PART 2: HISTORICAL PROLOGUE – The Letters to the Seven Churches (Revelation 2-3)

David Chilton

Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of The Book of Revelation


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Chapter Text


The second part of the covenantal treaty structure (cf. Deut. 1:6-4:49)[1] is the Prologue, which recounts the history of the Great King’s relationship with the vassal, reminding him of his lord’s authority and covenant faithfulness, listing the benefits that have been provided, enumerating the vassal’s transgressions of the law, commanding the vassal to repent and renew his obedience, and promising future rewards. An important aspect of the Prologue is the covenant grant,[2] the command to take possession over the land, conquering it in the name of the Great King (cf. Deut. 2:24-25, 31; 3:18-22; 4:1, 14, 37-40).[3]

The Seven Messages to the churches correspond to the Covenant Prologue in several ways. Their structure follows the same general pattern: Christ’s lordship over the Church, the individual church’s record of faithfulness or disobedience, warnings of punishment, and promises of blessings in response to obedience. Moreover, in each case the church is given a covenant grant, a commission to conquer, to overcome and exercise dominion under Christ’s lordship (2:7, 11, 17, 26-29; 3:5, 12, 21).

In addition, each message itself recapitulates the entire five-part covenant structure. Consider the first message, to the church in Ephesus (2:1-7):

  1. Preamble: “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands” (2:1)
  2. Historical Prologue: “I know your deeds….”(2:2-4).
  3. Ethical Stipulations: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the deeds you did at first” (2:5a).
  4. Sanctions: “Or else I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent” (2:5b).
  5. Succession Arrangements: “…To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the Paradise of My God” (2:6-7).

Recapitulation of Covenantal History

We discussed under 1:4 the view (strangely common among modern “literalists”!) that the seven churches symbolically represent “seven ages of Church history”; and, while on several counts that interpretation is patently erroneous, there is another sense in which these seven churches are related to seven periods of Church history – Old Testament Church history. For the imagery used to describe the seven Churches of Asia progresses chronologically from the Garden of Eden to the situation in the first century A.D.:

