Grace Theological Journal 6.2 (1985) 267-273
Copyright © 1985 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
ARE THE SEVEN LETTERS OF
REVELATION 2-3 PROPHETIC?
JAMES L. BOYER
The letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 outline the
course of Church History from the first advent. of Christ to his second
advent. This interpretation does not compromise the doctrine of
imminence since the prophecy is implicit and thus not discernible
until its fulfillment has been accomplished. Some have failed to see
the correspondence between the characteristics of the seven churches
and the history of the church because they have failed to recognize
that the seven churches are true churches (λυχvía, ‘lampstands’).
* * *
TRADITIONALL Y, dispensational premillenialists often have seen in
the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 three iterpre-
tations which, taken together, comprise the meaning of the passage.
The three interpretations may be called the historical interpretation,
the typical or representative interpretation, and the prophetic interpre-
The historical interpretation understands the seven churches to
seven actual historical churches in provincial
Some of them are mentioned elsewhere in Scripture (
seems to be almost total agreement on this interpretation; the only
view known to the present writer that would deny it holds that the
seven churches are seven Jewish congregations in the future Tribula-
The usual interpretation sees these churches as seven types of
churches in any age. That is, these churches exhibit characteristics
which may be found in any church of any time or place. This
interpretation is also nearly universally held by all dispensational
1E. W. Bullinger, The Apocalypse: The Day of the Lord (3rd ed., rev.;
Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1935) 68-71.
268 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
premillenialists and does not in any sense replace or contradict the
Third is the prophetic interpretation which additionally sees a
prophetic or predictive element in these seven letters. Each church in
Revelation 2-3 exhibits qualities and conditions which become pre-
dominant in a certain period of church history from the first advent
of Christ to his second advent.2 Thus, just as there are types of
churches, there are types of church periods.3
These three interpretations are not antithetical; not many inter-
preters teach the historical only, or typical only, or prophetic only.
The question addressed here is whether the prophetic interpretation is
part of the meaning of Revelation 2-3. This has been denied by some
SOME PRELIMINARY CONSIDERATIONS
It may be desirable at the outset to dismiss a few minor arguments
to clear the way for the more important considerations. I believe that
some well-meaning but over-zealous expounders of the prophetic view
have claimed too much or have sought to pile up evidence by using I
weak arguments. This has actually hurt the credibility of the prophetic
interpretation more than it has helped because it gives opponents
something to refute, thus making the whole position look weak.
One such argument is that the book of Revelation is a prophetic
book; hence it would be appropriate to find a prophetic aspect here.5
This of course is true, as everyone will agree. But it proves nothing.
It might be claimed that since the prophecies of the tribulation
period come after chaps. 2 and 3 (cf. 4:1, "after this"), then chaps. 2
2This approach is commonly taken in dispensational commentaries; see e.g.,
Herman A. Hoyt, The Revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ (
and John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (
Moody, 1966) 52, who holds the view cautiously. See also Menno J. Brunk, "The Seven
Churches in Revelation 2-3," BSac 126 (1969) 240-46, and Gary G. Cohen, Understanding
Revelation (Collingswood, NJ: Christian Beacon, 1968) 44-65, who presents a more
impressive argument. Of course, a prophetic view is held by non-dispensationalists as
well (e.g., J. P. Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures-Revelation [reprint; Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.] 139). See also the survey of R. C. Trench, Commentary on
the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (6th ed., rev.; reprint;
and Klock, 1978) 237-45.
3Hoyt, Revelation, 28; and Walvoord, Revelation, 52.
4E.g., Robert L. Thomas, "The Chronological Interpretation of Revelation 2-3,"
BSac 124 (1967) 321-31. George Ladd's equation of dispensational ism with the prophetic
view is thus an overgeneralization. See Ladd's A Commentary on the Revelation of John
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) 12.
5E.g., Brunk, "The
BOYER: THE SEVEN LETTERS OF REVELATION 2-7 269
and 3 must cover the church age-otherwise there would be a gap in
the succession of events. But again this proves nothing; "after this"
would be just as true even if there were a gap, and the occurrence of a
gap is certainly not unusual in prophetic literature.
I personally do not put great significance in the argument based
upon the etymologies of the names of the seven churches6 for two
reasons. First, the proposed etymologies are very uncertain and hypo-
thetical. Second, the argument is based on a very questionable method
of exegesis. While it is true that names may have meanings (as Miller
and Smith and Fisher have in English) and sometimes were given
with deliberate reference to that meaning (as Benjamin and Joshua-
Jesus in Scripture), this was not normally the case. The ministry of
Paul is not explained by studying the etymology of his name.
