Do John’s letters to the seven churches of Asia matter to Christians today? Learn just how vital they are to understanding the prophecies of Revelation!
The book of Revelation—the very last book in your Bible—is a mystery to most people. Many are at least somewhat familiar with its famous “four horsemen.” But few are even aware of its seven letters to the seven churches in Asia, recorded in the book’s second and third chapters. And even fewer understand what those letters mean for us today.
The word revelation refers to revealing—making known something that before was unknown. Yet many are intimidated by the book of Revelation, thinking it impossible to understand and preferring to put it on the proverbial shelf. Are you one of those who has been mystified by this important book? If so, this article is for you.
For more than 1,900 years, scholars and laymen alike have puzzled over the book of Revelation. What is its source? Who is its intended audience? When do its prophecies begin? Who can open our understanding to its message? And who is to take the message to its intended audience?
Let’s begin at the beginning. The very first verse of Revelation answers these questions: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John” (Revelation 1:1).
Here we see that Jesus Christ is the One who unveils the message, that the message comes from God the Father, that the message is intended for God’s servants, and that John is given the responsibility to carry the message to those servants.
Though the book’s first verse is rich in meaning, and it sets the stage for what follows, it doesn’t yet reveal the theme of the book. For that, we must look ahead nine verses, where John writes, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet” (v. 10).
Nearly all translators and commentaries promote the mistaken idea that being “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” means that John was worshipping on a Sunday. But there is a huge problem with this interpretation, which is flawed on multiple fronts. If the passage were talking about a day of the week—which it is not—this could not be a Sunday. If we trust the Bible as our source for the truth, including the truth about worship, we find that it never identifies Sunday, the first day of the week, as belonging to the Lord. On the contrary, we find three clear references proclaiming that Jesus is “Lord of the Sabbath.” Notice: “For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath…. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath…. The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5).
So, we see that if the “Lord’s day” is a day of the week, the Bible reveals that this day is not the first day of the week, Sunday, but rather the seventh day, beginning at sunset on Friday. But the truth is that John’s reference to the “Lord’s day” has nothing to do with a day of the week. Rather, we see that John was projected forward in vision to a time known in Scripture as the Day of the Lord, a time referenced in more than 30 passages in the Old and New Testaments.
The first six chapters of Revelation set the stage for the theme. John sees a vision of God, the Originator of the book of Revelation, sitting on His heavenly throne. Chapter 5 describes the book’s message as written on a scroll locked with seven seals—seals that only Jesus Christ is able to open. Chapter 6 describes Christ opening six of those seven seals. The first four are the famous four horsemen. The fifth pictures a martyrdom of some of God’s servants. Then comes the sixth: a series of terrifying heavenly signs:
And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (vv. 13–17).
These six seals, all opened within one short chapter, are preludes to the theme of the book of Revelation: the coming “day” or “time” of God’s wrath on rebellious mankind. This wrath is explained by the seventh seal, which is made up of seven plagues announced by trumpets.
Chapter 4 describes God on His throne, showing that He is the source of the revelation. Chapter 5 shows that Christ is the Revelator who opens the scroll with seven seals. And Chapter 6 gives us the lead-up to the Day of the Lord—the time of God’s wrath—when Christ opens six of those seals. This shows us the theme of John’s book, but what about the servants of God to whom the book is addressed? Who are those servants?
You may be surprised to learn that those servants are defined by the seven churches described in chapters 2–3. Indeed, many scholars entirely miss the importance of these two vital chapters. Typical of this is the scholar William Ramsay, who wrote a highly respected book titled The Letters to the Seven Churches. The book contains a great deal of excellent information, but Ramsay missed the key element regarding those letters. He wrote the following:
In this work, Jewish in origin and general plan... there is inserted this episode of the Seven Letters, which appears to be almost entirely non-Jewish in character.… The reason was that the form of letters had already established itself as the most characteristic expression of the Christian mind, and as almost obligatory on a Christian writer (pp. 35–36).
Ramsay speculates that the letters were an afterthought in John’s composition, rather than an element vital for understanding the book:
In the subsequent development of St. John’s thought it is plain that he had recognized the inadequacy and insufficiency of the fashionable Jewish literary forms. It seems highly probable that the perception of that fact came to him during the composition of the Revelation, and that the Seven Letters, though placed near the beginning and fitted carefully into that position, were the last part of the work to be conceived (p. 36).
Wow! Ramsay then makes this incredible statement: “The Apocalypse [Revelation] would be quite complete without the Seven Letters” (p. 37). Ramsay would have us believe that John used the form of letters as a “Christian” way of conveying information, as the New Testament epistles were conveyed. Reading his speculations, it is easy to appreciate what Jesus told us in the gospel of Matthew: “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes” (11:25).
Turning to the Bible instead of scholarly speculations, let’s review four vital keys that solve the mystery of Revelation’s seven letters—a mystery scholars do not and cannot solve unless Christ opens their minds.
