The Meaning of the Seven Churches

Colin Hemer identifies four “areas of tension” in the church of the late first century. Each of these bullet points are worthy of a chapter of a book, here is a short summary:

  • Christianity and the Imperial Cult. The context of the imperial cult in Revelation 2-3 and the growing influence of Domitian would have put Christians under pressure to either conform or face some form of persecution. While this may have not been as organized as modern preachers make it out to be, Christians would have been viewed with suspicion if they did not participate in the imperial cult.
  • Christianity and the Pagan world.  This is especially seen with regard to the social life of Greco-Roman cities.  How does a practicing Christian “fit” in pagan society? Could a Christian participate in a civic event like athletic games if those games were dedicated to a god? Could they eat food at a festival if it had been used in a sacrifice to a god?
  • The Church and Judaism.  It is possible the church had grown far enough away from Judaism by the end of the first century that the differences were quite clear. How does a Gentile who believes Jesus is Messiah relate to a Jewish faith still looking forward to the Messiah?
  • Different sub-Christian Groups.  These early “heretical” groups within the church disagreed over authority, which may indicate the possible influence of Docetism and antinomianism. The church needed to develop internal discipline and expel teachers not conforming to apostolic teaching or ethical expectations.

Seven_Churches_of_Asia_in_the_East_Window_at_York_MinsterThe application of these tensions to the present church seems obvious. First, how does the church of the post-Christian word 21st century interact with culture which is frequently based on a world view completely at odds with the biblical worldview?

Second, how does the modern church relate to the “historic church”?  Obviously our doctrine is based on the historical creeds of the church, but to what extent ought we “pull away” and create a new, post-modern church?

Third, how does the modern church deal with anti-Christian influences such as syncretic mixtures of Christianity and other world views?  For example, can we have a “Christian / eastern world view”?   Is there a possibility of a post-modern Christianity?

Last, how does the modern church deal with fringe elements within the church itself? How tenaciously should we hold to the foundational documents of denominations which are hundreds of years old and perceived as not particularly relevant to the modern situation?

I suppose each of these points is worthy of a sermon. Despite the fact that Revelation is usually mined for end-time prophecies or is used to fuel conspiracy theories on YouTube, John’s pastoral point was much different. Christians living in Asia Minor in the first century were under enormous pressure to conform to the imperial society. Revelation challenges the readers to hold on to what is true and good and pure, since the Lord Jesus is returning soon.


Bibliography: Colin Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1989).


9 thoughts on “The Meaning of the Seven Churches

  1. On “The Church and Judaism” point: Indeed, the wording and sound of much of the early part of Revelation, particularly, seem to indicate a “church(es)” that were still quite Jewish… I can’t see anything like a complete break or clear distinction between Xn and Jewish implied. Yet, according to Acts and the Gospels, this should have been quite clear… Acts supposedly showing that it was theologically made clear by the Holy Spirit quite early. But that doesn’t square with other evidences, even within Acts itself. Rev. seems to support a more muddled reality and a more gradual split, no doubt accelerated by the destruction of Jeru. in 70, but still not clear and complete by any means.

    This ties in with a key issue about the “Different sub-Christian Groups” point: it refers to “… not conforming to apostolic teaching…”. Is Hemer saying and do you hold that we even can know very specifically what apostolic teaching was? At least enough that it could have been a standard for most points of potential “heresy”? (I don’t think that term even applies till much later than end of 1st century, and your use of quotes may show you don’t either.) But even “not conforming” seems to me to depend on a fairly clear description of apostolic teaching. (And if not just “The Twelve”, how does Paul get included – potentially – and not others claiming “apostle” designation or granted it but called false?). Unless one takes, dubiously, both James and 1 and/or 2 Peter (mainly… Jude is less significant, etc.) as by the leader of the Jeru. group (and not actually one of The Twelve, btw.) and the Apostle Peter, then where does the “apostolic teaching” reside… or where did it even before some texts may have been lost? Aren’t most of the indications (Paul cf. Acts, within Acts, etc.) that there were many points of disagreement and lack of clarity on important points of teaching and/or practice?

    • I am fairly comfortable with Dunn’s “parting of the ways” idea that the full break was not until after Bar Kohkba, so after AD 135. In fact, there were Jewish Christian bishops even at the time of Nicea, so in Judea, maybe Syria and trans-Jordan there were congregations that could plausibly be described more Jewish than Gentile, but in either case decidedly Christian.

