THE REVELATION OF CHRIST to the apostle John on the Island of Patmos contains much symbolism. It presents valuable explanations and instructions regarding the last days, which began the moment Christ was crucified. The Doctrine of Last Things, also called eschatology (from the Gr., eschata), is the “last chapter” in God’s story of redemption. In Hebrew, the word means “the end of the present order.” F.F. Bruce and J.J. Scott write, “[It] relates both to human individuals (comprising death, resurrection, judgment, and the afterlife) and the world” (1). Therefore, eschatology denotes the consummation of God’s purpose. C.H. Dodd formulated a “realized eschatology,” according to which God’s kingdom was incarnated in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (2). Accordingly, Last Things cannot be the absolute end of time, for we all live on in spirit. Time continues “after” life. Jesus said to John, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon'” (Rev. 22:20a).
Some see the Revelation as a biblical “crystal ball” for analyzing current events. I do not mean to imply that the “last events” described in The Revelation do not correlate with present and future events, but if we only see the Book of Revelation through such a lens, we will miss nearly all of its intended message. Jesus provides guidance for victory through Jesus Christ in spite of trials and tribulations; persecution and distraction; deception and confusion. Jesus purposefully begins with remarks concerning “the seven churches.” John MacArthur says, “[The] Revelation shares several significant divine truths. It warns the church of the danger of sin and instructs it about the need for holiness” (3). Accordingly, Jesus begins The Revelation by addressing the seven churches of Asia Minor, located in what is now Turkey.
The Term “Christianity”
The term Christian was first used in Antioch. Many of the believers scattered after Stephen was judged to be a heretic and stoned to death outside the walls of Jerusalem. Some traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the speaking the word to no one except Jews. But some who came to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the gospel of Jesus (see Acts 11:19-20). They were referred to as “Christians,” or in “the Way” of Christ (11:26). The word Christian in contemporary use can mean someone who is not Jewish; anyone who lives in a “Christian” home and goes to a Christian church; anyone who claims allegiance to Christ. Following the lead of one of my mentors, I no longer identify myself as “Christian” in conversation. Instead, I say I am a follower of Christ in the hopes of being specific about the orientation of my heart toward Jesus.
Christianity spread rapidly throughout Asia Minor, thanks to the monumental evangelism of Paul and his disciples. In The Revelation, Jesus instructed John to write letters to the seven churches. They had become complacent, obstinate, “lukewarm.” Their love for Jesus fluctuated in varying ways, causing their faith to weaken. MacArthur writes, “The meaning of the word Christian has been reduced to practically nothing… the word Christian as a symbol has been made to mean so little, it has come to mean everything and nothing” (4). Today, many people identify themselves as Christians without being true followers of Christ.
Under the old covenant, the lamp in the temple was tended by Aaron and his sons, who were charged with making sure that it never went out. It was to give forth light day and night (see Exo. 27:20-21), a symbol of Jesus Christ as the one source of light. Jesus describes His church as “…the light of the world.” The prophets of the Old Testament taught that the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, shining brighter and brighter until full day (see Prov. 4:18). John the baptist called Jesus, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). He told the disciples to attain and believe in the light; that they were to become sons of light (John 12:36). In the same way that the seven churches were to be like a light shining in a spiritually dark world, we too must shine forth in these last times, pointing to the gospel.
The Seven Churches
The Church at Ephesus has a rich heritage. It was the most prominent of the seven churches—first on the postal route, and the sponsoring church that founded the other six (see Acts 19:10). Paul began building the Church at Ephesus during his third missionary trip there (see Acts 20:31). He taught its elders the very core of Christian doctrine. According to the testimony of the early church leaders, the apostle John spent the last decades of his life there, where he wrote his three epistles. MacArthur believes John was leading the Church at Ephesus when he was arrested and exiled to Patmos (5). There had been a remarkable number of conversions at Ephesus. This greatly impacted the economy of the city’s craftsmen. Ephesus was the center of worship for the goddess Artemis, and a key industry there was creating and selling statues and talismans depicting her likeness. No doubt the polytheists and non-believers put a lot of pressure on local Christians hoping to lessen their impact on the economy.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:1-4).
The believers at Ephesus showed great vigilance and endurance, especially regarding the doctrines, but their compliance had become a mere “work” rather than an act of love toward Christ. God prefers obedience over sacrifice, but He expects our obedience to be from the heart. Jesus says to the church, “You don’t love me like you used to. Why not?” It is easier to begin a relationship with Christ than to maintain it. MacArthur writes, “While love for the Lord Jesus Christ will always be present in true Christians, it can fluctuate in its intensity” (6). Jesus plainly expresses the seriousness of letting our love for Him wane. He said, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5). First, they needed to remember what their early walk in the Lord was like. Forgetfulness and complacency was a huge factor in their spiritual anguish. Second, they needed to repent of their stagnation. Lastly, they needed to recapture their rich love for Christ and once again be a vital light for Christ in the world.
If Jesus were to send a letter to your church today, what things might He commend and what might He rebuke? As we read through the remarks of Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor, we begin to see the importance of “drawing near” to Christ. Each of the seven churches had fallen away for reasons specific to their time and place. The same holds true for us today. Five of the churches were rebuked for tolerating sin in the community of believers. Ephesus was guilty of a waning of their love for Christ. Laodicea, as we will see later in this series, was guilty of total apostasy. While examining each of these seven churches, I ask that you consider whether your church falls into any of these failings. We will look at the churches at Smyrna and Pergamum in the next lesson.
Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
(1) F.F. Bruce and J.J. Scott, Jr., “Last Things” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed., Daniel J. Treier, editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 477.
(2) Ibid., 479.
(3) John MacArthur, Because the Time is Near (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), 18.
(4) Ibid., 45.
(5) Ibid., 47.
(6) Ibid., 45.