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.


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
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    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 says try topanswers.xyz 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

I translate from Fr. Castellani's book, in which he takes the seven-churches-as-seven-ages-of-the-Church approach:

Our interpretation is based on:

  1. the fact that the epistles to the seven 'angels' are under the general title of 'Prophecies' or 'Revelation';

  2. the fact that seven simple 'pastoral letters' would be ridiculous after the solemn vision of Christ the King;

  3. the authority of St Augustine, who says that in the Apokalypsis 'totum tempus Ecclesiae complectitur';

  4. the fact that many Holy Fathers believe these messages to be directed to all Churches: 'per septem accipiamus universas', as Anselm of Laon (12th century), which is much more reasonable to understand in the sense of 'all in time' and not 'all in space during the 1st century', many of them now extinct. Otherwise the messages would be of little use to us now.

Besides this, we are in the company of the noted Glossa of the ancient Fathers, of Albert Magnus, the Mediaevals, Abbot Joachim, Nicholas of Lyra, Bruno d'Asti, Holzhauser, Billot, Eyzaguirre, among others.

(Castellani, El Apokalypsis de San Juan, Vórtice 2005, Buenos Aires. ISBN 987-9222-22-9)

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The answer to this question will touch many believers in ways that they do not want to ever think about. In ways that will challenge their theology and even their core doctrines (which are all man-made by the way and should never be deemed to be 'unquestionable'). With that in mind, I pray this is not received as an attack against any individual or church group.

To start, the letters most likely did have specific intent and meaning to be directed at those specific churches which existed at the end of the first century. However, Revelation was given to ALL churches and ALL believers as the ONLY prophecy book for the Church Age. With the prophecies to the Jewish people now on hold until after the Church Age is concluded, Revelation is necessary and I would argue REQUIRED of God to present to us (Amos 3:7). With Revelation divided into sections we can see that Amillennialists will primarily agree that almost ALL of Rev. was completed BEFORE it was written, but that would mean there is no prophecy for the Church Age and that would make God a liar, so, I am going out on a limb and declaring that way of thinking to be a False teaching. That leaves Premillennialists. The majority of these will insist that the entirety (at least from ch.4 on) of Rev. is reserved for AFTER the Church Age is completed, thus leaving ONLY the 7 letters as actual prophecy for the Church Age.

Rev 1:1 says this prophecy was given by Jesus and that these things "must SHORTLY come to pass" or 'from this time onward'.

Rev 1:4 mentions "seven spirits which are before his throne". (Rev 5:6 - They are sent from God out into the whole earth) Something I stumbled across in Gen 21:25-32 talks about Abraham making a covenant with Abimelech after a dispute over a well. Abimelechs servants are described as "violently taking AWAY the well". (How do you take away a well?) Anyway, Abraham GAVE 7 of his Sheep and oxen to Abimelech even though Abraham was the victim (?), and entered into a covenant with him. Now, the 7 sheep were "sent off by themselves" so that "they may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well". The parallels with Jesus are astounding including the fact that Jesus began His ministry at a well and speaking to a Non-Jew.

Rev 1:6 says that Jesus (at this point) has been given "GLORY" and "DOMINION". Subsequent chapters show that Jesus is given more and more of these "special honors" until the end when ALL the honors are bestowed. This suggests that these honors are increasing at various points along the prophetic time line. This also helps us to apply those situations and surrounding events to the proper corresponding visions and likewise will tell us if we are applying a vision to the WRONG prophetic event on that time line. For example, Rev 5:12 describes ALL the honors(of which there are 7) that Jesus is "worthy" to receive, but it is clear that He has NOT yet received them at this point. Vs 13 says He has received at this time only 4 of those 7. Riches, Wisdom, and Strength have yet to be given.

Rev 1:12 mentions 7 golden candlesticks (Rev 1:20 - the 7 churches). Candlesticks or lamps are used to "HOLD the LIGHT" = The word of truth/ the gospel message. This idea can be also applied to us as individuals.

Rev. 1:16 says He has 7 stars in His right hand (the angels/messengers of the 7 churches - Rev. 1:20)and a sharp two edged sword coming out of His mouth (the Word).

Rev 1:18 specifies to John what he must do... "write the things he has seen, the things which are, and the things which will be hereafter".

