The state of the Church

Revelation 2-3. Jesus’s assessment of how well each of the churches is following him. An outline of Church history up to the present day.


‘Church’, ekklesia, means assembly or congregation, from ekkalein, to call out. In the Christian context the assembly is the people called out of spiritual Egypt and Babylon into the fellowship of the Son. Mostly, in the first century, they met in each other’s homes (Hughes 2019), and usually over a meal. There were no denominations, though there might be factions. The church in a city simply consisted of the inhabitants who were Christians, one with ‘all who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus’ (I Cor 1:2, Acts 9:21). Seven are singled out as representing the Church in its entirety.

One approach to understanding the letters – first proposed by some Franciscans in the 13th century – is to read each community as encapsulating a particular age: the churches are successive just as the seals, trumpets and bowls of wrath within their sevens are successive. Naturally such an interpretation, if valid, will not become fully apparent until all the ages have come to pass. While recognising that the letters also had a contemporary relevance, the present author shares this perspective. In the scheme tentatively proposed here the community at Ephesus represents the immediately post-apostolic Church (AD 70-140), Smyrna the Church up to the time of Constantine (140-320), Pergamon the Church that lived through the fall of imperial Rome (320-530), Thyatira the medieval Church (530-1530), Sardis the Church of the Reformation era (1530-1740), Philadelphia the Church that experienced a revival of spiritual life and doctrine (1740-1920) and Laodicea the Church of the present day.

The messages are performance appraisals, reminding us that Christ is jealous over the faithfulness of the bride he will marry, and he knows her inside out. Revelation is about to close the biblical canon, but he still has particular things to say to individual churches. Judgement begins with the house of God (I Pet 4:17), the letters exemplifying what we may expect at his judgement seat. Five of the seven churches are found wanting. The message to them is the same as to the world: repent. Indeed, only they are explicitly told to repent. An eternal reward is promised for those who endure, do his work, and keep themselves pure.

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘Thus says the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands.
“ ‘I know your works, and your toil, and your endurance, and how you cannot suffer bad people, and have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and have found them to be false. You have endurance, and you have suffered for my name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you have abandoned the love that you had first. Remember therefore from whence you have fallen and repent, and do as you did first. If not, I will come to you soon and remove your lampstand from its place. Unless you repent. But this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
“ ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’

Aggelos, ‘angel’, literally means ‘messenger’, just as aggelia means ‘message’ and euaggelion the ‘good message’ or ‘gospel’ (-gg– pronounced ‘-ng-’). Thus John the Baptist was the aggelos who prepared the way before the Lord (Mark 1:2), and the Lord himself was the aggelos of the covenant (Mal 3:1 LXX). ‘You’ is singular, but since the angels are symbolised as stars, distinct from the lampstands, angel and church are not the same. The angels are God’s unseen messengers and overseers, tasked with ensuring that what is written reaches the heart. Each church has a common life; it is not a group of mere individuals. The Lord who is the Spirit speaks first to the community, then closes with an exhortation to each member. Each person is to listen to what he says to all the churches, not just his own, and understand its relevance to himself.

In the Septuagint, ‘Thus says’ typically marks the beginning of the direct speech of Yahweh; by implication, Jesus is Yahweh. He walks among the lampstands as God once did among the trees in Eden’s garden (LXX paradeisos) and as he walked in the midst of the Israelites (Deut 23:14). Nothing is hidden from him. The Ephesians are commended for their discernment, their perseverance, and their faithfulness in the face of persecution – important virtues. In his farewell speech Paul warned that fierce wolves would come and seek to distort his teaching (Acts 20:29f). Apparently they took the warning to heart and saw through these ‘false apostles’.

