Tag Archives: the seven churches of Revelation

Is Rev. 4 a General Description or a One-Time Event? (Enthronement 2)

Three pieces of evidence indicate that the vision of Revelation chapter 4 does not portray a one-time event, but a general description of heavenly worship. 1) The throne in verse 2 is not set up, it “was standing” (NASB) continually in heaven (Greek: keitai, imperfect tense). In Daniel 7 the throne is “set up” (Greek aorist) in preparation for a special event. But the imperfect tense of Revelation 4:2 means continuous action in the past. The throne waaaaaaaaas there. At some point before the time of the vision the throne was already there and continued to be there. This suggests that what follows is not a one-time event, but a description of an on-going, repetitive scene.

2) The singing in verse 8 is not a single episode, it goes on “day and night.” The parallel to this is in the “day and night” accusations that Satan throws at the “brothers.” Just as Satan does not accuse God’s people at a single event in heaven (his accusations are extremely and annoyingly continuous), so the worship and praise in heavenly places occurs “day and night.” This is not a single event of worship in heaven, the vision is describing the ongoing worship that constantly continues there.

3) The singing of the four living creatures is continuously repetitive (Rev. 4:9– “whenever” in NIV, RSV). “Whenever the four living creatures give” (Greek: Hotan dôsousin ta zôa) praise to the One sitting on the throne, the twenty-four elders bow in worship. The English well expresses the continuous nature of the Greek. “Whenever” the four living creatures sing, the twenty-four elders respond. This is the language of continuous, ongoing worship. The scene of Revelation four is a general description of the worship that occurs in heaven, it is not describing a specific scene at a specific point in time. This sets the stage for Revelation five, where a moment of crisis occurs in heaven.

Laodicea and the Adventist Church (Churches 8)

How should Seventh-day Adventists apply the message of Revelation 3:18-21 to themselves? What is there in the text that could be applied to all Christians in every age? Gold can express the value we have in God’s eyes. There are three key symbols in the passage that form the core of the counsel that Jesus gives to Laodicea. 1) Gold can express the value we have in God’s eyes. Although Jesus Christ is the creator of the entire universe (John 1:3), He would have died just for one human being. That places an infinite value on each one of us. 2) White raiment would most naturally seem to represent the righteousness of Christ that is available to all who trust in Him. 3) Eye salve represents the spiritual discernment that helps us clearly see our need for Christ.

The core issue of Laodicea seems to be a lack of authenticity. What Laodicea claims about herself and what she actually is are two completely different things (Rev. 3:17). Hence Jesus’ diagnosis that Laodicea is repulsively lukewarm. Her claim to have the riches of Christ heads her in the right direction, but in reality the claim is proved to be false. The spiritual life that she claims isn’t real. In place of her failure to see the truth about herself, Laodicea is invited to use the recommended eye salve. In place of her satisfaction with a righteousness of her own making, she is invited to put on the righteousness of Christ. In place of her self-esteem based on the worthless riches she claims, Jesus offers a self-worth grounded in the value that he sees in her.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church from the beginning has struggled over its identity. On the one hand, there is the perception of its vast importance as the end-time people of God with a unique mission to fulfill. This can easily lead fallible humans to spiritual pride and inauthenticity. To a people who are called to present Jesus’ last message of mercy to the world, Jesus gives the warning that she herself can lose her way (see 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). She needs to see her condition and danger clearly, and take hold of the gospel for herself, before she can be effective in delivering the final gospel message to the world. In the words of a perceptive analogy, God’s evangelists are simply beggars telling all the other beggars where they can find bread. They cannot give what they do not have.

Although Jesus disciplines his church as needed (Rev. 3:19), He never forces anyone to follow Him. He gently invites us to “open the door” receive Him (3:20). That “door” has a latch only on the inside. But while the decision is ours to make, there is a powerful incentive to make that choice. Jesus holds out the promise to end all promises to Laodicea. If we identify with His death and resurrection (Rev. 3:21; 5:5-6), we will participate in His throne. As expressed by the gold tried in the fire, God sees infinite value in every human being, whether or not they have responded to Him. In a sense, he has chosen all to be saved (Eph. 1:3-14). But there is no compulsion in the gospel. God will never force anyone to love and trust Him. The invitation to receive Him, however, remains open. But if Laodicea is the final church of earth’s history, the door will not remain open forever. “Today, if you will hear His voice. . .” Psalm 95:7-8.

We can all take courage in the awareness that many ancient Christians remained faithful to God in the midst of godless cities. We today have been given the means to do the same.

