Seven Letters Introduction
Table of Contents
This lesson will discuss the structure of each of the Seven Letters. We will also review several approaches to application including three conjectures.
Our fifth lesson in Revelations backgrounds will introduce the seven letters in chapters 2-3. Each letter follows an intricate and nearly identical outline. Understanding this at the outset will help us as we seek to unpack each letter. Next, we will look at several application layers and the commonly taught “church age” conjecture. We will also look at the often confusing and misunderstood phrases, “the Nicolaitans,” “those who say they are Jews but are not,” and “the synagogue of Satan.” Since these phrases occur in multiple letters, we will deal with them upfront. Ultimately Scripture does not define these. We will strive to leverage what we ARE told from Scripture – and we do get some clues – with what was going on in that society at the time to make an educated guess that may be different from what is commonly taught. Acts 17:11 says, don’t take my word for it but test these theories to see whether these things could be so. As we mentioned in an earlier lesson, our job is not to tell you WHAT to think. It’s to get you TO think.
The Sevenfold Structure of Each Letter
We will find that the letters follow a sequence of seven elements. 1. Name of the city (addressee), 2. An attribute of the Glorified Messiah from 1:12-20 (addresser), 3. Praise that usually begins with “I know…”, 4. Judgment, 5. Encouragement, 6. A promise to the overcomer, 7. “He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Keener notes: “Some scholars have compared the elements of the form to Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern covenant formulas; if they are correct, the prophecies here may act like the covenant lawsuits common in the Old Testament prophets (e.g., in Amos 2–4). They may also function analogously to a series of oracles against the nations common in the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Isaiah 13–23; Jer 46–51; Ezek 25–32; especially the eight brief oracles of Amos 1–2)."1 We examine each element in greater detail and describe more about the judgment aspect, as commentators often overlook this.
1. Name of the City
(1) “To the angel of the Messianic Community in Ephesus, write: ‘Here is the message…
The first element is always addressed to the angel of the assembly at each of the cities. We’ve mentioned in previous lessons that there is scholarly debate as to whether the angel is supernatural or is a human messenger. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter as the body of each letter deals with the behaviors of the human body of believers.
The meaning of the city’s name often is revealing. For example, Ephesus means “darling” or “darling one,” yet this is the church that lost its first love, and the Greek word used is Agape, a completely devoted type of love.
As we go through each city in subsequent Revelation Background lessons, we will present some of the background history, enhancing our understanding of what God communicates to the fellowship. Keener writes, “Ancient cities were fiercely proud of their own history and culture and would be more sensitive to local allusions than most readers today would be."2
2. A specific attribute of Messiah
‘Here is the message from the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven gold menorahs:
The second element is a specific attribute of the one who is sending the letter. The speaker is never identified as Jesus, but we’ll say it’s Jesus the Messiah in his risen and glorified form even though we know John received the revelation through an angel.
The attributes typically tie back to the description of this heavenly being in Revelation 1:12-20. There is one slight deviation in the letter to Philadelphia where He says He has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. Revelation 1:18 mentions the Keys to death and hades but not the Key of David. Any deviations should get our attention. We’ll unpack this when we get to Philadelphia.
3. Specific Praise that begins with “I know….”
(2) “I know what you have been doing, how hard you have worked, how you have persevered, and how you can’t stand wicked people; so you tested those who call themselves emissaries but aren’t—and you found them to be liars. (3) You are persevering, and you have suffered for my sake without growing weary.
The third attribute in each letter is praise. If I read this like an audit report from my corporate auditing days, this would be an attribute that was tested and found to have met the standard. It is something Jesus approves of and encourages us to keep on doing. In some letters, it is apparent that something they think is wrong, Jesus believes is good. To Smyrna, Jesus writes, “I know your poverty, but you are rich.” They likely did not see themselves as rich, but Jesus says they are.
Not every letter follows this sevenfold structure, and it will get our attention when there are deviations. Two letters are conspicuous because they have no praise. These are the 5th and 7th letters: Sardis and Laodicea. Something is seriously wrong with these churches. We’ll find out what those things are when we get to those cities. We also note that the “I know” beginning now precedes the judgment for these two assemblies.3
(4) But I have this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. (5) Therefore, remember where you were before you fell, turn from this sin, and do what you used to do before. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your menorah from its place—if you don’t turn from your sin!