Nonetheless, the church is in decline, for they do not love him as once they did. ‘Love’ here is agape. While it has an emotional element, it is primarily evinced in deeds (works). ‘If anyone has the world’s wherewithal and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Children, let us not love in word, with the tongue, but in action and truth’ (I John 3:18). Jesus counsels them to remember the love they had when Paul founded the community (‘first’ in time, and putting him first). They were once excited, grateful, full of zeal; now the new life seems stale, though they continue to behave commendably. What is lacking is love of himself. That John’s own church should be criticised in this respect is rather shocking, for the apostle repeatedly stressed the primacy of the commandment to love God. Did this teaching itself now seem stale? Without such agape (praying, meditating on the word, listening for his voice, seeking his will, rejoicing in him) love of one’s neighbour does not have the same depth. If the church does not repent, Jesus will bring it to an end. If this applies to Ephesus, not the most criticised of the churches, it applies to every church found to be wanting. A congregation that cannot repent walks in darkness.

Although we know almost nothing about the Nicolaitans, the name means a follower of Nicolaos (one tradition identifies him as the Nicolas of Acts 6:5). From the letter to the church at Pergamom we learn that the sect considered it permissible to eat food sacrificed to idols and to lie with cult prostitutes.

The verb ‘conquer’, nikaω, always used in a spiritual sense when applied to believers, can also be translated ‘overcome’. It expects an object, but none is given (not until 12:11). Each must listen to the Spirit to find out what his particular adversary or adversity is. It might be the desires of the flesh, the opinion of others, love of money; it might be the burden of looking after a disabled child. Whatever the challenge, we overcome through faith in the one who went before us. ‘This is the victory (nike) that has overcome the world: our faith’ (I John 5:4). Whoever conquers will be granted the right to eat of the fruit that imparts immortality. He will enjoy fellowship with God.

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘Thus says the first and the last, who became dead and lived.
“ ‘I know your works and your tribulation and your poverty – but you are rich – and the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are going to suffer. Behold, the Devil is going to cast some of you into prison, so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.
“ ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

The city’s name means ‘myrrh’, its main export. Among other uses, the aromatic resin was used for anointing (Ex 30:22-32) and embalming (John 19:39).

Jesus says nothing against the community. It is doing good work, despite tribulation and its material poverty and opposition from Jews in the city. For a little while the persecution is going to intensify. Some will die. But if they remain faithful and do not deny their Master, they will come out with the prize of eternal life, just as victors were crowned with a laurel wreath at the games (II Tim 2:5, 4:8). They will not suffer death again on rising from the grave.

About sixty years later several of Smyrna’s Christians were martyred, famously its 86-year-old bishop, Polycarp. He had been a disciple of John’s and, as bishop, a vigorous opponent of the philosopher Marcion, who maintained that the God of the Old Testament was an altogether different deity from the loving God revealed by Jesus. In AD 155, in the space of a few days, twelve Christians were executed for refusing to call Caesar ‘Lord’. Polycarp was the last. The account of his martyrdom says that Jews were among the crowd demanding blood.

Christians were frequently persecuted in the period before Emperor Constantine. Were it not for the example of the twelve apostles, all but one of whom accepted martyrdom rather than deny the Lord, the Church at this critical stage might have been snuffed out, humanly speaking. Under Trajan (AD 98-117), Decius (249-251) Valerian (253-260), Diocletian (284-305) and Maximinus (310-313) many Christians who did not submit to paganism were executed.

One of the oldest references to Revelation comes from Irenaeus, who wrote in his book Against Heresies that the vision was received ‘almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign’. Irenaeus had been taught by Polycarp, and Polycarp by John, so the statement was on good authority. The vision cannot have been much earlier, since the church of Smyrna did not exist when Paul was active in Asia (before AD 62).

“And to the angel of the church in Pergamon write: ‘Thus says the one who has the sharp two-edged dagger.
“ ‘I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast my name. And you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed in your midst, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there holding the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat food sacrificed to idols and to fornicate. So you too have some holding the teaching of the Nicolaitans, which I likewise hate. Likewise repent, therefore. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the dagger of my mouth.
“ ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white pebble, with a new name written on the pebble that no one knows except the one who receives it.’

