This week we started a new Sunday School year, with a lot of new faces in the class. Both for the benefit of the newcomers, and as a refresher for those who were with us for chapter 1, I decided to spend most of our time this week re-acquainting us with the themes of the book, and preparing the ground for our study of the next couple of chapters.
Most of what we discussed in terms of review can be found in the notes to chapter 1 elsewhere on the blog (see under “Sunday School Notes-Revelation” in the “Theology” tab above). We talked about the setting of the letter, when it might have been written, the type of literature it is (letter, prophetic, apocalyptic, all of the above…?), and the major themes that run throughout.
Chapters 2 and 3 present to us seven letters to the seven churches addressed at the beginning of the book. We recalled the significance of the number 7 in Scripture (fullness, completion–rooted in the seven days of creation in Genesis 1-2), and noted that while John (and Jesus) specifically targeted seven churches in Asia Minor, the intent of the letters is for all the churches. The refrain found at the end of each letter, “Let him who has ears hear what the Spirit says to the churches” supports the idea that they were not meant solely for the named recipient. But why these churches, especially since significant churches such as Colossae, Hierapolis, and Troas are not mentioned? On a practical level, it could be that these churches were all within 100 miles of Ephesus and on a circular route ideal for missionaries or preachers. John may well have operated out of Ephesus as his “base church,” and traveled around to each of these in the course of his ministry. But as we look at the issues facing these churches, and the varying degrees of success they’re having dealing with them, we can easily find our own situation somewhere along that spectrum. In other words, within these seven churches every church at every time should be able to see herself, and draw hope, encouragement, and perhaps even chastisement from that identification.
Each of the seven letters follows a similar kind of pattern:
- Jesus addresses a particular church via the angel that represents that church (see 1:20).
- A description of Jesus drawn from the vision in 1:12-20. Each letter uses different imagery pertinent to the message for that church.
- A statement regarding some aspect of the church Jesus sees or knows about. This could relate to an area of strength, or a problem with the church.
- Based on that statement, Jesus encourages faithfulness or exhorts to repentance lest judgment should fall.
- “Let the one having ears hear…”–emphasizing the general application of Jesus’ message.
- Finally, a promise of eternal life in return for faithfulness and perseverance. Sometimes these last couple are reversed.
As we consider patterns, it’s also interesting to note the way the letters are arranged. It seems the churches most in danger of losing their Christian identity are addressed first and last, then the churches in the best shape, with those generally okay but with internal issues in the middle:
- Ephesus: A church in bad shape, and in danger of having her lampstand removed (if the lampstand represents the church (1:20), then the removal of the lampstand implies the loss of that status).
- Smyrna: A faithful church facing persecution, in need of encouragement.
- Pergamum: A church doing okay on the whole, but having a difficult time with a faction stirring trouble within the body.
- Thyatira: Another church doing okay but with a disruptive faction that needs to be dealt with.
- Sardis: A church in need of revival, though there are still faithful members so there’s hope.
- Philadelphia: A faithful church battling the “synagogue of Satan” and in need of encouragement.
- Laodicea: A church in bad shape, in danger of being “spit out” by the Lord.
As we noted before, within the range of issues the churches face, we can find our own church situation. This leads to the question: was there really ever a “golden age” of the church? We sometimes like to think that the first hundred years of the church was a time of faithful endurance under persecution, full of “on fire” believers willing to give all for the faith. What we see in Revelation, however, are good, strong churches and weak churches falling into compromise with the world, and other churches somewhere along the spectrum in between. The fact is, there has never been a time when the church hasn’t been plagued with issues of some kind. This is only to be expected since the church consists of people, and even at our best, we are still hampered by the enticement of sin and the trappings of the world.
This is what makes Revelation a timeless book. It wasn’t written for some future age of the church, nor was it just meant for John and these seven churches in the latter part of the first century. In Revelation, the Lord of the church addresses his bride, to encourage her in times of stress, to chasten her waywardness, and to shepherd her toward the hope promised to her, and bought for her at Calvary. It’s as much for us as for any other church in any other time.
We won’t be meeting next week, so we’ll dive into the letter to the Ephesian church (2:1-7) the following week.