The Symbolic Meaning of the Seven Churches
June 4th, 1961 @ 10:50 AM
THE SYMBOLIC MEANING OF THE SEVEN CHURCHES OF ASIA
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-4-61 10:50 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the 11:00 o’clock hour morning message. In our preaching through the Bible we have come to the last and the climactic book in the inspired canon of Holy Scripture. Since the first of the year, we have been preaching in the Book of the Revelation, and after these many months, we have finally arrived at chapter 2. The title of the sermon is The Symbolic Meaning of the Seven Churches of Asia, the spiritual significance of the seven churches of Asia.
First, these seven churches represent and are symbols of all of the churches of Jesus Christ through all of the centuries and the years. If you would know what the church was, what its history has been, and what the churches will be, you will find it here in the seven churches of Asia. They represent all of them. They are symbols of all of them, and their spiritual significance and message pertains to all of them, even to us today and to this church here. There is a message from God to us as the Lord addresses these seven churches of Asia. The Word is as pertinent, it is as up to date, it is as now, it is as significant, and it is to be as certainly and really applied to us today as it was to these seven historical local congregations.
Now I know that for five reasons, that the seven churches represent all of the churches of Christ throughout their past, and present, and future history. I know that for five reasons: first, because of the number “seven.” There is a sacred arithmetic as there is a sacred place, or a sacred Scripture, or a sacred Book, or a sacred person; so there is a divine arithmetic. And that number “seven” that God uses refers to plenitude, and to fullness, and to completeness; “the seven Spirits of God” the Revelation speaks of [Revelation 3:1]. There is one Holy Spirit of God [Ephesians 4:1]. Then why say “the seven Spirits of God?” Because the Lord, in His arithmetic, in the use of the number seven, He refers to the plenitude and the fullness of the ever-present, living, quickening Spirit of God.
Now when the word “seven” is used of these churches, it refers to the fullness of the message of Christ to His people; the completeness of all His congregations. They are all are included in that number seven. Were there not other churches in Asia beside these seven? Yes, many, many others. Were there not other great churches far more famous than these to whom Christ addresses this message? Yes, far more famous. In fact, some of these seven churches are located in cities that are hardly known, and would have long been forgotten had it not been for the Book of the Revelation. Thyatira was the most insignificant city, comparatively [Revelation 2:18-29]. Philadelphia was greatly insignificant; it was great because of its insignificance [Revelation 3:7-13]. Laodicea would never have been heard of had it not been for the Revelation [Revelation 3:14-22]. Well, why did not Christ address some of His messages to the church at Antioch, or to the church at Rome, or to the church at Jerusalem, or to the church at Corinth, or to the church at Alexandria, or to any one of the other great famous churches of the world? Simply because these seven have in them those characteristics that Christ is giving to us as being spiritually significant for those purposes through which He is revealing His message to us, and for the ages. These seven are chosen out of a multitude of others. Even in Asia there is Hierapolis; even in Asia there is Colosse, to whom Paul addressed a letter. Even in Asia, there are other churches that were famous in their day. Even in the Lycus Valley, Hierapolis, Laodicea, Colosse, Apphia—all of whom were famous churches in that day—and He chooses just Laodicea out of the churches of the Lycus Valley.
Now these things are in the elective purpose of God, and those seven were chosen because they have characteristics that would be significant in the development of the churches of our Lord in the earth; so these seven represents all of them. Did not other churches need reprimanding, and rebuke, and encouragement, and warning? Yes, they did. But in speaking to these, Christ was speaking to them all, and in encouraging these, He encourages them all. In warning these, He warned them all. In the messages that He addressed to these, He had messages for them all. That is one reason.
