Introduction to the Seven Churches

Introduction to the Seven Churches

Introduction to the Seven Churches in Revelation.

Please read Revelation 1.

WHO  (a.) John. The author of Revelation is the apostle John, an original member of the Twelve, the disciple “whom Jesus loved.” John was a fisherman transformed into the Apostle of Love. He was one of the Zebedee brothers, with James, and was most likely the last surviving apostle. John, the bishop of Ephesus, had lived and ministered with Jesus for three years, and was one of the inner circle that witnessed the glorious Transfiguration. John was also named St. John the Theologian in church tradition, and was the author of the Gospel of John and his three epistles. John might have been the human author of Revelation, but it seemed he essentially took dictation while Jesus did the talking during John’s worship on the island of Patmos during the Lord’s Day.

(b.) Jesus. While in ecstatic worship, John had a dramatic vision of the glorified Christ. John searched for words to describe an indescribable scene, a vision literally from another world… eyes like flames of fire; feet gleaming like burnished bronze as though they were glowing in a furnace; voice like the roar of many rushing waters; a sharp two-edged sword coming out of His mouth. John knew his Hebrew Bible of course, and immediately thought of Daniel’s famous “son of man” vision in Daniel 7 and 10. So John labeled this glorified Jesus as the Son of Man. The similarities with Daniel were unmistakable, and John wanted to highlight the fact that Jesus was the fulfillment of Daniel’s messianic prophecy. Notice that John’s vision had Jesus wearing kingly and high priestly garments, more messianic fixtures. John even casually, subtly equated Jesus with God Himself by mentioning that Jesus had white hair, “like wool,” which directly referred to Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days in Dan. 7:9. John fainted dead away after this glorious vision, but he soon recovered to take dictation. Certainly Jesus’ face “shining like the brightness of the blinding sun” reminded John of the other-worldly Transfiguration. In Revelation, John saw the glorified Christ walking in the midst of seven golden lampstands, fulfilling the role of high priest, being assured that the lamps are burning and have a sufficient supply of pure olive oil, the Holy Spirit.

(c.) The Seven Churches. There were seven struggling churches in Asia Minor (Turkey) during that time, and they all needed a prophetic word from Jesus… Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

(d.) Angels of the Churches. Angels are messengers, heavenly and earthly. These particular angels were the pastors, the leaders of the churches. They are the messengers who are charged with the responsibility of giving God’s message to their assembly of believers. The Lord seems to be holding them accountable for their churches.

WHEN. Revelation was written around 95 AD under the persecution of emperor Domitian, who led his reign of terror between 81-96 AD.

WHERE. (a.) Patmos. John was worshiping on this island, a small, rocky island off the western coast of Asia Minor. Patmos was a Roman penal colony, about 10 miles long and 5 miles wide. Patmos was where the Romans exiled many of their criminals. John was imprisoned there because “of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” John called himself a “companion in the tribulation.” He most likely labored in the rock quarry there, hammering and chiseling materials for pagan temples and Roman buildings.

(b.) Roman Road. The seven churches are all found on one long Roman road winding through Asia Minor, what is now western Turkey. If we were walking on this transportation network and delivering these letters, one would start at the first church mentioned in Revelation, Ephesus, and follow the road clockwise until reaching the last church mentioned, Laodicea. Chapters 2 and 3 in Revelation provide the exact geographical order one would find these churches along that road.

WHAT. (a.) Persecution. The Christian churches in Asia Minor were all suffering under the reign of emperor Domitian. He had declared himself a god, and expected all those in the Roman Empire to worship him as such. In every town and city, there were temples or shrines constructed in which to worship the emperor. The Christians would steadfastly refuse to do that, which drew Domitian’s ire. So he presided over a reign of terror regarding the Christian churches. Throughout Domitian’s reign, Christians would be arrested and jailed, had their possessions taken, oppressed under an economic boycott, or martyred. The churches were all struggling mightily under this persecution and were in dire need of support and encouragement.

