Do the Seven Churches Represent Seven “Ages” of the Church?
The question I receive most frequently about the Seven Churches of Revelation is this: Do the Seven Churches Represent Seven “Ages” of the Church? If so, what age of the church are we in now?
The topic of the “Seven Churches of Revelation” is one of my favorite biblical topics. I have visited this region (the west coastal area of modern-day Turkey) several times and written a book on this very subject—What Would Jesus Say? Lessons from the Letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation. The following article is excerpted from that book.
Some have attempted to spiritualize these letters and make each local congregation represent a particular era of church history. According to this view, for example, the Ephesian church would represent the time when the apostles were alive and ministering. Then, the church at Smyrna would represent the post-apostolic era when the church was persecuted by the Roman empire. Laodicea, being the final church listed, supposedly describes the lukewarm church of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
According to this theory, each of the seven churches symbolize the character of the overall church, sequentially and chronologically, through vast historical periods. In reality, these letters are exactly what the Revelation purports them to be: letters to seven churches of Asia Minor at the end of the first century. These were literal churches with literal pastors with literal church members in literal cities. It is highly probable that John knew all of these pastors personally; they would have looked upon him as a father figure and spiritual leader in the faith.
It makes perfect sense that Jesus would speak through the last remaining apostle (of the original band) to provide these pastors with specific instructions to help them lead their congregations through such a critical and turbulent time. These letters would later serve as a written template—possessing the full weight and authority of Scripture—to show successive generations how Jesus sees and speaks to local churches.
It may be that a number of churches might share certain tendencies and similar traits in given time periods, but this is only generally true and is far from absolute. All seven of the churches that John addresses existed at the exact same time in history and in relatively close geographical proximity to each other; yet, they were very different from each other. Even today, you could have one congregation in a city that is strict on doctrine but not very loving (like Ephesus), while another congregation in the same town is asleep and dormant (like Sardis), and yet another nearby congregation is smug and prideful (like Laodicea). It is unwise to attempt to paint all churches in a given era with the same brush. Jesus did not do it, so why would we?
In the first century—just like today—local congregations differed from each other; they did not all conform to whatever stereotype(s) may have existed for other churches in that particular age. The congregation in Corinth was full of in-fighting and carnality. The Philippian church, though, was relatively healthy and had many caring, loving members. Each church had its own strengths and weaknesses. In its early days, believers in Ephesus were prolific in evangelism and church planting, but we hear of nothing along those lines regarding the churches in Galatia; they were struggling with and hindered by legalism.
Just like human beings, every church is unique. While humans (and churches) may have certain similarities, no two are exactly alike. Scientists tell us that even though identical twins share the same genetic code, they are still not precisely the same in every way. The same is true with churches. Not all churches would fit neatly and perfectly into the categories of the churches John addresses. There would be churches today that have a little bit of one church’s characteristics and a little bit of another’s traits. If we assume that the seven churches of Asia Minor were a representative sampling of first-century churches, it is expected that other churches—then and now—would also have other characteristics and issues that are not necessarily even mentioned in Revelation 1-3.
Attempting to make the seven churches reflect sequential church ages simply does not provide an accurate picture. For example, to purport that the Laodicean church symbolizes the lukewarm church of the last many decades is to completely disregard the multitude of churches around the world that are on fire with the power of the Holy Spirit and zealously engaged in evangelism and missions; these congregations don’t look anything like the church of Laodicea. As a matter of fact, they are the complete opposite.
John’s writings focus on specific traits and issues in specific local congregations, and I think we would be wise to have the same perspective. It has often been said, “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, lest it result in nonsense.” This falls in line with another principle, that the simplest solution or explanation of a matter is usually the correct one.
This straightforward, practical approach enables us to read the letters to the seven churches at face value while appreciating their wisdom and beauty. These churches existed concurrently in a difficult time and were working through various issues. Jesus addresses them through the apostle John and brings them hope, encouragement, and even correction for their benefit and for the furtherance of their faith.