The contention is that the letters to the churches in the Revelation of Jesus Christ should be read in only one way with one intended purpose. If read in that way, the contender states, then the rest of the book should be read that way.
I will deal with the first charge by examining if the letters in Revelation 2-3 have only one purpose for one audience.
First: These are real churches with real problems and the letters were addressed to each of them. They contained warning or praise and the encouragement to either correct or carry on. This was important to the life of these specific local bodies and that’s why Christ tells John to write to them (Rev 1:20).
Second: The seven churches weren’t meant to receive only their respective letters but also the letters of the other churches since the book traveled as a whole. This isn’t a matter to update one church on the doings of the other six but it does seem to indicate that Christ is warning all seven (Rev 2:11, 23) with the warnings of the other seven. The problems in Ephesus could just as easily be the problems in Philadelphia: so he who has an ear let him hear.
Third: The book opens with the Lord speaking addressing the contents of the book to these seven churches (Rev 1:11) followed by a vision. The Lord explains the vision (Rev 1:20) by saying he stands in the midst of these seven churches (not more churches, as I mentioned in Point 3) and capped off with the words “write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things” (Rev 1:17) and then an explanation of Christ in the midst of The Seven Churches (Rev 1:19).
As stated, the book was to travel as a whole. It would not only be seen by Pergamos, Smyrna, Thyatira, Ephesus, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Sardis—it would also be seen by Corinth, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica, Jerusalem and Antioch.
Does the Church of Jerusalem not have a lamp stand (Matt 5:14)? Is it only these churches to the exclusion of all others? Are all other churches immune from the dangers that these seven are being warned about?
The warning of Rev 2:23 then applies to all local bodies showing the possibility of error (and proper activity) by each local body.
Fourth: If we were to stop for a moment and, with the knowledge that this book is to travel as a whole in our back pocket, consider all of history since the writing of the letter and noticing how the church started to operate (not only as local bodies but as a region wide entity with certain color across those regions and space) then we see that the application can transcend the local bodies. The Church of the first century (generally) functioned exceedingly differently from the Church in the fourth century and both are very different from the Church of the sixteenth and twenty first century, respectively.
In other words, generally speaking, even with a sticky history, the Church across time has, as a whole, acted in different ways and has participated in some of the very activities that some of these local bodies were warned of.
Indeed, the letters speak of judgment (Rev 2:5, 16: 3:3, 16), near-future events (Rev 2:10,22 ) and distant future events (Rev 2:17,23, 25-28; 3:4-5, 9, 10-12, 21). The local churches of yesteryear may long be gone—but the speaking of future events remains.
I’m not even sure how someone can contest that the events spoken in those last verses are distant future: they refer to others sitting on Christ’s throne, His coming, His clothing of the righteous in white, His giving of a secret name—all things that the book, incidentally, records in the later chapters . But, unless all these things happened in secret, they’re just things that haven’t historically happened.
Christ, the Speaker (and not John the amanuensis) would have known that and these letters to these seven churches would have stood as a testimony against the broad church across history.
Fifth: The letters contextually stand in a stream of a apocalyptic writing with a lot of intense pictures: often very hard to understand. This is, after all, the Lord in Glory, the Son of God with power, speaking and not John and with all four purposes being explicit who knows if it has some sort of other level that was recorded with intentionality that we don’t know about.
By the time the Revelation of Christ was recorded, the other books of the New Testament were already written—including all those words that the authors recorded of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The Lord would surely know this (so would John) and that would, I think, encourage people to read the words of Christ and find where things might correlate.
So the text might be doing something else but whatever it is doing, the reader is likely encouraged to see how the Lord speaks here correlates with how he speaks elsewhere. Indeed, this point might even be able to be expanded by noting the imagery that Christ shows John (lights, trees, squares, temples, angels, etc).
Concluding thoughts: This all then shows that the letters to the churches have at least four and maybe even five purposes: (1) to address the situations in the specifically mentioned local bodies, (2) to serve as a warning and encouragement for the other churches that were addressed (3)to travel and serve as a warning to all the churches abroad (4) to function as a warning and encouragement to the church as a whole throughout time (5) to be read in conjunction with the other messages of the Lord and discover correlations.
And although I think those five purposes are operative I don’t think it justifies some of the wilder things done with the text: like counting numbers to find a code, or digging up root words and their meanings to discover a label of the activity or the reason the local body was picked (I think the order of the local bodies was in a semi-circle starting from the nearest city to Patmos, up and around to the furthest inland city—but who really can say: the Lord was walking in the midst of the Churches so he was nearby all of them).
So, as to the churches in this section being a preview of Church history, or a recapitulation of all history since Eden, or something else—I don’t know. But I do think that flattening the purpose of the text here to one time locale (be it historic or futuristic) or one audience (be it Ephesus or Jerusalem or New York) is problematic.
One reply on “Single-Purpose Letter Writing?”
The letters to these seven churches in Asia contain truths that are profitable for all mankind to understand. The bible is a book filled with hidden wisdom and understanding, but is all profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.