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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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  • Exegetical under what sort of hermeneutic?
    – user33515
    Apr 17, 2020 at 16:56
  • @Jas3.1-See recent Answer by Ray Grant concerning exegesis, and misused eisegesis in contemporary religious culture.
    – ray grant
    Jul 2, 2023 at 21:31

9 Answers 9

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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, 2013 at 21:00
  • 1
    See the tour and faq pages for tips on formatting, etc.
    – Jas 3.1
    May 7, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 23:52
  • bob you are probably specifically looking for this page on markdown formatting posts here? May 8, 2013 at 11:33
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Do the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 represent seven separate ages of the whole church?

The text is written regarding seven literal churches, with seven different personalities, in geographical order, as one might travel to them. But some say that the list also represents consecutive ages of the church as a whole. What does an examination of the text tell us?

First, in the message to the church in Thyatira Jesus says [Rev 2:26 KJV] “And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:”. First Corinthians 15:14 talks of “the end” this way: [KJV] “Then [cometh] the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power.” If these are both talking about the same “end”, then Laodecia is not the only church around at the end.

Second, in each of the letters to the seven churches we find: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” This implies that the message in each letter needs to be heard by all local churches, throughout time, and not divided by age.

Third, to each church except Smyrna, Jesus says He will come. To Smyrna, instead, Jesus says [Rev 2:10 KJV] “...be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” So, being dead already, these will not be here when He comes. But consider what he says to the Church in Thyatira: [Rev 2:25 KJV] “But that which ye have [already] hold fast till I come.” And the warning to Sardis: [Rev 3:3 KJV] “... If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” echoing 1 Th 5:2 and 2 Pe 3:10. When Jesus tells us [Jhn 14:3 KJV] “...I will come again,” this refers to a singular event involving all the churches, not separate events in every supposed church age.

So, a careful reading of the text itself precludes seeing these churches as ages, but also we can look at the context given in Revelation 1, where first we see Christ walk simultaneously among all the candlesticks (churches). And second, [Rev 1:20 KJV] “...The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches”: If the seven churches were seven ages, why would seven angels be employed, one retiring (in the middle of the battle) after each age? Since in [Rev 12:7 KJV] “...Michael and his angels fought against the dragon…”, [Dan 12:1 KJV] ...Michael..., the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people:”, wouldn’t it seem more probable that the seven angels of the seven churches serve under Michael simultaneously? In an ongoing spiritual battle would Michael have six angel captains (and those they command) not involved at any given time during the church age?

Beyond the passage itself and its immediate context, other scripture doesn’t fit with seeing these churches as representing ages, for instance: [Mat 24:24 KJV] “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if [it were] possible, they shall deceive the very elect”. This shows that a major end times problem is the one faced by Smyrna and Thyatira, which are the second and fourth churches, not the seventh. Also [Mat 24:12 KJV] “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold”, demonstrates that another issue of the time of the end is that which the church at Ephesus (the first letter) has a problem with: Love.

Laodicea’s problems seem to stem from its wealth: [Rev 3:17 KJV] “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:”. This is a major problem in this country, but not in the majority of congregations around the world. If then, the problems associated with the other six churches of Revelation 2-3 are as (or more ) significant across the globe today as those of Laodicea, then this fallen world also attests to the same thing we find in scripture: The seven Churches of Revelation do not represent seven sequential ages, but rather a summary illustration of problems facing the church in each and every generation until the end.

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    – agarza
    Jul 2, 2023 at 13:55
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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. Apr 29, 2015 at 4:17
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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, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 at 18:28
  • That is preterism, not amillenialism.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 2, 2020 at 21:28
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No Specific Verse There is no specific verse in the first three chapters of Revelation that even gives a hint of progressive stages of Christian Church history. Hermeneutically, exegetically, this should take precedence in interpreting the Messages to the Seven /churches. In reality, the seven churches were in existence, contemporaneously, in Asia Minor (present area of western Turkey). Most of them have been unearthed by archaeologists. The angelic message is directed to them.

