Christ’s letters to the seven churches: An introduction
As we begin to study Revelation 2-3, the following introductory notes may prove helpful.
John is instructed to write to the “angels” of the seven churches in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. Some interpreters believe the angels to be human messengers, perhaps the pastors of these churches, while others argue that the Greek word aggeloi in Revelation is used overwhelmingly of spirit beings and therefore in this context means guardian angels. In any case, the “angel” of each church bears the responsibility of sharing an important message from Christ with the congregation.
There is little controversy among Bible interpreters concerning the letters to the seven churches, primarily because these letters do not predict future events. This does not mean, however, that the four major views of Revelation – preterist, historicist, futurist, and idealist – are in complete agreement.
For example, interpreters of the preterist and idealist schools, and some of the futurist school, “understand the letters to be addressed to the actual, historic churches named in them, and by extension to any churches that may find themselves in similar circumstances to theirs” (Steve Gregg, Revelation: Four Views, p. 62). However, historicists, and many futurists (especially dispensationalists), conclude that the seven letters provide a panoramic view of the church age. According to this view:
- The church at Ephesus describes the church during the apostolic period until about 100 A.D.
- Smyrna represents the church from 100 – 313 A.D. as it suffered under a succession of Roman emperors.
- Pergamos characterizes the carnal and false-doctrine-riddled church from Constantine’s Edict of Toleration (313 A.D.) until the rise of the Papacy (about 500 A.D.).
- Thyatira is seen as the Papal church until the Reformation (500 – 1500 A.D.).
- Sardis is the church during the Reformation (1500 – 1700 A.D.).
- Philadelphia depicts the missionary-minded church from 1700 A.D. – present.
- And Laodicea describes the lukewarm, liberal and backslidden church of modern times.
This view has many problems, not the least of which is its attempt to paint the church of a certain era with a broad brush. No doubt there have been mission-minded, carnal, lukewarm, and even dead local churches at the same time throughout the church age. To characterize the entire body of Christ as monolithic at various times in history is an overly simplistic approach that robs the text of its meaning to all readers at all times.
Perhaps the best approach to Revelation 2-3 is to understand the initial audience as real churches facing real challenges, and then to see how the unique situations in each church may be found in churches throughout the church age. This view is faithful to the text and relevant to us as 21st century believers.
While each of the seven letters is unique, all of them share a common pattern: 1) Christ describes Himself in terms borrowed from chapter 1; 2) Christ evaluates the church’s condition, beginning with the words “I know;” 3) Christ offers comfort and/or commands based on His assessment of the church; 4) Christ urges everyone to “listen what the Spirit says to the churches;” and 5) Christ promises blessings to the “victor,” foreshadowing the final visions in Rev. 21-22. We will follow this pattern as we look more closely at the seven letters.
Next: The letter to the church at Ephesus