Why did Jesus Christ have the Apostle John include seven letters to seven different churches in the book of Revelation? These letters—linked to end-time prophecies in the Bible—reveal warnings, wisdom, and rewards to God's true servants through different eras. Watch this Tomorrow's World episode for more details and in-depth Bible study.
[The text below represents an edited transcript of this Tomorrow’s World program.]
The biblical book of Revelation has puzzled millions. Many consider it a sealed book that is impossible to understand. Others have read into it their own differing and conflicting interpretations. Among the many mysteries found in this remarkable book, are seven letters to seven church congregations in Asia Minor.
Why were these First Century congregations chosen among all the others extant at that time? Why were their messages a part of Revelation? And do they have relevance for us today? These are a few of the many questions people have regarding the letters to the seven churches, recorded in the second and third chapters of Revelation.
These messages have far more relevance for you than you might imagine, and you need to know what that is. So stay with me as I’ll answer these questions from the pages of this very book.
A warm welcome to all of you from those of us here at Tomorrow’s World. Today I’m going to explain a great mystery found in that difficult to understand last book of the Bible—Revelation. Scholars have puzzled over the meaning of seven letters written to seven Asia Minor congregations, as recorded in chapters two and three, but you can understand as you will see on today’s program.
The book of Revelation is filled with symbolism: stars, candlesticks, multi-headed beasts with horns, trumpets, and much more. The number seven is significant as we read of seven messengers, seven churches, seven stars, seven golden candlesticks, seven trumpets, and seven last plagues. But there’s no end to the number of interpretations people have about this puzzling book, so how can you understand? And how can you know that your understanding is correct?
The answers to these critical questions are found elsewhere in this collection of writings that we refer to as the Bible. Consider Matthew 11:25;
“At that time Jesus answered and said, ‘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’” (Matthew 11:25).
And, as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1,
“For it is written: ‘I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND BRING TO NOTHING THE UNDERSTANDING OF THE PRUDENT.’ Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Corinthians 1:19–20).
Paul then goes on to explain, beginning in verse 26,
“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise…that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Corinthians 1:26–27, 29).
So my dear friends, according to the Bible, it’s not a matter of human intellect, but of God choosing to whom He will reveal His message. This is further shown in chapter 2 beginning in verse 7,
“But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written: ‘EYE HAS NOT SEEN, NOR EAR HEARD, NOR HAVE ENTERED INTO THE HEART OF MAN THE THINGS WHICH GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM’” (1 Corinthians 2:7–9).
If this is true, what hope do we have? The answer is found in the next verse:
“But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:10).
If we are to accurately understand the Bible, including the Book of Revelation, it must be revealed to us by God through the power of His spirit. Now, many people think they have the spirit of God, but do they? Do you? How can you know? Will we believe the answer found in the Bible? And if so, turn to Acts 5:32:
“And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
Professor William Ramsay wrote what is considered by many to be the definitive book on the letters to the seven churches. There is no doubt that he was a man of great intellect and knowledge, yet it’s evident that he failed to understand the fundamental reason these letters are in Revelation.
Some people often wrongly assume that Bible scholars believe that the Bible is the word of God. But that is not the case for all. Human reason enters the picture and many begin to pick and choose what they believe to be true.
It is evident from reading The Seven Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia by Professor Ramsay, that he saw the book of Revelation as the work of the Apostle John. This is revealed in his opening sentence in chapter IV where he refers to the book as:
“[T]he Revelation of St. John” (p. 35).
Now, how is it that someone of his intellect could miss the truth revealed in the opening words of the book he is trying to explain? To be fair, he’s not alone, as even some who translated the Bible also missed the point that it is not the revelation of John but the revelation of Jesus Christ. Among them are the translators of the vaunted King James Version, [who] title the book:
The Revelation of St. John the Divine
The New King James Version has it corrected with the title:
The Revelation [not of John, but] of Jesus Christ
Now this is no small point as it reveals the mindset of many translators and scholars. Professor Ramsay clearly sees the book of Revelation as the work of a man, rather than inspired from God. Here’s what I mean with this quote:
In this work, Jewish in origin and general plan…
[T]here is inserted this episode of the Seven Letters….
