A literal and grammatical reading of the text indicates that the seven churches of Asia are historical churches of John’s day. John is commanded by Christ to write on a scroll what He sees and send it to the seven churches (1:11). In the Greek text, aorist active imperatives are used for write (graqon) and send (pemqon), indicating that John was expected to complete this command. John clearly fulfilled this command as seen in the greeting in 1:4. Contained within this scroll is a unique letter to each of the seven churches. However, the warning and exhortations of each of these letters may be applied by individuals within any church as manifested by Christ’s sevenfold exhortation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches [ekklhsiaiv]” (2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22).
Therefore, the Book of Revelation is one general epistle, with seven letters contained therein, and sent to seven unique churches of Asia. Each unique letter is not only to be understood and applied by the addressee, but also by the other six churches. Thus, the contents of the scroll are for the whole Church. Clearly, the description of each church is unique, each having its own characteristics.
Obviously, Christ selected these seven churches out of the many local churches of John’s day to be representative of the composition of the Church as a whole. Since a letter to one church may be applied by individuals in another church, the composition of a local church must be comprised of persons having the characteristics of any particular letter. However, the addressed church would be mainly comprised of individuals fitting its own characteristics.
This view is further enhanced by Christ using the term “mystery” in regards to the seven churches (1:20). He also called the seven parables of Matthew 13 “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”
Like the seven letters, these parables may also be interpreted as characteristic of individuals as well as the Church as a whole. A parallelism exists between the seven parables and the seven letters. This parallel can be seen by one’s interpreting the details of the parables based upon Christ’s interpretation of the details in the parable of the soils. See the chart Kingdom Parable of Matthew 13 and Churches of Revelation 2-3.
The Book of Revelation is a prophecy as stated within the book 1:3; 22:7, 10, 12, 19). Since the book is declared a prophecy at the beginning and at the end, it would be poor hermeneutics to pull chapters two and three from the book and say that they do not have a prophetic aspect to them. John recorded the key to understanding the prophecy in “what you have seen” (past); “what is now” (present); and “what will take place later” (future). The immediate context of the seven letters is sandwiched between this key statement and the statement “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this” (4:1). This latter statement marks what follows in chapters 4-22 as future to what has preceded it in chapters 1-3. There is no direct reference to the Church after chapter three, indicating it has been removed from the prophetic picture presented by the book. This would indicate that the Church has been raptured prior to the Tribulation judgments, which are revealed after chapter three.
Therefore, the Church must be placed in the period covered by the phrase: “what is now.” Hence, the seven letters give the characteristics of the Church as a whole until she is raptured.
The major question that remains is whether each letter is representative of a given age within Church history. In six out of the seven letters there is a reference to Christ’s coming; the Smyrna letter is the only one that does not contain such a statement. It is significant that the church suffering the most persecution is not given a word of hope concerning the second coming of Christ.
The reference in the letter to Ephesus does not have any hope attached, but it is a warning that Christ will come and remove their lampstand if she does not repent (2:5). Likewise, in the letter to Pergamum Christ calls for her repentance (2:16). Both of these references are first class conditional clauses with the present indicative (ei de
mh ercomai, “but if not I will come”) in the Greek.
Sardis, the dead church, also receives a third class aorist subjunctive conditional warning (3:3), which indicates uncertainty. If she does not wake up Christ will come like a thief.
The exhortation to the believers in Thyatira and the Philadelphia church are “only hold on to what you have until I come” (2:25); “Behold I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have” (3:11). Both of these passages convey a future coming in the Greek.
Finally, Christ announces His arrival to the Laodicean church: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.” Both verbs in the Greek reflect Christ’s arrival, “I stand” being in the perfect active indicative. This action is viewed as having been completed in the past, once and for all, not needing to be repeated. “I knock” is in the present active indicative. This action is a simple statement of fact or reality viewed as occurring in actual time.
Thus, there is no immanency of Christ’s coming promised to the churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira or Sardis. However, He informs the true believers in Thyatira and the Philadelphia churches that they can expect His coming and He announces His arrival to the Laodicean church. Since Christ did not come during the existence of the historical Laodicean church, the letters must have a prophetic meaning.
The logical conclusion is that each letter is representative of a period in Church history. It would seem that each letter shows the dominant characteristic of the Church as a whole in a certain period. However, all seven churches would continue to exist, to some extent, side by side during any period.
This logically parallels the seven parables in Matthew 13, where the first parable begins with the sowing of the seed and the last ends with the harvest, indicating that they span the Church age. Both the seven parables and the seven letters show the “mystery of the kingdom of heaven.” This mystery reveals the “visible church” as either being obedient to her Lord or being defeated by forces of evil during the Church age.
Hence, we should conclude that the seven letters are not only addressed to historical churches in Asia, but they also are representative of the entire Church age. Each letter pictures the dominant characteristics of both the individuals and local churches during all periods of the Church age.
Additionally, each letter, in the order written, pictures the dominant characteristics of the Church as a whole in seven periods of Church history. These characteristics appear to overlap each other at the end of one period and the beginning of another in a telescoping effect.