In the book of Revelation in the Bible, there are 7 letters from Jesus to 7 churches. These letters are difficult to understand, especially when one tries to keep in mind the message of the Gospel. The Gospel is that you are loved by God and can have eternal life by believing God. This next series of posts are a review of these 7 letters maintaining the concepts of the gospel.
This post covers the foundational concepts that are important to understand the letters.
Seven Letters Illustrate the Pervasive Principle of Gods Command
The seven letters are the words of Jesus, given to John to write for all the church to read. They are the words of the same Jesus whose words were recorded by Matthew and the other books called Gospels.
The seven letters in Revelation can raise a lot of questions. Browsing the various articles and sermons about the 7 Letters shows some very widely varying ways of reading and understanding the letters. I believe that a close and careful examination shows that they hold very meaningful messages for the local churches of all time. Messages that are consistent with the main Gospel message and the command of Jesus stated in John 15: My command is this, love one another.
This series of essays is an exploration of the meaning of each of the seven letters. The approach is to build a background of understanding of terms and references, then review each letter with such a background in mind. References that are common to all the letters or are beneficial for the overall understanding are contained in this first section. References that are unique to one letter will be explored in the essay for that letter.
Language is a blunt instrument. Language is the only tool we have to transfer concepts from our awareness to another person’s awareness.
Each person maintains a complex constellation of concepts in the core of their being. This concept is itself identified by various phrases depending on the heritage/environment of the person. One such phrase is “world view”, however, even writing that phrase introduces risk that you, the reader, will immediately and subconsciously apply existing concepts in your constellation. These concepts will then influence how you process the concepts presented here, possibly for the better and possibly for the worse.
Each person exists in this constellation of concepts, from one perspective this is their being. The being, while far more than a product of the concepts, emanates from these concepts. Said in practical terms, these concepts affect how we perceive our existence.
To restate the first paragraph: Language is a blunt instrument. Language is the only tool we have to transfer concepts from our awareness to another person’s awareness. But language is very clumsy at transferring concepts. How many of us have studied a subject for extensive time, diligently spending many hours reviewing sets of language that attempt to build concepts in our minds. If we succeed in building the concepts, we arrive at an understanding that can be stated very easily to another person who understands the concept. The beginning student studies for many hours and months to understand math, then is able to simply refer to a math concept by name, such as product. The process required a lot of language to form the simple concept.
The scriptures are written to help us form true concepts in our awareness, but the blunt instrument of language has the opportunity to distort the concepts. And there are several layers of the blunt instrument involved in the transfer of awareness from the original writer to you. The layers include the original languages, the difficulty with writing in the original languages, the transfer of original written languages by vested parties, the loss of original documents, translation of subsequent documents to other languages with varying structures and nuances by vested parties, etc. These factors are a clear force for significant variation of the original concepts.
But the message is available, quite remarkably, even miraculously. The claim that the scriptures are intended by God as a primary guide is an important concept in the path to knowing God. The defense of the scriptures is outside the scope of this essay. I am satisfied for myself, if you are not you may wish to devote some effort towards that subject. This means that understanding the scriptures includes concepts about the nature of the scriptures, the heritage of the scriptures, and human nature. Forming these concepts is a lengthy task, riddled with risk of ill-formed concepts.
The concept I am briefly trying to build is that the scriptures are a set of language designed to convey concepts to us. The concepts that the scriptures have formed in my being have taken much time and much intense agonizing study of a wide range of subjects. Study undertaken not for intellectual triumph, but in quest of life. But we are intellectual beings and the path of life must traverse the realm of intellect. All of us know that. Even mystics defend their views. So we read, watch, listen, contemplate, ponder, argue, rage, despair, rejoice while we study.
But above all that study stands a concept that is integral to belief in God: Jesus promised that the Spirit would guide us. Do you believe? Are you able to trust him?