There must have been therefore some reason which seemed to the author to demand imperatively the insertion of such an episode in a work of diverse character (p. 35).
Ramsay then goes on to explain that these letters were an afterthought, since other than the historical narratives of the Gospels and Acts, the remainder of the New Testament is made up of letters. Therefore:
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).
The opening words of Revelation are all important as they tell us where the message comes from, who opens our understanding to it, and who recorded it, and for whom it was recorded. If you have a Bible, I urge you to get it out and follow along. As we often say on this program, don’t believe us just because we say it. Believe us because you read it in your own Bible. So if you have your Bible, turn to the last book, the book of Revelation, chapter one, where we’ll examine the first two verses. There, we read the following:
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ…”
So Jesus, not John, is the one who opens our understanding to the message. He is the one who reveals it to us. But what is the source of that message?
“…which God gave Him…”
The message comes from God the Father and is revealed by Jesus Christ. But who is the message to go to? Is it the world in general? Or is it more limited than that?
“…to show His servants…”
Clearly, the message is for the servants of God. This is why the message is not generally understood, as we shall see. Notice next that it involves
“…things which must shortly take place.”
A careful reading of the book shows that much was written for the times far into the future, but it also records events [that] were soon to take place. We next find that this revealed message was to go to John.
“And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John….”
This is all in verse one, chapter one. The next verse explains that John was given three things to record. He was to take
“[T]The word of God…”
“…the testimony of Jesus Christ…”
“…all things that he saw.”
to the servants of God, but how does God define those servants in the book? This is the crucial question that is almost universally misunderstood. Yet, the answer is right in front of our eyes.
But first, let’s review what we learned from Revelation 1:1–2. The message of the Revelation originates with God but Jesus Christ must open it to our understanding
The message of the entire book was to be given to the servants of God. And John was to record the word of God, the testimony of Jesus Christ, and all things that he saw.
So who are the servants of God? This may sound like a simple question, but the book of Revelation reveals a surprising answer. John was instructed to take the message to these servants and that is exactly what he did, as recorded immediately after the prologue, Revelation 1:4:
John, to the seven churches which are in Asia.
The seven churches in Asia Minor are synonymous with the servants of God. This is further seen in verse 11where the churches are mentioned by name;
What you see [That is all that he saw, not just the letters, but the whole of Revelation.] 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).
We next read in verses 12–16 that John recorded a vision of the glorified Christ walking in the midst of seven golden candlesticks with seven stars in His hands. What can these—the candlesticks and the stars—possibly mean? The answer is found in verse 20:
The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches (Revelation 1:20).
There were other church congregations in Asia Minor at the time, but there was something special about these seven. For one thing, they were all found on a mail route where the book would be taken from one church to another. Also, Christ is seen walking in the midst of them as they are represented by the candlesticks. Is it not clear by now that the seven churches of Asia Minor represent the servants of God down through time? This is confirmed at the end of the book where it uses “servants” and “the churches” interchangeably:
Then he said to me, “These words are faithful and true.” And the Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to show [And notice this] His servants the things which must shortly take place.
That’s Revelation 22:6. Now notice verse 16:
I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches.
The construction of Revelation is quite amazing when you take a closer look at it. The servants of God are synonymous with the seven churches, so:
Chapters 2 and 3: Tell us WHO God’s servants are down through
Chapter 4: Describes the throne of God—the source of the
Chapter 5: Shows the message on a sealed scroll is opened by the Lamb of God.
But getting back to the letters themselves there are three ways the letters apply.
#1: The letters describe seven attitudes (or spiritual conditions) found in seven real congregations.
The messages are a mix of positive reinforcement as well as warnings and calls to repent from the dominant attitudes found in each Church. But each of us are individuals and the general warning goes beyond a single congregation to all of God’s servants. So this is why we find this admonition at the end of each letter:
#2: He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the
churches (Revelation 2:7).
The messages, while most specifically to one congregation, also contain wisdom and warnings for all others. Then there is a third application for these letters, one that has intrigued scholars and students for centuries.
#3: The churches represent stages, or eras, through which true Christianity travels through the centuries.