Dispensational Scheme The idea of a progressive historical application of these messages is wholly eisegetical! That is, it is a scheme foisted upon the scriptures by expositors with a preconceived plan. It is not the result of exegesis: drawing out meaning from the wording itself. This plan was advocated by Cyrus Scofield in his Scofield Reference Bible, 1919, and has been picked up by his (and J.N. Darby's) disciples in Dispensationalism. And this, IN VIOLATION of their alleged Golden Rule of interpretation: If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense. (See Tim LaHaye, No Fear of the Storm for a quotation of it.)

WikiWiki To those just staring biblical research, and interested in acquiring truth about verses, realize that Wikipedia is not definitive in giving answers on the Bible passages. The articles are "one man's opinion" and they should be balanced out by going to the many biblical commentaries available, lexicons, biblical archaeologies, systematic theologies, and church histories...as well as world history books. Reading world history, exposes many false traditions and religious novel doctrines...as well as affirms many supernatural prophecies given in the Bible! {People are entitled to their opinions, but not their own facts, especially historical facts.}

Prevalent It is said that this "is a common teaching." It should be stated that there have been many divergent doctrines, cultic movements, etc., in church history, and they are "common" to each generation. But just because they are popular, prevalent in culture, or readily available in books, movies, etc. does NOT mean they are truthful! Usually the most vocal teachings in society have their truthfulness taken for granted. But the Bereans in the biblical church were commended "for checking things out." (Acts 17:11) By the way, most mainline churches do not subscribe to the Dispensational overview of the Bible!!

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Real-time Revelation
The main objection to a prophetic interpretation is the fact these were current messages to churches in places with current issues. The letters should be understood in this real-time light.

Obviously this is true, but there are aspects in each letter which are revelation. For example, after each location is addressed Jesus says something about Himself:

Ephesus - holds the seven stars in His right hand
          who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands
Smyrna - the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life
Pergamum - He who has the sharp two-edged sword
Thyatira - the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass
Sardis - He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars
Philadelphia - He who is holy, He who is true, “He who has the key of David
               He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens
Laodicea - the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God

Why do different churches get different revelations of Jesus? If Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever why does each church get a different revelation?

Additionally, if the specific issue in a location was unknown to churches in other locations, the issues are brought to light. More importantly, it is Jesus who reveals whether there are problems or not.

It is easy to overlook the difference between a single message (Chapters 1, 4-22) which goes to seven different churches and seven individual messages (Chapters 2-3) which go to all seven churches. In actuality when the letters are considered during the initial circuit of reading, there is real-time revelation taking place. At any point each church would hear what was written to those who have already heard their letter (past) before hearing the letter addressed to them (present). After which they must hear what is written to those who will come later (future). By itself, this does not justify a prophetic interpretation. I believe it does show there is reason to consider if there is more significance to the letters than addressing a current situation.

The Initial Sequence
Jesus is addressing current situations, but He determines to do so in a particular order. The order Jesus gives can not be divorced from the practical consequences inherent in the instruction to read all of the letters to all of the churches in a certain order.

Here is a map showing the roads and locations of the seven churches:

![![enter image description here

When the letters were first read in the order which Jesus addressed them, they must travel through Sardis and Thyatira to reach Pergamum. Only after the letters were heard in Pergamum would they be read in Thyatira and Sardis (and Philadelphia, and Laodicea).

When they first arrived in Sardis or Thyatira, one might expect reading on arrival. After all there was a specific letter addressed to them. However illogical, Sardis and Thyatira must wait until after Pergamum before hearing what was addressed to them. Oddly, Pergamum will hear what was written to the churches in Thyatira and Sardis before they do despite the reality all letters traveled through Sardis and Thyatira to reach Pergamum.

