Session 4

Revelation Study –Session 4


            In our last session we completed our study of Revelation 1 by focusing on John’s graphic vision of Jesus in Revelation 1:9-20.  This is the first of many visions we will encounter in our journey through this book.  Basically, we did three things last week in relation to this vision.

  1. We saw that there are two basic reasons this particular vision occurs in the very first chapter of Revelation:

·         It prepares the reader of the symbolic nature of what is to follow in this book.   If the person reading Revelation had any allusions about this being an ordinary book, they certainly would be done away with by this vision.  This is obviously different from all the other books in the NT and most of the other books in the Bible as a whole.

·         It states clearly to the discouraged, persecuted Christians in Asia Minor that this book is coming from Jesus, Himself.  Without question the person being described in the vision in Revelation 1 is Jesus.

  1. Then we looked in-depth at the various symbols in the vision, most of which are taken from the book of Daniel in the OT.  I made the point that the visions in Revelation are like paintings, designed to be viewed as a whole without putting too much emphasis on each minute detail.  As a whole, the symbols of this vision remind us of the power and majesty and glory of Jesus.
  2. Then we talked about three lessons from this vision which would have been especially meaningful to the persecuted Christians in Asia Minor and which are meaningful to us today as well.
    • Jesus is alive
    • Jesus is triumphantly alive
    • Jesus is triumphantly alive among His people


With this vision of Christ in mind, in this session we’re going to do an overview of the seven letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3.  Even a quick glance at these letters will bring two things to the surface.

1.   First, there are seven individual letters.  They are addressed to the churches    Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. And we must address the question why that number and why these particular churches? 

·         Some say the number seven is used purely as a literary device.  Because seven always signified to the Jews and early Christians the idea of perfection and completeness, according to this theory the seven churches listed in chapters 2 and 3 are not literal churches but simply a literary way of referring to the full or complete church.  They are symbolic of the total Christian community. I don’t subscribe to this view.  It seems to me it doesn’t take seriously enough the specific, concrete references in each of the letters to the history of the city being addressed.  Obviously, the seven cities listed were real cities and it is difficult to imagine why John would list real cities if he weren’t addressing real churches in those cities. 

·         Others say that the seven churches listed represent a panoramic view of the history of the church from its beginning to the return of Christ.  According to this view, each of the seven churches listed represent one era of church history.  Without going into too much detail, want to give brief overview of the eras of church history this view assigns to each of the seven letters.


Historical Era


The church that had left its first love.  Represents the apostolic age until about A.D. 100.  During the latter part of the 1st century some speculate that complacency had set in the church lost its earlier fervor.


The church that faced severe persecution.  Represents the era about 100 till 313, which suffered under a series of Roman emperors.


The church that compromised with carnality and false doctrine.  Represents the era from Constantine’s Edict of Toleration (313) until the rise of papacy (about 500).


The church that tolerated Jezebel, the false prophetess who was leading people astray.  Represents the papal church until the Reformation (from about 500 to 1500)


The dead church that is admonished by the Lord to wake up.  Represents the era of the Reformation (from about 1500 to 1700)


The church of the open door.  Represents the era of missionary expansion that began around 1700 and continues to the present.


The lukewarm church.  Represents the era just prior to the return of Jesus.


This particular view of the seven churches is primarily held by those who take a strong futurist approach to Revelation.  It is most common among those who are called dispensationalists.  I do not subscribe to this view for the following reasons:

·         It would have no relevance to the people to whom Revelation was originally sent.  One of the basic principles of hermeneutics which guides my interpretation, not just of Revelation but of any biblical book, is to begin with what the text meant to those to whom it was firsts written.  This approach to the seven churches totally ignores that principle.

·         Nothing in the text itself suggests that these letters, addressed to seven real churches in the NT era, should be given a secondary meaning applying the individual letters to individual periods in church history.

·         The whole church of any particular period can hardly be regarded as one homogenous entity that fits the description found in a given letter. For example, unless we are to reject the most natural understanding of these chapters, we must assume that the first century church contained all seven types of churches represented in the letters, since the letters are ostensibly applicable to seven churches existing side by side in the first century.

·         There’s a third way to approach Revelation 2 & 3, and it is the one I find the most helpful.  The seven churches are real, literal churches in the 1st century world.  These particular seven were selected for two reasons.

