Perhaps the most familiar part of the book of the Revelation, at least among those who oppose the doctrines of premillennialism, would probably be the letters to the seven churches of Asia. In most people’s minds this is the least controversial and easiest section of the book to understand. That may be true; nevertheless there are even aspects of this section that include symbols that we often overlook.
Before looking at the seven churches, something must be said about the nature of the Revelation itself. It is in the genre of apocalyptic literature. That means that it is a book of symbols. Even what may appear literal is probably symbolic. Thus the seven churches, though literal, are most likely symbolic. Certain symbols may be, and in this case are, explained in the text. Many other symbols are not explained. In some cases we have lost, over the centuries, the meaning of the symbols. In all cases, there is a temptation to put modern interpretations to ancient symbols. At least one person has tried to prove that mention of a bear, for instance, represents Russia, or an eagle the United States. When taken in the context of other, similar, biblical books, the bear, for instance, is more likely symbolic of Alexandrian Greece, as it was in the book of Daniel. So any interpretation of the symbols of the Revelation must be viewed from a first century, or before, perspective. Wherein we do not know the meaning of the symbols, we must either show their meaning from other biblical writings or leave off the guesswork entirely.
I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. (Rev 1:12-16)
This paragraph is vital to understanding the next chapters of the book. The symbols here are repeated in the letters to the seven churches. The seven candlesticks (menorahs) represent seven congregations (v 20), like the menorah in the tabernacle of Israel. The stars, according to that same verse, are the messengers (angels) of the churches. Whether those are angels, as in heavenly beings, or preachers is uncertain. It could be either; it could be both. All we know is that they were messengers from God. Gold is symbolic of royalty. Think of the gold on the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan 2). White is traditionally a symbol of purity, but white hair symbolizes wisdom. In Ecclesiastes 12 it is a symbol of age. So the one amid the menorahs may be wise, but it is because he is older than time and purer than man. Fire is often a symbol of judgement and a two-edged sword is the word of God (Heb 4:12). Water is usually symbolic of mankind, but here it is a voice as many waters. This may mean that he speaks for man, or that his voice is louder than all mankind.
The letter to the church at Ephesus is addressed from the one who stands among the menorahs and holds the stars. Ephesus was one of the oldest churches in Asia Minor. It seemed to be Paul’s favorite congregation. As the second largest city in the Roman Empire, Ephesus held a place of honor, and the church in that city held similar honor among the Kingdom of God. Yet they are addressed by one who stands among the churches and their messengers, not by one who holds them as higher than others. Because they had left their first love (Rev 2:4) they were no better and no worse than anyone else. Nevertheless, they will be rewarded with a taste of “the tree of life, which is in the midst of the garden of God.” A church that has held preeminence, if they return to following and loving God, will be granted to return to their first prominence. They will, symbolically, return to the Garden of Eden.
One of the churches about which nothing negative is written, Smyrna is addressed by the eternal and resurrected one. These aspects of the Messiah are meant to give hope to a church undergoing trials. Jesus was tried, and crucified. But he arose from the grave to live eternally with God. Although undergoing severe trials, churches that endure like Smyrna have hope in the one who is their head. Because he lives, we live. The first death is sin. But those who remain in Christ need not fear “the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” (Rev 21:8) They have no fear of further punishment for sin, because their sin is forgotten.
The church at Pergamos is addressed by the one with the word of God in his mouth. This congregation, or those congregations symbolized by it, began well, but then began listening to others. They followed a message which was not from God. The message is to repent or face the judgement of God’s word. When the writer of Hebrews compared the word of God to a sword, the context was unbelief. The idea was that the word divides between believers and doubters. So it is in Pergamos. Those who endure in the word are promised hidden manna. “For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.” (Jn 6:31) Life in the Son follows those who follow the word. The letter also says they will be given a white stone with a new name. The meaning of the white stone is pure speculation. But we do know the meaning of a new name. They will be called the bride of God. (Isaiah 62:1-6)
He who has eyes like fire and feet like brass writes to the church at Thyatira. The obvious parallel is the one who speaks to Daniel in chapter 10 of that book. He is one who has power over nations; who fought with Persia and established Greece. In this church there are those who follow other gods, as did Jezebel. They need to remember what happened to her, and who foretold her death. Those who remain faithful to the God who controls nations will be given power over nations. They will remain in the eternal kingdom, rather than being broken in a temporary one. They will also be given the morning star. That phrase is only used of Jesus (Rev 22:16). Jesus, who has authority over his and all kingdoms, will grant his followers to rule with him.
The letter to the church at Sardis is signed in the same way as that to Ephesus, the one who is among all churches equally. Apparently the congregation in Sardis had gained in prominence as Ephesus declined. And yet much of their reputation was only show. They looked good to men, but God called them a corpse. Yet those that had not totally died would be granted a white garment. They would maintain their purity in the midst of corruption. More importantly, their name would not be blotted out of the book of life. That is, they would not see the corruption of those among whom they lived. Most importantly, the Messiah would mention their name to God. We have name-droppers here on earth, but none like the ultimate name-dropper. In a church that had a name but was dead, those who persevered would have fame before God, like the Ephesian church once had.
The church at Philadelphia (not in Pennsylvania) was written to by the one who held the keys. Jesus claimed the authority of the key holder (Matt 16:16). He had the authority, and granted it to the apostles, to open the door to the kingdom, and to judge who would go free and who would remain imprisoned. When a city was under attack, the gatekeeper could maintain the safety, or he could give the city over to the attackers. The one who holds the keys tells the church at Philadelphia that they need not fear that the gate will be breached. To them he promises much. They will be pillars, upholding the truth. They will have the new name promised also to Pergamos, but also the names of God and the church (which is the New Jerusalem).
The Amen, the faithful witness, the beginning of creation. The church that has through the ages received the worst condemnations is addressed by the one who has the power to create in them all that is good. He is the “so be it” and the “that’s the way it is.” Even though they pretended to be what they were not, he has the power to make them what they could be. The one who was from the beginning promises those who come out from their pretence that they will be with him at the end. They will sit on God’s throne, because one went before them to show the way.
These seven churches are all the churches of all times (seven being a number of completeness in God). We are they and they are us. We are not one of them. We are all of them, with their faults and their glory. The symbols of the one who addresses them, and the promises of their rewards, are for the church today. They are not just our future; they are our past and present. We must listen to the symbols, because they are God’s word to his church. May we, with God’s help, get it right.