We often speak about the imminent return of Christ as if it could have happened at any point in these last two millennia without really considering if that were really possible. Yes, the doctrine of imminence is a sound one. Yes the apostles themselves expected to see Christ in their lifetime, as have every generation since. However, could Christ really have returned at any point in the past 2,000 years, or was there always a predetermined time in which the Father would send the Son?
Let us consider His first coming.
From a human perspective, it would have made more sense for Jesus to make His incarnation around 185BC. This would have been three decades prior to the Maccabean Revolt and Rome had yet to rise as a great world power. Christ than could have easily led the revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes IV and his Seleucid forces and then claimed David’s throne in Jerusalem while the world powers were still in disarray. This would have completely dismantled one of the main arguments the Jews have today, chiefly, that Jesus did not throw off the gentile yoke of bondage (Gentile rule) when He was here.
But that is from a human perspective.
God being omniscient already knew the Jews of 185BC were not ready for the kingdom. They were not ready in 185BC; neither would they be in 27AD. Not because they did not have a temple (they did), and not because they were not religious enough (they were). They were only looking for a great leader to set Israel up as the head of nations. They were not, however, ready to change their hearts. Besides, the Jews were still largely divided on when and how the Messiah should come. Furthermore, if Christ had come earlier than when He did, Daniel 9:24-27 would not make sense. The prophetic word would have been broken.
Secondly, they were also divided on who would come. Would it be Messiah ben Joseph or Messiah ben David? There were two pictures of the Messiah in the Old Testament, and they in large part, could not reconcile the two into one coming. One was coming as a suffering servant (Isaiah 53), and the other as a conquering king (Zechariah 14). [Side note: similarly, many pastors, teachers, and Christian leaders today cannot reconcile Christ’s return in two stages].
Would the Messiah be a priestly teacher and craftsman, or would he be a warrior-king? Alternatively, could he be another prophet and leader like Moses? It seemed most had already given up hope that anyone would literally come at all. Perhaps this is why only a handful of Jews were actively anticipating the arrival of the Hamashiach when He actually did arrive (Luke 2:8-38). Regarding this anticipation, however, was the arrival of the most unlikely of people, Gentiles (Parthians) from the East who came to pay homage to the One born King of the Jews (Matthew 2).
Lucky for us, we do not have to speculate on such issues. Regarding God’s perfect timing and the infusion of His Son into His creation, the Apostle Paul writes, but when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4-5). There was a specific time when God the Father knew He would send God the Son into the human realm to redeem mankind. This is why although I understand the scriptural concept of imminence and our inability to know God’s timing; I am continually drawn back to the Seven Letters to the Seven Churches as found in Revelation 2-3.
The beauty and mystery of these seven letters from our Lord are that they are so rich in application and meaning, that we today (21 centuries removed) have been unable to fully plumb the depths of their meaning. However, many great Biblical scholars have over the past two millennia, have been able to give us a more insightful picture of the basic constructs of these two magnificent chapters. First, the letters themselves have a four-fold application.
They were written to literal, historical churches in John’s day (circa 95AD).
They have applications to the individuals in churches of all ages
These letters have corporate applications to churches of all ages.
Because of the number (seven), particular selection (from Asia Minor), and arrangement of these churches (the order given to John), they hold significant prophetic application.
Many Christian leaders I have spoken to about these simply write this off as nonsense. They only want to apply point number one to Revelation 2-3. However, Jesus could have addressed any number of larger and more important churches in the Roman Empire at that time. There would have been hundreds to thousands by 95AD.
Yet, His message was to seven relatively unknown churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), of which, He then addresses in a particular order. The order of arrangement, in conjunction with the names and specific issues they are undergoing, coincides with how history has largely played out. In other words, their arrangement serves as the order of the epochs or eras by which Christendom would proceed through the centuries. God does not do things either accidentally or arbitrarily. To think otherwise is to question God’s omniscience.
If these letters speak prophetically to the unfolding ages of the Church, then surely, one of them should be identified as the time when Christ could return. And if that is the case, then the issue is not so much with diminishing or even denying the doctrine of imminence, but the imminent return during a particular period of time during those two-thousand years. Granted, nobody knows the day nor hour (Mark 13:32), so from our perspective, imminence still holds sway over every generation since that first Pentecost (Acts 1-2). Even Paul’s writings were expectant of Christ’s return in his day. Yet, as he drew closer to his impending death, Paul seemed resigned to the fact that the “catching up” (harpazo) that he himself taught, would not occur in his lifetime.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. 2 Timothy 4:6-8
So given that imminence is not diminished by holding to the Seven Churches as Seven Epoch’s view, we can proceed easily with the prophetic picture in mind. While it would have been impossible to see the seven churches as church ages to that first-century audience, we must keep one thing in mind, God is not bound or constrained by time. He exists apart from it and knows (and declares) the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-10). Time and how it unfolds is not a mystery to God. So why then would God give that to churches in the first century? Well, for two reasons;
The canon of New Testament Scripture would be closed in the first century by the last living Apostle (John).