EXPLICIT VERSUS IMPLICIT PROPHECY
One of the objections given against the prophetic view is that the
passage does not explicitly claim to be prophetic.7 It is readily admit-
ted that this is true. Nowhere in Revelation 2-3 does it say that these
letters are dealing with seven long periods of time which must tran-
spire before the second advent. Indeed if it had said that, it would
have effectively denied the plain teaching of Scripture elsewhere that
the Lord's coming is imminent, to be constantly expected and watched
But the fact that it is not explicitly prophetic does not at all
mean that it is not prophetic. Bible prophecy elsewhere is often
implicit rather than explicit. It is the character of Bible prophecy to
unfold as it is fulfilled. OT messianic prophecy is an example. The
OT did not say explicitly that there would be two comings separated
by a long period of time. That time element was the specific aspect
which the prophets themselves could not understand (1 Pet 1: II). Nor
did OT prophecy make it clear that the offer of the Kingdom would
be rejected and postponed to that later coming. But as the fulfillment
unfolded, the two comings (which were implicit in the OT prophecy)
could be understood (Luke 24:25-27).
Here is also the answer to that most serious of all objections to
the prophetic understanding of Revelation 2-3, namely, that it denies
the doctrine of imminence.8 It indeed would, if it stated explicitly
there would be a period of at least two thousand years before the
second advent, or even if it had stated explicitly that there would be
6E.g., Cohen, Understanding Revelation, 62-63; and H. A. Ironside,
Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1920) 37-38.
7Thomas, "Chronological Interpretation," 329-30.
270 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
“seven periods of church history.” But the implicit prophecy could
not be understood until it was made clear by fulfillment, and by that
time it could no longer be said, “My Lord delays His coming”
(Matt 24:48). So the charge that the prophetic view destroys the doc-
trine of imminence is answered.
A significant argument for the prophetic view may be seen in the
number of churches listed in these chapters. Although the symbolism
of numbers has been grossly abused by many in their treatment of the
book of Revelation, few will deny that in this book the number seven
occupies a place of importance and must be recognized as significant.
And most would see that significance as representing completeness,
fullness, the “whole” of something.9 Applying this symbolic signifi-
cance to the seven churches of Revelation points to this sevenfold
picture as presenting in some way the whole of the church. Now if the
meaning is limited to the historical view, the question may be asked
why only these seven churches were addressed. Certainly they were
not the complete list of historical churches of John’s day, not even all
within sight of one of them). Nor can importance be the deciding
factor, as Colosse again shows.
One might add the typical interpretation to the picture and say
that the seven represent the seven types of churches. But again one
faces the question, why these seven? Certainly these seven are not the
only seven types of churches. The NT itself furnishes many examples
of church types not included in these seven, such as the Galatian and
the Corinthian types. When one tries to label every church with which
he is acquainted by assigning it to one of these seven, he has difficulty.
These seven cannot represent a total list of church types.
However, when the prophetic view of the seven churches is
recognized, the number seven becomes meaningful. The seven do not
represent all churches or all types of churches but all the periods in
the progressive historical development of the church in this age.
FULFILLMENT IN FACT
What is it that prompts expositors to see implicit prophecy in
these letters? It is the remarkable correspondence in fact with the
course of history and the realization that the characteristics of these
seven churches have appeared in succession in the historical develop-
ments of the church age. It is not within the purpose of this paper to
9For a careful study of numbers in the Bible and a cautious approval of the
symbolic significance of the number seven, see John J. Davis, Biblical Numerology
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968) 115-19.
BOYER: THE SEVEN LETTERS OF REVELATION 2-7 271
expound or to defend this claim; it has been presented in the literature
of those who hold it.10 Perhaps sufficient for the present purpose is
the observation that this is especially clear of the first two and the last
two periods, the ones with which modern Christians are most familiar.
The apostolic age, which began with the zeal of “first love,” showed a
that ardor (as in the letter to the church in
The second clearly discernible period was one of persecution and
in the letter to the church in
letter to the church in
evangelistic and missionary movements of the nineteenth century.
And the lukewarmness and materialistic self-sufficiency of the church
bered that all types of churches are present in all periods, but one
type is predominant and characterizes each period.
