Is the “prophetic view” of Revelation two and three an interpretation or an application?
The conditions described in the seven letters John distributed were actual literal conditions existing in seven specific churches. This is primary in interpreting these letters. On that basis, the letters teach assembly truths either by statement or principles. Unless we have divine authority for doing differently, we look for only one interpretation of a passage. When a New Testament writer cites an Old Testament passage, he invariably treats that passage consistent with its accepted interpretation.
These letters to the seven churches, however, come with divine authority for a second interpretation. First, the command to write the book came from the First and the Last (1:17). That title comes from the Lord’s statements in Isaiah (41:4; 44:6; 48:12) in which He asserts He is the First, who determined His counsels before any creation existed. Only He can communicate His counsels (44:6, 7). He is the Last, who will have the “last word,” completing the counsels He has communicated. When He commands John (Revelation 1:19) to record what he has seen (chapter 1), what is (chapters 2 and 3), and what “shall be hereafter” (chapters 4-22), all three sections communicate His counsels which He will complete. “What is,” therefore, communicates truth about the future.
Second, “these things” in the expression “the things that are about to come after these things” (1:19, YLT) refers back to its nearest antecedent, “the things that are.” When John records “after these things” (4:1 YLT), he indicates that “the things that are” continue right up until the events of chapter 4 which correspond to the Rapture.
Third, the Lord refers to “the mystery of the seven stars” (1:20). A mystery is truth that can only be known by divine revelation (Ephesians 3:3, 5). Grammatically, the mystery is related to what went before it (v. 20). What follows, namely the identification of the stars as angels and the lampstands as churches, is hardly the full unfolding of the mystery.
This leads to the conclusion that a second and equally valid interpretation of the seven letters is the “prophetic view.”
How do we interpret this view?
The Lord presents the seven churches as golden lampstands, precious witnesses of divine truth. Any “prophetic” or mystery interpretation must therefore focus on divine testimony and its preservation until the Rapture.
Second, the conditions affecting the 7 churches to which John sent the Revelation could, in greater or less degree, affect any assembly. In the mystery interpretation, the Lord discloses the predominating influences that will affect divine testimony until the Lord comes.
Third, others have pointed out the interesting parallels between characteristics of the seven churches and those of the judges, kings, and the parables in Matthew 13. This supports the thought that these seven predominant influences will be sequential, a sort of cycle of evil that consistently has challenged divine testimony in various ages. The influences that plagued these seven churches will run their cycle until the Lord comes. They are the very forces that appear in the rest of the Revelation, at their apex under the Man of Sin. What encouragement it gives those involved in divine testimony to see that the Lord will eventually destroy these forces when He comes!
In what ways does this view fit with history?
The mystery view is not a prophecy of secular events. The Lord is unfolding the attack of evil on His golden lampstands. Rather than fixing the dates by secular events, it is likely best to see general periods during which these influences predominated. The effect of these attacks began earlier and lasted longer in some areas. Clearly some of the conditions coexist until the Lord’s return, since the letters to the last four churches particularly point to His coming. “Church history” adds tremendous color to what the Lord discloses, but pressing the details too specifically has led to contradictory and sensational “interpretations.”
Has prophesy been fulfilled in our lifetime?
This is an important and necessary question regarding the mystery view. Old Testament prophecy and New Testament prophecy centers around Israel. Both refer to specific events, times, seasons, persons, and places. New Testament statements fulfilled in this age or in our lifetime are of a different kind. For example, Second Timothy three describes “last time conditions.” These are moral features that will characterize evil throughout this present period, up to the Rapture. That is likewise the character of what the Lord unfolds in Revelation 2 and 3. It may therefore be preferable to refer to this as the mystery view rather than the “prophetic view.”
Distinguishing these two types of forecasts is crucial. We have no authority to state that present events fulfil the specific prophecies that center around Israel. After the Rapture, God will raise up prophets (Joel 2:28) whose ministry will be to identify, for example, events or persons saying, “this is that” (fulfilling specific Scriptures), as Peter did at Pentecost (Acts 2:16). The gift of prophecy is not functioning today. Those who attempt to exercise it have brought the subject of Bible prophecy into public shame.