The Seven Churches of Revelation: A New Look
Dr. Randy White
Over my 25 years of ministry, I have taught the book of Revelation, in full or in part, on a number of occasions. Each time I learn something new and gain a new blessing. I think it is sad that too many Christians (and their pastors) avoid the book because “it is too hard to understand,” or, “it is irrelevant to today’s life,” or, “I might get it wrong.” While there may be some truth to all of these reasons for not studying the book, it is simply too important for any believer to avoid long-term.
As I’ve recently been studying the book again, I’ve come to the conclusion that I very well may have been wrong, all along, concerning the letters to the seven churches of Revelation found in Revelation 2-3. In the past, I’ve taught these chapters from a historical, dynamic and a prophetic viewpoints. By historical, I taught that there were seven actual churches in actual cities with actual congregations. These seven literal congregations received a book from John, and in the book was a letter specifically to them. By dynamic, I taught that the letters to the seven congregations had some relevance and application to every church of every age, though specifics would have to be carefully discerned. By prophetic, I have taught that the seven churches display an uncanny resemblance to the flow of Christian history from the first century until today. I have always taught this “implicit prophecy,” as something that was too flimsy to build any doctrine, but nonetheless worthy of consideration.
But until now, I have never considered the letters to the seven churches to be entirely future, only directly relevant to seven congregations of believers that will exist after the rapture of the church. I will call this the “futuristic” interpretation, differing from the “prophetic” interpretation in that much of the prophetic interpretation has already taken place, while the entirety of Revelation 2-3 is yet to take place in the futuristic interpretation. To convey the possibility that the seven congregations are future (post-rapture), I’ll first share some general observations followed by some specific instructions.
If the letters to the churches are future, then we would not apply the letters to these churches to our own age and our particular church any more than we would do so for the remainder of the book of Revelation, taken futuristically. For example, while it is insightful to know that a coming one-world leader will have an economic system that requires his mark for buying and selling, a believer today who holds to a pre-trib, pre-millennial interpretation will not spend fruitless time worrying about what this mark is or how they will put food on the table. These issues are non-starters for a pre-trib dispensationalist, and the doctrine taught in the book of Revelation is knowledge of the coming “Day of Jacob’s Trouble,” relating to Israel and the nations of the world during the tribulation.
Don’t be too quick to reject a futuristic interpretation based on one of these two flimsy excuses: First, “I haven’t ever heard this.” This is never an acceptable basis of rejection for a Berean. Second, “these congregations are called churches (eklesia), not synagogues. While that is true, I would remind you that eklesia simply means assembly, and is not necessarily a Christian church. Further, in a futuristic interpretation these congregations will be Jewish congregations of believers who are living in the Tribulation, which is an age coming after the Age of Grace has come to a conclusion. This seven years has been decreed for the Jewish nation, and it would be no surprise to find Jewish believing congregations during the Tribulation–a period designed to bring the Jewish people to faith in Jesus as Messiah.
- The Very Jewish Nature of the Writing
When reading the book, one notices scores of references to Hebrew Scripture, and not a single reference to any Scripture of the church-age (the writings of Paul). Revelation is filled (even overflowing) with references to Old Testament scripture. While there are no direct quotes, allusions to the Old Testament are on every page (some say as many as 500 references).
- The Clues of Revelation 1
In Revelation 1:10, John says that he was, “caught up in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.” While most take this to mean Sunday, that is a serious case of eisegesis. Rather, the Lord’s Day is “the day of the Lord,” where John was spiritually translated. There is no reference in Scripture to Sunday as “the Lord’s day,” but many references to “the day of the Lord,” which is that period of judgment at the end of days. It is my belief that this verse tells us that John was spiritually (not physically) taken forward in time to the Day of the Lord, which is given by God to Jesus, and John is going to record what happens, in advance. Therefore, everything in the book is a revelation of Jesus Christ, taking place in the Day of the Lord.