The aspect of a physical return to those two churches may be seen as foreshadowed in their letters:

And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write...(2:18) - “Now to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, who have not known the depths of Satan, as they say, I will put on you no other burden. (2:24)

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write...(3:1) - You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. (3:4)

When all of the letters are examined, Thyatira and Sardis are the only locations whose name is repeated in their letter. Just as the location name was repeated in the letter, the presence of the letters in those locations was repeated. More importantly, the letters were to be read the second time they arrived.

Finally, Ephesus and Smyrna have already heard what was addressed to Sardis and Thyatira, as well as all the churches. In that sense the information has already been made public. With respect to Sardis and Thyatira, despite the fact their letters have been made public, the initial carrier must wait to read their letters to them until they are heard in Pergamum.

Therefore, Jesus wants the current conditions at the seven churches, to be heard collectively, individually, and in a specific sequence which, from a practical point of view does not make a great deal of sense. Exegetically, there is the implication the overall sequence of the current conditions has some significance beyond the individual situation of a particular church.

Two Outlines
Each church hears all letters and knows what was said to all churches. When it is all said and done, all churches will see Jesus followed two different outlines to compose the letters.

          Outline #1 - First 3 Letters     Outline #2 - Last 4 Letters
          Name of Church                   Name of Church
          Title of Jesus                   Title of Jesus
          Commendation                     Commendation
          Concerns                         Concerns
          Exhortation                      Exhortation
          Promise to the overcomer         "He who has an ear..."
          "He who has an ear..."           Promise to the overcomer

When the book of Revelation returns to Thyatira for initial reading, the outline changes to end with the promise to the overcomer, not with the phrase he who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Jesus continues to use the second outline for Sardis, Philalethia, and Laodicea. There should be an exegetical explanation for using two different outlines.

Rewarding the Overcomer
Each church is promised a reward for those in the church who overcome:

Ephesus - eat of the tree of life
Smyrna - not hurt by the second death
Pergamum - receive a white stone with a new name
Thyatira - power over the nations and the morning star
Sardis - clothed in white garments; a name not blotted from the book of life;
         having a name confessed before Jesus' Father and the angels
Philadelphia - a pillar in the temple of My God; the name of My God and the name
               of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem written on them
Laodicea - to sit with Me on My throne

Exegetically is there significance to the order of these rewards? The first sounds like what was offered to the first man and woman. The last sounds like that promised to the Apostles.

Are there rules governing rewards? If someone desired the reward of another location, would they be able to relocate in order to be an overcomer in a different church? Suppose someone in Pergamum wanted their name not to be blotted from the book of life rather a white stone, does a move to Sardis mean receiving the promise to those in Sardis? Or is the reward first heard the only reward available? Does being an overcomer require staying put? If the latter, does one forfeit their reward if they move to a different city? In other words, are those who leave one location not overcomers by the fact they left, regardless of how they might have lived in their new location?

From a practical point of view, the rewards seemingly demand some type of permanency which is at odds from the practical considerations of day-to-day living. For example, Laodicea was destroyed in 60 AD, if Revelation was before that event and someone moved away are they still a Laodicean? Regardless of the date of writing, the earthquake shows movement between locations may be necessary and out of the control of the person. Should we believe a Laodicean who moved a few miles up the road to Colossae no longer is an overcomer and no longer receives any reward since Colossae was not addressed by Jesus?

What rewards if any, do those in locations not addressed receive?

Conclusion
I see four exegetical reasons for believing the seven churches should not be understood as addressing only current situations.

First, the initial readings raise the question of why this particular order was necessary. Obviously, in terms of the immediate situations, there is no practical reason why the churches at Sardis and Thyatira must wait to hear what has already be made known in Ephesus and Smyrna. Rather, there is some other reason for the specific order.

Second, the internal revelation of the initial letters returning to Thyatira and Sardis and the change in the outline beginning with Thyatira are purposeful changes which have no basis for the situation in either location. To the contrary, Thyatira and Sardis have problems which need to be addressed, but must wait until Pergamum is addressed and hears of the problems in Thyatira and Sardis.

