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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