The Messages to the Seven Churches
The first part of the Revelation is devoted to praise and rebuke, advice and promises to the seven churches to which John’s letter (the Revelation) was addressed (Rev 1:4-11).
Try it yourself
What indications can be found in the seven epistles in Rev 2–3 that they refer to the situation in the congregations at that time, to later times or also to church history?
What indications are there that this section is meant as a prophecy of seven periods in church history, or what contra-dicts this notion in the text and the context?
What allusions can be found in the messages to the seven churches, and what do they imply for the interpretation?
Signposts / keys for the interpretation
In the context of the seven epistles there is a hint for their interpretation which is mostly overlooked. Immediately before Jesus Christ says to John, according to Rev 1:19:
Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now
and what will take place later. (NIV)
And right after the seven messages we read his command to John in Rev 4:1c (NIV/ESV):
Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.
The difference is obvious: The words what is now are missing.
Where is this what is now—in other words: the present conditions in the time of John—described? Logically between them in chapters 2 and 3. Therefore, the descriptions of the seven churches refer to their present condition; future deve-lopments are described only afterwards in the Revelation.
That the messages to the 7 churches (and the promises to the overcomers) were not only meant for them, but were addressed to all Christians in every age, is clear from the exhortations at the end of each message:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says
to the churches. (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)
This means that every congregation in the post-apostolic period should ask itself which of the descriptions of the churches applies also to them, and then follow the advice that Jesus gave to the congregation in question. And, likewise, each church or faith community should ask itself again and again critically whether one of the descriptions applies to it.
In this way, these seven epistles, like all the letters in the New Testament, are relevant to all Christians and churches throughout the time until the Second Coming of Christ.
The application of the seven churches to seven periods of church history has been widespread since the post-Reformation period, and Seventh-day Adventists were not the first to interpret the messages in this way. But this interpretation is supported neither by the context or the description of the churches nor by logic or church history.
An attentive perusal of the seven messages shows that there are no internal indications that they were also meant prophetically.
One argument for this, which is repeatedly stated, is the prediction to the congregation of Smyrna that some members of the congregation will be thrown into prison, be tested and will have a tribulation for ten days (Rev 2:10b). This is applied to the great persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian, and the year-day principle is applied to the ten days. However, this principle of a prophetic day signifying a real year only applies to symbolic biblical predictions (such as in Daniel 7 and 8). However, in Rev 2:10 no symbols are used, everything is to be understood literally. And the Diocletian persecution lasted only 8, not 10 years (303-11). In addition, the text includes a possible allusion to Daniel 1:12-14, which describes the trial of Daniel and his friends with regard to their diet. In the Greek text of the Septuagint, three words agree (test [peirasein] and ten days), the subject is the same.
A lot of factual and historical arguments speak also against the interpretation of the seven epistles as seven consecutive periods of church history.
Ephesus is applied to the state of the churches in the first century, but the seven epistles testify that the churches in the first century differed greatly from each other.
Sardes is applied to the Reformation period, but the church receives less praise than the church of Thyatira, which sup-posedly represents the medieval papal church. (Compare this with the very positive evaluation of the protestant reformers by Ellen White in her book The Great Controversy, chaps. 7–13). Moreover the description of the church in Thyatira does not accord with the description of the papal church in Rev 13:1-7.
Jon Paulien concedes that the verbal parallels between Rev 16:15 and 3:18 are “the best evidence” that “Laodicea represents the final church of earth’s history,” but this is not convincing at all, for there are also verbal and especially thematic parallels of Rev 16:15 to 7,14 and 22,14, while 3:18 has several thematic differences to Rev 16:15.
And how should the church of Laodicea accomplish the necessary proclamation of the eternal gospel before the Second Coming of Christ (14:6; cf. Matt 24:14), if all churches in the last days would be in the state of lukewarmness?
When the seven churches are interpreted in terms of periods of church history, either the text of the Revelation or the facts of church history are distorted.
Contemporary historical background
The descriptions of the churches contain numerous references to the situation in the respective cities:
• Smyrna (today Izmir) was an important harbour and trading centre, one of the wealthiest cities in Asia Minor (cf. 2:9: but you are rich).
• Pergamum had a famous temple of Zeus with a monumental altar that was twelve metres (40 feet) high; it looked from afar like a throne (cf. 2:13: throne of Satan, Zeus was sometimes represented by a serpent, as well as the god Asclepius, who was also worshipped in Pergamum; cf. 12:9).
• Thyatira possessed a sanctuary of the goddess Sambethe, an oriental Sybil and alleged prophetess (cf. 2:20: Jezebel … who calls herself a prophetess).
• Sardis was a centre of the wool and dyeing trade (cf. 3:4: white garments).
• Laodicea did not have sufficient water sources; the water that was needed was therefore led from hot springs, located six miles the north of Laodicea, by means of an aqueduct. It arrived in Laodicea lukewarm (cf. 3:16: because you are lukewarm).
The situation of the churches and their members was marked by the circumstances in the province of Asia in which they lived. Since Augustus it was the stronghold of emperor worship in the Roman Empire. The first provincial temple of the imperial cult was erected in Pergamum as early as 29 B.C. Smyrna got a temple for Tiberius in 26 A.D. and Ephesus a temple for Domitian in 89/90 A.D.
The Christians were exposed to possible persecutions du-ring this time. There was no general persecution of Christians (the first general persecution took place only in the years 249–51 under Emperor Decius), but the edict of Emperor Nero in the year 64, which had condemned the Christians in Rome to death, was probably included in the collection of edicts for the governors in the provinces, so that Christians could be con-demned on complaint for the simple reason that they were Christians (no special misconduct was required). If they participated in the imperial cult, they could escape punishment or execution (cf. the case of Antipas in Rev 2:13; the wording hold fast my name and you did not deny my faith points to the context of a lawsuit).
The letters to the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia indicate that these complaints probably came frequently from the Jewish side (cf. 2:9; 3:9). The historian Ethelbert Stauffer explains:
When the trials against Glabrio, Clemens and comrades on account of lese majesty became known in the year 95 … severe anti-Christian excesses and executions took place in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and elsewhere, and we have many evidences to the fact that the Jewish community in Asia Minor participated in these like [the Jewish historian] Josephus did in Rome at the same time.
The structure of the letters with introduction, central section and a double conclusion reflect the structure of royal and imperial edicts. Moreover, the introductory formula Thus says… was the primary feature of imperial decrees promulgated by Roman magistrates and emperors. Ethelbert Stauffer observes:
The introductory formula of the seven decrees of Jesus
is unmistakably formulated in antithetical analogy to the
introductory words of the Dominitian edicts.
Thus the seven letters should not be understood as informal letters, but rather as formal and public edicts. Christ thus presents himself to the churches as the eternal sovereign and King of kings (19:16b), who gives instructions to his subjects. In fact, the messages to the seven churches have almost nothing in common with personal letters.
On the other hand, the seven epistles also have parallels to the structure of ancient covenants with (1) a preamble, (2) a prologue, (3) stipulations or demands, (4) blessings and curses and (5) witnesses. The preamble (1) introduces Jesus with the phrase The words of him who (literally: Thus says), followed by a title; the prologue (2) speaks of past relations in such terms as I know your works; the stipulations (3) are introduced with the imperative of repent (to change one’s mind), usually follo-wed by instructions as to what should be done; the blessing (4) consists of a statement of reward in the promises to the over-comers, or sometimes of threats (2:16; 3:3b); and the Spirit, who must be listened to, acts as witness (5). The seven epistles would thus function as a statement of a kind of covenant renewal to each of the seven churches.
Both interpretations of the structure of the seven messages to the seven churches have some merit and are not mutually exclusive. In the following studies we will find again and again that both the Old Testament background and the parody of the Roman imperial cult play an important role in the Revelation.
Rev 2:6, 15: works/teachings of the Nicolaitans. Who are meant by this is unknown and has often been the subject of speculation. The term derives from the Greek name Nicolaos, which is a compound of the verb nikeiv = to win and laos = people, meaning “the one who conquers the people.”
2:9/3:9: synagogue of Satan. Both times this expression is related to the phrase those who say that they are Jews and are not. After the lost war against the Romans and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Jewish Christians were no longer tolerated in the synagogues because they refused to take part in the fight against Rome. In order to identify and disfellowship them from the synagogues, an 18th blessing was added in 90 A.D. to a Jewish prayer with 17 blessings. This was pronounced in religious services, and was actually a curse on the Nazarenes (the followers of Jesus of Nazareth; see Acts 24:5) and on heretics. The Jewish Christians were thus forced to identify themselves by their silence at this point and could then be excommunicated. The sharp judgment in Revelation against the Jews may have been a reaction to this. Christ called the Jews who wanted to kill him children of the devil (John 8:41, 44).
2:14: teaching of Balaam. In this verse we find an allusion to the machinations of Balaam against the people of Israel. The story in Genesis 22–25 must be taken together with the remark in 31:16 in order to interpret the statement in Rev 2:14. Balaam was a role model for false teachers and seducers.
2:14b, 20b: eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. Already the Council of Jerusalem ordered the Gentile Christians to abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols … and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29). This involved sacrifices in pagan temples and participation in public festivals, when sacrificed meat was eaten, as well as participation in cultic temple prostitution, which at that time was part of the cult and generally accepted. Paul also warned emphatically against these practices in his letters (see 1 Cor 10:14-22; 6:15-20; the private consumption of meat from the market, which may have been offered to an idol before, was considered harmless by Paul, if the Christian brother was thereby not wounded in his conscience, see 1 Cor 8). It is possible that the teaching of the Nicolaitans led to the same practice as the teaching of Balaam; the connection between Rev 2:14 and V. 15 supports this suggestion.
2:20: Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. The name Jezebel refers to the wife of King Ahab, who led him into idolatry (1 Kings 16:31-33; 21:25), killed the prophets of the Lord (1 Kings 18:4a, 13a) and practiced idolatry and sorcery (2 Kings 9:22b). The false prophetess Jezebel in the church of Thyatira, like Balaam, also seduced Christians to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.