Now the second reason why I know that these seven churches represent all of the churches of Christ is because of the solemnity, the solemnity, the sobriety, the urgency, the immediacy, by which these letters are composed, and addressed, and made, and formed. Now reason number two: look at the introduction. Each time that the letter is addressed to a church, it is based upon the authentication of the Lord God Christ Himself in one of His attributes. For example, to the church at Ephesus, “These things saith He that”—then it would be an attribute of the great Lord God who reigns over us, our Jesus the Christ. “These things saith He that holdeth the seven stars in His right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden lampstands” [Revelation 2:1]. Now the next one: “Unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things saith,” then another attribute, “These things saith He that is the First and the Last, who was dead, and is alive forevermore” [Revelation 2:8]. And then the next one: “To the angel of the church in Pergamos…These things saith He,” then another attribute, “These things saith He who hath the sharp sword with the two edges” [Revelation 2:12]. Then all the way through with the seven: so it is the living Lord who is authenticating Himself, who is addressing these churches. And these letters are just like the parables, every syllable in them is a spoken word by our Lord Christ. A third reason: because of their conclusion, the ending of the letters. They are ended with the most impressive sentence that mind could imagine, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.” Plural! Though the letter is written to the angel of the church at Ephesus, to the pastor of the church at Smyrna, to the leader of the church at Pergamos [Revelation 2:7, 11, 17], yet each time as though there is an immediacy and an urgency in the message for all of Christ’s people, it stops, it ends, it concludes in the same way: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit of God saith to the churches.” What He says to Ephesus, He says to us. What He says to Sardis, He says to us. What He says to Philadelphia, He says to us. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches!”
A fourth reason: I would suppose that there was something significant, over and beyond what I see on the written page, there are deep meanings in these messages because they are referred to as mysteries—the mustērion—the secret that a man couldn’t know, but it has to be revealed of God, which thing is called a mustērion:
The mustērion of the seven stars which thou sawest in My right hand, and the mustērion of the seven golden lampstands.
The stars are the pastors, the ministers of the seven churches:
and the seven lampstands which thou sawest are the seven churches.
So it is a mystery, a mustērion, that Christ is going to reveal to us. Therefore, I am to look beneath this syllable and this sentence; I am to look for a deep, and significant, and pertinent, and spiritual, and universal meaning in what Christ has to say to each one of the seven churches.
Then the fifth reason: I would know that there was significance in these addresses to these seven churches beyond those local historical congregations because this is found in a book of prophecy! Twice, twice in the Book of the Revelation does it refer to, “this prophecy.” In Revelation 1:3: “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy.” Then the book concludes in the same spirit: “I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book,” Revelation 22:18. I find, therefore, right in the heart, and a deeply significant part of this book, I find these chapters dedicated to the seven churches of Asia [Revelation 2:1-3:22], and they are a vital and significant part of a book that refers to itself as a book of prophecy. Therefore, I would expect to find in these addresses of our Lord to the seven churches [Revelation 2:1-3:22], I would expect to find a great prophetic outlook and meaning and fore-view in them, because they are enmeshed in a vital part of a book that refers to itself as a book of prophecy [Revelation 1:3, 22:18]. Now when I look at the letters, I see in them many, many things that are so patent, that are so clear, that are so marvelously enlightening, encouraging—the rebukes, the warnings, the delineation of its development and its history: Christ’s churches in the earth.
May I show you, just to start off with, a beautiful thing in the letters? [Revelation 2-3]. Here is a presentation of the ministries of God through all of human history, as it is given back to us in Christ, all that we had lost in Adam [1 Corinthians 15:22]. And these seven letters contain in them a promise, a presentation of the giving back to us all that we had lost in the sin of our first parents [Genesis 3:1-6], as the Lord hath worked it out and shall continue to work it out in the ages past and in the ages that are yet to come [Romans 5:18-19].
Now look at it, for just this moment, by way of introduction, just to show you the richness and the depth of the meaning of these seven significant addresses of our Lord to His people, to His churches [Revelation 2:1-3:22]. Back there in the garden of Eden, we lost our access to the tree of life and we were driven out from the Paradise of God, back there in the beginning [Genesis 3:1-6,11,22-24]. Now in the first letter to Ephesus, the Lord says that He will give to us the right to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God [Revelation 2:7]. In the beginning we lost it [Genesis 3:22-24], and now in the first letter, Christ says He gives it back to us again: the Paradise of glory and the tree of life [Revelation 2:7].
