Seven Churches

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea. Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

1

Ephesus: Desirable (1st Century AD)

100

Smyrna: Sweet Smell (100 AD)

313

Pergamum: Elevated (313 AD)

538

Thyatira: Sacrifice of Contrition (538 AD)

1517

Sardis: Renewal (1517 AD)

1739

Philadelphia: Brotherly Love (1739 AD)

1850

Laodicea: Judgment (1850 AD)