I don’t know about you, but when I see a book or article on the subject of the Book of Revelation, I usually avert my eyes. Although I believe that Revelation is the word of God written down by the Apostle John, it still reads like science fiction, and I am not a fan of science fiction.
During my lifetime, I’ve read Revelation numerous times, and frankly, I never took the time to try to make any sense out of it. If you’re expecting this article to explain Revelation and make crystal clear the meanings of John’s prophecies, you might as well avert your eyes. As I write this article, I’m learning more about Revelation myself, and I’m inviting you along on the journey.
Furthermore, I’m only looking at Chapters 1, 2, and 3–John’s introduction and letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor–and Revelation contains 22 chapters. That’s a lot of territory that I’m leaving unexplored. Additionally, I’m just skimming the surface of these three chapters, and I’m relying completely on my reading of the Scripture and what others have written before me.
Let me be clear: I am not an expert on the Book of Revelation. I’m more of an apprentice learner who will rely on the expertise of others. This will probably read more like a term paper for the class Revelation 101. I will document my sources, but you won’t see any fancy footnotes or an MLA-style bibliography.
You’ve probably already scrolled to another article by now because, let’s face it, that introduction was about as exciting as watching paint dry. If you’re still with me, then let’s get started (and thank you for reading).
Here’s your study guide for the introductory paragraph. I promise not to annoy you by doing this for every paragraph.
- Who is John?
- Where did he get his subject matter?
- Why is he writing?
Let’s take a look. All scripture references in this article are from the Good News Translation, unless otherwise noted.
“This book is the record of the events that Jesus Christ revealed. God gave him this revelation in order to show to his servants what must happen very soon. Christ made these things known to his servant John by sending his angel to him, and John has told all that he has seen. This is his report concerning the message from God and the truth revealed by Jesus Christ. Happy is the one who reads this book, and happy are those who listen to the words of this prophetic message and obey what is written in this book! For the time is near when all these things will happen.” (Revelation 1:1-3)
Answers to study guide questions:
- John is Christ’s servant.
- Christ/Christ sent an angel to John to deliver this message.
- God gave John this information to show us, God’s servants, what must happen in the future.
Let’s move on. John begins writing after the Holy Spirit takes control of him and tells him to write down what he sees and to send it to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey): Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
John greets the seven churches, offering grace and peace on behalf of God, the seven spirits in front of God’s throne, and Jesus Christ. Who are the seven spirits? Scholars are not in agreement. Here are some of their interpretations:
- The seven spirits are borrowed from Jewish ideas about Yahweh’s chief angels.
- The seven spirits represent the Holy Spirit.
- The seven spirits represent the seven-fold aspects of the Spirit depicted in the book of Isaiah
- The seven spirits are may be seen as seven angelic figures who serve before the throne of God.
There are as many interpretations of “the seven spirits” as their are experts. You may draw your own conclusion–I will refrain.
John hears a loud voice–“like a trumpet”–speaking behind him. The voice tells John,
“Don’t be afraid! I am the first and the last.I am the living one! I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I have authority over death and the world of the dead.”
Holy cow, it’s Jesus! And here’s John’s description of Jesus. He saw:
“what looked like a human being, wearing a robe that reached to his feet, and a gold band around his chest.His hair was white as wool, or as snow, and his eyes blazed like fire;his feet shone like brass that has been refined and polished, and his voice sounded like a roaring waterfall.He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth. His face was as bright as the midday sun.”
Now, let’s move on to the letters to the seven churches. I’ll summarize what John says and tell you how it may relate to what’s going on in our churches today. Need I remind you that I am not an expert?
The seven churches/cities–Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea–were, more or less, in a circular trade route. All seven letters are written in a good news/bad news format. Each church is praised for its successes and criticized for its failures. Each congregation is warned to repent.
Ephesus–the loveless church
Ephesus was a prominent commercial and cultural center, a major harbor on the Aegean Sea. The church at Ephesus was founded by Paul and was the most prominent church in Asia Minor.
The praise: You’ve worked hard. You’ve been patient. You have suffered for your belief in Jesus. You’ve guarded against false teaching.
The criticism: You are backsliders. You don’t love Jesus like you used to.
The prophecy: If you don’t turn back to Christ, He will take away the power of your church.
Smyrna–the suffering church
Smyrna was a beautiful and busy seaport. It was the home of Homer and the Temple of Athena. Smyrna was also home to a large Jewish community which was hostile to Christians.
The praise: You’ve been persecuted, but you’ve been faithful.
The criticism: None given.
The prophecy: Some of you will be tested by Satan and you will be thrown into prison, but your troubles will only last ten days. Be faithful to Jesus, and your prize will be eternal life.
Pergamum–the compromising church
Pergamum was a major cultural hub that housed a library which rivaled the Library of Alexandria. Pergamum was nicknamed “Satan’s City” because of its paganism and idolatry.
