Church Eras in Revelation 2 & 3?
August 2013, by Norman Edwards
The Book of Revelation is an interesting book, and Chapters 2 and 3 are utterly unique in all of the Bible. While the New Testament has various letters to congregations written by several apostles, Revelation 2 and 3 have letters written by Jesus Christ to seven congregations. The rest of the book of Revelation is a prophecy with visions into heaven and earth showing what will happen from the time of its writing (Rev 1:2) through the return of Christ (Rev 11:15) to the making of "all things new" (Rev 21:5).
In an effort to make Revelation 2 & 3 fit with the rest of the gigantic scope of the book, some Bible teachers conclude that the seven churches of Revelation 2 & 3 represent seven time periods or seven "eras" of the Church. They believe that each of the seven messages is primarily to one of those church eras. They go to great extent to find places in history where church groups had characteristics similar to these seven churches. Many theologians conclude their "era" is the "church in Philadelphia" (Rev 3:7), probably because Christ promised to keep them "from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world" (Rev 3:10). There is a certain sense of peace that comes from attending a church that is going to be delivered from the tribulation ahead. But that good feeling does not make any group into the "Philadelphian church" nor does it do away with the plain message of Revelation 2 & 3.
We need to look at what these chapters do say. There are not many places in the Bible where the exact same phrase is repeated over and over. The most notable one is Psalm 136, where all 24 verses end with "His mercy endures forever." The purpose of this was obviously to drive the point home: no matter what was described in the first part of the verse, God's mercy endures forever. There are other places in the Bible where an exact phrase is repeated multiple times because the same thing was supposed to be done in connection with each of the 12 tribes of Israel or with each of several different offerings. But when it comes to repetition for emphasis, Revelation 2 and 3 have a couple of clear messages. Each message to each church include the exact phrase:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).
This oft-repeated sentence clearly tells every individual who is able to listen to hear all of the messages to all the churches, plural! Any individual or any church group can get into the attitudes and problems described in these letters. We all need to know about them and examine ourselves to see how we are doing (1Cor 11:28; Gal 6:4). The solution given to the most sinful churches is to repent (Rev 2:5, 16, 21-22, 3:3, 19 ), not to leave and join a different church. Those in three troubled churches are told to "hold fast to what they have".
Every message to every church also contains a phrase like "to him who overcomes" followed by the a reward for the overcomer. The reward is not granted simply because a person is in a certain church. It is granted to individuals who overcome the difficulties that they are facing.
One has to wonder how many times Christ would have to repeat His message in order for everyone to understand it. If the Scripture repeated 14 times or 49 times "let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches", would some Bible teachers still continue to look for the "Church era" that applies to them and disregard the rest? Is there a reason why church leaders might be fearful of every church member listening to every message to every church? In a word, "Yes". Revelation 2 and 3 make all church members responsible directly to Christ in many ways—they are not responsible only to their leaders.
What should every believer learn from these seven letters?
The following are the major points that everyone can learn from Revelation 2. You can read it yourself in any Bible or go to BibleGateway.com.
The Church in Ephesus
The Church in Smyrna
The Church in Pergamos
The Church in Thyatira
These are major lessons from Revelation 3.
The Church in Sardis
The Church in Philadelphia
The Church in Laodicea
These seven letters to seven churches were originally written to seven congregations in Asia Minor, all within about 100 miles of each other, that had these characteristics and needed these remedies. But everyone was told to listen to every message to every church.
These letters picture Christ as an active leader of His Church and His believers as activist believers—heavily involved in doing his work and repenting of the sin in their own lives and in their congregations. These letters paint the action of the individual believer before Christ as much more important than whether they are in one or another group. Read for what they plainly say, these letters are of little use to church leaders who want to convince members to come to them so they will be in the "right group" and specially rewarded somehow. These letters are all about every member personally listening, repenting, working and overcoming.
Christ has already pronounced a blessing on everyone who reads this book (Rev 1:3). Let us read it for what it says, not start with a preconceived idea of "church eras"—a term found nowhere in the Bible. Let us repent of our sin. Let us overcome. Let us not wrongly judge those in other church groups that may have major sins—but who may yet overcome. Let us all look forward to the time when Christ will do justice for all—handing out rewards and punishments that are needed for our perfection.
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