By PastorJ | Friday, December 4, 2015 | 12:38 PM
MAIN IDEA & OUTLINE
The letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor serve as warning and encouragement to the literal, historical churches of John’s day and churches of the past and present that make up the universal church of Jesus Christ. This passage teaches that every Christian church should heed the words of all seven letters in an attempt to remain faithful witnesses until the end of this age.
The Letter to the Church at Ephesus (Rev. 2:1–7)
The Letter to the Church at Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11)
The Letter to the Church at Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17)
The Letter to the Church at Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29)
The Letter to the Church at Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6)
The Letter to the Church at Philadelphia (3:7-13)
The Letter to the Church at Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22)
The book of Revelation is commonly known as the Revelation of John, but is more accurately interpreted as the Revelation of Jesus Christ. Jesus gave the revelation to the angels, the angels gave it to John, and John wrote it down for the people (Rev. 1.1). It is Jesus Christ who is described as the faithful witness right at the forefront of this work (Rev. 1.5). This description of the Lord sets the stage for the theme of the entire book. Revelation is the revealing of the things which were, which are, and which are to come. These uncovered mysteries serve the purpose of challenging every believer, past and present, to be faithful witnesses who patiently endure until the end of this current age. Sometimes this endurance will include persecution, and as the παρουσία (parousia) quickly approaches, possibly even death. The letters to the seven churches describe how and why the churches are to remain faithful. They serve both historical and prophetic functions in teaching believers of all historical ages to faithfully endure until the very end. By examining these seven letters, churches today can examine their own individual and corporate practices in an attempt to become overcomers and receivers of the eternal promises of Christ.
Like most books of the Bible, the historical context of Revelation is debated among Bible scholars. While many agree that John is the author of the work the question is often posed, “Which John wrote what he saw in the book?” As Andreas Kostenberger points out, “Most scholars recognize three major candidates: (1) John the apostle and son of Zebedee; (2) John the elder; and (3) some other unknown John who was a prophet.” An examination of both the internal and external evidence for the authorship of Revelation proves invaluable in determining which John is credited with the authorship of this work. The internal evidence shows that John was a well-known individual within Asia Minor. The fact that he chose to label himself with the simple title of John told his readers of that day that he was indeed someone they were familiar with. If this John was the apostle who also wrote the Gospel of John, one would suggest that Revelation and John’s Gospel must include some similar language and grammar. While the Greek used in Revelation and the Gospel of John varies, there are still connections within the language that link both works to the penmanship of John the apostle. In both Revelation and John’s Gospel, Jesus is defined by the Greek word, λογος (Word). John was the only writer to characterize Jesus in such a manner. The external evidence may be slightly more convincing to some than the internal when considering John the apostle as the most likely candidate. As Grant Osborne points out, the testimony of the early church speaks in agreement that it is this John who recorded the visions he witnessed on the island of Patmos. These testimonies include Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolylus, Origen, and Tertullian. Similarly, scholars also disagree on the date that John the apostle wrote Revelation. Some argue for an earlier date, 64-69 AD, and some argue for a later date, 95-96 AD. Once again, the internal and external evidence prove which date is the strongest. By examining the evidence, both Kostenberger and Osborne agree that it is more likely that Revelation was written at a later date during the reign of Domitian. At the time of writing, the context of the Scripture signifies oppression and persecution during a time of the Imperial Cult. The later date puts the time of writing under the reign of Domitian who demanded to be worshipped as the people’s lord and god. As a result of the persecution under the Imperial Cult, John was writing to the Christians in the seven churches of Asia Minor to encourage them and challenge them to faithfully endure until the eschatological return of Christ.
The historical records of 95-96 AD explain that this was a difficult time for the Christian churches of Asia Minor. It only makes sense that Jesus would command John to write letters of warning and encouragement to the churches who existed during these times of persecution, the Imperial Cult, idolatry, heresy, and unfaithfulness. However, there are some scholars who believe that these seven churches are only symbols of church history. Lewis Sperry Chafer and Clarence Larkin provide convincing evidence for these beliefs, stating that these letters were not written to literal churches of John’s day. Larkin states, “This interpretation of the ‘Messages to the Seven Churches’ was hidden to the early Church, because time was required for Church History to develop and be written.” Furthermore, these scholars carry the idea that these seven letters are a plan for the future church age. Ephesus represents the early church, Smyrna represents the period of persecution in the patristic era, Pergamos represents the time of Constantine, Thyatira represents the middle ages, Sardis represents the Reformation, Philadelphia represents the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Laodicea represents the modern era. However, there are other Bible scholars who argue that these letters were written to literal churches of Asia Minor and are also purposeful for the various churches throughout history. This view holds to the idea that the letters are both historical and prophetic. Arno C. Gaebelein is one of the scholars who holds this view stating, “The churches mentioned in the two chapters, and never after, actually existed.” John was told by the Lord Jesus Christ to “write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter” in Rev. 1.19. The seven churches of Asia Minor were, at the time of writing, the “things which are”. Even though some commentators and scholars disagree on the literary function of these letters, most are in agreement concerning their pattern. Each letter was written in the following order as listed: The characteristic of Christ, the compliment, the criticism, the command, and the commitment (promise).
