Editor's Note: This is the first of a series of articles on the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3.
What caused Christ to dictate a letter to each the Seven Churches in Asia at the opening of His Revelation to John? To find the answer, I'll take this series of articles to focus on the historical, political, and economic setting of the cities of these Seven Churches mentioned in the book of Revelation.
Who was the writer of the book of Revelation? He identifies himself in 1:1 as John, but some argue that this was not John the Apostle but a John who was an elder at the church in Ephesus. Others state there were two different writers. Most orthodox scholars accept that it was John the Apostle.
Two things have to be considered when a person studies any prophetic statement in the Bible. First, there is "forth-telling" which is meant the message of the letters was for the people or church receiving the message at that present time. Second, there is "fore-telling" which is for Christians and/or churches sometime in the future.
Before we going into detail concerning the Seven Churches, here is some important background information. On a current map, you will notice that these seven churches are in the nation of Turkey-some of these towns are still there, others have been abandoned. Since these churches were so close together geographically and because of the good Roman road system, it's thought the book of Revelation was delivered as a circular letter. This would indicate it was one letter but was taken to each church mentioned rather than written as seven different letters. "Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea" (1:11).
Politically in the first century, Rome ruled from what is now Spain, over to Turkey, all of the Middle East and most of northern Africa. Rome seemed to tolerate all forms of religious activity, except Christianity. One of the reasons for hating the Christians is they were thought to be too secretive in what they did. For example: Romans thought they drank blood and ate bodies. Also the Christians claimed theirs was the only true God. This idea of Christianity being the only true religion was not well accepted, especially by the emperor of Rome (at the time of this letter, most likely Domitian, who reigned from 81-96 A. D.) who demanded to be worshipped as lord.
Because of the persecution of Christians at that time, some think that parts of Revelation are written in "code" that can be understood by those in the churches receiving the letter, but not understood by others who were not Christians. Writing in code was done as a form of protection in case enemies of the church confiscated the letter. Trying to decipher this language in the present time is not easy, as can be evidenced by the many books on the interpretation of the book of Revelation. But, to the churches at that time it was no mystery what John wrote to them.
While many of the letters of the New Testament are written to individuals, this Revelation was written to the churches and their leaders. The leaders are represented by the "stars" or "angels". When he writes about the lampstands, John is referring to the churches. The writer is not speaking of Jewish Menorahs (one lampstand with branches going out on each side), But, the writer uses the plural, "lampstands". Most likely John is referring to the type of lampstand that was used to provide light when it's dark. This type of lampstand would have a cup or bowl at the top to hold oil and not a candle.
What Christ is doing in dealing with the leaders of these churches and of the churches is establishing His authority by stating He has them in His right hand. "As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches" (1:20).
Christ points out four things to five of the seven churches. This is because while five of the churches received condemnation, two did not. The reason these two churches didn't receive condemnation will be discussed in future articles. For easier reading, here are the four things that Christ stated to John concerning these churches except the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia: Commendation,Condemnation, Correction, and Consequences.
Since this will be a series of articles, next month we will explore the church at Ephesus asking why Ephesus was the first church to receive this circular letter, why did they leave their "first love", and who are the Nicolaitans whom Christ hates?
Ray P. Burriss is a retired missionary (having served in Puerto Rico) and is a marriage and family counselor ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention.