Interpreting the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2-3

As we move through Revelation 2-3, it is absolutely necessary to understand how to interpret this part of the book of Revelation. As I mentioned in the Introduction to the book of Revelation, this book has three genres working together: Apocalyptic, Prophetic, and Epistle. Revelation 2-3 is the Epistle portion where John is writing to the Seven Churches he loved and served as an overseer of. There will be some following posts on Old Testament allusions in Revelation 2-3, but there are not that many allusions throughout this section, proving its written as an epistle to actual churches.

HOW NOT TO INTERPRET REVELATION 2-3

If we understand Revelation 2-3 as a series of epistles to different local churches, then we must also push back against a more modern interpretation of Revelation 2-3. This modern interpretation sees Revelation 2-3 to be written to specific churches, but ultimately is an overview of church history from a spiritual standpoint. As John Walvoord writes in his commentary on Revelation, “Ephasus seems to be characteristic of the Apostolic Period in general and the progression of evil climaxing in Laodicea seems to indicate the final state of apostasy of the church” (Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 52). To be fair to Walvoord and those who hold this interpretation, they do see some significance in the letters to the actual local churches. However, the problem is that the meaning and point of each letter to each church loses it’s specific significance and application to us today. As Richard Phillips writes, “In my opinion, overemphasis on its future orientation has diminished Revelation’s influence among Christians. After all, if the book is focused on events not likely to occur during my lifetime, why should I give much attention to it, however interesting its visions may be” (Phillips, Reformed Expository Commentary: Revelation)?

HOW TO INTERPRET REVELATION 2-3

When we see that each letter is written to a specific church in the first century, we not only find the author’s intended meaning but also a clear acknowledgement that Christ walks among his church still today. When the reader approaches these Seven Letters, two things must be kept in mind:

1) It is none other than the resurrected, ascended, glorified Christ that walks among the churches.

2) In a similar way that John has used Old Testament allusions to give a picture of spiritual realities, here John is using actual historical illustrations from the specific local church to convict and encourage those local churches.

Example: As John was writing to these specific churches (Rev. 1:4), he concludes with his epistle to the church in Laodicea (3:14-22). Although I will come back to this letter later, I want to help us see that the specific historical situation in Laodicea is being used as a picture of that church’s spiritual health. As the ascended and glorified Christ walks among the church in Laodicea, he notices that they are neither hot cold, but lukewarm (3:15-16). But the key to exposing why they are lukewarm is found in understanding the historical context of verse 17, which says, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

Here are a couple historical facts that drive Jesus’ word pictures to the church in Laodicea:

  • Laodicea was a wealthy city among a major trade route.
  • After being destroyed by a major earthquake in 61 A.D., they refused government help and rebuilt using it’s own riches.
  • The problem Laodicea had, as noted by Richard Phillips, is it lacked a good water supply. They would have to travel 5 miles to get water and so it always arrived to the city lukewarm, neither hot nor cold (Phillips, 153).

You see, the historical situation is meant to be a convicting dagger to the Laodicean church in a way that they would immediately get. Everyone in that church, when hearing this letter read aloud, would slump down in their chair and know they were guilty. Likewise, each other epistle in Revelation 2-3 has the same historical pictures that are used by Jesus to drive that church back to faithfulness as they slowly await the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. 21-22.

Lastly, one necessary interpretive key that typically is seen in the letters to the seven churches is something to take note of as you read through the letters. G.K. Beale structures it best in his commentary on Revelation:

  1. Command to write to an angel of the church,
  2. Christ’s self-description derived from the description in ch. 1 and introduced by the formulas “these things.”
  3. Commendation of the church’s good works.
  4. Accusation because of some sin.
  5. Exhortation to repent with a warning of judgment or an encouragement.
  6. Exhortation to discern the truth of the preceding message (“he who has an ear…”).
  7. Promise to the conquerors. (Beale, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, 225).

WHY THIS MATTERS?

Understanding the proper interpretation of the epistles in Revelation 2-3 matter for quite a few reasons. Some of the most important are found within the main scope of the whole book, which is comfort to a suffering people being called to conquer by trusting the victory of Christ. To be one of these first century churches that are in the tribulation (Rev. 1:9), what a comfort to know that the exalted Christ was loving enough to walk among you, correct you, and encourage you to keep going? Likewise, as we read these epistles today, many of us find that the same issues and encouragements to these seven churches are applicable today. Think of the example above with the Laodicean Church and many of us might be aware of our own apathy, neither hot nor cold. This is a sweet warning meant to wake us up and fix our eyes on Christ and know that we will one day be in the presence of our Lord, Savior, and Victor.

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