Death of the Seven Churches
August 15th, 1971 @ 10:50 AM
THE DEATH OF THE SEVEN CHURCHES OF ASIA
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Revelation 2, 3
8-15-71 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Death of the Seven Churches of Asia. Once in a while, not very often, but once in a while I will make a study; it pertains to the Bible, though it is not an actual exegesis or exposition of a passage in the Scriptures, a study. And I try to present it to the people. And this is one of those times when one of those studies has been made. It concerns what happened to the seven churches of Asia, and what happened to the Christian faith in the Levant, in the Middle East.
In the Book of the Revelation, in chapters 2 and 3 [Revelation 2:1-3:22], the Lord in addressing the churches said some very plain and definite words. For example, to Ephesus He said, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen”; and He gave the reason for the remembrance:
Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and turn, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy lampstand out of its place, except thou turn.
Now, to the church at Pergamos He wrote, “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth” [Revelation 2:16]. And to the church of Thyatira He wrote, “Except they repent of their deeds, I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am He which searcheth the reins, the minds, and the hearts” [Revelation 2:22-23]. And look again, to the church at Sardis, “If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee” [Revelation 3:3]. And to the church at Laodicea, “So then because thou art indifferent, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of My mouth” [Revelation 3:16].
You cannot read these words without almost being astonished at the harshness of the judgment of God upon His churches. These are His churches, these are His people, and yet He throws them into the fiery furnace. He tries them by blood and by fire, and He threatens, “If you do not do My work in the earth, I will remove thy lampstand out of its place . . .[Revelation 2:5]. I will kill your children with the edge of the sword … [Revelation 2:23]. I will spew thee out of My mouth” [Revelation 3:16]. I have no objection to these palavering sentimentalists who stand in God’s place and speak only of the love and softness of God, but if I’m true to the Word and to the Bible, I cannot but also avow that He is a God of wrath and of judgment. And you’ll find it no more poignantly or tragically than in the story of the seven churches of Asia.
Now, for just a moment we shall look at the civilization and culture, and then the first Christian churches of Asia Minor. Long time before Christ, a thousand and more years before the Lord, the Greeks colonized Asia Minor. And they built there a great civilization. The cities they built, the culture that they employed was as beautiful and as great as the city and the culture you found in Hellas, in Sparta, in Corinth, in Athens, in Thebes, in any other place. Asia Minor was as Greek in its culture, in its city life, as Hellas itself. And some of the great poets and philosophers and architects, strategists, generals, leaders, political rulers were from Asia Minor as well as from Greece proper itself. That’s why in the days of the New Testament those cities were Greek. And they were beautifully decorated with columns and statuary and temples as any other Greek city.
Now, in New Testament times the churches of Asia Minor, and we’re going to confine ourselves now to the great Roman province of Asia which was in the heart of what we now know as Asia Minor, those churches had an illustrious and apostolic founding and furtherance. On Paul’s third missionary journey [Acts 18:23], staying more than three years at Ephesus, he turned the whole province to Christ [Acts 19:8-12]. And out of that marvelous, unusually effective ministry of the apostle at Ephesus, were founded by his disciples, by his converts, the other churches in Asia Minor such as Hierapolis, such as Colosse, as well as the seven that are named in the Revelation [Revelation 2:1-3:22].
Now the church at Ephesus, for example, not only had Paul the apostle as its founder, but had Timothy, the son of Paul in the ministry, had Timothy as its pastor [1 Timothy 1:3]. Then in 69 AD in the midst of the terrible war that destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, in 69 AD John the beloved disciple fled out of Palestine and before the Roman legions in Jerusalem and came to Ephesus. And John the apostle was pastor at Ephesus from 69 AD until somewhat beyond 100 AD. And then at Smyrna, the great Polycarp, a disciple of John, was the pastor for a generation. Then at Hierapolis, just across the Meander River from Laodicea, Papias, another disciple of John and a great church father, was pastor. And at Colossae, just up the Lycus River from Laodicea as well as the Laodicea itself, Paul addressed letters. The Christianity that we find revealed to us in the Bible, in the Roman province of Asia, was illustrious and apostolic. It was founded in a marvelous and glorious providence of God.
