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The Book of Revelation self-identifies as a letter to seven churches:

John to the seven churches that are in Asia -v.4

John explains his experience to them as follows:

I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, saying, “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” -v.9-11

One common teaching is that these seven churches are symbolic, and should be interpreted as seven successive "church ages." For example, the Wikipedia article on the subject says the following:

The messages to the seven churches, while being for actual churches, can also be applied to seven distinct ages of the Church.

(The first result from a quick Google search yields a site that actually identifies dates and "spokesmen" for each of these church ages!)

My question here is not so much about the character of each church, or even about whether they do or do not correspond to the character of the Church in various eras since the time of Christ. What I am wondering is whether there is any indication in the text that these letters were meant to describe successive church ages? In other words, was that the authorial intent? I am specifically looking for exegetical support, if it exists.

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

Depends on what you mean by "in the text."

Taking the text at face value, there is nothing. I think the folks who see these letters as a "history" of the church start by assuming that all of Revelation is a prophecy of future events, and so the letters must be a prophecy of what will happen in the church before the rapture.

Some of the problems with this are:

  1. Revelation just doesn't say that's what these letters represent. Many of the people who take these letters to be stages of church history will, in almost any other context, tell you not to spiritualize a passage because, "If the plain sense makes sense, don't add any other sense, lest you wind up with nonsense." (That's the common saying.) But that is exactly what they are doing here! Whether they are winding up with nonsense, I will leave to others to judge, but they are definitely violating their own rules and "spiritualizing" this text when the "plain sense" very much "makes sense."

  2. After a few centuries, "the church" became a truly global body with outposts from Ireland all the way to Beijing. It is just impossible to say that, at any given time, the whole church was everywhere going through the same "phase."

  3. I wish I could remember the reference for this one, but: If you can find a map that shows all of the cities mentioned, you will see that they all lie in a ring (link). This ring was a major Roman road connecting them all. Not only do they lie on that ring, but their order on that ring is exactly the same as the order they are given in the letters. It looks like the idea was: Read it in Ephesus, then send it down the road to Smyrna, then send it down the road to ... Pretty coincidental that the order of the churches on the road was the same as the order of coming church history!

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@warren: Thanks for sprucing up my answer. Is there a link somewhere for how to do that with lists? – user2223 May 7 '13 at 21:00
See the tour and faq pages for tips on formatting, etc. – Jas 3.1 May 7 '13 at 23:29
Thanks Bob. I'm going to accept this for now, since I don't want to forget to accept an answer, but I am still eagerly awaiting the "yes" perspective as well. – Jas 3.1 May 7 '13 at 23:31
@Jas 3.1: Thanks, and understood. I obviously have my convictions (what some people refer to as "biases" -- Can you believe that???) but you should definitely hear all sides to the story. – user2223 May 7 '13 at 23:52
bob you are probably specifically looking for this page on markdown formatting posts here? – Jack Douglas May 8 '13 at 11:33

When all seven letters are compared, there is a distinct shift in the structure of the letters. The identical phrase "he who has an ear let him hear what the spirit says to the churches" is found in all letters. In the first three the phrase is placed before the promise to the overcomer; in the last four the phrase is moved to the end of the letters. Jesus has used the placement of only element which is identical in each letter to allow the person who hears the letter read to recognize there is a shift after the third letter.

Obviously this is an intentional device which when it is continued for the remaining letters establishes 2 groups. A second feature common to the 2 groups is a reference to the return of Jesus Christ. The first 3 lack any mention while it is found in the last 4.

The initial hearers would recognize that Jesus has made a distinction between the first 3 churches and the last 4 and that distinction is connected by His return. Thus there is an immediate prophetic interpretation possible. Over time this understanding would fail since all of the churches would be gone before Jesus returns. However, the connection between the churches and the return is written into the letters. So the interpretation shifts to the church in general.

When seen in the context of all seven letters, there is no other explanation for the Jesus adjusting the internal structure of the letters and making reference to his return other than a prophetic picture into the future. Since history also shows this interpertation does not apply to the local church and does apply to chruch in general, the application of hermenutics leads to the exegisis of the chapters 2-3 to an understanding of the passage that includes more than instruction to the local churches.

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I'm very grateful for your participation here. We're a little different from a forum, so do take the site tour if you haven't already. – Paul Vargas Apr 29 '15 at 4:17

The seven churches are presented as a sort of "decentralized" menora, that is, seven lamps instead of a single seven-branched lampstand. This suggests that we are supposed to take the Church as a new Israel, one whose worship is centred in heaven (on the true Zion) instead of the old one centred on earth (Paul says as much in Galatians 4).

What is more likely is that the seven churches are a retelling of Old Israel's history (following Israel's festal calendar):

Ephesus (the fall) - The Garden of Eden (Sabbath/Day 1)

Smyrna (prison/door) - Joseph and Israel in Egypt (Passover/Day 2)

Pergamum (priests) - Balak, Balaam and the serpent (Firstfruits/Day 3)

Thyatira (kings) - Ahab and Jezebel (Pentecost/Day 4)

Sardis (prophets) - Repent and wake up or be invaded (Trumpets/Day 5 swarms)

Philadelphia (restoration) - An open door (Atonement/Day 6 mediators)

Laodicia (first century Judaism) - False food and riches (Day 7 rest)

Following the seven letters, the rest of the Book of Revelation is an eighth letter, John's "little book." The budding sins which Jesus critiques in the fledgling church are shown to be full grown in the worship in Jerusalem (the harlot and false prophet are Jezebel and Balaam ruling and cursing Jerusalem) and they watch on as she is destroyed.

One can argue that reading the letters as having such content is arbitrary, but they do follow a pattern that is repeated from Genesis to Revelation, and in fact, this pattern is found all through the Revelation, as well as in the structure of the entire book.

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A lot of this was interesting, but all of it was confusing. What is "Sabbath/Day 1"? I thought the 7th day was the Sabbath? What does "Trumpets/Day 5 swarms" mean? How did you come up with this stuff? Or did you read this somewhere? Given how confused I feel after reading this, I'll have to down-vote pending some clarifying edits. (Thanks for the effort, though.) – Jas 3.1 May 8 '13 at 3:14
@Jas3.1 Thanks. The festal calendar in Lev. 23 lists the sabbath first, establishing the weekly feast as the basis of the annual feasts. – Mike Bull May 8 '13 at 3:23
@Jas3.1 The feasts as they are listed also recapitulate the Creation week and the process of dominion. If outlined this on here before:… or you can find a good intro here:… – Mike Bull May 8 '13 at 3:24
Mike, The idea that the earthly tabernacle is a copy of the heavenly one is explicit in scripture. Perhaps you could strengthen your argument with such citations. – Ray May 8 '13 at 12:52
@Mike: I won't argue that you are wrong. Revelation is a hard book and who knows? Maybe you're seeing something that I never have. But "clear as day"??? Sorry, no. I need more argument, less assertion. – user2223 May 8 '13 at 15:16

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