Summary: There were many other churches at that time that would seem to be more historically significant than the seven that Jesus addressed: the churches at Jerusalem, Rome, Galatia, Corinth, Antioch, Colossae, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Miletus, to name a few. Why
Seven Mysterious Letters
Revelation is the only book in the Bible that promises a special blessing to the reader.1 (Many passages tell us to read the Bible in general terms. Only one book has the audacity to say, in effect, Read me; I'm special.)
Early in my teens, I encountered a Bible teacher who heralded that The Book of Revelation is written in code; but every code is explained somewhere else in the Bible.
That really caught my attention. And that discovery changed my entire life.
The Seven Letters
Ask any Bible student how many epistles (letters) are in the New Testament. He will probably answer 21 : 13 authored by Paul, plus Hebrews, which appears anonymous;2 and the seven "general epistles" by Peter, James, John, and Jude.
We usually overlook the seven most important letters: the seven authored by Jesus personally. For many reasons, these seven letters, comprising Chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation, are probably the most important part of this book for you and me.
Why These Seven?
There were many other churches at that time that would seem to be more historically significant than the seven that Jesus addressed: the churches at Jerusalem, Rome, Galatia, Corinth, Antioch, Colossae, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Miletus, to name a few. Why did Jesus select just these seven Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea?
Four Levels of Meaning
There appear to be at least four levels of application to these letters:
1. Local: These were actual, historic churches, with valid needs. Archaeological discoveries have confirmed this.
2. Admonitory: In each of the letters there appears the key phrase, "Hear what the Spirit says to the churches". Note the plural, churches. It turns out that each of the letters applies to all churches throughout history. As we understand the sevenfold internal structure, the uniquely tailored messages, and the specific admonitions in each of the letters, we discover that any church can be "mapped" in terms of these seven composite profiles.
3. Homiletic: Each of the letters also contains the phrase, "He that hath an ear let him hear..." Doesn't each of us "have an ear"? Each letter applies to each of us. There are some elements of each of these seven "churches" in each of us. Thus, this may be the most practical application of the entire Book of Revelation.
4. Prophetic: The most amazing discovery, however, of these seven letters is their apparent prophetic application. These letters describe, with remarkable precision, the unfolding of all subsequent church history.
These letters describe, with remarkable precision, the unfolding of all subsequent church history. If these letters were in any other order, this would not be true!
These letters appear to fill the interval between the 69th and 70th "weeks" of Daniel 9. The Book of Acts covers about 30 years; these two chapters of the Book of Revelation cover the next 1,900 years.
Seven Key Elements
A key aspect to understanding the letters is to grasp the structure of their design. A careful examination of the letters reveals seven key elements in their design:
1. The meaning of the name of the church being addressed (see below);
2. The title of Jesus, each chosen relevant to the message to that particular church;
3. The commendation of things that have been done well;
4. The "criticism" of things that need attention;
5. The exhortation, specific to the condition of the particular church;
6. The promise to the "overcomer" included with each letter;
7. The key phrase, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches."
The Meaning of Names
Epheses: The Desired One
Smyrna: Myrrh; Death
Pergamos: Mixed Marriage
Philadelphia: Brotherly Love
Laodicea: People Rule
It is also interesting that this key phrase in element 7 is the final element in the last four letters, but appears before the "Promise to the Overcomer" (element 6) in the first three, leaving the promises as a kind of post script after the body of the letters themselves. This design suggests that the first three letters and the last four may share some particular characteristic. [It is also interesting that only the last four letters include explicit references to our Lord's Second Coming.]
The Missing Elements
Once the basic structure is evident, one also notices that two of the letters, Smyrna and Philadelphia, have no Criticism, Element 4. That's encouraging for them.
Also, two of the letter, Sardis and Laodicea, have no Commendation, Element 5. That's rather grim.
The Prophetic View
If these seven letters really do include a preview of all church history, then where are we now? Are we, indeed, in the period suggested by the letter to Laodicea?
Judge for yourself.
Also, is there an intended parallel between these seven letters of Jesus Christ and His seven "Kingdom Parables" of Matthew 13?