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Chapters 2 and 3: The Church through the centuriesThe early Church
In chapter 1, Jesus Christ presented Himself to John, who is in exile on the Greek island of Patmos. He has just asked him to write in a book everything he is about to see, and send copies of that book to seven of the Churches in Asia Minor. The first Church is the one of Ephesus.
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;
In Greek, "ephesis" means "a great desire", "a great drive", especially when one is new at something and desires to learn more about it and to become good at it. This corresponds to the Christian Church in her early stages, during which she had the burden of spreading this new teaching to all of the Roman world and beyond, and history tells us that those first Christians were very enthusiastic about their mission.
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:
2:3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
An evil person would not want to be a member of this Church, because these Christians, at least during the initial phases of the Church's existence, used to give all their possessions to the Church and the poor. Even at times when this was not common practice, there was no motive for an evil person to join the Christian community, as the latter had little power and was often persecuted. In other words, the early Church "could not bear them which are evil".
Enthusiasm was quickly diminished, as Christians were disappointed that Jesus did not return during the first century CE, as many had been expecting.
2:4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
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.
In those times, being the leader of a Christian congregation meant that one had a cross to carry, since there were continuous threats to the Christian community by the powers of the old order.
2:6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.
In Greek, "niko" means "I win" and "laos" is "the people". So, the "Nicolaitanes" should mean those who try to win the favour of the people and rule over them. As discussed above, those were very few in the early Church. The local presbyters and bishops were truly servants to their flocks, and did not, with some exceptions, seek to obtain personal power. Such attitudes would have led to divisions and conflicts, and the Church, still young and fragile, could not afford such phenomena, as they would compromise her very existence.
And this completes the description of the Church of Ephesus.
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.
The persecuted Church
The next period of Church History was characterized by massive persecutions against Christians, in reaction to the growth of the new religion.
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;
"Smyrna" is "myrrh", used to make a sacrifice pleasurable to God or the gods. This Church suffered through many tribulations, and many times was she deprived of her possessions, her buildings, and her right to worship God the way she wanted. This was because she was growing rapidly and was becoming dangerous to the existing order, so she had to be drastically dealt with. In times of relative peace, though, there were many false Christians, usually presbyters or bishops, seeking to obtain personal power. This was due, in part, to the growth of the Christian movement, due to which the Christian communities were now stronger and more self-sufficient. Their leaders thus gradually obtained more power and influence. Consequently, a leading position in a Christian community was now becoming more attractive to people seeking such power and influence, evil people in most cases. This situation led to a loosening of the bonds between local congregations. Rivalries thus appeared. Heresies flourished and meaningless disputes took place, with dark motives in most cases.
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.
"Jews" is a metaphor for "Christians", since the latter are the ones that are "truly circumcised". This metaphor can be found in Paul's Epistles.
There were many persecutions, even from Nero's time, but the fiercest of all was the one started by Diocletian in January 303. Churches were destroyed, books were burnt, most Christian property was confiscated, and many Christians martyred. In 304, it became obligatory by law that everyone should worship the Graeco-Roman Pantheon only. After Diocletian's abdication in 305, the persecution was continued mainly in the Eastern part of the Empire, where the Christians were more numerous, but with a gradually decreasing severity. In January 313, the Edict of Milan, which established freedom of worship, was issued by Constantine. It was also decided that all confiscated Christian property should be returned to Christians.
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.
From 303 to 313 ten years can be counted (the actual persecution had ended before the start of the year 313, but, using the ancient way of estimating time, ten years can be counted from 303 to 312). In the book of Ezekiel it is said that a prophetic "day" corresponds to an actual year, so ten years are symbolized by ten days.
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.
The Empire becomes Christian
Christianity was then recognized and adopted by the Empire, for which the decisive event was Emperor Constantine's favourable attitude towards it and later conversion to it. Christianity gradually became the official religion of the Empire.
2:12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges;
"Pergamos" can be translated in Greek as "super-marriage", or "a marriage that is larger than proper". Religion was married to the State, and religious leaders often tried to obtain temporal power by forming alliances with temporal leaders. The dispute between Areianism and Orthodoxy was a clear example of this situation, where one side would use the temporal leaders to undermine the other side.
