Letters to the Seven Churches

I promised the folks at yesterday’s morning Mass that I would post something on Revelation‘s “Letters to the Seven Churches.  So…digging back into my notes, I found some materials that I prepared for a bibles study back in 1995! … which was the last time that I lead a study in this “last” book of the Bible. It is detailed in places, so be fore warned ! The order in which the Churches are listed is not at random.  The seven cities were part of a Roman mail route which made major deliveries to these cities –  all of which were positioned on the postal road.  The letter would be delivered to each city whose Church would copy the letter for later use.  Ephesus was the “Metropolis of the Province of Asia”; the other six cities were all located in the same province.  Ephesus was also the home of St John during this period of his life

General Structure of the Letters

  • Titles of Christ – using language/images from the vision of the Son of man
  • Praises/Reproaches
  • Promises

A summary of the structural content of the letters is contained in a table at the end of the lesson outline.

An Overall Interpretation to the Letters

There have been many interpretations given to the overall meaning of the letters:  a prophecy of the ages of the Church; a foreshadowing of the remainder of Revelation,  and other models

Prefiguring the epochs of the history of the Church? 

This was popular among the early church fathers up until the middle ages.  Most famous writing on the topic was Joachim da Fiore (d.1202) who postulated

  1. the age of the Apostles

  2. the age of the Martyrs

  3. the age of the Doctors of the Church

  4. the age of the Virgins

  5. the age of the struggle against the worldly empire

  6. the coming of the Anti-Christ

  7. the 1,000 year reign

da Fiore believed he lived in the sixth age and that the seventh would begin in 1262 AD.  Among US-based dispensational theologists, the following shows that the speculations of the da Fiore have their modern versions:

  • Ephesus        the age of the Apostles        30-100 AD
  • Smyrna          the age of the Roman Persecution    100-313 AD
  • Pergamum     the age of Constantine            313-600 AD
  • Thyatira          the age of the Dark Ages        600-1517 AD
  • Sardis             the age of the Reformation        1517-1648 AD
  • Philadelphia    the age of the mission            1648-1900 AD
  • Laodicea        the age of the Apostasy        the present day

            (Arnold Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of the Messiah, pp 39-60)

The History of Salvation

The use of the letters as a basis for describing the ages of the Church has no particular consistency, as witnessed to the variety of models, the speculative assignment of dates, and while the exegete would have believe that this is future-prophetic, the developed model most often offers an explanation of historic events.

Is there another model that is consistent with our basic premise of St John using the Old Testament as the foreshadowing of one event – the coming of the Messiah?  Eugenio Corsini and others offer the following general outline.

  •     Ephesus    the Fall of humanity
  •     Smyrna    the age of the Patriarchs up to slavery in Egypt
  •     Pergamum    Israel in exodus
  •     Thyatira    the age of the Hebrew kingdoms
  •     Sardis        the age of the later prophetic period and exile
  •     Philadelphia    the period after the exile
  •     Laodicea    the age of the Messiah

It is a history of salvation while also being a letter to the churches to understand the coming of Jesus in terms of the whole run of salvation history, covenant and the promises / curses of the covenants.

The Letter to Ephesus –  the story of the Fall

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.  (Rev 2:1-7)

  1. Ephesus

    1. Founded in 133 BC it was positioned at the mouth of the river Cayster was the greatest city of the Roman province of Asia – rivaled only by Alexandria in Egpyt and Anticoh is Syria

    2. It was populous and wealthy; and a primary port in Asia (because of extensive silting the city is now 10 miles inland with a swampy plain separating the city from the sea.)

