Church of God, New World Ministries

The First Century Church Of God

Believe it or not, the whole book of Revelation was originally addressed to 7 specific, literal churches in Asia Minor. Contained within its pages are seven separate letters written to each of these seven churches along the Roman mail route. What if you had been living your life in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea some two thousand years ago? What if you had been an actual member of one of these churches of God back then? Would you have found yourself indulging in attaching labels to the spiritual inferiorities of other congregations in smug self-righteousness, perhaps attacking their spiritual lethargy, lamenting their Lukewarmness, decrying their miserable wretchedness? What would you have said about God’s Church then?

Jesus Christ told the aged apostle John, then exiled on the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean Sea: “What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia” (Rev. 1:11). The entirety of the message as a whole with all its fantastic science-fiction like visions cloaked in symbolism was originally written for these seven churches in Asia Minor. There were actual, literal, historic congregations, some of which had been the recipients of earlier epistles written by the Apostle Paul (see book of Eph and Col. 4:16).

Each of these seven churches had, to one degree or another, its own unique spiritual problems as well as its good points. In addition to the main prophetic message of the book of Revelation, Jesus was moved to give John a short, separate message for each of these special congregations.

The main purpose of this article, however, is not to expound and explain the prophetic possibilities of these passages in the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Revelation. It is to show that each message for each church is also intended for the Church as a whole in all ages, and, as a vital corollary point, to clear up the many misconceptions God’s people have had about how we are to view these letters in relationship to the membership of God’s Church now!

The salutation to the 7 churches begins in verse 4 of the first chapter: “John to the seven churches which are in Asia.” Notice that all seven churches are initially addressed together as one body of people prior to the specific letters in chapters two and three.

Revelation was written centuries before the invention of printing. Several copies of the whole book were probably copied from John’s original and were sent to each congregation rolled up in a separate scroll. Either that or the original itself was carried successively to all seven congregations.

The point is that each of the seven churches had the opportunity to read not only Jesus Christ’s own direct personal testimony to them personally but also the messages to the other six congregations. Each one was, so to speak, “in on” the sins of the others. But did this give them a carte blanche license to judge each other?

Further down in the salutation, Christ is pictured in vision as standing in the midst of the seven churches (vs. 13, 20). These congregations are whether you view them historically as local churches or prophetically as future eras integral parts of the Church Jesus told the apostle Peter He would build (Matt. 16:18). Not a single one is a church of the devil. None can be conveniently categorized as part of the great false church in all of its splits, sects, divisions and political organizations. Jesus stands in the midst of all seven, firmly establishing that all seven belong to Him, each and every member was purchased by His own blood.

The Church of God at Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7) was one of the leading congregations in all of Asia Minor. Paul had used the city as a base of operations for his evangelistic efforts throughout the entire region.

Jesus Christ, the builder and living Head of the true church, begins His letter to the church at Ephesus by reminding them, once again, that He walks in the midst of all seven of these churches (v. 1). He does not disallow or disinherit any one of the seven!

After several points of commendation and approval, He finally says: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (v. 4). The novelty of being a Christian had worn off. Their adoration of Jesus Christ had begun to wane; it had become “old hat.” The flame of initial excitement had flickered and diminished, they were on the downside of their growth pattern.

We grow, even physically, by peaks and valleys. At a certain age, teenagers literally burst with growth and seem to suddenly “sprout up.” Spiritually growth is characterized by the very same phenomenon. To those who are newly baptized, the Bible is a brand-new book. They can’t wait to eagerly devour and ingest every scrap and shred of information within its pages. They are filled with a type of euphoric wonderment and enthusiastic excitement. This church was initially marked by a flush of “first love” followed by an eventual waning of their zeal.

Jesus Christ did not intend for the Ephesian Church to remain tired and lethargic, just waiting it out! He sternly warned them to “repent, and do the first works” (v. 5), to recapture their first love! Many members of God’s own Church have misunderstood the message to the Ephesian church in this sense. The message is not exclusively for either that actual Ephesian church or what has been labeled “the Ephesian era.” The key is found in the last verse of Christ’s message to the Ephesians. Jesus urges them and us, today: “He that hath an ear (spiritual comprehension), let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches (plural, meaning all seven); To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”

Jesus Christ’s own direct personal testimony to every one of the seven churches is for all seven and the Church as a whole throughout all ages until His second coming. Almost every Christian experiences a first flush of energetic zeal and love for His Savior, for the Bible and for the brethren in God’s Church. Then, sooner or later, he or she will inevitably have to fight off the tendency to become insipid, lukewarm, tired and lethargic. It just seems to be part of the cycle. It would have been silly for the other churches to judge the Ephesian congregation for losing their first love when there were individual members in every single one of the other six congregations who likewise had lost their first love. But knowing the tendencies of human nature, no doubt they did just that.