The Women of Revelation (Churches 7)

There are four women portrayed in the visions of the book of Revelation. Two of them are positive figures and two of them are negative. The first of the four women is Jezebel, the leader of the church of Thyatira who is in opposition to the faithful ones there (Rev. 2:20-23). It is not clear from the text whether “Jezebel” is a symbol that refers to a specific leader of the local church (who could be either male or female), or represents the larger faction of the church as a whole.

The second woman of Revelation is the godly woman of Revelation 12 (Rev. 12:1-2, 5-6, 14-17). She seems to represent Israel as a whole, both Old Testament Israel and Judah (theocratic nation-states) and New Testament Israel (the church). The third woman of Revelation is prostitute Babylon (Rev. 17:1-7, 16). She is the counterpart of Jezebel, representing end-time opposition to God and His people. The Christian origin of Babylon is represented in the dress of prostitute Babylon, she is dressed like the High Priest of the Old Testament sanctuary system (Rev 17:4). The fourth woman of Revelation is the bride of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-8). She represents the faithful people of God at the close of earth’s history.

All four women in the visions of Revelation are ultimately associated with the church, either positively or negatively. If the first part of the message to Thyatira represents the medieval church, then the two images are very closely related. Opposition to Christ often wears a Christian face, and is prophesied to do so again in the period leading up to the Second Coming of Jesus (Rev 19:11-1). Similarly, the woman of Revelation 12 represents the faithful people of God throughout history. The bride of the Lamb (Rev. 19), on the other hand, represents the faithful people of God at the very end of history. So it stands to reason that Babylon (Rev. 17-18) represents opposition to God from within the church as a whole at the end of time. “Woman” in Revelation represents both the best and the worst of human interaction with God.

Laodicea and the Final Era of Earth’s History (Churches 6)

Seventh-day Adventists have often seen the message to Laodicea as applying particularly to the church at the end of time. This connection was based largely on two things. 1) The belief that the seven churches represent stages of the Christian church from the time of John to the Second Coming of Jesus. 2) Laodicea is the seventh and last of the churches, thus must represent what the church would be like in the time just before the Second Coming of Jesus. But since there is no overwhelming evidence that the primary purpose of the seven churches is as a prophecy of Christian history, it would be helpful to discover some exegetical indications that the church of Laodicea is truly the last church of the Christian era.

I was excited, therefore, to discover the striking parallel between Revelation 3:18 and Revelation 16:15. These are the only two texts in the Bible that contain four major and unusual words in combination. Both verses have the Greek words for “seeing” (Greek: blepô), “clothing” (Greek: himation), “shame” (Greek: aischunê, aschêmosunê) and “nakedness” (Greek: gumnotês, gumnos). This parallel is quite striking in the original language. There is an intention link between the core of the Laodicean message and the primary message in the midst of the Battle of Armageddon.

In the midst of the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:14-16) there is a call to end-time watchfulness that echos the language of several New Testament texts that emphasize the importance of readiness for the Second Coming of Jesus (Matt 24:42; Luke 12;37-40; 1 Thess 5:2). But Revelation 16:15 also echos the language of Laodicea (cf. 3:18). In the midst of the final battle of earth’s history, there is a call to get ready for the Second Coming of Jesus in the language of the message to Laodicea. This is striking evidence that Laodicea represents the final church of earth’s history.

The Message to Thyatira Is Different (Churches 5)

As mentioned earlier, the churches of Revelation as a whole exhibit spiritual decline. That is also clearly manifested within the messages to Ephesus, Pergamum and Sardis. Ephesus has left its first love (Rev 2:4). Pergamum is in the process of compromise away from the faithfulness of Smyrna. Sardis is a church that still has a great name, but the reality is now far from its reputation (Rev 3:1-4).

The message to Thyatira goes against the grain of the other messages in several ways. First of all, it is twice as long as the other six messages, a full twelve verses in contrast to the four to nine verses of the other messages (average length is six and a half verses). This doubling of length is fitting to Thyatira’s role at the center of the chiasm.

Second, it is the only church whose faithful members merit the title of “remnant” (the “rest” [Greek: loipois] in Thyatira– Rev 2:24, KJV). The remnant of Thyatira are the faithful ones who are not following after “Jezebel.” This faithful remnant is encouraged to hold fast until Jesus comes.

Third, Thyatira is the only church that as a whole is described as improving spiritually. Jesus says that their “latter works exceed the first” (Rev 2:19, ESV). This encouragement is offered before any mention of a faithful remnant (2:24). While all the other churches are either in decline or holding steady, Thyatira was already improving when Jesus came to deliver His message to the church. Placed at the center of the chiasm of the seven churches, this positive message means that all the churches are capable of the changes Jesus calls them to. While Satan accuses in order to discourage and distract, Jesus and the Holy Spirit rebukes in order to encourage and to heal.

