An Introduction to the Seven Letters to the Seven Churches
A. The Nature and Purpose of the Seven Letters
Here are the more popular views on the nature of these seven letters.
1. Pastoral – These churches were definitely historical entities to which John was instructed to write. The most basic interpretive approach is to understand the letters as reflecting realistic, concrete circumstances existent in these churches. Consequently, the primary application is to the respective congregations and the problems they faced in the last half of the first century.
2. Representation – It has also been suggested that these churches represent seven different types of churches (even seven different types of Christians) which may be found not only in the first century but in any period of church history. This view has arisen partially in an attempt to explain why these seven churches were chosen and not others. There were other churches in Asia of equal, if not greater, importance, such as Troas (Acts 20:5ff.), Colossae (Col. 1:2), and Hierapolis (Col. 4:13). Ladd suggests that “John chose these seven churches with which he was well acquainted so that they might be representative of the church at large” (24). Ramsay contends that the Asian church had slowly developed in an organization of seven groups and that at the center of each stood one of the seven churches to which John writes (The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, 178).
3. Symbolic – Others place great stress on the fact that there are but seven churches, not six or eight, addressed. They contend that John intentionally chose seven because the number represents completeness or perfection or totality. Hence these churches point to the totality of all local assemblies and to the body of Christ universal (this is borne out by the symbolic significance of the number seven in Revelation). Note also that at the conclusion of each letter there is a wider address “to (all) the churches.” Thus “although each letter is addressed to the particular situation of a particular church, it is relevant for the needs of all ‘seven’ of the churches, and consequently for the universal church” (Beale, 226).
4. Prophetic – It has been suggested by a number of (but not all) dispensational, pre-tribulational premillennialists that these seven churches were specifically chosen because they reflect in their own condition the circumstances and state of the Church at large during the inter-advent age. In other words, while affirming the historical, first-century, primacy of the seven letters, they see in them a prophecy of the progressive stages of church history from John’s time to the end of the age. Walter Scott writes:
“Ecclesiastical pretension and departure from first love characterized the close of the apostolic period – Ephesus (2:1-7). Next succeeded the martyr period, which brings us down to the close of the tenth and last persecution, under Diocletian – Smyrna (2:8-11). Decreasing spirituality and increasing worldliness went hand in hand from the accession of Constantine and his public patronage of Christianity on to the seventh century – Pergamos (2:12-17). The papal church, which is Satan’s masterpiece on earth, is witnessed in the assumption of universal authority and cruel persecution of the saints of God. Its evil reign covers ‘the middle ages,’ the moral characteristics of which have been well termed ‘dark.’ Popery blights everything it touches – Thyatira (2:18-29). The Reformation was God’s intervention in grace and power to cripple papal authority and introduce into Europe the light which for 300 years has been burning with more or less brilliancy. Protestantism with its divisions and deadness shows clearly enough how far short it comes of God’s ideal of the Church and Christianity – Sardis (3:1-6). Another Reformation, equally the work of God characterized the beginning of last century – Philadelphia (3:7-13). The present general state of the professing Church which is one of lukewarmness is the most hateful and nauseous of any yet described. We may well term the last phase of church history on the eve of judgment, the christless period – Laodicea (3:14-22). Note that the history of the first three centuries is consecutive; whereas the history of the remaining four overlaps, and then practically runs concurrently to the end – the Coming of the Lord.”
This view obviously believes that the sequence in which the seven churches are addressed was chosen in order to provide a prophetic foreshadowing of subsequent church history. However, a simple glance at a map indicates that the sequence is based on these churches as centers of communication for an itinerant Christian messenger. In other words, “Ephesus was the messenger’s natural place of entry to the mainland of the province of Asia, and the other cities lay in sequence on a circular route round its inner territories” (Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, 15). From Ephesus (which is a mere 60 miles from the island of Patmos), the courier would travel virtually due north to Smyrna (@ 35 miles), then slightly northwest to Pergamos (@ 50 miles). From there he would turn in a southeasterly direction to Thyatira, then to Sardis, then to Philadelphia, and finally to Laodicea. In sum, the churches are addressed in the precise sequence in which they would be visited by a courier or merchant.
B. The “Angels” of the Seven Churches
There have been countless theories as to the identity of the angels to whom the letters appear to be addressed (2:1,8,12,18; 3:1,7,14). These are the most commonly noted.
1. A few have argued that the “angel” is the “pastor” of the church. Against this view are several points. First, it is contrary to the NT portrait of church structure. Nowhere in the NT is a single individual portrayed as exercising pastoral authority over a congregation. Rule by a plurality of elders is the standard NT perspective. Second, this view is historically anachronistic, for the existence of a single pastor/bishop was unknown until Ignatius (@ 110 a.d.). Third, the word “angel” is used some 60x in Revelation and always means a supernatural or spiritual being. Fourth, the word “angel” is nowhere else in the NT used to designate an ecclesiastical office. Fifth, we know from Acts 20 that the Ephesian church was ruled by a plurality of elders.
2. Some suggest that the “angel” refers to a prophet or delegated representative of the church, i.e., someone who undertook the responsibility of maintaining communication with those outside the congregation. This would be an ambassador or secretary of sorts who handled correspondence, etc. Stress is thus placed on the literal meaning of the Greek term angelos = messenger (cf. Luke 9:52; James 2:25).
3. In 1:11 the letters are directed to “the churches” (plural). So also at the end of each letter we read: “Let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Thus the Lord speaks to the whole church and not just to an “angel”. This leads some to conclude that the angel is the church, i.e., a personification of the church. The Greek text would allow (but by no means require) this interpretation, being rendered, “to the angel which is the church.”
