The visitation of Jesus to the churches prepares the reader for the visions that follow the seven letters.
In his vision, John saw a glorious figure “like a Son of Man…in the midst of seven golden lampstands.” In the interpretation, it became clear that this was Jesus (“I was dead, and I am alive forevermore”), and the “lampstands” were identified as the “seven churches” that were under his ever-watchful care.
The book of Revelation was addressed to seven first-century churches located in key cities of the province of Asia. John was commanded to send each of them a copy of the entire book, and not just each congregation’s respective letter.
In each church, someone was designated to read the book in its entirety to the assembly (“blessed be he who reads, and they who hear”). The seven letters found in chapters two and three were not separate documents but integral parts of the book. Moreover, each “letter” included verbal and conceptual links to the visions recorded in chapters four through twenty-two.
For example, in the letter to the church at Thyatira, Jesus admonishes the “messenger” of the assembly for tolerating that woman, Jezebel, “who calls herself prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols,” This description is remarkably similar to the description of another female figure, Babylon, “the great harlot… with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and they that dwell in the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” The verbal parallels are deliberate. Already, “Babylon” is hart at work within the seven churches – (Revelation 2:20, 17:1-2, 18:3).
Only seven churches were named, yet there were more than seven in the province by the end of the first century. For example, congregations existed in the cities of Colossae, Troas, and Miletus. The number seven is used frequently in the book to symbolize completeness. The “seven churches of Asia” were real congregations with real-life struggles, but they also represented a larger reality, perhaps all churches, or at least, all the congregations in Asia – (2 Corinthians 2:12, 2 Timothy 4:13-20).
Each of the seven letters in chapters two and three is addressed to the “angel” or “messenger” of that assembly. But each also concludes with an exhortation to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” plural. And this fact indicates a broader audience, for each letter’s concluding exhortation is what the Spirit was saying to all the “churches.”
Whether each “messenger” was an angelic being or a human leader, the text does not say, although it assumes each one was responsible for the delivery of the letter to his congregation. And this points to an understanding from the book’s prologue: “He (singular) who reads, and they (plural) who hear the book,” and quite possibly, the seven “messengers” were the men assigned to read the book before his respective congregation.
The book begins in a localized setting in the late first century. Almost immediately, it begins dealing with the struggles and successes of the “seven churches.” No doubt, many of the problems experienced by them were common to other congregations throughout the Roman Empire.
The book was composed around A.D. 95 when Rome was ruled by Emperor Domitian. Asia was one of the richest and most important provinces of the empire. Its cities were largely Hellenized with Greek as the most commonly spoken language. By the late first century, Christian groups were under pressure to conform to the surrounding society, and that would have included societal if not governmental pressure to participate in the veneration of the emperor.
And to participate fully in the economic life of the cities of Asia, it often was necessary to join one of the local trade guilds, each of which featured its own patron deities and pagan rituals. To join one would mean joining in its idolatrous practices. Quite probably, that was part of the situation behind the warnings against “fornication” and “eating meat offered to idols.” The concern was not sexual sin but idolatry. To refuse participation in the religious life of the larger community ultimately meant economic deprivation – (see Revelation 2:21, 17:2-4).
At this time, the veneration of the emperor was prevalent in the province, and participation was expected of all citizens. Temples dedicated to the emperor existed in at least three of the seven named cities, and the provincial centers of the Roman government and the imperial cult were in Pergamos. And to refuse to honor the divine emperor was tantamount to treason – (Revelation 2:13, “I know where you dwell, even where Satan’s seat is”).
The letters are part of the literary unit that begins with John’s vision of the “Son of Man” and the “seven golden lampstands,” which portrays the Risen Christ reigning over and tending to his churches. The seven subsequent letters reflect his assessment of the Asian congregations, and each is structured according to a sevenfold outline.
- A command for John to write to an assembly.
- Opening words from Jesus that cite attributes ascribed to him in chapter 1.
- Praise for a congregation’s achievements based on Christ’s all-seeing knowledge (“I know”).
- Rebuke for its shortcomings, also based on Christ’s all-seeing knowledge.
- A call to repent with judgment warnings for failure to do so.
- An exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying to ALL the churches.
- Promises to individual believers who overcome.
There are variations in the outline. Neither the letter to Smyrna nor Philadelphia includes a rebuke, and the letter to Laodicea includes no praise. The summons to “hear what the Spirit is saying” is followed by promises to overcomers in the first three letters, but that order is reversed in the last four. Each letter begins with the clause, “these things declares…,” and thus, they are, effectively, prophetic oracles.
The attributes of Jesus declared at the start of each letter are related to its contents. For example, the one who “became dead and lived” is well able to encourage the persecuted saints at Philadelphia “because I will give you the crown of life.” He has the “key of David,” and therefore, he places an “open door that no man can shut” before the assembly – (Revelation 3:8).
In each letter, Jesus cites his relevant attributes, reviews the status of the congregation, encourages believers to persevere, calls for repentance when needed, summons each body to heed the Spirit, and promises everlasting rewards to believers who persevere to the bitter end. And there are literary links between the promises to “overcomers” and the final vision of New Jerusalem:
- (2:7, 22:2) – The “tree of life.”
- (2:11, 20:6, 21:8) – Escape from the “second death.”
- (2:26, 20:4, 22:5) – Authority to reign over the nations.
- (3:5, 21:27) – The overcomer’s name is written in the “book of life.”
- (3:12, 22:4) – God’s name is written on the forehead of the overcomer.
Parallels also exist between the imperfections of each church and the perfections found in the New Creation:
- (2:2, 21:14) – False apostles vs. twelve true Apostles.
- (2:9, 21:12) – False Jews vs. True Israel.
- (2:13, 22:1) – Satan’s throne vs. God’s throne.
- (3:2, 21:27 – Dead believers vs. All believers in the “book of life.”
- (2:14-20, 21:8, 27) – Idolatry and liars vs. purity and truth in the new creation.
Conceptual and verbal links between the seven letters and the book’s later visions shed light on the real causes behind the struggles of the “seven churches.” For example:
- (2:2, 2:15, 13:11, 16:13) – “False apostles,” “Nicolaitans” correspond to the “False Prophet.”
- (2:16, 19:15) – Jesus executes judgment with the sword of his mouth.
- (2:20, 17:1-7) – “Jezebel” corresponds to the “Harlot, Babylon.”
- (2:22, 7:14) – The “Great Tribulation” is also referenced in the vision of the “innumerable multitude.”
- (3:12, 7:1, 14:1) – God’s name inscribed on overcomer corresponds to the sealing of saints.
These literary features attest to the book’s unity. The seven letters are arranged so they fall into three groups based on their spiritual health. The first and last congregations are in the poorest condition (Ephesus, Laodicea). The central three are in better shape, but deception and compromise continue to make inroads (Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis). But the second and sixth churches are the healthiest, and therefore, they receive no rebuke (Smyrna, Philadelphia). And in the middle letter to Thyatira is found the only declaration addressed to all seven churches: “All the churches shall get to know that I am the one who searches reins and hearts, and I will give to each one according to your works.”
Thus, Jesus is the all-seeing protector, judge, and ruler of his churches. His visitations prepare them to engage in faithful witness in hostile environments. Through faithful endurance, they will overcome and inherit all the promises of God in the city of New Jerusalem.