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26 December 2018

Taking Revelation’s Target Audience Seriously

Seven lampstands from http://clipart.christiansunite.com/
The opening paragraph of Revelation presents the book as a record of a vision received by John of Patmos. Its contents are labeled “the prophecy,” singular, and summarized as, “What things that must come to pass soon.”
John was commanded to write the vision in a scroll and send it to seven churches in key cities of the Roman province of Asia (Revelation 1:11). In its entirety, the book is addressed to seven churches from the latter part of the first century. At the outset, Jesus proclaimed blessings to, “He who reads and they who hear the words of the prophecy.”
The first vision includes seven letters addressed to the congregations. Each includes commendations, corrections, warnings, and promises for their Christian members, and each letter ends with the admonishment, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” plural. The seven churches do not drop out of the picture after Chapter 3; the promises in each letter are verbal links to the book’s final vision of New Jerusalem.
The exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying occurs again in the middle of the book (Revelation 13:9-10, “If anyone has an ear: let him hear”). Furthermore, the seven churches are addressed again at the close of the book (Revelation 22:16, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches”).
This does not mean Revelation was only applicable to the Christians of these seven churches. There were more than seven congregations in the province of Asia and dozens more throughout the Roman Empire. Plural terms like “churches” and descriptions of saints from “every nation” anticipate a wider audience. Yet the seven churches of Asia remain a part of that audience, however large it is in the end.
The number seven is used symbolically in the book to signify completion. The group of seven churches represents a larger whole, though the seven are included in it. The concluding admonishment of each letter to hear what the spirit is saying to the “churches” suggests a broader audience; likewise, the global scope of the book’s visions and its conclusion in the New Creation.
Though the message is to a broader audience, any interpretation that makes the seven churches irrelevant to it does not do the book justice. This is the fundamental problem with “futurist” readings that claim Revelation's prophecies are applicable to History’s final generation, primarily, if not exclusively so. If true, then the churches of Asia become little more than props and their seven letters literary fictions.
Ignoring the historical setting creates significant problems. For example, if the promise to keep the church of Philadelphia “out of the hour of trial” refers to an escape from a yet future “tribulation,” then it had no relevance to that congregation (Revelation 3:10).
Passages from the book of Revelation must be interpreted in their historical contexts. What was the imminent “hour of trial” facing the church at Philadelphia? To what did Jesus refer when he told the church at Smyrna they faced “tribulation ten days?” Who and what were the Nicolaitans? What was the "throne of Satan" in the city of Pergamos?

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