Now the second letter. Back there in the beginning and through these ages since, God hath afflicted us with the curse of our sin, which is death, and not only to die in our body, but to die in our souls, which is the second death! [Revelation 20:14-15, 21:8]. In the second letter, He says that all of us who overcome in Him shall have no fear and shall not be hurt by the second death [Revelation 2:11].
Now in the third letter, when the pilgrims from Egypt were on their way to the Promised Land they were fed with manna from heaven. Out of Egypt, on the way to the glories of the Promised Land in Canaan, and they were fed in the wilderness by manna from heaven [Exodus 16:14-18]. And on the breastplate of the high priest, he bore the names of the people of God over his heart [Exodus 28:15-30]. In the third letter, it says that Christ will give to us, His people, to eat of the hidden manna, and that we shall have our names inscribed upon the white stone [Revelation 2:17], in the Urim and the Thummim of the breastplate of the high priest [Exodus 28:30], in the pilgrimage of God’s people through the wilderness—caring for them, feeding them with manna [Exodus 16:14-18], and their names upon the heart of the Lord [Exodus 28:15-30].
Now in the fourth letter we have, in the story of God’s keeping of men, we have the triumph of God’s people under Joshua, and under David, and under Solomon, over the heathen and over the nations of the earth and over their enemies [Joshua 10:40-43; 2 Samuel 8:11-14; 1 Kings 4:21]. And in the fourth letter, “I will give unto My people power over the nations: and they shall rule with a rod of iron” [Revelation 2:26-27]. And our promised victory in Joshua, and in David, and in Solomon is ours, like the morning star is a harbinger of the glorious sunrising soon to come; our victory, back there symbolized in that ancient story, and actually ours in Christ [Revelation 2:28].
Then the other three pertain to the future: our blessedness in God’s holy elective purpose for His people [Revelation 3:1-22]. To the church at Sardis, to the fifth church, He speaks of those who believe in Him as being raised from the dead, and the Book of Life is opened, and our names are therein, and God’s people walking in white: the yet-to-come victory of the church [Revelation 3:4-5]. And the sixth one, the church at Philadelphia: and He says to His people in this promise that we shall be citizens of the New Jerusalem which cometh down from God out of heaven [Revelation 3:11-12]. And He speaks of the temple, the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens [2 Corinthians 5:1]; this is ours—God’s people.
Then the seventh church, Laodicea [Revelation 3:14-22], is the climactic consummation of all God’s promises to His people. To them that trust and overcome in Christ, we are granted to sit down with our Lord on the throne of glory and to rule with Christ forever and forever [Revelation 3:21], in session with Jesus at the right hand of God [Hebrews 10:12], beyond which there’s no other thing that could excel or glorify or make glad. Isn’t that a remarkable thing? Now, you never did see that before, did you? Just demonstrating the honesty of my staff. And I never did see it before either, but there it is in the Book, all the way through, as God ministers to His people from the beginning to the end. Now we must hasten.
Here in the seven churches we have a paradigmatic, a paradigm. When you conjugate a verb, they’ll have a paradigm for a boy to learn, and each one of those has its own suffix, prefix, and you follow it through. So these seven churches are paradigmatic of the whole story of the churches through all of the centuries. They are panoramic views of the whole history of the church, and if you will look at it, and if you will follow the story of the churches of Christ in history, it will be as plain and as open; there it is, the whole story written out before us.
Now in the moments that I have, may I show it to you? There is an Ephesian period in the story and in the history of the churches of Christ in the earth, an Ephesian period, in the cooling of their love. This is the church at the conclusion of the apostolic day; a waning, a lessening, an ebbing, a cooling of their first love and devotion [Revelation 2:4].
