To The Seven Churches Which Are in Asia
January 29th, 1961 @ 8:15 AM
TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES WHICH ARE IN ASIA
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-29-61 8:15 a.m.
You are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the early morning message entitled, John to the Seven Churches Which Are in Asia. It is a sermon on the writer, and the age, and the background of the Apocalypse, of the Revelation. Four times in the Book, the writer says that his name is John. In Revelation 1:1:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass; and He sent and signified it by His angel unto His servant John.
It’s the first time he names his name. The second time is in the text, Revelation 1:4, “John, to the seven churches which are in Asia.” And the third time He names his name is in the ninth verse of this first chapter:
I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus.
And the fourth time that he names his name is in the last chapter, Chapter 22, verse 8: “And I John saw these things, and heard them” [Revelation 22:8].
So the writer says that he is a servant of Jesus Christ, in Revelation 1:1. And in Revelation 1:9, he says that he is a brother to the Christians of the Roman province of Asia and that he is a companion, a fellow sufferer with them in their tribulations and in their persecutions. Then in the twenty-second chapter of the Revelation, the author claims that he has seen and he has heard the things which are recorded in this Apocalypse [Revelation 22:8].
Now who is this John? There were as many Johns in that ancient day as there are Johns today. There are several Johns in the New Testament pages itself. So who is this John who says he is a servant of Christ? [Revelation 1:1]. That he is a brother to those Asian Christians? And that he saw, and heard, and wrote down these things? [Revelation 1:2-3]. Who is this John?
In about 250 AD, Dionysius of Alexandria, called Dionysius the Great because he was so famous, a pupil of Origen. In the Alexandrian school of theology, Dionysius the Great wrote a famous tract, a famous treatise. And in that scholarly work he said that the apostle John could not have written the Revelation.
And he based that conclusion—and he is the first of a long school of scholars who have been persuaded of such a position ever since his day—he based his persuasion on the difference between the Greek that is used in writing the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, and the Greek that is used in the writing of the Revelation. And Dionysius of Alexandria said that the difference between the two is so great that the same man could not have written both of them. And Dionysius felt, was persuaded that John the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel. Therefore John could not, John the apostle could not have written the Apocalypse. Now that is a very famous position and one that has been defended up until this present hour.
So who is this John who describes himself four times in the pages of the book? We’re going to look inside the book first and find the internal evidence concerning the writer. First: whoever he was, he was a Jewish Christian, not a Greek Christian. He was a Palestinian Christian; he thinks in Hebrew but he writes in Greek. And almost certainly the author was a Jew who grew up in Galilee. We know that from many things that I haven’t time this morning to discuss. He translates Hebrew idioms into Greek, and he does violence to Greek syntax and grammar. He throws the rules of the grammarians to the winds. He is burning in the delivery of a message and if language gets in the way, watch out the language. He has a grammar and a syntax all his own. And whoever this John is, he is a Hebrew, a Jew who grew up in Palestine who has saturated his soul with the language and phraseology of the Old Testament that he uses consciously and unconsciously.
A second thing about him; whoever this John is, he is a man of deep spiritual insight. This man looks deeper into the plan of God for the ages that are to come than any other writer of the New Testament.
A third thing about this John; whoever he is, he is a man of tremendous positive statements. For example the hostile Jews of Smyrna [Revelation 2:9] and of Philadelphia [Revelation 3:9] he calls the synagogue of Satan. And he calls Rome, Babylon, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth [Revelation 17:5]. And he calls Roman religion the scarlet whore who commits fornication with the nations of the world [Revelation 17:2-4].
And in his depiction of Christ, he exhibits Christ as one of unbounded power and authority, and one of great, severe but just condemnation and judgment. In the Revelation written by this man John, Christ is a warrior that rules the nations with a rod of iron [Revelation 12:5; 19:15]. Christ is the Lamb of God whose wrath is terrible, who shall hide us from the face of Him that sits upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb [Revelation 6:16]. And he presents Him as a King who treads the winepress of the fierceness of Almighty God [Revelation 19:15]. Whoever this John is, he is a man of uncompromising stature and of tremendous conviction and statement.
A fourth thing about him: whoever this John is, he is a man of unquestioned authority. He writes to the seven churches of Asia [Revelation 2:1-3:22] and that word, “seven,” as we shall find next Sunday morning when we speak of the meaning of numbers in the Bible, seven represents all of them, completion. The seven churches are all of the churches. And this man writes to those churches with authority.