1)      But since the number seven represents completeness or perfection, they are representative of all churches of all times.  The number seven was obviously used here because it was symbolic of the total Christian community. According to this symbolism, these letters are addressed to all churches of all times and all places. They are representative of all the churches. Every church in existence is a prototype of one of these seven churches, or it may be a combination of two or three of them. The fact is that every church fits into this pattern somewhere and is, therefore, a proper subject for these addresses. Churches may have changed in some respects since the days of the New Testament, but their problems are still essentially the same as those faced by these churches of the first century.

2)      The cities selected would have been on a common postal route and were centers for the distribution of information throughout Asia Minor.


2.      The second thing, which arrests our attention, is the reference to the churches rather than to the church: “the churches which are in Asia” (vv.4, 11). This leads me to believe that as late as the closing decade of the first century, there was still no conception of the church in a hierarchical sense. The emphasis throughout the New Testament is upon the local congregation. The sense of a church as an ecclesiastical hierarchy composed of all the local congregations is a much later development.


In looking at the letters themselves, we find six characteristics that are more or less common to all seven letters.

  1. Each letter begins in the same way.  First, each is addressed “to the angel” of a particular church.  As I said last week, while there is not unanimity of opinion about this, I take position that word “angel” which can also mean messenger refers to the pastor or elder of the church being addressed who would be the one to communicate this message to the church.  Second, the name of the town in which the church is located in noted.  
  2. This is followed immediately with an identity of the author, who is Christ.  John is simply the instrument through whom Christ speaks.   It is interesting to note that Christ identifies Himself to the churches by referring back to something in chapter 1.  In each case he refers to an aspect of the character of Christ that is especially appropriate for the circumstances existing in that particular church.  While the name “Jesus Christ” is not once mentioned in theses letters, from the symbolic identity given at the beginning of each letter there could have been no doubt in the minds of the readers concerning from Whom the letter was coming.
    • To the church at Ephesus He is “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands...”  To the church that was beginning to drift away from Him, by using these images Jesus says to them, “I’m not drifting from you.  I am in your midst and hold you in my hand.”
    • To the church at Smyrna, He is the “The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life...”  To the church facing severe persecution, even to the point of death, that phrase reminds them that He has overcome death.
    • To the church at Pergamos, He is “The One who has the sharp two-edged sword...” We saw last week that the sword is a reminder of His power to judge.  To the church which was allowing false teaching to go unchallenged in its midst, Jesus says, “If you don’t take care of the situation, I will come as judge!”
    • To the church at Thyatira, He is “The Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet are like burnished bronze...”  This was a church that was morally compromised.  It was allowing a false prophetess to lead them into immorality.  We saw last week the “eyes like a flame of fire” symbolizes Jesus’ omniscience.  He sees what they are doing.  The “feet like burnished bronze” symbolize His strength to crush under His feet any opposition.  To this morally compromised church Jesus is saying, “I see what you are doing and will not tolerate such behavior in My name.”
    • To the church at Sardis, He is the One “...who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars...”  This description is not taken from the vision in chapter 1 but from the description of the triune God in vv.4-5.  This was the church that was teetering on the verge of spiritual death.  In effect He says to them, “You need a fresh out-pouring of God’s Spirit or you are going to die.” 
    • To the church at Philadelphia, He is identified as the One “...who holy, who is true, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens...”  This phrase is not found in this precise form in chapter 1 but it is certainly implied in the latter part of the vision of Christ.  Philadelphia was the church of the open door, the church of opportunity.  Jesus is the One who gives the opportunity and gives us the ability to capitalize on it.
    • To the church at Laodicea, he is “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.”  Again, this precise phrase not found in chapter 1 but parts of it are.  To the lukewarm church, reminds them of Who He really is and why they should be zealous for Him.

When we put all of these together, we have the same picture of Christ, which is given, in the last part of the first chapter.