    3. The city was famous for the Artemesium – a temple of Artemis (Acts 19:35) and a temple to the Roman emperor Domitian (81 – 96 AD)

    4. There was a history of conflict between Jews and Gentiles in the city (Josephus, Against Apion 2.39) as the Jews struggled to maintain religious and cultural identity in the face of pressures to adopt pagan practices as a sign of loyalty to the Empire

    5. Also known as a center of the magic arts, such that books of incantations and magical formulae were known as “Ephesian writings” by the Romans and Greeks

  2. The language of the Fall is evident in the passage.

    1. “You have abandoned the love you had at first” – humanity’s condition in Eden

    2. “Remember the height from which you have fallen!” – driven from Eden (Gen 3:24)

    3. “I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” – return to a superior Eden

  3. The message to the contemporary church at Ephesus

    1. Ephesus is one of the great cities – which means it has fall to far; remember the love that was instilled in you by the Apostles John and Paul

    2. encouragement in dealing with false apostles and the Nicolaitians – to persevere in orthodoxy

      1. remember to beware of the “savage wolves” (Acts 20:7-38) that will come among, you just as the serpent came into the garden, to distort the true doctrine
      2. St Ignatius observed in his letter to the Ephesians – “You live according to the truth,a dn no heresy has a home among you; indeed you do not so much as listen to anyone, if he speaks of anything except concerning Jesus Christ in truth…” (Ephesians vi, ix)
    3. And yet there is a balance between the church’s desire for sound doctrine and the danger of its perversion into a hardening against one’s brother / sister in Christ

    4. reminded that they have inherited the rest of God – if only they will persevere until the end

    5. Nicolaitians (uncorroborated tradition of St Irenaeus in Against Heresies)

      1. Nicholas – one of the first seven chosen disciples (Acts 6:5)
      2. According to Irenaeus he apostatized and became a false prophet
      3. Nikoloas (Greek) = conqueror of the people = Balaam (Hebrew)

The Letter to Smyrna – the Age of the Patriarchs up to slavery in Egypt

“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days.  Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. (Rev 2:8-11)

  1. Smyrna

    1. Modern day Izmir, 35 miles north of Ephesus, at the head of a major harbor;

      1. founded in 1200 BC
      2. destroyed in the 6th century
      3. rebuilt under Alexander the Great – hence the Hellenized nature of the city
    2. The city had a natural acropolis which was dotted with a variety of temples – hence the reference as the “crown of Smyrna”.  In Roman times it was a center of emperor worship

    3. The city itself was totally destroyed in 600 BC only to be restored to “life” as one of the wealthy cites of Roman Asia – thus the greeting in Rev 2:8 is appropriate for this city

    4. The Jewish community in Smyrna was a religio licitia – it was officially recognized by Rome and thus spared from religious persecution.  Thus as Christianity became increasingly Gentile and louder in its claims to be the true Israel, there was a loss of the umbrella religio licitia and possibly that umbrella became a weapon against them used by the once-parent community

  2. The images of the Patriarchs of Israel

    1. The situation of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and Joseph) and of the children of Israel appear in the images of this letter

    2. Christ describes himself as one who was dead and now come to life – a redemptive act foreshadowed in

      1. Issac (cf. Gen 22:1-14; Heb 11:17-19)
      2. Joseph (cf. Gen 37:18-36;  39:20 – 41:45; 45:4-8;  50:20)
      3. the salvation of Israel from slavery in Egypt
    3. The Smyrneans condition of seeming poverty and actual riches is analogous to the experience of the Patriarchs who “lived as aliens in the land of promise” (Heb 11:9)

    4. False believers are persecuting the true heirs of the promises just as Ishmael persecuted Issac (cf. Gen 21:9, Gal 4:22-31)

    5. The danger of imprisonment at the instigation of a slanderer is paralleled in the life of Joseph (Gen 39:13-20), as is the blessing for faithfulness (Gen 41:40-44)

    6. Possibly the endurance of the 10 days of imprisonment hints at the story of Israel’s endurance through the 10 plagues (Ex 7:14 ff); or refers to an indefinite period of suffering

    7. The synagogue of Satan could be a reference to the corruption of the practice of true worship which occurred in Egypt  (in Rev 11:8 St John will call Israel “Sodom and Egypt”

  3. The message to the contemporary church at Smyrna

    1. The situation in Egypt prefigures the experience in Smyrna where the Church is persecuted by a new Egypt – possibly the “Judiazers” who persecute the early Church (see Acts).