Then there is a Smyrnian period in the history of the church [Revelation 2:8-11]. To the church at Smyrna, Christ had no word of condemnation; the only one of the seven that is all praise and encouragement. And the Smyrnian church is the church of martyrdom. This is the story of the churches of Christ from the latter days of the apostles until the days of Constantine; this is the church of the catacombs; this is the church of the terrible persecutions. And one of the most astonishing things that I ever came across, I did just recently. If you ever look at Foxe’s Book of Martyrs—a book like Pilgrim’s Progress that changed the course of this world—Foxe’s Book of Martyrs says as it begins, “The ten great Roman persecutions …” Ten of them, ten of them, in the days of pagan Rome; ten of them! This Smyrnian church is the church of the days of the martyrs under the terrible oppression of the Roman Empire. And it says, Jesus says to the church at Smyrna, “Ye shall have trial; tribulation, blood and suffering ten days” [Revelation 2:10]. That word “ten” to intensity, and I say that’s just a coincidence, but it’s unusual, for in that Book of Martyrs, ten great persecutions of the people of God; and to the church of Smyrna, “Ye shall have trial, and martyrdom, and tribulation ten days.” This is the church of blood, the church of the baptism of fire, the church of terrible persecution, the church of Smyrna; a Smyrnian period [Revelation 2:8-11].
Then there is a Pergamian period in the church. “You are now seated where Satan’s throne is” [Revelation 2:13]. The church is married to the world! Constantine performs the ceremony, and the church now is seated on the throne where Satan rules. And it is decimated by the doctrine of Balaam [Revelation 2:14]—and I haven’t time to go into all of these things. We will when we come to the church at Pergamos, and the Nicolaitans, which is the clergy, the exaltation of the clergy, dressed in gold and in purple [Revelation 2:14-15]. There is a Pergamian period in the life of the church.
And there is a Thyatirian period, when Jezebel—and I haven’t time to speak of that this morning, but when we get to the seventeenth chapter of the Book of the Revelation, we’ll study the scarlet woman! The church, as they say, the church; she’s a whore, she’s a harlot, she’s a scarlet woman! The Book says, “And she commits adultery with the nations of the earth” [Revelation 17:1-2, 15]. And she refers to herself as being oppressed. And she gaudily costumes herself in chains of gold and colors of red [Revelation 17:4], and she lives like a king; the Book says so! [Revelation 17:18]. And had you not seen it in history, and did you not look at it now with your eyes? God says there is a Thyatirian period in the history of the church, but there is a remnant. In the twenty-fourth verse, He speaks of God’s faithful servants who are put to death by that scarlet whore who is drunk with the blood of God’s saints [Revelation 17:6]. Fifty million of them slain by that church; it’s in the Book! Jesus saw it all from the beginning [Matthew 24:9; Revelation 1:20].
Then there is a Sardian period in the church—the church of the Reformation; “There are some names in Sardis who have not defiled their garments” [Revelation 3:4]. Great names: Balthazar Hubmaier, our Baptist preacher; Felix Manz, our Baptist preacher; besides Wesley, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Knox, Whitefield, Edwards. There’s a Sardian period in the church; great names, men who stand up and preach the gospel of the Son of God.
There’s the Philadelphia period in the church: the era of the open door; missions, missions; William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Luther Rice, preaching the gospel of the Son of God. There’s a Philadelphian period in the church; “I set before you an open door” [Revelation 3:8].
And last, seventh, there is a Laodicean period in the history of the church, when the church says, “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing, and you do not know, you are poor, and wretched, and miserable, and blind, and naked” [Revelation 3:17]. I remember when a traveler from afar stood in the Vatican, and the prelate said, “Look! Look, the riches, the gold, the silver, the accumulated wealth of the world!” and the prelate said, “No longer does the church have to say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” And the visitor from afar answered, “And no longer can the church say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!’” [Luke 5:23-25]. “I’m rich and increased with goods” [Revelation 3:17]. And look where Christ is: He is on the outside knocking at the door [Revelation 3:20].
These periods in the history of the church, not only are they consecutive—there is an Ephesian period, there is a Smyrnian period of martyrdom, there is a Pergamian period of identity with the world, there is a Thyatirian period when the church dressed in purple is the great scarlet woman, there is a Sardian period when men stand up and preach the gospel of the Son of God, there is a Philadelphian period of an open door, there is a Laodicean period of wealth, and affluence, and apostasy—but those periods also coexist all through the ages. In every year, and in every age, and in every century, and in every denomination, there are Ephesian churches who cool off; who once had a fire and a flame and an evangelistic zeal, and now they are acquiescing in the drive for the souls of men. In every age, there are these seven churches. There are Ephesian churches in this age; there are Smyrnian churches in this age, churches of the martyr.