The Names, Symbols, Keywords, Principles
There appears to be benefit to understanding the names of the churches to which the letters are respectively addressed. I will list them here for a summary reference, and the essay for each letter will deal with the concept that may be inferred.
desirable or darling
sweet smelling or myrrh – etymology suggests relationship to matrimony
married or spouse
continuous sacrifices or offerings
those who escaped (left?)
self-righteousness (people ruling)
Nicolaitans (not a church name, but a name of a doctrinal group)
those who rule (lord) over others
Given the tendency of language to diffuse the meaning of words, a brief discussion of rule in this context may be constructive. Language is a crude tool for transferring concepts from one person to another. The concept of rule can take several different forms, related at one level but varying widely in another. To illustrate, we often include adjectives or adverbs to clarify, i.e. a benevolent ruler or unfair rules. So the Nicolaitans, whose name means those who rule over others could just mean those whose role is simply to be in leadership in the church, but that certainly does not seem to fit the usage in these Letters, where they are to be despised. Developing a concept through illustration is important if there is to be any hope of transferring the concept accurately. Unfortunately, on complex concepts this can be a lengthy undertaking. In language, we attempt to shorten this effort by developing words that carry highly refined nuances, attempting to convey more precise concepts with a single word. I say attempting because the success of the conveyance depends on a shared predefined concept of the nuanced word. Odds of success decrease dramatically with any variation in audience background. Hence the admonition in various communication classes to communicate using elementary school language. Which in turn means that to convey an important concept, it may take a lot of illustration. Which is why the Spirit of God gave us vast amounts of illustration instead of using a few precisely defined words.
To understand what is meant by Nicolaitans, we must understand who is to be despised as leaders. To understand this we can refer first to the illustrations provided in the Gospels to see what leaders Jesus despised, being careful to understand WHO THOSE LEADERS were, their visible and implied characteristics, their goals in leadership, their basis for authority, and the reason Jesus despised them.
The Epistles (mostly Pauls Letters to the churches) present some refinement of this, but one must be careful to interpret the early church writings in the light of the concepts Jesus presented. You cannot contradict Jesus without severe damage to your entire basis for understanding the Scriptures.
Jesus words and actions show us what leadership he despised. The study of the beliefs, actions and goals of those leaders will complete your understanding of those leaders. Fulfilling this assignment of understanding despise-able Leadership is a lengthy undertaking.
My summary (please form your own by which I mean that you must study this yourself) is that they (the despisable leaders) are focused on pleasing God through adherence to a set of rules and therefore do not glorify the Love and Mercy that is presented by the Gospel. This definition of Nicolaitans shows their references in the 7 Letters to be clear and consistent with the Kingdom of Heaven message.
The word Apostles is simply defined as messenger although there are some presumed nuances with a focus on the message sender i.e. the authority conferred to the messenger. As discussed in the Nicolaitans definition, the concept is best conveyed through illustration and inference.
Various people are called Apostles at various times. It is worth noting that the 12 disciples are called Apostles after Jesus sends them out to proclaim the kingdom of heaven is near. This is a lengthy study in itself.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul instructs in regards to False Apostles. From his teaching, we can derive these assumable facts about the False apostles:
They were well educated and spoke well
They collected money from the church
They are Servants of Righteousness
They had a legitimate claim to heritage
They had been persecuted for Christ
They had signs and wonders (one possible reading of the 2 Cor 12:42,43)
In 2 Cor 11:5 Paul refers to the False Apostles as the ones identified in verse 4 as teaching a different Jesus, a different Spirit, a different Gospel. And verse 4 is an illustration/expansion of verse 1-3 where Paul is building the foundation of the whole concept for his discussion of False Apostles, appealing to the Corinthians as the Virgin bride for the Husband, whose virginity is being jealously guarded. The significant clue to the whole passage is verse 3, where Paul identifies the problem: they are being deceived in the same manner that Eve was deceived. Eve, the virgin bride of Adam, was deceived by the Serpent into believing that she could be Like God by understanding the system of Law, the Knowledge of Good and Evil. She listened to and chose to believe Satan instead of God. This is a topic that recurs throughout the scripture, which is Gods message to us. Adherence to pleasing God through a means other than believing His Love and Mercy will result in separation/spiritual death. The true messenger (Apostle) carries this message. The False Apostle carries the message of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
As with most words that have been in use a long time, the word church has evolved to mean several different concepts.
