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25 December 2018

The Letters to the Seven Churches – Introduction

Orthodox Church
The book of Revelation is addressed to churches from seven cities located in the province of Asia in western Asia Minor. John was commanded to send to each one a copy of the entire book, not just each congregation’s respective letter.
Whether the seven churches shared one copy among themselves, or each received a separate copy, is not relevant. Someone was designated to read the book in its entirety to each assembly (“blessed be he who reads and they who hear”).
The seven “letters” of chapters 2-3 are not separate documents but integral parts of the whole document. The book of Revelation cannot be understood apart from the seven “letters.” There are verbal, visual and conceptual links between the “letters” and the later visions. Note the following example from the letter to Thyatira:
(Revelation 2:20) – “I have a few things against thee, because you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols…I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation.”
(17:1-2) – “The great harlot that sits upon many waters…with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and they that dwell in the earth were made drunken with the wine of her fornication.”
(18:3) – “And the kings of the earth committed fornication with her.” 
Only seven churches are named, yet there were more than seven in Asia by the end of the first century, for example, Colossae, Troas and Miletus (2 Corinthians 2:12; 2 Timothy 4:13-20). The number seven predominates in Revelation and is usually figurative to symbolize the idea of completion or perfection. Though real, the seven churches of Asia are also a representative group that points to a larger reality, perhaps all churches, or at least to all the congregations in Asia.
Each letter is addressed to the angel or “messenger” of its respective church. However, each letter concludes with the exhortation, “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” The plural noun suggests a broader audience, and the present tense verb “saying” signifies ongoing action. Each letter or message is something the Spirit is in the process of saying to the churches.
The seven churches point to a larger reality and remain a part of it. This means any interpretation that makes the book irrelevant to the lives of the seven churches has missed the mark.
Commentators struggle with whether the “messenger” of each church is an angelic being or its human leader, perhaps a pastor or bishop. The text does not address this question, though it assumes each messenger is responsible for the delivery of his church’s letter to the congregation. This suggests a solution from the book’s prologue, “he who reads and they who hear.” The seven messengers are the men assigned to present the book to each congregation.
The book begins in a localized setting at the end of the first century. Almost immediately it begins to deal with the struggles and successes of the seven churches. But no doubt many of the problems experienced by the seven were also common to other congregations in the province, as well as elsewhere in the Empire.
The book of Revelation was composed around 95 AD when Rome was ruled by Domitian. The province of Asia was one of the richest and most important provinces of the Roman Empire. Its cities were largely Hellenized with Greek the common language, especially in commerce. By this time Christians in Asia were experiencing pressure to conform to pagan society, which would have included participation in the imperial cult, the veneration of the emperor.
For full participation in the economic life of the city, it was often necessary to join one of the local trade guilds, each with its own patron deities and rituals. To join required participation in said idolatrous rituals and this may in part be behind the several warnings against “fornication” (2:21; 17:2-4). The concern is not with sexual sin but idolatry, often compared to fornication in scripture. To refuse participation could mean economic deprivation.
Pressure from local Jewish synagogues was another problem (2:9; 3:9). The “synagogue of Satan” is condemned for “slander” against the churches. This likely refers to the practice of submitting charges against Christians before local magistrates, perhaps for refusing to offer incense to an image of the emperor and other “activities disruptive to the political order (13:6).
By the late first century, the imperial cult with its veneration of the emperor was especially prevalent in Asia. Participation was expected of all citizens. Temples dedicated to the worship of the Emperor and Roma, the patron deity of the city of Rome, existed in at least three of the seven named cities. The provincial center of the Roman government and the imperial cult was in Pergamos (2:13, “I know where you dwell, even where Satan’s seat is”).
To refuse to honor the emperor was tantamount to treason; refusal had religious and political connotations.
The seven letters are parts of the literary section that begins with John’s opening vision on Patmos (1:9). This unit continues until the end of the letter to Laodicea (3:22). The opening vision pictures the seven churches as seven golden lampstands, among which the glorified “son of man” arrayed in priestly garments walks while he trims wicks and adds oil. He holds seven “stars,” which represent the seven “messengers” of the churches. This portrays the Risen Christ as he reigns over his churches.
The seven letters that follow reflect Christ’s assessment of the Asian congregations. “Together the letters constitute a visitation of the churches to see whether they are in a fit state to face the coming crisis.”