That Revelation would be as relevant to those early first-century believers, as it would be to us here in the 21st-century (and all in between).
Every generation would find meaning and relevance in the messages Christ gave to those seven churches. We here in the 21st-century, have the luxury of looking back and seeing how all these have unfolded historically. And history very much coincides with this idea of stages of the church. We know historically that the apostle John was the last apostle still living (being in his 80s or 90s) when he received the Revelation in 95AD. Church tradition holds that he left Jerusalem for Asia Minor around the early to mid-60s. He then became the bishop of a number of churches in that area. It was at this point, (after Domitian becomes emperor) that Domitian attempted to have John executed. However, John was neither harmed nor died in the process, therefore, Domitian had him exiled.
The church father Tertullian records the story of John being immersed in boiling oil and emerging unscathed. It was at Rome, Tertullian writes, that “the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile” on Patmos (ANF, vol. 3, Prescription Against Heretics 36)
Source: Litfin, Bryan. After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2015.
Since Domitian could not kill John, he did with him what he did with others (ex. the Empress Domitia Flavia). Contrast this with those who support the early writing of Revelation circa 65AD. Emperor Nero simply had his opponents killed and the two names we see this happen to are the Apostles Paul and Peter (John 21:18) (Foxes Book of Martyrs Chapter 1). Neither men were spared by the Lord but were allowed to die under Nero. We also have the words of Irenaeus (disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John’s) in his Against Heresies, Book V, and Chapter 3.3 writes;
Inasmuch, then, as this name Titan has so much to recommend it, there is a strong degree of probability, that from among the many [names suggested], we infer, that perchance he who is to come shall be called Titan. We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.
Irenaeus, once removed from John’s ministry, served directly under his mentor Polycarp, who was a personal disciple of John’s. Clearly, this pinpoints the time of the Apocalypse (the Revelation) to the end of Domitian’s reign (he died in 96AD). Still, the seven churches Jesus addresses in Revelation were literal churches in John’s day. Not only that but because there were literally hundreds to thousands of churches by 95AD the Lord could have used, means that there was a specific reason He did so.
There were larger congregations at that time in places like Corinth, Galatia, Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, etc. He chose the quantity, type, and location for very specific reasons. He then gave them to John in a particular order because God does not do things arbitrarily or accidentally. These seven were not selected because they had issues only unique to themselves, but to all churches (he who has an ear). Furthermore, as the number seven holds (biblically speaking) to the number of plenitude or completion/perfection so that the seven churches then represent all churches of all time.
Even within each type of church, we can see the different types of believers represented by the corporate image of each church. For example, within the Sardis-era, (the era in which one type of church dominates Christendom) we can see Philadelphian or Laodicean types of believers. We also note that Jesus had seven kingdom parables, which overlap with His seven letters, which can be overlapped with Paul’s epistles to seven churches (excluding duplicates, personal letters, and Hebrews [which remained unsigned]). These letters are to the churches at:
Image courtesy Clarence Larkin:
Philadelphia-Thessalonians -Parable of the Pearl of Great Price
Thyatira- Galatians -Parable of Leaven
Pergamos- Corinthians -Parable of the Mustard Seed
Smyrna- Philippians -Parable of the Wheat and Tares
Laodicea- Colossians -Parable of the Dragnet
Ephesus- Ephesians -Parable of the Sower
Sardis- Romans -Parable of the Treasure of the Field
There are also seven subsections within each of the letters:
Introduction or title of Christ
Promise to the Overcomer
For five of the churches, they receive all seven. Two churches receive no criticism from the Lord (Smyrna and Philadelphia) and one receives no praise (Laodicea). Furthermore, the names of the churches hold significance. Most everyone is familiar with Philadelphia meaning “brotherly love,” but the rest of the names hold significance as well. So we have the etymology of what the words mean, and then we have the definition that Christ uses as the overarching theme of the church (or epoch). For example, the word Ephesus derives from the Greek word ephoros, which means overseer.
