Interpreting Revelation
Why these seven churches?
John or Jesus?
Why write the letters in this order?
Prophetic Messages?
Common Characteristics of all Seven Letters
   a. The Address - ‘To the angel of the church in...’
   b. The Description of Jesus
   c. The Beginning of the Letter - ‘I know...’
   d. Praise and Rebuke
   e. An Exhortation to Heed - ‘He who has ears to hear...’
   f. A Promise - ‘To him who overcomes...’
Note on the ‘History’ sections of each letter

The Introduction to Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation should really take into consideration all of chapter 1 (especially from verse 4) but I decided to do just two things on this web page.

Firstly, to give some pointers that seem to be important not only with reference to chapter 1 but with the overall thrust of the Book - after all, as you will see below, we have pigeon-holed the letters to the seven churches until they have become a quite distinct section from the Scriptures which follow them even though the entire and complete Book was written for the Church of Asia Minor. In that sense, the first three chapters should serve all readers with a fitting backdrop and Introduction to the entire Book of Revelation - not an after-thought and neither a little bit stuck on at the beginning that are only personal messages.

Secondly, as I’ve gone through the letters, there have been a few common themes which continue to be repeated throughout and, instead of dealing with them every time they occur (for instance, the ‘He who has an ear...’ repeated in every letter) or of dealing with them once and for all time when they first occur (which would have made the commentary on Ephesus extremely long and tedious - more so than it is now!!), I decided to include this section and comment on them separately.

Finally - and this is a point that I want to emphasise a few times so you won’t fail to miss it - don’t forget that chapters 1 through 3 are an integral part of Jesus’ message to His Church in Asia Minor and that, before we try and apply any of the verses throughout Revelation to present day situations (for example, the number of the beast in Rev 13:18) we must understand them in their first century, Asia Minor, context - not in the context of the Roman Empire (except where it is relevant to the area in question) and neither to Israel (except where obvious and necessary).

NB - I am currently (17-2-99) trying to get permission from the Oxford University Press to include a map here of Asia Minor. If they allow it, this blurb will be replaced by a snippet in glorious technicolour!!

Interpreting Revelation

I think it certain that most people who read this will agree that the key to our understanding of what the seven letters meant to the individual churches must be settled by recourse to the events that were taking place within the respective fellowships and cities that they were addressed to.

Of course, very often this is impossible to determine - and none more so than the background of each individual church - though there are some pointers from the archaeological and historical sources that seem to bear directly on the passages’ interpretation.

John wrote ‘to the seven churches that are in Asia’ (Rev 1:4) but Jesus said that He was to ‘...write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches...’ (Rev 3:11) referring mainly to the apocalyptic material which John saw commencing with chapter 4. I venture to suggest, therefore, that unlike every commentator that I have ever read, the entire Book of Revelation needs to be interpreted in the context of Asia Minor and the events surrounding that area when the letter was given to them.

That may sound revolutionary but it will make the interpretation of the Book no less easy!

What it does mean, however, is that unless we get the interpretation of the letters to the seven churches correct, then we have little chance of succeeding in understanding the rest of the Book.

I noted, as I’ve searched the generally accepted authentic writings of Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch (written somewhere around the close of the first century AD), who was travelling westward towards Rome to be martyred that, as he passed through this area where you would expect him to draw the church’s attention to John’s words to them, he doesn’t so much as mention the individual save once, let alone the writing called ‘The Book of Revelation’ to us. But he does extensively mention both Paul and quote from him (Ephesians 4, 6, 11, 12 [twice], 14, 15, Philadelphians 4, 7, Magnesians 10, Romans 4 [twice], Tarsians 2, 4 [where we learn that John was banished to Patmos, the only mention of the apostle in his letters and good evidence for the authorship of Revelation being none other than John, one of the original twelve disciples - see Rev 1:9] - all mentioning Paul. Ephesians 6, 10, Philippians 1, Tarsians 3 - all quoting Paul. NB - I have scanned only those letters that are usually accepted as being authentic Ignatian letters).

I may be wrong and have overlooked some quotes - and I have no problem if I have done this with removing what I’m about to tentatively write - but it seems to me that, initially, Revelation was a localised scroll for the benefit of the churches in Asia Minor alone (as Rev 3:11) and that it was not spread throughout the Church as, say, Paul’s writings were, at least until a much later date than the travelling Ignatius.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that Revelation was given to the church in Asia Minor initially and that, though we look for context within the land of Israel, the first and initial context should be of those believers resident within the land in which were given the scroll. It is to them that it was given and to them that it had particular relevance - it was they who could have understood it - not us - because Jesus spoke into their situation and addressed the problems which they were experiencing.