Who is this John that could fit a picture like that? There’s only one and but one, and there’s not any other but that one. This man John is so famous, and so in position of authority, that when he writes, he needs no other epithet, no other descriptive adjective. When he calls himself John that is enough, immediately all of the churches of Asia knew who that was, John. There is only one John that answers to the description that we have found of the author and the writer in the book itself. And that is the John, the son of Zebedee [Matthew 4:21-22; Mark 1:19-20] who grew up in Galilee, who was the beloved disciple of the Lord [John 13:23]. And who, in 69 AD, in the terrible war that destroyed Jerusalem came to Asia Minor—was for over 25 years the pastor of the church in Ephesus—and who was exiled by the emperor Domitian on this lonely, rocky isle of Patmos for the Word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ [Revelation 1:9]. There’s only one John whose name needed no other description as he wrote with authority to the churches of Christ in the Roman province of Asia.
Then there are many, many things that substantiate that conclusion. For example, John is the only author that uses the word logos, “the word,” to refer as an epithet, a description of Jesus. He personalizes that word, logos, “word.” “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God,” John 1:1. And the same thing is found in 1 John, his letter, 1:1 [1 John 1:1], and the same thing is found in Revelation 19:11-13:
And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and He that sat upon him was Faithful and True . . .
His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns…
He was dressed in a vesture dipped in blood; and His name is called The Logos—The Word of God.
John is the only one that uses that word Logos to refer to Christ, and he does it in all of the Johanian literature, and you find it in the Revelation.
Another thing, John is the only one that refers to Christ as the Lamb of God. “Behold,” he says in the first chapter, quoting the great Baptist preacher, John, “Behold the Lamb of God” [John 1:29]. And in the Revelation, He is referred to as the Lamb of God twenty-two different times. And John’s the only one that calls Jesus that, the Lamb of God.
Another thing typical, John is the only one that refers to the spear that pierces His side [John 19:34]. And he uses a Greek word that is different from the usual Greek word to refer to that piercing. Zechariah, for example, refers to the piercing of our Lord, and in the Greek Septuagint there’s a word used for it, but the word used by John is altogether different. And that same word by which he describes the piercing of the side of Jesus in the Gospel [John 19:34], that same word is used here in the Revelation, “Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him” [Revelation 1:7]. John’s the only one that mentions that in his Gospel, and he mentions it again here and uses that identical and unusual Greek word.
Now about the difference in the grammar, and the syntax, and the style of the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, and the Revelation; first the difference and then the likeness; the difference first; when John wrote the Gospel, the Fourth Gospel, he wrote it, he wrote it in a time of quiet meditation. And he was surrounded by wonderful Greek friends who loved him and honored him. And they could help John make his Greek beautiful and correct.
But when John wrote the Revelation, he was in exile and by himself [Revelation 1:9]. And he wrote like he preached, in fervor, and in fire, and in fury. And in the excitement of that hour, he wrote this Revelation just as he saw it and as it burned in his own soul, like a man who thinks in Hebrew and would write in Greek.
And when the Revelation was sent to the churches, they so honored and revered God’s sainted disciple that no church took it upon itself to correct the syntax and the case sequence, and to make the relative pronouns correspond. But they left it just like John wrote it and just like we have it today.
Now how they are alike: the easiest Greek to read in the Bible and I suppose in all literature are the Fourth Gospel and the Revelation. If you have a beginner student or if you would like to learn Greek, the way to begin is to read either the Revelation or the Fourth Gospel. They are very simple and very easy to read. The same writer of one is the same author of the other. Now that is corroborated by the external evidence that I will not pause to go into.
Justin was martyred under Marcus Aurelius in 166 AD. Justin Martyr lived and his ministry was in Asia, the Roman province of Asia, and he said John the apostle wrote the Revelation. Irenaeus who died in 190 AD was the pupil of Polycarp, who was the disciple of John the beloved disciple of Jesus. Polycarp was pastor of Smyrna when this Revelation was written. And Irenaeus says that he listened to Polycarp. Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, a convert of John, and Irenaeus says that many times he heard Polycarp talk about John and that John wrote the Revelation in the later part of the reign of the Emperor Domitian and so with Origen of Alexandria, and so with Tertullian of Carthage, and so with Clement of Alexandria, and so with Hippolytus of Rome, and so with the Muratorian canon, and so on, and on, and on.
I think there is no doubt but that this John is the disciple who leaned upon the breast of our Lord at the Last Supper, and asked, “And who is it, Lord, that betrayeth Thee?” [John 21:20] John, the beloved disciple, “I John…your brother and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus” [Revelation 1:9], that is the beloved disciple of the Lord.