In modern usage, the term tends to mean one or more of these options:
a building or edifice,
a place/event to attend on a schedule,
an organization with a set of rules and definitions that differentiate from other similar organizations through methods and understandings of scripture,
a legal entity authorized by the current worldly government that claims power over the region in which the church operates,
the New Testament replacement for the Hebrew synagogue,
the bride of Christ, a concept requiring spiritual background,
a group of followers of Jesus (uncommon usage in modern times)
In the context of the New Testament scriptures, church is certainly not referring to the first several modern usages of the word. It is not a building, a weekly meeting, a denomination, a civil entity, or a New synagogue.
The Greek word means an assembly in the sense of a group of people.
Jesus first used the term in Matthew 16 where Peter correctly identifies Jesus and Jesus makes a play on Peters name and states that the truth Peter just said is the foundation of Jesus Church. So Jesus group are those that hold that Jesus is the Messiah, The Son of God.
This concept is further refined by Pauls writing in 1 Timothy 3:15,16 where Paul says that the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of truth by common confession, great is the mystery of Godliness and continues to describe the identity of Jesus through the divine plan of his earthly life. This precisely aligns with definition Jesus gave for his group.
The Revelation letters are addressed to 7 churches. From the understanding we have here, we can know that they were 7 groups of people tied together by a common confession of the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
Did the followers of Jesus in the named towns all worship together in one place? We dont know – and it doesnt matter. What matters is what each letter says to the group that fits the description
The lampstands are introduced in Johns vision. John hears a voice, then when he turns he sees seven lampstands and the Living One, who we know to be Jesus by the description. He tells us that there is a mystery with the seven stars and the seven lampstands; that they are are the seven angels and the seven lampstands are the seven churches (more on this in a moment). It appears that it is more than a simple poetic way of identifying seven churches : that would not be a mystery.
There are numerous references to the Lampstand in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle (later- the Temple). We can infer that it had seven lights, as the design specifies various items that lead that way. There are specific instructions about the six branches and logic would infer the center structure from which the branches protruded also had a light at its top. The Law (Sin and Death, Good and Evil) specifies that the six branches are to be arranged so that they provide light to the front. It seems a reasonable assumption that the front would be the side facing the Table of the Presence, on which were various things for eating, including the specifically identified Bread of the Presence.
Anyone who touches or sees the Lampstand or the Table of the Presence who is not sanctified will die (in the law, before the torn curtain event the crucifixion of Jesus)
There are other lamps and lampstands mentioned. The most noteworthy and possibly pertinent is the lampstand in Zechariahs vision. Zechariah has a dream vision of the High Priest as a very sinful man standing before the Angel of the Lord while Satan stands accusing him. The LORD commands him to be dressed (covered) in righteousness and promises that he will send a Branch that will remove all sin in a single day. (There is also a stone with seven eyes and an inscription – which is related to other revelation letters)
Then the Angel wakes up Zechariah and shows him (now a waking vision) a solid gold lampstand with a bowl at the top and seven lamps on it, with seven channels to the lamps. Also there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left. When Zechariah admits that he does not know what this means, the LORD ALMIGHTY says Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit.”.
If I can be so bold as to summarize:
The Lampstand illuminates the Bread of His Presence
The Aaronic High Priest was to be a guide, counselor, intermediary between God and man. Zechariah see a High Priest (only a man descendant of Aaron) He is filthy with sin. An intermediary who cant be in the Presence: he fails at his role. But the resolution to this severe problem is promised when God will remove all sin in a single day.
Zechariah vision: The lampstand will provide light by the Spirit, not by human effort. The Aaronic High Priest cant illuminate the Presence by the Spirit, and certainly his own sinful state prevents him from illuminating the Presence in the Holy Place. Zechariahs vision shows the Lamp getting its oil (making light) automatically by the olive Branches. Not by might, not by power, but by MY Spirit.
God will send the Branch to remove all sin in one day
The Branch is the Living One walking among the Revelation Lampstands.