‘Satan’s throne’ is an allusion to the spiritual reality behind Pergamon’s Altar of Zeus and/or Athena. Zeus was the head of the Greek pantheon and the chief god of the city, and members of the community were expected to offer sacrifice to him. Today we admire the sculpture and architecture; in John’s time the altar was where citizens unknowingly worshipped Satan, the god behind all paganism. Most Christians resisted the pressure, but some were persuaded that participation in pagan rites was not incompatible with faith in Jesus.

Balak was the king of Moab at the time the Israelites entered his territory to cross into Canaan. Fearing them, he asked the Assyrian mystic Balaam to curse the Israelites, but the angel of Yahweh stood in his way with a drawn sword. God put his own words into Balaam’s mouth, and Balaam could only prophesy blessing on them. Later Balaam told Balak that he could weaken Israel a different way, by getting them to participate in sacrifices to Baal and fornicate with Moabite women (Num 25:1-5, 31:16). Some did, and in his anger God had them put to death. Jesus indicates that he looks on such practices in the same light. The issue had cropped up before, in relation to whether Gentile believers had to follow the Law of Moses. The apostles decided that they did not, except that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood products, from animals that had been strangled and from fornication (Acts 15:29). Some are now disregarding this instruction and teaching the very things the leader of the apostles had said would be ruinous (II Pet 2). The congregation needs to repent. If they do not, Jesus will ‘war’ with the offenders (as in Num 25:17, 31:1-16) with his sword (rhomphaia). Similar language near the end of the book (19:11-15) indicates that he will strike them down, not merely admonish them. On past occasions, behaviour offensive to the Holy Spirit provoked disease, blindness, even death (Acts 5:1-10, 13:8-11, I Cor 11:30).

The Church has always had to battle the temptation to adulterate ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) in the hope of winning acceptance and disarming opposition. Antipas is unattested, but evidently he died upholding the truth – a faithful witness of Jesus even as Jesus was a faithful witness of God. From Constantine onwards the temptation took on a different guise. Persecution came to an end and the Church began to occupy a privileged position in society. This was a good thing in the main. Gladiatorial games and crucifixion were abolished, Sunday became a day of rest, polytheistic worship was discouraged. In 380 the State adopted Christianity as the official religion. A State religion of some kind there had to be: it would be anachronistic to suppose that institutional polytheism could have withered and Christianity remained a network of local churches. So a professional tax-exempt class of priests was set apart to stand between the laity and God, the Bishop of Rome replaced the Emperor as the Empire’s Pontifex Maximus or Chief Priest, and the Nicene Creed determined orthodoxy. Peter’s teaching that all believers were priests, serving God and making him known, became obsolete – indeed, it was already fading in the 3rd century. Temples were converted into Christian places of worship and church buildings erected de novo, complete with altars and the idea that a priest was needed to consecrate and re-offer Christ’s body and blood. The Lord’s Supper ceased to be a communal meal. Opponents to the Nicene Creed were vilified and their writings destroyed.

In the State’s eyes, the main function of religion was to maintain the pax deorum, the goodwill of heaven on which earthly peace depended. The new religion proved of no avail. In 410 Rome was sacked by the Visigoths and again in 455 by the Vandals. The western part of the Roman Empire disintegrated. But the Church survived. Although the Visigoths and the Vandals tore up the Empire’s borders, their rulers already confessed the Christian faith and in that respect there was no change. In addition, the Church was respected for its literacy and learning, its organisational skills, its spiritual discipline. In due course it would be the Church that gave rulers their legitimacy. The eastern part of the Empire remained intact.

He who conquers is promised participation in a mystery greater than that of the cult: not food offered to idols but the bread of life, and a token granting admission into the sanctuary of the one true God. A jar within the ark of the covenant kept a quantity of the manna that sustained Israel in the wilderness (Ex 16:33). The promise of a new name extends the promise given to Jerusalem (Isa 62:2, 4). We are given a name after we are born, and again after we are reborn.

