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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Church history through the 7 churches of Revelation



Revelation 3:14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this"

As the church of Jesus Christ has passed over the chilly waters of history these past 2,000 years, the reason for her continuing success has been due to the Rock upon which she is built.  In Matthew 16:18 Jesus stated: "I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it."  Much ink has been spilled on account of the exact interpretation of the word "rock".  Some have suggested Peter as the rock or perhaps the faith of the Christian.  However there is only one "rock" that is fit to be the true foundation of the church, Jesus Christ Himself. (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:7) 

As you turn to Revelation 2-3, you find Jesus' 
letters to the seven churches.  The seven churches are literal historical churches that together constitute a representative picture of every church of all ages and all times.  We know this by virtue of the fact that each letter ends with the statement: "Let him who has ears let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the seven churches." (Revelation 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22). Some well-known commentators over the years have come to understand the seven churches as representative of seven successive or simultaneous divisions of church history.  Though this blog writer may not take such a view as far as some would, nevertheless the characteristics of the seven churches can prove instructive. Furthermore, in viewing these seven churches as corresponding to various periods or traits of The Church's journey through time, we can grasp how much Jesus Christ has done by being the "Rock" upon which the church is being built until His return.  

Period #1 Ephesian Period   30-100 AD
Jesus promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would be sent in His name by the Father on the day of Pentecost.  When the Spirit came and the church began to spread through the preaching of the Apostles, false teachers and error began to creep alongside and then into the church.  Peter had to contend with Simon the Magician and Paul had to battle the Judaizers.  The Apostle John himself is recorded in church history as having to contend with the heretic Cerinthius1 who attempted to mix works salvation, Christianity and immorality.  As the Apostolic era drew to a close, we find in at least seven places in the New Testament warnings about the church experiencing wide spread falling away. Love was growing cold. Thankfully by the end of the first century, the New Testament was complete and with a completed canon of scripture (Old and New Testament books), Jesus had by His Spirit equipped future generations of Christians with the only foundation sufficient for faith and practice - the Bible.     

Period #2 The Smyrnan Period  100-313 AD
As the church was battling false teachers internally, persecutions from the Roman Empire increased.  In reading the great historian Philip Shaff's work "history of the Christian Church", we can count from Nero2 in 54 A.D to Diocletian's3 persecutions 303-311 a total of 10 major periods of trial in the early church.  The Smyrna church was noted for being the most persecuted of the seven churches, and so this is why some have marked the period from 100-313 A.D as having a "Smyrnan" like character.  In all reality there has never been in age where martyrdom or persecution of Christians has not been going on in the world.  In fact in the past twenty or so years, more Christians have been martyred for the faith than in all previous centuries combined.  Nevertheless Jesus Christ raised up godly men like Polycarp, Iranaeus, Tertullian4 and others to proclaim the inerrant scriptures to the church.

Periods #3,4,5 Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis 313-1517 AD
It is here where we see the next three churches in Revelation 2:12-3:16 represent increasing levels of compromise and shrinking levels of true believers in proportion to non-believers in the church.  Pergamum pictures the marriage between the church and the state, beginning with Constantine in 313 A.D and ending with the official first Pope of the Roman Catholic church, Gregory I in 590 A.D. Thyatira represents increasing tolerance of false teaching that would characterize the church of the early Middle Ages from 590-800. Then we see the Sardis representing a dead church of formality and ritual that came to be the church from 800-1517.5 Jesus never let His church totally die nor get completely overthrown.  In the history of the church He raised up such men as Athanasius, Augustine, John Wycliff and John Huss as well as such movements as the Waldensians and Lollards.6  The names and identities are not near as important as the Gospel they preached and the Christ they proclaimed.  The shining star of Jesus in God's Word kept lit the otherwise darkened sky of the church.

Periods #6,#7 Philadelphia and Laodicea 1517-1800; 1800 - Present
In these final two churches we see a major contrast between Philadelphia the faithful missionary church and Laodicea the faithless selfish church.  In the years between 1517 to 1800 we witness movements such as the Protestant Reformation, led by such men as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and Menno Simons7, and later on John Wesley's Methodist Revivals and Jonathan Edwards Puritan revivals.  Both Edwards and Wesley were representative leaders of a move of God in the 1700's called by historians "The First Great Awakening".8 Both of these movements and others like them demonstrate that Jesus Christ has never left his church.  In the period of time I would classify between 1800 to present, we have seen the church experience liberalism, globalism and influences from Eastern religion and Paganism alike.  Thankfully the Lord Jesus Christ has raised up men like D.L Moody, Billy Graham (in his early years), John MacArthur, Adrian Rogers and others to proclaim the truth of the Gospel in this final act of church history.9 Women too like Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon have been used of the Lord to urge the church to pursue Christ's command to go into all the world and make disciples.10  

Conclusion
In this overview of church history through the lenses of the seven churches, we have witnessed how Jesus Christ as the Head and Founder of the church is the Rock upon which the church is built.  Through every age and every threat, Jesus has kept His promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail.  Jesus Christ is the Faithful and True Witness who rules over His church by means of the preaching and teaching of God's Word and the Spirit's ongoing work through His people.  

Endnotes:
1. Cerinthius was a 1st century heretic who lived at the same time as the Apostle John

2. Romans Emperor Nero's persecutions were during the ministry of the Apostle Paul

3. Diocletian was a Roman Emporer who ruled Rome before Constantine

4. Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John who was martyred. Irenaeus wrote many books defending Christianity against the heresies of his day at the end of the second century. Tertullian began his ministry at the beginning of the third century (200's) and is considered the first Latin speaking church father. 

5. I'll admit that the dates I am assigning the various "periods" are somewhat different from what other writers may assign.  To me, the interpretation that favors Revelation 2-3 as literally corresponding to a seven-fold division of church history is instructive and perhaps even helpful, however I don't tend to view it as a primary interpretation of the passage.  Often too, historical summary of any period of time is as much of an art as a science, meaning that thought we have information about men and movements, nevertheless our own doctrinal leanings or current situation will influence what we emphasize in our telling of history.

6. Athanasius was a major proponent of the doctrine of the Trinity and Deity of Christ in the fourth century.  Augustine wrote over 100 books on Christian theology and is considered next to the Apostle Paul the most influential Christian writer of church history. John Wycliff and John Huss were precursors to the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther. John Wycliff translated the 1st entire English Bible and John Huss was martyred roughly a century before Luther.The Waldensian and Lollards were Christian groups whose doctrine mirrored similar tenets of the Baptists that would come out of the Reformation.

7. Martin Luther led the German wing of the Reformation.  John Calvin was leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli was leader of the reformation in Switzerland and Menno Simons is credited partially with the founding of groups such as the Amish and Mennonites.  

8. Jonathan Edwards is considered by man the greatest theologian ever produced on American soil and main leader of the first great awakening.  John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist movement and lived around the same time as Edwards. 

9. D.L Moody was a nineteenth century evangelist who started Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.  Billy Graham was a household name and for a long time and at least in his early years, known for his consistent stand on the Gospel.  Adrian Rogers was for decades a statesman and pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention and John MacArthur is known for his solid verse by verse preaching of the scripture and is pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley California, President of the Master's College and Seminary and Grace to You Radio Program. 

10. Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon are two big names in the history of Southern Baptist Missions that lived in the nineteenth century.

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