Summary: Published February 2023; What all students of God’s word should learn is that everything we find in Scripture has a meaning and purpose. That includes the peculiarities we find in prophecy. Often there are technical patterns embedded in prophetic passages. This article discusses one we find in the Lord’s judgments of the seven churches in the Revelation.
The book of Revelation is declared by the Holy Spirit to be a prophecy (Rev. 1:1-3). We find it is full of prophetic symbols and types: multi-headed beasts with horns, a harlot with an abomination label, a woman clothed with the sun and a twelve-star crown, etc. It should not be a surprise to learn that the seven Asiatic churches mentioned in the first chapter of the book are themselves prophetic symbols. That means they have a prophetic meaning beyond their first-century existence as local churches in what is today western Turkey. And if they are prophetic symbols, it would indicate that the Lord’s messages to them in chapter two and three are also prophetic. The judgments He makes of their distinct character and condition have a prophetic meaning that must reach beyond the simple understanding of their first-century existence. If we throw into the mix the well-known prophetic use of the number seven, along with how these septenaries are often divided, we realize the true prophetic meaning the Spirit is convening is more complicated than what may be gathered by a cursory survey of surface details.
Let us be direct about the prophetic meanings. The number seven often refers to the perfection or completeness of the whole of whatever prophetic object or topic under consideration, to which it serves as a qualifier. Each of the seven churches represents Christendom in different epochs, as it passed through the time of the Christian dispensation. All seven epochs added together give us the complete whole of the dispensation. The order of the churches is the order of the epochs: Ephesus, then Smyrna, then Pergamos, and finally Thyatira (Roman Catholicism) in the 6th century. It would be some 1000 years later, and after the Reformation (1517), that Sardis, representing the state churches of Protestantism, would emerge from Thyatira. This was the beginning of the Protestant arm of Christendom. In the mid-1800s, Philadelphia surfaces from Sardis as the Brethren movement. This revival character would soon be watered down to the nauseous lukewarmness of Laodicea. These last three also were a progression in their time but did not eliminate the previous state from which they emerged. The prophetic picture of Christendom is now complete. These last four states – Roman Catholic, formal Protestantism, faithful and fervent brethren, the self-sufficient and self-occupied evangelical Protestantism – go on to the end of the Christian dispensation.
Each message of Christ to these churches has components whose order gives it a certain external construction. In every message we find three things that are noteworthy.
- the titles descriptive of Christ
- the call to those who have ears to hear
- the promises made to the overcomer.
The titles begin each message; although the titles change depending on the particular church being addressed, this positioning stays constant throughout. It is the last two above that provide us with a noticeable pattern.
- In the messages to the first three churches the “call to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches” precedes the “promises made to the overcomer.”
- In the last four churches this order in the messages is reversed. Now the “promises to the overcomer” precede the “call to hear…”
This peculiarity in the external structure of the messages divides the group of seven into an obvious three and four. But what is the reason for this change? – everything in Scripture has a reason. If we read the previous article we may recognize that the first three church states no longer exist and that only the last four states are contemporary and continue to the end (here is the link to the previous article: https://www.reintgenchristianbooks.com/prophetic-paterns-divided/).
But there is likely more to the details of the change made by the Holy Spirit than this. We must dig deeper. We should consider the specific group Jesus is speaking to when the phrases have their positions switched. Is He speaking to the whole corporate body of Christendom or to a faithful believing remnant?
- In the time periods the first three messages represent, God is still recognizing the corporate body of Christendom, encouraging it to repent and return to the original place it occupied at Pentecost – “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works…” (Rev. 2:5) With the first three churches God is speaking to the corporate body for the entire message – that is why the promises to the overcomer come at the end. God is still holding out the possibility that the whole of Christendom may repent and return to Him.
- In the times represented by the last four messages God is no longer holding out hope that Christendom will repent – this possibility no longer exists. In Thyatira He says, “And I gave her time to repent…and she did not repent.” (Rev. 2:21) Instead of looking back to Pentecost and any possibility of returning to Christendom’s original position, each of the final four churches is told to look forward to the coming of Christ. Therefore, the switch in the structure takes place in Thyatira and continues the same in the last three. From the time of the development of Roman Catholicism in the 6th century, the dispensation moved forward completely dependent on the longsuffering of God.
- God separates and keeps a faithful remnant in both Thyatira and Sardis (Rev. 2:24, 3:4). The entire body of Philadelphia is faithful and a separated remnant. Jesus is completely outside of Laodicea, knocking on its door to see if any individual within might hear His voice (Rev. 3:20). These remnants are only seen in the last four messages. It seems the promises to the overcomers in the last four are directed only to them; this is the reason it was switched to the end of the messages.
It is a notable change that takes place in the message to Thyatira – the call to hear begins to follow the promise. The reason is that a faithful believing remnant is formed and formally acknowledged by God (Rev. 2:24). The remnant is not viewed by God any longer as part of the public body. From this point forward the Lord puts the promise first, apparently because there is no use any longer to expect the church as a whole to receive it. By the 6th century and the full development of Thyatira, God has set Christendom aside, no longer recognizing it except to judge and condemn it. Now, the address to the overcomer is directed to the remnant. In the times of the first three churches the Lord is still dealing with the general conscience of the corporate body. This is given up, starting with Thyatira. The Lord only sees the remnant as overcomers. And that remains true with the three Protestant churches which follow her. Therefore, the changed pattern remains the same for the last four churches.
Finally, we’ll show a peculiarity in the descriptions of Christ which begin each of the seven messages. In the first three we only have descriptions that are repeated from the vision of Christ in chapter one. There Christ was seen in the midst of the lighted lampstands (Rev. 1:13-20). We generally refer to these descriptors as His ecclesiastical characters – how He was seen while He still acknowledged the body of Christendom ecclesiastically. Yet when we get to Thyatira, for the first time we see something new – “These things says the Son of God…” (Rev. 2:18). This wasn’t part of the first chapter descriptions of Jesus. The last four all have at least one new descriptor, the last two being entirely unique. All this emphasizes the three and four division of the septenary and the general ruin of Christendom with the development of Romanism in the 6th century.