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.
The Church was now seated on the throne of Satan, meaning that she had won the battle against the ancient polytheistic religion. It can also mean that she had become a friend of the Empire, which had been a bitter enemy of the Word of God during the previous centuries. In chapter 12, it will be shown that the term "Dragon" or "Satan" refers to the powers that are hostile to the Word of God and are, in this case, embodied by the religion of the Graeco-Roman Pantheon and its representatives. "Antipas" is a composition of two Greek words, meaning "against all", and referring to the persecutions, now in the past, where the Christians had been opposing the whole of the old world order.
The "Nicolaitanes" were flourishing during the era of Pergamos. Well known are the fights between bishops for power. The Areian issue sparked much dispute, and the battle over supremacy between the different Patriarchates would ultimately lead to the great Schism of 1054 between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, in essence present for many centuries before that time.
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.
2:15 So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.
In what way are the "Nicolaitanes" guilty of fornication and idol worship? The Apostle Paul, in one of his Epistles, incites the believers not to be divided into fractions and say "I am a follower of Paul" or "I am a follower of Apollos", but that all should have a common leader, the Word of God. In Paul's days, as has been shown above, such phenomena of division were not the rule. But, as the Christian communities grew stronger and larger, being the leader of such a community became increasingly associated with temporal power. As a result, divisions arose, and the situation described by Paul was now becoming more and more common. Paul said that, when one views oneself as a follower of Paul or Apollos, one forgets about Christ. The Church is symbolically said to be the Bride of Christ, because she is supposed to have the Word of God inside her. But, if the Church forgets about the Word of God, or Christ, and follows other leaders, she commits adultery against Him. And this is why the "Nicolaitanes" (meaning, as discussed above, those who try to win the favour of the people and rule over them), much like Balaam and Balac, were leading the "children of Israel", in this case symbolizing the members of the Church, to commit fornication. Idol worship is the worship of something other than the true God, so the act of following leaders other than the Word of God is, indeed, a form of idol worship.
2:16 Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
And that was the situation of things in the centuries after Emperor Constantine's time.
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.
The Church in the West
Incited by the Bishopric of Rome and forced by the circumstances, the Church in the West slowly separated herself from her Eastern counterpart.
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;
Contrarily to what was going on in the East, the West was in turmoil after the invasions and settlement of mostly Germanic tribes. The Catholic Church undertook the great work of keeping both religion and knowledge alive, mainly through her numerous monasteries, and she also spread the Word of God to Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, the Baltic regions, Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, etc.
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.
I can't say for sure whether "Thyatira" (or, rather, "Thyateira") means something, but, through a (not very satisfactory) play of (half) words, it could mean "sacrifice to the Empress". The Empress would be the Church of Rome, here named "the woman Jezebel", who fell into the error of the Nicolaitanes and demanded to be worshipped herself, instead of teaching her flock to worship the Lord only. She had once been the Church of Christ, but now she was the Church of Rome; she was not Christ's anymore. In other words, she had committed adultery against her Husband. To follow the Roman Pontiff instead of the Christ is an obvious form of adultery and idol worship. "Jezebel", many centuries later, as history tells us, would be deprived of most of her power, and the results of her "fornication" would disappear from the face of the earth. "Thyatira", through another unsatisfactory play of (half) words, could mean "the sacrifice of the Latins".
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.
2:21 And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.
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.
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.
In the Greek text, verse 2:20 reads: "because thou sufferest thy woman Jezebel...", meaning that Jezebel is in Thyatira, and the interpretation is that the Church of Rome is a part of the whole Western Church. That part would ultimately gain control of the entire Western Church and completely sever her off from her Eastern sister, while placing her own glory above the glory of Christ throughout the whole Western world.
But, apart from those who were promoting the Pontiff's supremacy, the Catholics throughout Europe were, at that time, as mentioned above, engaged in great works.
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.
2:25 But that which ye have already hold fast till I come.
These works would prove to be fundamental contributions to the waking up of Europe after the Dark Ages.
2:26 And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:
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.
2:28 And I will give him the morning star.
