In Search of Hearing Ears
No portion of the Word of God speaks to contemporary churches with more clarity than the messages Jesus Christ gave to the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3. Comfort, advice, exhortation, warning and threatening ring with an air of urgency that should awaken those of us who labor in local assemblies in this day of rampaging godlessness and apostasy.
Although The Revelation is predominantly a prophetic treatise, it comes to us with an intense message to assist churches in their understanding of what God is doing and how we are to respond to the challenges of the last days. Seven local congregations were selected from among those dotting the region of the ancient world referred to as Asia Minor (modern Turkey). These churches set forth distinctives that were representative of the situations confronting the early church. But beyond this, each, in its own way, touches the problems that would endure until Christ returns to call His people home.
Dr. John Walvoord in his excellent The Bible Prophecy Handbook (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990) summarizes:
Taken as a whole, the messages to the seven churches represent the major spiritual problems of the church down through the ages. Ephesus represented the danger of forsaking the love that characterized believers when they first trusted Christ (2:4). Smyrna illustrated the danger of fear though otherwise they were faithful to God (v. 10). The church at Pergamum is a reminder of the constant danger of doctrinal compromise (vv. 14–15). The church at Thyatira illustrated moral compromise (v. 20). The church at Sardis illustrated the danger of spiritual deadness (3:1–2). The church at Philadelphia, though faithful, was warned against not holding fast to the things that they believed (v. 11). Laodicea illustrated the danger of lukewarmness (vv. 15–16), of outer religion without inner zeal and reality.
The application of these warnings was twofold. First, the Lord was addressing the churches through “the angels of the seven churches” (1:20). This designation could refer to angelic beings assigned as guardians for each church. Most likely, however, the word angel is better understood as the messenger or human leader of each local church. Second, it is a word to individual believers. Common to the message to each church is the admonition, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” God had His own in each of these assemblies, and, regardless of the spiritual condition of the church, His Word was delivered to the faithful few individuals who were listening with their whole hearts.
There are common threads running through these messages that should at once alert us to the most devastating pitfalls facing the churches of any generation.
Doctrinal Deviation (2:14)
Progressive infiltration of error was being experienced in some of the churches. Falling prey to “the deeds of the Nicolaitans” (2:6) would eventuate in their embracing “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans” (2:15). Those who follow the ancient error of allowing strong doctrinal emphasis to give way to experience-driven standards of worship and practice are programming themselves and their congregations ultimately to be caught in the same trap.
As you will read in the following articles, these early believers lived in the midst of a morally debauched culture. Sexual mores of the pagan peoples around them were a constant threat to the purity of the churches. When adherence to sound doctrine began to slip, the magnitude of sexual sins was minimized or disregarded completely. When this occurred, it was the beginning of the end for the church.
Needless to say, we are in grave danger of becoming involved in the same process today. Western culture has become insanely immoral. A prime illustration of this madness was witnessed in the recent national adulation reaped by an American athlete who contracted the AIDS virus through a lifestyle characterized by indiscriminate fornication. As a result, he was hailed as a national hero and held up as a role model for the need to practice “safe sex.” Vice President Quayle’s call to use his experience as a case for abstinence was hooted off the scene as naive and out of step with reality. The problem is that this young man, and hundreds more like him, are also role models for young people and adults in our churches.
Practicing Idolatry (2:20)
Displaced doctrine is inevitably replaced by idolatrous worship. Man’s inherent need to worship will be expressed—if not properly, toward God, then improperly in idolatrous exhibitions. This can be formalized, as was true in the ancient world, or individualized, as people craft their own brand of idolatry, which turns their heads from Him to earth-oriented objects.
Removing the Candlestick
The devastating consequence of succumbing to these satanic devices was the removal of the “candlestick” (lampstand) from its place. These lampstands (churches) were seven bright lights of divine testimony shining forth in a pagan world. The message to each church and the lifestyle of the members were to beckon spiritually benighted people to come to the light and find a new life in Him. When the church, however, began reflecting institutionalized paganism rather than the light of God and His Word, the candlestick was removed, and the light shone from another location.
Compounding the tragedy was the fact that when this occurred, people didn’t seem to notice, and, while forms and ritual exercises continued, they were devoid of the power and blessing of Christ.
Sad to say, this phenomenon is running rampant at this hour. Many who are wondering why there seems to be so little true spiritual interest or blessing of the Spirit in their churches will find the answer here. They have lost their testimony and, in the process, haven’t even noticed. They go on serving the sanctuary and the system, but true service for Christ has been derailed. Fervid attempts to create a spiritual dynamic through excessive innovation will not cause the lampstand to glow once more. The lesson of the seven churches is repentance—“repent … or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy lampstand out of its place” (2:5).