Christianity’s Greatest Advance and Its Contemporary Consequences (Churches 4)

Seventh-day Adventists and many others in the course of Christian history have applied the message to Philadelphia to the great revival of Protestantism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This great revival motivated the church to carry the gospel to the whole world. It resulted in the greatest expansion of Christianity throughout the world since the time of Pentecost.

But there was a dark side to this expansion which has become evident today. Missionary endeavors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries too often rode on the back of the West’s colonial expansion in the economic and political realms. The wealth and educational advantages that came along with co-operation with the colonial powers created a major temporal advantage for Christian mission. Resisting Christian evangelism under those circumstances was like trying to swim against the tide.

As a result, many non-Christian peoples today see Christianity as a self-serving tool of Western imperialism rather than a humble, self-effacing movement that seeks to improve the lives of others. This attitude is increasingly found even in the more “Christian” parts of the world. Christianity as a whole is on the defensive today. In this context manipulation or political involvement of any kind on the part of the church plays into the negative stereotypes that have arisen. The gospel message can no longer rely on political, economic or social support for its success. It has been thrown back to Jesus’ original plan of “power made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Encouragement in Trouble (Churches 3)

When you look at the seven churches as a whole, two things stand out. First, from beginning to end they seem to be in a state of decline. Second, the rebukes from Jesus become more and more serious. The churches at Ephesus and Smyrna are faithful churches, the only blot on their record is that Ephesus has a deficiency of love. But as you go through the churches things seem to decline from Pergamum through Sardis until you get to Laodicea, where Jesus cannot think of anything good to say about the church. While the message to Philadelphia is a positive one, the church is much weaker than Smyrna.

A similar pattern can be observed in the rebukes offered by Jesus to the churches. In the message to Ephesus, there is a threat that Jesus will take a closer look at them. This is the very beginning stages of a discipline process. Laodicea, on the other hand, is in such serious condition it makes Jesus feel like vomiting. This is a serious picture.

But these observations combine with an observation that is the most encouraging part of the messages to the seven churches. There is a steady expansion in the weight of promises that Jesus makes to the churches. The first church gets one promise: The tree of life. The second church gets two: The crown of life and deliverance from the second death. The third church gets three promises: the hidden manna, the white stone, and a new name. The fourth church gets four promises, the fifth church gets five, and the sixth church gets six. Each of the first six churches gets more promises than the church before, and the seventh church, Laodicea, gets the promise to end all promises, the overcomers there will sit with Jesus on His throne.

So here is an amazing pattern. As the condition of the churches declines, and as the rebukes of Jesus become more and more severe, the promises of Jesus likewise abound more and more. The worse things get, the greater the grace and power that God exerts. The spiritual implications of these observations are self-evident. The deeper the problems a person may have in life, the more powerful is the grace of Jesus Christ. This message speaks as powerfully for us today as it did in ancient times.

The Chiasm of the Seven Churches (Churches 2)

Although the book of Revelation is written in Greek, the structure of the messages to the seven churches exhibits a literary form that is grounded in Hebrew logic. In western thinking A + B = C. The various pieces of a logical argument are working toward a conclusion. But in Hebrew logic A + B = A enhanced. The logic of the argument ends where it begins and the point of the whole argument lies in the middle. This literary form is called chiasm (from the Greek letter X [pronounced “key”]).

Writers produce chiasms when they reason full-circle back to the beginning point of an argument. The first point parallels the last point. The second point parallels the next to last point, and so on, with the climax at the center rather than the end. It is, perhaps, not coincidental that the form of the seven-branched lampstand in the tabernacle is analogous to a literary chiasm. Arms of the lampstand branch off from the center in both directions. In a seven-branched candlestick the middle branch is the fourth from either end with three side branches on each side of the middle, corresponding to each other.

The letter to Smyrna (second) has many similarities with the letter to the Philadelphians (sixth), both are very positive messages. The letters to Pergamum (third) and Sardis (fifth) are both to churches in steep decline. The message to Thyatira (the fourth and middle church) is twice as long as the others and is different from all the others (I will have more to say about Thyatira in a later post in this series). While it is, perhaps, a little less obvious than with the other parallels, this means that the first and last letters (to Ephesus and Laodicea) are also parallel. This tells us that Laodicea, like Ephesus, suffers from a deficiency of love.

