The Seven Churches of Revelation 2-3

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.”

Larkin Seven ChurchesInterpreters 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.

12 thoughts on “The Seven Churches of Revelation 2-3

  1. I think you’re onto a good point about taking Rev. so symbolically, including the 7 churches section. In the 30 years I was an Evangelical (counting from age 15, when I began paying particular attention) I heard literally thousands of sermons, Bible teachings (radio, books, etc.) and such… a good # of them on Rev. and the 7 churches. Never did I hear (that I recall) any of the cultural/geographical features you mention. The ease of falling to what a preacher/teacher had been taught was probably a good part, related to your comment. And it’s so tempting for pastors to fall to use of passages to illustrate whatever (often helpful) psychological/spiritual points they want to get across.

    IMHO a major drawback of both conserv. and liberal churches is the pretense that they are helping form students of the Bible when both “ends” of the spectrum (and most in-between as well) seldom do it much. In reality, they very seldom teach either the content, interpreted carefully by genre, context, etc., nor do they teach HOW lay people can and should do it for themselves… or what to read, etc. And I’m not into biblical knowledge for its own sake, but one cannot well understand much about Christian faith or history, or Western hist/civ., or American political/religious foundations without understanding it and at least a bit of the history of its interpretation and application.

    In other words, one is not a well-informed CITIZEN, let alone Christian, without a decent grasp of fundamentals of the Bible and how it has been used over the centuries. Sorry… bit of a tangent, but hopefully relevant.

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    • Thanks, Howard. I think that the tide has turned on this particularly allegorizing of Revelation, although I have met a few pastors and laymen that remained convinced that the historical scheme is right (or worse, that they are only *future* churches in the tribulation period!) Colin Hemer has an excellent book on the Seven Churches giving copious details on each location. Most people are still relying on Ramsay’s book on the seven churches, but Hemer is really a joy to read.

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  2. I think that Walvoord’s discussion is a bit more nuanced than your brief quote would seem to suggest. It appears to me that Walvoord is not so much suggesting that each church represents a specific period of history but that as a whole the churches picture history as moving in a negative direction. So it is not so much that Walvoord “sees this approach as shedding ‘much additional light’ on the study of the seven churches,” but rather that the seven churches shed light on this trajectory which he also sees in other Scriptures. If you read Walvoord’s commentary proper in which he deals with the individual texts, he actually does deal with these churches in their historical and geographical context. I might add by the way, that Walvoord like a number of dispensational interpreters see 1:19 as providing an outline for the book which usually results in the following schema (see pp. 47-49):

    1. The things that were = chapter 1
    2. The things that are (John’s day) = chapter 2-3
    3. The things which shall be thereafter (future to John) = chapters 4-22

    In this representation, the seven churches belong primarily to John’s present not future.

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    • Thanks for the clarification, Charles. But as I read page 52 of his commentary, he considers them “scriptural illustrations” and says “it would seem almost incredible that such a progression be pure accident, and the order of the messages to the churches seems to be divinely selected to give prophetically the main movement of church history.” He does try to nuance this in the following paragraph, saying it “should not be pressed beyond bounds” and that the view is in keeping with a futurist view of Revelation. All he is arguing for here is a general trend from an early, purer church to a latter-day apostate church.

      In the following page he certainly does not press for a historical interpretation often, however on page 69 he draws a parallel between Pergamos and Constantine; page 75 he connects the eating of food sacrificed to idols in 2:20-23 to the development of Catholic doctrine in the middle ages; page 83 the church of Sardis is a “prophetic foreshadowing” of the Protestant Reformation; Rev 3:10-11 has the Rapture in view (p. 87). It is certainly not what drives his interpretation, but he does drop in a hint at the older view in a few paragraphs.

      However, in the later Bible Knowledge Commentary, Walvoord says “There are some remarkable similarities in comparing these letters to the seven churches to the movement of church history since the beginning of the apostolic church. For instance, Ephesus seems to characterize the apostolic church as a whole, and Smyrna seems to depict the church in its early persecutions. However, the Scriptures do not expressly authorize this interpretation, and it should be applied only where it fits naturally. After all, these churches all existed simultaneously in the first century.” That is a bit more judicious than the 1966 commentary.

      It was E. W. Bullinger applied the letters of the seven churches only to the end times, with no application in either the first century or the history of the church,
      The Apocalypse, 68. I run into that from time to time among dispensational Bible teachers in my own denomination.

