(Third in a series on John’s Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor. Revelation 1-3)
“John to the seven churches which are in Asia….” (Revelation 1:4).
Did you know if you take the seventh letter from the 7th chapter of each book of the Bible, it forms a secret message? I didn’t either. But it’s no weirder than some of the schemes people come up with to make Scripture say more than it was intended.
The cults are notorious for finding secret messages in Scripture.
God’s faithful children must be careful not to fall for such schemes and not to try to read hidden messages into God’s Word.
His Word is sufficient.
I’m deep into studying the first three chapters of Revelation, for the umpteenth time in my life. There is so much here.
This introduction to the entire book of Revelation opens with seven letters from the ascended reigning Lord Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor. The cities were real, the churches were genuine, and the messages are on target. And yet, over the years, that was not good enough for some of the Lord’s expositors.
Surely there is more there, they said. And proceeded to insert things never found in Scripture and I believe, never intended by the Author.
For reasons only the Spirit of God can discern, some enterprising teachers decided that these seven letters actually represented seven ages of the Church through the centuries. And yet, there is not a word in Scripture–not one–indicating God had this in mind.
According to this so-called pattern, it all began with the Ephesus age which had lost its first love, it continued with the Smyrna age which was a time of persecution, and so forth. And guess what age we are in now? That would be the Laodicean age, of course, since everyone knows that our generation is the culmination of everything the Lord had in mind, that we are the apex of His hopes and dreams and prophecies, that all the world has been waiting for you and me to arrive on the scene.
That, as much as anything, is what makes me reject this interpretation of those seven letters as seven ages of the church: We are the final age. We respond: “Oh yeah? Who said? What if the Lord has planned another thousand years before His return? What will those poor people of the future do without a church age of their own?” I can hear them now: “Poor us! We had hoped to have a special term for the church in our time, but the church in the 20th-21st centuries fulfilled it.
Forgive my rant here. The more I read and study of Revelation, the more convinced I am that this final Book of the Bible has been the victim of a host of nutty teachers with their kooky interpretations. I sure don’t want to encourage people who do not have patience with God’s Word the way it was given and who keep reading into it their own thoughts.
The book Revelation: Four Views, Steve Gregg, editor, outlines this problematic interpretation for us…
(Some have seen) certain parallels between the individual letters and successive periods of church history, from John’s day until the end. They conclude that the seven letters present a panorama of the age of the church.
On this view, the letter to Ephesus is said to describe the church during the apostolic age until about A.D. 100. Smyrna, the church enduring persecution, is likened to the church from about 100 till 313, which suffered under a series of Roman emperors. Pergamos is a church compromised with carnality and false doctrine, much as the church became from Constantine’s Edict of Toleration (313) until the rise of the papacy (about 500). Thyatira is seen as the papal church until the Reformation (from 500 to 1500) and Sardis as the church during the Reformation itself (from 1500 to 1700). Philadelphia is regarded as corresponding to the church which experienced a resurgence of missionary activity (1700 to present), followed by the Laodicean church, which was lukewarm, and is likened to the liberal churches of modern times.
Anyone with a laptop and access to the internet can look into this subject to his heart’s content. One commentator quoted C. I. Scofield (1843-1921) whose notes in our Bibles eventually came to be accepted as authoritative as the divine text itself.
“The seven churches have a four-fold application–
- Local. To the actual churches.
- Admonitory. To all churches in all time.
- Personal. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” “To him who overcomes….”
- Prophetic. As disclosing the seven phases of the spiritual history of the church, from say AD 96 to the end. “It is incredible that in a prophecy covering the church period there should be no such foreview. These messages must contain that foreview if it is in the book at all…”
I find that astounding. Don’t miss this: “It is incredible that in a prophecy covering the church period there should be no such foreview.” In other words, surely the Lord put it here because we think it should be here!
Going God one better. Someone has defined a legalist as one who says, “I know the Lord didn’t say this in Scripture, but He would have if He’d thought of it.” That’s close to what is done by those who find seven church ages in these seven letters.
Now, this interpretation has some rather strong and vocal adherents: G. Campbell Morgan, M. R. DeHaan, Hal Lindsey, J. Vernon McGee, among others. One writer says, “Most evangelical Bible teachers agree that the message addressed to each church is prophetic, representing seven church ages.”
Oh really? Most evangelical Bible teachers? He didn’t name one.
The list of those teachers who do not accept that interpretation–according to my brief check of the internet–includes Matthew Henry, John MacArthur, John R. Rice, and Albert Barnes. One writer points out that Jesus says “The seven lampstands ARE the seven churches,” not seven ages or eras (Revelation 1:20).
I found one internet site where the writer–no names were given–made an effort to bridge the gap between the two points of view. He/she wrote:
A possible third purpose is to foreshadow seven different periods in the history of the Church. The problem with this view is that each of the seven churches describes issues that could fit the church at any time in its history. So, although there may be some truth to the seven churches representing seven eras, there is far too much speculation in this regard. Our focus should be on the message God is giving us through the seven churches.
Bottom line, for me personally, is this…
One. I want to be careful–and conservative—about finding hidden meanings in Scripture.
Two. it does not matter how many authorities agree or disagree with a particular interpretation. The experts have all been wrong before, and no doubt will again.
Three. The word ‘liberal’ implies that one takes liberties with God’s Word. The word ‘conservative’ implies one is conservative and careful in how he treats and interprets it. Only the conservative, careful approach is Christ-honoring.
Four. We must be careful about playing our little games with God’s Word. The temptation to do this has led many a person astray. Some have seen all kinds of messages in Scripture’s symbolism and found meanings in words never intended, leading them to make predictions on Christ’s second coming, identify certain historical characters as the antichrist or the beast of Revelation, and such.
Five. This issue–whether Revelation 2-3 describes seven eras of church history–is not worth dividing a church or destroying a friendship. God’s people must be gracious to one another, even when we disagree, so long as the issue does not concern a basic doctrine of the Christian faith.
Six. So while I call this practice of finding meanings God never spoke or intended “playing little games with God’s Word,” not everyone will agree. So, this is my personal approach. I will be careful in interpreting God’s word.
Here’s another case in point, while I’m thinking of it. In Genesis 4, God rejected Cain’s offering and accepted Abel’s. So, Cain grew jealous and killed his brother. Over the years I’ve encountered pastors and teachers who read into this story a message not found in the original account. They point out that Abel was offering a blood sacrifice (“the firstborn of his flock and of their fat”) whereas Cain’s offering was vegetable (“of the fruit of the ground”). We read, “And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but did not respect Cain and his offering.”
Why was Cain’s offering unacceptable? Because it was not a blood sacrifice, say many people. And yet the Scripture clearly has God explaining the reason: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door” (4:7). So, the problem was Cain’s sin. All we have to do is look at his anger and hatred when he saw God approving Abell to see his black heart.
And yet, people want to read into this the later teachings about blood offerings. In spite of the fact that later scriptures also ordain and approve vegetable and “meal” offerings. They’re reading into Scripture, making it say what they want it to say. Playing their games.
God is not honored by our playing loose with His Word.
Seven. Let us always approach the study of His Word with caution and a prayer that we may honor Him. This is the very Word of the living God.
Let us treat it like it is what it is.