The Church Through the Ages


Revelation 2:1-3:22

In this lesson we review the seven stages

of Church history.


It's true that we can lose sight of the forest by focusing on the trees. The entire scope of the history of the Church was given in seven short visions which John wrote as letters to seven churches. Stepping back and getting the big picture helps us understand where we are today.

I. The Self-Outline

A.        The Things Which You Have Seen

B.        The Things Which Are

C.        The Things Which Will Take Place After This

II Four Revelations

III. Three Views of the Churches

A.        Practical Application

B.        Perennial Application

C.        Prophetic Application

IV. Seven Ages, Two Groups


As we come to the end of our first of four volumes of studies in the book of Revelation, it is time to recap what we have learned in the first three chapters of the book. There are a

number of ways to synthesize Revelation as a whole, and especially the first three chapters. Without further introduction, let's look at the first of four ways to view the prophetic information in this most unique of Bible books, the self-outline.


Revelation 1:19 contains a wonderful, three-part outline of the book of Revelation. In that sense, Revelation is a self-outlined, or self-interpreting, book. So far in our studies we have worked through the first two sections and have only the third (the largest) section to complete.

The Things Which You Have Seen

The first part of the outline begins in chapter 1 and is "write the things which you have seen" (1:1-20). The things which John saw are the things which are written about in the first chapter: The great vision of the glory of Jesus Christ and the powerful description of the Lord Jesus standing in the midst of the candlesticks, observing the churches with His penetrating eyes, seeing the churches for what they really are. When John was on the island of Patmos, he saw Jesus and he described what he had seen in chapter 1.

The Things Which Are

The second part of the outline was for John to write "the things which are" (2:1-3:22). So John wrote the seven letters to seven churches of Asia Minor which contained Jesus' evaluation of those churches. "The things which are" were the conditions of the churches at the time John wrote Revelation.

The third section begins with chapter 4, "write the things which will take place after this" (4:1-22:21) Chapter 4 picks up after the Church has been raptured from the earth and describes what happens from that point until the glorious appearing of Christ at His Second Coming.

The Things Which Will Take Place After This


Another way the entire book of Revelation can be summarized is in terms of four different revelations given to John. First there is the revelation of God (chapter 1). Then comes the revelation of

132 • Escape the Coining Night—Volume 1 grace extended to the 4-19). And the book concludes with the revelation of glory (chapters 20-21).


In John 14:1-3 Jesus connected His ascension and return-both future events at the time He spoke these words — to His disciples' current experience of peace. He believed that by telling His followers what lay in their future, they would be strengthened to live more vibrantly in the present. Jesus said, in effect, "I've told you about these things so that when they happen, you won't be blown off course. You will have a sense of what God is up to." God intends knowledge of future events to help us "occupy" with a sense of urgency until the Lord returns.

Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, the section detailing Christ's letters to the seven churches, can be studied at least three different ways: practically, perennially, and prophetically. We have hinted at all three in our studies so far, but will take extended space in this section

to elaborate on the prophetic application—that view of the seven churches which should call us to attention regarding our own spiritual posture in the days prior to the return of Christ.

Practical Application

The seven letters to the seven churches were addressed to actual,

historically-based groups of Christians in Asia Minor in the first century A.D. They were doing some things right and some things wrong. By way of example, we can gain practical insights into our own spiritual lives by studying their strengths and weaknesses. Once a bright spot in Christendom, modern-day Asia Minor (the country of Turkey) is a dark place spiritually. The mistakes made by the original churches can serve as a warning to us of what can happen if we do not protect our spiritual heritage and leave a legacy for the next generation.

Perennial Application

In between the practical viewpoint (studying the churches in their own historical setting) and the prophetic viewpoint (studying them as representative of seven successive ages of Church history) stands the perennial viewpoint. By this we mean that at any time in history there are churches which are like each of the seven churches of Revelation. At any given time in history there are "Ephesus"churches and "Smyrna" churches and "Pergamos" churches— churches like each of the seven we have studied so far.

And not only are there churches which are like the seven original churches, but there are individual Christians who are like them as well. Some Christians have lost their first love like the church at Ephesus. Some are being persecuted like the church at Smyrna. And some believers have an open door of ministry like the church at Philadelphia. So churches as well as individuals, at any time in history, can learn from the seven churches of Revelation.

Prophetic Application

Perhaps the most profound application of the lessons from the seven churches is the prophetic application. From our perspective in history we can look back from the first century to the present and see the entire ebb and flow of Church history From the Church at Ephesus (first century) to the church at Laodicea (the present-day church) we get a panoramic view of the development of the Christian Church.

Following are the seven stages represented by the seven churches, and the key phrase from Revelation describing each church and each subsequent phase of Church history:

I. Stage One: "you have fallen" (2:5)

The period of history represented by the church at Ephesus covers A.D. 33 to 100, that is, the post-apostolic church. The phrase "you have fallen" is indicative of the theological error which crept into the church immediately following the ministry of the apostles. Even the church at Ephesus, to which Paul wrote the beautiful letter of Ephesians, had lost their heart of love for Jesus. Galatians and Colossians were both written to, in part deal with theological heresy that had raised its head in the churches even while the apostle Paul was still alive. Second Thessalonians dealt with error regarding the return of Christ. In some way, almost all the letters of the New Testament deal with restoring truth in the churches to which they were addressed.

2. Stage Two: "tribulation ten days" (2:8)

The period of the church at Smyrna covers A.D. 100 to 300.