The Letter to the Church at Ephesus (Rev.2:1-7)
The characteristic of Christ in verse one encouraged the church at Ephesus that Jesus was continually present with them. As the verse states, “who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.” The reader knew from the first chapter of John’s revelation that the seven golden candlesticks are representations of the seven churches in Asia Minor. The reader was, therefore, encouraged to learn that Jesus was present even in the midst of their turmoil and persecution. However, this description of Christ can also serve as a warning that taught the church at Ephesus that Christ was fully aware of their practices, both good and bad. This is represented by John’s listing of Christ’s compliment concerning their good works in verses 2, 3, and 6, and Christ’s mentioned criticism of their bad works in verse four. The reader probably questioned what love it was they had at first but had recently left. It is commonly possible to interpret this love as Christ, who Paul said “loved this church and gave himself for it” (Eph.5.25). However, the interpretation of this first love can be taken even further by explaining that the first love of the church at Ephesus can also include the spreading of the gospel message, which is the death that Christ died for this church’s salvation and the resurrection he performed for their victory. This could have been an allusion to Paul’s heartfelt devotion to know Christ and win others to him. Beasley-Murray explains that the love of evangelism had grown cold within the confines of this church, coldness that the Lord Jesus was quick to criticize and sin that every church must quickly confess and repent of. Nevertheless, this first love was a loss of love for both Christ and the spreading of his gospel message. The command of verse five is repetitive throughout the letters to each individual church. It is a command of repentance. “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works” (Rev.2.5). This verse can be paraphrased as saying, remember the love of Christ that has provided for your salvation and remember the love for him and his gospel that you have fallen from. This falling away, just like any falling away, requires repentance. A true repentance would include a 180 degree turn back to Christ and the works the church at Ephesus first performed. These works included a glorifying obedience to Christ and an excitement for the spreading of his gospel. Christ then promises that those who “overcome”, or faithfully endure until the end, will be allowed to participate in the new heaven and new earth where they will experience the restored Garden of Eden.
The Letter to the Church at Smyrna (Rev.2:8-11)
The same order of writing is present within the letter to the church at Smyrna. The difference in the writing of this letter is that it does not include a criticism like five of the other letters do. The church of Philadelphia is similar to the church at Smyrna in that its letter does not include a criticism either. Both churches likely had a great testimony to their sister churches in Asia Minor. The eternality of Christ was described to the Smyrna believers with the phrase, “the first and the last”, in verse 8. He was in existence at the beginning of world and he will still be in existence at the end of the world. It can also allude to his faithfulness to and victory over death because the description further describes Christ as the one “which was dead, and is alive”. As John Phillips simply explains, “Death has been robbed of its sting, the grave stripped of its power.” This title for Jesus coincides with the description of him in Rev. 1.5, which describes him as the faithful witness and the first begotten from the dead. It also relates to chapter one’s description of Jesus as the one who was and is to come. Jesus was first seen bringing peace and salvation to the world. In his second coming, he will be seen bringing justice and judgment. As noted, the letters to the seven churches work in unison with the first chapter of Revelation and they usher in the next chapter. The compliment concerning this church is that they had been faithful in their service for the Lord despite the persecution physically, spiritually, and economically. John tells this church that Jesus knows their poverty, but they are actually rich. This could possibly be referring to the economic crisis of the Christian church at Smyrna due to their unwillingness to give in to the Imperial Cult. Therefore, Jesus does not criticize the believers of Smyrna. He only compliments them in verse nine. This compliment is followed by a command to remain faithful and not fear the coming persecution by the emperor (Rev.2:10). Jesus promised that the believers of Smyrna may experience a physical death, but they will not be hurt by the second death, which is eternal separation from God in Hell. The believers must have been blessed, strengthened, and motivated once they read this letter. Their faith probably grew stronger as they read of the compliment and noticed the absence of criticism. Their desire to faithfully endure until the end probably excited them as they knew their possible martyrdom meant to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5.8) and to escape the second death. Not only were they now anticipating the eschatological return of the King, but they were now anticipating their own faithful witness as his followers.
