Studies in Revelation—Lesson 7
By Reta Halteman Finger
Do you remember that Sunday school picture of Jesus knocking at a door representing one’s heart? Have you ever heard a sermon castigating lukewarm Christians whom Jesus will spit out of his mouth? These images come from the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation. But although these images may be familiar to us, we rarely understand them in their cultural and literary contexts.
Click on a map image below to enlarge. The map on the left covers the largest area, the map on the right is a closeup of the Asia Minor area discussed in this post.
In our last lesson, John’s vision presented the risen Jesus with authority over the churches in seven cities known to John in Asia Minor. “Write what you have seen,” commanded Jesus in Revelation 1:19. On the map on the right above, we can see the seven cities—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea—situated in a rough circle. This would imply that John had lived in Ephesus (home of the first of the churches he addressed and the city closest to the volcanic Island of Patmos where he was exiled) and had regularly made a circuit to visit each church in turn.
The number seven symbolizes completeness and recurs repeatedly in Revelation. This suggests that the reality may have been less clear cut. For example, we know there were also house churches in Colossae and Hierapolis, near Laodicea, since Paul refers to all three cities in Colossians 4:13-17. (Hopefully, they were still thriving several decades later.) I imagine various small house churches clustered in and around each of these seven cities. The “angel” of the churches in each city may refer to the spiritual connection each house church had with others in the same geographical area. In Triumph of the Lamb, Ted Grimsrud believes John’s reference to angels “likely reflects the Jewish idea that angels are spiritual representations of earthly realities. In this context they represent the churches seen as spiritual entities” (pp. 35-36).*
The form of the messages
We call the messages to these churches “letters,” but some scholars liken them to imperial edicts, with Jesus speaking as a royal figure. Michael Gorman prefers to call them prophetic oracles (Reading Revelation Responsibly, p. 87).** In any case, they all share the same literary structure:
- Greetings to the church’s “angel”
- One aspect of Jesus’s description for each church from the vision in the first chapter
- Commendation (except to Laodicea)
- Some challenge or warning
- The promise of a spiritual reward
- A call to “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”
I marvel at the literary artistry that ties together the varied descriptions of Jesus in the first chapter with each of the churches. Jesus is also the pastor who “walks among the seven golden lampstands,” which are the seven churches (Ephesus, Rev. 1:20; 2:1); “who was dead and came to life” (Smyrna, Rev. 1:18; 2:8); “who has the sharp, two-edged sword” (Pergamum, Rev. 1:16b; 2:12); “who has eyes like a flame of fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (Thyatira, Rev. 1:15a, 16c; 2:18); who holds the seven stars in his right hand (Sardis, Rev. 1:16a, 3:1); who holds a key that no one else can use to open or shut (Philadelphia, Rev. 1:18b; 3:7); and who is “the faithful and true witness,” the “firstborn of the dead” (Laodicea, Rev. 1:5; 3:14).
Equally fascinating are John’s allusions to related scripture passages. Believers in Ephesus who conquer are promised “permission to eat from the tree of life” (Rev. 2:7), harking back to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9). Jesus tells Smyrna he is “the first and the last,” echoing Isaiah 44:6 and 48:12. The “hidden manna” of Revelation 2:17 reminds those at Pergamum of the manna eaten by escaping Israelite slaves in the desert (Exodus 16:14-15,33-34). The promise to Thyatirans who conquer (Rev. 2:26-27) comes from the Septuagint (Greek) version of Psalm 2:8-9: authority to rule over the nations. And on and on. Altogether, John includes over 400 allusions to texts in the Hebrew Bible. If you have a copy of the NRSV with Apocrypha from the American Bible Society, you will find a thicket of cross-references on each page of the book of Revelation. I stand in awe of John’s knowledge of his scriptures!
Integrating the human and the divine
Bearing in mind Lesson 4 about the unique abilities of shamans and prophets to receive visions in an “altered state of consciousness” (ASC), I ponder the connection between John’s human contribution and what is being revealed to him in this vision. Although John has an out-of-body experience (Rev. 1:10), Jesus appears to him only in a form that he can describe from his own immersion in scripture, from word-pictures used by previous prophets with the same kind of ASC gifts.
I also believe that John already understood the spiritual conditions of his churches. The supernatural aspect of the vision, then, must be the Messianic power Jesus exudes both to commend and chasten these believers. Perhaps Jesus organizes and focuses John’s intuitions, endowing him with divine authority to convey these messages to John’s churches. Though John may have known their strengths and weaknesses, now he is able to write down these insights as directly from Jesus rather than just from himself.
We can make one more observation: each church will hear not only its own message but will learn about the problems and promises of the other six as well. Since no church can thus hide its failings (or strengths), none can lord it over the others. If they take John’s vision seriously, they will instead be in a position to support each other.
Following lessons will examine the message to each church in more detail.
Questions for discussion or reflection
- How do you see the merging between divine and human in this vision from Revelation chapters 1 through 3?
- In the dispensational view of Revelation, the seven churches represent seven eras of church history, from John’s time to our present age. See a pictorial representation at http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/tbr/img/01900.jpg. How would you respond to that interpretation in light of the above information?
*Ted Grimsrud. Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987, pp. 35-36.
**Michael Gorman. Reading Revelation Responsibly. Cascade Books, 2011, p. 87.