The ‘Seven Ages’ Theory

Many interpreters—especially dispensationalists—believe the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 represent seven church ages, beginning with the time of the apostles and concluding with the time of the end. Through innovation and inference, one can make the descriptions of the seven churches roughly “match” various movements and events in the 2,000-year history of Christianity, thus presenting what appears to be a plausible sequence of prophetic fulfillments.

Popular evangelical author Hal Lindsey, famous for his best-selling book, The Late Great Planet Earth, follows other dispensationalists in his interpretation of the seven churches. He believes that the seven churches were literal assemblies that existed in Asia Minor at the time John wrote, and that they prophetically describe seven ages extending from the apostolic church to the church of the last days. He presented the following associations in There’s A New World Coming, his commentary on the book of Revelation:

  1. The Church in Ephesus: Apostolic Church (A.D. 33–100)

  2. The Church in Smyrna: Era of Persecution Under the Ten Caesars (A.D. 100–312)

  3. The Church in Pergamum: Era of Church-State Union (A.D. 312–590)

  4. The Church in Thyatira: Era Spanning the Middle Ages (A.D. 590–1517)

  5. The Church in Sardis: Protestant Reformation (A.D. 1517–1750)

  6. The Church in Philadelphia: Era of Revival and Great Awakening (A.D. 1750–1925)

  7. The Church in Laodicea: Era of “Higher Criticism” (A.D. 1900–Tribulation)

Others have come up with different arrangements, even identifying specific organizations and movements as “eras.” For instance, some within the Sabbath-keeping movement have attempted to identify the Church of God (Seventh Day) with Sardis; the Worldwide Church of God (or one of its offshoots) with Philadelphia; and various other bodies with Laodicea.

Of course, any such theory is speculative at best. One cannot prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the seven churches represent seven church ages. One could just as well argue that the seven churches are seven organizations or “branches” of the true church at the time of the end. But that, too, would be speculative.

The best we can do is believe—accept as fact—only those things that can be proved, and leave what cannot be proved in the vast realm of speculation. Our task, then, is to see what the Revelator—Jesus Christ—says, and what He does not say. In chapter 1, the glorified Christ has seven stars in His right hand, and is surrounded by seven golden lampstands. These stars and lampstands are obviously symbols. But what do they represent? What are the objects of these symbols?

Jesus Christ answers:

“The seven stars are the angels [messengers] of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20).

Remember, the symbols are the stars and the lampstands; the objects of those symbols—the things they symbolize—are the seven angels, or messengers, and the seven churches. There is no good reason to assume that the seven angels (symbolized by the seven stars) are themselves symbols of something else; nor is it reasonable to assume that the seven churches (symbolized by the seven golden lampstands) are symbols of church ages. The Revelator says plainly that the seven golden lampstands (obvious symbols) ARE the seven churches, and He identifies those seven churches as “seven churches which are in Asia” (1:11).

Jesus Christ is the infallible Revelator. He alone can infallibly interpret the symbols of the book of Revelation. Here, He reveals the meaning of the symbolic stars and lampstands.

Now if the infallible Revelator tells us that the seven lampstands ARE the seven churches of Asia, then we should simply believe it. All of us—including the dispensationalists—should be able to agree on this. And most—if not all—do agree on this point. As noted above, Hal Lindsey believes that the messages of Revelation 2 and 3 were sent to, and received by, seven literal churches in Asia Minor. The Sabbath-keeping “Church of God” groups that teach “church eras” also accept this. The problem is that some move beyond the Revelator’s own interpretations and begin to teach as doctrine things the Revelator did not say.

Jesus Christ did not say that the seven lampstands are seven church ages. He said plainly that the lampstands ARE the seven churches of Asia—churches located in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Therefore, if we say that we believe that the seven lampstands (churches) are something other than, or in addition to, what Christ plainly says they are, then it is imperative that we admit that we are speculating!

We can all say with certainty that the seven churches really existed, that they were located in Asia Minor, and that John wrote to them. But we cannot say with certainty that the seven churches represent seven church ages spanning some 2,000 years; nor can we say with certainty that the seven churches represent seven organizations or movements in the time of the end.

But this we can say: The messages to the seven churches are for anyone “who has an ear” and is willing to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22). So rather than engage in the unfruitful practice of labeling churches with “Laodicea” or “Philadelphia” or “Sardis,” let’s hear what the Spirit says to us in these seven messages.”

Excerpt from Here


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