The Letter to the Church at Pergamos (Rev.2:12-17)
The characteristic of Christ in verse twelve includes a picture of Jesus holding a sharp sword. The problem of interpretation here is that the reader may not know which way to interpret this characteristic. Should it be interpreted literally or symbolically? The symbolic interpretation would suffice if the context of the entire Scriptures is considered. For example, Heb. 4.12 describes the two edged sword as the Word of God, and Rev. 19.15 says that a sharp sword will proceed out of the mouth of Christ when he destroys the beast and false prophet. In this letter, John pointed the church at Pergamos back to the Word of God. In the criticism of verse fourteen, he states that the believers here have allowed false doctrines to survive within the walls of their church. This corruption of God’s Word has led to more severe problems such as idolatry and sexual immorality. The command is mentioned in verse sixteen and is the same has it has been in the previous letters. The command is to repent or face the judgment of God, specifically a judgment according to God’s Word which is the standard that all men must live by in conjunction with the standard of God’s perfect Son. The command to repent includes a warning that if they do not repent, Christ will “fight against them with the sword of his mouth.” This verse once again portrays the sword from verse twelve as an allusion to the Word of God. The promise is found in verse seventeen, and what a wonderful promise it is. Those who heed the words of this letter will be allowed to experience things never experienced in this life, represented by the promise that they will be able to eat of the “hidden manna”. They will also be assured an entrance into the heavenly kingdom. John refers to a white stone that is symbolic of the entrance ticket that was given to the attendants of various events in Pergamos. This stone included an inscription of their name. This ticket was permanent because it was written on stone and was a name that “no man knoweth”. In other words, it was a ticket to heaven that could not be taken away or vindicated for someone else’s use.
The Letter to the Church at Thyatira (Rev.2:18-29)
The message to Thyatira is the longest letter of any of the other six. John Walvoord describes the church here as “the church that tolerates apostasy”. This is mainly due to the prophetess, Jezebel, who summoned the believers at Thyatira into idolatry and sexual immorality. Henry Alford suggests the idea that Jezebel was actually the wife of the pastor at Thyatira. However, Alford further explains that the correct interpretation of this woman may only be symbolic and not literal. Nevertheless, this text seems to imply that there was a woman believer in the church who influenced others with these unfaithful and sinful practices. The characteristic of Christ mentioned in Rev. 2.18 describes him as “the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass.” The representation of Christ here is probably a symbolic description of him as the holy and pure judge of the universe. This description can be drawn from the connection between Rev.2.18 and Rev. 1.14-15. Walvoord says, “In 1:14-15 a similar description is given where Christ is pictured as the righteous Judge who, knowing all things, can ferret out every evil. His sovereign judgment deals with all who fail to measure up to His perfect rightesouness.” Furthermore, Christ does compliment the believers of Thyatira concerning their works of charity, service, faith, and patience (Rev.2.19). Even in the midst of their evil practices, this church still contained a remnant of believers who were faithful witnesses to the Lord and his gospel. The command to the church here is primarily the same as the command given to the other churches. It is a command to repent of idolatry and sexual immorality or face judgment according to their deeds (Rev.2.21-23). This warning to repent or feel the wrath of God is a wrath so great that John says it will be known by all the other churches as well. The commitment of Christ, or promise, to the faithful remnant at Thyatira is that they will be given a place of rule with Christ during his millennial reign (Rev. 2.26-27). These verses could possibly be connected to Rev.1.6-7 which states:
“And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.”
A share of rule in the millennial reign of Christ is promised to the overcomers at Thyatira. Walvoord explains this further by stating, “The overcoming Christians are promised places of authority. They will share the rule of Christ over the nations of the world.” These believers were firmly criticized at the beginning of the letter, but are promised great reward at the close of it. This promise undoubtedly encouraged the faithful remnant that remained at Thyatira to continue their endurance until they see him who “cometh with clouds”.
