The Seven Flickering Flames Of Asia
We could probably have been sitting with some of the disciples in any one of the assemblies of the houses throughout the region of Ephesus. Or possibly, we may have been among the Christians in Smyrna or Sardis. At least in the Lord’s message to the disciples in these cities, there is a message for each one of us. The message to the seven churches of Asia cuts to the heart of all our presumptuous religiosity we might harbor. It does this in order that we repent and restore Jesus to our daily living. One of the primary lessons that we learn from a study of the seven messages to the Christians in the cities is what Jesus expects of Christians who claim to be His disciples.
Date: The visions of Revelation probably occurred just before A.D. 70. This would make their revelation less than forty years after the joyous day of Pentecost in A.D. 30. Some would say that the visions were recorded the latter part of the first century. But we would disagree with this long held assumption. We would believe against all tradition in order to affirm that all the New Testament letters were written before the consummation of national Israel in A.D. 70. It is traditionally assumed that the letter of Revelation was written around A.D. 96. But this late date does not seem to harmonize with God’s work to terminate national Israel in A.D. 70. And then, we would also question why the Holy Spirit would wait so long to cap the New Testament at the end of the first century. We will argue for the conclusion that all revelation through Scripture, plus the work of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, were finalized by the time God used the Roman Empire to turn the final page of His work through national Israel to bring the Redeemer into the world. A.D. 70 was, according to Daniel, the consummation of national Israel.
What is significant about the early date for the addresses to the seven churches is that apostasy can come very quickly. Only one decade is enough time to slide into apostasy from Christ and into the situation that we witness among some of the disciples of western Asia Minor. If Revelation were written at the conclusion of the first century, then we could add another twenty or so years to the spiritual condition of the disciples that Jesus addresses in Revelation 2 & 3. However, such a short time is hardly worth discussion in reference to apostasy that can occur in one generation. What is important to remember is that from the beginning of a beautiful story in Acts 19, to the proclamation of the judgments in Revelation concerning the spiritual fall of some among the seven churches of Asia, we have a frightening short period of time. It is so short, that within the lifetime of the average disciple, the aged can look back in their lives and see if they have fallen.
It does not take generations to go into apostasy. One generation will do. And in the case of the seven churches of Asia, it seems that only one generation was sufficient to move so far away from Jesus that special visions had to come directly from Jesus to John, and then to the seven churches, in order to sort out some problems. At least, the visions were meant to inform the recipients of the message that they were in serious trouble of having their lampstand of influence extracted from the cities in which the disciples were located.
Roman Theocracy: As students of the political history, we must not forget that religion and government were often combined in ancient nations. Theocratic leaders ruled the people by demanding allegiance to the king or Caesar as they would give allegiance to their gods. Rome capitalized on this as narcissistic Caesars began to arise in the Empire. Nero was one of the first, demanding that people believe that he was some deity. The people were to call him “lord,” not as a manner of respect, but as one who would be reverenced as a god.
The sentiment that was to be expressed to the Caesar, was not simply patriotism to a head of state, but worship of a god on earth. If allegiance to Caesar as lord was not expressed, then the denial of such was viewed as insurrection against the state. And so, Christians who believed that there was only one Lord, were in trouble.
With the beginning in Nero, there were about 150 years of different levels of Caesarian claim to deity that prevailed throughout the Roman Empire. During this period, Christians suffered the persecution of a theocratic state that demanded both political and religious loyalty. Christians were headed into this era of persecution at the time Jesus gave His messages to the seven churches. Therefore, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, through the messages and visions of Revelation, prepared Christians for the trials that were coming, which trials had already begun under Nero.
As we study through the historical background of the seven churches, one can see in the community of the churches, that there was a great deal of intimidation by the community. This religious intimidation to conform to the religious ways of the community would grow. The book of Revelation was written by John for the purpose of giving encouragement to these Christians of the tribulations that would shortly come to pass.
Leaders: If the visions of this book occurred before A.D. 70, then Paul’s Miletus meeting in Acts 20 posses the opportunity for some speculation to better understand the timeline from his meeting in Acts to Jesus’ messages to the seven churches in Revelation.
