One thing I appreciate about the great Baptist, John Gill, is (1) he commented on every single verse in the Bible, and (2) he complimented that with a comprehensive systematic theology textbook. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I do appreciate his careful approach to Scripture and theology. His cut on the seven congregations in Revelation is fascinating.
The Seven Churches’ Prophetical Framework
Gill, though not a dispensationalist (he’s historic premillennial), sees the seven congregations as seven “church-state” periods. To be fair, he does take them as literal, local congregations, but also prophetical of seven church-state eras. His arguments for doing so are compelling.
First, the whole book is prophetical; thus, the messages to these local congregations must be prophetical, too. Second, Jesus prefaces His message to them by saying, “Write therefore the things the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this” (Rev. 1:19). Third, a “theophany” occurs in Revelation 4, and then prophetic revelations are given. Likewise, a “Christophany” occurs in Revelation 1, and then prophetic church-state revelations are given. Fourth, why were these seven obscure congregations chosen instead of more prominent congregations like Antioch, Corinth, Rome, etc.? Fifth, Thyatira didn’t even exist at the time the revelation was given, according to Epiphanius (in the 4th century). Finally, the literal sense of some statements are yet to be fulfilled: (1) Smyrna receiving a crown of life; (2) Pergamos receiving hidden manna and a white stone; and, (3) Philadelphia being delivered from temptation that would spread throughout the entire world.
For these reasons, Gill suggests that the message to the seven churches in Revelation carries with it future, prophetic eras which Christ’s churches must endure. As such, these successive church-eras become the chronological framework by which Gill interprets the rest of the book of Revelation. Most of the rest of the book’s prophecies, he suggests, fall within the Philadelphia and Laodicean church-state periods.
The Seven Prophetic Church-States
Let me be clear: Gill completely agrees that the timeless truths issued to these 1st century congregations apply to 21st century congregations, too. He merely sees them also as prophetical of several periods until Christ’s glorious appearing, as follows:
- Ephesus is consistent with the apostolic church-state when the churches “lost their first love” focus after the apostles died.
- Smyrna is consistent with the church-state which suffered tribulation and martyrdom under heavy Roman persecution in the post-apostolic era.
- Pergamos is consistent with the church-state which largely resisted papal authority under Constantine, but some still held to their teaching.
- Thyatira is consistent with the church-state in the Dark Ages under Roman Catholicism until the light of the Reformation. Gill notes the Roman Catholic Church even had a “she pope” (female pope) during that time period, which he equates with the spirit “Jezebel.”1The Roman Catholic Church, centuries later, performed an investigation and declared the female pope to be a myth. Yet, it is documented in some of their church councils as fact.
- Sardis is consistent with the church-state since the light of the Reformation until the present times (Gill’s and ours): a joyful era in which the church has thrown-off the yoke of Roman Catholicism and the gospel is preached freely; yet, imperfections remain.
- Philadelphia is consistent with the church-state yet-to-come. It will take place toward the end of the spiritual reign of Christ when: (1) the fullness of the Gentiles will be brought in; (2) the Jews shall be born again at once; (3) the world’s kings and princes shall be converted and flow into the Gospel churches; and, (4) the beast will buck-up one last time toward the end of this era.
- Laodicea is consistent with the church-state toward the end of the latter-day glory (the Philadelphian church-state), just before Christ’s glorious appearing. The church will settle into a state of sloth and slumber. Christ shall stand and knock and they that are ready will enter “the marriage-chamber, and shut the door on the rest; when they shall enjoy a thousand-years’ communion with Him in person here on earth.”2Gill, Revelation 3:20.
And when this [1,000 year] reign is over, then will follow the second resurrection, or the resurrection of the wicked, when will come on the judgment of the people, as Laodicea signifies; and when these, with the devils, will form themselves into the Gog and Magog army, and attack the beloved city, the church of glorified saints on earth, under Christ their King, which will issue in the everlasting destruction of the former; and thus these seven churches bring us to the end of all things. . . .
He that hath an ear, let him hear, &c.John Gill, Revelation 3:21-22
Now that Gill has left all the amillennialists and progressive dispensationalists fightin’ mad (if they’ve even made it this far), let me offer a single, glaring objection. As stated in the beginning, I don’t agree with everything Gill puts forth, but at least he gave it an honest attempt. I doubt those who presently sit in judgment of him have: (1) commented, at length, on every verse in Holy Scripture or (2) systematized every verse into a comprehensive, cohesive systematic theology. Nevertheless, were Gill here to defend himself, I might offer-up this single objection:
- These “church-state” delineations, while attractive on many levels, seem arbitrary.
The biblical author gives no indications of these specific “eras.” Therefore, we are on slippery footing to impose them ourselves. What’s more, what if there is another “reformation” in the not-too-distant future even more glorious than the Protestant Reformation of old? Then, Gill’s neat, historical delineations are thrown into disarray.
But Gill isn’t here. Therefore, I’ll continue to admire his wisdom, intellect, and spiritual knowledge even if I might not agree with him on all points; and I won’t disagree with him too loudly, either. At least, not until I’ve thought as deeply as he did on every single verse in Holy Scripture, and coupled that with a comprehensive systematic theology and eschatology that takes into account every single verse in Holy Scripture. We may be well beyond the Laodicean “church-state” before that ever happens!