That there are historical stages or eras, is seen when comparing the letter to the second Church, Smyrna, and the sixth church, Philadelphia. Let’s first look at Smyrna—Revelation 2:10:
“Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Many Bible students are familiar with the day for a year principle found in the Bible. History reveals that there was a time of severe tribulation just as the scripture predicted. Notice the day for a year principle as it applied to ten years of persecution explained in Adam Clarke’s Commentary:
As the days in this book are what is commonly called prophetic days, each answering to a year, the ten years of tribulation may denote “ten years of persecution”; and this was precisely the duration of the persecution under Diocletian, during which all the Asiatic churches were grievously afflicted. (Adam Clarke’s Commentary [on Revelation 2:10], 1967, p. 1335).
That took place between 303 and 313 AD—over 200 years after John recorded these messages. Further, that persecution came on all the churches of Asia Minor, not just Smyrna. This message then cannot apply only to a single congregation during John’s lifetime, but also to an era in the Christian Church.
Now let’s look at the sixth church—Philadelphia. Here we find a clear reference to the time of the end as found in Revelation 3:10:
“Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.”
So the second church—Smyrna—saw a time of persecution, during the fourth century A.D. and the sixth church—Philadelphia—is in existence at the end of the age when there will be a time of trial upon the whole world. But there’s a problem. Where the evidence clearly shows a progression down through time, not all pieces of the puzzle appear to fit. So what might we be missing?
Eminent scholars are unable to connect the dots of the Christian church through all seven of the Churches of Asia Minor. Why?
We earlier referred to the introduction of this mysterious book in Revelation 1:1:
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).
The next few chapters give further clarification:
Chapter 4: Gives us the source of the message—God the Father on His throne.
Chapter 5: The message is found on a scroll with seven seals that
only the Lamb of God can open.
So we have the source and the one who reveals the message. But what about the servants of God that the message was to go to? That’s found in chapters 2 and 3.
Chapters 2–3: The servants of God down through the ages.
Now, why is this knowledge so little understood? The answer can be discerned from two other chapters in the book. Chapter 12 describes the Church of God as a small persecuted Church that had to flee from the large metropolitan cities of the Roman Empire through much of the last 2,000 years. Because this chapter begins with the physical nation of Israel, some assume it has nothing to do with the Church, but that it refers to the Church is clearly seen from the progression of the chapter from the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ all the way to the end.
We learn from verse 9 that Satan the Devil deceives the whole world. How can that be if the largest religion in the world is professing Christianity? We then learn that Satan will try once again to knock God off His throne, but he’ll be cast back down to this earth where he immediately goes out to destroy and to persecute the Church.
“Now when the dragon saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child” (Revelation 12:13).
The woman, that is the Church, must then flee into the wilderness to be protected from the serpent who tries to destroy her, but not all members flee.
“So the serpent spewed water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away by the flood. But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the flood which the dragon had spewed out of his mouth” (Revelation 12:15–16).
Notice carefully. This is not talking about physical Israel, but to true believers in Jesus the Messiah.
“And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17).
Chapters 2, 3, and 12 refer to the true Church of God, but chapter 17 speaks of another woman, a fallen woman—an apostate church. Some think they know who that is. She is called a mother of apostate women. Here it is in Revelation 17:5:
And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH (Revelation 17:5).
Now here is one of the most important questions you’ll ever be asked: If you can identify the “Mother of Harlots,” who are those harlot daughter churches? The reason so few can match the progress of the Church as shown in the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia is that they are looking for the Church in the wrong place.
But if one looks at the right place, there is a serious message for us. While the sixth era of the Church zealously proclaims the true gospel around the world and warns the world where it is headed, the very last era is marked by a lukewarm spirit, thinking they are okay. As a result, Christ will spew them out of His mouth into the great tribulation to wake them up. Now, I’ll leave you with one last question. Which attitude best describes you, my dear friends? Think about it.
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God’s Church has endured through the ages. It is a “little flock” (Luke 12:32), but God has always remained true to His promise that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
In this revealing booklet, you will find a brief account of the fascinating history of the true Church of God.