THE SEVEN CHURCHES
By Pastor Glenn Pease
A math teacher asked one of her less enthusiastic students, "If I take 23 away from 30, what is the difference?" He responded, "That's what I say, what's the difference?" In other words, it made no difference to him. Not everybody enjoys math and working with numbers, and you certainly do not need much knowledge in this area to understand the Bible. John was no great mathematician, but there is one number he used over and over again, and that was the number 7. The whole book of Revelation is built around the number 7. It is used 54 times in this book, and is the key number that forms the structure of the book.
John was not the first to use 7 this way, for 7 has been the number of perfection and completion all through history. The Greeks and Romans considered it a sacred number, but long before them the Chinese divided their empire into 7 provinces. In India the earth was divided into 7 divisions, and they had the 7 rivers of Hindustan, and 7 celestial mountains. The Babylonians made much of the number 7, and they referred to all gods as the 7 gods, and their 7 story tower was symbolic of the whole universe.
The idea of 7 being symbolic of perfection and completion is almost universal, and, therefore, it is the easiest of all symbolic numbers to understand. It usually means all of the category being dwelt with in the context. God has built this right into creation.
7 days make a complete week.
7 colors make a complete rainbow.
7 whole tones make a complete scale with the 8th a repetion of the first.
7 seas, 7 wonders of the world, 7 years and the body is renewed.
7 days of rest.
7 day feast.
7th day for circumcision.
7 fold sprinkling of blood on the day of atonement.
7 branch candlestick.
7 times dipping of Naaman.
7 years labor for Rachel.
7 years of famine and 7 years of plenty.
7 last words from the cross.
7 baskets of fragments.
7 husbands of one wife.
7 demons cast out of Mary Magdalene.
7 parables of Matt. 13.
7 woes on the Pharisees.
7 times 70 for forgiveness.
We could go on and on for there are 600 references to the number 7 in the Bible. There is no point in trying to prove what is obvious to everyone. 7 is a symbolic number which stands for totality. It gets this meaning because it is a combination of three and four. Three represents the trinity, or heaven, and four represents the earth because of the four directions and four seasons. 7 is the combination of heaven and earth, or the total reality.
This means that when John in verse 4 addresses the 7 churches in Asia, he is addressing the total church, or all churches for all time. These 7 actual churches of his day are representative of all the local churches that will exist through all of history. Just as the 7 spirits before the throne represent the Holy Spirit in the fullness of all his functions. One of the popular systems of interpreting the book of Revelation is the system that sees the whole book as 7 great visions, each of which starts at the first coming of Christ and ends with the second coming. Whether this theory is correct or not I cannot say, but it definitely has some truth to it which we will observe as we go through the book.
Another popular method of interpretation based on the number 7 is that each of the 7 churches represents a period of history. Again, there is some truth to this theory, but to press it only leads to a lot of contradiction, for no two who follow this theory seem to be able to agree on what period of history each church represents. It is wise just to recognize that in every period of history the church falls into one of the 7 categories represented by the 7 churches. In fact, the church today world wide has local churches that fall into everyone of the 7 kinds. The idea that all churches of any age fall into the same category is based on ignorance of church history. The church may be dead in one part of the world, and in great revival in another part.
Some people get so excited about numerology that they go to extremes. I have several books in my library devoted to finding 7's in the Bible. This is an old hobby and goes back into ancient Judaism. They actually get down to the very letters of the Hebrew and Greek. For example, Gen. 1:1 has 7 Hebrew words made up of 28 letters, or 4 times 7. The first three words have 14 letters or 2 times 7, and the last 4 words have 14 letters or 2 times 7, and on and on it goes with dozens of combination of 7 right in the first verse of the Bible. They go on through the whole Bible finding 7 absolutely everywhere. Some men have spent their whole life finding the 7's in the Bible in every conceivable combination; all of which is much adeu about nothing. J. B. Segal writes, "Statistics of the Bible, like the calculations of the Great Pyramid of Egypt, have a fatal attraction for cranks and crackpots, and even for wise men in their less guarded moments."
We must beware of the danger of getting all excited about numbers, for as John Davis points out in his Biblical Numerology, the Bible no where tells us that it has any special hidden meaning in numbers. He feels that the number 7 is the only significant symbolic number in Scripture, and it has a clear and obvious meaning to all-completeness. Even here we need to remember that it can also mean completely evil and does not always mean perfect in a good sense. In 13:1 the great beast has 7 heads, and so 7 can be complete for either good or evil.
As we focus our attention on the 7 churches of Asia who first received this book, we need to remember that though they are representative of all churches, they were also real churches. This book is anchored in history. No interpretation can be very convincing if it does not face up to the fact that is was originally given to the 7 historic churches. The fact that there were other well known churches in the same area, such as Colosse, Galatia, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Antioch, and Miletus, makes it clear that 7 is used symbolically for all churches. We are not opening and reading other people's mail, therefore, but just as Paul wrote his letters to 7 specific churches which are guides to all the churches of history, so this revelation to the 7 churches is for all the churches of history.
