Congregations to whom John is instructed to write in Revelation 2–3; located in seven cities of western Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
At the start of John’s vision in Revelation, he is told to write letters to these churches—or, more precisely, to their angels (see below: “Angels of the Churches”). The content of the letters is dictated by a metaphysical figure described as “one like a son of man” who died but now lives forever—the exalted Christ (Rev 1:13–18; compare Dan 7:13–14; Rev 1:1). Together, the seven letters form an introduction to the apocalyptic prophecy that follows in Rev 4–22. The letters encourage the churches to become or remain strong so that they can persevere through the coming tribulation. Each letter concludes with a description of various eschatological blessings that will be given to “the one who conquers” (e.g., Rev 2:7.
In Revelation, there are seven spirits, angels, churches, seals, trumpets, bowls, beatitudes, and doxologies. Because the number seven is a sign of perfection, the seven letters could represent Jesus’ perfect revelation to His people (Bauckham, Theology, 26–27).
Interpretation of the Letters
The highly symbolic language of Revelation has allowed a wide range of interpretive approaches to the letters. Some scholars have read contemporary situations back into the text. For example, Martin Luther read the seven letters in light of his confrontations with the Roman Catholic Church, which he associated with the “synagogue of Satan” (e.g., Rev 2:9; Luther, Ad Librum Ambrosii Catharini 7; cited in Kovacs and Rowland, Revelation, 55). Writing at the turn of the 20th century, the British clergyman E.W. Bullinger assigned each letter to a specific period of church history (Bullinger, A Hundred Sermons upon the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ; cited in Kovacs and Rowland, Revelation, 54–55). In his view, the first letter (to Ephesus) was written to the early church under the care of the apostles, while the last letter (to Laodicea) was written to the Church of England. A similar view was suggested in the mid-20th century by the dispensational scholar John Walvoord, who considered the letters to be speaking to different church ages: The Ephesian letter depicts the early church, while the Laodicean letter portrays the apostate nature of the modern church, which awaits a door to heaven to be opened (i.e., the rapture; compare Rev 4:1; Walvoord, Revelation of Jesus Christ, 50–100).
Some interpreters have perceived allusions to historical attributes of the seven cities. The letter to Ephesus, for example, promises that the “one who conquers” will “eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7). This calls to mind not only the tree in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2–3) and the cross of Christ, but also the Temple of Artemis (located at Ephesus), which contained a tree shrine that served as a place of asylum (Hemer, Letters, 41–50; Osborne, Revelation, 124; Witherington, Revelation, 96). In the letter to Smyrna, the reference to one “who died and came to life” refers primarily to the death and resurrection of Jesus, but it also might allude to Smyrna’s destruction in 600 BC and its spectacular reconstruction around 290 BC (Rev 2:8; Hemer, Letters, 60–65; Ramsay, Letters, 196–97; Osborne, Revelation, 128). The city of Pergamum housed the altar of Zeus Soter and was the center of emperor worship and the Asclepius cult—all of which are plausible referents of “Satan’s throne” (Rev 2:13; Hemer, Letters, 84–85; Ramsay, Letters, 214–15; Aune, 1997: 182–84; Osborne, Revelation, 141; Witherington, Revelation, 102). The description of the Laodicean church as “lukewarm” is reminiscent of the city’s need to bring in fresh water via aqueduct because its own water supply was stagnant and induced vomiting (Hemer, Letters, 186–91; Ramsay, Letters, 305; Osborne, Revelation, 202, 205–6; Witherington, Revelation, 107). In addition, Christ’s advice to this church—to buy gold, white garments, and eye salve from him—appears to play off characteristics of Laodicea, a city known for its wealth, black clothing, and eye ointment called “Phrygian powder” (Hemer, Letters, 196–201; Ramsay, Letters, 307–09, 316–17).
Angels of the Churches
The letters are addressed specifically to the angels of the seven churches. Although Walvoord suggests that these angels are human messengers serving as the leaders of the congregations (Walvoord Revelation of Jesus Christ, 53), it is more likely that these are angelic figures who oversee or represent their respective churches (compare Deut 32:8 [LXX]; Dan 10:13, 20–21; 12:1; Jubilees 15:31–32; 1 Enoch 89:59–62; Matt 18:10; Rowland, Revelation, 62; Kovacs and Rowland, Revelation, 52; Osborne, Revelation, 99). This is supported by the observations that “angel” in Revelation always refers to a heavenly host of God, never to a human, and that stars were common symbols for angels (Rev 1:20; Osborne, Revelation, 99). For further discussion, see this article: Angels of the Seven Churches.