2:29 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
The corrupted Church
The Catholic Church, over the centuries, mutated into a veritable theocracy, where the Pope of Rome was the supreme ruler, the representative of Christ on earth, whose authority was not to be questioned.
There were no more pagans left to evangelize, so the missionary spirit gradually died down. This is the age of the Inquisition, first established in Toulouse, France, in 1233. It is the age of the abominable Indulgences (forgiveness of sins by the Pope in exchange for money) and of a worldly and corrupted Church, resistant to change and progress. Great campaigns for the silencing of those who disagreed with the Church took place, like the persecution of the Albigenses, the Waldenses and the Hussites, leading to innumerable martyrdoms of true Christian believers. That Church, sadly, no longer had the life-giving Spirit of Christ in her.
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.
Sardis (or, rather, Sardeis) had been, for a time, the ancient Persian capital, and it was well known for its riches. The Roman Catholic Church did in fact accumulate vast riches during this time, augmented by the later colonization of overseas territories by Catholic countries. The Church did not seem interested in spreading the Word of God anymore, except to the aforementioned colonies, the crimes committed against which are much better known than their evangelization by the explorers/conquerors.
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.
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.
It should be stressed, though, that quite a few clergymen and a large number of ordinary people were still faithful to Christ, even though they were outnumbered by those who, out of convenience or ignorance, were worshipping Rome instead of Him.
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.
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.
3:6 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
The enlightened Church
But eventually the human mind woke up. The Renaissance began, and a new understanding of the Word of God was sought, mainly through the Protestant Reformation. New doors were opened to the human mind.
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;
"Philadelphia" (yes, the Greek spelling is "Philadelpheia") means "to love one's brothers", and Christians once again became brothers during this era. The Bible was now available for everyone to read, not imprisoned in dead languages. The Church now had little temporal power, but she was a much more real Church than in the previous centuries. This was true for the Catholic countries as well, after the Church lost much of her temporal power in those countries.
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.
In many countries, Roman Catholics converted to Protestantism, abandoning the sterile teachings of Rome to embrace this new understanding of religion, which re-discovered the Scriptures and made them available to the people. Catholicism itself was renewed through the Counter-Reformation, which, although led by the controversial Jesuit order, gave emphasis to education and revived the missionary spirit. The so-called Christians of the Dark and Middle Ages thus slowly evolved into truer Christians.
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.
This renewed Christian fervour lasted for a few centuries, and then it died down, mainly because of the scientific and technological progress and the great increase in wealth ("temptation") which characterizes the present era.
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.
The Church would never again be as alive as in the time of the Church of Philadelphia.
3:11 Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
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.
3:13 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Today's lukewarm Church
Let's take a look at the Church of the present day.
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;
"Laodicea" (Laodiceia) means "the judgment of the people" or "the judgment by the people". If the first one is correct, it could mean that there is to be some kind of "judgment" during or immediately after the "reign" of this Church. Anyhow, this Church is characterized by spiritual indifference. Not rejection of religion, like in the French or Russian Revolutions, which at least shows that one is spiritually awake, but indifference, which shows spiritual staleness.
3:15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
3:16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
In this day, we have become dependent on material things, and have forgotten about the world of the mind and spirit. We do not strive to fill ourselves with spiritual virtues, but to fill our houses with material possessions instead.
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:
The way out of this error is not through the deprivation of material goods, but through the accumulation of spiritual knowledge. These are dangerous times we are living in, and only through the cultivation of the mind and spirit can we make good use of our age's material prosperity.
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.
Our thirst for material goods has led, in this era, to the greatest catastrophes humankind has ever known, including the destruction of the environment. I believe that, having learned much from these catastrophes, we are slowly beginning to emerge out of this spiritual hibernation.
3:19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
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.
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.
This analysis may seem arbitrary to some, but I can't help but observe that there are striking similarities between the Seven Churches and the outline of actual Church History. Jesus asks us to hear with our spiritual, and not literal, ears, meaning that He wants us to understand a hidden meaning behind these messages to the Seven Churches. Throughout the Apocalypse, a group of seven things denotes a chronological sequence of events or situations with a common theme. Seven also denotes totality. Thus, the Seven Churches must symbolize the course of the Church throughout history.
3:22 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.