Tag Archives: the seven churches of Revelation

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.