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Church, Seven Churches

The People of God in the Book of Revelation

The book of Revelation applies numerous labels to God’s people, including “saints,” “elect,” “churches,” “priests,” “witnesses,” “seed of the woman,” “called,” “faithful” and “my people.” This group is composed of men and women “purchased” by Christ’s blood from every national and ethnic group; ethnicity, geography, and social status have no bearing on their membership in the covenant community.

The book in its entirety is addressed to the “seven churches of Asia” (1:4). The assemblies are identified as God’s “servants” (1:1) who have been “loosed from sin” by Jesus’ blood (1:5). They comprise a “kingdom, priests unto God” (1:6. Cp. Exodus 19:5-6, 1 Peter 2:5-9), and are identified by John as “brethren” (1:9) and fellow “participants in the tribulation, kingdom, and perseverance” in Jesus (1:9).

In the first vision, John sees the Risen Christ walking among “seven golden lampstands,” which represent the seven churches. The churches are front and center in Revelation’s visions. Jesus is seen ministering as a high priest in a temple setting, as he walks among his churches.

Chapters 2 and 3 continue the first vision with seven messages or letters from Jesus to the “angel” of each church. The purpose is to call saints to “overcome,” and to repent where needed. Each letter includes promises to “the one who overcomes,” and each concludes with an exhortation to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” plural. All seven letters apply to each of the seven churches.

The church at Ephesus has patiently suffered for “my name’s sake.” If it perseveres it will “eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God” (2:1-7).

The assembly in Smyrna has faithfully endured persecution and false accusations, the latter by “them who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” The church must remain “faithful unto death” to receive “the crown of life.” The one who “overcomes will not taste the second death” (2:8-11).

Jesus praises the saints at Pergamos for “holding fast my name and not denying my faith” despite the martyrdom of Antipas (cp. Matthew 24:9; Luke 21:17). The overcoming saint will receive “the hidden manna and a white stone on which is written a new name” (2:12-17).

The church at Thyatira is known for its “works, love, faith and endurance.” Jesus will “give to each according to his works.” Members must “hold fast till I come.” To them Christ will give “authority over the nations”; they will participate in the reign of Jesus, the “ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5-6; 2:18-28).

The Risen Christ exhorts the church at Sardis to remain “watchful and establish the things that remain.” Their deeds remain incomplete; if they fail to be watchful Jesus will arrive unexpectedly “as a thief” in the night (cp. Luke 12:39-40). Some in Sardis are wearing un-defiled “garments” and therefore will “walk with me in white.” The one who overcomes is to be “arrayed in white; Jesus will not blot their names out of the book of life” (3:1-6).

The church at Philadelphia has an opened door that “no man can shut.” This assembly has “kept my word and not denied my name”; Jesus will vindicate it. The “synagogue of Satan” will pay homage at the feet of the members of this church. Because they “kept the word of my endurance, I will keep them from the hour of trial about to come upon the whole habitable earth.” The one who “holds fast” will become “a pillar in the temple of God,” upon which is written, “the name of the city of my God, New Jerusalem” (3:7-13).

Finally, Jesus chastises the Laodicean congregation because its members are neither cold nor hot. They claim to be rich but do not recognize they are miserable, poor, blind and naked. They must, therefore, be “refined by fire”; Christ chastens those whom he loves. All who overcome will “sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father in his throne.” The churches are called to emulate Christ’s example, the “faithful witness and firstborn of the dead” (3:14-22).

It is beyond dispute that the seven “letters” are addressed to groups of Christians living in Asia. From start to finish this vision is focused like a laser beam on the churches of Asia. The only Jews mentioned are opponents of the Church; no interest in national Israel is expressed or in any geographic location outside of Asia, with the exception of the mention of the whole habitable earth.

The churches stand in good stead with Jesus on the basis of obedience, endurance, and faithfulness in witness, “even unto death.” Their ethnicity has no bearing, though apparently, some Jews had falsely accused members of the churches before local magistrates.

Chapters 4 and 5 describe a Throne from which God reigns over the Cosmos. It is not located in an otherworldly realm but at the center of the Universe. John sees a door opened fully in heaven and hears a voice vision summon him to “come up here.” He then sees a figure seated on a throne surrounded by a glorious entourage and accompanied by impressive sights and sounds.

In the right hand of the one on the throne is a scroll sealed shut with seven seals (5:1-4). No one in the universe can be found worthy to unseal and open the scroll. John weeps bitterly until he hears a voice command him not to do so, “for the Lion the Tribe of Judah has overcome to open the scroll and its seals.”