The scroll will relate to Israel and the return of the Lord there if it speaks of this time period - but the interpretation of it must be seen as being rooted in the context of Asia Minor. Yes, there will be Hebraisms in the text - not least because the John who wrote the Revelation was most likely to have been one of the original twelve disciples, himself a Jew, but also because many of the believers in the local churches were Jews also. But there will be many ‘Asia Minorisms’ too which may, if ignored, confuse our interpretation.

Even if my suggestion that Revelation did not gain a wide readership until much later on is not accepted, the fact remains that the entire Book was written specifically for the church of Asia Minor and it is only in this context that it can be fully understood and interpreted.

In my experience of the Church’s interpretation of the entire Book of Revelation, we seem to have divided the content up into three distinct divisions which we interpret separately. Firstly, the preamble (chapter 1), then the letters to the churches (chapters 2-3) - though these two are often brought together as one, seeing as some of the description used by Jesus Himself in the latter section is outlined in the former. Then, for no apparent reason, we treat chapters 4-22 as one unit but devoid of any real reference to either the letters of chapters 2-3 or the context of what the Church to whom the letter was addressed were experiencing.

Our expositions have been full of references to Jewish idioms and the current Israelite nation and has been clinically removed from much of its original context. I do not doubt that there are references to Jerusalem and the Israelite nation within the text but it is only as we understand the reference in the context of the life and times of first century life in Asia Minor that we can possibly interpret it correctly (and that, of course, only through the revelation and illumination of the Holy Spirit!).

Why these seven churches?

Firstly, Jesus’ command in Rev 1:11 that John is to ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches...’ need not be taken with the emphasis that I have placed upon it here. The Greek does not force the point that, in English, we may read the words as implying that there are just seven churches situated in Asia Minor.

Besides, it is fairly certain that there were other churches in the area that were continuing to maintain a witness for the Lord. Col 4:13 notes Hierapolis as having a christian community at the time of Paul and the existence of the letter from which it comes is evidence enough that there was also a fellowship at Colossae.

When Ignatius travelled through this area at the time of the close of the first century, he wrote to a church at Magnesia, also in Asia Minor, whose origin could be reasonably considered to be before the writing of the Revelation.

Therefore, though there were certainly other fellowships in various cities within the region, why did Jesus only choose these seven? Is the number seven purely symbolical as is used throughout Revelation for various other items and occurrences?

We could conjecture many things but, very simply, we don’t know. Perhaps these seven churches were the only ones that Jesus wanted to say anything to? Perhaps they were considered to be the seven most important churches in the area by Jesus (notice that Jesus speaks of them not John who is usually attributed with being the overseer of the work of Christ in this area)? Perhaps, amongst the Asia Minor church, this list of seven were the ones who were considered to be representative of the whole or that each one had jurisdiction over an area that was specifically defined in which they were to spread the Gospel?

All or none of these could be correct - but the seven would probably have had some specific significance of which we, nineteen centuries on, are unaware.

John or Jesus?

Commentators repeatedly speak of ‘what John wrote’ to the seven churches of Asia and are often seemingly unaware that the seven letters were spoken directly by Jesus through John to them. The point is an important one to make - either John has authored these words and claimed Divine authority for them, using what he knew about the churches to speak to them, or else what we are reading is directly from the heart of God to His people in these seven specific locations.

John could only be considered to have ‘written’ these letters in the same way as, for instance, Tertius is considered to have written Romans (Rom 16:22), Jesus Himself specifically stating at the beginning of each passage ‘The words of him...’ denoting a direct quote from Jesus Himself.

Such demarcation that John is the originator of these letters undermines their authority and we should always speak of them, as the Bible says, ‘from Jesus’ not ‘from John’.

Why write the letters in this order?

There are some things that can be said about the order and some other things that are best left unsaid. Commentators normally point out that the writing of the letters is in the most logical order if one were to travel round them starting at Ephesus - though that is partly true, it isn’t an absolute.