“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘Thus says the Son of God, whose eyes are like a flame of fire, and his feet like burnished bronze.
“ ‘I know your works, and your love and faith and ministry and endurance, and that your latest works exceed your first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, she who calls herself a prophetess, and she is teaching and deceiving my servants to fornicate and eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent of her fornication, and she did not repent. Behold, I will cast her onto a bed and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works. I will kill her children with pestilence. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches the inward parts and will give to you each according to your works. To you I say, the others in Thyatira who do not support this teaching, those who have not known what some call the deep things of Satan: I do not cast on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come.
“ ‘The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations. And he will shepherd them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are smashed, even as I myself have received from my Father, and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

The church at Thyatira may have taken root after Lydia was converted and spread the gospel (Acts 16:14). ‘Inward parts’ translates nephrous kai kardias, ‘kidneys and hearts,’ reflecting the belief that these were the core of a person’s moral being. “I, Yahweh, search the heart and test the kidneys, to give to each man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jer 17:10). As in every letter, Jesus mentions works first among the things he knows about the church, for they are the fruit by which he judges. In this respect the church is progressing, and overall the message is positive. He does not question its love, its faith, or its steadfastness. The only criticism concerns the issue also faced at Pergamon: the pull of the flesh.

Jezebel was a daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon (I Ki 16:32) and exemplified what happened when Israelite men married foreign women. Jezebel married Ahab, king of Israel. A sorceress and adulteress (II Ki 9:22), she induced him to build a house for Baal, supreme god of the Phoenicians, and in it place a wooden pillar symbolising the tree of life, to which Asherah, Baal’s consort, was thought to give access. Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah ate at the royal table. The cult was demonic (hence the ability to prophesy), and entailed an understanding of Yahweh as a sexual being and corresponding practices (idolatry, prostitution, child sacrifice) that were an abomination to him. The cult was so popular that all but seven thousand in Israel bowed the knee to Baal. Thus Ahab did more to provoke God’s anger than all the kings before him.

Old Testament history is repeating itself. Calling herself a prophetess, the new Jezebel claims to be a conduit for words and insights that come direct from God. The church has been warned about her promiscuity before but has failed to rebuke her, so Jesus warns that he will take action himself, as at Pergamon. Retribution will be so clear that all the churches will hear of it.

While judgement is rarely immediate, no one should think that there will not be a final reckoning. He is coming, and when he does, he will repay each person according to his works (Prov 24:12, Isa 62:11, Matt 6:1-18, 16:27, Luke 6:38, 14:11-14, I Cor 3:8–13, II Cor 9:6, Gal 6:9, Eph 6:8, I Pet 1:17). ‘Each one’s work will become manifest.’ This is a vital part of Christian doctrine. Having wiped the slate clean, he expects us to be zealous to do good and incentivises us, the flesh being weak, with promise of reward. He even treats good deeds as if they created a debt on his part. ‘So we aspire, at home or away from home, to be well-pleasing to him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive back according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil’ (II Cor 5:9f). Church leaders especially are reminded to live up to their calling (Luke 12:42-48).

The closing exhortation reiterates that the life to come is not in heaven but among the nations on earth. We will be given positions of responsibility.
He proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He therefore said, “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he came back having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, so that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has produced ten minas more.’ He said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ He said to him, ‘And you shall be over five cities.’ And another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I stored away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ He says to him, ‘Out of your own mouth I will judge you, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one with the ten minas.’ And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ For I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even that which he has will be taken away. ‘Moreover, as regards those enemies of mine who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’ ” (Luke 19:11-27)
A lot is communicated in this parable. Jesus likens his future absence to a long journey; he is not coming back ‘soon’ in the usual sense; and during this absence his douloi – his slaves, so called because he owns them, though he chooses to pay them at the end – are to look after his affairs on his behalf; they are to ‘keep his works’. The freeborn do not accept his rule. When he returns, he asks his slaves what they have done with the resources entrusted to them, and remunerates them accordingly. Evidently after the resurrection we will be able to recall our former lives. To one he gives authority over ten cities, to another five, for he will rule the nations with a rod of iron (Ps 2:9) and there will be work to do. Perhaps most startling is the confirmation that anyone who thinks that the master (kurios) does not mean what he says will be dealt with severely, just like the nations will be. It is not enough just to know who he is; one must do something with the knowledge. Therefore it must be stressed that the translation ‘servant’ for doulos is by concession; the meaning is slave, ‘bondservant’ (Mark 10:44). A believer is expected to serve his lord (kurios). The slaughter of the freeborn – here Jesus steps half outside the parable – refers to what happened in AD 70, just forty years later; the freeborn were the Jews.

