WHO IS, AND WHO WAS, AND WHO IS TO COME
(cf. Rev. 1:1-20) This prophecy relates to the then, and it relates to the now, and it relates to the ultimate. It speaks of the open secret – the mystery of the union of Jews and Gentiles in the Messiah as one new people of God (cf. Rom. 10:12). I think it speaks even more so about the culmination of God’s plan of the ages; the Second Coming of Christ, and the events that surround His victory in time, as well as in the spiritual realm. Obviously, this prophecy is speaking to the seven local churches of Asia Minor, and they got some problems like all churches do. But they’ve also got a tremendous Person on their side; Him who has overcome, Him who was, and is, and always will be, Him who is the first and the last, Him who has the keys of death and hell. Friends, that same Jesus knows you, and loves you whatever you’re going through. And He wants to show you that all history is in His hands, and no one can pluck you out of his father’s hand (cf. John 10:28-30).
The letters to the 7 churches of Asia Minor are actually prophetic messages much like the prophets of the Old Testament. Revelation is replete with Old Testament allusions without Old Testament quotes. Every one of these seven letters are going to begin with a picture of the glorified Christ that comes from chapter 1:12-20 that are really Old Testament titles for Yahweh, or actions of Yahweh in the Old Testament that are brought and placed on Jesus of Nazareth to affirm his full deity. So these letters though they’re obviously a literary unit, chapters 2 and 3 are connected to chapter 1. The purpose of these letters being in this text is obviously a technique to show that the message that follows is directly connected with what’s happening in the churches of the first century, and it’s very important that if we miss that, we’re going to totally misinterpret much of this book. Revelation has to have a meaning to the first century as well as every century of church history. It’s an obvious Old Testament technique to let contemporary occurrences foreshadow end-time events, and Revelation is an ultimate example of that kind of thing.
I think every message of each of the 7 letters is true of every church in every age. It seems that John picked this to cover the spectrum of needs and to apply to the churches of that day, and the churches of our day. Now, why only 7 churches? There were obviously more churches in John’s day in that Roman province of Asia Minor. Hebrew symbolism says that 7 is the number of perfection or completeness, symbolizing all the churches, and the book of Revelation has many structures of 7 in it (7 bowls, 7 seals, 7 trumpets, etc.). It is also important to note that if you look at a map, these 7 churches are much more in a geographical setting than they are in any kind of theological or historical setting. It seems that if you took the normal trade route starting at Ephesus, and moving along a major Roman highway all the way through an arc back to Laodicea, you’d cover these 7 churches. Many believe that this may be an ancient postal route, and John picked it for that reason.
Dispensationalism believes that these 7 churches not only apply to their own day, but are prophetic characteristics of the church in Western civilization from Pentecost to the “Parousia”. It believes that Ephesus would be the Apostolic period from 33AD t0 100AD; Smyrna would be the period of persecution from 100AD to 313AD; Pergamus would be the period of Constantine say 313AD to 590AD; and then Thyatira would be the papal period about 590AD to 1517; and then Sardis would be the period of the Reformation beginning with Luther around 1517 to 1792; Philadelphia would be the modern missionary movement they would say from 1792 to 1914; and the last one, Laodicea would be a period of apostasy which many would say would be from about 1914 or World War 1 up until the 2nd coming of Christ. Although there are some examples where this fits into Western history, the problem in my mind about this manner of interpretation is that there’s nothing in the text that even remotely implies this is true, and another question is, why should it only be a history of Western civilization when the Gospel of Christ is much wider in our day, and I think those 2 questions cause me to have some great problems with Dispensationalism.