We begin with Paul in Troas where he arrived in the company of Sopater, Arisarchus and Secundus (At 20:4). It is significant to notice that with them was also Gaius who was from Derbe and Timothy from the Derbe/Lystra area of Cilicia. But what is more interesting is that Tychicus and Trophimus are mentioned as being from Asia, possibly the region of the seven churches. The date of the Troas meeting was around A.D. 59, only a few short years before Jesus’ revelation of the spiritual condition of the seven churches of Asia as it is explained in His address to the churches in the area.
From Troas, Paul and his companions headed south. He sent his companions on the Assos, where he determined to be reunited with them after he himself had walked alone the distance from Troas to Assos (At 20:15). From Assos the team sailed together to Mitylene, and then the next day on to Chios. The next day they arrived at Samos, and then went on to the small town of Miletus (At 20:15).
In Acts 20:16 the travel log of Luke becomes interesting. Luke records that Paul “did not want to spend time in Asia” (At 20:16). Luke does not say that Paul did not want to spend time in Ephesus. When Paul stayed two years in Ephesus on a previous journey, “all Asia” from Ephesus heard the word (At 10:9,10). Therefore, we would assume that “all Asia” at least refers to the area of the cities of the seven churches of Revelation, for all the cities were but a short distance from Ephesus. And speaking from our own personal experience, if it was known that Paul was coming, the disciples of “all Asia” would want to come and listen to him, for he was the “walking Bible.” Surely the word had gotten out that Paul was coming. When those who are hungering for the word of God hear that a teacher is coming through, you can assume the response. We have conducted seminars where brethren have walked up to five days, day and night, in order to attend.
Now consider the geographical location of the seven churches from Miletus, “for from Miletus he [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the presbyters of the church” (At 20:17). Must we assume that these were only the presbyters of the city of Ephesus, or can we assume that the presbyters from the rest of the cities in the region had first assembled in Ephesus in anticipation of Paul’s arrival? Luke states “Now when they [the presbyters] came to him …” (At 20:18), the meeting began. Now consider this. (This is something that may be difficult for us as automobile-bound brethren to understand.) The average person in the “non-automobile world” walked 25-30 kilometers a day. This means that Ephesus was about a day’s walk from Miletus. Smyrna was about a two-day walk. Pergamum about three days, or the leaders could have come from this port city by ship. Thyatira was about a four-day walk or about two days by ship. The furthermost cities of Philadelphia, Laodicea and Colosse were no more than a three-day walk from Miletus. There were other minor towns in the area, including Magnesia, Cibyra and Apamea that were only a short distance from Miletus.
Since Paul did not want to become involved in having to say “no” to countless requests to come to their city, he asked that the meeting (seminar) be held in Miletus. If advance word had been sent ahead, then we would assume that all the presbyters gathered to the homes of the brethren in Ephesus, and then waited for word of Paul’s arrival.
After all the presbyters who had assembled in Ephesus eventually arrived in Miletus, Paul introduced his message to them by reminding them, “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia …” (At 20:18). And from that first day he spent three years with the church of Asia (At 20:31). Could it be that we have wrongly assumed that only the presbyters of the city of Ephesus were in this meeting? Was this an exclusive meeting where everyone else of the other nearby cities of Asia were excluded? Such seems highly unlikely. If the word got out to the other churches of Asia that Paul was coming by, we find it hard to believe that all who heard did not set out immediately for Ephesus. In fact, it would seem that Paul would have been quite snobbish if he had not let the presbyters of the other cities know that he was coming through.
Since Paul wanted to speak to the leaders of the church in the region of Asia, we would assume that the presbyters of the region initially gathered in Ephesus, and then waited for the messenger to come and tell them where the meeting was going to be.
We make this assumption based on the fact of the reality of the events that transpired. But also, we make our assumption in view of what Paul said in his message, specifically the statements in Acts 20:29,30. Since the meeting took place around A.D. 59, and the visions of Revelation took place less than ten years later, the “grievous wolves” had already started to enter in among the seven churches of Asia. The Nicolaitans and Balaamites, and followers of Jezebel, were already arising among the disciples. They were drawing away disciples after themselves. And the sad thing about the warning was that Paul said that “from your own selves will men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (At 20:30). This was what was actually happening among some of the seven churches even as Paul spoke. And it is for this reason that we believe that Paul wanted a last word with all of them before going on to Jerusalem for his last visit.
