Letters to the Seven Churches – Introduction

Synopsis:  The visitation of Jesus to each of the Seven Churches prepares the reader to understand the visions that follow the letters to the churches of Asia

Photo of Greek theater
The book of Revelation is addressed to first-century churches in seven cities in the province of Asia in western Asia Minor. John was commanded to send each congregation a copy of the entire book, not just each one’s respective letter. The visitation of Jesus to each group prepares the reader to understand the visions that follow in the remainder of the book.

Whether the seven churches shared one copy among themselves, or each received a separate copy, is not relevant. Someone was designated to read the book in its entirety to each assembly (“blessed be he who reads and they who hear”).

The seven “letters” of chapters 2-3 are not separate documents but integral parts of the whole book, which cannot be understood apart from them. There are verbal, visual and conceptual links between the “letters” and the later visions of Revelation. Note the following example from the letter to Thyatira:

(Revelation 2:20) – “I have a few things against thee, because you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols…I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation.”
(Revelation 17:1-2) – “The great harlot that sits upon many waters…with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and they that dwell in the earth were made drunken with the wine of her fornication.”
(Revelation 18:3) – “And the kings of the earth committed fornication with her.” 

Only seven churches are named, yet there were more than seven in Asia by the end of the first century A.D., for example, in the cities of Colossae, Troas and Miletus (2 Corinthians 2:12, 2 Timothy 4:13-20).

The number seven predominates in Revelation and is used to symbolize completion or perfection. Though real, the seven churches are also a representative group that portrays a larger reality, perhaps all churches or, at least, all the congregations in the province of Asia.

Each letter is addressed to the angel or “messenger” of its respective church. However, each also concludes with an exhortation, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” The plural noun also points to a broader audience and the present tense verb (“saying”) signifies ongoing action. Each letter is something the Spirit is saying to the churches. They point to a larger reality but remain a part of it. Any interpretation that makes the book irrelevant to these seven churches misses the mark.

Commentators struggle with whether the “messenger” of each church is an angelic being or the human leader of each congregation. The text does not address this, though it assumes each messenger is responsible for the delivery of the letter to his church. This points to a solution from the book’s prologue: “He who reads and they who hear.” Possibly, the seven messengers are the men assigned to present and read the book before each congregation.

The book begins in a localized setting at the end of the first century. Almost immediately, it begins to deal with the struggles and successes of the seven churches. No doubt, many of the problems experienced by them were also common to other congregations in the province, and in the rest of the Empire.

The book of Revelation was composed around A.D. 95 when Rome was ruled by Emperor Domitian. The province of Asia was one of the richest and, therefore, one of the most important provinces of the Roman Empire. Its cities were largely Hellenized with Greek being the common language, especially in commerce. By this time, Christians in Asia were experiencing pressure to conform to pagan society. This would have included societal if not governmental pressure to participate in the imperial cult, the veneration of the emperor.

To engage fully in the economic life of a city, it was often necessary to join one of the local trade guilds, each with its own patron deities and rituals. To join required joining in their idolatrous rituals. This situation, possibly, is behind the several warnings against “fornication.” The concern is not with sexual sin but idolatry, which is often compared to fornication in scripture. To refuse to participate meant economic deprivation (see Revelation 2:21, 17:2-4).

Pressure from local Jewish synagogues was another problem. The “synagogue of Satan” is condemned for “slander” against the churches. This most likely refers to the submission of charges against Christians before local magistrates for refusing to offer incense to an image of the emperor and, also, to other activities disruptive to the political order (Revelation 2:9, 3:9, 13:6-7).

By the late first century, the imperial cult was prevalent in Asia. Participation was expected of all citizens. Temples dedicated to the Emperor and to the patron deity of the city of Rome (Roma) existed in three of the seven named cities. The provincial center of the Roman government and the imperial cult was in Pergamos. To refuse to honor the emperor was tantamount to treason (Revelation 2:13, “I know where you dwell, even where Satan’s seat is”).

The seven letters are integral to the literary section that begins with John’s opening vision on the isle of Patmos, which continues until the end of the letter to Laodicea. The opening vision pictures the churches as seven golden lampstands among whom the glorified “son of man” walks. He is arrayed in priestly garments, trims the wicks and adds oil to the lampstands. He holds seven “stars” that represent the seven “messengers” of the churches. The image portrays the Risen Christ reigning over his churches.