4. Another theory is that the “angel” of each church is its guardian angel. See Deut. 32:8 (LXX); Dan. 10:13; 12:1; Matt. 18:10; Heb. 1:14; Acts 12:15. This is certainly a more likely view than any of the preceding three.
5. Beasley-Murray contends that “the most plausible solution of the problem recognizes the Danielic background of angels assigned to nations, but sees them as akin to the Persian fravashis, i.e., heavenly counterparts of earthly individuals and communities. The angels of the churches are then heavenly counterparts of the earthly congregations. The idea is not to be literalized, as though John thought of congregations seated in heaven above, answering to their equivalents on earth below. We help ourselves if we think of them as existentially in heaven though living on earth. John writes to people who form very earthly communities, whose life is characterized by the failures and weakness to which any human organization is prone. But these communities have one feature which marks them off from all others on earth: they are in Jesus (v. 9), and so saints of the Most High, priests and kings with Christ to God, lights in the world through whom the Light of the world shines. It is because their determinative life is in Jesus that John writes to the ‘angels’ of the churches. Their earthly conduct is the reflection of their heavenly relationship” (69-70).
Beasley-Murray also points to the fact that in 1:20 the seven stars in Christ’s right hand are said to represent the seven angels of the churches. In the ancient world the seven (then known) planets were a common symbol for sovereignty (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the moon, and either Earth or the Sun). He says: “Even in John’s day there were many who believed that the planets were gods, exercising a powerful and even fearful influence over the lives of men. From this it was an easy transition to make of them a symbol of the political power exercised by the Roman Caesars over the world, and in this sense the seven stars often occur on imperial coins. When John declares that the seven stars are in Christ’s hand, he is claiming that the sovereignty over this world resides not in the Caesars of Rome but in the Lord of the Church. These seven stars he then defines as the angels of the churches. The purpose of John’s prophecy, from its first page to its last, is to assure the saints of God that they are kings and priests to God through the redemptive grace of Christ. The purport of the symbolism of the seven stars = the angels of the churches is therefore plain: it declares that the sovereignty of this world belongs not to those who proudly claim to be the saviours and lords of men and who seek to crush the Church of Jesus. It belongs to the Christ of God and his people” (69-70).
C. The Place of the Letters in the Structure of the Book
One cannot help but notice that the letters of chps. 2-3 stand in antithetical parallelism to chps. 21-22. In other words, the imperfections of the church in the old creation, as seen in the seven letters in chps. 2-3, find their counterpart in the perfections of the church in the new creation, as seen in chps. 21-22. Consider these unmistakable parallels identified by Meredith Kline:
false prophets (2:2) / 12 true apostles (21:14)
false Jews (2:9; 3:9) / the names of the tribes of true Israel (21:12)
Christians dwell where Satan’s throne is (2:13) / Christians dwell where God’s throne is (22:1)
some in the church are dead (3:1) / all in the new Jerusalem are written in the Lamb’s book of life (21:27)
the church is a faltering, temporal lampstand (1:20; 2:5) / God and the Lamb are the eternal lamps (21:23-24; 22:5)
the church is filled with idolatrous impurities (2:14-15,20) and liars (2:9; 3:9) / there will only be purity and truth in the new creation (21:8,27)
Christians face persecution, hoping in God’s promises to overcomers (2:8-10,14) / in the new creation they reign, having inherited these promises.
Similarly, Paul Minear (I Saw a New Earth) has noted that each of the promises made to the “overcomers” is perfectly fulfilled in the final vision of the consummated new creation:
food (2:7 and 22:2)
the temple (3:12 and 21:22ff.)
identification with an eternal city (3:12 and 21:2,10)
a great name (3:12 and 22:4)
eternal security (3:5 and 21:27)
incorruptible clothing (3:5 and 21:2,9ff.; cf. 19:7-8)
a bright stone and a luminary (2:17,28, and 21:11,18-21,23; 22:5,16)
a share in Christ’s kingly power (2:26-27; 3:21 and 22:5)
exclusion from the second death (2:11 and 21:7-8).
D. The Literary Structure of the Letters
There appears to be a standard structure to the letters, with a few exceptions noted below. Each letter can be divided into seven sections:
(1) a command to write to an angel of the church
(2) a self-description by Jesus derived from the vision of chp. 1, introduced by the formula, “these things”
(3) commendation of the church’s good works
(4) an accusation of some sin
(5) an exhortation to repent with either a warning of judgment or word of encouragement
(6) an exhortation to discern the truth of the preceding message (“he who has an ear . . .”)
(7) a promise to the overcomers
Beale notes the slight alterations from this pattern: “The third section is lacking in the letter to Laodicea. The fourth and second parts of the fifth are lacking in the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia, since those churches are regarded as faithful” (225).
We should also note that the seven churches seem to fall into three groups. Group one would be the first and seventh, both of which are in danger of losing their identity as a Christian congregation. The second and sixth letters are written to churches that have proved themselves faithful and loyal to Christ’s name. The three central letters (third, fourth, and fifth) have to varying degrees some people who have remained faithful and others who have not. Beale suggests that in light of this we should see the churches presented in the literary form of a chiasm:
A (first letter)
B (second letter)
C (third letter)
C (fourth letter)
C (fifth letter)
B’ (sixth letter)
A’ (seventh letter)
The significance of this, notes Beale,
“is that the Christian church as a whole is perceived as being in poor condition, since not only are the healthy churches in a minority but the literary pattern points to this emphasis because the churches in the worst condition form the literary boundaries of the letters and the churches with serious problems from the very core of the presentation. This is highlighted as we recognize that at the center of the middle letter stands a general statement that ‘all the churches will know’ that Christ is the omniscient judge of his unfaithful followers (2:23). This statement is conspicuous as the only thing said in the letters about all ‘churches’ other than at the conclusion of each letter” (226-27).