Each message is structured according to a common sevenfold outline.
1.    A command for John to write to an assembly.
2.   Opening words from Jesus that cite attributes ascribed to him in chapter 1.
3.   Praise for a congregation’s achievements based on Christ’s all-seeing knowledge (“I know”).
4.   Rebuke for its shortcomings, also based on Christ’s all-seeing knowledge.
5.   A call to repent with judgment warnings for failure to do so.
6.   An exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying to ALL the churches.
7.    Promises to individual believers who overcome.
There are variations of this outline. For example, neither the letter to Smyrna nor Philadelphia includes a rebuke. Similarly, the one to Laodicea has no praise for the congregation. The order of exhortation to hear the Spirit followed by promises to overcomers in the first three letters is reversed in the last four.
Each letter begins with the clause, “these things declares…” This is John’s version of the formula typical of Testament prophets, “Thus says the Lord.” The seven letters are, in effect, the oracles of a prophet, in this case, John declaring the words of Jesus.
The attributes of Jesus given at the start of a letter are thematic for it.
For example, Jesus is the one who “became dead and lived,” and therefore is well able to encourage persecuted saints to remain faithful until death, “because I will give you the crown of life” (2:10). Jesus has the “key of David and so places an “open door that no man can shut” before Philadelphia (3:8).
In each letter Jesus cites his relevant attributes, reviews each congregation’s status, situation, encourage each church to persevere or calls for repentance, calls each to heed what the Spirit is saying, and promises eternal rewards to individual believers who faithfully endure to the end.
Connections exist between the promises to “overcomers” and the vision of New Jerusalem. Note the following examples:
1.    (2:7; 22:2) – The “tree of life.”
2.   (2:11; 20:6, 21:8) – Escape from the “second death.”
3.   (2:26; 20:4, 22:5) – Authority to reign over the nations.
4.   (3:5; 21:27) – The overcomer’s name written in the “book of life.”
5.   (3:12; 22:4) – God’s name written on the forehead of the overcomer.
Parallels also exist between the imperfections and obstacles of each church and the perfections realized in the New Creation. For example:
1.    (2:2; 21:14) – False apostles vs. twelve true Apostles.
2.   (2:9; 21:12) – False Jews vs. True Israel.
3.   (2:13; 22:1) – Satan’s throne vs. God’s throne.
4.   (3:2; 21:27 – Dead believers vs. All believers in the “book of life.”
5.   (2:14-20; 21:8, 27) – Idolatry and liars vs. purity and truth in the new creation.
Conceptual and verbal links between the seven letters and the later visions shed light on the true causes of the churches’ struggles. For example:
1.    (2:2, 2:15; 13:11; 16:13) – “False apostles,” “Nicolaitans” = “False Prophet.”
2.   (2:16; 19:15) - Jesus executes judgment with the sword of his mouth.
3.   (2:20; 17:1-7) – “Jezebel” = “Harlot, Babylon.”
4.   (2:22; 7:14) – The “Great Tribulation” is also referenced in 7:14.
5.   (3:12; 7:1; 14:1) - God’s name inscribed on overcomer = sealing of saints.
The structural features comprise evidence not only for the book’s unity but also that the situations described in each letter are necessary to understand the book of Revelation.
William Ramsay postulated that the sequence of the seven letters is determined by the route a courier would follow to deliver them to the churches.
Having made landfall at Ephesus, he would travel north to Smyrna, east to Pergamos, southeast to Thyatira, south to Sardis, east-southeast to Philadelphia, and finally southeast to Laodicea. This formed a circular route. A courier could then return to Ephesus directly from Laodicea. Each city was located on the main Roman road at average intervals of 50-60 kilometers.
This geographical explanation makes good sense, however, another interpretation is offered by the literary arrangement of the letters. They fall into three groups based on spiritual condition. The first and last congregations are in the poorest condition and must repent before it is too late (Ephesus, Laodicea).
The central three churches are in better condition, although deception and compromise have made inroads. They must purge compromising elements (Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis). The second and sixth churches are in the best spiritual shape, they receive no rebuke or correction (Smyrna, Philadelphia).
In the fourth or middle letter (Thyatira) is found the only declaration in any of the seven letters that is addressed expressly to all seven churches: “and all the churches shall get to know that I am he that searches reins and hearts, and I will give to each one according to your works” (2:23). This is followed immediately by Christ’s judgment pronouncement on the false prophetess, Jezebel.
The literary structure suggests that, as a whole, the churches of Asia are in poor to fair condition. Consequently, they are not prepared to endure imminent assaults by Satan and his human agents. Churches in good condition are the exceptions to the rule.
As Jesus praises, chastises, corrects, purges and judges each congregation, all the churches come to understand that he is the one “who searches reins and hearts, and gives to each one according to his works.” Jesus is the all-seeing Protector, Judge, and Ruler of his churches. The purpose of his visitation is to prepare his people to for faithful witness in hostile situations. It is through faithful perseverance that they inherit God’s promises in the New Creation.

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