      The three-part timing is a common way to treat the time references in the book, it does emphasize the “nowness” of the churches. I think chapters 4-5 could be included there as well, although they are more or less timeless (from ascension to beginning of the judgments to come). I have also toyed with the seals as parallel to the Olivet Discourse, and therefore John’s way of presenting the “birth pains” before the actual tribulation.

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      • On Rev 1:19: It is not a three-fold division. As Robert Mounce describes in his NICNT commentary on Revelation, it is a main phrase (“write what you have seen”) with two dependent clauses describing what John saw (“things which are” and “things which are to come”). That is a better description of the contents of Revelation: a mix of exhortation for the present (which applies to all) and a glimpse of God’s triumphant future to encourage those who must endure and overcome until that time.

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  3. I would affirm with Phillip, the value of Hemer’s work. This is a must have resource for studying the seven churches.

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  4. One of the reasons it’s easy to try and make the letters to the seven churches into representations of something else is because the whole of Revelation is filled with symbolic imagery, which can be confusing at times. These letters fall right into a mix of metaphors and allusion, so I can see how they could be taken as figurative. But P. Long, you brought up a good point that these letters addressed issues and used illustrations that can be linked to 1st century events and facts. This strengthens the argument that the churches were in fact real churches.

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  5. I agree with having the historical background be more important than it has been when it comes to interpreting Revelation 2-3. Like you mention in the post here about Laodicea, there is a lot of value in the history and culture of the city. I remember preparing a lesson on that passage when I was in high school and being shocked to find out it meant something completely different that I thought it would. It makes me wonder how much history we don’t know that would change the way interpret passages.
    “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 3:1). Even a verse like Rev. 3:1 could be referencing something specific that a reader today may not catch. The city of Sardis was known for its reputation and having a big name as it was a very wealthy city. So this reputation that they were trying to uphold could very well have been related to that pride.
    And I also agree with the laziness part of not looking up the historical background. Preachers like theology and verses infused with emotion. But history can be dry and full of facts, which will come across as boring to many people. But in passages such as these, the historical background should be a part of the process of interpreting what the author originally meant.

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  6. I agree with Jon, I think that the reason why people see the churches as representing something else, is because Revelation holds so much imagery. However, because most of the books of New Testament were written as letters to churches, to help guide then in their daily walk with Christ. To remind them of His love for them. And to teach them how to live. Also the fact that a lot of facts from Rev. 2-3 can line up with the first century, about when this letter was written.

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  7. THE 7 CHURCHES OF REVELATION

    Before we speak on Revelation The great warning to the churches of our nations
    Through God’s eyes I will speak It BOLDLY no hesitation
    This is MY spiritual evaluation
    A spirit filled interpretation

    Before we start with the 7 churches and the key to their salvation
    We MUST first address the church today PLEASE!
    NO MORE CONDEMNATION!

    There are millions who love Jesus but have suffered indignation
    By the hand of those in churches
    Now to me
    That’s an abomination!
    In the past few years on my journey in determination
    To draw closer to the Lord Because Jesus IS my adoration.

    I have witnessed many a congregation
    And so much discrimination Severe spiritual abuse
    And degradation
    Money manipulation
    And fellowship termination Infair and unjust accusations When I try to share my jubilation
    Of the Lord Jesus of Nazareth
    MY first love.

    From the highest of administration
    The most apaulling insinuations
    I have seen churches of mystifications
    Congregation exploitations Cliques and isolation
    Profound demonstrations
    Of itchy ears-gossip-lying tongues
    A twisted evaporation
    Of the Lord’s Holy words Into SHEER FABRICATIONS!

    The very utilization
    Of FALSE doctrine
    And misinformation
    A crumbling foundation
    And complete utter stagnation Which has nothing to do with Jesus Christ
    Yet it is sold off to “His” Creation Our “dying” population
    Who desperately needs
    The Lord’s destination
    The churches are leading them To Satan’s annihilation!

    Can you feel my great frustration?

    Love!!! There should be NO contemplation
    That causes NONE humiliation Jesus loves ALL
    no matter what their situation No such thing as ‘denomination’ When you are following the TRUE God… Jesus of Nazareth.