Firstly, John (whoever this John may be - church tradition holds that it was the John who was one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus who is regarded as having the oversight of the move of God in the area of Asia Minor) indicates that he was on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9), possibly imprisoned within the penal colony located some 60 miles or so south-west of the city of Ephesus in the Aegean Sea. What John actually writes (‘[I] was on...’) could indicate that, although he received the Revelation while on the island, he was recording it having now left - church tradition, however, normally sees John as having both received it and written it while exiled away from Asia Minor.

Zondervan describes Patmos as

‘...a mountainous island of irregular outline, measuring approximately six by ten miles’

before contrasting ancient reports which speak of it both as a dry and desolate area and as an island covered with palm trees or terebinth.

If one was to travel from Patmos on a tour of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, the most logical first port of call would be Ephesus. True, one could sail directly from Patmos to Miletus and then overland to either Ephesus or Laodicea but, if time was of the essence, a direct voyage to Ephesus would be the most logical. Smyrna, the other port on the western coast of Asia Minor, lay to the north round a headland which jutted out into the sea some sixty miles west of a line drawn between the two cities, thus hindering a quick and easy voyage.

So, we can be certain that Ephesus would necessarily be the first church to have been reached if a journey was to be undertaken. But the decision as to which church was to be second cannot be answered by reference to the theory that the churches were visited in the most logical order.

From Ephesus, there were two main roads that could have been used to provide an easy ‘circuit’ - either the one which headed almost due north towards Smyrna (the route that Jesus uses in His dictation) or the one which headed almost due east, up the Maeander valley, to arrive at Laodicea, Colossae and Hierapolis (see on Laodicea for the significance of these three cities in the interpretation of the letter).

Both routes appear to be logical and I can see no reason why one should have been preferred above the others apart from, perhaps, by arriving at Laodicea last, it was possible to gain access into the interior of Asia Minor and then beyond, ultimately arriving in Israel. The alternative route not chosen by Jesus would finish the journey in Smyrna, a port from which a ship could be hired to sail to just about anywhere from Athens to farther afield places such as Rome.

(The explanation which offers that it was done logically in a clockwise direction is a bit of a misnomer as there was no ‘clockwise’ until much later!!!)

So, although the first church visited is logical, the second and seventh do not appear to have anything that indicates to us why Jesus chose one route above the other. However, that He did choose a route is significant in that He is not listing the fellowships in order of importance in His mention of them. Above that, there does not appear very much we can adequately say about the route chosen.

Prophetic Messages?

There are various different ‘systems’ (for want of a better word) that are employed when the letters to the seven churches are interpreted. While I don’t intend going in to these structures, it has to be pointed out that I intend trying to come to terms with the messages as written to the respective churches of their day and not with any other hidden agenda at the back of my mind.

Many have tried to interpret them in the light of subsequent Church history, following the different ages of the church through to correspond with the characteristics of the letters in the order they were written - but this does pull away from a plain and simple interpretation and it denies that, when Jesus said ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches...’ (1:11), He meant them to understand anything relevant to their own plight and situation.

If there is a secondary meaning then let us hope that we don’t miss out on what ‘the Spirit is saying to the churches’ but, primarily, we would be doing an injustice to the text if we failed to apply Jesus’ words to the fellowship of its time.

Therefore, I have totally removed any concept in my own viewpoint that would see them as futuristic prophecies in order that I might try and arrive at what they originally meant for the people of their time.

Common Characteristics of all Seven Letters

I don’t intend expounding every characteristic of the seven letters but there is definitely one (‘the angel’) that needs a decent consideration for us to understand the intention of Jesus’ words. What is important to do here, then, is simply to list the common structures of each of the seven letters so that the reader may more easily deal with the Scriptures as they are read but also that the reader of this commentary may make some sense of the reason why I have used the scissors at certain points rather than others.

Whatever, we should still consider each letter as one unit and not a series of unconnected points that the receiving churches found difficult to understand. That we might find difficulty coming to terms with the full weight of their meaning should not blind us to the fact that the recipients would have understood full well what it was that Jesus was trying to say through His servant John.

a. The Address - ‘To the angel of the church in...’

The problem that immediately confronts us as we attempt to interpret what is meant by ‘angel’ is that which has confronted every other commentator throughout Church history - namely that, no matter which option we choose, there are difficulties here.

What needs to be said first and foremost is that the letters were written to the seven churches mentioned at the head of each of the passages. Even though, if we were to take the title here as literally referring to an angelic being that somehow is associated with the local church, the verse is repeated later on in all seven letters which reads

‘...let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches

Therefore, however we would interpret this phrase, the letters must still be accepted as being specific messages directed to the local body of Christ and not for the attention only of an individual who is mentioned at the head of the letter.

