The Seven Churches: Introduction

A study of the seven letters to the Churches in Asia (Rev 2-3) complements the study of other great Scripture “sevens,” such as the seven Feasts of Jehovah (Lev 23) and the seven Parables of the Kingdom (Mat 13). Within the framework of these collections is a wide range of truth concerning God’s plans for His earthly people, Israel, and also for His people with a heavenly destiny, the Church. We will be the richer for seeking to grasp the essential lessons from these areas of Scripture. Our present study is confined to the first three chapters of the book of the Revelation in which seven local churches were addressed. The instruction we derive from these seven letters is acutely relevant to Christian testimony today, but first we will need to set the scene and consider the background of the letters.

John on Patmos

John is regarded as being the last living apostle, and his final work written at the end of the first century completed the canon of Scripture. His life was a demonstration of the change grace can bring to any life. He was the brother of James, and at first, they were also named “the sons of thunder,” suggesting that they were stormy and vociferous characters (Mar 3:17). John became a tenderhearted disciple of love. He was exiled for a time on Patmos, a barren island in the Aegean Sea. Rather than living in enforced leisure, it is more likely that he spent time in arduous labor in the marble quarries on the island, suffering tribulation for the sake of Christ.

John usually gives us his reasons for writing. In the Gospel of John his intention was to produce faith (Joh 20:31). In his first letter he wanted to give assurance (1Jn 5:13), and in his second and third letters he sought to provoke love (2Jn 5; 3Jn 8). In the Revelation, he was divinely commissioned to “write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter” (Rev 1:19).[1] It is clear from his emphasis on momentous events that still lay ahead (Rev 6 to the end) that John wished not only to encourage faithfulness in the present but also to inspire hope for the future.

The Christ of Revelation

This last book in our Bible is usually regarded as being forbidding and difficult to understand. There are unusual visions and symbols that have been interpreted in many different ways. However, what we should not miss is that the Person of Christ is both the source and subject of the book. He received the revelation from God and transmitted it faithfully to John by His angel. The book is a manifestation of His coming glory.

Christ is introduced to us at the beginning of Revelation in all His royal majesty and judicial power. He bears so many names because there are so many wonderful aspects to His character. Within the first chapter alone we see that Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the first begotten from the dead, the prince of the kings of the earth, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, the first and the last, and the Son of Man. Throughout the book, John often refers to Christ as the Lamb, reminding us that the work of Calvary will never be forgotten. At the end of the book, Christ’s second coming is anticipated and His grace is extolled.

The Churches

In the Revelation, the seven churches were identifiable local companies of true believers, called out of the world and gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. We should note the centrality of Christ – He was walking in the midst of the seven lampstands; the sovereignty of Christ – He alone had authority over the churches; the testimony of each church – they were seen as branched lampstands (not candlesticks) whose function was to shine; the autonomy of each church – they were not federated as a special group or denomination, but each stood alone on its own base; and the responsibility of each church – each was individually assessed and addressed by the Lord.

A pattern will be seen in the order of John’s writing to each church. We might summarize it in a simple threefold way:

Christ’s Authority – He presents Himself to each church in a unique way.

Christ’s Assessment – He commends the good and condemns the bad.

Christ’s Appeal – He warns of judgment and promises blessing.

Asia

It only remains to explain that the geographical area referred to as “Asia” was part of the Roman province of that name, known in history as Asia Minor. It is part of present-day Turkey. On the western side of the province was a circular trade route, and the seven churches were located along it. The writer begins with the church at Ephesus and proceeds to address the others, moving in a clockwise direction. There were other such churches in the general area but perhaps the seven selected ones fully represented the prevailing conditions of that time.

What do we know of the churches of Asia today? There are few physical remains and even less of a spiritual nature. While it is good for us in our service to seek to build for the future, we should also keep in mind the lessons of history. Yes, God is always at work, and Christ continues to build His Church, but there are no guarantees as to the permanence of any specific testimony in any given place. The province of Asia Minor witnessed some of the greatest apostolic endeavors ever known, both in preaching the gospel and teaching the Word of God, and yet today that particular landscape appears spiritually barren.

There are many reasons why local testimonies cease to exist. Some lose their gospel zeal, some lose their moral purity, some lose their doctrinal soundness, and others lose their essential humility and love. We should earnestly endeavor by God’s grace to maintain, strengthen and expand the work of God, all the while remembering it is His work: He blesses wherever He wills and whenever He wills.

Our approach in these brief studies will be to take heed to the conditions as described for each church and draw out practical lessons to help us personally as believers, and to strengthen us corporately in the local Christian assemblies of which we are part. There were no perfect local churches then, as now.

 

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.