The Messages to the Seven Churches

Introduction to the Messages

Christians who read Revelation for the first time may wonder why this book, which is primarily about end times prophecy, should first include these messages to seven specific historical churches in chapters 2 and 3. Of course, the fact that these messages are in Revelation tells us that it’s important for them to be there. Some questions one should ask are:

  • What is the purpose of these messages in Revelation?
  • To whom do these message apply?
  • What do the messages say?
  • How are these messages related to the end times prophecy? 

In this article, we will take a broad look at these messages in hope of answering these questions.

Scope of the Messages

Even though the messages are addressed to these seven specific, historical churches of John’s day, they are intended for all churches across all the earth and across all time. This is evident from the fact that each message includes the phrase: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”. Jesus had used this “he who has an ear” expression before to emphasize important points (Matt 11:14-15; Mark 4:9; Mark 4:22-23; Luke 14:35).

Some of the remarks given in the messages are clearly specific to the historic local church, but in general, the admonishments, encouragements, warnings, and commendations in these messages should be understood as if directed to all churches.

The fact that there are seven churches is probably significant, because the number seven carries the meaning of wholeness. This suggests that these seven churches are meant to be representative of all churches and all professing Christians throughout the earth and throughout history. Likewise, the seven messages are meant to convey the fullness of the message that the churches need to hear.

What is Meant by “churches”

The Bible uses the word “church” in two different ways. While this may seem to be a problem, it isn’t because the correct understanding is always made clear by the context.

  1. The global church — It represents the collection of all true believers in Christ, who are united by the true gospel. When global church is intended, the text expresses “church” in the singular, and without any geographical qualifiers that would identify one specific gathering of people (e.g. Matt 16:18, Acts 9:31; Acts 12:1; 1 Cor 5:12, 1 Cor 10:32).
  2. The local church — It represents a particular assembly of professing Christians. When a local church is intended, the word “church” is either identified with a specific place (e.g. Acts 11:22, 1 Cor 1:2), or it is used in the plural “churches” or “every church” (e.g. Romans 16:4, Acts 14:23), in which case it refers to the full collection of professing believers in the churches.

It’s important to note that the local church context refers to professing Christians, and it is not to be assumed that all professing Christians are true Christians. This is why there are several exhortations in scripture to keep the church pure by expelling those who are unrepentant and exhibit traits of a false Christian (e.g. Matt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:2; 1 Cor 5:13, Tit 3:10). In other words, such people should be expelled from local churches because they act in opposition to the one true global church.

The seven messages in Revelation clearly refer to the local churches. That is, all professing Christians, whether true or not. This explains why some of the messages contain some sharp rebukes and exhortations to repent and be saved according to the true gospel. Also, it seems evident that some people within those seven churches (such as the “Jezebel” of Thyatira) were not true Christians.

The structure of the messages

Each of the seven messages follow a similar pattern:

  • An identification of the recipient church.
  • An identification of the source of the message, which is always Christ, although He is identified in different ways. In each case, Christ is identified by referring to attributes ascribed to Him in chapter 1.
  • Specific remarks to the church, whether it be commendations, rebukes, or both.
  • A prescribed course of action to taken by such a church in order to emerge victoriously.
  • Promises to those who “overcome” or who emerge “victorious”. In each case, the promise refers to something we see near the end of Revelation, in connection with the coming kingdom of Christ. In this manner, all the messages to the churches are connected to the end-times prophecy that follows in Revelation. Those who overcome victoriously in the end times are described as such in Rev 12:11, Rev 15:2, Rev 20:4, and Rev 21:7.
  • The concluding phrase, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches“. Again, this makes it clear that these messages are universal.

Assessments of the Churches

There is a 2-3-2 symmetry regarding the assessment of the churches:

  • There are two churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia) that received commendations without any sort of rebuke. It is significant to note that both of these churches faced persecution. This isn’t just a coincidence. Persecution is like refining fire that purifies. It almost goes without saying that false Christians will not stick around when the true church comes under persecution.
  • There are three churches (Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira) that received a mixed review, with some commendations and some rebukes.
  • There are two churches (Sardis and Laodicea) that received rebukes with no real commendation. They are the “dead” church and the “lukewarm” church, respectively.

Purpose of the Messages

While the messages to the seven churches given in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 should be understood individually, it is also important to understand them collectively.

I believe there are two main reasons for these messages:

  1. They prepare Christians for the end times — These messages do contain several references to the end times, including some promises and some warnings. In this sense, they complement the commands of Jesus in the Olivet discourse (Matt 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) to be alert, ready, and prepared for his coming.
  2. They help us understand why the end times will be so severe for the churches — The churches are supposed to be holy (Eph 5:27, 1 Pet 1:14-16) and they are called to be Christ’s representatives on earth (2 Cor 5:20, 1 Pet 2:11-12). As such, I take it as a sorrowful situation that five of the seven churches needed to receive a rebuke of some sort and were told to repent or face judgment, and two of those churches received no commendation at all.

How the Messages Relate to End Times

The seven messages to the churches in Revelation are analogous to the warnings that Old Testament Israel received from their prophets when Israel failed in their role as God’s representatives on earth. God was angered by Israel’s idolatries and He sent prophets warning them to repent. These warnings were neglected by Israel, which resulted in the terrible persecution they received during the invasion and captivity under the pagan kingdom of Babylon. Ultimately, that invasion served to chastise and purify Israel.

I believe that the churches, like Israel, are increasingly failing in their calling to be Christ’s representatives on earth. Like Israel, this is provoking God’s anger. Like Israel, the churches are given warnings (including these seven messages) to repent. Tragically, like Israel, these warnings shall be largely neglected. Like Israel, this will cause the churches to face a time of terrible persecution (called the great tribulation) from a future kingdom of unbelievers — a kingdom that Revelation symbolically calls Babylon! Like Israel, this persecution will serve to chastise and purify the church. This is discussed further in The Great Harlot and Babylon.

The Order of the Churches

The seven churches are always mentioned in the same order: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Usually, when a group of seven things are mentioned, the order has some relevance. However, I doubt that the order of the churches has any particular theological importance.

That’s not to say that the order is random either. If a courier, starting at the island of Patmos, were to visit these seven churches in order to deliver the epistles from John, he would sail from Patmos to Ephesus, which is the closest. From there, the closest remaining church is Smyrna to the north. Continuing this simple strategy of visiting the closest remaining church, he would continue north to Pergamum, then east to Thyatira, and back south to Sardis, Philadelphia, and finally ending in Laodicea (which is nearly straight east of Ephesus).

One can see the logic of this “itinerary” in the map below:

The seven churches of Revelation and Patmos

The Seven Churches of Revelation and Patmos

So then, the order of the churches seems to be simply the most sensible order for delivering the messages from Patmos. This is possibly the order in which the seven churches actually received their respective messages.

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