The Apocalyptic Letters - Introduction

E W Rogers, Oxford

Part 1 of 8 of the series The Apocalyptic Letters

Revelation 2-3

There are three ways in which these letters, recorded in Revelation 2 and 3, may be considered: (i) as written to seven actual churches existing in John’s day and representative of the general condition of that day; (ii) as having a message for God’s people throughout the whole Christian era, no matter where they are found; and (iii) as delineating the successive stages in the history of Christendom from apostolic times to our present day.

Some dissent as to (iii) because the churches of John’s time could never have understood the letters in that way and, indeed, were not intended to do so. But the remarkable agreement between this foreshadowing and the later history is too plain to be ignored. Moreover, such a foreshadowing in Scripture is not new. Did the children of Israel understand the prophetic meaning of their sundry feasts recorded in Leviticus 23? Were they intended to do so? Yet looking back from our present day we can now understand their typical and prophetic significance. In this series we shall make reference to points in the letters which coincide with the later history. Plainly John’s contemporaries knew nothing of this later history, but the passage of time sheds light on God’s Word everywhere.

If, as we believe, chapters 2 and 3 recorded the “things which are”, Rev. 1. 19, it is reasonable to regard them as setting out the present age from its inception to its consummation - the whole era in all its facets. Much is lost if the interpretation of these letters is limited to the conditions of the times in which they were written. The conditions recorded in the seven letters may be traced throughout the two millenniums since Pentecost. Similarly, the general decline from pristine brightness to Christless profession may be traced historically throughout the age.

The seven letters have a general similar pattern. Each is written to the “angel” of the church. Although the word “angel” may be rendered “messenger”, it is not clear how a messenger from Patmos to the respective cities could be blamed for existing conditions. And it is the “angel” who is blamed. These “angels” are symbolized by “seven stars” and stars are guides; for example, the “star in the east” led to the Saviour. Jude, conversely, speaks of “wandering stars”. As the local church is symbolized by a lampstand denoting a plurality of persons, so we suggest that the “stars” symbolise the “angels” or a plurality of persons which constitute the responsible guiding element in the church. It would be contrary to the tenor of the New Testament to regard the “angel” as the Minister or the Pastor. The Scriptures recognise no such thing as one man entrusted with the care of a church; it is always a plurality who share that responsibility; see Acts 20. 28; Phil. 1. 1.

They are sent to “the church in” such and such a place. This is so in every case (see the Revised Version). They were congregations of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, administratively independent of each other. Not one is given the task of rectifying another; each is directly responsible to the Author of the letter. It is not one lampstand with a multiplicity of branches, but seven distinct lampstands (not candlesticks which are self-consuming, but lampstands dependent on exterior material to be the source of light) not federated together. They are golden lampstands, that is, they are a divine testimony set in the midst of surrounding darkness.

The manner in which the Lord is described at the beginning of each letter is specially suitable to the state concerned; this we shall see as we proceed. “I know” occurs in each letter, the verb being cognate with “I see”. In all but two there are complaints, the exceptions being the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia. In each there is a promise to the “overcomer”.

The overcomer does not denote a specially pious kind of Christian but every genuine believer. It is a question of what is genuine. It is a mistake to suppose that everyone associated with the early or modern churches is real. The genuineness of one’s profession is proved by his continuance; see Col. 1. 23; Heb. 3. 6. A believer may, like Gad, be overcome, but he overcomes at last. It is not the reverses but the final victory that counts. Only two classes are found in Revelation 21. 7-8; all are in one class or the other.

The promises remind us of Old Testament history: the first takes us back to Eden; the second to the affliction in Egypt; the third to the wilderness and its manna; the fourth to the victories of Joshua; the fifth to the days of the Babylonish captivity and the preserved Israelitish registers; the sixth to the time of the restored remnant and the rebuilding of the temple under Ezra; and lastly the seventh to the days of Malachi and its lukewarmness; see Mal. 1. 10; 3. 14.

The word of Christ to the angel is the voice of the Spirit to the churches: what He says to one He says to all. It is “he that hath an ear” and “to him that overcometh”. We must on no account miss their present lessons in a pre-occupation with their historic or prophetic character.

Historically these letters denote seven moral conditions then existing and found at any time during the present age. Ephesus was a loveless church; Smyrna a persecuted one; Pergamos a worldly one; Thyatira a corrupt church; Sardis a reformed church; Philadelphia an evangelistic church and Laodicea a lukewarm church. We should inquire, what is the kind of church in which I am?

Prophetically these letters set forth the main features of the history of Christendom. Ephesus relates to apostolic times; Smyrna to the subsequent period of severe persecution; Pergamos relates to the times of Constantine when the church was united with the state; Thyatira to the dark middle ages; Sardis speaks of the times of reformation when there was a failure to return to the fountain head of Holy Scripture; Philadelphia to the evangelistic period which followed; Laodicea, it is submitted, plainly depicts our own times when, as to Christendom, Christ is outside.

We have spoken of Christendom, which is to be distinguished from the Church. The former relates to the sphere of Christian profession in which there are real and false; genuine and spurious. The true church embraces only those who are genuine. These letters envisage the presence of others who are far from what followers of Christ should be. As with the kingdom of the heavens, there are here wheat and chaff, wheat and tares, good fish and bad, treasure and leaven, pearl and bird-harbouring tree, wise and foolish virgins, faithful and wicked servants, sheep and goats. It is the sphere of religious profession and the Lord is seen walking in its midst, perceiving everything, judging all, rebuking, warning, promising.

