Exegesis In the Company of Angels-All 7 Windows

Published on February 19th, 2013 | by Gary DeMar

18

The Seven Churches of Revelation 2–3

In the Company of Angels-All 7 Windows

Revelation was written to seven first-century churches as a spiritual wake-up call because of events that were “about to take place upon the whole world [oikoumenē]” (Rev. 3:10). The use of oikoumenē instead of kosmos indicates that the events that were about to unfold were confined to the Roman Empire. The same word is used in Matthew 24:14, Luke 2:1, and Acts 11:28.

Revelation is not describing a worldwide apocalyptic conflagration. Revelation is a prophetic symbolic description of what Jesus prophesied would happen to the temple, the capital city of Israel, and the old covenant world made of things that were destined to pass away. Jesus is the new everything. He’s the better temple, sacrifice, priest, and guarantor of a new covenant:

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9:11–12).

The book of Revelation is not a warning to what was going to happen to Israel. Jesus had made that clear 35 years before in the Olivet Discourse. Revelation was delivered to seven churches made up of Christians as a wake-up call. They would suffer the same fate as Israel if they followed in the theological moral footsteps of Israel. The indictments that are leveled against the seven churches drip with Old Covenant judgment language — even the threat to come in judgment if they didn’t wake up (Rev. 2:5, 16; 3:3) — pervades the two chapters. They were “about to suffer,” these things were “about to happen” (2:10).

Revelation was not a five-year warning (if it was written around the year 65); it was an ongoing warning. Anybody reading Revelation after the destruction of Jerusalem could have said, “Jesus warned us. He showed us. Everything He said would happen did happen. It could happen to us. Revelation is a lesson for every generation. We can look back and say that what God said would happen, did happen, and we’re not exempt.”

The question is, had some of these churches fallen from the faith in such a short time after their founding? Dr. Simon J. Kistemaker,(1) Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and co-author of the completed New Testament Commentary series that was commenced by William Hendriksen, argues that there was not enough time for the Asia Minor churches to fall from the faith so quickly if Revelation is describing events around the mid-60s. He writes

Even a cursory reading leaves the impression that the recipients were second-generation Christians. It does not appear that the people in the seven churches had only recently received the gospel. . . . Paul . . . wrote two epistles to Timothy, who was a pastor there in the sixties. Nothing in Acts or Paul’s epistles relates to the conditions prevalent in the church of Ephesus when John wrote the epistle that Jesus dictated.(2)

A few comments are in order. On the day of Pentecost, Luke records “that there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. . . . Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,” (Acts 2:5, 9). The reference to “Asia” (Acts 6:9; 16:6; 19:10; 20:4; 21:27; 24:18; Rom. 16:5; 2 Tim 1:15; Rev 1:4), the west coast province of Asia, is the area where Revelation’s seven churches were located, including Ephesus.

There’s a good chance that by the time Revelation was dictated to John (around AD 65) that the churches listed in Revelation 2–3 could have been operating for 30 years (Rom. 16:5) started from the testimony of Jews returning to their Asia Minor homeland and telling family and friends about what had been going on in Jerusalem. The message of the gospel could have also come by way of travelers by ship since Ephesus was a coastal city. “Ephesus has been estimated to be in the range of 400,000 to 500,000 inhabitants in the year 100, making it the largest city in Roman Asia and of the day. Ephesus was at its peak during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.”

A Jerusalem-wide persecution took place after the death of Stephen that scattered many believers: “those who had been scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:1, 4). It wouldn’t have taken long for the gospel to reach Asia Minor. Albert Barnes writes:

The Jews at that time were scattered into almost all nations, and in all places had synagogues. [John 7:35; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1]. Still they would naturally desire to be present as often as possible at the great feasts of the nation in Jerusalem. Many would seek a residence there for the convenience of being present at the religious solemnities.

According to Dr. Kistemaker, Paul ministered in Ephesus from AD 53–56. At Paul’s departure, he gave this warning to the Ephesian elders: “savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). “These words, in respect to Ephesus and several of these churches addressed in the Apocalypse, were now fulfilled; the ‘grievous wolves’ had come; these ‘perverse men’ had arisen.”(3) The first of Revelation’s seven churches in Asia is Ephesus (Rev. 2:1–7). Ephesus hadn’t completely apostatized but it was compromised.

There were constant attacks from Judaizers from Ephesus. Paul could not escape them even in Jerusalem:

 When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man [Paul] who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place. For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was provoked, and the people rushed together, and taking hold of Paul they dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. While they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the Roman cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion (Acts 20:27–31; 2 Cor. 1:8).