      1. As a historical note, the Jewish leaders of Smyrna took a prominent part in the martyrdom of the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, (c.150 AD)
      2. St John may be suggesting that earthly conflict with synagogue and empire reflects a deeper conflict in the heavenly world
      3. The “Jews” who are slandering the Church are connected to the “devil” of v.10 whose Greek word diabolos means ‘slanderer’.
    2. They are encouraged to persevere, even onto death, just as the faithful did in the age of the Patriarchs

    3. They are promised a “crown of life” – possibly a dual reference

      1. the reward of heaven
      2. a local reference to the acropolis – the crown of Smyrna
    4. There are other local historical references for the people of Smyrna

      1. Smyrna was known as the prote Asias – the first of Asia; and is addressed by the “First and the Last”
      2. When Smyrna was destroyed by the Lydians there was no city for 300 years, yet the Lydians referred to the site of the city as “the city that was dead yet lived”; addressed by him :who was dead and has come to life again”

The Letter to Pergamum – Israel in Exodus

“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live – where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city – where Satan lives. Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”  (Rev 2:12-17)

  1. Pergamum

    1. Located 40 miles north of Smyrna and was  the administrative headquarters of Roman Asia (although the proconsul lived in Ephesus)

      1. located on a 1000 foot hill overlooking the surrounding valley of the Kaikus
      2. the acropolis was home to a variety of pagan temples, especially the emperor cult
    2. home to Asia Minor’s most prestigious medical school

    3. A renowned religious center noted for the earlier cults of Zeus and of Asclepius (a god of healing), but in Roman times a center of emperor worship with temples to Augustus and Rome

  2. The Images of the Exodus

    1. imagery taken from the sojourn of Israel in the wilderness – the abode of demons (cf. Lv 16:10; 17:7;  Dt 8:15;  Mt 4:1, 12:43)

    2. The references to Balaam and Balak, the false prophet and evil king who tried to destroy the Israelites by tempting them to idolatry and fornication (cf. Num 25;1-3; 31:16)

    3. Like the angels of the Lord and Phineas in OT, Christ threatens to make war against the Balaamites with the sword (cf. Num 22:31, 24:7-8)

    4. The promise of the hidden manna and the white stone

      1. a promise of a share of the manna from the Ark of the Covenant (Heb 9:4)
      2. two white stones which the High Priest carried on the shoulders of Ephod (Ex 28:9 ff) that had the names of the tribes on Israel engraved on them
  3. The message to the contemporary church at Pergamum

    1. Stand faithful, just as you have in the face of persecution

    2. the sword of God stands ready to strike at the seat of Roman authority – if only you remain faithful

    3. Avoid the false teachings of the Nicolaitians just as the teachings of Balaam were to be avoided.  Avoid the spiritual fornication (porneuein)

The Letter to Thyatira – the Age of the Hebrew Kingdoms

“To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.  I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you): Only hold on to what you have until I come. To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations –  ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’ – just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give him the morning star.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  (Rev 2:18-29)

  1. Thyatira

    1. an unremarkable city standing in a broad valley, 40 miles southeast of Pergamum.

