Though almost universally called “letters” to the seven churches of Asia, this is rather insufficient to capture the urgency and message of these words from the risen and enthroned Messiah. The salutation of the Apocalypse (Revelation 1:4-8) bears all the earmarks of a letter, but the subsequent visionary markers (“in the Spirit”) remind us that this is no letter. It is, as identified in the superscription, a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3).
As a prophecy located in the tradition of the canonical Hebrew prophets but at the same time an Apocalypse, we expect prophetic oracles that address the situation of the original hearers. This is exactly what we have in the “letters” to the seven churches. They are prophetic oracles rather than simple letters (though, of course, they appear in the genre of letters). They are filled with apocalyptic imagery, allusions to prophetic literature, and confront and/or comfort the people of God in an increasingly hostile environment. John, through the voice of the risen Messiah, speaks like an Amos, or an Isaiah, or a Jeremiah. He calls the people of God to account even as he also offers them hope.
Almost every commentary on these “letters” notes their repetitive structure, and rightly so as the structure highlights (1) the authority of the risen Messiah, (2) the situation of each church (whether good or bad), and (3) the hope of the new heaven and new earth. This is all couched in the language of an apocalyptic prophet.
In his recent commentary on Revelation 1-3, Richard E. Oster, Jr. discerns a sevenfold pattern for each of the prophetic oracles (Seven Congregations, 91-92). I have adapted his arrangement in this way:
- “To the angel of the church” (2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7; 3:14)
- Command to “write” (2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7; 3:14)
- Christophany connection (2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7 (?))
- Acknowledge–”I know” (2:2; 2:9; 2:13; 2:19; 3:1; 3:8; 3:15)
- Warnings and Imperatives (2:2-6; 2:9-10; 2:13-16; 2:19-25; 3:1-4; 3:8-11; 3:15-20)
- Eschatological Promise (2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:26; 3:5; 3:12; 3:21)
- Admonition–Call to Hear (2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22)
It is important to note several significant features of this sevenfold pattern in the light of their function as prophetic oracles. First, the oracle arises from the divine council, that is, from a heavenly figure who delivers a message from the divine throne room. The risen Messiah received a “revelation” from God and now delivers it to the (angel of the) churches through John. This, in effect, is like the Hebrew prophets to whom “the word of the Lord came” (Hosea 1:1; Zechariah 1:1) or the “vision” they saw (Isaiah 1:1).
Second, the message of the prophet confronts the people of God. The overwhelming danger for the churches in Asia is cultural assimilation through idolatry, syncretism, and heterodoxy. This is the same problem Israel faced throughout its history and which the prophets constantly addressed. The emphatic and mostly climactic line in the oracles is the call to listen–whoever has an ear. let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. It is important to notice the plural (churches; cf. 2:7). This indicates the audience is wider than simply the particular church addressed. Rather, whoever has an ear–whoever is within earshot, whoever hears the words read–they should listen to the message. The warnings, promises and imperatives apply to every church and not simply to the specific one addressed (though, of course, it has an acute relevance to the community addressed). The prophetic message, then, is for a broad audience though socially and contextually located.
Third, while the prophet commends and warns, Jesus through John also offers hope through the promise of a future eschatological reality. This binds Revelation 2-3 with Revelation 21-22 as the language of the former anticipates the latter. Hope changes everything and hope enables endurance as a faithful witness. It does not minimize faithful witness but provides a horizon for ordering our lives as disciples of Jesus. Greg Stevenson in his new book A Slaughtered Lamb (p. 120) summarizes it well:
Some have criticized the idea of an end-time resolution to the problem of human suffering, believing that it downplays the need to remedy injustice in the here and now. Eschatology, however, is not about taking our eyes off the needs of this world and focusing them instead on some ultimate consolation. One who embodies the pattern of the Christ must also embody his compassion for the poor, his concern for justice, his outrage at evil, and his actions to reduce human suffering. What eschatology does, what the seven promises concluding these letters do, is challenge our assumptions that God is not faithful unless he provides blessing and comfort in this life. They are a reminder that God’s vision encompasses much more than ours and this material world–as important as it is–is not the totality of existence. The messages of the seven letters are strongly counter-cultural in that they dare to suggest that it is not wealth or comfort or pleasure achieved within the kingdom of the world that matters, but a life lived according to the pattern of a crucified messiah, a slaughtered Lamb, and that that pattern reinterprets all our cultural assumptions.
Though I think Greg introduces the image of the slaughtered Lamb too early (it does not appear till Revelation 5), the point is on target given the whole of the theology of Revelation. The function of hope is not to diminish the present or release us from our commitment to care for others. Rather, its function is to open a window into the fuller nature of reality and glimpse the goal God has for the creation. This hope empowers discipleship and comforts the afflicted.