The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The Book of Revelation is unlike any other New Testament book, yet it has a resonance with other biblical material especially that in the Old Testament. Curiously though, there are no direct Old Testament quotations found in this book. So our interpretation of the letters to the seven churches will be assisted if we understand the sort of text we are dealing with. In other words what is the genre of this book?
Genre and authorship
Most New Testament scholars think that Revelation does not have one genre, but several. The book describes itself as a ‘Revelation’ or ‘apocalypse’, which means ‘unveiling’, Rev. 1. 1, and a ‘prophecy’, Rev. 1. 3; 22. 7, 10, 18-19. But it also bears all the hallmarks of a New Testament letter such as those written for example by the apostle Paul. The typical formula of a Greco-Roman letter being observed in the opening salutation of chapter 1 verse 4, where the writer is identified, John, as well as the recipients, the seven churches in Asia, and a greeting, the word ‘grace’ being substituted here for the word ‘greeting’. The book also ends with a benediction, Rev. 22. 21, again typical of the closing formula of many Pauline letters.1 BAUCKHAM concludes that2, that the Revelation, ‘Draws on the imagery and language of the Old Testament’ and seems to be an apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a circular letter to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia.3
Authorship of this book has traditionally been ascribed to the apostle John, but modern scholars have rejected this on both linguistic and historic grounds. The writer calls himself ‘John’ on four occasions in the book, Rev. 1. 1, 4, 9; 22. 8, but never clearly identifies himself4 or claims apostolic authority. Could John’s silence be accounted for by the fact that his identity was so well known to his readers and unlike Paul his apostolic credentials were never impugned? For my part I think there is sufficient textual evidence to happily accept the traditional view that the book was written by the apostle John and is more than tenable.5 What John does tell us is that when he received the contents of this book he was on the Isle of Patmos, in punitive exile on account of his witness to the word of God, Rev 1.19.6 It is here that he is enveloped by the Spirit of God and sees a vision of the risen Christ and the future. He is instructed to write down and communicate the vision to seven churches in Asia, Rev.1. 19.7
Geographical and historical background
John sees Christ standing in the midst of seven lamp stands, Rev. 1. 13. The question has often been asked as to why these seven churches were specifically chosen to receive this letter? Geographically, all seven churches were located on a main Roman highway and formed a circular route starting at Ephesus. SWEET suggests that from these centres the whole province could be covered and as such they were perhaps an already recognized group and the details of each local situation added up to a unified message for all the churches, which the seven symbolize.8 Other churches existed in Asia at the time but clearly these seven churches were chosen to be representative of the entire church. More importantly as WALVOORD9 points out the selection of the churches was also governed by the fact that each church was in some way normative and illustrated a variety of conditions common in local churches at that time as well as throughout later history.
The messages to these seven churches have therefore been interpreted throughout history in a variety of ways. They can be viewed:
- Historically as seven churches existing at the time in pro-consular Asia with specific local issues needing to be addressed;
- Morally as representing the state of any local church at any given time in history;
- Prophetically as depicting the spiritual development and failure of the visible church from the reign of the Emperor Domitian to the end of the dispensation.
The dating of the book
The Book of Revelation was written sometime during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian. Although he officially reigned from AD 81 to AD 96, Domitian was reputedly also Caesar during the reign of his brother Titus who had destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. Recently a number of New Testament scholars have tried to paint Domitian in a more favourable light, but most historians depict him to be a maniacal tyrant whose reign was noted for open hostility and persecution of Christians.10 Because the Christian communities in Asia Minor lived under Roman law they became subject to the cult of emperor worship. Domitian demanded that his subjects should recognize him as a living god which immediately put him on a collision course with Christians whose allegiance was to Christ alone.11 The idea that incense should be offered in praise of Domitian and that Christians should conform to social practices such as eating meat that had been offered to idols was anathema to them.12 Jews outside of Palestine, however, enjoyed exemption from this worship and whilst Christians initially were regarded as a branch of Judaism, they were covered by this exemption. Once this presumed relationship was broken following the Jewish Wars of AD 66 to 70, their legal position was highly precarious and they became the objects of state scrutiny. They were then, for all intents and purposes, subjected to persecution from both the Roman State and from Judaism.
Judaism viewed Christianity as heretical and sought to exclude Christians from their synagogues. Thus, whilst the book of Revelation as a whole is an eschatological unveiling of the final triumph of God in Christ, it nonetheless reflects both the political and social atmosphere of the time.13 The Christian response to these aspects of political and social life is fully explored in the letters to the seven churches. We should also bear in mind, as TATFORD points out, that whilst the letters had a local and direct application to the churches to which they were addressed, they are also an example and pattern of the whole church. Whatever the circumstances at any day or in any generation, there is a parallel in these two chapters.14
To be continued .
- Compare for example 1 Corinthians 16. 23 with Revelation 22. 21 which is almost identical.
- Revelation 3. 7 for instance reflects the substance of Isaiah 22. 22 but it is not a direct quotation.
- RICHARD BAUCKHAM, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (CUP,1993).
- The writer does describe himself as a servant, a brother and a prophet but leaves us to guess the rest!
- Per CARSON/MOO there is no reason to think that the same person could not have written both John’s Gospel and Revelation. Indeed, in their view, there is much evidence suggesting commonality of authorship, for example the description in both books of Jesus as ‘Word’ (John 1. 1; Rev. 19. 13) or ‘lamb’ (John 1. 29; Rev. 5. 6) and a love of antithesis (darkness-light, truth-falsehood) and many others (An Introduction to the New Testament by D. A. CARSON and DOUGLAS J. MOO: Apollos (second edition 2005) pp 703/704).
- DAVID AUNE (Revelation: Word Biblical Commentary: Wood Books: Dallas, 1997) states that the use of similar phrases in 6. 9; 20. 4, in explicit connection with martyrdom suggests that John’s presence on Patmos was the result of a capital penalty inflicted on him by the Roman authorities. In Roman law poena capitalis (capital punishment) denoted not only the death penalty but also loss of caput, i. e, citizenship or liberty (A. BERGER, Roman Law, 634).
- Some think this text ‘summarize roughly the contents of this Book’, into three parts (R H CHARLES: The Revelation of St. John, Vol 1, ICC: T&T Clark: 1950) p. 33. What John saw was the risen Christ, what then existed was the seven churches of Asia, and what was to take place after these things was revealed from chapter 4 onwards. The latter being an eschatological expression taken from Daniel 2. 28-29, 45. BEALE devotes nineteen pages to a review of this theory and concludes, ’that each of the three object clauses in v19 refers equally to the entire book’ (The Book of Revelation, NIGTC)
- Revelation by J. P. M. SWEET (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1979)
- The Revelation of Jesus Christ by John F. WALVOORD (Moody Press, 1966).
- With Domitian the rule of ‘bad’ emperors returned, and a second reign of terror, more serious than Tiberius’s began (The New Testament Background, Edited by C. K. BARRETT, SPCK, London,1996).
- Clement of Alexandria states that it was during the reign of Domitian that the apostle John was banished to Patmos and only returned in the year that Domitian died.
- SWEET, Op cit, p. 29, states that under Domitian informers were encouraged to identify Christians and those who refused to recant were executed.
- SWEET, Op cit, p. 31, points out that the ordinary provincial lived in an atmosphere permeated by the symbols of the old fertility cults and of the deified state and emperor, which were propagated by the temples and public buildings, by the law courts, by the theatres and gladiatorial games, above all by the coinage.
- Prophecy’s Last Word – An Exposition of Revelation by Fredk. A. TATFORD (Pickering and Inglis Ltd: London: 1974) p34.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.