Jesus' letters to the seven churches in Revelation are widely accepted to be a prophetic description of seven church ages that would occur in order during the "times of the gentiles" leading up to Christ's return. Each age is of unspecified length, but since 2000 years have passed and seven ages are described, one could assume that each age generally spans a long period of time, possibly centuries. However there is nothing to imply that each age is the same length.
Note: there are two other interpretations of the seven letters, but all of them admit that these represent errors that we in this age will be prone to, although one denies the errors will become dominant. The view I will espouse here will focus a bit more on the Laodicean age but it is mostly compatible with other views (even my attempts to pinpoint the birth of the Laodicean age are still applicable although we could not claim the name Laodicean for the age we live in. There are plenty of other scriptures describing an apostate church of the end-times so that would be a more appropriate term in the other views, the end-times apostate church). The letters also have a dual meaning, they were addressed to the historical churches also. I will not focus on that aspect, but will dwell on the parts that are relevant to us today.
Here I will go through briefly the symbolism of those seven churches and explain briefly the meaning and historical basis for each age.
Firstly, Revelation declares a blessing upon those who read and keep the words of its prophecy:
rev 1:3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
This is highly significant to us, since only two of the seven churches are unconditionally commended by Jesus, and His warning to the end-times church we live in is scathing and terrifying, so please read on.
The seven churches in order are:
Those names, some of which are symbolic, were the names of real places in their day, not all of those places still exist, but the remnants of each church age endure. Each age has a dominant church, described by the letters in Revelation.
Each letter (loosely) follows a specific form,
The promises are assumed to be cumulative to all the church ages. So is the information in the greetings, each gives us a little bit of information about our Lord Jesus. But the criticisms and calls to repentance are focussed toward each kind of error that those churches engaged in. Here in the end-times, all the errors will be present, but the error of the Laodiceans will be the dominant one, so I will devote a little more space to that one since we are the Laodicean church today.
A little more introductory symbolism, the letters are addressed to churches, not individuals, talk of taking the candle away, or removing the lampstand, are promises to remove His blessing from the church so that it will no longer endure and shine with His light. It is not aimed at individuals at all. When the angel of the church is addressed, it would appear to be addressed to the leadership of the church. I was confused by this until I read a few commentaries.
The purpose of this is clear in retrospect, our Lord cannot allow His word to be tarnished, or corrupted, and cannot bless institutions that do not hold fast to His word. He says so pretty directly throughout the letters.
rev 2:1 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things
saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh
in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;
rev 2:2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
rev 2:3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
rev 2:4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
rev 2:5 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.
rev 2:6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.
rev 2:7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
rev 2:8 And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These
things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;
rev 2:9 I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
rev 2:10 Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
rev 2:11 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.
rev 2:12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things
saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges;
rev 2:13 I know thy works and where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.
rev 2:14 But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
rev 2:15 So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.
rev 2:16 Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
rev 2:17 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.
rev 2:18 And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write;
These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto
a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass;
rev 2:19 I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first.
rev 2:20 Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
rev 2:21 And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.
rev 2:22 Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.
rev 2:23 And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.
rev 2:24 But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden.
rev 2:25 But that which ye have already hold fast till I come.
rev 2:26 And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:
rev 2:27 And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father.
rev 2:28 And I will give him the morning star.
rev 2:29 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
rev 3:1 And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write;
These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God,
and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name
that thou livest, and art dead.
rev 3:2 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.
rev 3:3 Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.
rev 3:4 Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.
rev 3:5 He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
rev 3:6 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
rev 3:7 And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write;
These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that
hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth;
and shutteth, and no man openeth;
rev 3:8 I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.
rev 3:9 Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.
rev 3:10 Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
rev 3:11 Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
rev 3:12 Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.
rev 3:13 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Here we have the last great church. Each of the preceeding churches will still exist but are no longer dominant. The consumation of the church age occurs when this church is dominant. The Laodicaen church is essentially the decaying remains of the Philadelphian church, a church that has grown fat and comfortable with its dominance and success, and it merges with the other elements of false churches, and its final destiny is to worship anti-christ. This is the church we live in today.
rev 3:14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write;
These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness,
the beginning of the creation of God;
rev 3:15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
rev 3:16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
rev 3:17 Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
rev 3:18 I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.
rev 3:19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
rev 3:20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
rev 3:21 To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
rev 3:22 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
So, we have all seven churches to choose from today. The fact we have that choice is partly what makes us the Laodicean church. With all this choice we need to ask God to guide us into all truth, and to lead us to the remnants of the Philadelphian church. If you are in a persecuted church, then thankfully you have already been guided to the only other true church in the world, that of Smyrna. But I must caution you that false doctrine accompanied with persecution will not make you part of the Smyrna church.
Notice also, Jesus' recurring theme that a true and false church would continually exist. And that generally, with few exceptions, the false church would be dominant, and would persecute the true church. Another general theme is that the true church, those who were holding fast to His word, would be in the minority of professing Christians.
In the Laodicean age today, the dominant church is a soul-killing lukewarm church. It has lots of zeal, but little loyalty to God's word. We also have no distinctive false church, but neither do we have a true one. This lack of of seperation - where the true and the false are intermingled together - is one of the characteristics of the Laodicean age.
Given all this, how is it that that Jesus is coming back for a bride without spot or blemish? The cleansing fire of the Holy Ghost will purify His bride. It is not clear what this means, some believe it will be the fire of zeal and power given by the Holy Spirit, others believe it will be the fires of persecution that will cleanse the true church just before His coming. Generally the viewpoint is tied to one's view of the rapture, those who believe we will be spared persecution by anti-christ hold to the former view, and those who don't hold the latter view.
In any case, I believe scripture strongly supports the idea that
the great falling away is ocurring now, and is not an event yet future.
The Laodicean Church has risen to its zenith over the past hundred years,
carried perhaps by the power of the Philadelphian church contained within it,
but more likely powered by the siren song of appeal to self and selfishness
that it so tirelessly sings.
They are luring most (but not all) away into the luke-warm wealth and comfort gospel - the gospel of seeking self, the gospel of doing what is right in our own eyes, the gospel of seeking teachers to tell us what we want to hear rather than sound doctrine.
A terrible thing is we preach this false gospel in the name of maximizing salvations. The gospel that is "positive" in all respects, is palatable to the widest audience, therefore the most people will be saved goes the thinking. You will hear this thinking espoused across the Christian world today. Don't drive away the seekers with a negative or offensive message. Positive messages encourage church growth and are therefore the most successful. All that thinking is based on fallacious compromise of the scripture and walking by sight rather than walking by faith. Sight is using the size of our churches as a measure of success. However, using the size of our churches as a measure of success has no biblical basis whatsoever.
The sad reality is the false positive message leads people not into life, but into death and everlasting judgement.
Gone are the fire and brimstone preachers of the early 18th century, who preached grace and judgement with equal fervor, whose evangelistic meetings were every bit as successful as the great evangelists of today, who according to the Biblical record, were far more successful than today's efforts.
I find this message quite sobering personally. All those verses about the end times, about purifying ourselves and watching soberly reach their climax here in this teaching in my mind.
It seems inescapable that to properly preach the word in these end-times you have to include a word of warning against the peace/wealth/prosperity Gospel.
It would of course be equally unbalanced to preach only a warning against the Laodicean gospel, and omit God's grace, love, and forgiveness. God really does promise to bless us, but that is not the primary message of the Gospel.