Now a word about the date of the writing of the Revelation; it was written in a time of terrible persecution. There were only two periods in the first Christian century of terrible persecution against the Christians, one under Nero and the other under Domitian. Nero died in 68 AD. Domitian died in 96 AD. There are practically no reasons for any scholar to say that the Revelation was written in the Neronian persecution. But there is every reason for any student or any scholar to say that the Revelation was written in the emperor Domitian’s, in his reign. It was written in either 95 or 96 AD. Now the reason for that later date is this. First, there is a great difference in the inner state of the churches in the Revelation than reflected in the writings of the apostle Paul. Paul was martyred under Nero and the state of the churches found here in the Book of the Revelation is altogether different from the state of the churches when Paul wrote to these same people.
For example in the Revelation, Ephesus has lost its first love [Revelation 2:4]. In the Revelation, the Nicolatian party is widespread and firmly entrenched. And there’s no trace of a Nicolatian party in the days of the apostle Paul. Sardis is already dead in the Revelation [Revelation 3:1]. And Laodicea, that was destroyed by an earthquake in the days of Nero, has been rebuilt and boasts of its wealth [Revelation 3:17].
In the days of the Revelation, the great antagonist of the churches of Christ is the Roman Empire. And on the inside, where heresy has developed, and in the outside where there’s cruel persecution, the time and the day is altogether different in the Revelation than it is in the days of the apostle Paul, when he wrote the letter to Ephesus—which I think is a circular letter to all of the churches of Asia, just like the Revelation. Another thing, the persecution that is reflected in the Revelation is Domitiatic. One of the characteristics of the Domitian persecution was the exiling of the Christians, the banishing of them, and John is banished to the isle of Patmos [Revelation 1:9] just as you would expect under Domitian. The persecution of the Christians under Nero was personal on Nero’s part. He burned down the city of Rome, and the people suspected that he had done it. And he pointed to this strange sect, these Christians, as having set fire to the city in order to obviate suspicion from himself. It was a personal thing with Nero. But when Domitian persecuted the Christians, he bathed the empire in their blood. He’s gone down in history as the great persecutor of the churches of Christ. And the reason he did it was because he sought to establish himself as the god of all of the empire and set images of himself in all of the temples. And demanded, as a loyalty to the state, that the people bow down and worship Domitian in the presence of his image.
You get a good idea of Domitian in studying some of those Latin historians. For example, Suetonius says that Domitian referred to himself as deus and dominus, god and lord. And Suetonius continues in saying that Domitian, when he would write a letter, or make a command, or send out a law, that he’d always begin it with “Domitian, our god and lord, commands” thus and so. And that he demanded everybody refer to him as god and lord either in writing or in address. It is interesting to watch and to see and to read what Pliny says about Domitian. Pliny says that Domitian took any slight to himself as an offense and an impiety against his divinity. And Pliny continues saying that he had those statues of himself erected throughout the empire. And that he slaughtered uncounted numbers and myriads of victims because of their refusal to worship his name and to bow down before his image.
So you can imagine what a startling conflict immediately arose between emperor worship commanded by Domitian and the Christians in the churches of Jesus Christ. And that conflict came especially in Asia Minor because after the destruction of Jerusalem the stronghold of the Christian faith was in the Roman province of Asia.
Now I want to say a word about the Roman Empire at the time of the writing of the Revelation. The Roman Empire, toward the end of the first Christian century, reached up to its highest zenith. It covered the then known civilized world from the British Isles down to the central part of Africa, from the Atlantic ocean to the Euphrates River. To the people of that age, Rome was the world. The Roman soldier was looked upon as invincible. Those legionnaires were garrisoned everywhere and because of the one government and because of the great system of military highways, commerce was everywhere.
Rome was built upon two things, conquest and commerce. In the eighteenth chapter of the Book of the Revelation, you have a score or more of articles that are described as being in the commerce of Rome [Revelation 18:12-14]. And they are from India, they are from China, they are from central Africa and north Africa, they are from the Danube, they are from Gaul, they are from the British Isles. They are from everywhere; those articles of commerce named in the eighteenth chapter of the Book of the Revelation [Revelation 18:12-14]. And the lavish wealth of the upper ruling classes of Rome, beyond imagination! Look at this, look at this: Caligula, the Emperor Caligula, spent over $500,000 on one banquet. A patriot gave a dinner in honor of Nero and spent more than $160,000 on roses alone. The wife of Caligula was not to be outdone; she had more than $2 million of emeralds by which she decorated herself. And Seneca, the teacher of Nero one time cynically remarked that the wealthy ladies in Rome had suspended from their ears two or three great estates. Three out of every five people that you saw were slaves. Slaves waited upon them day and night. And the poor crowded into Rome for the doles and to watch the gladiatorial conflicts.