    Now John had a vision
    And it was NOT his imagination For when the Lord appeared to me-He was a ‘Box office hit’
    An overnight sensation!
    In my heart-such a celebration Jesus is my sole infatuation REGARDLESS OF SPECULATION which I KNOW comes from satan I call it “Demonization”
    HE KNOWS MY HEART and that is MY affirmation!

    He shows me visions of great devastation Earthquakes-Tsunami-tornadoes-war in this nation
    NOT for trepidation
    Visions of this spiritual war Just one more confirmation
    He whispers “Go and tell the people of my amazing miracles and revelations”
    But the churches will not hear me
    And they take my testimony of great elation
    Once again Over and over
    More slaughter
    And hateful condemnation Aggravation
    Great frustrations
    The Devil’s altercation
    The churches revocation
    Of TRUTH
    sanctification
    To be speaking the TRUTH in GOD’S house
    To GOD’S people
    I receive Character assassination self annointed no passion-no fire Self idolization
    Who think it is THEIR invitation To scoff and spit
    On foreordination
    Such haughty Self rightious implications.

    I am so happy he will be returning And give me a permanent Vacation
    I will rejoice in adoration
    This suffering be removed Just peace…love… Complete saturation
    From all of this complication When all I want to do is tell People my testimony
    And my great jubilation Of Jesus of Nazareth My first love!

    A modern day Esther
    Who hides her designation Comfort under his wing
    With such high expectations
    She waits for HIM to reveal and steal the limelight
    In one amazing salutation
    She walks the dark valley and waits-he makes no mistakes What a very strange situation
    He started it-he will finish it Jesus of Nazareth is my Inspiration
    HE does it ALL beyond my expectations
    He has no limitations
    I need no elabotations
    JUST THE TRUTH
    So i wait faithfully
    In heavenly anticipation.

    Yes! Yes! I know the implications The so-called Holy and their Self rightious provocation

    “Who are you JoA to speak of the Lord? You are surely no saint… You are unholy-unlearned–It is the devil’s mesmerization
    “YOUR insubordination” Hallucinations
    Examination
    Of my false indoctrination
    They take my beautiful testimony of Jesus the Lamb of God
    Rumination
    Evil connotations
    Spiritual casteration
    Declination
    Ultimate expulsion Extermination
    From HIS Church.

    But Jesus is STILL my first love Regardless of Fiery darts
    And their lying declarations
    He gives me amazing lessons And he is revealing “revelation”

    Yes! Yes! I am aware of the significations
    Acts of reparations
    The FAILING churches of old
    The FAILING churches of now Where is the Lord’s High and HOLY EXULTATION?

    What I see is a GREAT Accumulation
    Of Satan’s penetration
    Divide and conquer
    Evil fruits of Nicolas
    Seeped with Pagan connotations When the churches don’t keep JESUS OF NAZARETH as their first love.

    The worlds downfall
    Utter Disintegration
    Demonic facination
    Has caused a great separation
    Of the Lord’s TRUE words
    Into subtle mutilation
    A very deathly combination

    The war is coming
    He calls it GREAT TRIBULATION this EVIL vibration
    Will sweep and swarm EVERY nation

    The TRUE CHURCH OF CHRIST MUST ARISE TO THIS OCCASION with total dedication
    And no trepidation
    With HIS DIVINE WORDS Condemning SIN And repentance
    With no Improvisation!!

    The churches of this nation
    Have made many modifications They give no explanations
    A seat and pocket filled
    Is their true valuation

    They have betrayed the Lord Jesus
    DENYING HIS DIVINATION worried about themselves
    Their “about me” Reputations

    Simple explanation

    The Holy Bible
    Its words
    Its very desecration
    Has caused this Great separation Between the church And its first love…

    “JESUS OF NAZARETH” THE MESSIAH NAME ABOVE ALL NAMES SON OF GOD

    MY first love.

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    • Dear Jooa77,
      I have purchased one of your booklets and thank you for your courage in tackling a very unpleasant subject. I know of someone who has experienced a couple of unpleasant attacks from evil. Unfortunately he is so confused and ashamed and believes the lies taught by his church that he must have some evil lurking in him – and consequently was shunned and driven out. This man has spent some years living like a hermit, totally lacking confidence and unable to move forward in life. One day those destroyers will have to face the music, and what a day that will be.

      Meantime, I am interested in following your comments but am not able to access your system, though I had put in a request some time ago for access, but there was no response.

      Shalom
      Jardin
      (Please do not publish my email address)

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