Taking Revelation's Audience Seriously

SYNOPSISThe book of Revelation is addressed to seven actual churches in the province of Asia in the first century A.D.

Photo by Milind Kaduskar on Unsplash
By Milind Kaduskar on Unsplash
The opening paragraph of the Book of Revelation presents it as a record of a vision received by John of Patmos. Its contents are labeled “the prophecy,” singular, and summarized as, “What things that must come to pass soon.”

John was commanded to write the vision in a scroll and send it to seven churches in key cities of the Roman province of Asia. In its entirety, the book is addressed to seven churches from the first century (Revelation 1:9-11).

The first vision includes seven letters addressed to the congregations. Each includes commendations, corrections, warnings, and promises for their Christian members; further, each letter ends with the admonishment, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” plural. The seven churches do not drop out of the picture after Chapter 3; the promises in each letter provide verbal links to the book’s final vision of New Jerusalem. Likewise, the exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying at the close of each letter also occurs in the middle of the book:

(Revelation 13:9-10) - “If anyone has an ear: let him hear.”
(Revelation 22:16) - “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.”

This does not mean the book of Revelation was only applicable to the Christians of these late first century churches. At the time, there were more than seven congregations in the province of Asia, plus dozens more throughout the Roman Empire. Plural terms like “churches” and descriptions of saints from “every nation” anticipate a much wider audience. However, the original seven churches remain a part of that audience, however large it may prove to be in the end.
The number seven is used symbolically in the book to signify completion; a complete group. The seven churches represent a larger whole, although the seven are included in it. Likewise, the concluding admonishment of each letter to hear what the spirit is saying to the “churches,” plural, indicates a broader intended audience.

Although the message of the book is to a broader audience, any interpretation that makes the seven churches of Asia irrelevant to it does not do the book of Revelation justice. This is a critical problem with strictly “futurist” readings that claim the book’s prophecies are applicable to History’s final generation. If true, then the churches of Asia and their letters become little more than literary props.

Ignoring the historical setting of the book of Revelation creates significant problems. For example, if the promise to keep the church of Philadelphia “out of the hour of trial” refers to an escape from a “tribulation” in a remote future, then it had no relevance to that congregation (Revelation 3:10).

Passages from the book of Revelation must be interpreted in their historical contexts. What was the imminent “hour of trial” facing the saints at Philadelphia? To what did Jesus refer when he told the church at Smyrna they faced “tribulation ten days?” Who and what were the Nicolaitans? What was the "throne of Satan" in the city of Pergamos?

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