Third, the issuing of different rewards to the overcomers makes almost no sense if the letters are taken as addressing individuals at specific locations at the time the letters were read. There is also the question for those who overcome the same condition but don't live in a location addressed. Once Revelation begins to circulate outside of the seven churches, do similar issues which need correction result in similar rewards, or are overcomers in different locations left "rewardless?"

Fourth, after the letters the next explicit reference is to seven seals followed by seven trumpets and seven bowls. Each of these is described as taking place in a specific sequence with a specific result during successive periods of time. For example, the first seal is broken and this brings about certain events. After those event are completed the second seal is broken and this is followed by certain events. This is the pattern for every seal, every trumpet, and every bowl. The only difference between the churches, seals, trumpets, and bowls is the churches are named, not numbered. However, if the churches are not a prophetic picture of history, they are only explicit group of seven which are not describing an historical sequence.

Finally, if there is not a prophetic interpretation, limiting the significance to only current situations fails to explain several aspects of the letters which have nothing to do with the current conditions. Why did Jesus change the outline of the letters after Pergamum? Revelation is filled with symbols and symbolism which are examined for meaning. When similar features are found in the seven letters they should be treated as the rest of the book: there is meaning beyond the literal understanding.

-1

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 :-)

Edit 1

It has been a long time, but I promised to return to this answer and fill in the detail I lacked at the time. Here is the longer version:

The book opens and immediately says in verse one that it is prophetic of the future, that it is the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Revelation in 19:10 self clarifies also that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy").

It further says (also verse 1) it is signified - made known by a sign, it indicates.

This admonition is there for the specific reason to warn us that this book uses types and symbols, and gives us a heads up. Just as a lecturer would warn you to watch carefully for some effect before he conducts an experiment.

We must read all that follows with this warning, or 'heads up', in mind.

Further, in reading the book of Revelation we find that approximately 75% of the book uses Old Testament references. To understand it, you need to be thoroughly versed in scripture. (NB specifically that to the audience of the day, the Old Testament was the scripture. There was no New Testament at that time. They rightly heard and studied the letters and writings of the apostles, but at that time did not put them on equal footing with the Bible, the Old Testament - This point seems to escape many in their studies. When Paul taught the Bereans and they searched the scriptures diligently, it means they studied the Old Testament, to see if what he preached was according to this word.)

It also pays to note that the book of Revelation follows Christ through the Sanctuary service in the sequence of "The Candlestick, the Table of Shewbread, The Altar of Incense, the veil and finally the Ark of the Covenant."

The ancient tabernacle was given as a demonstration of the steps that the plan of salvation would follow.

It began at the Altar. The plan of salvation begins with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Without that sacrifice, there is no meaning to anything else. Without that sacrifice, there is no plan. It is the plan.

Next, also in the "outer court" (this signifies the world) is the Laver, which typifies baptism. First we accept the sacrifice of Jesus in our stead, and then as a public display of our decision we are "baptised into His death", "buried with Him" and are raised "so that we too might walk in newness of life." These two things took place and take place in the world, in the outer court.

When a prophecy is given to a prophet, it is always grounded in the 'now' as from the perspective of the prophet. To Daniel and Kind Nebuchadnezzar, the vision of the image began with the 'now' of Babylon. By the time of Daniel's vision in chapter 8, the Medo Persian empire was ascending and Babylon was about to fall. His vision thus began with the Ram which signified them, followed by the Grecian Goat and the notable horn being Alexander the Great, etc.

In the vision of chapter 7, still the first year of Belshazzar, Babylon was not yet at the point of destruction, so it includes Babylon as the first beast, the first kingdom. (Gabriel explains to Daniel and to us the meaning of these symbols)

So Daniel in chapter 7 sees Lion, Bear, Leopard, Terrible Beast.

Now when we read the description of Rev 13's beast, we find a terrible beast was like a leopard, feet like a bear, mouth of a lion. It is in reverse order to the vision of Daniel.