Oh! Could I ever forget, could I ever forget, in the days that I preached in Hong Kong—soon after the cruel, crushing tyrant of Red China swept away the government of freedom and liberty and the churches of the Lord—listening, listening, listening? Today there is a Smyrnian church! There are Smyrnian churches, churches of martyrdom and suffering, paying the price. I listened to a man from the interior of China as he described the martyrdom of every member of one of God’s little churches on the interior of China; a Smyrnian church today. All of the churches today; there is a Laodicean church today, all coexisting.
In another city, I went to see a Laodicean church. In that great, magnificent pile of monumental wealth and affluence, there was a dance hall on every floor. Every floor! And as I went from floor to floor and looked at it, there were card tables, and decks, and the women playing cards, bridge, I guess—I don’t know what; poker, maybe? What do women play with cards?—all the way up on every floor! And as I left the church, I stood at the front and I’ll never forget a scene. Framed in the doorway of that magnificent cathedral-like church pile, there was, half leaning against the great stone arch in the great main entrance of the church, there was a woman dressed in mink, leisurely smoking a cigarette, waiting for her liveried chauffeur to bring the limousine close enough for her dainty steps to make it from the gorgeous cathedral to the beautiful automobile. And as I looked at it, I never heard of a prayer meeting in that church. I never heard of a revival meeting in that church. I never heard of a preaching of the gospel of the Son of God in that church!
There’s a Laodicean church today; and they all coexist together. Some are aflame with missions, Philadelphian churches; some that are paying the price with their lives, Smyrnian churches; some that are cooling off in their devotion and dedication, Ephesian churches; and some that are Laodicean, taking it easy in Zion. And the minister: all his qualifications are he must be a good dancer, and a good bridge player, and a good cocktail drinker, and if the preacher can do that, the congregation will love him. “Oh, our dear thus-and-so!”
It is in the Book; Jesus saw it from the beginning [Revelation 1:20], and all seven of them coexist in most every church. There are Ephesian members in this church, their love cooling off. They used to be fire, flame, burning for God; now they are not nearly so excited about Jesus. There are Ephesian members who are cooling off. There are Smyrnian members in this church. They pay for their devotion with their very lives, and I can walk down some of these aisles and put my hands on some of those people right here who are Christians at a great cost, at a great sacrifice. There are Smyrnian members of the church. There are all of them, and I haven’t time to speak of them. There are Laodicean members of this church; they love social life more than they love God, and they love to be accepted in a certain circle more than that they love to be praised of God. And if you were to ask them to take a place of responsibility to help us with our children, they haven’t got time. “Pastor, I’m busy”; but you’ll see them out at the country club day after day after day, wasting their lives on trivialities and insignificances. But we need them down here, helping us with the children in the church, visiting the lost, winning people to Christ. They are Laodicean members in the church. They all seven coexist.
You see, I am just trying to get you to realize this message isn’t some mysterious enigma wrapped up in a riddle! This is a burning, flaming message that Jesus has for His people today. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit of God saith unto His churches” [Revelation 2:7]. These are not messages from an absent Lord, but they are sentences from a present and living Judge! And our Lord walks among His lampstands today, walking among His churches today, and the appeal is today as it was then [Revelation 2:1]. “Oh, remember! Remember from whence thou art fallen, and turn, and do the first works; lest I come and take thy candlestick out of its place” [Revelation 2:5]. Or “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and turn” [Revelation 3:19]. The Lord with flaming eyes [Revelation 1:13-14], walking among His churches today [Revelation 2:1], walking up and down the aisles of this church; knocking at your home, knocking at your heart, knocking in your presence today; “Behold,” He said to the Laodicean, “I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with Me” [Revelation 3:20]. Breaking bread together:
Let us break bread together on our knees.