    2. unlike all the other cities, there was no proper acropolis or others natural features that projected visual signs of strength

    3. primarily a trading center and notable for its trade guilds (with strong religious affinities) – metal workers and dyers of wool

      1. this presents a particular problem for Christians living there
      2. participation in the cultic worships were often required for membership in the guilds, and thus employment
  2. Images from the Old Testament

    1. St John now turns to the imagery from the Israelite monarchy and the Davidic covenant.

      1. in David’s time there came spiritual prosperity
      2. in Solomon’s time came the material prosperity and spiritual corruption
      3. as part of that corruption, the 10 northern tribes of Israel separated from Judah in the south – and themselves headed into religious corruption
      4. it describes a time when the greatest power and splendor of the kingdom of David and Solomon, also contained the seeds of religious corruption and the loss of the major part of the nation
    2. Christ announces himself as the “Son of God”,  the greater David (cf. Ps 2:7;  89:19-37;  Jer 30:9;  Ez 34:23-24;  37:24-28;  Hos 3:5;  Acts 2:24-36;  13:22-23I)

    3. Those who tolerate Jezebel are rebuked

      1. daughter of the King of Sidon who married Ahab, a king Israel (1 Kgs 16:31)
      2. Her aggressive character is seen in her ambition to exterminate Yahweh worship, her association with the guilds of the prophets, her violence, bloodshed and idolatry (1 Kgs 21:21-24) and fornication (2 Kgs 9:22)
      3. She and her offspring came to a violent end (see 2 Kgs 9:22-35)
    4. Those who overcome will, like David,  be granted authority over all the nations (cf. 2 Sam 7:19;  8:1-14)

    5. The nature of the authority will be as described in Ps 2:9 – the power of the potter over the clay, even to break into pieces that which is imperfect

    6. The curious passage containing the promise of the  “morning star”, which is uncertain at best, but may be a compound reference to Ps 2, Num 24:17 and Jer 23:5 – connecting the messianic meaning of Ps 2, the prophecy of the David and a star from Jacob (Num 24:17) and lastly the promise of a shoot out of Jesse (Jer 23:5) using a word that also mean ‘dayspring’.  But its a stretch.

  3. The message to the contemporary church at Thyatira

    1. They are to hold fast to what they have – there are no other tasks assigned to them

    2. they are encouraged to patient endurance and to resist the false teachings of those who would lead them away from what they now possess

      1. they are rebuked for tolerating the ‘Jezebel’ in their presence – even as a leader
      2. the teaching seems to be ‘gnostic’ in nature, teaching that the things in this material world were not  important – only the spiritual mattered
      3. these teachings were tolerated since they placed less barriers into participation in the guilds
      4. a situation more prevalent in what appears to be a small town
      5. On a historical note:  in the third century the Christian community aligned  itself to the Montanist heresy – an apocalyptic movement
    3. they are promised that if they endure then (a) they will be victorious and will also receive the morning star (Christ himself ?) and thus share in Christ’s triumph

The Letter to Sardis – the Age of the Later Prophetic Period and Exile

“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.  Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.  Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.  Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  (Rev 3:1-6)

    1.  Sardis

      1. 30 miles southeast of Thyratira, former capital of the Lydian kingdom of Croseus dating to 1200 BC

        1. marked by a citadel which was thought impregnable
        2. never fell to assault; but fell twice through treachery – both in sneak night attacks aided by traitors
        3. destroyed by earthquake in 17 AD – which was a continuation of a trend of decline since the days of the Lydian kingdom
      2. A commercial city like Ephesus and a center of worship to the Roman empress Livia and the emperor Tiberius.  Better known for its orgiastic cult of Anatolia (Cybele) a great nature goddess

    2. Old Testament Images

      1. The images are from the later prophetic period at the end of the monarchy

        1. Israel/Judah were ruled by increasingly corrupt kings (e.g. Manasseh)
        2. Reforming king reforms (e.g. Josiah) were either too late, too little or did not last
        3. the great prophets were sent to warn the nation and the people
        4. finally the people were punished for their disobedience to the covenant
      2. The prophetic descriptions about a church / people in trouble with God