But it is at this point that opponents of this view voice one of
their major objections. They claim that there is no such correspon-
dence in fact between the letters and church history. They add that
the view is highly subjective with wide difference of opinion between
proponents.11 They label the view as simply another “continuous-
historical” interpretation--an approach to Revelation which views
the book as a whole to be “a symbolic presentation of the entire
course of the history of the church from the close of the first century
to the end of time.”12
First, to label the prophetic view as another continuous-historical
interpretation demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the proph-
etic view. The continuous-historical method of interpreting the book
of Revelation attempts to see fulfillment of specific passages in
Revelation in specific events of history, such as the conversion of the
The prophetic view propounded here does absolutely none of this. It
is in no sense a prediction of events orpersons or organizations of
which it could be said, “This is the fulfillment of that.” Rather it is a
recognition that the Lord foreknew and foretold the trends and move-
ments throughout the church age. These are not immediately and
definitely discernible but may be discerned by hindsight.
10E.g., Cohen, Understanding Revelation, 48-49; and J. A. Seiss, The
11E.g., Thomas, “Chronological Interpretation,” 325-27, and Trench,
Epistles to the Seven Churches, 247-50.
12Merril1 C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957) 137.
See also Tenny's entire discussion of this view (137-39).
272 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
The claim that the prophetic view is subjective and differs widely
from person to person13 is also based on the same misunderstanding.
When the many continuous-historical writers are included, it is of
course true that there are wide divergencies. Such subjectivity is a
legitimate argument against that interpretation. But those who actually
hold the prophetic view of these passages repudiate the spiritualizing
and allegorizing of that method, holding instead to a literal or natural
interpretation, and there is remarkable agreement in the identification
of the seven periods.
Second, it is claimed that the view of church history used by the
advocates of the prophetic view is faulty, taking into consideration
only “Western Christianity,” hence the correspondence in fact is not
true. The answer to this objection is very simple, but very important
and often neglected even by the proponents of the view.
Such a claim involves a faulty understanding of the nature of the
churches in Revelation 2-3. The seven periods of church history are
wrongly conceived as embracing all churches, all Christendom. The
churches of Revelation 2-3 are symbolized as “candle-sticks” (KJV)
or “lampstands” (NASV, NIV). The Greek word used is λυχvía and
refers to the pedestal or stand upon which the lamp was placed or
hung; the lamp itself is lu<xnoj or lampa<j.14 The churches are not
lamps or the light; they are the holders of the lamps. They hold up
the light of the gospel so it may be seen by the world. When Revelation
describes these churches as “light-holders,” if is labeling them as
holders of the true gospel. They represent the place where men may
find the gospel. They are true churches. In Rev 2:5 the Lord threatens
to remove their lampstand out of its place if they do not repent. In
other words they will cease to be light-holders; they will cease to be
true churches. Therefore, those churches represented in Revelation 2-3
are not false, apostate, or heretical-otherwise, they would not be
lampstands. Western Christianity has been the major center for world
evangelism and thus fits the description here.
The implications of this insight are crucial. It cancels the objection
that the prophetic view fails to take into account the whole of church
history. Revelation 2-3 provides a picture of trends and movements
within true churches, not within Christendom. All through the years
there have always been churches where the light of the gospel was
being held up to view, even in the darkest days of the age. Such
churches may have reflected some of the spirit of their false con-
temporaries, but they did not lose their light. Dead and apostate
“churches” are not the addressees of these letters.
13E.g., Thomas, “Chronological Interpretation,” 326.
BOYER: THE SEVEN LETTERS OF REVELATION 2-7 273
This insight also forces a reevaluation of the whole approach to
understanding these letters. For example, the Laodicean church is not
the theologically liberal church down the street, nor the apostate
church of the end times. It is the Bible-believing evangelical church
which possesses and upholds the light of the gospel, but which is
conforming to the values of the world and refusing to get overly
involved in the Lord's work. It is materially rich and increased with
goods, needing nothing, but it is unaware that it is spiritually wretched
and poor and miserable and blind and naked (). It is lukewarm--
not cold and unresponsive to the things of God, but not hot and “on
fire” for the Lord who bought it. Rather it is somewhere in between.
It is trying to enjoy the good things and to avoid the unpleasant
things of both worlds.
Is this the case with us and with the people in our churches?
Then ours is
a Laodicean church. And to the degree that
characterizes the churches--the true gospel churches--of our time,
may we hear what the Spirit says to the churches: “As many as I love,
I rebuke and chasten; be zealous, therefore, and repent” ().
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