Daniel was looking forward, John was looking back in history. The vision was given from the perspective of 'now' for John.

The 'now' for John also included the story of Jesus. Chapter 1 identifies Him as "I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death." John knew, as do we, that the only One who fits this description is Jesus Christ. It is the recent past, and the next sentence continues this with "Write the things which you have seen, the things which are, and the things which will take place after this." Once again, we are at the end of the chapter, again reminded that this book is prophetic and that it uses signs (the seven stars, the seven candlesticks - are signs, they signify some thing). With two warnings that this is a book of prophecy now under our belt, we read of the seven churches which are the seven candlesticks. They are also typified by the menorah of the ancient Jewish tabernacle.

What was the duty of the priest at the candlestick? It was to trim the wicks and to supply them with oil (which the Bible elsewhere tells us, typifies the Holy Spirit) so that they would not go out. As Paul tells us, Jesus is our eternal High Priest, and in the type symbolised by the earthly tabernacle, his first duty is the candlesticks, which we now learn signify the seven churches.

Knowing that this is a book of prophecy, and given two warnings that this talks of the 'now' and then of the future, when we read the first church we should expect what? I can see no other than it beginning in the 'now' or possibly in the immediate future, as the vision of Daniel 7 begins in the 'now' of the Babylonian Empire or as Daniel 8, the immediate future when Babylon has fallen.

When we read this churches description, that it tested apostles, it most certainly fits. The book of Acts describes a church full of love for one another, a church which shared gladly with brothers and sisters who were in need. The warning however is that they already have, maybe are busy falling, or soon will fall from their first love. Jesus commends them on all their actions except this and enjoins them to return to their first love, which He most clearly approves.

The next church is persecuted, but when we hit 2:10, we read about '10 days of tribulation'.

From Benson's Commentary (early 1800's by Rev Joseph Benson 1749-1821) mentions that Bishop Newton (That is Thomas Newton 1704-1782) held that this was the Diocletian Persecution, probably written in his book "Dissertation on the Prophecies". I have not read that one myself to confirm though.

The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary also refers to 10 years on the year-day principle, which is learnt in Numbers 14:34, Ezekiel 4:5-8, and most clearly Daniel 9:24-27. More on that some other time.

The same in Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible (1746-63) by John Gill (1697-1771), where the discussion on Revelation 2:10 states the following:

the Dioclesian persecution lasted ten years almost throughout: and some think that this last persecution, which held ten years, is here particularly meant, and not without some good reason; since it is usual in prophetic writings, and in this book of the Revelation, to put days for years; so that these ten days may be the ten years the last persecution held, and at which time the period of this church state ended, and that of Pergamos took place.

I have, while doing some Bible, Bible History, Reformation History, Early Church History and the current state of the Protestant faith study, to my great surprise discovered that almost all of the Protestant faiths have lost sight of the day-year principle that the early reformers uncovered! To me this is astounding.

The day-year principle, or the Historicist interpretation was believed by Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Jan Hus, William Tyndale, John Wycliffe, John Knox, John Calvin, John Wesley, C.H Spurgeon, Bishop Thomas Newton (mentioned before), Sir Isaac Newton, Ulrich Zwingli and others.

How on earth can Protestants forget these hard won truths, some won by men who fought the ruthless and tyrannical Holy Roman Empire to the death?

I was truly stunned when I learnt that of all the Protestant faiths, there are only three that still hold this. One of them are the Jehovah's Witnesses. A most unusual faith in many respects - the most interesting being in claiming honour for Jehovah and denying the deity of Christ, not realising that Jesus is Jehovah :-)

Truly, the second angel's message of Revelation 14:8 is rapidly approaching. Babylon the Great is falling.

Perhaps that explains why my first answer above which just assumed that Protestants knew these things, was not understood at all. That those who adhere to Catholic teachings might not understand or perhaps vehemently disagree, I could expect. But virtually everyone? That blindsided me :-)

Reference the Diocletianic Persection on Wikipedia, from AD 303 to AD 313 for the 10 days (years) of persection mentioned.

