Jesus’ Messages to the Church

The Book of Revelation was written by Jesus’ beloved disciple, John, who also wrote the Gospel of John and the three letters under his name in the New Testament. In this book, John is given a vision while a prisoner on the Island of Patmos located in the Aegean Sea. In Chapter 1, Jesus identifies Himself as the speaker. He holds seven stars in His right hand, which he identifies as the angels of the seven Churches, and identifies seven lampstands as the seven Churches themselves. He commands John to write his vision in a book and send it to seven churches located in what was once called Asia close to the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and now is in the country of Turkey. John records Jesus’ message to these Churches in Chapters 2 and 3.

It is thought by many eschatologists that the Churches addressed by Jesus had a threefold significance: first, that the Churches typified the variety of Churches throughout the world at all times during the Church Age; second, that the Churches typified the variety of Christian individuals attending Church at any place and at any time; and third that the Churches represented, in the precise sequence by which Jesus addressed them, the dominant characteristics of the Church as a whole at certain specific periods of time. It is this latter view that will be applied to the following characterization of the messages.

The messages follow an easily-recognizable pattern consisting of seven elements: Church name; the name Jesus chose for Himself in addressing the Church; a commendation; a concern; an exhortation; a promise to the overcomer, and a closing statement. To these seven elements are added an additional two: the time period applicable to the specific Church; and an identification of the Church’s primary characteristic.

The seven Churches, in the order of Jesus’ addresses, are: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyratira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. There are some slight deviations from the pattern noted above: for the first four Churches, those at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos and Thyratira, the closing statement precedes the promise to the overcomer; for the two Churches at Sardis and Laodicea, there is no commendation, but only concern; and for the two Churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia, the situation is reversed, wherein there is no concern but only commendation.

For the Church at Ephesus; Jesus’ chosen name was “He who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands”; He commends the Church for her labor, patience under duress, and her hatred of evil; He expresses concern over her loss of her first love, which is probably Jesus commandment in Matthew 22 (a revoicing of Deuteronomy 6:4 and 5) to love the Lord with all her heart, might and soul. A probable reason for this loss was the vehemence of her stance against the heresies that were creeping into the Church at the time, and a consequent preoccupation with maintaining a reactionary position. Jesus exhorted this Church to remember her first works of faith and love, and to repent; He promised the overcomer the tree of life in paradise and closed with the phrase that was common to all the Churches: “He that hath an ear, listen.” The time period for this Church was the first through fourth centuries; it was known as the Apostolic Church, the Church of the Church Fathers.

Jesus chose the name “The first and the last, which was dead and is alive” for the Church at Smyrna. He commended her for her endurance of tribulation and spiritual poverty, but reminded them that in the economy of God, they were exceptionally wealthy; Jesus had no words of concern for her; He exhorted her not to fear suffering and death, to be faithful unto death, and acknowledged that they would be tried for ten “days”, or periods of persecution. In his book Christian Martyrs of the World, John Foxe listed the following periods as the ten “days” of Smyrna’s persecution: 1: 54-68 A.D. under Nero, when Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified upside-down; 2: 95-96 A.D. under Domitian, when John was exiled to Patmos; 3: 104- 107 A.D. under Trajan; 4: 161-180 A.D. under Marcus Aurelius, when Church Father Polycarp was martyred; 5: 200-211 under Septimus Severus, when Perpetua and her servant Felicitas were martyred together. The story of her persecution was typical of the period; her nobility of character in the face of her death will be recounted below; 6: 235-237 A.D. under Maximus; 7: 249-251 under Decius; 8: 257-260 under Valerian; 9: 270-275 under Aurelian; and the tenth and worst of all the periods, 303-313 under Diocletian. After Diocletian’s persecution, Constantine became Emperor of Rome and legitimized Christianity, which led to complacence, which turned out to be far worse for the Church than the preceding persecutions. Following His exhortation to Smyrna, Jesus’ promise to her overcomers was a crown of life and exemption from being hurt of the second death. His closing comment was, like for all the Churches, “He that hath an ear, listen.” Smyrna, like Ephesus, existed in the first through fourth centuries A.D. She was identified as the persecuted Church.