Throughout Revelation 1-3, a number of titles are used for Jesus. These titles are exclusively taken from the age of Israel. Titles like Almighty, Son of Man, the One who is to come, the First and the Last, etc., are all Jewish Messianic titles. Since these Messianic titles are used to introduce Christ to the congregations, and since they are never used in reference to Christ and his church, it seems suspicious that there would be this sudden shift of usage.
A further clue from Revelation 1 comes from the very first verse. Primarily, this is the Revelation of Jesus Christ, not about Jesus Christ. In fact, this revelation (unveiling) of Jesus was given to Jesus and communicated through John. The word revelation is apocalypse, and the apocalypse of Jesus Christ is nothing less than Jesus revealed in His glory at the end of days. Since this is the case, it only makes sense that the entirety of the book is about the end of days unveiling of the Messiah, thus the letters to the seven churches would also be in this time period. Further, the revelation was given to Jesus to show His servants. The word servant is not used of those in the church-age. Rather, in this age, we are His friends and His children, as so clearly taught in Galatians 4:7, “Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”
When I’ve taught the book of Revelation in the past, I have been forced to “talk around” a few problematic phrases. All of us who are preachers learn this sinful art. Too many times we try to complicate plain words. Revelation 2-3 is filled with these kinds of passages. Here’s a few examples:
“Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” (Revelation 2:5). This message to the angel of the church of Ephesus sounds foreign to anything of the age of Grace. Further, the angel of the church of Pergamum is told, “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Revelation 2:16). The “sword of my mouth” is seen in Revelation 19:15 and is the same sword by which the wrath of God judges the nations. How can the blood-bought and forever secure church receive the wrath of God?
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). This “overcoming” issue is used several times. In 2:11 the overcomer is promised victory over the second death, in 2:17 the overcomer is promised hidden manna, a white stone, and a new, secret name. In 2:26-28 the overcomer is promised authority over the nations, along with the morning star. In 3:5 the overcomer is promised white garments, and that his name will not be removed from the book of life, but rather confessed before the Father and His angels. In 3:12 the overcomer is promised a prominent place as a “pillar in the temple” on which is engraved the “name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem.” In 3:21 the overcomer is promised to “sit down with me on my throne.” These references, if studied closely, are all very Israel-centric in Scripture, not church-centric. Furthermore, the overcomers are seen in the midst of the Tribulation in Revelation 12:11, 15:2, and 21:7, making it very hard to claim that overcomers are believers in this age. It sounds like the word to these angels and churches is the same as that which Jesus gave to Israel concerning the tribulation: he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
“Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee” (Revelation 3:9). The phrase “worship before thy feet” is problematic. We want to make it say, “worship God in front of you,” but the same Greek phrase is used in Revelation 15:4, when the, “nations shall come and worship before thee.” The grammar just doesn’t allow for anything other than men bowing before other men. Since this is never allowed in the book of Revelation, it is curious, at best. Of course, the way to answer a Biblical dilemma is to search the Scriptures for a solution. A simple search brings you to Isaiah 45:14, an end of days passage which speaks of the nations coming before the Jews (the real Jews, not those who say they are Jews but lie), “And they shall fall down unto thee, they shall make supplication unto thee, saying, Surely God is in thee…
I think it is worthy of consideration that the seven churches of Revelation might be future congregations of Jewish believers living in the renewed age of the Law (the final seven years which has been decreed but never fulfilled, Daniel 9:24-27). If read in light of the Law, we would not directly apply them to the church today (just as we would not apply the Old Testament or even the Gospels to the church). If this change of focus is made, the seven letters become a message to seven groups of Jewish believers in the Day of Jacob’s trouble, giving new light and relieving us of some challenging exegesis.
We are instructed to “rightly divide the Word of truth.” God doesn’t spoon-feed us, but forces us to “study to show thyself approved.” While I wish the Scripture was “color-coded” so that the division was easy, such is not the case. Each time I come to the book of Revelation (or any other Biblical book), I want to come at it with an inquisitive mind, questioning every assumption, longing for the true meaning of the words.
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