        1. known for “life” when it is really dead”
        2. exhortations to “wake up” and to “strengthen the things that remain”
        3. acknowledgment that there are a few faithful ones left
        4. see Is 1:5-23, 6:9-13, 65:8-16;  Jer 7:1-7, 8:11-12;  Ezek 37:1-14
      3. Warnings of imminent judgment (see Is 1:23-31, 2:12-21, 26;20-21;  Jer 4:5-31,  7:12-15,  11:9-13;  Micah 1:2-7;  Zeph 1)

    3. The message to the contemporary church at Sardis

      1. You are a church which is spiritually dying and near death

      2. Christ alone can restore the life-giving spirit

  • “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will give you life.”  (Eph 5:14)

    1. look back to a time when you willingly listened to the Word and turn back to the ways of the Lord

    2. else the Lord will come in the night and destroy you, just as the in the historical past of Sardis fell to attacks in the night

    3. For the faithful remnant there is the promises

      1. white robes – heavenly bodies after the Resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 5:4)
      2. their name remains in the book of life – the divine register of the righteous, those who are truly alive in God.  To be blotted out means to lose the inheritance

The Letter to Philadelphia – the Period after the Exile

“I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.  I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.  Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.  I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.  Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  (Rev 3:8-13)

  1. Philadelphia

    1. 28 miles southeast of Sardis lays Philadelphia.  Founded in the mid-2nd century BC by Attalus II Philadelphia was constructed as a “little Athens” and assumed the role of education and continuity of the Greek culture

    2. Little else is known about the city, save her focus on emperor worship during this period

    3. In 110 AD Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the Church at Philadelphia which describes the active hostility to the Christians in that city; however, we have no record of a Jewish population (one way or the other) prior to 110 AD

  2. Old Testament Images

    1. Speaks in imagery of the synagogue, rebuilding of a new Jerusalem and a new Temple (cf. the prophecies of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi)

    2. the Jews returning from exile, like the Philadelphians, have little power

    3. the references to the synagogues of Satan recall the conflicts with the  “false Jews” in Ezra 4 and Nehemiah 4, 6, and 13

    4. the warning of the coming “hour of testing” recalls the tribulations under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (cf. Dan 8 and 11)

  3. The message to the contemporary church at Philadelphia

    1. The message is from the “the one who had the key of David…” which has an explicit background in Is 22:22

“In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah.  I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.  I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” (Is 22:20-22)

  1. in biblical and rabbinic writings this passage is used to describe the authorization to exercise complete power in a house
  2. thus the speaker, Christ, has complete authority to grant or deny entrance the new city of David – the new Jerusalem
  1. The people are encouraged to use the “open door” – a biblical expression for the opportunity to witness the gospel (cf. 1 Cor 16:9 and Col 4:3)

    1. just as the history of the city was to spread the Greek culture
    2. with the power of Christ, spread the Gospel message of the kingdom – the new Jerusalem
    3. and through their activity the Jews of the synagogue will come to know the Messiah has come
  2. There are coming tribulations

    1. Christ will not exempt them from the tribulation, but will support them through it
    2. just as the “angel from heaven” strengthened a weakened Jesus in Gethsemane to face and bear the agony of the Cross (Lk 22:43)
  3. Those who prove victorious will be

    1. assured a crown of glory
    2. permanent citizenship in the new Jerusalem
    3. share in the name of Jesus.

The Letter to Laodicea – the age of the Messiah

“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.  I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.  I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.  Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.  Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.  To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  (Rev 3:14-22)

  1. Laodicea

    1. Founded by Antiochus II Seleucid and named for his wife Laodice sometime prior to 240 BC

    2. Principally known as an agricultural and marketing center

      1. also known for banking, large manufacturing and textile industry
      2. home to a prestigious medical center which discovered a well-known eyes salve
    3. There is ample testimony to a large, influential Jewish community in the city (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 14.241-243).