The praise: You’ve upheld your faith even though you live amid pagan influences.
The criticism: You have “yoked idolatry with paganism” (Rev. David Jeremiah). You’ve eaten food that was sacrificed to idols, and you’ve practiced sexual immorality.
The prophecy: If you don’t turn away from your sins, Jesus will come there and fight against the sinners.
Thyatira–the adulterous church
Thyatira was famous for its dyeing facilities and was a center of the purple cloth trade. Paul and Silas may have visited Thyatira on one of their journeys.
The praise: You have been faithful and patient. You show more love and service now than you did at first.
The criticism: You are tolerating a false prophetess named Jezebel who teaches sexual immorality and pagan practices.
The prophecy: If you don’t repent of the wicked things you’ve done, Jesus will kill Jezebel and all of her followers.
Sardis–the dead church
Sardis, the home of a significant Jewish community, was located on top of a plateau. It was the end station of the Persian Royal Road and acted as a gateway to the Greek World.
The praise: None!
The criticism: Your church is asleep. You have shut the Holy Spirit out of your church.
The prophecy: If you don’t repent, Jesus will “come upon you like a thief.”
Philadelphia–the faithful church
Philadelphia was known for its vulnerability to earthquakes. Philadelphia, along with Smyrna, bears the distinction of receiving no criticism from John’s letter.
The praise: You have an open door, and you have some strength. You have kept the Word of God and you have not denied the Lord.
The criticism: None!
The prophecy: Because you have kept My commands, I will keep you safe during the upcoming time of trouble.
Laodicea–the lukewarm church
Laodicea had a significant Jewish population. The city boasted great resources, but it had a poor water supply. Pagan worship, especially of Zeus, flourished there.
The praise: None!
The criticism: You are lukewarm. Even though you are rich and well off, you are miserable and pitiful. You are compromising, conceited, and Christless.
The prophecy: If you don’t repent, I will spit you out of my mouth.
John concludes his letters to the seven churches with this advice: “If you have ears, then listen to what the Spirit says to the churches!” (Rev. 3:22)
If you’re interested in learning what happened to the seven churches in Revelation, authors Madeline Arthington and Karrie Sparrow will take you on a journey of discovery, complete with photos, in their excellent article, “What Happened to the Seven Churches of Revelation?”
Is the instruction given to Revelation’s congregations relevant to Christian churches today? Yes, indeed! Author Delores Smyth, in an article in Christianity.com, does an incredible job of describing the lessons that today’s church can learn from the letters to the seven churches. What follows is a summary of her article.
From the letter to Ephesus, we learn that:
“truth and love must go hand-in-hand. A church that upholds doctrinal purity at the expense of showing love is just as flawed as a church that upholds congregational harmony at the expense of truthful teachings.“
The letter to Ephesus teaches us that even though we may suffer, our suffering will be nothing when compared to the promise of eternal life.
In Pergamum, Christians had normalized non-Christian behavior and allowed that behavior to dilute their values. This strikes a chord with me, in light of what’s going on in today’s United Methodist Church, as well as in other denominations. For more information, see “The United Methodist Divorce.“
In Thyatira, Christians had fallen prey to cult leaders and occult practices. They were warned to avoid the “deep secrets of Satan.” The deep secrets of Satan are all around us. Consider today’s crisis of the sexual slavery of children.
The lesson from the Sardis church is that the church today needs to avoid the trap of just going through the motions of worship. We need to feed our spirits by bolstering our faith through prayer, fellowship, and Bible study.
We can only hope that our church can compare to the church in Philadelphia, a church that was blessed because they maintained their faith despite life’s tribulations. May we, too, stand strong like pillars in Heaven!
Unfortunately, most of us know churches like the church of Laodicea, a church which had become complacent during its time of abundance. Jesus’ advice to the Laodiceans is still just as relevant today as it was over 2000 years ago–“continue to seek the Lord’s face even after His hand has bestowed riches in our lives.”
Hopefully, you’ve learned a little more about the first three chapters of Revelation. Maybe it’s not quite as “science fiction-y” as it first seems. Any errors in interpretation are mine and mine alone. I leave you with this thought:
“Happy is the one who reads this book, and happy are those who listen to the words of this prophetic message and obey what is written in this book!” (Rev. 1:3)
Sources used in this article:
“What Do the Seven Churches in Revelation Represent?” Delores Smyth
“Who Are the Seven Spirits in Revelation?” Brandon D. Smith
“Seven Spirits of God” Wikipedia
“Who Are the Seven Spirits?” Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg
“What Do the Seven Churches in Revelation Stand For? Got Questions
The Seven Churches of Revelation: Why They Matter and What We Can Learn Craig Keener, for Zondervan Academic
“Seven Churches of Revelation Bible Study” David Jeremiah
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