The last four letters, beginning with Thyatira, vary the epilogue by putting the promise of reward before, rather than after, the injunction to hear what the Spirit is saying, and there are explicit references to the Lord’s return. The churches at Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea, although addressed successively, continue to the end. The ‘morning star’ is Venus. For half its orbit round the Sun it is an evening star, becoming brighter as it moves from behind the Sun closer towards Earth. Near its closest and brightest point it becomes invisible, rising eight days later as a morning star, just as when Jesus rose before the dawn.

If the churches at Pergamon and Thyatira. If the churches at Thyatira and Pergamon seem very similar, the difference is that the Moabites tempted Israel from without in order to weaken her; Jezebel tempted Israel from within. She used religion to strengthen spiritual and political power. In the course of the Middle Ages the Roman Church did much the same, maintaining that kings were subject to her supreme authority and that the Pope ruled as Christ’s vicar, his king-making representative. In 754 Pope Stephen II anointed Pepin king of the Franks and in return received title to the territories in northern Italy that later became the Papal states, making him a temporal as well as spiritual ruler. Kings had an interest in who occupied the papal throne. In 1305 a French king ensured the election of a French Pope who was well disposed towards his country. The Pope transferred the papal court to Poitiers, four years later to Avignon. It continued there until 1377, when Gregory XI brought it back to Rome. The following year he died and the crisis only worsened. From then until 1417 there were at least two claimants to the throne, one based in Rome, the other in Avignon. Among the spiritual abuses was the dispensing of indulgences in return for good works, such as a financial contribution to the rebuilding of the Papal Basilica. The Church, overcome by venality and lust for power, was sick.

The threatened chastisement (thanatos, death, but here pestilence, as in 6:8) alludes to the Black Death, the most catastrophic pandemic in human history. More than 60 million people died. Clergymen were hit worst because of their contact with the sick and dying. While one hesitates to attribute so indiscriminate a plague to the hand of God, its magnitude was unprecedented.

Meanwhile the Byzantine Empire – the former Roman Empire to the east – was being eaten away by the might of Islam. Following the battle of Manzikert in 1071, most of Anatolia fell to invading Turks. In the 13th century Mongols took control, followed in the 14th by the Ottoman Turks. Muslims have ruled the peninsula ever since. Byzantium itself – also called Constantinople, later Istanbul – fell to Islam in 1453. Thereafter the Eastern Orthodox Church allied itself with the Russian state. In Turkey it continued to have a substantial presence until the early 20th century, when it was all but wiped out.

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘Thus says the one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
“ ‘I know your works, that you have a name for being alive and are dead. Be vigilant, and strengthen what remains, what was about to die, for I have not found your works sufficient before my God. Remember therefore how you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not be vigilant, I will come upon you like a thief, and the hour I come upon you will take you unawares. Yet you have a few names in Sardis who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
“ ‘The one who conquers will be clothed in white garments, and truly I will not wipe his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before my father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
The church is dead. Even the part of it that might not be dead is moribund. Once more, Christ’s emphasis is on deeds. As at Ephesus, the church is counselled to look back to when it listened to his voice with eagerness. It has grown complacent. The reference to his unexpected return recalls the parable of the ten maidens (Matt 24:42f, 25:1-13).
“The kingdom of heaven will be like ten maidens who, having taken their lamps, went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were prudent and five foolish. The foolish, when they took their lamps, took with them no oil, but the prudent took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Look, the bridegroom is coming, go out to meet him!’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the prudent, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the prudent answered, ‘There will not be enough for us and for you; go instead to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ While they were going off to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterwards the other maidens also came, saying, ‘Lord, Lord! Open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Be vigilant, therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour.”
Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and the other left. Once that has happened, it will be too late to repent.

