Seven Churches - Overview

The visitation of Jesus to the churches of Asia prepares the reader for the visions that follow the seven letters

In his vision, John sees a glorious figure “like a Son of Man…in the midst of seven golden lampstands.” In the interpretation, it becomes clear that this is Jesus (“I was dead, and I am alive forevermore”), and the “lampstands” are identified as the “seven churches of Asia” that are under his ever-watchful care.

The book of Revelation is addressed to seven first-century congregations located in key cities of the Roman province of Asia, and the Risen “Son of Man” commands John to send the “messenger” of each assembly a COPY OF THE ENTIRE BOOK.

SEVEN MESSENGERS

In each congregation, someone is designated to read the book in its entirety to the assembly (“blessed be he who reads, and they who hear”). The seven letters in chapters two and three are not separate documents but integral parts of the whole book.

Moreover, each letter includes verbal and conceptual links to the visions recorded in chapters four through twenty-two, especially the final vision of the “city of New Jerusalem.”

For example, in the letter to the church at Thyatira, Jesus admonishes the “messenger” for tolerating that woman, Jezebel, “who calls herself prophetess, and teaches and seduces my servants to commit fornication and eat things sacrificed unto idols.”

This description parallels that of another female figure, Babylon, “the great harlot… with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and they that dwell in the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” The verbal links are deliberate, and already “Babylon” is hard at work within the seven churches - (Revelation 2:20, 17:1-2, 18:3).

Only seven churches are named, yet there were more than seven in the province by the late first century. For example, congregations existed in the cities of Colossae, Troas, and Miletus.

The number seven is used in the book to symbolize COMPLETENESS. The “seven churches of Asia” are real congregations with real-life struggles, but they also represent a larger reality, perhaps all churches, or at least, all the congregations of Asia - (2 Corinthians 2:12, 2 Timothy 4:13-20).

Each of the letters is addressed to the “angel” or “messenger” of the assembly. But each also concludes with an exhortation to “hear what the Spirit is saying TO THE CHURCHES,” plural. And that indicates a broader intended audience. And each letter’s concluding exhortation is to hear what the Spirit was saying to ALL the “assemblies.”

Whether each “messenger” is an angelic being or a human leader of the congregation the text does not say, although it assumes each one is responsible for the delivery of the letter to his congregation.

And this last point suggests an understanding derived from the book’s prologue: “He (singular) who reads, and they (plural) who hear the book.” Quite possibly, the seven “messengers” are the men assigned to read the book before their respective congregations.

SETTING

The book begins in a localized setting in the late first century. Almost immediately, it begins to deal with the struggles and successes of the “seven churches.” No doubt, many of the problems they are experiencing are common to other congregations throughout the Roman Empire.

The book was composed around A.D. 95 when Rome was ruled by Emperor Domitian. Asia was one of the empire’s richest and most important provinces. Its cities were largely Hellenized with Greek as the most commonly spoken language, and effectively, the standard language used in commerce.

By the late first century, Christian groups are under pressure to conform to the surrounding society, and that includes societal if not governmental efforts to enforce participation in the veneration of the emperor, the imperial cult of Rome.

But to participate fully in the economic life of the seven cities, it is necessary to join one of the local trade guilds, and each one has its own patron deities and pagan rituals. To join one means participating in its idolatrous practices.

Quite probably, that is part of the situation behind the warnings against “fornication” and “eating meat offered to idols.” The concern was not over sexual sin but idolatry. To refuse to engage in the religious life of the larger community may mean economic deprivation - (see Revelation 2:21, 17:2-4).

At this time, the veneration of the emperor is prevalent in the province, and participation in the imperial cult is expected of all citizens. Temples dedicated to the emperor exist in at least three of the seven cities, and the provincial centers of the Roman government and the imperial cult are in Pergamos - (Revelation 2:13, “I know where you dwell, even where Satan’s seat is”).

Moreover, refusal to honor the divine emperor is tantamount to treason. The issue is as much political as it is religious in nature.

STRUCTURE

The seven letters are part of the literary unit that begins with John’s vision of the “Son of Man” which portrays Jesus as a priestly figure who is tending his churches. The letters reflect his assessment of the seven congregations, and each is structured according to a sevenfold outline.

  • A command for John to write to an assembly.
  • Opening words from Jesus that cite attributes ascribed to him in chapter 1.
  • Praise for a congregation’s achievements based on Christ’s all-seeing knowledge (“I know”).
  • Rebuke for its shortcomings, also based on Christ’s all-seeing knowledge.
  • A call to repent with judgment warnings for failure to do so.
  • An exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying to ALL the churches.
  • Promises to individual believers who overcome.

There are variations in the outline. Neither the letter to Smyrna nor Philadelphia includes a rebuke, and the one to Laodicea includes no commendation.

The summons to “hear what the Spirit is saying” is followed by promises to overcomers in the first three letters, but that order is reversed in the last four. Each letter begins with the clause, “these things declares…,” and thus, they are prophetic oracles.

The attributes of Jesus declared at the start of each letter are related to its contents. For example, the one who “became dead and lived” is well able to encourage the persecuted saints at Philadelphia “because I will give you the crown of life” - (Revelation 3:8).

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

And 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 overcome.

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 later visions shed light on the real causes behind the struggles of the seven congregations. 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 the overcomer corresponds to the sealing of saints.

The literary features confirm the book’s unity. The seven letters are arranged so they fall into three groups based on each assembly’s spiritual health.

The first and last congregations are in the poorest condition (Ephesus, Laodicea). The central three are in better shape, but deception and compromise continue to make inroads (Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis). But the second and sixth churches are the healthiest, and therefore, they receive no rebuke (Smyrna, Philadelphia).

And in the middle letter to 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.”

Thus, Jesus is the all-seeing protector, judge, high priest, and ruler of his churches. His visitations prepare them to engage in faithful witness in a hostile and alien environment. Through faithful endurance, they will overcome and inherit all the promises of God in the “city of New Jerusalem.”


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