The fourth element of Jesus’ report card is what we might benignly call an improvement opportunity, although we must note Jesus uses much harsher words. This is God pronouncing a judgment. In the example of Ephesus, their deficiency, loss of the love they had at first, is nothing less than a sin which they must repent of at the expense of losing their light. And since Jesus is in the midst of that light, He’s saying he’s going to remove Ephesus from his midst. That’s serious. This isn’t a C on the report card; it’s not even an F. It’s a zero. It’s so severe that many commentators believe a loss of salvation is in view for people who don’t repent (or we could say people who don’t repent even after Jesus tells them to do not show evidence of saving faith).
These are very analogous to the judgment pronouncements in the Old Testament. One of the more familiar of these is Jonah. Jonah was called to go to Nineveh, the hated and brutal regime of the day, and pronounce a judgment. He didn’t want to go, which was a whale of a tale. Ba-dum.
The message Jonah was to deliver was that the all-knowing, all-powerful God of Israel knows what wickedness has been occurring in Ninevah, and His patience is not infinite. Judgment is coming.
Judgments like these usually have an expressed or implied safety valve. If the recipient repents, the Judgment will be withheld. We see that in this letter to Ephesus. “Remember where you were, repent, and do what you used to do.”
Jonah didn’t even get to this part of his oracle to Nineveh. The town’s leaders understood that repenting was the only way to avert disaster. Which they did, causing Jonah to pout some more.
People who teach that the God of the Old Testament is vengeful and judgmental while the God of the New is all about grace have apparently never read Revelation 2 and 3. They probably have not read much of the Old Testament either. We see God’s grace and mercy at the very beginning in the Garden of Eden. God is most gracious, most merciful, and cannot tolerate sin. All are true.
Just as two churches had no praise, two other churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, have no deficiency. This is one reason everyone wants to think they are part of the church of Philadelphia (but remember, the difference between how we see ourselves and how Jesus sees us is a significant theme throughout each letter).
In terms of personal application, if any of Jesus’ words of judgment to the seven assemblies pinch us a little, we need to repent and get that corrected. As a talmid, I must serve at His pleasure faithfully. If He tells me I need to improve, I know I better improve.
(6) But you have this in your favor: you hate what the Nicolaitans do—I hate it too.
The 5th element is encouragement, or, we might say, additional (or secondary) praise. Jesus will follow up his condemnation with a note of encouragement. In some cases, the secondary encouragement is directed to a specific subset of the congregation where perhaps only a few are doing the thing Jesus approves of.
We mentioned Sardis and Laodicea do not have any praise. Sardis still has an encouragement that is extremely limited in its scope. For Laodicea, the encouragement takes a different form of a plea, which we’ll get to down the road. Pergamum has praise, but they get no secondary encouragement statement. Again, exceptions to the usual pattern need to get our attention. Something is very wrong at Pergamum.
Note the general rule is a 2:1 ratio of praise and encouragement to deficiencies. If your job involves supervising others, auditing, or parenting, this is great to remember. It indicates the deliverer of the bad news cares about the recipients and is not just being a disciplinarian.
6. Promise to the Overcomer
To him winning the victory I will give the right to eat from the Tree of Life which is in God’s Gan-`Eden.”
Many translations have “to the overcomer.” Stern borrows from Paul and phrases it, “to him winning the victory.” The book of Revelation is about being an overcomer. The entire Christian walk of discipleship (the “talmidim way”) is about being an overcomer. Romans 12:2 says, " Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. "
This does raise some interesting theological questions. Most commentators assume the letters are addressed to believers. If so, is Jesus saying that there will be some believers who will NOT be overcomers? If so, in Ephesus' case, does that mean there will be believers who do not eat from the Tree of Life?” Other commentators see this promise as a forfeit of rewards, not salvation. The counterargument is that eating the tree of life appears to be the only way to avoid the second death. How can one say that one is saved if one can’t eat the Tree of Life and avoid the second death? Dr. Fruchtenbaum has what may be a more straightforward rationale. Many assume these letters are written to believers only. Fruchtenbaum points out that these 1st-century fellowships probably had unbelievers alongside believers, just like today’s congregations. This may have included some intentional imposters that slipped in as well as people who sincerely believe they are saved, but to whom Jesus will say, “depart from me. I never knew you.” The overcomers would be those who are genuinely saved, and the non-overcomers would be unsaved.