 The spiritual condition of the churches in Asia Minor were threatened. Paul wrote the following to Timothy: “You are aware of the fact that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes” (2 Tim. 1:15; see 1 Tim. 6:10; 2 Tim. 4:10–11, 16). This description seems to fit what was revealed to John.  So whether first-generation or second-generation churches, there was spiritual decline.

Second, it didn’t take long for theological and moral problems to develop in churches. In the Corinthian church, Paul writes, “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst” (1 Cor. 5:1–2). If the church elders wouldn’t do the removing, then God would (cf. Rev. 2:5).

In his second epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes words similar to what John was told to write in Revelation:

Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. “Therefore, COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE,” says the Lord. “AND DO NOT TOUCH WHAT IS UNCLEAN; and I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:14–18; cf. Rev. 2:14, 20).

Paul wrote the following to the Galatians, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6–7; cf. Rev. 2:4).

Paul confronted Peter “to his face” over a doctrinal issue “because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11).

The writer to the Hebrews says of the recipients of his letter that they “have become dull of hearing,” that by this time in their faith they “ought to be teachers.” Now they “need again for someone to teach [them] the elementary principles of the oracles of God” so that they “have come to need milk and not solid food” (Heb. 5:11b–12).

John mentions “false prophets” that had already “gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1; cf. Rev. 2:2) and even “many antichrists” (1 John 2:18). These antichrists, John writes, “went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (v. 19). He writes similar descriptions in his second epistle. “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist” and “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 John 7, 10–11). Could these antichrists be the ones that make up Revelation’s “synagogues of Satan” (2:9; 3:9)?

Peter writes, “But false prophets also arose among the people just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Peter 2:1). All of these things happened before Revelation was revealed to John. It’s interesting that six of the seven churches did not receive letters from the New Testament writers, at least none that we are aware of. Like Corinth and Galatia, Revelation was their spiritual wake-up call.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that some people (not all: Rev. 3:4) of the seven churches had succumbed to false teaching and even immorality within a short time of their founding as evidenced by so much material found in Acts and the epistles.

Dr. Kistemaker dismisses the pre-AD 70 date for Revelation because, as he writes:

We are never told that John was a pastor in Ephesus before the demise of Jerusalem. The church fathers related that John settled in Ephesus after the Jewish war of A.D. 66–70. But even if he had been in Ephesus before that period, his time of service prior to his exile would have been short. But according to the seven letters to the churches in Asia, John was well acquainted with the spiritual status of each one of them. This hardly seems possible if John was there but briefly.(4)

John wouldn’t have had to be present at any of the seven churches to know their spiritual condition since what he wrote was revealed to him by God (Rev. 1:1–2, 11, 19).

The more I dig through the New Testament, the more convincing evidence I see that it was written prior to Jerusalem’s destruction, not as a warning to Old Covenant Israel (that had been done already) but to New Covenant Israel made of Jewish and Gentile believers so they would not suffer a similar fate (1 Cor. 10:1–11; Heb. 12).Endnotes:

  1. I learned what I know of NT Greek from Dr. Kistemaker. He would say that I should have learned more. He is right. But I keep learning. I also took a number of NT courses from him. He was a great teacher; I just think on several points he is mistaken.()
  2. Simon J. Kistemaker, “Hyper-Preterism and Revelation,” When Shall These Things Be? A Reformed Response to Hyper-Preterism, ed. Keith A. Mathison (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), 232.()
  3. James MacDonald, The Life and Writings of St. John (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1877), 156.()
  4. Kistemaker, “Hyper-Preterism and Revelation,” 233.()
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About the Author

Gary is a graduate of Western Michigan University (1973) and earned his M.Div. at Reformed Theological Seminary in 1979. He is the author of countless essays, news articles, and more than 27 book titles, His most recent book is Exposing the Real Last Days Scoffers. Gary lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife, Carol. They have two married sons and four grandchildren, Gary and Carol are members of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA).



18 Responses to The Seven Churches of Revelation 2–3

  1. glen b smith says:

    The article presents internal biblical evidence for the probability of an early dating of the Apostle John’s Letter to the Seven Churches based upon the comparative problems in the seven churches of Revelation with the problems in the churches found in the writings of the Evangelist Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, the writer to the Hebrews, and the epistles of Paul, John, and Peter.

