Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Seven Churches of Revelation

Seven Churches of Rev 2 and 3: Part 1

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 since they weren’t even 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 lamp stand.” The lamp stand 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 through out 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.

Where’s Smyrna?

Today a prosperous city called Izmir, 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.

Mixed Marriage

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 4 offspring that all survive to this day and are represented by the four remaining letters. 

Seven Churches of Rev. 2 and 3: Part 2

Children of a Mixed Marriage
Last time, I stated my view that the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamus have all disappeared, symbolically and in reality. One would be hard pressed to find a congregation like the first century church today. Likewise, while there are many places in the world where Christians meet secretly in violation of civil laws and even suffer persecution, (3000 die for their faith each day), the widespread public murder for sport of Christians solely because of their beliefs is no more. But the marriage of pagan and Christian beliefs in Pergamus produced 4 offspring that all survive to this day and are represented by the four remaining letters. Thyatira represents the Catholic Church, Sardis the Protestants, Philadelphia the Evangelicals, and Laodicea the liberal and apostate church of the last days.

Come Meet the Children

The letter to Thyatira (Rev 2:18-29) predicts conditions that were manifested in the “Holy Roman Empire” known later as the Catholic Church, and gives the clearest picture of the integration of pagan ritual into Christian worship. The title “Queen of Heaven” by which many Catholics refer to Mary, was first used of Semeramis, wife of Nimrod the founder of Babylon and mother of Tammuz. Semeramis declared herself a goddess, claimed that Tammuz was born of a supernatural conception involving the Sun god, and began the first counterfeit religion. She is symbolically called Jezebel in the letter, leading people away from the truth into idolatry. The Lord often equates false worship with sexual infidelity and eating impure foods.

Birth of a Legend

According to legend, while out hunting one day Tammuz was killed by a wild animal. Semeramis mourned for 40 days at the end of which Tammuz was raised from the dead. A celibate priest hood was formed and the chief priest was declared infallible. The 40 day mourning (now called Lent), the Yule log, evergreen tree, mistletoe and hot cross buns were all used in rituals commemorating the event, and the mother-child cult was begun. Later the Romans adapted these to the death and re-birth of the Sun at the winter solstice, but in the 4th century the traditions surrounding Semeramis and Tammuz were attributed to Mary and Jesus and came almost unchanged into Catholicism, where they remain to this day.
But don’t confuse the system with the people. In verses 22-24 the Lord warned that some from the Church in Thyatira will face the tribulation while others will be rescued and share in rewards that are uniquely reserved for true believers. The inescapable conclusion is that in the Catholic system as in most religious systems claiming to be Christian, some are saved and some are not.

A Real Life Parable

The only negative experience we had in the whole trip took place in Thyatira, called Akhisar today. After a friendly and helpful guard opened the site for our inspection and gave us material that explained what we were looking at, we left to find some lunch thinking how pleasant our time there had been. Down the street, we spotted an open-air shop where a vendor was selling the barbecued chicken sandwiches that are so popular in Turkey, and that we had come to enjoy as well.
Waiting for our sandwiches, we were approached by a man who appeared to hold some position of authority. His manner was most unfriendly, and his questions conveyed an air of suspicion. We left there quickly wondering if he was a policeman, a government agent, or an official from a religion unfriendly to Christians. Driving away we also discovered our food was not edible. The chicken was bad, as if the innards hadn’t been removed before cooking. Re-reading the letter we were struck by the contrasts between good and evil, in the letter and in our visit.
The Letter to Sardis (Rev 3:1-6) speaks of dead orthodoxy and points to the protestant reformation. After 1500 years of concealing the truth and introducing traditions that made the Lord’s completed work at the cross seem insufficient, the Catholic Church was finally challenged. Martin Luther and others took up the battle cry from Habakkuk 2:4; “The righteous shall live by his faith,” and called for a return to the Doctrine of Grace. But in their determination to regain the Truth of the Lord, the reformation churches somehow lost the Spirit of the Lord. They had the reputation of being alive but were dead. The Lord admonished them to wake up, remember what they had heard, and obey it.

Remember and Obey What?

I always think of John 3:3 when I read this. “No one can enter the Kingdom unless he is born again.” You rarely hear a sermon on that verse in main line churches today, but as in the letter to Thyatira, a few have found the truth and are promised the believer’s reward while the others are warned of the coming tribulation.
The most significant site in Sardis today is the huge abandoned synagogue and gymnasium (school). As I stood there I was reminded how the protestant church has abandoned its Jewish roots and ignores the Old Testament, even doubting its veracity. Having learned what the Lord did but not fully understanding why He did it, they’ve lost both Spirit and Truth.
These two children defined Christianity until the 1800’s when the Lord again did a remarkable thing and the Church was born again in the 3rd child of Pergamus.

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