It may have been that the reason Jesus had to make the judgmental addresses to the seven churches was because the leaders of some of the churches had gone after the perverse teachings of the Nicolaitans, Balaamites and Jezebel. It is a sad day in the history of the church when the leadership of the church forgets the commandments of the Lord, and then seeks to control religious groups to follow them and not the Lord. Every self-proclaimed prophet should sit up and take notice of these warnings of Jesus. If one claims “this is my church,” then he is a leader of an apostasy, and subsequently, will reap the condemnation that Jesus gives in His messages to the seven churches.
Ekklesia: Now in moving into the visions of judgment, there is at least one paramount historical fact that must be understood about the disciples in these seven city regions. When the statement is made, “To the angel of the church of …”, we must not make the unfortunate mistake of thinking that there was only one assembly of the disciples in any particular city on 1st Street and Main. Because the word “church” (ekklesia) is used in the singular does not mean that there was only one assembly of the saints in each of the seven cities. If there were only one assembly in each of the seven cities, then we would have to conclude that in the years of the existence of the church in these cities, there was only minimal growth of the church. This would certainly be contrary to the nature of the early growth of the church in other areas. So we will not involve ourselves in such thinking, assuming that in the seven cities, as in all cities where the early church was located, the saints were meeting in the homes of the disciples throughout the region of the cities. This conclusion would be necessary because of the example of the growth of the church in Ephesus (At 19). There were simply no purpose-built church buildings in the early centuries of the existence of the church.
We must also keep in mind that there were no “city limits” of the first century cities. “City limits” is a modern-day border of demarcation in reference to the governance and public services of a city. Our understanding of the word “city” in the New Testament would best be interpreted to mean “city region.” There were, therefore, disciples living in all the regions around Ephesus, or Corinth, or Philadelphia. And in reference to the meeting of the saints in the homes of the disciples, then there were house assemblies throughout each of the seven city regions.
When the word ekklesia (church) is used, therefore, reference is to the people of the city region, not to the assemblies on Sunday. Once we identify the church as the people, and not as the assembly of the people, then we are on our way to understanding correctly the organic function of the body of Christ throughout the first century world. This is especially true when we seek to understand the address of Jesus to the church (people) in each of the seven city regions. The problems that Jesus addressed were with the people, not with the assemblies. And because the people (the church) were scattered throughout a particular city region, then the address was to “the church (disciples) of ….” The exhortations of Revelation 2 & 3 were to people, not the assemblies of the people.
The fact that the disciples were scattered throughout these seven city regions helps us to understand better the messenger’s use of the world ekklesia (“church”) in reference to God’s people. Most important of all, we understand that the use of the word in this context is in reference to people, not assemblies. Therefore, the corporate assemblies of God’s people do not identify the existence of God’s people in any geographical region.
Add to this the content of the messages. Jesus was not seeking to correct some dysfunctions in the assemblies of the saints. In fact, nothing is said about assemblies in any of the seven messages. All the exhortations of the messages focused on beliefs and behavior. And the fact that the exhortations were addressed to the collective of the disciples in each city region, affirms that no group of disciples within any of the city regions had a right to separate themselves from the rest of the disciples in that region. There were no autonomous assemblies of the disciples within any of the seven city regions. There were several assemblies of disciples who were meeting in numerous houses throughout the cities, but no one assembly in any house declared their independence from any other assembly of disciples in reference to the church (singular) of a particular city. There were no autonomous groups of disciples within any city who declared their autonomy from any other group.
The fact that Jesus did not address any divisive behavior among the disciples in any city, assumes that the practice of autonomous assemblies had not yet developed among the disciples at this time in the history of the church. The church was still functioning as one universal body.