If you had been there in the flesh, the chances are you would have done the same thing, especially if you are now judging other members of God’s Church for being “Laodicean,” which is a modern-day euphemism for a “sorry spiritual condition”!

If the Ephesian church of Rev. 2 is typical of the whole first-century Church, then most of its leaders and many of its members wound up as martyrs. Some of them were, in fact, what some might call “jail birds.” We don’t think of it that way today, but nobody fits that description better than the apostle Paul. He spent much of his ministry in one type of incarceration or the other.

Yet many in the Church today have vaguely imagined martyrdom to be some kind of spiritual curse and certainly the most obvious proof of spiritual inferiority and lassitude. Some think if the Church is persecuted “something must be terribly wrong” with the Church! Instead of rejoicing in tribulations, they seek the pharisaical solution, the inquisitional approach, find out who the dirty sinners are; get rid of them, and all will be well again. But is persecution or martyrdom an automatic acknowledgement of terrible “spiritual imperfection”? On the other hand, is physical escape from bodily harm to a “place of safety” a sure badge of great spirituality?

Think about it for a moment! Jesus was martyred! James, the brother of John, was brutally murdered by one of the Herods (Acts 12:2).Stephen was stoned to death! The Bible and historical tradition tells us that both Peter and Paul were probably the victims of a terrible Roman martyrdom.

Read the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, and let the inspired words of God sink into your hearts. Paul eloquently talks of God’s martyrs of long ago, people of greater or lesser ability, people of all stations in life, people who stood next to kings and those who “wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented: Of whom the world was not worthy” Heb. 11:37).

Did each of these, by his untimely death, acknowledge some terrible spiritual inferiority? Were they all in what some might call a “Laodicean attitude?” Was there some great sin in their lives that caused the martyrdom? Nonsense! Any such reasoning is immediately transparent to anybody who really stops to think about it.

Christ said: “Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles (Matt. 10:16-18). He said of His disciples: “Some of you shall they cause to be put to death” (Luke 21:16).

Christ warned them that they would be beaten and whipped (and some murdered); that they would be placed under arrest and forced to testify before various committees, boards, or courts of law, as a result of their preaching of the gospel. Of His disciples He said: “They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time comes that whosoever kills you will think he does God service” (John 16:2).

Since He said: “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of Man come” (Matt. 10: 23), it is obvious its total fulfillment will not be culminated until Jesus again stands on this earth.

Did Jesus promise a special place of escape to any of those whom He said would be “delivered up”? After saying brother would deliver up brother to death, the father the child and children their parents to be killed, He said: “Ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endures to the end (and that end may obviously be the death of the individual enduring!) Shall be saved” (v. 22). “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another” (v. 23). Notice Jesus says persecution is coming! He shows martyrdom is a distinct possibility! And then He tells His true disciples to flee! But flee where? Not away from the “Word,” but fleeing from one city, where they are busily preaching the gospel and fulfilling the commission of Jesus Christ, into another city, for the fulfillment of the very same commission!

The entire “tone” of the tenth chapter of Matthew is one of trial, trouble, betrayal and potential death! He urges His disciples to “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul (Greek, psuche, or “being”): but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul (psuche) and body in hell (Gehenna)” (v. 28).

He then spoke of a great principle which needs to be understood in the light of all else contained in this article! “He that finds his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (v. 39).

Nowhere is the fulfillment of this prophetic command to Jesus’ disciples clearer than in the case of the apostle Paul himself, whose life and times comprise a great segment of the Ephesian Church. He was literally driven from one city to another: once he was stoned, dragged out of the city and left for dead. On another occasion he was let down over a wall in a basket secretly in order to escape from enemies.

On many occasions Paul did have to flee from one city to another. On other occasions he was unable to flee, was arrested, and had to suffer the consequences imposed upon him by human governments.

If there was anyone who ever deserved to escape martyrdom as a result of the fruits of his life, it was the apostle Paul! Jesus’ death was not a “martyrdom” in the truest sense of the word, since it was in God’s great purpose that Jesus die, not only as a “witness” against His tormentors (because He was standing for a great cause or purpose) but because His death was absolutely required for the forgiveness of sins! But Paul’s death would serve no such purpose.

No one really knows the manner, the exact time, or the place of Paul’s death! Tradition may place it in Rome, but there is no reliable historical records which would absolutely verify it. “Tradition” may imply any number of strange or bizarre methods of execution, but the Bible only alludes to Paul’s death in the pastoral epistle to Timothy (II Tim. 4:6).