Having said that, it is impossible to be certain what the phrase means - not that it isn’t obvious but because we can nowhere justify the interpretation by recourse to another Scripture in the Biblical canon.

The obvious interpretation, then, is to accept the word translated as ‘angel’ as being just that - an angel. Yes, I know - that’s too obvious! But it’s the most logical and rational interpretation even though the implication of this would be that each local church has a specific angelic being assigned to it which would then become the representative for that entire church.

There are over sixty occurrences of the Greek work translated here ‘angel’ and never once could it be considered that anything other than heavenly beings/spirits are being indicated. It seems strange, therefore, that we should propose that any other interpretation can be intended here. It isn’t without its problems, though, and Mtw 18:10 is just about the only other Scripture which would lend weight to the interpretation even though it mentions nothing about angels sent to be representative of church congregations.

Other interpretations include the assertion that these angels are the prevailing spirit of the church. Morris quotes Swete as saying

‘...the angel of a Church may be simply an expression for its prevailing spirit, and thus be identified with the Church itself’

and Mounce notes

‘The most satisfactory answer, however, is that the angel of the church was a way of personifying the prevailing spirit of the church’

Also among the interpretations is that ‘angel’ should be considered to be a human being, either the representative of the church who had come to John on the island of Patmos where this book was written (Rev 1:9) either to minister to him or to bring him problems that needed solving in the local church (for which there is no internal evidence within Revelation and which seems unlikely as Patmos was a penal colony!), or the bishop or overseer of the local church that the letter was addressed to.

This latter explanation relies on the existence of leading men having been appointed within local churches by the time of the writing of Revelation but, although there is evidence that on odd occasions this may have taken place (the example of Timothy is possibly the only example though Titus may also have functioned in this role) the norm was to appoint a plurality of elders who oversaw the church (I Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, Acts 14:23).

Incidentally, I’ve found that this belief is more prevalent amongst those fellowships that have a strong ‘one man ministry’ set up than amongst those who have diversified church leadership into a more Scriptural framework!!

Therefore, all we can say about the phrase common to all seven letters is that there appears to be no reason why the word ‘angel’ shouldn’t be taken to mean the same as it does in the other occurrences of the word in the Book of Revelation. To build a doctrine up on this, though, would be difficult (though some, I’m sure, would find it particularly easy) and all we can really ‘expound’ from this is that, in a very real sense, ministering spirits are sent to stand with local churches and be intermediaries of the Lord’s messages to His redeemed people.

b. The Description of Jesus

All begin with a description of Jesus, most drawing on the description given us in the first chapter of Revelation (1:12-20) though this is by no means exclusively true. Both Philadelphia and Laodicea at the end use none of this imagery (even though a ‘key’ is mentioned in the former of these two letters).

Various other sources are taken for the descriptions - even earlier verses in chapter 1 - and I go through the sources as and when we come to them. Many have specific relevance to the type of message that Jesus is bringing to them and it is important that, wherever possible, we incorporate the reason for their use into an interpretation of the passage - they are not ‘little extras’ added to make the letters more colourful but integrated descriptions which enforce and back up the words of Christ which follow.

c. The Beginning of the Letter - ‘I know...’

After the formal address and the description of Christ that is relevant to the situation of the church, each letter begins unerringly with ‘I know’ in a various degree of usages and applications.

Jesus here calls to each of the churches’ remembrance that it is He who is the One who ‘knows’ what is really going on behind the scenes despite what may be evident by appeal to natural senses or through the opinion of those who are part of the fellowship in question (in some cases, even the opinions of those outside the fellowship).

Jesus knows the thoughts and intentions of the heart and, as such, He knows the true meaning of every deed that is being or that has been done (and, generally, the phrase ‘I know’ is tied up with their works, though not exclusively).

Jesus, then, knows exactly what is going on in the churches - a fact that is as exciting as it is frightening!

d. Praise and Rebuke

The main body of the letter which falls in-between the ‘I know’ above and the last two characteristics below has various contents and is therefore so varied as to almost defy definition but, the simplest label to put on it seems to be the one I’ve chosen of ‘praise and rebuke’ even though there are promises and prophetic messages which surface here and there in the various circumstances.