When John looks, he sees “a Lamb standing as if slain” (5:6), not a royal or military figure. The Lamb is the Lion of Judah but fulfills this role by self-sacrificial death. What John sees interprets what he hears.

This Lamb is then declared “worthy” to unseal the scroll because by his blood “he purchased men and women from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” (5:6-10). This act formed them into a “kingdom of priests” to reign with the Lamb (cp. 1:4-6).

In this vision, men and women purchased by the Lamb’s blood are drawn from EVERY national, ethnic, social and cultural group. As in Revelation 1:5-6, they become “priests” who reign with Christ “on the earth.”

When the fifth seal is opened John sees “underneath the altar the souls of them that have been slain for the word of God and the testimony they held” (Revelation 6:9-11). “Testimony” translates marturia, a key term already applied to Christ’s obedient death (1:2; 1:5; 3:14).

At this point, the term is somewhat ambiguous; however, elsewhere it consistently applies to saints who have the “testimony of Jesus” (cp. 1:9; 2:13; 11:3-7; 12:11; 17:6; 19:10; 20:4).

In Revelation 7:1-8, John sees a company of men sealed by God and “hears their number,” 144,000 males from the twelve tribes of Israel. Only here does Revelation seem to refer to ethnic Israel. John hears their number but sees “a great innumerable multitude from every nation, tribe, people and tongue”; again, what he sees interprets what he hears.

The innumerable multitude is identical with the 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel. The multitude is composed of men from many nations who have “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb” (7:9-14). Imagery from Israel communicates information about the redeemed.

John sees a “beast rising from the Abyss” to wage war against the two “witnesses” (11:4-7). The language is from Daniel 7:21 where Daniel saw a malevolent figure called a “little horn,” which then “waged war with the saints and to prevail against them.”

The two “witnesses” are identified as “two olive trees and two lamp-stands.” In John’s first vision, Jesus walked among seven “lampstands,” which were identified as “churches” (1:20). If Revelation is consistent with its symbolism, the two “witnesses” represent churches.

After the Dragon is expelled from the Heavenly Court, a voice proclaims the “salvation, the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ, because the accuser of our brethren has been cast out” (12:9-11).

Brethren” subjected to Satan’s prosecutorial zeal “overcome by the blood of the Lamb, by their word of testimony, and because they loved not their life even unto death,” terms and themes previously introduced and applied to the seven churches of Asia.

The Dragon fails to destroy the Woman and so now executes war against the “rest of her seed” (12:12-17). The “seed” is comprised of all “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). As in Revelation 11:7, the language is based on Daniel 7:21. Faithfulness not ethnicity determines the right relationship to Jesus.

The Dragon prosecutes his war through his earthly agent, the Beast that rises from the sea (13:1-10). It is “given” to this Beast to “wage war with the saints and to overcome them” (13:7), once again, borrowing language from Daniel 7:21. The targets of this “war” are labeled “saints.”

The saints consist of men and women “whose names have been written in the Lamb’s book of life.” John then hears the same exhortation from each of the seven “letters” to the churches: “if any man has an ear, let him hear.” Martyrdom for the Lamb is described; “HERE (hōde) is the endurance and the faith of the saints.”

That “saints” refers to followers of Jesus is evidenced by the verbal parallel in Revelation 14:12-13: “HERE (hōde) is the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” Those who “die in the Lord” are blessed.

The 144,000 males appear again on “Mount Zion” (14:1-5). The “inhabitants of the earth” take the Beast’s mark (13:14-18) but the followers of the Lamb receive the Lamb’s name upon their foreheads. This is what Jesus promised to all who overcome (3:12).

The 144,000 “sing a new song”; they have been “redeemed from the earth.” Likewise, the twenty-four elders “sang a new song” to declare the Lamb “worthy.” He had “purchased men from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” (5:8-11). So also, John saw an innumerable multitude from “every tribe, tongue, people, and nation,” having “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb” (7:9-14)

The 144,000 “males” have not been defiled by women. They “follow the Lamb wherever he goes. In their mouths is no lie; they are spotless.” Likewise, at Sardis a “few names had not defiled their garments; they shall walk in white” (3:14).

Just before the “seven last plagues,” John sees victorious saints who “overcame from the Beast, from his image and from the number of his name.” The same verb for “overcome” is used as in the letters to the churches (Revelation 15:2. Cp. 2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:26; 3:5; 2:12; 3:21). Saints “overcome” not by escape but by refusing the Beast’s mark.

Each overcoming saint “sings the song of Moses and the Lamb,” just as the 144,000 redeemed males “sang a new song” before the Lamb. The parallels are deliberate; it is the same group.