Witte, B. R. (2016). Seven Churches. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, L. Wentz, E. Ritzema, & W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press.
More on the 7 Churches
The seven churches of Revelation were real, physical congregations when the Apostle John wrote this bewildering last book of the Bible around 95 AD, but many scholars believe the passages have a second, hidden meaning.
What Are the Seven Churches of Revelation?
The short letters in Revelation chapters two and three are addressed to these specific seven churches:
- Ephesus: The church that had abandoned its first love for Christ (Revelation 2:4).
- Smyrna: The church that would face severe persecution (Revelation 2:10).
- Pergamum: The church that needed to repent of sin (Revelation 2:16).
- Thyatira: The church whose false prophetess was leading people astray (Revelation 2:20).
- Sardis: The sleeping church that needed to wake up (Revelation 3:2).
- Philadelphia: The church that had patiently persevered (Revelation 3:10).
- Laodicea: The church with lukewarm faith (Revelation 3:16).
While these were not the only Christian churches existing at the time, they were situated closest to John, scattered across Asia Minor in what is now modern Turkey.
Different Letters, Same Format
Each of the letters is addressed to the church's "angel." That may have been a spiritual angel, the bishop or pastor, or the church itself. The first part includes a description of Jesus Christ, highly symbolic and different for each church.
The second part of each letter begins with the words "I know," emphasizing God's omniscience. Jesus proceeds to praise the church for its merits or criticizes it for its faults. The third part contains exhortation, a spiritual instruction on how the church should mend its ways or a commendation for its faithfulness.
The fourth part concludes the message with the words, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." The Holy Spirit is Christ's presence on Earth, forever guiding and convicting to keep his followers on the right path.
Specific Messages to 7 Churches of Revelation
Some of these seven churches kept closer to the gospel than others. Jesus gave each one a short "report card."
Ephesus had "abandoned the love it had at first," (Revelation 2:4, ESV). They lost their first love for Christ, which in turn affected the love they had for others.
Pergamum was told to repent. It had fallen prey to a cult called the Nicolaitans, heretics who taught that since their bodies were evil, only what they did with their spirit counted. This led to sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols. Jesus said those who conquered such temptations would receive "hidden manna" and a "white stone," symbols of special blessings.
Thyatira had a false prophetess who was leading people astray. Jesus promised to give himself (the morning star) to those who resisted her evil ways.
Sardis had the reputation of being dead, or asleep. Jesus told them to wake up and repent. Those who did would receive white garments, have their name listed in the book of life, and would be proclaimed before God the Father.
Philadelphia endured patiently. Jesus pledged to stand with them in future trials, granting special honors in heaven, the New Jerusalem.
Laodicea had lukewarm faith. Its members had grown complacent because of the riches of the city. To those who returned to their former zeal, Jesus vowed to share his ruling authority.
Application to Modern Churches
Even though John wrote these warnings nearly 2,000 years ago, they still apply to Christian churches today. Christ remains the head of the worldwide Church, lovingly overseeing it.
Many modern Christian churches have wandered from biblical truth, such as those that teach the prosperity gospel or do not believe in the Trinity. Others have grown lukewarm, their members just going through the motions with no passion for God. Many churches in Asia and the Middle East face persecution. Increasingly popular are "progressive" churches that base their theology more on current culture than solid doctrine found in the Bible.
The huge number of denominations proves thousands of churches have been founded on little more than the stubbornness of their leaders. While these Revelation letters are not as strongly prophetic as other parts of that book, they warn today's drifting churches that discipline will come to those who do not repent.
Warnings to Individual Believers
Just as the Old Testament trials of the nation of Israel are a metaphor for the individual's relationship with God, the warnings in the book of Revelation speak to every Christ-follower today. These letters act as a gauge to reveal each believer's faithfulness.
The Nicolaitans are gone, but millions of Christians are being tempted by pornography on the Internet. The false prophetess of Thyatira has been replaced by TV preachers who avoid talking about Christ's atoning death for sin. Countless believers have turned from their love for Jesus to idolizing material possessions.
As in ancient times, backsliding continues to be a danger for people who believe in Jesus Christ, but reading these short letters to the seven churches of Revelation serves as a stern reminder. In a society flooded with temptation, they bring the Christian back to the First Commandment. Only the True God is worthy of our worship.
- Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler, general editor
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, general editor
- "What do the seven churches in Revelation stand for?" https://www.gotquestions.org/seven-churches-Revelation.html
- "Seven Churches of Revelation Bible Study." https://davidjeremiah.blog/seven-churches-of-revelation-bible-study
- The Bible Almanac, J.I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney, William White Jr., editors