This entire debate is easily solved by putting our trust in Jesus. He said, “if you love Me, keep my commands.” One of His commands is to abide in Him. If we abide in Him and help others do the same, then whether the manmade doctrine of eternal security is true is ultimately relevant.
7. He who has an ear
(7) Those who have ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the Messianic communities.
The last component is every letter will have this identical phrase “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies or churches” This is an exciting statement. Each letter begins directed to a specific congregation, but each ends with an individual application (you and I have ears to hear) and application to all churches. He didn’t say here what the spirit is saying to “Ephesus”; he said Hear what the spirit is saying to the communities. OR your bible probably has “what the Spirit says to the churches” plural. We’ll talk more about the application in the next section. This is a warning for all believers to hear and obey Jesus' words.
We have 6 and 7 flipped intentionally because the promise comes first in the last four letters, and the letter closes with “he who has an ear.” The first three are like Ephesus; he who has an ear is followed by the promise. We aren’t told from the text why this is.
I spent a lot of my professional career first auditing then running audit and monitoring programs. These letters read very much like an audit report - you have the “to” and the “from,” and as auditors, we always give our credentials. Credentials are what makes us an expert in the field. Jesus is giving his judgment credentials. We then present those items that met the standard and those deficiencies that require remediation or corrective action (deficiencies noted were judgments of sorts). Those would be sections 3, 4, and 5of each letter. Then there is always a section on the next steps - we’ll recommend to the board that you’re good to go for another three years, or maybe we’ll recommend to operations that if they can’t fix the problem, they shouldn’t be in the business. I see that as roughly equivalent to the promise to the overcomer. (I never said, “if you have eyes to see, you must read my report,” but I wish I could have).
There are four surface layers of application and another three within the realm of conjecture.
The four obvious levels are as follows:
- Personal (he that has an ear…)
- The specific local assembly and its attendees (to the assembly at Ephesus)
- All seven assemblies and their attendees (hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies)
- All congregations throughout history (hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies)
In the 21st century, the personal application is the most important. We must resist the temptation to say that each judgment is only for that 1st-century church or some other church I’m not attending. We must make it personal. Let’s do some introspective digging. What areas might we need to improve or even repent of in our lives to align them with Jesus' expectations?
We believe the fourth application is valid because there appear to be components in some of the letters that go beyond the local situation and, in some cases, do not appear to apply to the local situation at all. We will highlight these as we get to the specifics of each letter.
There are three additional parallels certain scholars have noted. Some connections can be strained in places but, in general, may have value and hint at supernatural design.
- Pauline letter counterpart
- Matthew 13 parable counterpart
- Church Age theory
Pauline letter counterpart
Paul also wrote to seven cities (Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Thessaloniki). The themes in Paul’s letters seem to parallel the Seven Letters of Revelation broadly.4
Later we will look at a passage from Ephesians that appears to fit what we know about Ephesus and applies to the local situation. Ephesus and Laodicea are mentioned explicitly in Ephesians and Colossians, respectively, so those two are natural parings with Jesus' letters to Ephesus and Laodicea.
We can also see that Philippians share some themes with Smyrna’s letter regarding suffering. Pergamum talks about a carnal church that’s married to the world. Is there a city Paul wrote to that struggled with this? Yep. Corinth. Scholars see connections with Thyatira and Sardis to Galatians and Romans. In some cases, these two can be reversed. Linking Sardis to Romans draws on the Church Age theory discussed below. Philadelphia is the church where everything is going well. Is there a church Paul wrote to where the bulk of the letter is praise and encouragement? That would be Thessalonians. Anyway, it’s interesting even if they aren’t perfect fits.
- Ephesus - Ephesians 4:17-32 parallels Jesus' words to Ephesus - Eph 4:14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
- Smyrna - Philippians - Joy through suffering - Php 1:29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake / Php 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.
- Pergamum - Corinthians - Married to the world - 1Co 5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans
- Thyatira - Galatians - Religious externalism themes - Gal 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel
- Sardis - Romans - Don’t know they are dead / don’t walk the talk - Rom 3:10-12 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; (11) no one understands; no one seeks for God. (12) All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
- Philadelphia - Thessalonians - praiseworthy fellowships - 1Th 2:19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?