That Jesus should call God “my God” is unsettling if one supposes that he was somehow coeternal with his father, but it is characteristic of the Messiah (Ps 18, 22:10, 40:8, 45:7, 69:3, 89:26, Isa 49:4f, Mic 5:4, Rev 1:6) and is but the first-person equivalent of Paul’s own understanding (Rom 15:6, II Cor 1:3, Eph 1:3). On the cross he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The appellation expresses the intimacy of sonship. After the resurrection he told his disciples, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” The psalm has him say, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (Ps 22:22). We are children of one Father.

White garments betoken holiness. Garments clothe our nakedness because we are all stained with a knowledge of evil, and in the flesh we cannot please God (Rom 8:8). Garments are his provision, covering our sin, and figuratively speaking need to be kept clean. In the life to come the immortal body itself will clothe our naked souls (II Cor 5:1-4). The ‘book of life’ contains the names of those appointed to eternal life (Acts 13:48), but their names can be erased (Ex 32:33, Ps 69:28, Heb 6:4-6, 2 Pet 2:20f). The parable about the ten maidens itself gives a hint of that.

It is not difficult to see the Protestant churches in the indictment of being only reputedly alive. The Reformation went only so far. Its works were inadequate, and Luther, for one, struggled to understand how works, the fruit of repentance, might be inseparable from faith. Despite his emphasis on justification by faith, he believed, like his opponents, that faith sufficient for salvation was latent even in infants. Infants were to be ‘baptised’ – sprinkled on the forehead (the proper meaning of baptizω is fully immerse) – on the grounds that the rite was equivalent to circumcision, a mark of inclusion in God’s covenant. They were baptised because their parents were in his covenant, parents who had themselves been baptised as infants. The Reformed churches in the countries where they replaced the supranational Roman Church were State churches, and for a long time hostile to those who believed in adult baptism; some Anabaptists, as they were called, were even executed. Christianity was a matter of social identity rather than faith, though faith might follow. In Britain, Puritanism from the mid 16th century onwards was a response to the perception that much remained unreformed. Parliament did what it could to suppress it. Its Act of Uniformity of 1662 resulted in the ejection of around two thousand non-conformist ministers from the established Church. By the end of the 17th century Puritanism had lost its power, and in many places Christianity was dead. It was dead in most of Europe, though Pietism kept a small flame burning.

Revelation is about the coming of the kingdom of God. The Church’s own understanding of this is reflected in its relationship with the State. For most of its history theologians saw the State as God’s instrument for establishing his kingdom. The relationship went through five phases:

  Early post-apostolic Church Separate from, and sometimes persecuted by, the State
  Emperor Constantine (313) onwards Christianity becomes the imperial religion
  Donation of Pepin (756) onwards The Roman Church becomes a supranational State in its own right
  Reformation (16th century) In some countries the Church becomes a State church
  Growth of free churches Some congregations break away from State affiliation (mostly in the UK and USA, later South America and China)

Whatever the outward forms of rule, God exercises his kingship primarily in the heart of the believer. But time does not stand still. As the world turns away, the Church becomes forced to choose whether to please the world or stick to the faith once delivered and please God. It is difficult for the pastor of a State church to say, “Jesus Christ will destroy all the kingdoms of the earth.” The State claims ever more authority over its subjects, and at the end of the age, God says, “Come out of her, my people, lest you participate in her sins and her plagues become yours.” The kingdom belongs to those who respond to this call.