The "tribulation ten days" probably referred to the ten waves of persecution which swept over the church during

that 200-year period, beginning with Emperor Nero and ending with Emperor Diocletian. During that time the soil of the Roman Empire was soaked with the blood of the Church as many, many Christians gave their lives as martyrs for Christ. The last of the ten waves of persecution itself lasted ten long years.

3. Stage Three: "the doctrine of Balaam" (2:14)

You remember from lesson 7 the story of Salaam, the Old Testament prophet. He was hired by the king of Moab to curse Israel but blessed Israel instead. Since he couldn't curse Israel, he gave the king another idea: Entice the men of Israel to sin with the women of Moab, and God will destroy Israel in judgment. And that is exactly what the king did, and the men of Israel fell into sin with the women of Moab.

Something similar happened to the church during the Pergamos era, from A.D. 300 to 500. After Diocletian came Emperor Constantine who became a professing, nominal Christian. Christianity was made the state religion of Rome, united in an unholy union of church and state. Pagan temples became Christian churches, and Christian worship and practice became tainted with the pagan practices of the secular Roman Empire. It was the doctrine of Balaam all over again where the people of God were enticed by the glitter of the Roman world, the union of good with evil.

4. Stage Four: "that woman Jezebel" (2:20)

The fourth period of Church history is the Thyatira period which ran from A.D. 500 to 1500. We got to know Jezebel in lesson 8, and discovered how she brought her pagan, adulterous heritage into the very throne room of Israel when she became the wife of the weak and worldly Israelite king, Ahab. She became the power behind the throne and relentlessly persecuted the people and prophets of God. The union of the Church with Rome in the previous period initiated a 1,000-year period of time in which the institutionalized, politicized version of the church, headquartered in Rome, wreaked havoc throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe. They were indeed the Dark Ages, the time of the Inquisition when heretics, such as Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation (begun in 1517), were persecuted for their beliefs.

5. Stage Five: "a name . . . but . . . dead" (3:1)

The fifth period is represented by Sardis, and is a period of 200 years—A.D. 1500 to 1700. When conditions in the church under papal authority from Rome became unbearable, Martin Luther initiated a Reformation in 1517. When he was doing penance in Rome as a monk, he supposedly had the insight that "the just shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17) and left Rome and Catholicism forever. While there were changes in Europe, state churches became almost as dominant as the Roman church had been. But at least the Scriptures were unshackled and justification by faith rather than by penance (works) became the watchword of the protesting (Protestant) church.

Toward the end of this period, Rome staged a Counter Reformation attempting to regain its lost ground, and spiritual stagnation began again. The Protestant church had a difficult time breaking free from the ritualism it inherited from Rome. The church had a name but little life.

6. Stage Six: "an open door" (3:8)

From A.D. 1700 to A.D. 1900, another 200-year period of time represented the church at Philadelphia. This 200-year period was an explosive period of revival and missionary expansion, originating primarily in England and the United States. It was the age of preachers like Whitefield, the Wesley brothers,

Spurgeon, Moody, Finney, and others. Social ills such as slavery, drunkenness, child labor, orphans, and poverty were addressed. Missionaries answered the call and headed to the four corners of the world:

Carey to India, Taylor to China, Livingstone to Africa, Judson to Burma,

Payton to the New Hebrides. God opened the door, and the Church went through it in many ways and in many directions.

7. Stage Seven: "lukewarm" (3:16)

This is the age in which we live today, the period beginning in 1900 and lasting until the Rapture of the Church—the age of Laodicea, the lukewarm church. It is a sickly church, wretched, blind and naked, torn by cults, kept off-balance by offbeat theologies, and too weak to work at remedying the world's ills. It is a church which has lived in the world while failing not to be of the world at the same time. It is a church consumed with itself and its own comfort while millions march toward a Christless eternity.

No one can see the prophetic application of the history of the Church better than we can, looking back over 2,000 years of history. It is stunning to see how accurately the words given to John at the end of the first century have been so literally fulfilled in the two millennia after he wrote them.

When the Bible tells us that our Lord will come "as a thief in the night," it is making the point that we don't know when that time is. It is unannounced, unscheduled, and unexpected.

When we try to bull our way into mysteries held in the heart of almighty God, we enter into domains where we do not belong. I seem to have my hands full dealing with the past and the present. I'm willing to let the Lord handle the future. No one knows the date of the Lord's return ... we need to be ready at all times.


We will prepare now to study the remaining chapter of Revelation where we will encounter seven seals, seven vials, and seven bowls. Each group of seven is separated into two sub-groups of four and three. In each case, the four are successive—they follow each other, one after the other. The threes, however, are not successive. Rather they are overlapping or contemporaneous. And we can see that the seven periods of Church history can be viewed the same way.

1.Group One: Successive

The first four periods of Church history followed one after another: Ephesus (post-apostolic) was followed by Smyrna (persecution) which was followed by Pergamos (Rome) which was followed by Thyatira (Dark Ages). But the three following ages did not succeed one another in the same way.

2.Group Two: Contemporaneous

For instance, when the door for ministry was opened in the Philadelphia period, the previous Sardis period, the dead church, did not end. We still have the Roman church today and churches bogged down in deadness and apathy. And when the expansion of the Church began, the Reformation period did not end—its effects continue today. And today, in the Laodicean period, we still have effects from previous periods going on all around us as well, though the Laodicean characteristics are dominant.

Our challenge is to recognize that the Lord could come today (2:5, 16; 3:3, 11). We must hold fast to the truth and to our testimony for Him. We are living, in my opinion, on the bottom of the last page of the calendar of history. May God give you and me grace to be found looking heavenward daily as we anticipate being called to meet Him in the air.


The Church Through the Ages