Perpetua serves as a shining example of Christian faith under fire. She suffered under the persecution which began in A.D. 200. According to Foxe, this was the fifth of ten persecutions foretold by Jesus in His message to the Church at Smyrna, Revelation 2:8-11:

“And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things saith the first and the last, who was dead, and is alive. I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty (but thou art rich); and I know the blasphemy of them who say they are Jews, and are not, but are of the synagogue of Satan. 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. 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.”

The Church at Smyrna was the second of the seven Churches addressed by Jesus in Revelation Chapters 2 and 3. Of these Churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia were the only two for which Jesus had nothing negative to say. It has been broadly recognized as the persecuted Church. According to Foxe and other theologians the ten ‘days’ spoken of by Jesus were ten periods of overt, usually intense persecution. Foxe listed them all in his book, which is considered to be one of the three greatest Christian works outside the Bible ever written. The following is his entry regarding Perpetua:

“During the reign of Severus, the Christians had several years of rest and could worship God without fear of punishment. But after a time, the hatred of the ignorant mob again prevailed, and the old laws were remembered and put in force against them. Fire, sword, wild beasts, and imprisonment were resorted to again, and even the dead bodies of Christians were stolen from their graves and mutilated. Yet the faithful continued to multiply. Tertullian, who lived at this time, said that if the Christians had all gone away from the Roman territories, the empire would have been greatly weakened.

“By now, the persecutions had extended to northern Africa, which was a Roman province, and many were murdered in that area. One of these was Perpetua, a married lady twenty-six years old with a baby at her breast. On being taken before the proconsul Minutius, Perpetua was commanded to sacrifice to the idols. Refusing to do so, she was put in a dark dungeon and deprived of her child, but two of her keepers, Tertius and Pomponius, allowed her out in the fresh air several hours a day, during which time she was allowed to nurse her child.

“Finally the Christians were summoned to appear before the judge and urged to deny their Lord, but all remained firm. When Perpetua’s turn came, her father suddenly appeared,, carrying her infant in his arms, and begged her to save her own life for the sake of her child. Even the judge seemed to be moved. ‘Spare the gray hairs of your father,’ he said. ‘Spare your child. Offer sacrifice for the welfare of the emporer.’

“Perpetua answered, ‘I will not sacrifice.’

“’Are you a Christian?’ demanded Hilarianus, the judge.

“’I am a Christian,’ was her answer.

“Perpetua and all the other Christians tried with her that day were ordered killed by wild beasts as a show for the crowd on the next holiday. They entered the place of execution clad in the simplest of robes, Perpetua singing a hymn of triumph. The men were to be torn to pieces by leopards and bears. Perpetua and a young woman named Felicitas were hung up in nets, at first naked, but the crowd demanded that they should be allowed their clothing.

“When they were again returned to the arena, a bull was let loose on them. Felicitas fell, seriously wounded. Perpetua was tossed, her loose robe torn and her hair falling loose, but she hastened to the side of the dying Felicitas and gently raised her from the ground. When the bull refused to attack them again, they were dragged out of the arena, to the disappointment of the crowd, which wanted to see their deaths. Finally brought back in to be killed by gladiators, Perpetua was assigned to a trembling young man who stabbed her weakly several times, not being used to such scenes of violence. When she saw how upset the young man was, Perpetua guided his sword to a vital area and died.”

Additional material on Perpetua can be found on the Internet by Googling “Perpetua”. The Wikipedia entry differs in some minor details from Foxe’s, but also adds some useful information. Perpetua, for example, is identified there as of noble heritage. Felicitas (Felicity), was supposedly her slave. The Catholic Church has canonized her, along with Felicity, as a saint. Her feast day is March 7, the date of her execution.

The perceived nobility of her name has a factual basis in the circumstance of her birth. But her high birth is of little consequence compared to the nobility of her faith and the beautiful manner in which she chose to exercise it.

[to be continued]


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