As we look at the greeting of John to the churches, it is a typical greeting of the New Testament Epistles. Grace and peace are the two things all of need perpetually. The fact that we even need God's grace is evidence that apart from God's favor we can never make our own lives meaningful and effective. The fact that we need His peace is evidence that we live in a disturbing world where nothing is ever alright. This life is a battle-field in contrast to the joy, victory, and peace of the new heaven and new earth. The book of Revelation does encourage us to look ahead to that great eternal peace. Grace Crowell in Songs Of Hope wrote:
Lift up your hands, make straight the paths,
Though dark the way may seem,
Ahead are the orchards bright in the sun
Where the golden apples gleam.
Let no bitterness trouble your heart,
For after the night is passed,
The gold and the scarlet, rain-washed fruit,
Of peace will be yours at last.
This is a legitimate hope of the believer, but John in this greeting is saying, the grace and peace of God can be ours now. We can have some of the future in the present because the God of the future is also the God of the present. John describes God as the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Anytime and anywhere, one thing is sure, God is there. This first description of God in the book also anchors this book in history, for it describes God as the God of history. He is the God of the past, the future, and the now. History is God centered, but this is not always clear except to those who have this revelation of how God is active in history.
Note that God is on a throne. It is referred to here in verse 4, but in chapter 4 we have a description of God on His throne. This becomes a basis for the church to enter into the grace and peace of God now, even before the final victory over evil. This message of peace in a world of turmoil, due to the fact that God is on the throne, is to many, the key purpose of this whole book. It was written to strengthen and encourage Christians going through persecution by making it clear to them that no matter how bad things get on earth, God still is on the throne, and whether we live or die we are in his hands.
William Justice in his book Our Visited Planet tells of the physics professor describing to his college class the laws of motion. He described how each of the planets with their moons were in regular motion around the sun; how the earth itself was spinning on its axis over 1000 miles per hour, and at the same time sailing around the sun at 18 and one half miles per second. While this is going on, the sun itself if speeding on its massive flight through space at the velocity of 43,000 MPH carrying all the planets, their satellites, thousands of asteroids, a thousand comets and millions of meteors with it toward the great star Vega. The class was almost frightened with all of this movement, but he said ever this does not exhaust the matter. The Milky Way, our own galactic system, which is 100,000 light years across is turning as an incredible speed about an axis located in the direction ;of the constellation Sagittarius. This system is so immense it takes 200,000,000 years to rotate once on the axis. At this point the professor paused and with impressive solemnity said, "Young ladies and young gentlemen, every object in the universe known to man is in motion except the throne of God."
What that professor stated is one of the key truths of the book of Revelation, and because it is so, the peace of God is possible for the believer to experience in the present. Again, let me remind you, this is a now book for all Christians of every age because it is a revelation of the God who always is. Because he is the God who is, He is always involved in history. R.T. France calls Him the Transcendental Interferer. He means by that, that God is a Living God-a God who does not ignore history, but a God who gets involved in history. A God of the New Testament is the same God as the Jehovah of the Old Testament. He is going to be present in history leading His people to accomplish His will in the world. He also has His hand on non-Christian people's, and works out His will through them as well, even as He did in the Old Testament. It was not just Israel that God delivered. In Amos 9:7 God says, "Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?"
Any view of God that limits His involvement in history to His own people is too narrow to be Bibical, and is not worthy of the God of history. God tells us in the Old Testament that He was just as much the God of the nations as He was the God of Israel. In Isa. 10:5 He calls Assyria, "The rod of my anger." He used Assyria to judge His people in Israel. In Jer. 25:8-9 God says, "Nebuchanezzer the king of Babylon my servant." The reason I stress this Biblical truth at the beginning of our study of Revelation is to caution you against any interpretation of the is book that sees it only from an American perspective, as if what happens to us is all that really matters to God. I am rather inclined to believe Wilbur Smith, the great evangelical scholar in the area of prophecy, who says in his book You Can Know The Future, "I am sure that there is no particular prophecy about the U.S., although many books have been written on this....." We must see God as the God of all history and not limit Him to our experience of history, or our knowledge of history. He is the God of all history.
This three-fold description of God, plus the mention of the three Persons of the Trinity in verses 4 and 5, brings us to another favorite number in numerology. God has built this number into His creation also. Time is three fold with past, present and future. You have earth, air, and water; mother, father, and child; length, breadth, and depth; day is divided in morning, noon, and night. You have right, middle, and left; you have high, medium, and low. There are numerous threes that deal with completeness and totality just as the number 7 does. The Bible has many series of threes. The three sons of Noah that populated the whole new world; the three friends of Job; the three night watches; the three temptations of Jesus, and the three prayers in Gethsemane, and three disciples and the inner circle; the three denials of Peter; the three fold holy, holy, holy of the Saraphim; the three graces of love, hope and faith; the three languages above the cross; the three hours of darkness on the cross; the three days and nights in the grave; etc.
The practical value we can get from numerology is the assurance that our God is able to handle the problems that plague us and make life such a mystery. He is pictured here in Revelation as both three-fold and seven-fold: The two numbers that represent perfection and completeness. God is lacking in nothing, and faith in such a God says, even though I do not grasp what is happening in history, I trust in Him who is over all, and He will make sense of it all to those who do trust Him. Donald Gray Barnhouse points out that this is the only place in the Bible where the order of the Trinity is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here it is Father, Holy Spirit, and in verse 5, the Son. It is clear why this is the case, for John to goes on to say much of the Son. The Father and Holy Spirit are just mentioned here, but the rest of the of chapter deals with the Son. The focus of this revelation is on the Son.