John the apostle addressed seven letters to seven real churches that existed during the time he wrote the book of Revelation. In Revelation 2—3, we find these churches included Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. All of these cities were in modern-day Turkey, near the island of Patmos from where John wrote Revelation.
What should we learn from the letters to the seven churches in Revelation?
Each church's message, though specific to its situation, also offers applications for our lives today. Ephesus was commanded to return to its first love (2:4). Smyrna was told it would endure persecution (2:10). Pergamum was called to repentance (2:16). Thyatira was commanded to remove its false prophetess (2:20). Sardis needed to wake from its sleep (3:2). Philadelphia was to continue its patient endurance (3:10). Laodicea was to end its lukewarm faith (3:16).
Some also believe that these seven churches represent historical time periods. For example, the church of Ephesus would resemble the first churches while Laodicea represents today's lukewarm churches. However, this approach makes a symbolic or allegorical interpretation that is not warranted by the text of the Scriptures. Though much application can be found, the view that these churches represent historical periods is unlikely.
In addition to the specific details given to each church, each introduction to the church letters describe an aspect of the glorified Jesus. For example, Revelation 2:1 says, "The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands." Revelation 1:20 defines the "seven stars" as the angels or messengers of the seven churches that are held in the hand of Jesus. The seven golden lampstands represent the seven churches Jesus walked among.
The end of the church's letter also mentions details about eternal rewards. For example, Revelation 2:11 says, "The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death." Those who conquer are Christians. Revelation 20:14 later describes the second death, saying, "This is the second death, the lake of fire."
Another example can be found in Revelation 2:28. There the letter says to believers: "And I will give him the morning star." Revelation 22:16 later makes clear, "I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."
In summary, each church was a literal church that received a letter from John. Each letter offered information about the glorified Jesus, instructions to the church, and a description of eternal rewards. Further, these letters offer many applications for readers today who seek to live holy lives and be prepared for the coming of Christ.
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