Here is something for which to watch in these messages to all the Christians in any one particular city. In Pergamum, for example, there were “those who hold the teaching of Balaam” and “the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (Rv 2:14,15). Does this mean that if there was only one autonomous assembly within Pergamum, then the call for repentance on the part of “those” who taught these teachings was directed only to those of one assembly? Because the members were meeting in several houses throughout the cities, did this mean that the shepherds, regardless of where they sat on Sunday, had the responsibility to deal with the teaching of the Balaamites and Nicolaitans wherever they sat on Sunday morning? According to the responsibilities of the shepherds of the cities (At 20:28), we would certainly believe that they did not neglect their responsibility to teach the word of God to everyone in each of the seven cities. Any member or shepherd within a city had the responsibility to correct the teaching of the Balaamites and Nicolaitans. If one sat on Sunday morning in an assembly where there were no Balaamites or Nicolaitans, then this did not relieve him of the responsibility of exhorting with the word of God these false teachers, wherever they were in the city. Now when we consider this historical setting, we should review our beliefs concerning assembly autonomy. Those who seek to start and maintain their own independent and exclusive assembly should think on these things. We need to remember that whenever one is baptized into Christ, God adds that person to His people. Where this baptized believer shows up on Sunday morning does not determine whether God has added him to His people (At 2:47).
Seven Cities: No one has any idea as to why Jesus personally addressed the Christians only in these seven particular cities. Some have supposed that this was a regular “mail route” of the early Roman Empire. However, it could have been that Jesus simply picked out seven representative cities of disciples that represented the falling away from the truth that was indicative of many other churches in the first century, or at least would occur throughout the centuries to come. It seems that the address of Revelation 2 & 3 is the follow up of Paul’s prophecy to the elders of Asia, that “from your own selves will men arise, speaking perverse things …” (At 20:30). If this assumption is true, then we would determine our definition of the “perverse things” by at least studying through the messages to the seven city regions. When we study the “perverse things” of these disciples, we may find ourselves either condoning “perverse things” or behaving perversely. This will especially be evident when we come to the sin of lukewarmness that is specifically targeted in the message to the disciples in Laodicea.
Teaching: Many good teachers have taught on the moral and doctrinal character of the seven churches of Asia. Within Jesus’ messages to these churches one will often find himself somewhere in one of the messages. We must not think, therefore, that the moral and doctrinal points of these messages that were revealed to the seven churches over two thousand years ago are not relevant for us today. These messages are significant for all disciples for all time, for we must believe that the Holy Spirit included this material in the New Testament in order to both discourage apostasy, but at the same time encourage the faithful with a promise of eternal life. Since the messages were directed to those who had been Christians for some time, it was difficult to call to repentance those who have lived in a religious culture of sin for so long. This is the reason why the lampstand would inevitably be removed from some of these areas. Too many had lived for too long after the behavior of what was too far from true discipleship.
Of course, there are those who simply ignore the warnings, hoping for the “closing prayer” so that they can write off the relevance of the messages. Regardless of our lack of appreciation for these messages, we will assure you of one thing as we study through the sins of the seven flickering flames. We will often find ourselves somewhere among these disciples. And when we find ourselves facing direct judgment from Jesus, we will have to make a decision as to whether we will be His disciple, or run out the back door of the church house.
Call for repentance: But there is hope. Advance calls for repentance gave the disciples in the seven cities an opportunity to repent. If repentance came, then preservation of the influence of the body of Christ within the city regions would continue. The general pattern that Jesus followed in making His call for repentance began with a personal address that included a metaphorical description of who He was in reference to His universal body. This was followed by an initial commendation, and then, condemnation and judgment if they continued in their wayward ways. In order to generate repentance, exhortations were made that were followed by warnings. As a last admonition to repent, Jesus made promises what they would enjoy if they repented.
Throughout each message, there is hope of preservation. But if there were no repentance, then the influence of Christ in the city regions would be terminated. However, though their Christianity would have digressed to formal religiosity, there would be no positive influence for Christ to the unbelievers. And when this happens, the church ceases to exist, regardless of assemblies. Since a loving life-style identifies the existence of the church in any region (Jn 13:34,35), then when loving behavior for Jesus ceases, then the church of Christ has terminated in a particular region.
We must keep this very important point in mind as we study through the messages. Jesus is not talking about repenting and restoring some ritualistic assembly. He is talking about repenting of sin that destroys one’s witness that he is a disciple of Jesus. The sins (“perverse things”) that were happening among the seven areas of disciples was not some erroneous system or ritual of assembly, but error in reference to moral behavior and beliefs. If some of the disciples among the cities did not repent of these things, then their influence for Jesus would be snuffed out. The flickering flame would be gone.
[Schedule for next lecture: March 12]