The Letters of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor

An Introduction to Revelation Chapters 2-3 Part 2

We thought mainly in the first article about the political and social background to these letters. We now look at their structure and other common traits.

The pattern of the letters
To describe these short messages as letters is probably misleading. MICHAELS states that all seven letters have a common form and structure and therefore appear to be similar to the prophetic oracles that are found in Amos chapters 1-2. Each message presents a different context but is seen in the light of a broader canvas. They are not just concerned with the worldwide tyranny of Rome but more broadly with the world conflict of God for His whole creation. Thus, what is of local concern in Asia is set against the backdrop of the relentless conflict between good and evil in the world, and the final triumph of God through Christ.

The common structure of these messages appears to be as follows:

  1. An aspect of the character of Christ drawn from the first chapter of the book which is appropriate to the spiritual condition of the church at the time;
  2. A word of commendation from Christ;
  3. A word of complaint from Christ;
  4. A word of caution from Christ;
  5. A word of challenge from Christ.

The only exceptions are in the message to Philadelphia where no aspect of Christ’s character is drawn from chapter 1 and in the messages to Smyrna and Philadelphia where the word of complaint is absent on account, most probably, that these churches were being severely tested. Also commendation is absent from Sardis and Laodacia.

The first three chapters of Revelation are closely connected with each other. The Person of Christ is seen in chapter 1 to be draped in garments of glory and beauty. Each part of His character is reinvested in the messages that He sends to these seven churches. The observant reader will notice that they are in the reverse order of the presentation of them in chapter 1. This correlation is seen as follows:

Chapter Re-investment
Rev. 1. 13.
Rev. 1. 16. EphesusRev. 2. 1.
Rev. 1. 8.
Rev. 1. 11. SmyrnaRev. 2. 8.
Rev. 1. 17.
Rev. 1. 18.
Rev. 1. 16. Pergamos Rev. 2. 12.
Rev. 1. 14-15.ThyatiraRev. 2. 18.
Rev. 1. 5. Sardis Rev. 3. 1.
Rev. 1. 16.
The message to the
church at Philadelphia uses
the text of Isaiah 22. 22 Philadelphia Rev. 3. 7.
Rev. 1. 5.Laodicea Rev. 3. 14.

Other common features
All seven messages are addressed to the angel of the church in the specific location without further qualification. According to John’s vision of Revelation chapter 1 verses 16 to 20, the angels equate to seven stars, which are held in Christ’s right hand. Who or what was the ‘angel’ can only be conjectured. The Greek word for ‘angel’ more often than not signifies a messenger or an intermediary, cf. Gal. 3. 19. A number of solutions have been offered including a delegate, an overseer or ruler, or even a guardian angel. This latter solution may of course fit in with the Old Testament background to the Book of Revelation in that angels were specifically allocated to nations and peoples, compare that of Michael and his stewardship of Israel in Daniel 12 verse 1. WALVOORD takes the view that these were in fact human messengers and that the angels were probably the corporate leadership of these churches through whom the message was to be delivered to the congregation. None of these solutions seems particularly convincing and in my view the most likely meaning is that the angel is indicative of the corporate or prevailing spirit of the church. In other words the angels are personifications of the churches.

Two other features of all the messages are the use of a common invitation to listen to what the Spirit has to communicate and the concept of the overcomer or conqueror.

The source of the formula ‘He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith’ is related to the Old Testament and especially the prophetic writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. It is also used by the Lord Jesus in His parabolic ministry to enlighten those who were genuinely seeking, and also to blind those who refused to listen to His pleadings. As BEALE points out the hearing formula is rooted ultimately in Isaiah 6 verses 9 to 10 and is used in the messages to the seven churches in the midst of an idolatrous atmosphere in order to warn them not to become identified with idols.

The identification of the overcomer or conqueror has again given rise to a great deal of speculation. The use of the term ‘conqueror’ in Revelation is drawn from the imagery of the soldier and involves the possibility of death to achieve the objective. The perseverance of the genuine believer is being emphasized as well as the potential that each one has to overcome evil and be faithful to Christ. SWEET, commenting in the context of the message to the church at Ephesus, states that a man is constituted conqueror (present participle of continuous action) by his continuing attitude and behaviour, rather than by circumstances of his physical death – though the coming crisis will demand faithfulness unto death, 2. 10. The believer who rises to this challenge is singularly and appropriately rewarded by the risen Christ.

What is again of interest to note is the extent to which the Old Testament imagery is used to describe potential rewards:

Ephesus Rev. 2. 7
Eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God
This takes us back to Genesis chapters 2-3. Now man is restored in Christ to fellowship with God.

Smyrna Rev. 2. 11
Not be hurt of the second death
The second death was the rabbinical term for spiritual death.
Here is the reversal of the curse pronounced upon man in Genesis 3. 3.

Peragamos Rev. 2. 17
Eat of the hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written inside.
The idea of hidden manna is linked with the ark of the covenant in Exodus 16. 32-34. Feeding upon the bread of heaven now and for evermore. The white stone may be a reference to the Urim in Exodus 28. 30.

Thyratira Rev. 2. 26-27
Authority over the nations, ruling them with a rod of iron; and breaking them like pieces of pottery.
Here the imagery is the reign of Messiah in Psalm 2 and those who will be, share in His rule and sovereignty.

Sardis Rev. 3. 5.
Dressed in white raiment and name not blotted out of the book of life. Name confessed before the Father, and before His angels.
The idea of a divine account of souls is first mentioned in Exodus 32. 32-33. The confession of the conqueror’s name is linked to the words of Christ in Matthew 10. 32.

Philadelphia Rev. 3. 12
Pillars in the temple of God, never to leave again. ‘I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name’.
These images remind us of the two pillars in Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 7. 21 and, the golden plate worn by Aaron with the inscription, ‘Holiness unto the Lord’. Here the conqueror finds stability, security and citizenship in the new and heavenly city of God.

Laodicea Rev. 3. 21
‘I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne’.
This imagery is modelled upon Daniel 7. 18, 27 and Psalm 110. 1

Over the centuries more attention has been paid to Revelation chapters 2 and 3 than any other part of this remarkable book. It is perhaps because we are so familiar with these passages that they often lose their power to grip us and challenge our status quo. As WITHERINGTON has well said, ‘One of the things that one can do with the materials in Revelation 2-3 is to reflect on the sort of problems that arise when a church has been in existence for a good period of time. How does one deal with complacency, lack of zeal, self-centred behaviour, and, most of all, too much accommodation to the secular culture outside of the church?’ May these studies in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 challenge us again to look at our churches and hear the Saviour’s voice calling us to identify with Him in a day of declension and defection from the faith.


Your Basket

Your Basket Is Empty