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘Thus says the one who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and shuts and no one opens.
“ ‘I know your works: behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one can shut. Because you have little power and have kept my word, and have not denied my name, behold, I will cause those from the synagogue of Satan who say they are Jews and are not, but lie – behold, I will make them come and worship at your feet, and know that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word of endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to try the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may take your crown.
“ ‘The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and never shall he go out of it. And I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from my God, and my own new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

‘Philadelphia’ means brotherly love, implying that believers see each other as equal and close as kin. The preamble refers to the occasion when God told the self-serving steward of the house of David that Eliakim would take over the key and assume responsibility for its administration (Isa 22:20-25, II Ki 18:18). Jesus reveals the typological significance, for now he has charge of the house of David, and he will become a throne of glory to his father’s house (I Chr 17:12, Luke 1:69). He will exercise his authority so as to open a door for effective work. Some of the Jews – followers of Satan rather than real Jews (Rom 2:28f) – have been opposing the church’s witness, but they will find the church is not weak. As with the community at Smyrna, Jesus has no word of criticism. Philadelphia, and he will exercise his power so as to open a door for effective work. Some of the Jews – followers of Satan rather than real Jews (Rom 2:28f) – have been opposing the church’s witness, but sooner or later they will have to abase themselves before them. As with the community at Smyrna, Jesus has no word of criticism. Philadelphia is the only church to hear that he has loved them.

‘Hour of trial’ recalls the words Jesus used to describe his own hour of crisis (Matt 26:41-45). The primary meaning is to test or try someone’s worth, whether by suffering or by temptation, including opportunities to avoid suffering at the cost of denying Jesus. Knowing what they have gone through, he will keep the Philadelphians from the tribulation described later in the book. But they should not rest on their laurels: the crown will only be theirs if they remain steadfast; it is possible to lose the prize.

The ‘temple of my God’ is his dwelling-place in heaven. Whoever remains faithful will be part of that habitation (Isa 56:5); he will know God intimately. The new Jerusalem, God and man together, will come down from heaven, and he will be amongst its citizens.

An open door suggests an opportunity to share the message about the kingdom with those who will listen (I Cor 16:9, Col 4:3). Here again we may discern a historical parallel. Spanish and Portuguese missionaries had been working in South America from as early as the 16th century. The Moravians in the 18th also sent missionaries far beyond Europe. Amongst those they influenced were John and Charles Wesley, who, along with George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and Howell Harris, travelled in Britain and North America far and wide to bring the gospel to millions who had never heard it, whether or not they went to church. Undeterred by violent mobs, they asked, “Do you desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from your sins?” Many repented and heeded the call to holiness, and goodness. Like the Jews in Philadelphia, clergy in the established Church opposed them; few welcomed the converts into their congregations.

Although there was some faltering around the end of the 18th century, the revival resumed in the 19th, reaching its acme in the third quarter of that century as it affected all parts of the Church and all levels and sections of society, particularly in Britain and North America (Thomas 2020). In terms of works the effect was enormous: dramatic falls in murder, gambling, prostitution and alcoholism, the founding of schools, hospitals and orphanages, statutory constraints on child labour, reform of the prison system, the abolition of slavery (chiefly of negroes). Because of the revival, political ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity included more of a Christian understanding than in Europe, and there was less inclination to attribute the success of western civilisation to race. The gospel went out into Asia and South America afresh. Huge efforts were made to translate the Bible into native languages. One of the earliest pioneers was William Carey. Noting that ‘multitudes sit at ease and give themselves no concern about the far greater part of their fellow sinners, who to this day, are lost in ignorance and idolatry’, in 1792 he founded the Baptist Missionary Society and the following year emigrated to India. There he translated the New Testament into Bengali and other languages and helped to outlaw infanticide and the immolation of widows. Other missionary societies sprang up. Men and women of extraordinary faith but little power took the gospel to far-flung lands, at great personal cost. Carey himself did not see anyone converted for seven years. He lived in penury, contracted malaria, his five-year-old son died of dysentery, his neglected, grief-stricken wife became mentally ill, and his printing presses were destroyed by fire.