  1. Ephesus (2:1-7). The language of Paradise is evident throughout the passage. Christ announces Himself as the Creator, the One who holds the seven stars; and as the One who walks among the lampstands to evaluate them, as God walked through the Garden in judgment (Gen. 3:8). The “angel” of Ephesus is commended for properly guarding the church against her enemies, as Adam had been commanded to guard the Garden and his wife from their Enemy (Gen. 2:15). But the angel, like Adam, has “fallen,” having left his first love. Christ therefore threatens to come to him in judgment and remove his lampstand out of its place, as He had banished Adam and Eve from the Garden (cf. Gen. 3:24). Nevertheless, Eden’s gate is open to those who gain victory over the Tempter: “To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the Paradise of My God.”
  2. Smyrna (2:8-11). The situation of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) and of the children of Israel in Egypt appears to be reflected in the words of this message. Christ describes Himself as He “who was dead, and has come to life,” a redemptive act foreshadowed in the lives of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-14; Heb. 11:17-19) and Joseph (Gen. 37:18-36; 39:20-41:45; 45:4-8; 50:20), as well as in the salvation of Israel from the house of bondage. The Smyrnaeans’ condition of seeming poverty and actual riches is analogous to the experience of all the patriarchs, who “lived as aliens in the land of promise” (Heb. 11:9). False “Jews” are persecuting the true heirs of the promises, just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac (Gen. 21:9; cf. Gal. 4:22-31). The danger of imprisonment at the instigation of a slanderer is paralleled in the life of Joseph (Gen. 39:13-20), as is the blessing of the crown of life for the faithful (Gen. 41:40-44); Aaron too, as the glorious image of Man fully redeemed, wore a crown of life (Ex. 28:36-38). The “tribulation of ten days” followed by victory reflects the story of Israel’s endurance through the ten plagues before its deliverance.
  3. Pergamum (2:12-17). The imagery in this section is taken from the sojourn of Israel in the wilderness, the abode of demons (Lev. 16:10; 17:7; Deut. 8:15; Matt. 4:1; 12:43); the Christians of Pergamum also had to dwell “where Satan’s throne is… where Satan dwells.” The enemies of the church are described as “Balaam” and “Balak,” the false prophet and evil king who tried to destroy the Israelites by tempting them to idolatry and fornication (Num. 25:1-3; 31:16). Like the Angel of the LORD and Phineas the priest, Christ threatens to make war against the Balaamites with the sword (cf. Num. 22:31; 24:7-8). To those who overcome, He promises a share in the “hidden manna” from the Ark of the Covenant (Heb. 9:4), and a white stone with a “new name” inscribed on it, the emblem of the redeemed covenant people worn by the High Priest (Ex. 28:9-12).
  4. Thyatira (2:18-29). St. John now turns to imagery from the period of the Israelite monarchy and the Davidic covenant. Christ announces Himself as “the Son of God,” the greater David (cf. Ps. 2:7; 89:19-37; Jer. 30:9; Ezek. 34:23-24; 37:24-28; Hos. 3:5; Acts 2:24-36; 13:22-23). He rebukes the angel of Thyatira, whose toleration of his “wife, Jezebel,” is leading to the apostasy of God’s people (cf. 1 Kings 16:29-34; 21:25-26). She and those who commit adultery with her (cf. 2 Kings 9:22) are threatened with “tribulation,” like the three and one-half years of tribulation visited upon Israel in Jezebel’s day (1 Kings 17:1; James 5:17); she and her offspring will be killed (cf. 2 Kings 9:22-37). But he who overcomes will be granted, like David, “authority over the nations” (cf. 2 Sam. 7:19; 8:1-14; Ps. 18:37-50; 89:27-29). The concluding promise alludes to David’s Messianic psalm of dominion: “And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; like the vessels of a potter they shall be broken to pieces, as I also have received from My Father” (cf. Ps. 2:9).
  5. Sardis (3:1-6). The imagery of this section comes from the later prophetic period (cf. the references to the Spirit and the “seven stars,” speaking of the prophetic witness) leading up to the end of the monarchy, when the disobedient covenant people were defeated and taken into captivity. The description of the church’s reputation for “life” when it is really “dead,” the exhortations to “wake up” and to “strengthen the things that remain,” the acknowledgement that there are “a few people” who have remained faithful, all are reminiscent of prophetic language about the Remnant in a time of apostasy (Isa. 1:5-23; 6:9-13; 65:8-16; Jer. 7:1-7; 8:11-12; Ezek. 37:1-14), as is the warning of imminent judgment (Isa. 1:24-31; 2:12-21; 26:20-21; Jer. 4:5-31; 7:12-15; 11:9-13; Mic. 1:2-7; Zeph. 1).
  6. Philadelphia (3:7-13). The Return from the Exile under Ezra and Nehemiah is reflected in this message, which speaks in the imagery of the synagogue and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple (cf. the prophecies of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). The Philadelphians, like the returning Jews, have “a little power.” The reference to “the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews, and are not” recalls the conflicts with “false Jews” in Ezra 4 and Nehemiah 4, 6, and 13. The warning of a coming “hour of testing … which is about to come on the whole world, to test those who dwell upon the Land” reminds us of the tribulation suffered under Antiochus Epiphanes (cf. Dan. 8 and 11). But Christ promises the overcomer that he will be made “a pillar in the Temple” and share in the blessings of the “New Jerusalem.”
  7. Laodicea (3:14-22). The period of the Last Days (A.D. 30-70) provides the motifs for the seventh and last message. The “lukewarm” church, boasting of its wealth and self-sufficiency yet blind to its actual poverty and nakedness, is a fitting image of the Pharisaical Judaism of the first century (Luke 18:9-14; cf. Rev. 18:7). Warned that she is about to be spewed out of the Land (the curse of Lev. 18:24-28; cf. Luke 21:24), Israel is urged to repent and accept Christ, offered in the Eucharistic meal. Those who overcome are granted the characteristic blessing of the age brought in by the New Covenant: dominion with Christ (cf. Eph. 1:20-22; 2:6; Rev. 1:6).