  2. Vladislav says:

    Thank you for the way you make clear teaching of the Bible even more clear to those of us who’s common sense has been messed up by new teachings.
    I became a christian 20 years ago, in USSR (5 years before I moved to USA). But I never could find fulfillment reading the Bible because It wouldn’t agree with many things that are preached in church. I couldn’t tell exactly what was it; I sensed it but just couldn’t put my finger on it.
    About 6 years ago I became a convert from evolutionist to a normal person (thanks to answersingenesis.org and crev.info). I even changed my diet (thanks to Walter Veith from amazingdiscoveries.org). Then I went through despensationalism, historicism and all their flavors. Finally I stumble upon preterism.
    Anyway… A few month ago I bought “Basic Training for Understanding Bible Prophecy” DVD. It explained fundamentals of preterism position. This position is not known outside US, even in the US preterism is not as popular as it should be. So for my friends and other Russian speaking Christians I’ve made a few posts on my blog that are based on DVD. I prey for my friends so they would GET IT. And I thank you for all your work.

    • Alex Alexander says:

      Nice comments by brother Vladislav.
      But one friendly word of advice: Pray for your friends; don’t “prey” for them! (ha ha!).
      Alex A
      UK

  3. Lloyd says:

    The only difference in Matt, 24; Mark 13; and Luke 21 which is what Jesus said would take place
    not immediately but would occur in the then present generation (about 27yrs) and what was
    recorded by John on Patmos is that John wrote as a final warning to the Christians in Judea.
    Rev. 1:1 “things which must shortly come to pass” Rev 1;3 “For the time is at hand” Why those
    seven churches? They were the only churches in that part of Asia just a short was from the isle of Patmos. At an earlier date there had been two additional churches in that area but three were destroyed by earthquakes in the mid century and only Laodicea was rebuilt. Why do you suppose that Matthew, Mark and Luke recorded the early warning of Jesus about the destruction of Jerusalem and John did not do so? The answer is that it would be John’s responsibility to warn Christians in Judea and Jerusalem when the event was about to occur. The Christians were given warnings by certain signs that when they occured they were to flee for their lives and they did so. After the destruction of Jerusalem Jewish persecution of Christians ended and John was yet young enough to preach the gospel and many churches were established in Asia and in other places. The internal and external evidence is overwhelming that the book of Revelation was written in about A.D. 68 and not in A.D. 95.
    The seven churches of Asia were to disseminate the last warning to Christians and needed
    to correct their own failings or be lost. The book of Revelation speaks of the temple first
    standing and then being destroyed. Such was not the case in A.D. 95. In A.D. 95 the temple had long been destroyed. In chapter 5 the book that only Jesus could reveal the context was about
    future events that were “at hand” and chapter one we read that Jesus is revealing the contents
    to John to send to the 7 churches to warn Christians opf impending events.

  4. Brother Les says:

    Your second and third paragraph seems to conflict with each other. Revelation is about The Covenants and there by it does show what is going to happen to ‘Israel’…. The Sons of Darkness of Israel and The Sons of Light of Israel…

    • I’m not sure exactly what conflict you see. As I understand it, Gary is saying that Revelation was written as a warning to the churches (not to the nation of Israel) using the judgments against the nation of Israel as the warning. ie. “Listen up churches! Observe what I do to the nation of Israel because of their unfaithfulness. Repent, and don’t go down the same path yourselves.”

      It might be that the conflict you see is due to what is meant by “Israel.” In this context, I believe Gary is using “Israel” to refer simply to that nation in the first century. “Israel” could also be used to refer to God’s people throughout the ages, but I don’t think that’s how Gary is using the word here.

      Hopefully that helps. If not, please clarify further what conflict you are referring to.

  5. Dallas says:

    I suggest a read from William Brahnam on the subject, you can down load on a PDF here is the web site. http://www.umnet.com/downloads/downloadfile.ashx?styleid=ebook&id=74413

    • That looks like an interesting book, but it gets off track right from the beginning.

      We read in Revelation 1,
      1The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
      2Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.
      3Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.

      It is quite clearly about “things which must shortly come to pass”, because “the time is at hand.” But the author of the book goes through all of church history, picking out a “messenger” for each “church age”, right up until the present. The interpretive key to Revelation is not the “messengers”, but the fact that is was written about events which would happen in the first century A.D.

      • dallas says:

        “will shortly come to pass” time is relative, 2000 years is not much time when it comes to God. John had the vision and scribed the message in the last half of the first century and “if the time was at hand” well Jesus still isn’t here after 2000 years.