In the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Bowman pictures a giant seven-branched candlestick standing on the Island of Patmos, backlit by a western sun. In his illustration, the shadow of the candlestick falls on Asia Minor with the seven points of light shadowed roughly in the locations of the seven cities of Revelation. Just as the seven-branched lampstand was the only source of light in the Hebrew tabernacle and temple, this picture would encourage the churches to shine the light of God’s truth into their respective neighborhoods.

Overall Themes in the Seven Churches (Churches 1)

Chapters two and three of the book of Revelation describe seven letters or messages from Jesus for the seven churches of Roman Asia. These messages introduce the following overall themes:

1. The Chiasm of the Seven Churches. The seven churches are structured in a typical Hebrew style (see commentary below for details).
2. Encouragement in Trouble. The messages to the seven churches exhibit both spiritual decline and a corresponding increase in the number and weight of promises made to each church.
3. Christianity’s Greatest Advance and Its Contemporary Consequences. The message to Philadelphia forecasts a time of great missionary advance. But that advance included aspects that have put Christianity on the defensive today.
4. The Message to Thyatira Is Different. The churches as a whole exhibit spiritual decline. That is also manifest locally in the messages to Ephesus, Pergamum and Sardis. But the message to Thyatira goes against the grain in a couple of ways.
5. Laodicea and the Final Era of Earth’s History. Evidence from the text supports the idea that Laodicea represents the church at the close of Christian history.

The messages to the seven churches have a common structure, similar in form to ancient letters. 1) Jesus addresses each church by name. 2) He then introduces Himself to each church, using characteristics drawn from chapter one. 3) He offers an analysis of the strengths and/or weaknesses of each church. 4) Jesus provides counsel suitable to His analysis of each church. 5) An appeal is made to listen to the Spirit. 6) Each message concludes with a promise or promises to those in each church who overcome. In messages four through seven (beginning with Thyatira), numbers five and six are reversed.

Interpreting the Seven Messages to the Seven Churches (Vision 5)

The messages to the seven churches are not apocalyptic in style like Daniel 7 or Revelation 12. They are “prophetic letters.” They are more like the letters of Paul or Matthew 24 than they are like Daniel 2. So their primary message was for seven actual churches in Asia Minor, the ones that originally received them (Rev 1:4, 11). By extension, as one would for one of Paul’s letters, these messages have value for all those who read them (Rev 1:3; 2:7, 11, 17, 29, etc.).

There is, however, a case to be made to see these seven messages as prophetic of the condition of the church from the time of John to the Second Coming of Jesus. There are several evidences to support this. 1) There were, for example, more than seven churches in Asia Minor at the time John wrote. From the letters of Paul we know that there was a church at Colossae, only a few miles from Laodicea. The letters of Ignatius (a church leader who wrote around 110 AD) go to some of the churches mentioned in Revelation but also to the nearby cities of Magnesia and Tralles. So the choice of seven churches itself seems to have meaning above and beyond the immediate situation.

2) The spiritual conditions in those churches parallel the spiritual conditions of Christianity in different historical periods from the time of John until today. In other words, embedded in these messages to seven historical churches was a grand survey of the major developments of Christian history. The church began strong in the apostolic age (Ephesus), and then went through a period of persecution (Smyrna) followed by compromise and accommodation to the Roman world (Pergamum and Thyatira). The Reformation (latter part of Thyatira) was followed by the spiritually dry period of Protestant orthodoxy (Sardis) and then a second Reformation and worldwide missionary endeavor (Philadelphia). The church today seems relatively indifferent to the claims of Christ in the New Testament (Laodicea). So the broad themes of the seven church messages parallel the broad sweep of Christian history from John’s day to our time.

3) The message to Laodicea parallels John’s appeal to the last generation in Revelation 16:15. The appeal to the world at the time of the battle of Armageddon contains a combination of four major words found elsewhere in the Bible only in Revelation 3:17-18 (seeing, nakedness, shame and garments). So Laodicea is the recipient of God’s last gospel call, placing it in some sense at the end of Christian history in John’s mind.

4) A number of features of the message to Philadelphia seem to imply the nearness of Jesus’ return in way more dramatic that other references in the seven church messages. For example, “I am coming soon” in Revelation 3:11, echoes end-time uses of the same phrase in Revelation 11:14 and 22: 7, 12, 20. So the letter to Philadelphia seems to have special significance as Christians near the end of the era.

All four evidences support and extended meaning for the seven church messages in Revelation 2 and 3, a meaning that goes beyond the original situation and includes implications for the larger trend of Christian history.