(b.) Seven Golden Lampstands. The lampstands are these churches, shining lamps containing the holy oil of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was the high priest making sure the lights were burning. The glowing bright lights were intended to lighten the darkness of their world, the world of emperor worship, pagan temples to the gods and goddesses, rampant sexual immorality, and occult activity everywhere. Despite their troubles and shortcomings, Jesus considered the churches golden and valuable. Jesus cared for these seven churches in a personal way as He walked in their midst, intimately involved with their fate while under persecution.

(c.) Encouragement. The glorified Jesus appeared before John the apostle and dictated to him letters directed toward these seven churches in Asia Minor. The letters all began with a reference to Jesus from the first chapter of Revelation, noting His qualities, establishing Jesus as the Lord and Savior of the Churches. This word about Jesus in the beginning of the letter was usually related to whatever that church was going through. It was a reminder about Jesus that the church needed to remember in their particular situation. In almost every letter are Jesus’ words, “I know your deeds, I know your works.” Why didn’t Jesus say, “I know your faith?” It apparently is important to Jesus to witness how we demonstrate our faith, what deeds we do that validates and reveals our faith, how we are living out the faith. As James says, “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17).  Then each letter started with a commendation, a word of affirmation that noted what the churches were doing well. The Spirit didn’t start with a criticism, but instead an affirmation. Next was a correction, a word of rebuke, a warning about what Jesus had against that church. Jesus only spoke about one main complaint, and not a whole list of complaints. As with us in general, we can’t bear hearing about a long list of problems we might have. There were two churches who did not receive a rebuke. Next there was usually a hopeful promise for those who were overcomers, who were destined for the victor’s crown in triumph. The letters to the churches contained many Hebrew Bible symbols and references. Every letter closed with the same exhortation: “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what He is saying to the churches.” All the churches received a specific word just for them in particular, but each letter closed the same way… Listen up, take my words in, understand what I am saying and obey with all your heart. Your survival may depend on it.

WHY. During his worship at the beginning of the vision in Revelation, John couldn’t wait to offer his personal word of love and peace to these churches. The first words out of his mouth are, “John, to the seven churches which are in Asia. Grace to you and peace from Him, who is and who was and who is to come.” (1:4). It’s clear that John wants earnestly to extend his pastoral care to these churches. After John’s gracious greeting, Jesus wanted to jump right in and address each church, and motivate them to keep growing, root out sin, tend to your shortcomings, fulfill their destiny as overcomers. These letters are not time-bound. What’s important to the seven churches is important to all the churches, then and now. The sorts of observations Jesus made in 95 AD aren’t all that different from what He would observe now in our contemporary churches. Jesus wants His words to apply to these churches at that time, to all churches everywhere for all time, and to individual believers who have ears to hear. The churches in late 1st Century are no better or worse that churches in the 21st Century. If Jesus picked seven churches at random today, they wouldn’t look that different from these churches in Revelation. It’s interesting that Jesus here seems to fashion Himself as the Divine Coach… correcting, commending, warning, rebuking, encouraging, affirming, motivating. Jesus wants His Church to win the race, to fight the fight, to earn the victor’s crown.

(d) Beatitudes.  At the beginning of the book (1:3) John offers three beatitudes, three blessings to all those who receive these words. You will be blessed, John promises, if you do three things in response to this revelation. You are in a favorable position, you will be joyfully fulfilled and satisfied, if you do these three things: If you read these words aloud in your assembly; if you are fortunate enough to be one of those who hear them read; and if you keep yourselves true to what is written in this message. So these three things… if you read it aloud, if you hear it read, and if you heed the words, treasuring them in your heart and obeying them. John seems to highlight the fact that these words in his revelation must be read aloud, not secretly or privately. These are words that were meant to be read orally and openly. You will also be blessed if you hear these words, because they are straight from Jesus to you. Finally, you are to be congratulated, happy you will be, if you keep these words, think about them, take them in and embrace them in your life. There is power in reading Scripture aloud in a group setting, and we need to heed John’s advice: When we experience the blessing of hearing the Word, it needs to be translated into one’s life and kept sacred as you live them out. Listen to the Word, and allow it to influence you for eternity.