It is obvious then, since the holy, inspired Word of God does not include any account of the death of the apostle Paul does not “set the scene” in the same manner as it does at the hearing of the apostle Paul before King Agrippa; does not tell us of any shock or shame experienced on the part of any Roman or Jewish leaders; does not even illustrate any shock which is experienced by members within the Church, that the death of Paul simply cannot be singled out as being required of God for some great and lofty purpose for all of mankind!

Rather, the setting seems to be that of a man who truly had “run his course,” “fought a good fight,” and was now “ready to be offered” (II Tim. 4:6-8). Remember, the apostle Paul had been inspired to write that he was the one who was “standing in the midst” of a personage who was the very embodiment of evil! Paul had said time and time again it was his deepest desire to “depart” and to be with Jesus Christ, awaiting a resurrection.

It was God’s purpose, earlier, to spare Paul’s life. But at this later date when Paul had grown older, and obviously more and more physically incapable of continuing the grueling pace of preaching the gospel. God was going to allow him to be martyred as a result of the Roman trials.

Paul’s example proves, then, that not every “martyred death” is one which is carefully preserved in the Bible in great detail, as in the case of Stephen!

Martyrdom, then, while a great honor in God’s sight and, if a person truly is “enduring to the end,” the surest guarantee of being preserved unto God’s Kingdom, does not always necessarily come in such climactic historical fashion that all the events leading up to and including that martyrdom are carefully preserved for posterity!

Down through history, there have no doubt been thousands and tens of thousands who have been martyred for the direct cause and purpose of Jesus Christ of Nazareth and His gospel, and whose names are not even known to any of us! Were they all in some state of spiritual inferiority prior to martyrdom? Nonsense!

In order to get an insight into what the Ephesian Church was like, you must read not only the statements concerning the church at Ephesus itself (in Rev. the 2nd chapter, Paul’s epistle to Ephesus, as well as the book of Acts with Paul’s meetings with the Ephesian elders in chapter 20) but all the rest of Paul’s writings, whether concerned with the church in Corinth, Rome, Thessalonica, or Colossae.

Remember, the apostle John, writing from the island of Patmos, wrote the book of Revelation, and its message was carried in order to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.

Again, these were real cities, with real, living congregations having their own special problems depending upon their own spiritual degree of growth, their geographical and political climates. In one essential point, they appear to have had a great common affliction (mentioned again and again in Rev. 2 and 3 as “the synagogue of Satan” and “Satan’s seat”), which seemed to involve eating things sacrificed to idols, and illicit sex even in connection with religious services!

If you want of find out what kind of a Church, “spiritually,” the Ephesian Church was, then think of what all these writings reveal; some were getting drunk on the Passover, stealing, allowing open incest to exist within a certain congregation while in full knowledge of it, abusing spiritual gifts, lacking in faith, and as “babes” were unable to stand the strong meat of the Word. On the other end of the spectrum, God’s Church at Ephesus was commended by Jesus Christ Himself for their work, patience, labor and hatred of evil (Rev. 2:2-3).

God is the judge of all human flesh! (Gen. 18:25, Ps. 75:7; Ps. 96:13.) Jesus Christ is the living Head of the true Church (Eph. 1:20-23; 2:20; 4:15; Col.1:17-18). He counsels the members of God’s Church not to judge according to appearance, but to judge righteous judgment.

Judging and evaluating the spiritual strengths and weaknesses of the seven churches, whether historically or prophetically, was and is His business! He knows all, sees all, and understands all, judges without partiality. Humanly, our judgmental capacities are very limited, especially when we try to stack ourselves up in any comparison with Him.

If you had been a lay member, let us say of the Smyrna Church, would you have had the wisdom and spiritual capacity to judge the Ephesian Church in “righteous judgment” to pass judgment on the loss of their first love or their other short comings? Or would your limited vision have been slightly out of focus?

Would you have been able to carefully, correctly and cautiously apply Christ’s own judgments (Rev. 2:1-7) from your vantage point in Smyrna to the Ephesus congregation about 40 miles down the road on the Roman mail route? Would you have emphasized the good points or only the bad ones? Would you have been able to single out specific members who definitely and without a doubt suffered the loss of their first love?

Would your opinions and judgments have been based mainly on “mail-route” gossip? Of perhaps visitors from the Ephesian congregation? How reliable would our sources have been? Put yourself in the picture! Get the perspective!

Do you see how silly it is to accuse other brethren of being spiritually inferior? Jesus Christ warns in the Sermon on the Mount (the very pinnacle of His whole message in many respects): “Judge (Greek, condemn) not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged” (Matt. 7:1-2).

James the physical brother of Jesus Christ and leading apostle at the Headquarters Church in Jerusalem, wrote: “Speak not evil one of another, brethren, He that speaks evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaks evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?” (James 4:11-12). How would you have judged? What would you have said about God’s Church then?

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