The seven letters reflect the assessment of Jesus on the Asian congregations. Each is structured according to a sevenfold outline. 
  1. A command for John to write to an assembly.
  2. Opening words from Jesus that cite attributes ascribed to him in chapter 1.
  3. Praise for a congregation’s achievements based on Christ’s all-seeing knowledge (“I know”).
  4. Rebuke for its shortcomings, also based on Christ’s all-seeing knowledge.
  5. A call to repent with judgment warnings for failure to do so.
  6. An exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying to ALL the churches.
  7. Promises to individual believers who overcome.
There are variations in this outline. Neither the letter to Smyrna nor Philadelphia includes a rebuke. Likewise, the letter Laodicea includes no praise for that congregation. The summons to hear the Spirit is followed by promises to overcomers in the first three letters. This order is reversed in the last four letters.

Each letter begins with the clause, “These things declares…” This parallels a formula typical of Old Testament prophets, that is, “Thus says the Lord.” The seven letters are, effectively, the oracles of a prophet. The attributes of Jesus given at the start of a letter are thematic for what follows in it. For example, Jesus is the one who “became dead and lived.” He, therefore, is well able to encourage persecuted saints to remain faithful until death (“because I will give you the crown of life”). Jesus has the “key of David” and, therefore, places an “open door that no man can shut” before the congregants at Philadelphia (Revelation 3:8).

In each letter, Jesus cites his relevant attributes, reviews each congregation’s status, encourages each church to persevere, calls for repentance where needed, summons each body to heed the Spirit, and promises everlasting rewards to believers who persevere to the bitter end.

There are literary connections between the promises to “overcomers” and the vision of New Jerusalem inhabited by the people of the Lamb: 
  1. (2:7, 22:2) – The “tree of life.”
  2. (2:11, 20:6, 21:8) – Escape from the “second death.”
  3. (2:26, 20:4, 22:5) – Authority to reign over the nations.
  4. (3:5, 21:27) – The overcomer’s name written in the “book of life.”
  5. (3:12, 22:4) – God’s name written on the forehead of the overcomer.
Parallels also exist between the imperfections of each church and the perfections realized in the New Creation:
  1. (2:2, 21:14) – False apostles vs. twelve true Apostles.
  2. (2:9, 21:12) – False Jews vs. True Israel.
  3. (2:13, 22:1) – Satan’s throne vs. God’s throne.
  4. (3:2, 21:27 – Dead believers vs. All believers in the “book of life.”
  5. (2:14-20, 21:8, 27) – Idolatry and liars vs. purity and truth in the new creation.
Conceptual and verbal links between the seven letters and the later visions of the book shed light on the real causes behind the struggles of the churches, for example: 
  1. (2:2, 2:15, 13:11, 16:13) – “False apostles,” “Nicolaitans” correspond to the “False Prophet.”
  2. (2:16, 19:15) - Jesus executes judgment with the sword of his mouth.
  3. (2:20, 17:1-7) – “Jezebel” corresponds to the “Harlot, Babylon.”
  4. (2:22, 7:14) – The “Great Tribulation” is also referenced in the vision of the “innumerable multitude.”
  5. (3:12, 7:1, 14:1) - God’s name inscribed on overcomer corresponds to the sealing of saints.
These structural features constitute evidence, not only of the book’s unity but, furthermore, that the knowledge of the situations described in each letter is necessary to understand the book.

William Ramsay postulated that the sequencing in the list of the seven letters is determined by the route a courier would follow to deliver them to each congregation. Having made landfall at Ephesus, a letter-carrier would travel north to Smyrna, east to Pergamos, southeast to Thyatira, south to Sardis, east-southeast to Philadelphia and, finally, southeast to Laodicea. He would then return to Ephesus directly from Laodicea, a roughly circular route. Each city was on the main Roman road and they were at intervals of approximately 50-60 kilometers.

The geographical explanation makes good sense; however, another interpretation is offered by the literary arrangement of the letters. They fall into three groups based on their spiritual conditions. The first and last congregations are in the poorest condition (Ephesus, Laodicea). The central three are in better condition but with deception and compromise making inroads (Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis). The second and sixth churches are in the best spiritual shape and receive no rebuke (Smyrna, Philadelphia).

In the middle letter to Thyatira is heard the only declaration addressed expressly to all seven churches: “All the churches shall get to know that I am he that searches reins and hearts, and I will give to each one according to your works.”

Jesus is the all-seeing Protector, Judge, and Ruler of his churches. His visitation prepares his people to engage in faithful witness in hostile environments. Through faithful perseverance, they will inherit God’s promises in the New Jerusalem.


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