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.