TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES
“He (God) put all things under His (Christ’s) feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22,23). The Book of Revelation is the story of the Church of God, the Body of Christ on earth, as it faces the challenges of a world filled with sin, as well as the attacks of Satan and his followers.
Revelation chapters two and three consist of messages “to the seven churches which are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4).<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Are these messages primarily intended for the first-century churches they were addressed to, as preterest theologians claim? This would limit their value to us, because although there is some historical information about the cities the churches were located in, there is essentially no information about the churches themselves.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Moreover, there are serious problems inherent in the preterest view<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> which underscores the need for a more universal approach.
As we saw in chapter 1, the context of the introduction to the messages to the seven churches emphasizes universality. Jesus is portrayed as the great High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary, walking among seven lampstands. Jesus explained, “the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:29). Jesus is in the midst of the universal Church, in all places and at all times. Likewise, He had in His hand seven stars, which are “the angels of the seven churches”. Again, seven is a number used to represent fullness and completeness. Jesus, in His priestly position in the heavenly sanctuary, has the angels of the whole Church in His hand, not just of seven first-century churches in Asia Minor.
The Book of Revelation is most like the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Each of the four major visions in Daniel begins at the time of the prophet, and then gives an overview of history extending to and focusing on the events of the last days (See 1: Historicist Model of Interpretation)<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. With this model in mind, we would expect that Revelation would also begin by reviewing the span of history from the time it was written at the end of the first century until the time of the end. It is amazing to see how the messages to the seven churches have predicted what would happen to God's people through the ages. <![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]>
Some readers may be frustrated by what seems to be an inordinate focus on history in chapters two and three. But keep in mind that God has a purpose, as the Apostle Paul said, "All these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the end of the ages have come” (1Cor. 10:11). Edmund Burke put it another way: "Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it".
Continue to next section: EPHESUS 2:1-5 FIRST LOVE
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> The number seven is repeatedly and consistently used in Revelation to signify fullness and completion. For example, in Revelation 15:1 “I saw another sign…seven angels having the seven last plagues, for in them the wrath of God is complete.”
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Much has been written about the ancient cities where the seven churches were located. Although there is quite a bit of historical information about these cities, we have essentially no information about the actual churches in Asia at the time Revelation was written. Some theologians have assumed that characteristics of the cities would apply to some extent to the churches, and have made assumptions about them based upon this. But these kinds of speculations would be analogous to assuming that since Las Vegas is the city of gambling, the church of Las Vegas must have a gambling problem. Obviously, members of the Las Vegas church would be upset if assumptions were made about them based upon the characteristics of their city!
Likewise, it is not particularly helpful, while trying to find the meaning the messages had to the first-century Christians they were written to, to speculate about the characteristics of their churches based on the scanty information in Revelation combined with historical information (often unreliable) about the cities. It is more helpful to try to determine how the original readers in these churches would have interpreted messages that applied primarily to the universal Church.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Many theologians teach that we should find the meaning of a text by determining what it meant to the people it was written for. Obviously the messages to the seven churches had important meaning to those first century congregations. However, this principle would apply equally to the rest of the book of Revelation, resulting in a preterist view that cannot be harmonized with such obviously end-time themes as the Mark of the Beast, the Second Coming of Christ and the Millennium. A more helpful principle is that Revelation uses language and symbols which had meaning for first-century Christians, but the messages may not have their primary application in that time period.
There are verses in the messages to the seven churches that are difficult to place in a first-century context. For example, the church of Philadelphia was promised, “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 3:10). This reference to the great time of trouble obviously did not take place in the first century.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> In chapter 2, the multi-metal image shows the progression of world empires culminating in the setting up of God’s kingdom. In chapter 7, the four beasts and the little horn again show the progression of empires and the attack on God’s people and his law, culminating in the Day of Judgment. In chapter 8 and 9, the ram, goat and little horn again depict the political powers but focus on the attack on Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary culminating in the cleansing of the sanctuary. Chapters 10-12 detail the long war between the king of the north and the king of the south and the setting up of the abomination of desolation, culminating in the great time of trouble and deliverance of God’s people.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> It is the belief of this author that the events of history which would be important enough to have been referred to in a universal book such as Revelation would not be obscure details but rather the major critical events which would be found in any good encyclopedia or history of Christianity. “The History of the Christian Church” by Williston Walker has been quoted from extensively in this book, but any standard, objective history will give the same basic information.