In its entirety, Revelation is addressed to seven very real churches located in the Roman province of Asia in the first century.
From start to finish, the book of Revelation is addressed to the “seven churches of Asia,” and these congregations do not fade from the picture in the later sections of the book. While it may include a larger audience, Revelation is first and foremost a message for the seven assemblies, and the significance of its visions cannot be understood apart from them.
The opening paragraph presents the book as the record of the visions received by John while he was exiled on the isle of Patmos. Here, it calls itself “the prophecy” in the singular number, and its contents concern “what things that must come to pass soon.” Its first recipients would have understood the time reference “soon” from their perspective.
John was commanded to record his visions in a scroll, then to send the resulting document to seven churches in key cities of the Roman province of Asia. In its entirety, it is addressed to these congregations.
Moreover, according to the promise of Jesus, the one “who reads, and they who hear the words of the prophecy” will be “blessed.” And John was told to send the “book,” singular, to the “seven churches – to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and to Laodicea” – (Revelation 1:1-11).
The book’s first vision includes seven letters addressed to the “seven churches of Asia.” Each letter includes commendations, corrections, warnings, and promises specific to its congregation, and each letter concludes with the admonishment to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” plural.
The “churches of Asia” do not drop out of the picture after the letter to Laodicea. The promises for “overcomers” in each letter include verbal links to the vision of “New Jerusalem” at the end of the book. Likewise, the exhortation to “hear what the Spirit is saying” in each letter also occurs in the central and concluding sections of Revelation – (Revelation 13:9-10, 22:16).
And the daily struggles of the “seven churches” with opponents, sin, and deception echo the larger cosmic battles described in the book’s later visions. For example, the false “prophetess Jezebel” who “seduces my servants to commit fornication,” is a local version of the “Great Harlot, Babylon” who makes the “inhabitants of the earth…drunk with the wine of her fornication” – (Revelation 2:18-24, 17:1-5).
None of this means that Revelation is only applicable to the “churches of Asia” or first-century events. At the time John received his visions, there were more than seven congregations in the province, plus dozens more scattered throughout the empire. Plural terms like “churches” and references to saints from “every nation” indicate a much wider intended audience. However, the original seven congregations remain a part of that audience. And in the book, the number seven is used symbolically to signify completion.
Thus, the “seven churches” represent a larger whole, though they are included in it. Likewise, the concluding admonishment of each letter to hear what the spirit is saying to the “churches” also points to this broader audience.
Furthermore, the vision of the vast “innumerable multitude” of men from every nation celebrating in “New Jerusalem” certainly envisions something far larger and grander than just the seven marginalized congregations of Asia. However, those seven churches are included in that glorious vision, and their members also will find themselves “rendering divine service” before the “Lamb and the throne” in New Jerusalem.
Ignoring the book’s historical setting creates significant problems. For example, if the promise to keep the church in Philadelphia “out of the hour of trial” refers to escape from the “tribulation” in the remote future, then it has no relevance to the very congregation that first received this promise. Passages from Revelation must be interpreted in their historical contexts. What was the imminent “hour of trial” facing the church at Philadelphia? What was the “throne of Satan” in the city of Pergamos?
The book uses the real-life experiences of these first-century churches to set the stage for its visions. Thus, any interpretation that writes the “seven churches of Asia” out of the book or pushes them to the side does not take its self-description as a message for those churches seriously and is doomed to go awry.
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