Now having said that and remembering the favor and blessing of God upon the apostolic ministry that resulted in the founding of those churches, let us look at it today. When you go there now and look at the present scene, what do you find? Remembering now the tremendously beautiful Greek civilization that was there and those glorious Greek cities with their colonnaded streets, and their temples and statuary, and all the things that characterized Hellenic culture and philosophy and literature and city life, remembering Greek culture and remembering the apostolic churches, what do you find there now?
At Ephesus, it vanished from the earth. And it has been only in recent times that they have uncovered, the archaeologists have dug up about one-seventh of the buried city. The Cayster River silted the harbor. The Goths came in 263 AD and sacked the city and destroyed its beauty. And in about the eleventh century the Turks came and either slew the inhabitants or carried them away into captivity; and Ephesus literally vanished from the earth, gone with the wind.
Smyrna, there are a few ruins at Smyrna that have been dug up, uncovered. Timur Tamerlane seized the city, sacked it, and made an enormous pyramid of the heads of the decapitated Christian people. Pergamos, the archaeologist is beginning to dig up some of Pergamos. And just beyond the site of the ancient city there is the modern Turkish town of Bergama, about thirty thousand inhabitants.
Thyatira, it has vanished from the earth; there is no trace of the ancient city of Thyatira. There is a town there where once the ancient city was located called Axar, about twenty-five thousand people, but there are no ruins, there’s no trace of the ancient Greek city of Thyatira.
Sardis, Sardis is deeply buried in the earth. There are some of the ruins that are being brought to life by the archaeological spade. The great citadel that once was looked upon as impregnable has largely eroded away. Just outside the site of the ancient city is a wretched Turkish village called Sart; the corruption of Sardis.
Philadelphia, there is no trace of the ancient city of Philadelphia; it has passed away. There is a town there on the site. And speaking with an archaeologist, and my remarking there was nothing to be found, he said, “In the town, on a little elevation there’s a drive-in restaurant; and if you dig around you can find a few pieces of potsherd, broken pottery,” but Philadelphia vanished from the earth. Laodicea, all there is of Laodicea is a cheap sign, pointing down a dusty road to a site. The ancient city is buried; and just a few ruins of a later date are exposed.
The seven churches disappeared from the earth, with its culture, with its civilization; but the most astonishing of all of the confronting facts that face you as you visit the ancient province of Asia is this: Christianity has died; there’s no vestigial remnant of it. It is gone. And the country is solidly Muslim. And the country is solidly Turkish. What has happened? What happened to the cities, and what happened to the Christian churches? And what happened to the Christian faith that it should literally disappear from the earth? “Remember from whence thou art fallen, and turn, and do the first works; else I will come unto thee and remove thy lampstand out of its place, except thou turn” [Revelation 2:5].
Now, at least in my studying, I cannot follow the history of those seven churches. It is a blank. It is lost. It is not recorded. It is buried in the very dust of the earth and cannot be resurrected. But, I can follow the broad outlines of that history and what happened to those churches. I can do that plainly and easily. And that is what we shall do this morning. First of all, we shall look at the churches themselves, what happened to them. Then we shall look at the great critical confrontation that eventually destroyed them. Then we shall see if there is in it a lesson from God for us today.
Now what happened to the churches themselves? Several things; one: under Constantine––and this is about 320 AD––under Constantine the churches became houses of idolatry. To me there is no more amazing and startling and astounding development in Christendom than the change that came over the churches in the conversion of the Roman Emperor. For up until that time a church was an ekklēsia, called an ecclesia; that is ek kaleō, a called out people of God.
