the church there was small and so were the others. Why wasn’t the book written to the Church in Rome, for example? Surely the Lord knew that Rome would be the capital of Christianity for much of church history, the perfect addressee for such a timeless message.
The answer lies in the realization that the letters of Chapters 2 and 3 have a representative as well as a specific purpose. They can actually be read with four levels of application.
Four Levels of Application
The first level is historical. These seven churches really existed and each was experiencing the particular problem to which the Lord referred as He dictated the letters to John.
Second, since all the churches were to read all the letters, they were also admonitory to all.
Third, since both the challenge and promise with which each letter ends are personal rather than corporate, the letters were for individuals as well as congregations.
And fourth, read in the order in which they appear they outline church history and so are prophetic. They chronicle the gap between the 69th and 70th weeks of the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27. Unbeknownst to us, our visit to the sites of these churches was designed to emphasize the prophetic nature of the letters.
What do you mean by that?
The letter to Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7) describes the 1st-century church. Already, within 60 years of the cross, the focus of Christianity was changing from relationship to religion. And just like He had done with the Israelites before them (Isa 29:13-14) the Lord warned, “You have forsaken your first love … repent or I’ll remove your lampstand.” The lampstand is identified in Rev 1:20 as the church, so removing it means removing the church of Ephesus. Though the ruins of Ephesus are extensive and impressive, requiring half a day to see, and while much remains to be excavated, we found only the faintest traces of a 1st-century church in Ephesus.
The letter to Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11) describes the 2nd and 3rd-century church, enduring a time of great persecution. Emperor worship was decreed throughout the Roman Empire, and for 250 years (10 “days,” the reign of 10 emperors) refusal to bow down and acknowledge the current emperor as a god meant death. The Christian church was driven underground while ingenious and diabolical methods were employed to exterminate believers as a form of public entertainment. The Lord never promised deliverance from this persecution. What He did promise was eternal life for those who were faithful to the point of death.
Today a prosperous city called Izmir, the third largest in Turkey, stands where ancient Smyrna once was. In an incident that clearly displayed the Lord’s sense of humor while emphasizing the point of the letter, we saw prominent signs on a freeway exit just outside Izmir pointing to Smyrna. Thinking we had found the ancient site, I quickly pulled off. But at the bottom of the short exit ramp was a T intersection with no indication as to which way we should turn. And there were no more signs pointing the way to Smyrna. After an hour of driving back and forth searching in both directions, I gave up and drove on. I didn’t get the point till later after describing the event to our Turkish travel agent. He told me the sign points to where Symrna was. There’s no trace of Smyrna today. The church of Smyrna is in heaven.
The third letter was written to Pergamus, modern Bergama (Rev 2:12-17) and looks forward to the 4th century. Our Lord instructed the Disciples to go into all the world (Matt 28:19-20), but in Pergamus, the world came into the church.
In the 4th-century, the Edict of Milan made Christianity legal and ultimately the official religion of the Empire. The Babylonian religions headquartered in Pergamus (“where Satan has his throne”) were merged into Christianity and pagan festivals became Christian holidays. The Feasts of Saturnalia and Ishtar became Christmas and Easter. This explains why such pagan symbols as the Yule log and evergreen tree, which symbolized the sun dying and being born again at the winter solstice, are associated with Christmas, while fertility symbols like rabbits and eggs are connected with Easter. Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of fertility.
The impressive ruins on a hill 1000 feet above the surrounding valleys are markedly pagan with remains of great temples to Roman gods and emperors and again only faint traces of the church that was there.
It’s my belief that the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamus have all disappeared, symbolically and in reality. But the marriage of pagan and Christian beliefs in Pergamus produced four offspring that all survive to this day and are represented by the four remaining letters. More next time.