We saw that the first verse of Revelation 1 reveals John’s commission to send a message to “His servants.” So, where does John direct that message? To “the seven churches which are in Asia” (v. 4). That message is to the churches, but it is a message comprising the whole of the book of Revelation, not just the letters:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,” and, “What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea” (Revelation 1:11).
Can there be any doubt that the seven churches and the servants of God are the same people? This is confirmed in the very last chapter of Revelation—in a sense, the connection between the seven churches and the servants of God is bookended by the first and last chapters. We read:
Then he said to me, “These words are faithful and true.” And the Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to show His servants the things which must shortly take place…. I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches (Revelation 22:6, 16).
We should notice that while servants and churches are used interchangeably—they are synonymous—John doesn’t mention all the Christian congregations in Asia. Obviously, there is something special or significant about the seven he mentions. So, why does he mention these churches? Why only seven, if they represent the servants of God? Does that mean that none of the other first-century Christian congregations were God’s servants? And are we today left on the outside of being God’s servants? Not at all. This brings us to our second key.
After a trumpet blast and a list of the seven churches, John recounts a remarkable vision:
Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band.… He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength (Revelation 1:12–13, 16).
Can we understand the meaning of this vision? We can be thankful that the Bible interprets itself, so we don’t need to speculate. John explains:
The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels [messengers] of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches (v. 20).
John’s vision revealed Christ walking amongst the symbols of the seven churches, which are synonymous with the servants of God. Mysterious? Yes. Impossible to comprehend? No. And this mystery leads us to a third key that should be obvious by now, though scholars like Ramsay are unable to see it.
In vision, John is told to take the book’s message to the servants of God, the seven churches, as we have seen (Revelation 22). These churches were real church congregations, and the messenger to each congregation gave a message appropriate to conditions existing in that congregation at that time. Ephesus was an actual congregation, composed of God’s servants, but had lost its “first love”—a common problem among those who have been Christians for some time and have lost the zeal they had when they were baptized.
And there is a vital admonition addressed to each of the seven churches: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7). Notice that the Spirit was speaking to churches, in the plural. A problem predominant in one congregation could also affect individual members in any of the others. In the example of the church at Laodicea, a lukewarm spirit prevailed, but the admonition to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” indicates that this same lukewarm attitude could be found among some in the other congregations.
But there is more to the churches than a catalog of problems. We note, for instance, that the church at Philadelphia receives only encouragement, not correction. This leads us to our fourth vital key for understanding the seven letters of Revelation.
If you have a red-letter Bible handy—a Bible that highlights Jesus Christ’s own words in red text—one feature of the book of Revelation becomes clear: The overwhelming majority of the words spoken from Christ’s own mouth in Revelation are found in the letters to the seven churches.
We have seen that John was commanded in Revelation 1 to record the testimony of Jesus Christ. And we read that the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Revelation 19:10). So, whatever we find coming from Jesus’ mouth in Revelation is prophetic in nature.
In studying Revelation, we can see that its subject matter began in John’s lifetime—scholars date the book’s composition to sometime around AD 95—yet it extends to our future. The warnings that John recorded, the conditions of the seven churches, can apply to any of us today. And there is another dimension to this account of God’s servants from John’s day to our future. If you haven’t already requested a copy of our informative study guide God’s Church Through the Ages, I urge you to do so. In it, the late evangelist John Ogwyn explained:
When we look at the context of the book of Revelation, we must recognize that it is primarily intended as a prophecy. Revelation 1:1 shows that the book’s purpose is to show to God’s servants things that would soon begin to happen. Thus the seven churches should primarily be understood as representing the entire history of God’s Church in seven successive eras (pp. 20–21).
Yes, the seven churches of Revelation represent attitudes that would predominate in the Church of God throughout its history. Mainstream “Christians” and secular scholars try to shoehorn into these letters the apostate church described later in chapter 17—but that church simply does not fit, and neither do her harlot daughters.
Thankfully, God has revealed to His true Church the pattern of prophecy, including the eras through which that Church would pass, as described in the book of Revelation. Notice that when Christ returns, the Church will have entered the era typified by the first-century congregation at Laodicea. A lukewarm spirit will prevail, and those with that spirit are blind to how lukewarm and self-satisfied they have become.
But, even at that time, there will be Christians whose zealous attitude is typified by the first-century congregation at Philadelphia. While lukewarm Christians—well-meaning, faithful, but blind—are hurled into the prophesied Great Tribulation, those Christians who retain a Philadelphian attitude will receive God’s protection from the coming time of trouble.
So, as we can see, understanding the meaning of the seven letters to the seven churches is not just an academic study; it is vital for us as Christians. Let’s heed the admonitions in those letters, and draw closer to our Savior in zeal for His message as we persevere in faith.