- Laodicea - Colossians - Lukewarm/told to exchange letters - Col 3:2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
Matthew 13 Parable counterpart
On the parables, it’s the same general thought. Thyatira deals with a woman Jezebel. Is there a woman featured in one of the parables? Yes - it’s the woman with the leaven, a type of sin. To Laodicea, Jesus says he will “spew” them out of his mouth. Is there a parable that deals with rejecting and casting out? That would be the parable of the Dragnet where the good fish are kept, and the rotten fish are cast away.
As with the Pauline letter counterparts, some connections may be strained. If nothing else, doing Acts 17:11 diligence will cause us to look into Paul’s letters and Matthew’s parables to see whether these things be so.
- Ephesians - Four soils - identify believers from unbelievers
- Smyrna - Tares and the wheat - Suffering by the children of the wicked one
- Pergamum - Mustard Seed - Becomes something it was never intended to be; the birds of the air (ministers of Satan) can nest inside
- Thyatira - Woman with Leaven - Only letter/parable that mentions a woman
- Sardis - Treasure in the field - a few in Sardis will have treasure in heaven
- Philadelphia - Pearl of Great Price - A pearl is an item of adornment
- Laodicea - Dragnet - spew/cast out the unwanted
Church Age Theory
Some scholars make a big deal about the church age theory, but it’s not without issues.
At the outset, the most common version of the theory holds that all types of churches were always present and, for the most part, are present today. The church assigned to the age happens to be the dominant or at least the predominant church of that given period.
- Ephesus - Apostolic - 70-170
- Smyrna - Persecuted - 170 -312
- Pergamum - Compromised/Licentious (married to the world) - 312 - 606
- What Satan couldn’t destroy by persecution, he tried to kill by erosion from within
- Christianity became the state religion under Constantine II - went from pacifist to conquering
- Byzantine period
- Thyatira - Papal (Catholic) Church - 606- Present
- Boniface II first universal Pope in 606
- Tolerate Jezebel - pagan/non-biblical practices infiltrate
- Medieval period
- Sardis - Protestant Church - 1517-Present
- NAME (deNOMination) that they are alive but are dead
- Reformation/Enlightenment period (95 Theses 1517)
- Philadelphia - Missionary/Faithful - 1750-Present
- A time when doors were open to the spread of the Gospel
- Interestingly, it corresponds to freedom movements in America, France, and elsewhere
- It tends to be “The church I am attending”
- Laodicea - Comfortable/Lukewarm - 1900-Present
- Short sermons and comfy chairs
- Sincerely half-hearted believers
- Conforms to society
- It tends to be “The church someone I don’t agree with is attending”
Again, we can say that all churches were always present. We know for a fact that Laodicea was present in the apostolic age; Jesus said so! Also, today, which would be the Laodicean age, many Christians worldwide are persecuted the way Smyrna was.
Unquestionably, this interpretation would not have occurred to John or the original audience, so we need to tread lightly. One issue is it is only limited to the western/European church (to be precise, the churches founded in lands occupied by the western part of the Roman empire and its successors). The eastern faith traditions are not present, many of which are very different from ours. It’s hard to find a slot for the Egyptian Coptics, Armenian Orthodox, or African variants.
Next, the theory applied today results in a bit of “us and them.”
Every believer sees him or herself as part of the church of Philadelphia (the missionary and faithful church) and anyone they disagree with as part of the church of Laodicea (the apostate church).
One of the themes of the letters is how we see ourselves and how Jesus sees us are not necessarily aligned - so many who think they are Philadelphia may not be.
Also, if every church today is either Laodicea or Philadelphia, we would have only needed two churches in Revelation, not seven. We’ll touch on this but hold to it lightly as we go through each city. It’s much more vital that we look ourselves in the mirror as we read each letter than categorize different churches according to the Church Age Theory.
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd edition (E-Sword). (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2014), v. Rev 2:1. ↩︎
For this reason, some commentators would say the third element is “I know.” This phrase appears in all seven letters; five times He knows and approves, but two times He knows and disapproves. ↩︎
Chuck Missler, The Book of Revelation Handbook (Koinonia House, 2020), 104. ↩︎