To the letters we see both good and bad things said about the first 5 including warnings for NOT repenting or changing their ways and rewards for doing what is right. It is not until the 4th (Thyatira) that obvious parallels with the dominant church of the Middle Ages - Catholicism - arise to give a basis to proceed forward and backward from. We are told the later works are actually greater than at first which is something good and can be seen in the world that the Catholic church is indeed doing great and wonderful acts of giving. However, the bad seems to be far worse than all the others as forms of idolatry are prevalent and even promoted. Rev 2:22 says those who do not repent WILL be cast into great tribulation even to the point of killing them for the reason of showing all "believers" that He will judge them according to their works (see Ch. 17). Then vs 26 states that those who "overcome" will have power over the nations although being ruled over with a "rod of iron" (no tolerance for evil). This is a reference to the 1000 years and so I conclude that, just like in the other churches, some may be "snatched/raptured" while others are left-behind. This is also the first time that the phrase about "having an ear" is at the END of individual prophecy. I believe this portrays the first three churches to be essentially phased out of existence by the time the tribulation begins.

Sardis then can rightly be appointed to the "reformed" churches which may even be implicated as "daughters" of the mother church (Catholicism). The message depicts a dying church with fewer and fewer people that "have not defiled their garments". Rev 3:5 mentions the reward of a white garment AND not being blotted out of the book of life AND Jesus will even confess their name before God and his angels. (The 5th seal mentions impatient souls in heaven waiting for something but then are given white robes and told to wait a little while longer).

The final two churches depict the raptured and the left-behind believers (the FINAL living Church - body of Christ as a whole when the rapture occurs). The first (Philadelphia) has nothing bad said against it and in fact is promised to be "kept from the hour of temptation" and even made a permanent part of the temple in heaven. The second has NOTHING good said about it, except that they still have a chance to repent and then also "go into" the 1000 year reign (have access to the throne to sup with him)

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  • "With Revelation divided into sections we can see that Amillennialists will primarily agree that almost ALL of Rev. was completed BEFORE it was written," Are you mistaking Preterism for Amillennialism? – curiousdannii Feb 28 at 13:48
  • Yes, because they are essentially the same. Maybe you can provide the difference? Rev was written around 90ad and Preterists (Amilllennialists) believe it is merely a historical account of what has all ready happened... right? – John Hohl Feb 28 at 22:21
  • Amillenialists do not at all believe it happened before it was written. They think it is happening now and in all time periods. – curiousdannii Feb 28 at 23:17
  • What I am saying is that nearly all of it (in the minds of the majority who hold this position) has all ready been fulfilled and all that is left to be fulfilled is from chapter 19 on. Sure, there ever increasing new versions, but they are all founded on the false premise that the 1000 years refers to multiples or a unspecified number of "thousands" of years. The specific word is a singular and whenever it is used in this context, it is ONLY 1. Whereas, there is a specific plural word that is used whenever something is MORE than one. No logical person should accept it as more than one. – John Hohl Mar 2 at 18:28
  • That is preterism, not amillenialism. – curiousdannii Mar 2 at 21:28

Just a really quick answer here Jaz as I am short on time, but while researching came across this and noticed a lack.

You can readily see this is a prophetic not a literal message when you read the letter to Smyrna. 10 days of persecution (Rev 2:10).

This, from an historicist interpretation and using the biblical day for a year symbology, is the Diocletian persecution from A.D. 303 to A.D. 313.

Naturally this persecution occurred in all the churches, not only Smyrna. A quick read of the text and a little thought makes it pretty clear :-)

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  • I have yet to encounter a single sentence in scripture where a "quick read of the text and a little thought" is all it takes, especially a prophetic book! "For every complex problem there is a simple solution. It is wrong, but it's simple!" :o) Can you please provide a Wikipedia page or something about the Diocletian persecution and how it fits in? We're looking for longer posts with references (sources). Thanks and welcome to the site. – Ruminator Jan 17 '19 at 19:22
  • Google Fu "Diocletian persecution" gave the answer instantly. The dates are as given. This is not an in depth question requiring the in depth study you suggest. "Were they meant to describe successive church ages" is answered by the introduction (Rev 1:3) identifying the text to follow as prophecy & the text for Smyrna uses prophetic time identical to Daniel's prophecy. This gives little room for an alternative view. @user2223's perspective notwithstanding, this is the simple reading. It is a prophetic book using prophetic language talking of the future (even though it often uses past tense) – Ian Macintosh Jan 17 '19 at 23:23
  • Just trying to help you be successful around here Ian. Sources are a requirement. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour – Ruminator Jan 17 '19 at 23:28
  • Perfect. However, there is a tiny "edit" button at the bottom of the post which will allow you to put your links in the post itself rather than the comments. (Comment get deleted, overlooked, etc.). Again, very happy to have you here. – Ruminator Jan 17 '19 at 23:42

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: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/4511/… or you can find a good intro here: amazon.com/Bible-Matrix-Introduction-Scriptures-ebook/dp/… – Mike Bull May 8 '13 at 3:24
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    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
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    @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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