However, we see Christ addressing them as loveless. So between the Greek etymology and Christ’s definition, we have a picture of a church of overseers who have left their first love. Smyrna at its root means’ myrrh, a fragrance used on dead bodies. However, the picture we get is one of a church that is being crushed by the world. However, you only get the sweet fragrance of myrrh when it is crushed. Pergamos means height, which corresponds with Rev. 2:13’s mention of where Satan’s throne is. This corresponds to Paul’s mention in Ephesians 2:2 that Satan is the prince of the power of the air.
How much more significant do these last messages (epistles) from Christ to the churches become, when we see them in this prophetic light? Didn’t Christ tell us that He would tell us things beforehand, so when they happened, we would believe (John 13:19, 14:29)? Finally, we know that when John was given the Revelation, he was told to write it in a specific fashion. John was not tasked with regurgitating history (like the destruction of Jerusalem 25 years earlier), but to write exactly what he is told. Revelation 1:19 states,
Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.
What John sees is the vision of the glorified Christ in Chapter 1. The things which are (in 95AD until today) are the churches in Chapters 2-3. The things which come after the churches are the events found within and after the 70th Week of Daniel, as found in Chapters 4-22. That is the most simple, and logical way to understand Revelation.
When the apostle John saw the glorified Christ, he saw Him walking amongst the lampstands (KJV) holding seven stars in His right hand. We know by Revelation 1:20, that the lampstands represented the churches, and that the stars (ä’n-ge-los) represented the messengers (I believe ‘pastors’) in that position of honor by holding them in His right hand. We know that God gave the Revelation of Jesus Christ to us in a particular descending order; from the Father to the Son, from the Son to the angels, from the angels to John, from John to book form, and the book was given to these ä’n-ge-los (messengers/pastors) to give to the people.
Author’s note: These dates are estimates, not approximates. Also, after the dividing line, the churches overlap each other like layers.
Ephesus: (30-100AD) Paul had previously taught and written to the church of Ephesus (Acts 18-20, Ephesians) and devoted a significant amount of time and energy teaching them the deeper mysteries of Christ and the church. However, by 95AD, something had begun to happen. Here, they are reprimanded by Christ for having left their first love. What that is exactly we do not know, however, Paul had warned them (Acts 20:28-31) that after his departure, savage wolves would come in not sparing the flock. Paul instructs the young pastor Timothy to remain in Ephesus to prevent them from being divided over spurious and pointless issues (1 Tim. 2:3-4).
Ephesus is largely considered representative of the apostolic churches which largely died out after the first century since the apostles were tasked with spreading the gospel. Once the apostles died out, their disciples and the rest of the early church fathers were attempting to keep these churches intact. However, by 95AD, only John remained alive. There is no promise to return and remove these believers from the earth, but only to remove their candlestick, which is to remove them from being a church.
Smyrna: (100-312AD) Although the periods of intense persecution began prior to 100AD (Nero and Domitian), the subsequent two centuries would provide the next eight periods of intense pagan persecution and poverty for the fledgling church. According to the Foxes Book of Martyrs, the following emperors either encouraged or tolerated the persecution of Christians during their reigns: Trajan (108AD), Marcus Aurelius (162), Severus (192), Maximus (235), Decius (249), Valerian (257), Aurelian (274), and lastly Diocletian (303AD). Emperor Constantine would go on to convert and legalize Christianity across the empire. This letter from the Lord contains no criticism, only that they endure and their reward will be the Crown of Life.
Pergamos: (312-600AD) The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) was given by Christ to His disciples to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations. Unfortunately, after the legalization of Christianity, instead of the church going out into the world, the world came into the church. Here, the merging of Roman paganism crosses the threshold of Christian churches. Lord’s promise of return here is not a good promise, but a threat; that if they don’t repent, the Lord Himself would come and fight against them. What had been the deeds of the Nicolai tan’s in Ephesus, became doctrine in Pergamos.
Pergamos is the last of the seven letters to have the two subsections (task and promise) placed in that order. From henceforth, they are reversed to promise and task. It is my belief (as many others) that these churches no longer exist in shape, type, or form.
However, we will see the remaining four churches come out of what was left of Pergamos.
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Thyatira: (600-Present) To the Church of Thyatira, Jesus commends them that their last works were more than their first. However, they tolerate a prophetess named Jezebel to teach sexual immorality in their church. He spends much of this letter condemning them for many things and His promise to return is limited to only those within this church who do not hold to the Jezebel doctrine nor have sought out the depths of Satan. This last part could refer to the numerous mystery and esoteric groups which have arisen from the Roman Catholic Church (e.g., Templars, Jesuits, Rosicrucians, Illuminati, etc.)
