The second and third chapters of Revelation contain the letters to the seven churches. These letters are probably the most familiar chapters in Revelation since they are the most easily applied to the modern church, and can be “preached” without difficulties found in the rest of Revelation. You can go on tours of the seven churches and there are innumerable charts and graphs on the internet that claim to properly interpret the “real meaning of the seven churches.”
Since Revelation is a book of prophecy, it was once thought the seven letters were prophetic of the entire scope of church history from the beginnings of the Apostolic Church (Ephesus) through the apostasy of the last days (Laodicea). They may be letters to real churches but there is a “deeper” meaning to these letters which unveils the history of the church. Naturally these interpreters see themselves living in the final period. The church of the “last days” will be like the lukewarm Laodicean church. For example, Jesus is outside the church knocking on the door, asking to come into the church, implying Jesus is not a part of the “present day church.”
Interpreters who approached the book of Revelation with the historical method spent a great deal of effort trying to determine which “eras” of church history are present in each of the seven churches. This was popular at one time even among Dispensationalists who otherwise avoided allegorical interpretations. John Walvoord, for example, sees this approach as shedding “much additional light” on the study of the seven churches (Revelation, 52-53).
I disagree with these schemes since they obscure the most important theological teaching of Revelation 2-3. These letters were written to real churches and are intended to be real communications with those churches. The letters are a literary device used by John to communicate certain teachings to the entire church. They are addressed to real churches with real problems, but they are intended to be read by the whole church. An analogy to the book of Amos is often made, since Amos begins with prophecies against 7 nations, ending with Israel and Judah. Just as those prophecies would not have been delivered separately than the rest of the epistle, the letters in Revelation would not have been intended to circulate separately from Revelation. In fact, David Aune suggests that these letters may never have circulated at all (Revelation, 1:119).
It is far better to read these churches in the context Asia Minor in the late first century. Each letter contains allusions to the culture and location of the city addressed. Using the example above, Laodicea is did not have a good water supply. Unlike other cities nearby, they did not have therapeutic hot springs nor a fresh water spring. Hot water or cold water are both positive, helpful resources. Laodicea had tepid water that was not useful for very much at all. This explains the use of lukewarm in Rev 3:16. In 3:17 the Laodicean church thinks they are prosperous, but they are really wretched, poor, blind and naked. Laodicea was known for both eye-medicine and a textile industry. This is irony based on the culture of the city of Laodicea.
Other metaphors are more obscure (Satan’s throne, Rev 2:13 or the synagogue of Satan in 3:9 are particularly difficult). But the solution is not to be found in the history of the church or some allegorical teaching pulled out of the text without any knowledge of the social world of the first century.
Why do some people not take this history, geography and social setting into consideration when they read Revelation? The main reason is because it is hard work! It takes some effort to be fully aware of the history of these seven cities, most preachers do not have the time to do the additional reading to become aware of the background. This is unfortunate, because the message of the seven churches is even more applicable to the modern church when read against the background of a Greco-Roman Asia Minor of the first century.