Principles which should govern local church order and purity are not found here. Paul deals with these things in the Corinthian letters and the pastoral Epistles. One cannot be excommunicated from Christendom, though one may be from a local church. On the other hand, every professor (true and false) is inescapably in Christendom.

Laodicea is warned that, unless it repents, the Lord is about to spue it out of His mouth. When the rapture takes place the empty Christless form will have been spued out, those who are the “overcomers”, the genuine believers, having been removed to heaven. It is instructive to note that the Church is nowhere seen again in the book of Revelation until the latter part of chapter 19.

There are 9 articles in
ISSUE (1970, Volume 21 Issue 2)

The Apocalyptic Letters - Introduction

Gospel Work and other Assembly Activities

He Knew

Notes on the Olivet Discourse - Part 3

The Oracle on Gog And Magog - Chapters 38-39

Outline Studies in Hebrews, Chapter 12

Overseership (1)

Priorities in the Assembly - Exodus Chapter 25

The Second Coming of Christ (1)

There are 8 articles in this series

The Apocalyptic Letters - Introduction

Ephesus

Smyrna

Pergamos

Thyatira

Sardis

Philadelphia

Laodicea

There are 90 articles by this author

To Spread the Gospel - the Believer’s Responsibility

Smyrna

Pergamos

Thyatira

Sardis

Philadelphia

Laodicea

The Purpose of God

Paul’s Prayer

What a Change!

The Epistle to the Ephesians

The Mystery

Ministry in the Church

Gathered Threads

Some Practical Lessons

Paul’s Pastoral Epistles - Introduction

1 Timothy 1

1 Timothy 2

1 Timothy 3

1 Timothy 4

1 Timothy 5

1 Timothy 6

2 Timothy 1: ‘Be Courageous’

2 Timothy 2: ‘Be Careful’

2 Timothy 3: ‘Be Constant’

2 Timothy 4: ‘Be Considerate’

Titus 1: God is Faithful

Titus 2: Christian Behaviour and its Effects

Titus 3: The Christian and the State

The Believer’s Responsibility in Regard to the Spread of the Gospel

The Infallible Christ

Will the Church go through the Great Tribulation?

The Man of God out of Judah

Having been Gathered Out

‘For Me to Live is Christ’

Short Papers on Some Fundamental Truths

After all This

The Scriptures of Truth (Part 1)

The Scriptures of Truth (Part 2)

Evidences of New Birth

The Inspiration of Scripture

On the being of God - The Holy Trinity

The Attributes of Divine Persons

Eternal Punishment

Gospel Preaching: the Message, Motive and Method

The Believer’s Responsibility in regard to the Spread of the Gospel. 2 KINGS 7 : 9.

Question: What is the meaning of “being crafty, I caught you with guile”? (2 Cor. 12: 16)

Question: Ought Christians to testify to all whom they meet?

Question: Is it wise to submit to being called “Plymouth Brethren”?

Question: Assembly Ceasing to Exist

Question: Delivering unto Satan

Question: Does the pre-eminence of Christ Guarantee that the Saved will Outnumber the Unsaved?

Question: The Activities of The Holy Spirit in the Eternal State

Question: Is the Devil PERSONALLY able to operate in more than one place at a time?

Question: Are the instructions in James 5. 14 applicable to-day?

Question: What was wrong with the desire of the sons of Eli for roast flesh Instead of boiled flesh?

Question: Does John 14. 6 imply that the unevangelised heathen will be lost?

Question: Conviction of Sin?

Question: Attitude of Young Believers in Assembly

Question: Why did blind Bartimeus address the Lord Jesus as “Jesus, thou Son of David”?

Question: Were the “miracles” of Peter and Paul examples of faith comparable with... Heb. 11?

Question: Ministry before the Breaking of Bread?

Question: Necessary to be Baptised to Break Bread?

Question: Concerning “He that believeth on Me the works that I do shall he do also.”

Question: In what sense have believers been crucified with Christ?

Question: The Publishing of Able Brethren's Addresses to Conventions, etc.?

Question: Why are the Proverbs Neglected as a Basis for Practical Ministry?

Prayer to the Lord Jesus

Sanctification

The Ministry Of Reconciliation 2 Cor. 5. 19-21

Question: Does 1 Cor. 14. 34 apply to all meetings when brethren are present?

Question: How far are we justified in speaking of God as Father when preaching the gospel?

Question: What are we to understand by the “spiritual body” referred to in 1 Cor. 15?

Question: To what does the phrase, “that which is perfect,” refer in 1 Cor. 13?

Question: How is it that many of the laws in the O.T. appear to be quite cruel?

Question: If believers go to be with Christ immediately at death how can they be raised?

Question: What happens to the believer when he dies before the Lord returns?

Question: Sins of the believer at the Judgement Seat of Christ?

Question: Satan disputing with Michael?

Victory And Defeat

Paul’s thorn in the flesh

Evidences of New Birth

Coming Judgements

The Millennium

The Consummation

Our Hope

Events in Heaven with the Saints

Events on Earth

The Apocalyptic Letters - Introduction

Ephesus