Seven Churches – Introduction

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

Colosseum Photo by Ben Lee on Unsplash
The Book of Revelation is addressed to first-century churches in key cities of the province of 
Asia. John was commanded by the “one like a Son of Man” to send each congregation a copy of the entire book, not just each group’s respective “letter.” The visitation by Jesus to each of the seven congregations provided the reader with insight into the rest of the visions of the book - [Photo by Ben Lee on Unsplash].

In each church, someone was designated to read the book in its entirety to the assembly (“blessed be he who reads, and they who hear”). The seven “letters” are not separate documents but integral parts of the book, which cannot be understood apart from them. There are verbal, visual, and conceptual links between the “letters” and the 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 the province by the end of the first century. For example, congregations existed in the cities of ColossaeTroas, and MiletusThe number seven is prominent in Revelation, where it symbolizes completion. Though real, the “seven churches” also represent a larger reality, perhaps all churches, or at least, all congregations in Asia - (2 Corinthians 2:12, 2 Timothy 4:13-20).

Each letter is addressed to the “angel” or “messenger” of its respective assembly. However, each also concludes with an exhortation to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” plural, which points to a broader audience. Each letter is something the Spirit is saying to ALL the “churches.”

Whether the “messenger” of each church is an angelic being or a human leader, the text does not say, although it assumes each “messenger” is responsible for the delivery of the letter to his church. That points to an understanding from the book’s prologue: “He (singularwho reads, and they (pluralwho hear the book.” Possibly, the seven “messengers” are the men assigned to present and read the book before each congregation.

The book begins in a localized setting in the late first century, and 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 throughout the Roman Empire.

The book was composed around A.D. 95, during the period when Rome was ruled by Emperor Domitian. Asia was one of the richest, and therefore, one of the most important provinces of the empire. Its cities were largely Hellenized with Greek being the most commonly spoken language, especially in commerce. By this time, Christians were being pressured to conform to the surrounding pagan society, which would have included societal if not governmental pressure to participate in the veneration of the emperor.

To participate fully in the economic life of the city, often, it was necessary to join one of the local trade guilds, and each featured its own patron deities and rituals. To join a guild required participation in its idolatrous rituals. Quite probably, that was part of the situation behind the warnings against “fornication.” The concern was not with sexual sin, but instead, with idolatry. To refuse participation in pagan rituals meant economic deprivation - (see Revelation 2:21, 17:2-4).

Pressure from local Jewish synagogues was another problem. The “synagogue of Satan” was condemned for “slander” against the churches. Most likely, that refers to charges leveled against Christians before local magistrates, accusations of their refusal to participate in the imperial cult - (Revelation 2:9, 3:9, 13:6-7).

By the late first century, the veneration of the emperor as “divine” was prevalent in Asia, and participation was expected of all citizens. Temples dedicated to the emperor and the patron deity of Rome (Roma) existed in three of the seven named cities. The provincial center of the Roman government as well as the imperial cult was in Pergamos. And 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 letters are part of the literary section that began with John’s opening vision received on Patmos. That vision pictured the churches as “seven golden lampstands,” among whom the glorified “son of man” was walking while arrayed in priestly garments. He held the seven “stars” that represented the seven “messengers” of the churches. The image portrays the Risen Christ reigning over and tending to his churches.

The letters reflect Christ’s assessment of the seven congregations, and 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 the outline. Neither the letter to Smyrna nor Philadelphia includes a rebuke. Likewise, the letter to Laodicea includes no praise of any kind for that congregation. The summons to “hear what the Spirit is saying” is followed by promises to overcomers in the first three letters. That order is reversed in the last four letters.

Greek Temple - Photo by Antonio Sessa on Unsplash
Photo by Antonio Sessa on Unsplash

Each letter begins with the clause: “
These things declares…,” which parallels the formula typical of the Old Testament prophets, “thus says the Lord.” The seven letters are, effectively, prophetic oracles.

The attributes of Jesus given at the start of each letter are thematic for its contents. For example, he is the one who “became dead and lived”; therefore, he is well able to encourage persecuted saints to remain faithful until death (“because I will give you the crown of life”). He has the “key of David,” therefore, he places an “open door that no man can shut” before the Philadelphian assembly - (Revelation 3:8).

In each letter, Jesus cites his relevant attributes, reviews the status of each congregation, encourages each church to persevere, calls for repentance when needed, summons each body to heed the Spirit, and promises everlasting rewards to believers who persevere to the bitter end. There are literary links between the promises to “overcomers” and the final vision of New Jerusalem:
  • (2:7, 22:2) – The “tree of life.”
  • (2:11, 20:6, 21:8) – Escape from the “second death.”
  • (2:26, 20:4, 22:5) – Authority to reign over the nations.
  • (3:5, 21:27) – The overcomer’s name is written in the “book of life.”
  • (3:12, 22:4) – God’s name is written on the forehead of the overcomer.
Parallels also exist between the imperfections of each church and the perfections found in the New Creation:
  • (2:2, 21:14) – False apostles vs. twelve true Apostles.
  • (2:9, 21:12) – False Jews vs. True Israel.
  • (2:13, 22:1) – Satan’s throne vs. God’s throne.
  • (3:2, 21:27 – Dead believers vs. All believers in the “book of life.”
  • (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 book’s later visions shed light on the real causes behind the struggles of the “seven churches,” for example:
  • (2:2, 2:15, 13:11, 16:13) – “False apostles,” “Nicolaitans” correspond to the “False Prophet.”
  • (2:16, 19:15) - Jesus executes judgment with the sword of his mouth.
  • (2:20, 17:1-7) – “Jezebel” corresponds to the “Harlot, Babylon.”
  • (2:22, 7:14) – The “Great Tribulation” is also referenced in the vision of the “innumerable multitude.”
  • (3:12, 7:1, 14:1) - God’s name inscribed on overcomer corresponds to the sealing of saints.
Such literary features attest to the book’s unity, as well as its author’s detailed knowledge of each church’s situation. The sequence of the churches given to John was, quite likely, determined by the route a courier would take to deliver copies of the book to each congregation. Having made landfall at Ephesus, he would travel north to Smyrna, east to Pergamos, southeast to Thyatira, south to Sardis, east-southeast to Philadelphia, and finally, southeast to Laodicea. He could then return to Ephesus from Laodicea, thus forming a roughly circular route. Each city was on the main Roman road and at intervals of approximately 50 kilometers.

This geographical explanation makes good sense; however, another interpretation is offered by the literary arrangement of the letters, which fall into three groups based on spiritual health. The first and last congregations are in the poorest condition (Ephesus, Laodicea). The central three are in better condition, but deception and compromise continue to make inroads (Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis). The second and sixth churches are in the best spiritual shape, and therefore, receive no rebuke (Smyrna, Philadelphia). And in the middle letter (Thyatira) is found the only declaration addressed to all seven churches:
  • All the churches shall get to know that I am the one who searches reins and hearts, and I will give to each one according to your works.”
In Revelation, 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 endurance, they will inherit God’s promises in the city of New Jerusalem.


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