The beginning chapters of the book of Revelation contain 7 letters to the 7 churches. The churches are represented by seven golden lampstands. More specifically, the letters are addressed to the “7 stars”, representing the “7 angels of the churches”. What do all those expressions mean?
First of all, the word “church” (Greek “ekklesia”) simply means “called out / convoked gathering or assembly”. As a matter of fact, this exact same word “ekklesia” is used several dozen times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint, or LXX) to translate the Hebrew words denoting “convoked assembly”. All of these words simply referred to the people of Israel. In the New Covenant, this same word is used to refer to the body of Christ. So we have one word, and two different meanings which depend on the context.
Another interesting word is “synagogue”. In Greek literally means “to lead / bring together” and has a very similar meaning to the word “ekklesia”. In LXX, sometimes the cognates of these two words are used nearly interchangeably. For instance:
The Lord said to Moses … gather (ekklesiazo) the entire assembly (synagoge) at the entrance to the tent of meeting.
So, the point of it is that the word “church” is not meant to be understood in a purely Christian sense. In a similar vein, the word “synagogue” is not meant to be understood only in a Jewish sense. In fact, the word “synagogue” is used several times in LXX to denote Gentile gatherings.
Therefore, I will use the word “assembly” instead of “church” in this write-up from hereon out, as that would avoid anachronistically reading our modern meanings into the text that doesn’t necessarily support it.
If you do some research (even a series of Google searches should do), you will find that there is a good number of archaeological evidences of Jewish communities and Jewish synagogues existing in every single city listed in Rev 2-3. Some were very large, some were smaller, but they were there all right. Every single one of the seven.
Of course, this understanding is powerfully reinforced by a symbolism of 7 lampstands. In the Jewish Temple, there was one golden lampstand with 7 branches. In these letters, we see that there are now 7 golden lampstands instead of a single one. The metaphor poignantly predicts the dispersion of Jewish believers into diaspora, while preserving the essentially Jewish undertones.
Now, regarding the “angels of the churches / assemblies”. Greek word “aggelos” (pronounced “angelos”) simply means “messenger”. There’s a common interpretation the expression “messenger of the assembly” (“angel of the church”) refers to a “church pastor”. Well, the problem with this is that the very title “pastor” came from John Calvin’s latinization of the word “shepherd”, which happened in 1500s. In the New Testament, a Greek version of this term is used only once relative to New Covenant church structuring. So reading that understanding back into the much older Scriptural text is anachronistic, and it would be eisegesis.
So – no, it can’t possibly be talking about a “church pastor”. It turns out that there may be a much better explanation, which is historically and contextually sensitive.
This exact term “messenger of the assembly” (or “angel of the church”) was used to describe an actual Hebrew rabbinical synagogue position. The title was used at the time of Jesus, and it survives to this day. “Shaliach tzibbur” (lit., “messenger of assembly / congregation) is a synagogue official tasked with offering public prayers to God on behalf on the assembly. The word “shaliach” comes from the Hebrew verb “shalach”, which means “to send” (e.g., as a messenger). This role existed in rabbinic synagogues during the time of Jesus. This role is also known as “chazzan” or “cantor”. Again, a simple Google search will yield the information you need to see the historical context. Take a look here: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-cantor/ .
Notice how the position of Shaliach Tzibbur didn’t exist in any of the New Covenant churches that any of the 12 apostles or Paul ever established. It’s not mentioned even once in the New Testament, before this occurrence. And for a good reason – it would actually be antithetical to the New Covenant, as offering personal and corporate prayer is a right and privilege of every Christian.
Since the “messengers of the assembly” were offering prayer to God on behalf of their rabbinical congregations, apparently God gave his answer to their prayers through the vision of John, and through the letters to those assemblies. And that’s how those 7 letters of Revelation came to be. They were a direct response of God to the prayers of the seven historical assemblies of Old Covenant Jewish believers, which most likely included sprinkles of Messianic Jews (or Jewish Christians, if you prefer).
Here’s another interesting twist in this exegetical journey. If you count the number of New Covenant, predominantly Gentile churches to which Paul the apostle addressed his letters, you will see that he also wrote letters to seven groups of churches: Roman, Corinthian, Galatian, Ephesian, Philippian, Colossian, and Thesallonian. So, we have Paul’s 7 churches (a group of 7 churches, about which few seem to be talking, for whatever reason) and John’s 7 churches (which many people try to manipulate in various ways to make them work with their complicated end-time charts).
Here’s why it’s important to see that there are actually two groups of 7 churches. If you put together all of the promises to the 7 churches of Revelation, the sum total of all of the promises to the believers of those churches are very similar to what Paul the apostle wrote in his church epistles, with one crucial difference. For the 7 churches of Revelation, all of the promises are stated in the future tense. In contrast, Paul’s epistles state that all of those blessings as present-tense realities of believers who are already “in Christ”. The difference couldn’t be more dramatic, and yet it’s very often completely overlooked. It is similar to the difference between Hunger Games tributes and victors. That’s pretty important, I would think.
Lastly, the 7 churches named in the book of Revelation were all situated along a major Roman road. Think of it as a highway. The order in which the letters are enumerated is the order in which the mail courier would have traversed them. Incidentally, if a Roman army were to come though Asia Minor en route to put down a rebellion in Jerusalem, that’s the exact route that they would travel, and that would the order in which the cities would be visited by them, as well. Such marching army would indeed bring “tribulation” and “the hour of trial” to those Jewish communities in Asia Minor while en route to Judea.
It’s interesting that Jesus seems to be reaching out to Jewish communities in dispersion though this letter, the same way he reached out the Jews living in Judea / Galilee / Samaria in early 30s AD. His efforts to save Jews even in diaspora from the impending slaughter were nearly incessant in the events leading up to 70 AD (which is the most likely timeline here).
To sum this up. There’s plenty of verifiable historical evidence that the 7 letters was addressed to the then-existing Jewish faith communities which actually existed in the named cities at the time of the letter’s writing. I do not believe that these passages refer to any future churches in history, although lessons contained within those letters are timeless. All of the promises contained in the letters had been preached in Pauline letters to 7 churches as present-tense realities of those who are in Christ.
I don’t believe the text lends any support whatsoever for the theory that each of the 7 churches of Revelation represents a phase in “church history”. This interpretation, coupled with the so-called “end times” / “last days” bias, would put us in “Laodicean age”, with all the attendant apocalyptism and spiritual self-abasement. That, of course, is completely bogus, as the Biblical text lend zero support for such notions. Those letters were pertaining to actual assemblies / churches, not “church ages” – that’s why they were written with such a sense of urgency. We are simply privy to that communication due to the fact that those writings got historically preserved and included in the Bible.
We are not a lukewarm church (I am talking about church universal). We are part of the ever-growing, always-conquering kingdom of God which advances every day in our communities. “And of the increase of His kingdom will be no end”.
I hope now it became a bit easier to believe this.