In Revelation chapter two John writes seven letters to seven churches of Asia Minor, present-day Turkey. John was instructed to, “write the things that you have seen, those that are, and those that are to take place after this.” Although these letters had relevant messages for these seven churches in John’s time (those that are), they are also messages to seven distinct generations of the church (those that are to take place after this).
The Churches in Asia. – There were more churches in Asia than seven. We may confine ourselves to that western fraction of Asia known as Asia Minor, or we may include still less territory than that; for in even that small portion of Asia Minor where were situated the seven churches which are mentioned, and right in their very midst, there were other important churches. Colosse, to the Christians of which place Paul addressed his epistle to the Colossians, was but a slight distance from Laodicea. Miletus was nearer than any of the seven to Patmos, where John had his vision; and it was an important station for the church, as we may judge from the fact that Paul, during one of his stays there, sent for the elders of the church of Ephesus to meet him at that place. Acts20:17-38. At the same place he also left, in good Christian hands no doubt, Trophimus, his disciple, sick. 2Tim.4:20. And Troas, where Paul spent a season with the disciples, and whence, having waited till the Sabbath was past, he started off upon his journey, was not far removed from Pergamos, named among the seven. It becomes, therefore, an interesting question to determine why seven of the churches of Asia Minor were selected as the ones to which the Revelation should be dedicated. Does what is said of the seven churches in chapter 1, and to them in chapters 2 and 3, have reference solely to the seven literal churches named, describing things only as they then and there existed, and portraying what was before them alone? We cannot so conclude, for the following reasons:
- The entire book of Revelation (see chapter 1:3,11,19; 22:18,19) was dedicated to the seven churches. Verse 11. But the book was no more applicable to them than to other Christians in Asia Minor, – those, for instance, who dwelt in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia, addressed in 1Peter1:1; or the Christians of Colosse, Troas, and Miletus, in the very midst of the churches named.
- Only a small portion of the book could have personally concerned the seven churches, or any of the Christians of John’s day; for the events it brings to view were mostly so far in the future as to lie beyond the lifetime of the generation then living, or even the time during which those churches would continue; and consequently they could have no personal connection with them.
- The seven stars which the Son of man held in his right hand (verse 20), are declared to be the angels of the seven churches. The angels of the churches, doubtless all will agree are the ministers of the churches. Their being held in the right hand of the Son of man denotes the upholding power, guidance, and protection vouchsafed to them. But there were only seven of them in his right hand. And are there only seven thus cared for by the great Master of assemblies? May not, rather, all the true ministers of the whole gospel age derive from this representation the consolation of knowing that they are upheld and guided by the right hand of the great Head of the church: Such would seem to be the only consistent conclusion.
- Again, John, looking into the Christian dispensation saw only seven candlesticks, representing seven churches, in the midst of which stood the Son of man. The position of the Son of man in their midst must denote his presence with them, his watchcare over them, and his searching scrutiny of all their works. But does he thus take cognizance of only seven individual churches in this dispensation? May we not rather conclude that this scene represents his position in reference to all his churches during the gospel age? Then why were only seven mentioned? Seven, as used in the Scriptures, is a number denoting fullness and completeness, being, doubtless a kind of memorial of the great facts of the first seven days of time, which gave the world the still used weekly cycle. Like the seven stars, the seven candlesticks must denote the whole of the things which they represent. The whole gospel church in seven divisions, or periods, must be symbolized by them; and hence the seven churches must be applied in the same manner.
- Why, then, were the seven particular churches chosen that are mentioned? For the reason, doubtless, that in the names of these churches, according to the definitions of the words, are brought out the religious features of those periods of the gospel age which they respectively were to represent.
For these reasons, “the seven churches” are doubtless to be understood to mean not merely the seven literal churches of Asia which went by the names mentioned, but seven periods of the Christian church, from the days of the apostles to the close of probation.
It may here be added that this view is neither new nor local. Benson quotes Bishop Newton as saying, “Many contend, and among them such learned men as More and Vitringa, that the seven epistles are prophetical or so many successive periods, or states, of the church, from the beginning to the conclusion of all.” Scott says: “Many expositors have imagined that these epistles to the seven churches were mystical prophecies of seven distinct periods, into which the whole term, from the apostles’ days to the end of the world, would be divided.”
Although Newton and Scott do not themselves hold this view, their testimony is good as showing that such has been the view of many expositors. Matthew Henry says: “An opinion has been held by some commentators of note, which may be given in the words of Vitringa: ‘That under this emblematical representation of the seven churches of Asia, the Holy Spirit has delineated seven different states of the Christian church, which would appear in succession, extending to the coming of our Lord and the consummation of all things: that this is given in descriptions taken from the names, states, and conditions of these churches, so that they might behold themselves, and learn both their good qualities and their defects, and what admonitions and exhortations were suitable for them’ Vitringa has given a summary of the arguments which may be alleged in favor of this interpretation. Some of them are ingenious, but they are not now considered sufficient to support such a theory. Gill is one of the principal of the English commentators who adopt this view, that ‘they are prophetical of the churches of Christ in the several periods of time until he appears again.'”
It appears from the authors above cited, that what has led commentators of more modern times to discard the view of the prophetical nature of the messages to the seven churches, is the comparatively recent and unscriptural doctrine of the temporal millennium. The last stage of the church, as described in chapter 3:15-17, was deemed to be incompatible with the glorious state of things which would exist here on this earth for a thousand years, with all the world converted to God. Hence in this case, as in many others, the more Scriptural view is made to yield to the more pleasing. The hearts of men, as in ancient times, still love smooth things, and their ears are ever favorably open to those who will prophesy peace. –Uriah Smith, Daniel and the Revelation
- Ephesus: Desirable (1st Century AD)
"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” -Revelation 2:2-7
- Smyrna: Sweet Smell (100 AD)
And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: "The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death." -Revelation 2:8-11
- Pergamum: Elevated (313 AD)
And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it. -Revelation 2:12-17
- Thyatira: Sacrifice of Contrition (538 AD)
And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass; I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first. Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works. But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden. But that which ye have already hold fast till I come. And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father. And I will give him the morning star. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. -Revelation 2:18-29
- Sardis: Renewal (1517 AD)
And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. -Revelation 3:1-6
- Philadelphia: Brotherly Love (1739 AD)
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth; I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name. Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. -Revelation 3:7-13
- Laodicea: Judgment (1850 AD)
And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. -Revelation 3:14-21