They had no house in which to worship. They did not build them. They met in homes. They met in dens and caves. They met on the street. They met in marketplaces. They met in schools. They met everywhere. And the ekklēsia referred to the people of God. But after Constantine they changed the very name from ekklēsia, referring to the people of the Lord, to kuriakos, kuriakos, kurkos, kurk, “church” in English. They changed the name from ekklēsia, the people of God, to the kuriakos, the lordly house. Now how is that? Because the first Christians did not build churches. What happened was, under the Roman Empire they baptized the pagan temples, the basilicas. They baptized the basilica, which is a pagan temple. They baptized the basilicas, and they baptized the pagan idols, and they baptized its priesthood.
You don’t have any kuriakos, any kurkos, any kurk, any church in the Bible, you have an ekklēsia. You don’t have any priests in the church in the New Testament; they are ministers, they are pastors. You don’t have any lordly house filled with idols and icons in the church of the New Testament. But it came under Constantine. And they took a great temple that was dedicated to, say, Apollo, and they dedicated it to Christ. And they left all of the images in the temple, they just renamed them. This is not Aphrodite, this is Mary. This is not Osiris, this is Joseph. This is not Demeter, this is Peter. And they took the ministry in those ancient temples and changed them from pastors to priests. You don’t have any priests in the New Testament. There was a colossal, unbelievable change in the church itself under Constantine and the emperors that followed thereafter.
Second: under Constantine the church turned aside from its zealous, evangelistic missionary outreach by which in comparatively three centuries they had subverted, literally unhinged the Greco-Roman Empire. They took it out of paganism and placed it as a trophy of grace at the feet of Jesus. Those first three centuries of Christians did that. In a day of persecution and fierce onslaught of paganism, the first century Christians did it. But, after they became the state church, and after the Roman Empire, both East and West, Greek and Latin, became married to the church, the Thyatiran period of the church [Revelation 2:18-29], after that the church turned inward.
And they gave itself to division, to divisiveness, and to fierce debate and altercation; Arianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, Monophysiticism, Sabellianism, and a thousand other doctrinal divisive debates. Then, of course, inwardly the church gave itself to ecclesiastical preferment and to simony, and to the buying of bishoprics and patriarchs. As I read of the inward change in the life of the church, when it became recognized by the Roman emperor and became the state religion of the Roman Empire, when I read what happened to the church and its inward corruption, I cannot help but recall the parable of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 13, when He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like to a mustard seed, that grows into a great tree; and in its branches lodge every filthy and unclean bird, and the ground is dirtied with their presence” [Matthew 13:31-32]. And in the next verse, another parable of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 13: “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman hid in the meal, and it worked until all of it was leaven” [Matthew 13:33]. The whole framework and the whole structure of the church was corrupt.
Again, it turned aside from its mission of preaching, and soulwinning, and evangelism, and testimony, and conversion, and the church became formal, liturgical, ritualistic, cold, removed, until finally they built in the churches, the Greek churches of Asia, they built a solid wall covered with icons between the worshiping people on the outside and the priesthood behind. You just heard his voice. You didn’t see him, the separation, the Nicolaitans, the separation between the people and the priesthood.
And finally, the church sank into spiritual powerlessness, ineptitude, tormented on the inside by men who were avaricious and ambitious, afflicted with simony, the buying of the ecclesiastical office, and on the outside, helpless. Then, second, now: the great confrontation, the crisis between the Christian faith and the raising up of a challenger. For, in the providence of God––I don’t question, I just see; I don’t understand, He knows––always in every individual life, in every church, in every denomination, and in the faith itself, somewhere, someday, some time, there comes a tremendous confrontation, a critical crisis!
The Lord spoke of it here when He said to the church at Thyatira, “I will kill with the sword, and all the churches shall know that I am He that searcheth the reins and the hearts, the minds and the hearts” [Revelation 2:23]. The great confrontation with the Christian faith in the East in the churches of Asia, it arose in an area you would never guess, you would never think for. It arose out of the sands of the deserts of Arabia.