Let us break bread together on our knees.
[African American spiritual, author unknown]
“I will sup with him, and he with Me” [Revelation 3:20]. Isn’t that a great and a beautiful invitation? I tell you, once in a while I feel like preaching like I used to when I was a boy, from one side of the tabernacle to the other; just all over, just all over. I never had a thing that bound me down in my life like that thing over there; never did, never did. There’s nothing in the world comparable to sitting down in heavenly places with Jesus Christ. I have been in services where strong men, because I’m not overly large, would get so happy they’d start hugging me and nearly crush my bones, just happy! Can you imagine why anybody would want to hug me? Why, great big strong men just nearly squeezed me to death; just happy in the Lord, crying like little children cry, tears like showers of rain falling down from their faces, just happy in the Lord! Oh, it’s a great privilege to sit down with Jesus! “Standing at the door, and knock: if any man open the door, I will come in and sup with him, and he with Me” [Revelation 3:20]. Breaking bread on our knees, on our knees.
Oh, bless you, if the Spirit of the Lord calls you today, make it now, “and here I come.” The pastor stands down here on the side of this Lord’s supper table right there. Come and give the pastor your hand today: “Today I give my heart to Jesus.” Would you? Would you? As the Spirit of God shall open the door and lead the way, would you come this morning? I’ve never seen but that the Lord’s Supper was a barrier to people coming. I don’t know, but they hesitate. Don’t hesitate! Don’t hesitate! This is God’s day and God’s time and God’s hour. Come, come, come, taking Jesus as Savior [Romans 10:9-10], or putting your life in the fellowship of the church. There’s time, if you are on that back row of the top balcony, there’s time to come down a stairway and to the front. Come. Or a family you, come. “Pastor, this is my wife and these are my children. All of us are coming today.” Come! Come! While we sing the song and while we prayerfully extend that appeal, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.
SYMBOLIC MEANING OF THE SEVEN CHURCHES OF ASIA
I. They represent all the churches,
through all history
are literal, historical churches, but they are symbols of the entire Christian
body in all periods of history
We know this for five reasons
The number “7”
solemnity, sobriety, urgency by which these letters are composed
The introduction – each letter based upon authentication of Christ in one of
way they end – admonition to hear
“mystery” of the churches(Revelation 1:20)
The addresses are found in a book of prophecy(Revelation
II. The symbolic meaning of the churches
promises, messages, seem to have been framed in the light of the whole sweep of
God’s ministries among men from the days of Adam until Christ shall give back
to us all that Adam lost
– readmission to Tree of Life, Paradise(Revelation
Smyrna – an exemption from the second death(Revelation
3. Pergamos – hidden
manna, names inscribed on the white stone on the breastplate of the High Priest
– authority, judicial administration over nations, represented by Joshua,
David, Solomon(Revelation 2:26-27)
resurrection, opening of the Book of Life, reward of the faithful(Revelation 3:4-5)
Philadelphia – citizens of the New Jerusalem, the temple not made with hands(Revelation 3:12)
– session with Christ upon the throne of glory (Revelation
Represent phases, periods in church history from time of the apostles to the
coming of Christ
Ephesian period – cooling of love; the conclusion of the apostolic day(Revelation 2:4)
period – era of martyrdom(Revelation 2:10)
period – church married to the world, under imperial favor, dwelling where
Satan’s seat is, under Nicolaitanism, clericalism(Revelation
period – the church a scarlet woman, Jezebel; the believing remnant(Revelation 2:24, 17:1-15)
period – reformation, a return to Christ, age of worthy names (Revelation 3:4)
Philadelphian period – development of the true church, the open door, missions (Revelation 3:8)
period – final state of apostasy, lukewarmness, self-sufficiency, empty
profession (Revelation 3:17, 20)
co-exist in every period, as well as in succession
Seven types of people co-exist in every church, denomination, congregation
Directness of appeal to us of the most solemn importance(Revelation 2:5, 3:19, 20)
Hymn, “Let us break bread togetherâ€¦”