Now a final word about why the Christians were persecuted. First, Christianity was persecuted by the Roman Empire because it was militant, because it was missionary, because it was evangelical and evangelistic, because it sought to win converts. As long as Christianity appeared as just a sect of Judaism, it was unmolested. For Judaism, the religion of the Jew, was legalized in the Roman Empire. When Rome conquered a province, the religion was automatically recognized by law and was placed in the Pantheon.
If you ever go to Rome, the most perfectly preserved building of antiquity is the Roman Pantheon—built by the great Agrippa I in the days of Julius Caesar, in about 40 or 50 BC—a magnificent building! And whenever Rome conquered a province, their gods and their religion, they just added to the Pantheon; pan—all, theos—god; all-god building. And as long as Christianity appeared to be just as a sect of Judaism, it was unmolested. But when Christianity appeared to be not a patch on an old garment but a new faith and a living witness, immediately it ran afoul of the Roman law. Second reason why Christianity was persecuted: Christianity was persecuted because it demanded universal obedience and obeisance to the great King of heaven, Jesus, and not to Caesar. For you see the Roman state looked upon religion as being just an aid to the state, and they manipulated it for the state.
One of the truest sentences ever written is written by the great historian, Gibbon in his famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He said in that history, he said to the people all religions were equally true; to the philosopher all religions were equally false; and to the politicians all religions were equally useful. So they used religion as a tool of the state, but when the Christian churches said, “Not so, our allegiance is to Jesus Christ,” they ran afoul of the empire.
A third reason why Christianity was persecuted by the Roman Empire: because Christianity refused to bow down before an idol, and they refused to have idols in their homes. And they refused to tie them on their chariots, and they refused to use them as amulets around their necks. You see, Roman society like Grecian society was built around guilds and orders all of which had idols as patron saints. And when the Christian refused to belong to the order, and refused to bow down before the queen of heaven, and refused to enter into an idol temple, immediately they were castigated as atheists. And they were hated and persecuted. And every calamity of the empire was laid at their door. If it was dry, didn’t rain, those Christians had offended the gods. If the Tigris flooded those Christians had offended the gods. And if there were military reverses those Christians had offended the gods because they refused to bow down before an idol, the queen of heaven.
Why were the Christians persecuted? Because they were looked upon as cannibals. They met secretly at night in subterranean places, and in dark dens, and dives, and in catacombs. And they ate flesh and they drank blood—that’s what the Romans said for they’d hear them speak of the body and blood of Jesus—and they were cannibals to the Romans.
And they offended the passive philosophers of the day because of their enthusiasm; they were evangelistic and fervent. And they offended those who trafficked in idols, the identical thing you’ll find all over the civilized world today, selling idols. And they offended the manufacturers of idols and those who had stock and animals to sell for victims for the sacrifices in the heathen temples. And they were recruited among the poor and the slaves and looked down upon by the respectable. And finally, and the one I’ve already mentioned, Christianity was persecuted because it refused emperor worship; to bow down before the image and the name of a man or to kiss the ring of his finger. The Christian said, “I will not bow and I will not kneel.”
Ah, and the Romans hated them! And the Romans persecuted them. And the Romans decimated them. And Domitian said, “And I shall annihilate them.” And in the days of the attempt of the annihilation of the Christians because they refused to bow down and kiss his finger, the Revelation, the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ was written. And it was written for the churches to stand up. And it was written for the Christians to be counted and to be numbered. And it was written to comfort them in the hour of their blood, and their trial, and their death.
Ah! When you read the Revelation, you’re reading the newspapers of today. When you read of the martyrs of the Revelation, you’re reading of the martyrs of today. And when you read of the ultimate victory and triumph of the Revelation, you’re reading of the ultimate victory and triumph of the people of Jesus Christ today.
“I John, your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ” [Revelation 1:9]; grace and peace to you from God the Father, from God the Son, and from the seven spirits which are before His throne from the Holy Spirit of God in the earth [Revelation 1:4]. Oh! As I study and prepare these messages, it burns in my soul, and may the Lord bless the Word to your heart.
We’re going to sing now. While we sing, somebody you give his heart to Jesus [Romans 10:8-14]. Somebody you come into the fellowship of this church [Hebrews 10:8-13]. A family, “all of us coming, pastor, here we are.” Or one somebody you, on the first note of this first stanza, while we sing the song and make the appeal, would you come? In the balcony round, on this lower floor, as God shall say the word and open the door, would you come? Would you make it now, this precious morning hour while we stand and while we sing?