Sardis: (1517-Present) If Pergamos represents the Roman Catholic Church, then Sardis represents the Protestant Reformers who came out of the Roman Catholic system here with Sardis. What began as a blazing torch leading millions out of the dark ages of Catholic subjugation and domination, quickly became a shrinking candle. This shrinking came in part from embracing the unbiblical principles of the Augustinian Amillennialism of Roman Catholicism. While Christ commends some within this church, He refers to the majority as a “dead church.” In other words, they have a dead orthodoxy and dead orthopraxy. The promise to return to the church at Sardis was a warning (Rev. 3:3). Since they no longer watched for His return, His return would be like that of a thief. Since the mid-1800s, a growing schism has occurred within the Protestant churches, largely due to eschatological differences. Those who did not favor or believe in a literal, physical return of Jesus Christ, remained, while those who did, began the next great church age.
Philadelphia: (1730-Present) Out of the smoldering coals of the dying Reformation fires, came a Spirit-driven spiritual revival in Europe and America called the First Great Awakening. Here, we see the great missionary movements begin to set out unto all the world, sharing the light of the Gospel to every nation. This was followed by the Second Great Awakening beginning in the 1790s, and the Third, in the 1850s. At this time, the United States and Europe were essentially Acts 2 (had basic Judeo-Christian foundations) audiences. As time moved on, the Awakenings would get smaller and smaller as the West became increasingly an Acts 19 culture. Out of all the letters, only this one has a promise to remove the Church altogether from this world. The rest of the letters, when taken in context, offer no such promise.
Laodicea: (1900-Present) Unsurprisingly, as the Great Awakenings began to spring up across the nation, pseudo-Christian groups also began to leech on and lead many astray. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when these apostate movements began to make serious headway, but by 1900, they were firmly entrenched into Western society through the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and so forth. We also see the Charismatic movement begin around 1906 with the Azusa Street Revival. While not condemning the charismatic movement writ large, many of the false teachers today (health and wealth, prosperity, dominionist gospel, as well as Hebrew Roots, and Emerging Church movements) all seemingly have their roots connected back to someone in the charismatic movement. This church believes they lack nothing but are poor, blind, and naked in Christ’s view. No promise is made by Christ to come, only a severe rebuke and chastening to repent. Christ stands outside this church knocking on the door.
The Eventuality of Apostasy
If history is any guide, every denomination ultimately ends up in the theological gutter. The key issue always involves a turning away from the literal understanding of the Word of God, and a turning towards embracing the world. Church services went from heartfelt worship to loud, gaudy, theatrical worship productions followed by a sugary message to comfort the masses. The preachers went from preaching the Word to preaching about Social Justice or how to get their best life now. What began as Seeker Sensitive, has now largely moved younger crowds into (or towards) the Emergent Church with its highly ambiguous doctrines, seeking after highly-subjective experiential worship. This, adding in services trying their very best to please everyone, while not offending anyone.
Mainline churches are bending in all areas of contention these days with respect to where biblical standards clash with modern society. The culture war has been heating up at every level, and churches all across the fruited plain are falling left and right in order to avoid receiving either the heavy-handed media criticism, protests, and/or political abuse that comes to those who take a stand for biblical standards. Would this have been applicable even 50 years ago? Hardly. America has largely moved from the Acts 2 crowd (a crowd with a biblical understanding) to an Acts 19 crowd (largely ignorant pagans).
Furthermore, what is left of Christendom after the Church is raptured, will be nothing short of blasphemous, and antichrist to the core. Even now we are beginning to see this materialize with more and more clergy affirming (and even participating) in gay marriage ceremonies, promoting transgenderism and gender fluidity, pedophilia, “Christ-consciousness,” promoting Chrislam (and other non-Christian mergers into Christianity), and the outright denials of biblical truths. This final variation of the “the church” is identified as the “whore” in Revelation 17 and is led by none other than the False Prophet (Rev 13) who ultimately ends up directing everyone to worship the Antichrist upon pain of death.
Author’s second note: Some in the hyper-dispensational crowds have moved to further divide the New Testament Pauline Epistles from that of the General Epistles (to include the churches in Revelation 2-3). This is an attempt to link them to a “works-based” Jewish-Tribulation Gospel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus tells the churches here “he who has an ear, let him hear,” these messages were just as important to the churches then (1st century) as they are today. Furthermore, Revelation 1:19 states how we are to understand the whole of the book. The churches then (and their symbolic ages) were the things which are, not the things hereafter as these hyper-dispensationalists suggest.