        Anyway, good read very interesting essay if nothing else on the history of the Church/denominations and the message that dominated each of the 7 Church ages.

        Thanks for the reply

      • Dallas,

        You’re right that 2000 years is not much time when it comes to God. But Revelation wasn’t written to God. It was written to people. 2000 years is a *long* time for people.

        The point is that Revelation was written to people in the first century about events that would (and did) happen in the first century. If you’re interested, David Chilton and Kenneth Gentry have written commentaries on Revelation. You can get them from American Vision at http://www.americanvision.com/

  6. David A Williams says:

    After reading your last three posts, I have come to the conclusion that your credentials don’t match your theology. Dr. Kistemaker is on target as to the date of John’s exile; 95 AD would most likely suffice; anything else is mere postulation – extra-biblical at best and heresy at worst. This offering is speculative and presumptive. For instance, your Revelatory quote, “they were about to suffer,” and these things were “about to happen,” both rightly describe the first of the ten Edicts of Rome, which began AFTER the fall of Jerusalem. Your consistent use of the terms “if” and “could have” in reference to happenings in mid-first-century Palestine betrays your own sense of vacillation and failure to properly exegete Scripture. I don’t wish to be harsh, but disagree with your presumptions rather strongly.

    • The main point of the article was a response to Dr. Kistemaker’s statement:
      “Even a cursory reading leaves the impression that the recipients were second-generation Christians. It does not appear that the people in the seven churches had only recently received the gospel. . . . Paul . . . wrote two epistles to Timothy, who was a pastor there in the sixties. Nothing in Acts or Paul’s epistles relates to the conditions prevalent in the church of Ephesus when John wrote the epistle that Jesus dictated.”

      DeMar demonstrates that this claim is false by quoting from Acts and Paul’s epistles.

      As for the date of John’s exile, how do you know it was around 95 AD? Isn’t that claim “mere postulation–extra-biblical at best and heresy at worst”? See Ken Gentry’s book “Before Jerusalem Fell.”

    • Gary DeMar says:

      David E. Aune, writing in the foreword to Colin J. Hemer’s “The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting,” states: “Hemer affirms the historicity of ‘the Domitianic persecution,’ though scholarship during the last twenty-five years has shown that an official empire-wide persecution under the reign of Domitian has no firm historical basis but was in fact a Christian legend which reached full-blown form with Eusebius of Caesarea in the early fourth century AD.”

      There is nothing in Revelation that says that John was exiled by anyone — Nero or Domitian. John was on Patmos for ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ’ (1:2, 9).

      It does not say he was there because he was forced to go there. That’s an interpretation that is not demanded by the text. There are all kinds of traditions about John’s exile, and not all of them are during the time of Domitian. See Francis X. Gumerlock’s “External Evidence for an Early Date of Revelation.” He writes “that the Domitian hypothesis for the date of Revelation was by no means universally received in early and medieval Christianity. On the contrary, many ancient writers expressed opinions that John wrote Revelation before AD 70. In fact ten different traditions for such an early date of Revelation can be extracted from their literary [works].”

      Being a fellow-partaker in the tribulation does not mean that he was exiled to Patmos. Other Christians were suffering tribulation. In fact, Jesus said, “in the world you will have tribulation” (Jn 16:33).

      We do know that Christians did suffer under Nero. That’s a fact that no one disputes.

      I use “if” and “could have” because there are some things that can’t be known for sure.

      • Michael Riemer says:

        “There is nothing in Revelation that says that John was exiled by anyone — Nero or Domitian. John was on Patmos for ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ’ (1:2, 9).”

        Thanks Gary. I always thought that it was fact, that he was exiled to Patmos because of Nero or some other emperor. Again, from the internal evidence of the New Testament itself, it sure seems that it was all written before Jerusalem fell.

  7. Alex Alexander says:

    This is a fresh insight. I’d never thought of Revelation in this way before. I’m even going to read it again! Thanks.
    Alex A
    UK

  8. Thanks Gary. I just want to say again how much I appreciate your work. After years of hearing wild speculations, it is so refreshing to hear an interpretation that is based on the Bible.

    How true it is that the Church today needs a wake up call.

    • Michael Riemer says:

      I agree wholeheartedly with your comments.Yes, it is very refreshing. Gary DeMar has stated the case so clearly, so logically, so Scripturaly, that it is a wonder that so many still do not see nor understand.

      Thank you so much brother DeMar for another short, clearly reasoned post.

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