But, if there is anything worthy of praise, Jesus mentions them here (though, as I wrote in my commentary, just because Jesus says that ‘He knows’ does not mean that He is pleased by what it is that He knows!) and, if there are things that need correction, they are mentioned here also.

The word ‘repent’ occurs a few times, too, in the context of putting right what is defective but it is never the same verbal formula where it occurs and it does not always apply to the entire church but can refer to individuals.

e. An Exhortation to Heed - ‘He who has ears to hear...’

The phrase

‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’

occurs in each and every church with no variation (as far as I can tell). It doesn’t fall in the same place in each of the seven letters, it being inserted immediately before ‘To him who overcomes’ in the first three letters and after that phrase in the final four (hence the change of chapter 2 to 3 could be considered to be in the wrong place!!).

Very simply, as I note in my commentary on Thyatira, it means something like

'Those who have set themselves to hear My will and to perform it should give heed to my message to them and actively obey'

paralleled by the earthly words of Jesus in such passages as Mtw 13:9 where the Lord was telling parables to the multitudes, even though the weight of the meaning there is somewhat different, where Jesus is proclaiming hidden truths to them and encouraging them to find the meaning.

More significant are, firstly, that Jesus is urging His hearers to hear what the Spirit says to the church in question rather than what He is saying. The implication is that these are not just words dreamed up with no anointing and power of God upon them but that they are living words direct from the heart of God which have both the power and provision of God breathed upon them to effect everything that they require to be done.

Secondly, why does Jesus use the phrase ‘the churches’ when the same sentence is given to all seven churches? Shouldn’t it rather read ‘...let him hear what the Spirit says to the church [in question]’? This is a good indication that the original letters were not sent out separately to each of the fellowships in the cities as the phrase would have been almost meaningless! It only finds relevance if all seven letters along with the Book of Revelation were sent out together to all seven. Each church is to be a witness to each of the others of what Jesus has said to them - they can’t deny they’ve never received the letter because there are at least six others who can testify to its contents.

It’s a bit like an ancient version our ‘Recorded Delivery’ service in the UK which confirms receipt of a postal packet!!

f. A Promise - ‘To him who overcomes...’

This is a common ending and precedes an eschatological promise in each letter - that is, something that Jesus will give to the believers after death in the future Kingdom after the resurrection of the dead.

As Mounce (on Rev 2:7) notes

‘The overcomer in Revelation is not one who has conquered an earthly foe by force, but one who has remained faithful to Christ to the very end. The victory he achieves is analogous to the victory of Christ on the cross’

Note on the ‘History’ sections of each letter

As in all the ‘History’ sections within each of the seven cities, information is taken from commentaries and secondary authorities and it has usually been impossible to check primary sources, either because they are not available or because they are not cited.

The accuracy of these sources may be in doubt as I found out when I was able to check out details attributed to Herodotus in connection with Sardis and discovered that what he had actually written was so different that it begged the question as to whether the author had referred to the original documents.

Other statements such as the presence of certain temples in the cities are more often than not stated with complete certainty but evidence is lacking and one has to assume the accuracy of the statements when two or more commentaries agree.


Common References listed under the ‘References’ page of ‘The Cross’ series of teachings are not duplicated here. I have also cited some other works in the text when I had only an intention of quoting from them once.

Bruce - The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company Chilton - The Days of Vengeance, David Chilton, Dominion Press

Eusebius - The History of the Church, Eusebius translated by G A Williamson, Penguin Classics

Morris - Revelation, Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentary, IVP/Eerdmans Publishing Company

Motyer - The Prophecy of Isaiah, Alec Motyer, Inter-Varsity Press

Mounce - Revelation, Robert H Mounce, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company

Oxford Bible Atlas - The Oxford Bible Atlas, 2nd Edition, Oxfod University Press

NIDBA - The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, E M Blaiklock and R K Harrison, The Zondervan Corporation

Wight - Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, Fred H Wight, Moody Bible Institute


Biblical Archaeology Review, Volume 19 Number 3, ‘Ephesus - Key to a vision in Revelation’ pages 24-37

The Book of Revelation, Philip E Hughes, IVP

The Days of Vengeance, David Chilton, Dominion Press

The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, E M Blaiklock and R K Harrison, The Zondervan Corporation

The Oxford Bible Atlas, 2nd Edition, Oxfod University Press

Revelation, Robert H Mounce, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company

Revelation, Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentary, IVP/Eerdmans Publishing Company

The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Merrill C Tenney, The Zondervan Corporation