It is not possible in the compass of two articles to attempt a detailed study of the letters to the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3. These articles set out rather to sketch, in brief, the main features of the letters.
Chapters 2 and 3 of the Revelation provide us with a unique (and altogether invaluable) insight into our Lord’s interests and concerns today. The section pulls back the curtain, as it were, on the other world and informs us about those matters which are of direct concern to the Lord in His relationship to His churches. What an immense blessing and privilege it is to learn from the Lord Himself of those issues which He considers important. May He give us ears to hear and intelligence to understand!
The context. The apostle John has been exiled on the island of Patmos on account of his loyalty to God’s word and his witness to Jesus. There, ‘in the Spirit’, he sees the Lord Jesus as the glorified Judge ‘in the midst’ of ‘the seven golden lampstands’, Rev. 1. 9-16. In the past, John has seen the Lord ‘in the midst’ of two malefactors, John 19. 18; in the future, he would see Him ‘in the midst’ of the central throne of the universe, Rev. 7. 17; but in the present, he sees Him ‘in the midst’ of the churches.
The Lord is active; He is not ‘standing’ (cntr. 5. 6) but ‘walking’, 2. 1. John tells us that, when ‘in the world’, Jesus had ‘walked’ before men, John 1. 10, 36; that one day He will ‘walk’ with His saints in glory, Rev. 3. 4; and that now He ‘walks’ in the midst of His churches. Yes, He is walking there today!
Lampstands. The seven churches are symbolized as ‘seven golden lampstands’, 1. 12, 20; 2. 1 (lit.). What is the symbol of a ‘lampstand’ intended to convey?
The Bible consistently distinguishes a ‘lampstand’ from a ‘lamp’; see, for example, Exod. 25. 3 1, 37; Zech. 4. 2; Luke 8. 16; 11. 33. In each of these cases, the Greek Bible uses the same word for ‘lampstand’ as John does. We must not confuse the two items; the function of a ‘lampstand’ is simply to hold up the ‘lamp’ that its light may be clearly seen. The churches are portrayed as ‘lampstands’ and not as ‘lamps’; indeed, in the book of the Revelation, the only ‘lamp’ mentioned is that of the Lord Himself, 21. 23. (The word in chapter 4 verse 5 is different and signifies ‘torches’, as in John 18. 3.)
The purpose and God-given function of the local church is to lift up and elevate Christ in its community and let His light radiate out. The ‘light’ of the gospel of His glory streaming out to people around when we preach, not ourselves, but Him as Lord, 2 Cor. 4. 4-5.
Golden lampstands. What do we learn from the fact that the ‘lampstands’ are ‘golden’? The fact that they are made of the most valuable metal known at the time (cf. 21. 18, 21) teaches us the immense and lasting worth which Christ attaches to His churches. They are of tremendous value in His sight. And no wonder – after all, they were purchased at the price of His own blood, Acts 20. 28. Woe therefore to anybody who corrupts so as to destroy such a precious entity, 1 Cor. 3. 1 7.
It is important to note that, although the ‘lampstand’ which symbolized Israel was made simply of gold, Zech. 4. 2, and although the ‘lampstands’ which symbolize Christian churches are made simply of gold, Rev, 1. 12 etc, the ‘lampstand’ of the tabernacle, which served as a type of Christ, was constructed of ‘pure gold’, Exod. 25. 31; 37. 17, 24. Indeed, it was described very graphically as the ‘pure lampstand’, Exod. 31. 8; Lev. 24. 4. How zealously God guards the truth of the purity and sinlessness of His Son! ‘He is pure’, 1 John 3. 3, and ‘in him is no sin’, v. 5.
Seven golden lampstands. What is indicated by the fact that there are ‘seven’ lampstands? First, we note that John did not refer to a single lampstand with several arms or branches. This distinguishes what he saw from both the article of furniture in the tabernacle, Exod. 25. 31-32, and the subject of Zechariah’s vision, Zech. 4. 2. That is, there is only one Christ and there is only one nation of Israel but there are many separate local churches.
The so-called Arch of Titus in Rome depicts soldiers carrying in a triumphal procession the sacred Menorah – the seven-branched lampstand taken from Herod’s temple consequent on the fall of Jerusalem in AD70. When John wrote the book of the Revelation, that lampstand (which was a fitting symbol of Israel’s role as the upholder of the lamp of divine witness in the world) lay extinguished in the Temple of Peace in Rome. That glorious role now belonged to local Christian churches.
Although each of the churches had a common role and function, each was entirely separate and independent. Although each was committed to hear and obey the same teaching, 2. 7, 11, 17 etc, each was directly accountable to the Lord only.
Several of the churches of chapters 2 and 3 were located quite closely to each other and communication by road was good between them all. Some of the churches were spiritually weak whereas others were relatively strong. Yet on no occasion was any church instructed by the Risen Lord to interfere in the affairs of another. The churches were each responsible and answerable to Him, and to Him alone.
Second, we note the frequency of the numeral ‘seven’ in the book of Revelation; it occurs over 50 times. And there are other (less obvious) ‘sevens’ woven into the fabric of the book; for example, there are seven beatitudes – spanning from 1. 3 to 22. 14. No doubt ‘seven’ conveys in itself the idea of completeness.
There were certainly many more than seven churches in proconsular Asia; the churches at Colosse, Hierapolis and Troas are three welUknown examples. We can be sure that the choice of the seven which are mentioned by John was not random or haphazard. But what considerations governed the choice?
It is a fact that the seven were located on a loop road which circled the interior of the province. This road was the common post route; an inscription of BC 50 at Miletus lists the names of eight Asian cities, including Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos and Sardis in that order. John knew that a book addressed to the seven churches listed could be circulated easily and that these seven churches could disseminate its truth to other churches situated off the main post route. It was, for instance, only 6 miles from Laodicea to Hierapolis and 11 miles to Colosse.
Surely, however, the main reason that these seven were selected must lie at a deeper level. Far more important than the physical situation of the churches was their spiritual situation. They represent a very wide spectrum of spiritual experience – of differing strengths and weaknesses, of differing problems and pressures. Undoubtedly, the Lord chose these particular seven for inclusion because He knew what John could not have known; namely, that His messages to them would be of continuing relevance to all local churches down through the centuries. That is, the seven churches we meet in Revelation 2 and 3 are singled out because the lessons to be learnt from the letters to them are of timeless and universal value. Note the Lord’s word to each of them, ‘He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’; what He says to one, He says to all!
The Lord’s letters to the seven churches do not all conform rigidly to the same structure; for example, not all include words of commendation and praise (see those to Sardis and Laodicea) and not all include words of censure and blame (see those to Smyrna and Philadelphia). Nevertheless, the letters generally follow a common format, to which there are seven components. These are; (i) the church addressed; (ii) the character of Christ (mostly drawn from the vision of chapter 1); (iii) the circumstances of the church (introduced invariably by the expression ‘I know’ and usually taking the form of a commendation); (iv) the criticism levelled; (v) the counsel given; (vi) the call for attention (‘let him hear’); and (vii) the compensation promised (’to him that overcometh’).
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