First thing – read Chapters 2 & 3.
Notice the pattern; Ch 2 vs 1, vs 8, vs 12, vs 18, Ch 3 vs 1, vs 7, vs 14 – “Write this letter to the angel of the church in ……..”
Now, it is often said that the word of God comes to us through a human filter, i.e. the prophets, apostles, evangelists, St Paul etc, who strove to put into words the things that God was showing them. But here is revelation by dictation. Jesus is speaking and John is writing it down as secretary.
The names of the churches are given in an order where they follow a route a messenger would travel with the letters. From Patmos to Ephesus (or Miletus and on to Ephesus) then on to Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea. Check it out if your bible has maps in the back or in a bible atlas.
The significance of seven again, God’s number of completeness, a complete picture of churches then and perhaps now.
Each letter has a similar structure.
Write this letter to ……….. This is the message from the one……….. I know……….. But I have this complaint against you………… Anyone with ears to hear……….. To he who conquers (overcomes, is victorious)…………
The last two points are reversed in the last four churches. Significance, I don’t know other than some distinction between the first three churches and the following four.
It seems that each church is getting a report card which says what is good and what is bad. There is encouragement, commendation, and there is chastisement, but the latter with a view to remedial action. One church Jesus has nothing bad to say. One church Jesus has nothing good to say. The others have commendations and then comes the “but”. The church that is struggling and suffering is actually doing well. The church that thinks it is doing well is not. This reminds me of my old school reports where I was surprised to have done well in a subject I found difficult and then been shocked when I had done badly in a subject I thought I was good at. Humility would seem to be the order of the day.
In summary the churches fall into categories;
Ephesus – a loyal but tired church
Smyrna – a suffering church
Pergamum – a compromising church
Thyatira – an overly tolerant church
Sardis – a dead church
Philadelphia – a weak but obedient church
Laodicea – a lukewarm church
(categories from the New Living Translation Study Bible)
People have sought to take these as types for all churches over the whole world and at any time or age. We might also apply it to ourselves. Am I tired, suffering, compromising etc. But I would not want to label anyone as spiritually dead, though we might say – have I cooled, am I just going through the motions, do I need a fresh touch from God, a fresh anointing, a time of rest and restoration. A time, perhaps, to take encouragement and chastisement and renew our focus on Jesus, to be on fire rather than lukewarm, to be Christ-centered and turn to Jesus. It is very easy to become lukewarm and Jesus’ reaction to this is quite shocking –“I will spit you out!” (from the letter to the church in Laodicea). Then comes one of the most comforting passages in the bible – Chapter 3 vs 20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and we will share a meal together as friends.” This passage is often used in appeals and outreachs, which is quite right, but in context it is addressed to a lukewarm church. Where is Jesus in relation to that church? Outside, knocking to be let in! I would suggest that it only needs one person to let him in and renew that church.
Another way people have tried to apply these chapters is vertically through time rather than horizontally within a time, these churches representing the church down through the ages. But this approach doesn’t really work because the categories are too broad and sweeping. For instance, and I’m borrowing from Chuck Missler’s book “Learn the bible in 24 hours”;
Ephesus – the apostolic church founded by the apostles, a vibrant growing church full of the Holy Spirit.
Smyrna – the persecuted church which is a growing and spreading church.
Pergamum – the married church, under Constantine Christianity becomes the official religion of the roman world and inevitably compromised by its association with the secular power.
Thyatira – the mediaeval church, thought by some to be corrupt, though we have to remember there were many great reforming movements during this time, when we think of Saints such as Benedict and Francis etc. There was also often a tension between church and state which could be constructive in relation to the Christian life.
Sardis – the denominational church of the reformation. But this is the church said to be dead – Oops, a bit harsh methinks.
Philadelphia – the missionary Church. Perhaps we might look to Methodism and Pentecostalism and also Catholic Charismatic renewal.
Laodicea – the lukewarm or apostate church, an “anything goes” church, a church of the end times or perhaps the affluent western church. Again too harsh and universal a statement, but perhaps a warning.
These applications are just too sweeping and general.
No, it is more likely that each letter has a concrete application to the church it was originally addressed to, as well as a more general meaning to all churches everywhere and at all times. If the cap fits – wear it and if it doesn’t – don’t.
But never mind all this, read it for yourself and see what you think. Ask the Lord to show you what he wants you to see in it.
In bible study there is Exegesis – extracting the meaning from the text, and there is Eisegesis – imposing meaning on the text which isn’t really there.
For instance, when we look at the letter to the church in Philadelphia chapter 3 verse 10 says “Because you have obeyed my command to persevere I will protect you from the great time of testing that will come upon the whole world to test those who belong to this world.”
Does this mean that these believers, who persevere, will be removed from the world before the Great Tribulation starts? Are they raptured, snatched away before the tribulation starts? (Tribulation – seven year period or persecution, troubles and difficulties, characterised by the rise of the antichrist, when the wrath of God in a series of judgements is poured out on the world.) Or does it mean that whilst facing persecution they will be spared the wrathful judgements of God in a similar way to the Israelites being spared the plagues that fell on Egypt as divine judgements in Exodus Ch 7-12. The text does say “protect you from” not “remove you from.”
Exegesis or Eisegesis, we’ll consider these matters later. we should be careful about reading a lot into a little.
Good reading, and don’t worry the overall message of Revelation is “Jesus wins!”
Footnote – “to him who overcomes…” How do we overcome? How are we victorious? By not reacting to all those things, and people, who try to wind us up. By remaining calm, always responding with love and with our eyes on the Lord. By taking up our cross daily and following Jesus, looking to heaven our eternal destination and the blessedness which God gives us in our daily walk. Not always easy but in so doing our everyday life becomes a series of small victories as we persevere.