The Structure of Revelation Foreshadowed

Finally, the messages to the seven churches also contain a miniature outline of the entire prophecy. As we have noted, the four sections of Revelation following the Preamble (Chapter 1) are structured in terms of the four sevenfold curses of the Covenant, set forth in Leviticus 26:18, 21, 24, 28. These four sets of judgments in Revelation may be summarized as follows:

  1. Judgment on the False Apostles (2-3). Heretical teachers propagating false doctrines are exposed, condemned, and ex-communicated by St. John and those who are faithful to the true Apostolic tradition.
  2. Judgment on the False Israel (4-7). Apostate Israel, which is persecuting the saints, is condemned and punished; the believing Remnant is protected from judgment, inherits the blessings of the Covenant, and fills the earth with fruit.
  1. Judgment on the Evil King and False Prophet (8-14). The Beast and the False Prophet wage war against the Church and are defeated by the True King and His army of faithful witnesses.
  2. Judgment on the Royal Harlot (15-22). Babylon, the False Bride, is condemned and burned, and the True Bride celebrates the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

This is the same general pattern we find in the first four messages themselves:

  1. Ephesus: Judgment on the False Apostles (2:1-7). The conflicts of all seven churches are evident in the struggles of this church against the Nicolaitans, “those who call themselves apostles but are not.”
  2. Smyrna: Judgment on the False Israel (2:8-11). The Smymaeans are suffering from the opposition of “those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”
  3. Pergamum: Judgment on the Evil King and False Prophet (2:12-17). This church is experiencing persecution and temptation from the first-century counterparts of “Balak,” the evil king of Moab, and the false prophet “Balaam.”
  4. Thyatira: Judgment on the Royal Harlot (2:18-29). The leader of the heretics, who entices God’s servants into idolatry and fornication, is named after Jezebel, the adulterous queen of ancient Israel.

The cycle now begins over again, so that these first four messages are “recapitulated” in the last three, but with attention to different details. To understand this, we must start from the first message again. St. John’s descriptions of Christ in the preamble to each message are drawn from those in the vision of the Son of Man in Chapter 1. But his order is chiastic (that is, he takes up each point in reverse order). Thus:

The Vision of the Son of Man

  1. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and His feet were like burnished bronze (1:14-15).
  2. Out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword (1:16).
  3. I am the First and the Last, and the Living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and I have the keys of death and of Hades (1:17-18).
  4. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands (1:20).

The Letters to the Seven Churches

  1. Ephesus The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands (2:1).
  2. Smyrna The First and the Last, who was dead, and has come to life (2:8).
  3. Pergamum The One who has the sharp two-edged sword (2:12).
  4. Thyatira The Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet are like burnished bronze (2:18).
  5. Sardis He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars (3:1).
  6. Philadelphia He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one will open (3:7).
  7. Laodicea The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God (3:14).[4]

The repetition of the overall pattern is reinforced by other points of similarity. The parallel between Smyrna and Philadelphia can be seen also in that both deal with the “synagogue of Satan”; and the association of the “seven lampstands” of Ephesus with the “seven Spirits of God” of Sardis is accounted for in the following chapter, during St. John’s vision of the heavenly Throne: “And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the Throne, which are the seven Spirits of God” (4:5).

[1] See Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963), pp. 52-61.

[2] See Ray R. Sutton, That You May Prosper: Dominion by Covenant, (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987).

[3] Kline, Treaty of the Great King, pp. 56ff.

[4] We would have expected St. John to pattern the Laodicean Preamble after B (or perhaps even A) rather than C; for some reason, he chose not to make the structure symmetrical.