      The “Apostolic Deposit” turns up in the pastorals, Jude, 2 Peter, maybe Hebrews a bit as well. What was included is not totally clear, I think that the ethical material is easier since there are parallels in Romans, Eph, Col, and 1 Peter (the household codes); as for doctrine (kerygma), 1 Cor 15 3-5 is described as a tradition, as Paul’s communion tradition. I think Phil 2:5-11 has to be here as well, who Jesus was, what he did, and his exaltation. I would also like to include an oral tradition at the very least for the teaching of Jesus – the Sermon on the Mount has an influence on Romans 12, James and 1 John; the Olivet Discourse seems to lurk behind 1 Thess 5, perhaps 1 Peter as well (thief in the night language, for example). I would not be comfortable saying that the Apostle’s Creed was used in worship in the first century, but I would be OK with the content of that creed as the “apostolic deposit.”

      I am intrigued with the idea here about people claiming apostolic authority when they did not have any legitimate claim – is that not the accusation against Paul? Perhaps there were others who were outside of the umbrella of apostolic authority who claimed divine sanction for a particular practice (or lack thereof), maybe emphasizing prophetic gifts over apostolic authority. Off the top of my head, Montanism is an example of that, although much too late to be an issue in the Seven churches.

      As for the disagreements in Galatians (maybe James) and Acts, you know I am perfectly fine with these divisions in the earliest church, but I seem them all along the lines of defining the church as Jewish or not, and all centered on practice. That is what I would expect if the church struggled to define itself as not-Israel even if it is developing out of Israel.

      thanks again for the stimulating questions!

  2. Thanks for the detailed engagement, Phillip! And I respect that you teach at a Christian college, one that I think is relatively conservative, altho I’m glad they apparently allow a fair to broad range of discussion and/or opinion. Still, I expect your position might (realistically) restrict to some degree what you entertain openly or state as a position. I follow enough “realpolitik” to realize there will always be some of that and to push only mildly against it.

    Now, I admit it’s a fun challenge (partly but not definitely not solely “intellectual”) to me to try to reconstruct the development of the early church, esp. the first 70 to 100 years. But not “in a void” or void of practical significance. This is where I tend to be “opposite of” and a bit of a “rabble- rouser” to much of orthodoxy. But for “noble” reasons (at least in my self-biased mind): to help esp. anxious-tending believers realize they don’t HAVE to “get it all right” or have some mysterious, amorphous “saving” amount or content of faith, and MAINTAIN it continuously! But also to challenge the overly-certain and oversimplifying Christians who use a concept like the supposed “unity of the faith” (as directly revealed from God) to authorize whatever interpretation (usually very cultural and/or denominational) they may have on their favorite issues. (Gay marriage is a hot one currently, e.g.)

    Anyway, I like and respect your answer re. “deposit of faith” — with a few points I might question some, but won’t here, other than to raise one issue we might go further on, since it does involve apocalyptic speech/literature, and this thread from the Gospels to Rev. (and from the OT as well… tho I think not the pre-400 BCE era of traditional dating, e.g., of Daniel… more like during or after the Maccabean revolt and Antiochus [sp?]). You mention “Olivet Discourse”. I do think it’s likely Jesus affirmed SOME (but what?) kind of apocalyptic perspective, probably (IMO) seeing himself as Messiah (but closely held, not publicly, as in Mark), but not as sharing the nature of God, as a “second person”… more likely expecting to be “declared” and vindicated as God-appointed but human Messiah after his death. Whether he expected his own nearly immediate return or just his disciples and new converts (such as Paul) did, I’m not sure, nor sure we can know. But this expectation, and establishment of some form of Kingdom of God with the “return” (technically “appearing” or “presence”, as you know) seems an agreed-upon point by all through at least 66-70 CE.

    But it also looks very much to me like the Gospel writers were putting concerns and theology of their own day, post-69 or 70 (even for Mark, in maybe the most disturbing and fluid period, and all-the-more for the rest), back into the mouth of Jesus in terms of “last days”, signs of the end and such. And people, in relatively-stable-and-free America as well as elsewhere, get all “apocalyptic” when the conditions of oppression (“excessive regulation”, “gun control”, etc… give me a BREAK) and social-order disruption are minuscule compared to even the Jesus, pre-Roman War period, let alone during or after the war, when most of the NT was written. (People, in general–not all, have such limited perspective-taking ability, and the stimulation of growth in that is one of my “missions” in life.)