In 570 AD Mohammad, died in 632, Mohammad was an ignorant camel driver. He couldn’t read. He could not read nor could he write. In the providences of God, the woman that he worked for, a rich widow named Khadija, he married her. And upon a day he came to Khadija and said, “The angel Gabriel has appeared unto me,” then he described it, “with a silken scroll.” And I quote a sentence out of the Koran: Mohammad said, “The angel Gabriel came and holding the scroll said, Read in the name of the Lord God who made man from a drop, read.”
He couldn’t read, but in a vision anybody can read. So, he was called to be a prophet. And then in the development of that fanatical religion of Mohammad, he presented himself as the great, the ultimate, the final and the last prophet. And in the Koran, he names the prophets: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus the Christ, and last, Mohammad. And he presented himself as the greatest of the prophets and the ultimate because, he said, God had given him the sword by which to destroy idolatry and to destroy the unbelieving infidels; the people who did not accept him, from the face of the earth.
And to the amazement, I would think, of any historian, in twenty-five years, after his death in 632 AD, in twenty-five years the Arabian army, the Muslim, had conquered Egypt, had overrun Palestine, Jerusalem, put a mosque of Omar there on the temple site, conquered Syria, conquered Mesopotamia, Iraq, conquered Persia, and then turned northward into the great central areas of Asia called Turkistan. And in fifty more years they had overrun all of North Africa and Spain. And only in 722 AD were turned back and towards France by Charles Martel. Look at that.
And when they conquered the East and the West, from the Atlantic shores of North Africa, clear through to the Indus River, and turning north to Turkistan; Turkistan, the wild fierce tribes of Turkistan, their missionaries won them by the sword to the Muslim faith. And the Turks came down and into the Roman province of Asia and all Asia Minor.
One of the little things that interested me as I studied: in Turkistan was a little tiny tribe of Turks, the chieftain, Ertugrul, driven out, fleeing before the hordes of the Mongolians, Ertugrul wandered around with his warriors and found two armies in fierce conflict. He rode to the aid of the one that was losing and totally defeated the other. And when the dust had laid and the battle was done he found that he had come to the aid of the Seljuk Turk, who ruled Asia Minor, and the one defeated, Mongolian.
Having a place, therefore, in Asia Minor, his son became the leader of the Turks. His son’s name was Osman. Western Europe knows it as Ottoman, the Ottoman Turk, the house of Osman, the house of Ottoman. The Seljuk Turks came in 1100, 1200, and 1300, and they overran Asia Minor. Then the Ottoman Turks, the son of Ertugrul, Osman, Ottoman, picked it up, and thereafter you have the Ottoman Turk until the Ottoman Empire was destroyed in the First World War in 1917.
What was the fierceness of the fanatical march of those Turks? First, it was against idolatry, with the sword. And the Turk, like a scavenger, like a winged vengeance, like an incarnate dervish, from one side of that civilized world to the other, the Muslim with the sword in his hand destroyed, in the name of Allah idolatry! Now you look at that just for a moment. When the Turk, when the Seljuk, when the Ottoman came to a heathen temple there he saw a statue and image of Demeter, Aphrodite, Jove, Juno, Isis, Osiris, Apollo, and the Mohammedan immediately, according to the mandate of the great prophet, put the worshipers to the edge of the sword, sacked the city, and destroyed the temples! And they did it with a vengeance.
All right, just look once again. As the Turk with his avenging sword destroyed the worshipers in the idol temple and destroyed the temple itself, sacked the city, he came to another kind of a temple, and in it he saw the same images and icons and the people bowing down before them, except in the heathen temple they called it Jove, Juno, and in the Christian temple they called it Mary, Joseph, Jesus. But you see, the Mohammedan wasn’t enlightened that when you bow down before an image of Apollo, that is idolatry, but when you bow down before an image of Mary that is not idolatry. He didn’t understand that. Nor do I.
And the Mohammedan, with the avenging sword, destroyed from the face of the earth the temples, whether they were dedicated to Apollo, or to Mary, or to Jesus, or to Peter, the Mohammedan destroyed them from the face of the earth, and killed the worshipers. And on the inside, what did I say about the churches? They were so filled with corruption, they were so honeycombed with bitterness and avarice and false ambition that when the Mohammedan faced the Christian the Christian was mowed down before the avenging sword.