As expected, if Smyrna reflects the next church in history, AD 303-313 most certainly fits.

Historically we see the next church being a compromising church (Pergamos) as the pure faith is slowly but surely adulterated as church and state mix. This probably runs to about 538 AD. This compromise results in the next church.

The corrupt church, Thyatira. The main church has become entirely corrupt, but there are still those who hold fast to the pure faith, like the Waldensians, Hussites, etc. This probably endures till around AD 1565. It covers what we call the 'Dark Ages'. Corrupt practices abound. Tradition replaces the Bible, human priesthood, sacred relics, a focus on works, the teaching of purgatory, the immortal soul, the Pope is the emperor of the world, the king of heaven, and God upon earth, auricular confession, and many many others. But this church is also the one that lights the flame of the Protestant Reformation. Jesus speaks to them words of hope though, he promises to fight with them against the corruption. He puts on them no other burden but to hold fast what they have. History tells us that they most certainly did, and they were great men of God.

The dead church, Sardis. The Protestant faith degenerates in the post-Reformation period. Lifeless formalism, spiritual complacency, creedal and dry philosophical arguments replace a focus on the saving grace of the gospel and commitment to Christ. But there were a notable few who remained pure and Christ centred. Call this the church till approximately 1730's or 40's.

The faithful church, Philadelphia. Great spiritual revivals took place in Great Britain and America. Known as the First and Second Awakenings took place during the next phase of history. Jesus says they have little strength (coming out from the dead church) but those who persevere and overcome are promised the New Jerusalem. This probably runs into the late 1800's or early 1900's.

The final church, the lukewarm one. Laodiceans. Sadly, it is us. We have, we think, become rich, wealthy and in need of nothing. Our true state says Jesus, is the exact opposite. But, we are the last church, and it is in our day that this world will end. Turn to Jesus, be zealous and repent. He knocks, let Him in!

If we have a knowledge of church history, if we compare these churches to history, they are remarkably accurate.

A final note, due to us having lost sight of something common in the time of John when he wrote Revelation. If you look on the map, and see the physical location of the 7 churches, they go in a rough half circle, clockwise from west to east.

If you lived in the time of John, and were in the Northern Hemisphere, a sundial would trace a very similar pattern. It may well be yet another hint to apply the messages to the churches to times in history, from the dawn of the new church, Spiritual Israel, to the sunset of this tired old world which we are destroying at a rapid and alarming pace.

However, I still believe, that if you are simply asking for an exegetical reason for why the seven churches correspond to seven church ages, there is ample reason to do so, the simplest and easiest being to notice the 10 days of persecution and tie that to the 10 years of the Diocletianic Persecution. Along with the introduction telling you it refers to the things that shortly must take place, the evidence points strongly to read seven successive ages.

An exegetical reason to justify seven church ages, I truly believe, is just a quick read and some thought.

Understanding and interpreting it all! A fraction of which I have now done. That is another matter entirely! That takes long and hard study!

If it is seven ages, it is telling us that Jesus is walking through history and time with his church, it is the object of His most close affection, his chosen instrument to spread His message to all. He trims the wick and ensures that the oil is there to keep it alive, even during the most trying circumstances. He is the builder and the keeper of our faith. The church is built on Him, the one and only Rock and Cornerstone.

I trust this elaborates - not too verbosely - why I hold that the Bible teaches seven ages through which the church goes, and does so in a suitable manner.

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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, 2019 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) Jan 17, 2019 at 23:23
  • Just trying to help you be successful around here Ian. Sources are a requirement. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour
    – Ruminator
    Jan 17, 2019 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, 2019 at 23:42
-5

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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  • 1
    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, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 3:24
  • 2
    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, 2013 at 12:52
  • 3
    @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, 2013 at 15:16

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