In Revelation 17:1-6, John sees Babylon, the Mother of the Harlots, “drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.” The “saints” are those who have the “testimony of Jesus” and persevere through persecution (12:17; 13:7-10; 14:12).

Witnesses” translates the Greek noun martus, the same word applied to Christ’s “faithful martyr” (2:13), to Jesus the “faithful witness” (3:14), and to the two witnesses slain by the Beast (11:4-7). It is the cognate of marturia or “testimony,” the term applied to the “souls under the altar” (6:9), to the “brethren” who overcame by the “word of their testimony” (12:11), and to the “seed of the Woman” who have the “testimony of Jesus” (12:17).

Babylon is “drunk” with the blood of martyrs who died on account of their identification with Jesus.

The Lamb’s final victory is anticipated in Revelation 17:14, once more with language from Daniel 7:21; “these will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings.” The Lamb is not alone; included are “the called, elect and faithful.”

The terms “called” and “elect” do not occur elsewhere in Revelation but “faithful” does; it is applied to saints who endure and bear witness (e.g., 2:10; 2:13).

When Babylon’s downfall is proclaimed, God’s “people” are exhorted to come out of her “lest they partake of her judgment” (18:1-4). “Saints,” “apostles” and “prophets” rejoice over her demise (18:20-24), for “in her was found the blood of prophets and saints.” “Saint” consistently refers to followers of the Lamb (5:8; 8:3-4; 11:18; 13:7-10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6). With her fall God “avenges the blood of His servants” (19:1-2; 1:1; 2:20; 7:3; 10:7; 11:18).

The Lamb’s bride has made herself ready; she is “arrayed in fine linen, bright and pure, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints” (19:6-9). Followers of Jesus likewise are “arrayed in white garments” (3:5; 3:18; 7:9-13).

The angel is a “fellow-servant” of John and his “brethren who have the testimony of Jesus” (19:9-10), terms and descriptions already used (12:5; 12:10-11; 12:17; 13:7; 14:12).

Satan is cast “into the Abyss”; judgment is given for “them who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus…such as gave not homage to the Beast” (20:3-4). The second death has no authority over them, just as promised to believers in Smyrna (2:11).

They will be “priests of God and of Christ, and reign with him a thousand years” (20:6). This promise was previously made to the multitude purchased from every nation (Revelation 1:6; 5:6-12. cp. 1 Peter 2:5-10).

After Satan is released, he gathers “the nations in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog” to a final battle. The horde “ascends over the breadth of the earth to surround the camp of the saints and the beloved city.” Ezekiel’s original prophecy is transformed into a global attack on the saints by all nations; Ezekiel’s language is universalized and applied to the Church (e.g., 1:7).

At the Great White Throne, men and women are judged not on the basis of ethnicity or geography but “according to their works” and their relationship to the Lamb. Those not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life are cast into the Lake of Fire, the “Second Death” (20:11-15, 21:8).

The New Heaven and Earth replace the “first heaven and the first earth” (21:1-2). The “holy city, New Jerusalem,” descends from heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. This description links the “city” to the saints; the company of the redeemed.

The heavenly Jerusalem is designated “holy,” not old Jerusalem in Palestine, which earlier was described as “spiritually ‘Sodom’ and ‘Egypt,’ where also the Lord was crucified” (11:8), a city ritually polluted by the corpses of martyrs and Jesus Christ.

God will now “tabernacle with men and they shall be His people.” Death with all of its impurities will be no more. Everyone who “overcomes will inherit these things” (21:3-9). There will be no temple in this city, for God is “its sanctuary and the Lamb” (2:22).

In the holy city, the “nations shall walk through her light and the kings of the earth bring their glory into it.” No unclean person or thing is present; “only they who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”

The closing section reiterates key themes from the book. God sent his angel to “show his servants the things that must soon come to pass” (cp. 1:1). The man or woman who “keeps the words of the prophecy of the scroll” is pronounced blessed. Ethnicity is not relevant; it plays no part, neither does geographic location.

Overawed, John begins to render homage to the angel, who immediately stops him; he also is a “fellow-servant” of John’s brethren, the prophets, and of them who keep the words of this scroll” (22:8-9).

The angel was sent by Jesus “to bear witness to you of these things for the churches” (22:16-20). The entire vision unveiled in John’s visions is for the seven churches. From start to finish, the people of God in Revelation are identified and defined by their relationship to Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb. Nowhere is membership in the company of the redeemed based on ethnicity or national origin.

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