“Remember from whence thou art fallen, turn, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly and remove thy lampstand out of its place, except thou turn” [Revelation 2:5]. And the Byzantine Empire was utterly destroyed, and the Christian faith was utterly destroyed, and the Christian churches were utterly destroyed. And there, when you go to Asia today, the Roman province of Asia, when you go to Asia Minor today you will find it solidly Turk, and you will find it solidly Muslim. There are not enough Christians there to mention; they don’t exist.
“Well, pastor, what does that mean for us?” Oh, I tremble before its message, burning from God and from history! And I haven’t time to develop it. May I just point out in a moment one or two or three, maybe four, five, or six brief things? One, one, the future belongs to the missionary, ultimately and finally to the one who has the outreach. Where did Timur—that’s the Persian name for Tamerlane—where did Timur come from? He was won to the Muslim faith in Turkistan, in Central Asia. And when he came down he was a scourge.
Where were the Turks won to Mohammed? I supposed that when the Turks came in they were won to Mohammedanism when they came in contact with Islam, not so. When the Turk came from the steps of Russia, what is now Russia, from Central Asia, the great area east of the Caspian Sea, when the Turk came he was already a Muslim! What does that mean for us? Just for example, the sociologist without exception says, “The day is coming,” and they have set the date and it’s not far off, “when the majority of citizens in Texas will be Mexican.”
They outbreed us. They out-birth us, they out-children us. And the day is coming––and the sociologist has it worked out on a table and can give you the date––the day is coming when Texas will be mostly Mexican. There’s a great wave coming north, coming north, coming north from the great valley of the Rio Grande, from San Antonio and all of southern Texas, and it is Mexican. What kind of a state will Texas be and what kind of a culture? And what kind of a religion will it be when the Mexican is the dominant citizen and race in the empire state of Texas? The answer lies in who’s winning them now; not then, now, now, now.
Again, when the church turns aside from its mission to testify, to witness, to win people to Christ, when it turns aside from its mission of evangelism, just beyond is the judgment of Almighty God, removing that lampstand out of its place [Revelation 2:5]. For a dead, cold, lifeless church will find itself unable to face the confrontations of this modern world. It will not exist. It withers and dies before it. Oh, the confrontations that face the church today, in Africa, in Indonesia, the Muslim; in China and in Russia, the communist; and in America, the inroads of secularism, materialism, and hedonism that take away from us spiritual values!
What does it matter whether I’m saved or not? What does it matter whether I know God or not? What does it matter whether I will see God when I die or not? For the values in America are no longer spiritual, and they’re no longer religious; but they are earthy, and mundane, and carnal, and hedonistic. And the church is finding itself increasingly unable to confront the floodtide of secularism.
He isn’t God just of Asia, He isn’t God just speaking in the New Testament; the same Lord God that spoke to the Roman province of Asia and to the seven churches of Asia is the same Lord God who lives up there in glory and looks down on this earth and weighs us in the balance. And whether we live or whether we die lies in the imponderables of Almighty God. “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and turn, and do the first works; lest I come unto thee quickly, and remove the lampstand out of its place” [Revelation 2:5].
Bear me a Friday night illustration. I don’t know a finer demonstration of what the church ought to be and what it ought to do than last Friday night. Did you know that, in this Trinity Valley Mission, five hundred and eleven of our people went out there? Five hundred and eleven of them, and counting Matamoras and the Rio Grande Valley and other places, more than a thousand of our people, these few days, have been out witnessing and testifying. Friday night, they brought the Trinity Valley Bible schools here into this church. They filled this auditorium. And when I gave the invitation there were so many down here at the front, several hundred, I did not know what to do with them, nor did my fellow ministers.