  3. The four questions you asked would indeed make great sermons (I might even cite you in a few in the future). I think it’s interesting how often the point of the book of Revelation is completely missed. Looking at it as a book of apocalyptic prophecy is completely valid. However, I think the more important idea is what you said at the end “to hold on to what is true”. Christians ought to read Revelation as a book of encouragement. While it is filled with dark images of destruction, one thing holds true through the whole thing Jesus-followers emerge victorious with God in the end. Though the questions require a far more detailed answer than would be appropriate for a blog-post-comment, I am going to address them briefly.

    First, we can learn from what we know of historic Jewish Christianity in regards to how to interact with a morally opposite society. I agree that Pastors often overemphasize the imperial cult and how the Christians were persecuted, but we ought to learn from what we know, and what John encourages in Revelation: to hold to what we know, and stand for those beliefs because our Savior is coming back soon.

    Second, I think that there is a certain balance that needs to exist when talking about “pulling away”. I think that the same ethics need apply in regards to how much we associate with the common practices of society. How much did 1st century Jewish Christians associate with Roman society? We need to look at that, and find a way to relate it to how much we deal with our current societal climate.

    Third, it seems that this question might be the most challenging of the three, and probably the most controversial. It is important to understand the world, and where people are coming from. The difficulty is in how much we let “outside” ideas influence what we think about God. I think that it is important to be able to see God in whatever the situation. “God’s invisible qualities..have been clearly seen…from what has been made” (Romans 1:20). We ought to be able to look at things in this world and see the quality of our God in them, even if they might not be pointing towards Him intentionally.

    Fourth, again a respectful balance is necessary. Obviously, “outsider” Christian groups who have forsaken parts of the Bible in order to make their belief more acceptable ought to be looked at with a little more scrutiny. But, it is vital to be able to use new teachings and beliefs to point towards God in some way.

  4. The general question that I take away from this group of questions is one concerning the Church and culture. How much do we, as Christians and the Church, let society affect what we do and say? I think the answer is both very much and not at all.
    God’s Word doesn’t become less true just because society says it does. We Christians base our lives off of the Bible and what it says. We follow Scriptures like Romans 12:2 that tell us not to conform to the ways of this world. The historical church was up against a society of unbelief, just as we are. The way we show our faith, however, must change with the times. For example, technology has changed the way we communicate. If we want our faith to be seen by the world, we need to use technology to our advantage. We need to reach out to people by getting into their lives and bringing them in. I believe in the phrase that says we are in the world, but not of the world. This leads me to believe that Christians need to share what we believe to the world in a way that is effective and relevant, but also to hold on to our beliefs, no matter what the world says.

  5. I would like to address the third set of questions you ask, “How does the modern church deal with anti-Christian influences such as syncretic mixtures of Christianity and other world views? For example, can we have a “Christian / eastern world view”? Is there a possibility of a post-modern Christianity?” The possible answer to these questions lies in the teachings to the Churches in Revelation 2-3 on interactions with the Imperial cult and the pagan world. The “need” for a post-modern Christianity seems to stem from the development of Christianity across the world and in different cultures. For hundreds of years, Christianity has been defined by a Western Church that developed Western practices. Seeing the Churches deviate from long held practices is often seen as a deviation from absolute truth. “Can you have a Christian/eastern worldview” is a very similar question to “can you have a Christian/Imperial worldview”. My heart lies with foreign missions, and in many of my classes we have discussed this very issue. How much does Christian faith change a person’s culture. Can they be Christian and still practice Muslim practices in the name of Christ in order to stay with their family? Can people maintain their culture while following Christ? I believe the Gospel and the message of Christ can cross cultures and be fully integrated. However, it is a fine line to walk, because mixing worldviews with a Biblical worldview can cause very dangerous and heretical theologies. Syncretism is a huge issue right now in Mission philosophy and thinking that is still being addressed and looking to scriptures such as Rev 2-3 can help give guidance on this issue because these churches were facing similar problems.

    • You re-state the question in missiological terms, and this is good. Is there a solution to syncretism in Revelation? Maybe “come of our Babylon”?

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