Revelation’s Recipients

In its entirety, the book of Revelation was addressed to seven very real churches in the Roman province of Asia in the first century A.D

Church - Photo by John Cafazza on Unsplash
From start to finish, the Book of Revelation is addressed to the “
seven churches of Asia,” and they do not fade from the picture in the middle sections of the book. While Revelation may include a larger audience, it is first and foremost a message to and for these seven assemblies, and the significance of its visions cannot be understood apart from them - [Photo by John Cafazza on Unsplash].

The book’s opening paragraph presents itself as the record of the visions received by John while exiled on the isle of Patmos. It is called “the prophecy,” singular, and is concerns “what things that must come to pass soon.”

John was commanded to record his visions in a scroll, and then to send it to seven first-century churches in key cities of the Roman province of Asia. In its entirety, the book is addressed to the Asian congregations. And according to the promise of Jesus, the one “who reads, and they who hear the words of the prophecy” will be “blessed.” And at the very start of his vision, John was told to send the “book,” singular, to the “seven churches, to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and to Laodicea” - (Revelation 1:1-11).

His first vision includes seven letters addressed to the “seven churches of Asia.” Each one includes commendations, corrections, warnings, and promises for its congregants, and each letter ends with the admonishment to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” plural.

The “churches of Asia” do not drop out of the picture after the seven letters are issued. The promises recorded in each one for the one “who overcomes” include verbal links to the vision of “New Jerusalem” at the end of the book. Likewise, the exhortation to “hear what the Spirit is saying” at the close of each letter also occurs in the central and concluding sections of the book - (Revelation 13:9-10, 22:16).

Furthermore, the daily struggles of the “seven churches” with opponents, sin, and deception echo of the larger cosmic battles described in the later visions. For example, the false “prophetess Jezebel” who “seduces my servants to commit fornication,” is a local version of the “Great Harlot, Babylon,” who is making the inhabitants of the earth “drunk with the wine of her fornication” - (Revelation 2:18-24, 17:1-5).

None of this means that Revelation is only applicable to the “churches of Asia.” At the time, there were more than seven congregations in the province, plus dozens more scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Plural terms like “churches” and references to saints from “every nation” indicate a much wider intended audience. However, the original seven congregations remain a part of that audience, however large it may prove to be.

And in the book, the number seven is used symbolically to signify completion. Thus, the “seven churches” represent a larger whole, although they are included in it. Likewise, the concluding admonishment of each of the seven letters to hear what the spirit is saying to the “churches,” plural, also points to this broader audience. Furthermore, the vision of the vast “innumerable multitude” of men and women from every nation celebrating in “New Jerusalem” certainly envisions something far larger and grander than just the seven marginalized congregations from Asia. However, those seven churches are included in that glorious vision; their members also will find themselves “rendering divine service” before the “Lamb and the throne.”

Ignoring the historical setting of Revelation creates significant problems. For example, if the promise to keep the church of Philadelphia “out of the hour of trial” refers to escape from a “tribulation” in the remote future, then it had no relevance to the very congregation to which it was given - (Revelation 3:10).

First and foremost, passages from Revelation must be interpreted in their historical contexts. What was the imminent “hour of trial” facing the church at Philadelphia? To what did Jesus refer when he told the church at Smyrna it faced “tribulation ten days?” Who and what were the Nicolaitans? What was the "throne of Satan" in the city of Pergamos?

Even if the book’s primary concern is with a distant future, it uses the real-life experiences of these first-century churches to describe it, all of which must be understood to comprehend the true significance of Revelation’s visions. Thus, any interpretation that writes the “seven churches of Asia” out of the book, the very saints to whom it was addressed in the first place, does not take its self-description as a message for those churches seriously and is doomed to go awry.


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