      1. in 61 AD the Jewish community gave 22 lbs of gold to the Temple in Jerusalem
      2. 7,500 adult males were known to live within the city
      3. archeological discoveries have uncovered inscriptions regarding the feast of unleavened bread and Pentecost
    4. The city was located between

      1. Colossae – a mountain valley city watered by icy mountain springs whose water supplied Laodicea, but it was lukewarm at its arrival in the valley floor
      2. Hieropolis – a city famous for its hot springs reputed to have medicinal value
    5. The Church at Laodicea is mention 4 times in the Letter to the Colossians – there is little evidence that any ministry (St Paul’s ?) was effective

  2. Old Testament Images

    1. “You say to yourself; I am rich….”  is taken from Hosea 12:8

  3. The message to the contemporary church at Laodicea

    1. The message is not:

      1. I wish you were hot (fervent for the Lord), or
      2. cold (total apostate)
    2. Unlike Colossae and Hieropolis you provide neither cool drink nor healing baths

      1. you are good for nothing – ineffectual
      2. the church is called to task for the bareness of its works
      3. they are not called to blend into the world around them – they are called to change it
      4. it recalls Mt 5:13, “If a salt has become tasteless…it is good for nothing”
    3. The material wealth is unimportant, you are still spiritually poor, naked and blind.  From Christ you need to buy (with Faith – 1 Peter 1:7)

      1. true gold – a tested faith and love
      2. white robes – to cover the spiritual nakedness of the damned on the last day (cf. 2 Cor 5:2-3)
      3. eyesalve – to heal the spiritual blindness (1 Jn 2:11)
      4. Note: the use of the references to the three local business of wealth: banking, textiles and medicine
    4. There is the promise of

      1. a shared meal in the Eucharist
      2. the partaking of the divine inheritance

A Final Thought

The messages to the churches are vitally important for understanding the message of Revelation.  While St John seems to have his eyes fixed on the heavenly realities, his feet are firmly planted on the ground.  The communities to whom he writes are real men and women, are people who are coping, not always effectively, with difficult and painful situations.  If the humble and faithful Philadelphians and the Christians of Smyrna earn unstinted praise, the self-sufficient Loadiceans. doubtless to their chagrin and incredulous surprise, hear only word of blame, and the church at Sardis is more dead than alive.  The Epheseans may have sustained orthodoxy, but at the price of intolerance.  On the other hand, the situation in Thyatira and Pergamum warn that tolerance may be pushed too far.  He has shown them the entire history of salvation as a means for them (and ourselves) to judge their current place in the covenant relationship with God.  By recalling the past, witnessing to the present, he has established for them a path into the future and the covenant Rest of God.

Assessment and verdict are those of the Lord of the Churches, but filtered through the mind and words of the prophet.  St John’s own temperament and uncompromising stance have lent color to the words of the revelation.  Is “the woman Jezebel” quite as bad as he has painted?  Are the Jewish communities in the various cities really “synagogues of Satan”?  We can only place our faith in the Word of  God, and at the same time even if we really think that St John displays a measure of intolerance not to our liking, we must also recognize that he has a clear appreciation for the infinite stretch of God’s mercy.

All in all, the challenge of the Way remains.  There is an incompatibility between a wholehearted following of Christ and the standards of a world unenlightened by the Gospel.  The danger is that the Christians can settle, too readily, for a “reasonable” approach.  It is the charism of the prophets to see to the heart of things.  Only the starkest words can match his uncomplicated vision.  The genuine prophet speaks a message of comfort, based on faithfulness to God, but it will never be a comfortable message.  St John’s message to the churches urge us to look at ourselves.  Perhaps the relentless St John is correct – there is no compromise.

We can draw some comfort from these messages.  We should have an better understanding of the New Testament situation.  We learn that our older brothers and sisters in the new faith are no different from ourselves.  They, as we, had to live our faith in an unsympathetic world, often a hostile world.  They, as we, have their doubts and fears.  They, as we, had to hear the warning of the coming tribulations, and, despite every appearance to the contrary, cling in hope to the assurance, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

3 thoughts on “Letters to the Seven Churches

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