Through the seductions by Balaam and Jezebel, behind which was certainly Satan (cf. 12:9), and the frequent mention of Satan (2:9, 13, 24; 3:9) and the devil (2:10), we also see how the basic motive of the conflict between Christ and His church and Satan shines through in the seven epistles.
3:19: those whom I love. Here the usual NT verb for love (agapeiv) is not used, but the verb for amicable or brotherly mutual love (phileiv). When we respond to God’s love, a amicable relationship also arises from God’s side, as John 16:27 shows (here, too, phileiv is used).
3:21: the one who conquers. The term literally means who wins and according to the grammatical form in Greek (a present participle) points to a constant victory or overcoming. This verse gives us a clear explanation of what is meant by it the comparison with Jesus. It is not about overcoming sin, but overcoming all Satan’s hostilities and temptations. How this is possible is explained in Rev 12:11, immediately after the description of the central motif of Revelation (vs. 7-9):
They (the brothers and sisters) have conquered him
by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony,
for they loved not their lives even unto death.
This overcoming is possible because of Christ’s redemption, and their public loyalty to him, and the use of his help (cf. Heb 2:17-18; 4:15-16; Jude 24-25). Because of the conflict between Christ and Satan, into which every follower of Christ is drawn, undivided faithfulness to Jesus is required. This includes:
• to hold fast to the first love for Jesus (2:4);
• to remain faithful in persecutions until death (2:10);
• to abstain from idolatry and fornication (2:14, 20);
• to persevere in awaiting the return of Christ (3:3);
• not to be lukewarm and satisfied with oneself (3:16-17).
Make a list of everything Jesus praises in the churches, and a second list of what he rebukes. Which focal points do you recognize?
Follow the basic motive of the Revelation, the conflict be-tween Christ and Satan, in the seven letters to the churches.
Find in Rev 21–22 how the promises to overcomers at the end of each letter will be fulfilled on the new earth.
Statements by Ellen G. White
The only time Ellen White dealt with the Revelation in an entire chapter of a book is in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 57, where she applies the message to the congregation of Ephesus “as a symbol of the entire Christian church in the apostolic age”. She wrote about the other messages in general (on p. 585):
The names of the seven churches are symbolic of the church in different periods of the Christian era. The number 7 indicates completeness, and is symbolic of the fact that the messages extend to the end of time, while the symbols used reveal
the condition of the church at different periods in the history
of the world.
Ellen White, however, wrote nothing more in her chapter about the meaning of the other epistles and did not apply them to periods of church history. Moreover, the above passage is a paraphrase of Uriah Smith’s statements about the meaning of the seven epistles.
Ellen White applied the message to Laodicea to the Adventist churches from 1873 onwards (her husband James had done this first). This statement from 1889 may serve as an example:
If ever there was a people that needed to heed the counsel of the True Witness to the Laodicean church to be zealous and to repent before God [Rev 3:19], it is the people who have had opened up before them the stupendous truths for this time, and who have not lived up to their high privileges and responsibilities. We have lost much in not living up to the light of the solemn truths which we profess to believe.
But she often applied the rebuke to the church of Ephesus for leaving their first love (2:4) also to the Adventist churches.
She had already written in 1859 on the individual application of the counsel to the church in Laodicea:
Individuals are tested and proved a length of time to see if they will sacrifice their idols and heed the counsel of the True Witness [Rev 3:18]. If any will not be purified through obeying the truth, and overcome their selfishness, their pride, and evil passions, the angels of God have the charge: “They are joined to their idols, let them alone,” and they pass on to their work, leaving these with their sinful traits unsubdued, to the control of evil angels. Those who come up to every point, and stand every test, and overcome, be the price what it may, have heeded the counsel of the True Witness, and they will receive the latter rain, and thus be fitted for translation.
Which of the seven churches most closely resembles our local church? Which advice of Jesus is therefore applicable to us? (This question should be discussed in a group.)
Which accusation against one of the seven churches applies to me personally? What then am I supposed to do?
Preparation for Revelation 4–5
Search in Revelation 4–5 for parallels and possible allusions to statements in the Old Testament.
Notice the drama described in chapter 5, in contrast to chapter 4. What might that indicate, in connection with the statements about the lamb, regarding the opening and the content of the scroll with seven seals?
© Werner E. Lange
Retired book editor of the German Adventist Publishing House
Reactions to my elaborations are welcome. They can be sent directly to me per e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I would welcome, too, if the PDF is shared, or the website with the elaborations is recommended to other church members.
In the coming weeks I will discuss in my local church the inter-pretation of the chapters of the Revelation corresponding to the theme of the respecting Sabbath School lesson. A summary as PDF will be provided each Friday on the website before the respective lesson begins in the Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.
You can download all PDFs of the project “Revelation DIY” under https://1drv.ms/f/s!Agfvhk0oak34jZBoDxAbbPJKmCC2JQ. Link to an overview of all available files and a video (Hints in the Introduction):