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

be seven actual historical churches in provincial Asia in the first

century. Some of them are mentioned elsewhere in Scripture (Ephesus

and Laodicea) while others are known from church history. There

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-

tion period.1

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.; London:

Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1935) 68-71.



premillenialists and does not in any sense replace or contradict the

historical interpretation.

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





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 (Winona Lake, IN: BMH,

1966) 17,25-29, and John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago:

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; Minneapolis: Klock

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 Seven Churches," 244; and Cohen, Understanding Revelation, 63.

            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.




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.

8Ibid., 328-29.

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

the churches of Asia; Colosse is right in the midst of them (in fact,

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

diminishing of that ardor (as in the letter to the church in Ephesus).

The second clearly discernible period was one of persecution and

martyrdom, when the Roman Empire tried to destroy the Christian

faith (as in the letter to the church in Smyrna). The “open door” of

the letter to the church in Philadelphia corresponds closely with the

evangelistic and missionary movements of the nineteenth century.

And the lukewarmness and materialistic self-sufficiency of the church

in Laodicea describes well the present situation. It should be remem-

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

Roman Empire, the invasion of the Turks, or the First World War.

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

Apocalypse (London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, n.d.) 76-86.

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)

orlampstands” (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.

14BAGD, 483.

            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 (3:17). 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 Laodicea

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” (Rev 3: 19).



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