  1. Third, each letter contains a statement concerning the familiarity of Christ with that particular situation. He wants them to know that he is not speaking as one who calls from a distance, but as one who is near enough to understand their weaknesses, their virtues, and their needs. The consciousness of our Lord’s familiarity with our needs is always very comforting and encouraging.  Notice the recurring use of the phrase “I know...” at the beginning of each letter.  You will find it in Revelation 2:2, 9, 13, & 19 and 3:1, 8, & 15.  It is a very significant statement.  I find it both and at the same time frightening and comforting.  The pronoun “I” refers to Jesus, the author of these letters.  This little phrase is a reminder that nothing is hidden from Him.  He knows – He knows our strengths and our weaknesses, victories and defeats, dreams and nightmares.  There is nothing about us personally or collectively as a church hidden from Him.
  2. Fourth, each letter contains a message for that particular church. The content is not the same in any two letters; however, generally speaking, two things are common to all the letters with one exception in each area. In all but one, the content of the letter begins with a word of commendation, the exception being the letter to the Laodiceans; and in all but one this is followed by a word of rebuke or reprimand, the exception being in the letter to Smyrna. The content of the letter in each case gives some insight into the predominant characteristics of that particular church. We have time for only a brief summary of the outstanding characteristics of each church.

·         The church at Ephesus had a good defense but a weak offense. The Christians at Ephesus were sound in doctrine and courageous in defending sound doctrine. Jesus said to them, “I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil; and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars” (2:2). This speaks of doctrinal soundness. But then he goes on to say, “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love…” (2:4). In other words, they had lost the fervor of that love which they had for Christ when first they believed. This is to say that they had lost their evangelistic zeal.

·         The church at Smyrna was the suffering church. All of these Christians of Asia had suffered untold agonies at the hands of Domitian, the wicked Roman emperor; but it seems that Smyrna had been given a double portion of this suffering. The admonition which Jesus gave to Smyrna speaks of this: “Fear none of these things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days; be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” (2:10). But even with all of their poverty and woe, they were wealthy in spiritual blessings. They were poor in this world’s goods, but rich in faith.

·         The church at Pergamos was a counterpart to the church at Ephesus. Here was a church, which seemed to have some measure of evangelistic zeal, even to the point of martyrdom; but it was somewhat lacking in doctrinal soundness. Jesus rebuked them for allowing false doctrines to go unchallenged in their midst.

·         The church at Thyatira appears before us as a growing church. Having enumerated some of their good works, such as love, service, faith, and patience, Jesus noted that their latter works were more than their earlier works. This is growth. They did have some problems with a certain “Jezebel” (2:20); but in spite of this, they were growing. A growing church always has problems. The only church that doesn’t have problems is a dead one.

·         The Sardis church is easily identified as the dead church. They had all the forms of life without the essence of it. Theirs was an empty shell; however, even in this pathetic situation there was at least one bright spot. There were some who had not defiled their garments. Hence, there was some hope even for Sardis.

·         The Philadelphia church was the missionary church. Jesus indicated in his letter that he dad opened a door before them and they had proceeded to enter. This is a happy situation. Taking advantage of opportunities for evangelism and service often entails sacrifice and suffering, but blessed is that church which is disposed to do it.

·         The Laodicean church is perhaps the most deplorable of the seven. It was the self-satisfied church. The members were resting on their laurels, thinking that they had it made. They felt no sense of need. They proudly boasted of their many assets. They were neither cold nor hot, just complacent. Therefore, Jesus threatens to spew them out of his mouth—that is, to vomit them up (3:16).

  1. Fifth, each letter contains a beautiful promise. A study of these promises will be most rewarding.  Found in 2:7, 2:11, 2:26, 3:5, 3:12, and 3:21.  It would be rewarding to study each promise in detail, but I’m not going to take time to do that.  Just want to point out that in every situation, no matter how difficult or how challenging, God has a precious promise for us. The situation may appear dark and dismal for our perspective, but God has a way of providing a promise of hope.  May we never forget that God has a precious promise to fit every situation. May we learn to rest upon those promises and look beyond the darkness into the light of them.
  2. Sixth, each letter closes with an exhortation to hear and heed. Toward the close of each letter there is a repetition of this simple but significant phrase: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (2:7, 11,13,29:  3:6,13,22). Such a word of exhortation may seem trite; yet it is needful. We cannot be reminded too often of the importance of listening to the voice of the Spirit, which speaks to us through the written and spoken Word. It is the same as saying, “Now listen; keep your ears open.” He who does not keep an open ear turned toward the Spirit of God will miss the blessing. Especially is this true as we approach the study of this last book in our Bible. A casual or cursory reading will not suffice to get the message. Undivided attention must be given. We must bend our ears with earnest desire if we would grasp the wonderful truths which shave been hidden here beneath the symbols but open and available to those who listen for the Spirit’s leading in all sincerity, “He that hath an ear let him hear...”