The Letter to the Church at Sardis (Rev.3:1-6)
The church at Sardis, much like the church at Laodicea is in critical need of repentance and restoration. These are the two letters of the seven that do not include a compliment, signifying that they were completely off base when it came to being a faithful witness for the Lord, Jesus Christ. Christ is described in a similar fashion as he was in the letter to Ephesus. Here he is labeled in unity with the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit is represented in all his fullness in Rev. 3.1. This could be a reference to Isa. 11.2, which describes the fullness of the Holy Spirit in greater detail. William Newell explains that there was some deep searching by the Holy Spirit within the confines of this church. This deep searching was due to the fact that the church did not have any good works to be spoken of. They were completely failing in their obligation to Christ. Upon the searching of the Holy Spirit, Christ mentions that this church has the reputation of being alive but is actually dead (Rev. 3.1). They may have a bright past, but their present condition was dark and in need of revival. Christ adds further emphasis concerning their present condition by explaining, in verse two, that he has not found their works perfect. The command begins in this verse and extends through verse three. The Lord commands the believers here to remember their past performance and return to faithfulness by strengthening the few good things that remained. Obviously, this can’t be done without repentance. As a result, verse three gives the command to repent, as is given in the other letters also. The commitment listed in verse five is that those who are true, born-again believers are eternally secure in their salvation. It should be noted that those who are true Christians will faithfully endure, even throughout the wickedness present in Sardis.
The Letter to the Church at Philadelphia (Rev.3:7-13)
Only two of the seven churches were faithful enough that criticisms were omitted from their letters. The church at Philadelphia is one of the churches that can be described as being faithful to their Christian obligation. As Walvoord points out, the characteristic of Christ from Rev. 3.7 is possibly an allusion to Isa. 22.22. In Isaiah, Eliakim held the key to the door that stored all the treasures of the king. It was Eliakim who controlled access into this door so that the door “he shall open, none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” The allusion in this verse is a typology of the king in Isaiah with the King of Kings in Revelation, King Jesus. According to the prophecy of the Old Testament and the fulfillment of these prophecies through the life and ministry of Jesus, Jesus is the rightful, eternal heir to the Davidic throne. It is he who grants access into the eternal treasures of God. If one is to receive eternal life and the inheritance of heaven, they must go through Jesus Christ (John 14.6, Acts 4.12). An awesome testimony of the church at Philadelphia is given in the compliment of verses eight and ten. Jesus explains that this church has “kept my word and hast not denied my name.” In these two chapters of Revelation, multiple churches were said to have defied and corrupted the Word of God. This could not be said about the church of Philadelphia. Therefore, Christ gives them the command to continue in the direction they were going because they will be receivers of a fantastic reward. This reward is the promise to be participants of the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 3.12). This is a correct interpretation due to the imagery in this verse that is drawn from the coming events of Rev. 21-22.
The Letter to the Church at Laodicea (Rev.3:14-22)
In this letter, Christ is characterized as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God” (Rev. 3.14). This description signifies that the beginning of the present creation was a work of Christ, the end of this present creation will be a work of Christ, and the beginning of the new creation will be a work of Christ. This description alludes back to Rev.1.5 where Christ is described as the “faithful witness” and understood as the ruler over the current creation and the new creation to come. The title for Christ as “the Amen” is likely taken from Isa. 65.16-17. Following the characteristic of Christ, each letter usually included a compliment. The letter to Laodicea is different from five of the others and similar to the letter to Sardis because it does not include a compliment. Like Sardis, Laodicea desperately needed to repent and return to a faithful obligation to Christ and his Word. As Osborne explains, the city of Laodicea was materially rich. They had gained great wealth and this wealth had caused the believers to become complacent. Therefore, Jesus describes them as being neither hot nor cold. They were lukewarm. Jesus further explains that he would rather them be hot or cold. This emphasizes the point that a lukewarm condition is dangerous to all believers. It is a condition of complacency and a choice to refrain from choosing sides. The believers here could have been fearful to be a faithful witness to Christ and deny the Imperial Cult because that would mean a loss of economic wealth. They probably felt that they couldn’t deny Christ and serve the emperor because that would mean that they were spiritually poor. However in Rev. 3.17, Jesus told these believers, “Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” In this criticism, Jesus was attempting to teach the Laodiceans that their material wealth has caused them to become spiritually poor. On another note, if they were faithful witness to Christ and the spreading of his gospel, they would not have been sitting on their wealth. They would have been using it to spread his message until his return. In the command of verses 18-20, the Lord emphasizes the proper use of the wealth in Laodicea. The emphasis is that of spiritual means. Their wealth should have been used for the teaching of believers and for the awakening of sinners. Sadly, Jesus said he wanted to come into this church and embrace them with his presence, but they would not open their door for him. This church is commonly said to represent the current age of the church today in that many churches have pushed Christ out and have grown complacent in their efforts. It is beyond comprehension that a church could prosper greatly and yet exclude Christ. Larkin said it best when he said, “This is the most startling thing in the New Testament, that it is possible for a church to be outwardly prosperous and yet have no Christ in its midst, and be unconscious of the fact. This is a description of a Christless church.”
THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION & APPLICATION
The main challenge presented in all of these letters is for the believer to remain a faithful witness until the end of this age. This challenge invites persecution as all believers are commanded to choose eternal salvation over economic sustainability. These letters serve as an inclusion of all believers, past and present. As several Bible scholars concur, the literary function of these letters is intended to be both historical and prophetic. These churches are to be precisely understood literally and symbolically. Each of the seven letters closes with the statement, “Hear what the spirit saith unto the churches” (Rev. 2.7, 11, 17, 29; 3.6, 13, 22). The object, churches, is plural. This is a statement for all believers of all churches. Therefore, the pictures of Christ, the compliments, the criticisms, the commands, and the promises of the seven letters are all applicable to every believer today. Throughout the entire book of Revelation the Sovereignty of God, the Second Coming of Christ, Christology, and the command to be a faithful witness serve as applicable themes that are consistent and comparable to the entirety of Scripture. The Bible begins with the creation of the heavens and earth. Briefly following this creation, which God described as good, it became corrupt and distorted by man’s choice to sin. The Bible ends in Revelation with the apocalypse, the destruction of this earth, and the creation of the new heaven and new earth, a creation in which all things will be fully restored. This restoration is promised to the seven churches who overcome in order to encourage them to repent, and faithfully endure. The same glorious future is promised to all believers today who are true followers of Christ. They will redeem their entrance voucher into that heavenly city, and there they will reside for all of eternity (Rev. 2.17). Revelation was relevant to those John was addressing, and the book of Revelation is relevant to anyone who reads it today.
Alford, Henry. The Greek New Testament. Chicago: Moody Press, 1958.
Bandy, Alan. “The Hermeneutics of Symbolism: How to Interpret the Symbols of John’s Apocalypse.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 14, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 46-55. Accessed October 26, 2015. http://www.galaxie.com/article/sbjt14-1-05?highlight=“The Book of Revelation”.
Baxter, J. Sidlow. Explore the Book. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960.
Beasley-Murray, G.R., Herschel H. Hobbs, Ray Frank Robbins, and David C. George. Rvelation: Three Viewpoints. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1977.
Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology: Vols. 3&4. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1976.
Collins, Adela Yarbro. “The Revelation of John: An Apocalyptic Response to a Social Crises.” Currents in Theology and Mission 8, no. 1 (Feb 1981): 4-12. Accessed October 26, 2015. http://www.lstc.edu/.
Couch, Mal. “Inerrancy: The Book of Revelation.” Conservative Theological Journal 5, no. 15 (Aug 2001): 205-18. Accessed October 26, 2015. http://www.galaxie.com/article/ctj05-15-07?highlight=The Book of Revelation.
Gaebelein, Arno C. The Revelation: An Analysis and Exposition of the Last Book of the Bible. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1961.
Geisler, Norman L. Systematic Theology in One Volume. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
Knox, James W. The Book of Revelation. United States: James W. Knox, 1999.
Kostenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, The Cross, and
The Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009.
Larkin, Clarence. The Book of Revelation. Philadelphia: Erwin W. Moyer Co., 1919.
Newell, William R. The Book of The Revelation. Chicago: Moody Press, 1935.
Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. A Study in Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Dunham Publishing Company, 1958.
Phillips, John. Exploring Revelation. An Expository Commentary. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1987.
Walvoord, John F. The Revelation of Jesus Christ. Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1966.
 Kostenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, The Cross, and
The Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009.), 810. Kostenberger argues that both internal and external evidence point to John the apostle as the author of Revelation.
 Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002.), 5.
 Ibid., 2-4.
 Ibid., 6-9.
 Larkin, Clarence. The Book of Revelation. (Philadelphia: Erwin W. Moyer Co., 1919.), 19.
 Osborne, 105.
 Gaebelein, Arno C. The Revelation: An Analysis and Exposition of the Last Book of the Bible. (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1961.), 33.
 Beasley-Murray, G.R., Herschel H. Hobbs, Ray Frank Robbins, and David C. George. Revelation: Three Viewpoints. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1977.), 37.
 Osborne, 123.
 Phillips, John. Exploring Revelation. An Expository Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1987.), 46.
 Osborne, 130-131.
 Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology: Vols. 3&4. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1976.), vol.4, 432. Chafer explains the Biblical interpretation of the “Second Death”.
 Walvoord, John F. The Revelation of Jesus Christ. (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1966.), 71.
 Alford, Henry. The Greek New Testament. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958.), IV, 573.
 Walvoord, 72.
 Walvoord, 77.
 Newell, William R. The Book of The Revelation. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1935.), 62. I have added my own emphasis as to what Newell seems to be stating in his book.
 Walvoord, 77.
 Osborne, 203-205.
 Ibid, 204.
 Larkin, 29.