It was phenomenal! It was unbelievable to me! It was miraculous to me what happened. They’d been out there on vacant lots, in an area under a barn, in a shed, in a store building, in a backyard. They’d been gathering the people together, teaching them the Word of God. And when I gave the invitation, there they were. I asked them to come and to kneel, giving their hearts to Jesus. That is the church that lives. I have no cry against our services, I just add this: that the service is nothing but a sounding board where people register the decision for Christ, that’s all.
This furniture, that carpet, these pews, these stained-glass windows, the organ, they are nothing in themselves. The church is the bloodstream. It’s the heartbeat. It’s the tears that fall. It’s the hand extended. It’s the invitation in the name of Jesus. That is the ekklēsia. As long as our people are given to its witness and its testimony, we shall live in His sight. But when we turn aside, God will judge us and take our lampstand from its place [Revelation 2:5].
O Lord, don’t you feel as I do? I’d just like to start all over again with the Lord. I’d just like to give myself anew to the witness of Christ. I’ve got two hands, Lord, use them. I’ve got two feet, Lord, bless me. Got a heart that beats, Lord may it overflow with love for Thee. Got a mind that can think; Lord may I think God’s thoughts after Thee. Got a church here, an ekklēsia, may we make it a great convocation where people come forward and announce they’ve found the Lord.
We must sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, you, give your heart to Jesus, your life to God, come and stand by me. A family, a couple, or just you, while we sing this hymn, make it now. Come now. On the first note of the first stanza, come. In the balcony round, there’s a stairway on either side at the front and the back, and there’s time and to spare. On the lower floor, into the aisle and down here to the front, make the decision now. Make it in your heart now. If God speaks to you, come now. Do it now, and the Lord will bless you, and He will see you through. Just come. “I am trusting Him for all the answers, and for strength in the way, and I’m coming.” Do it now. Make it now, while we stand and while we sing.
OF THE SEVEN CHURCHES
I. New Testament times in Asia Minor
The churches of the Roman province of Asia
third missionary journey – founded church at Ephesus
Timothy pastor of church at Ephesus
John the apostle was pastor at Ephesus from 69 to 100 AD
pastor at Smyrna; Papias pastor at Hierapolis
Paul addressed letters to Colosse, up Lycus River from Laodicea
revealed to us herewas illustrious and apostolic
II. The scene today
vanished – only recently uncovered; 1/7 excavated
River silted harbor
Goths sacked the city in 263 AD
Turks slew inhabitants, carried the rest away in about eleventh century
a few ruins of Smyrna have been unearthed
seized the city; built pyramid of the heads of decapitated Christians
– archaeologist beginning to dig up some of it
modern Turkish town of Bergama, with about 30,000 inhabitants
Thyatira – no trace of the ancient city
1. Modern town there
called Axar, about 25,000 people
Sardis – few ruins excavated, the city deeply buried
citadel largely eroded away
outside the site is wretched Turkish village called Sart
– no trace of the ancient city; only small town there
Laodicea – ancient city is buried; few ruins of a later date are exposed
Ancient people and cities have disappeared
Christianity has disappeared – country is solidly Muslim, Turkish
III. The Christian churches
conversion of Constantine, ekklesiabecame kuriakos
pagan temples, idols, icons
Divisions, fierce and endless debate
they became the state church, the church turned inward
preferment, simony(Matthew 13:31-33)
aside from mission of preaching, evangelism – became cold, lifeless, formal,
Shallow allegiance to Christianity – it changed when politically expedient
IV. The crucial confrontation
himself as the greatest of prophets because God had given him the sword by
which to destroy idolatry and unbelieving infidels
Founding of Ottoman dynasty
Against idolatry – no difference to the Muslim between the church idols and the
pagan temple idols
Churches so filled with corruption, unable to withstand and were mowed down
before the avenging sword of the Mohammedan
V. Meaning for today
When Turks came, they were already Muslim
Sociologists say Texas will one day be majority Mexican
Who is winning them now?
Pattern of death – turning away from mission of evangelism
Our great confrontation – Islam, Communism, secularism, materialism, hedonism
Valley mission, bible schools here Friday night – hundreds came forward during