Philadelphia is the only church to be reminded that Jesus is coming soon, and it is by way of comfort, not admonition. The reminder makes best sense if the church lives in a period before the tribulation coming on the world.

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘Thus says the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.
“ ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have become rich and need nothing, and do not realise that you are wretched, and pitiable, and poor, and blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may become rich, and white garments, so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness not be apparent, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with me.
“ ‘The who conquers I will grant to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Christ is the Amen – a Hebrew word related to ‘faithful’ – because he is in total accord with his Father. “May Yahweh be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to everything he says” (Jer 42:5): effectively a paraphrase of ‘Amen’. He is the beginning (same word as in John 1:1 and Mark 13:19) and originator of God’s creation, something the Laodiceans particularly need to comprehend (Col 1:15-18, 4:16). He was created before all else, and through him all things were created. The statement is the first of three variations on “I am the first and the last” (1:17), the others being at 22:13 and 22:16.

LaodiceaRecently excavated Laodicea was founded in the mid 3rd century BC by Antiochus II of Syria and named after his wife, Laodice. It got its wealth from banking and from garments which it made from a prized black wool – hence the references to money and clothing. It also had a medical centre in which blindness was treated with an eye-salve. Water was supplied by an aqueduct. Warmed under the sun, it was neither refreshingly cool like that at Colossae, nor pleasantly hot like the springs at nearby Hierapolis, where there was also a church.

Material wealth had deceived the fellowship into thinking that they were spiritually rich. That was not the case. Of treasure in heaven – and no other treasure will outlast our bodies – the Laodiceans had nothing. Forty years previously Paul had impressed on them the importance of putting on Christ, but they had lost their covering. Unlike Eve and Adam when they sinned, they did not even know they were naked. They needed to hear his voice, open their hearts and allow him in. Without him their works amounted to nothing. Unless they bought from him atonement and sight-giving ointment (to speak their language, for of course such things cannot be bought), they could not be considered Christians at all.

The same complacency will be encountered in the woman who symbolises mercantile civilisation at the end of the age. Dressed in expensive clothes and adorned with gold and jewels, she says, “I sit a queen, and mourning may I never see;” but before long she will find herself naked and desolate. The western Church resembles the world around her. The Church of England is a typical example: an institution wedded to the State, still hierarchical, still ritualistic (where it does not replace formality with the banal), still concerned, when a choice must be made, to please man rather than God. As prophesied of society in the last days, it ‘has the form of piety, but denies the power of it’. The non-State churches also languish.

To allege that denial of one’s own blindness is evidence of blindness may seem a circular argument. How can one argue against it? But it may still be true (John 9:40f). The Council of Laodicea, representing the churches of Asia in AD 364, accepted the canonicity of all the books in the New Testament except Revelation. Today all the western churches accept it, but reject most of what it teaches, just as they reject the testimony of the prophets and the Lord himself concerning the beginning of creation (Appendix 1). The beginning and end hang together. The Council also banned Christians from celebrating the Lord’s Supper in private homes. As hierarchy took over, it became difficult for the Lord to come in and dine with them. In AD 494 the city was completely levelled by an earthquake.

‘Gold refined in the fire’ is faith purified by tribulation (Job 23:10) until it redounds to praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ (I Pet 1:7). The coming tribulation will either purify the church or result in its being extinguished. Those whom he loves (philω, expressing affection), he rebukes and disciplines, just as under the old covenant ((Heb 12:5-11). He disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. We should treasure such love.

The Church is intended to preserve society from its natural tendency to rot. Her role is to speak prophetic- ally about the judgement and salvation of God, to promote the good and oppose what is evil, to set an example of peace, kindness and obedience. If she loses her saltiness, she is not fit for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under men’s feet. She becomes like Jeremiah’s loincloth, rotting in the river of the nations (Jer 13:1-11), and God withholds destruction no longer. That is why faithless Laodicea is the last of the seven churches.

Yet he keeps back his most astonishing promise until this point: he who conquers will reign alongside him, just as he reigns alongside his father.