The seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 have long been a mystery as to their purpose and specific audience. Several alternatives have been used in order to properly interpret these strange letters:
1. Argument: Cultural Application – The letters are purely cultural, meant only for the churches referenced – the seven being in Asia Minor, what is today SW Turkey.
Analysis: Probably the weakest argument that we will look at, but there is some merit. There is mention of specific problems in the church that include some of the first heresies, specifically the combining of Judaism with Christianity. Chapter 2 makes more mention of culturally-specific arguments, whereas chapter 3 is less detailed in that way. This might actually add more strength to the next argument.
2. Argument: Historial Application – The letters are in chronological order, referencing specific time-periods in Church History and future events. These are generalizations that speak about the Church’s general strength and weakness in these epochs.
Analysis: A classic argument that has really gained-steam with those who study history. Now that we seem to be in the fifth of the seven “stages” in Church History, it has become easier to make a case for this argument. The sixth letter, which would seem to line-up with the Tribulation, is especially clear and convincing. The weakness of this argument is (1) the similarities between stages two and three, (2) the extreme length of stage four in comparison with the rest, and (3) the quandary about the last stage which looks like it only relates to the Millennium, which we know so little about. In order to accept this interpretation (which I will develop later) one must be a Premillennialist or a Mid-Tribulationalist, either of which I believe to be the only explanations that can rightly explain Biblical Eschatology (“End Times” teaching). There is serious debate as to how these stages lineup, later I will give my opinion and defend it as best as I can.
3. Argument: Modern-Church Application – The letters refer to the various strengths and weaknesses that often accompany different church movements seen worldwide. This could include a specific church or a certain denomination, where the letters show the symptoms of poor health in a church or church movement, thus proceeding to give the proper diagnosis and medication. Since the church is made-up of people, the application here is personal, and proper medication of the members would lead to the better health of the local churches in general.
Analysis: This argument does seem to carry some weight and it is probably the most popular with preachers that are always looking for application. As long as the application does not overextend the original context and enter into exaggeration, I can see this being very useful. This interpretation sees the letters as a form of “Church Diagnostic”, useful to help churches foresee possible pitfalls and revitalize it’s purpose.
Conclusion: The first argument (Cultural Application) seems too limited and incomplete. The other two both seem reasonable, and I believe they can be used together. I’m clearly biased towards the “Historical Application” simply because of my love for Church History, but the “Modern-Church Application” is growing on me. I’d actually go so far as to argue that using one argument without the other one might be incomplete and could lead to exaggerations. Whereas seeing the historical connection to the problem of modern churches and denominations might actually lead to a powerful antidote to the problems facing modern churches.
With this in mind, I’d like to go through the seven letters in Revelation 2-3 and point out both the “Historical Application” and the “Modern-Church Application”, in an attempt to appreciate better Church History and also run a form a “Church Diagnostics” on our own lives and local churches. I am thoroughly convinced that Revelation was written not only Eschatological purposes, but in order to help us worship Christ and be wary of pitfalls for the local church.
I invite you to join me in this pursuit as we study the seven churches in the following series.