As noted in the introduction, the Revelation was written originally “to the seven churches in the province of Asia” (1:4) dealing with the real-world problems they faced living in their hostile Roman environment. These seven churches also represent the church then at large with the letter’s message extending beyond just their specific circumstances. Likewise, Christians in any age (including our own) can read themselves into the text and story in order to find contemporary meaning and comfort in the message.
In the text the seven churches are symbolically represented by seven lampstands with John, perhaps borrowing language from Zechariah 4. The light of the lampstand could be symbolic of the light of Christ being illuminated into the world from the churches.
Christ is seen as standing among the lampstands, brilliantly depicted in a priestly fashion that highlights all aspects of his divinity—his omnipresence; omnipotence; and omniscience. He authoritatively holds the seven stars (angels or messengers of each church—likely those who would deliver the letter to each church) in his right hand and speaks the Word of God—described in familiar NT language as a double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).
John’s vivid description of Jesus sets the stage for how he symbolically uses language throughout the book. And it should come as no surprise that Jesus is shown among the churches. The church is his bride, which one day will be fully united to her groom—that is the promise seen at the end of this book. The promise given to Christians in those seven churches as a means of encouraging them to endure.
Enduring (being “faithful even to the point of death” 2:10) is the fundamental message of the entire book. These letters to the seven churches serve—in a sense—as the storyline of the rest of the Revelation. Will God’s people endure? Will they inherit the promise portrayed at the end of the book? And why is faithfulness to Jesus described as “conquering?” All of these questions are threaded throughout John’s letter.
The questions were pertinent to the specific challenges facing each of the seven churches. Some were dealing with apathy due to wealth and affluence. Some were severely morally compromised, while others were doctrinally askew. In contrast however, some among the seven churches were holding on faithfully in spite of violent physical and economic persecution.
Jesus, through John would address each specific circumstance. The tribulation that was upon them would force them to choose—faithfulness or compromise. The temptation was to deny Jesus to either avoid the consequence of persecution or to join in on the cultural immorality. This is one reason why the book is timeless. Every generation has to make, basically, the same choice. The circumstances change; persecution to this degree has not always been present; but temptations to compromise are always around in the broken world. So, as we read the text; as we drop in on the seven churches; which is it—faithfulness or compromise?
Each letter is addressed to the “angel” of that church—a messenger who was to deliver the letter. Jesus identifies himself in various, but familiar ways out of John’s earlier description. He also makes clear his awareness of the circumstance of each church. He provides warnings, if necessary and/or commendations along with affirming the promise of the book to those who overcome. He ends each letter with a call to listen and act. Remember the seven letters—while specifically addressing circumstances unique to each church—do represent an overall picture of all the churches then suffering under Roman rule, plus churches throughout the ages (including now) dealing with the challenges of their time.
- Ephesus—the loveless church (2:1-7). We have a great deal of NT information on this church. Once doctrinally compromised, but no longer tolerating such (opposing the Nicolaitans—a heretical group), they were enduring in the name of Jesus. However, in so doing, they had drifted into such extreme rigidness that they totally forget Paul’s advice to “speak truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15). Repentance was sought.
- Smyrna—the persecuted church (2:8-11). Perhaps both economically and physically persecuted (Polycarp was martyred here in 155), While poor, Christ identified them as “rich.” They faced an extra-ordinary Jewish opposition in their city (“synagogue of Satan”) along with the Roman oppression. Jesus affirmed that their suffering would happen, but it also would end (“ten days”).
- Pergamum—the over-tolerant church (2:12-17). This was a city of many pagan temples—Satan’s throne. The church suffered much there (Antipas death) but endured with one exception—they were too tolerant, again, of the heretical Nicolaitans (more info given here about this group—connected to OT Balaam. They were compromising Christianity with idolatry and sexual immorality.) Repent or else was Christ’s message.
- Thyatira—the compromised church (2:18-29). Compromised by a woman identified by the OT moniker of “Jezebel.” She took upon herself the label of “prophetess” and led this church to immorality, idolatry—compromising the truth perhaps with a hint of Gnosticism. Christ’s judgement upon her and her followers is severe (and similar to that of her OT namesake). To those who rejected her, Christ promises both power and presence (Morning Star—himself—22:16).
- Sardis—the dead church (3:1-6). Apparently, a church living off of their reputation, but Christ penetrated that façade. A call to strengthen, remember, obey and repent was given for all but a few who had remained faithful.
- Philadelphia—the church of opportunity. (3:7-13). Christ, holding the key, promises to open outsized doors of opportunity to this small and struggling church. Their faithfulness despite (again) heavy Jewish opposition would be rewarded by being acknowledged by their enemies, being strengthened and protected against harsher persecution along with a permanent position in the coming New Jerusalem. Quite the promise by Jesus.
- Laodicea—the lukewarm church (3:14-22). Located in a wealthy, financial center, this church sank into apathy—not hot or cold—due to indifference created by affluence. It had blinded them to their own critical condition—so Jesus calls for them to use the eye salve manufactured in the region to clear their spiritual vision. He offers a rebuke and calls for them to repent.
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This was the common ending of each letter and Christ’s way of urging all to listen and act upon each letter. Common also was a wonderful promise to each church to those who overcame the challenges they faced. The letters carry the underlying message of the book—will it be faithfulness or compromise?
Jesus continues to stand among the lampstands—observing, warning, commending, blessing, protecting, calling for repentance, and promising. Specifics obviously have changed, but our challenges can be seen in theirs. Will it be faithfulness or compromise? He who has an ear, let him hear.