The Revelation Lampstands are the churches. A true church has this purpose: to serve by illuminating His presence, using the Light provided by the Branch that removed all sin in one day. By His Spirit.
The illumination is only effective because all sin was removed in a single day.
This builds a basis for understanding the churches and other statements in the letters.
Definitions that require clarification to avoid misuse
It is important to use the principle of context to determine precise meaning, as discussed in the section on the Nicolaitans.
With this modern age of technology, vast amounts of information are available. However, to the thinking man, it becomes apparent that the Scriptures are accurate when stating The heart of man is desperately wicked and deceitful above all. Of course, that does not include translators. Or me.(sarcasm)
Review the Greek etymology of the word translated as repent. Review the translations (all of them, if you please, or at least most) of this word. A helpful verse to use for comparison is 2 Corinthians 12:21.
I am not a Greek expert. But I do understand the use of language. I am also not an archaeologist, but I have studied archaeology enough to know that no-one knows what any particular artifact MEANS. When dabbling in archaeology a clear minded person can observe that the experts argue vehemently about a site or artifact, but their opinions are often quite contradictory. The average person explores such things for entertainment; he wants to watch a documentary and just trust the expert. But digging deeper shows that each expert is, in fact and action, another person. And each person cannot escape from the concepts that frame their existence: the frame from which they interpret their subject remains and has inescapable influence on their work. The archaeologist interprets an artifact or site to fit within the assumptions previously accepted. So it is with translation: each translator attempts to change the concepts they derive from original language to a string of destination language words that convey a similar concept. Doing the exercise above with 2COR12:21 shows some interesting things about the word commonly translated Repent:
Some early translations and some of the Catholic translations use penance instead. (Probably some illumination here is the etymology of the Latin Vulgate translations under the guidance of that churchs leadership).
Most translators take the easy way out and stick with the generally not understood word Repent. In modern usage this term is only a religious word. As such it does not convey meaning to the average listener without a framework of previous explanation to control the concept.
Some translators insert their theology in this verse as they truly must do.
So what does the word mean? Context gives us some clear answers. Again using the words of Jesus as the primary source, please read Luke 17 1-10. Actually, you should start reading back in chapter 16 where this COHERENT stream of concept from Jesus starts. If the coherency escapes you, good. Study TO SHOW THYSELF APPROVED. The problem is not in Jesus concepts, but in the background concepts in which you are trying to fit his words.
But for the sake of our discussion and having illustration to understand what is meant by Repent, let us focus on 17:4. If someone sins against you and says to you I Repent seven times a day, you are to forgive him. The use of Repent here certainly clarifies that it is just what the Greek says: change of thinking. The person that is to be forgiven certainly has not demonstrated actions that show a change of behavior, but this instruction from Jesus removes the common interpretation if he really repented, he would change behavior.
This means that I am completely confident that the simple definition from Strongs is accurate: change of thinking. To try to expand that in a concept: the person who sins 7 times a day is like ALL of us, as illuminated by the Apostle Paul (the things I dont want to do I do). Yet finding ourselves, yet again, on the WRONG side of our concepts of good, declares: my thinking is messed up, Jesus your thinking is true.
Keep this essay handy as you go through the coming essays about the 7 Letters. The concepts discussed in this post are a foundation for understanding the Letters.
These Letters appear in the last book of the Bible. It may be that the Spirit expects you to have studied to show thyself approved by the time you read these. You will never be approved before God by a system of Law, you are only approved by the Love and Mercy of God as displayed when He died on the Cross for the sins of the whole world.
The letters are addressed to the messenger of each church. Speculation exists as to whether this is a spiritual messenger (often anglicized as angel) or the human leadership of the church. It is not apparent which although my observation is that it would appear to be the latter. The importance of the primary message and the selection as canon indicate that the significance of the message to each church group stands without regard to the identity of the original addressee. This of course does not mean that the text renders a single truth. The main point of the addressee is that the Letters are to the leadership of the church group.
It is significant to keep in mind that the Letters are written to specific church groups, not to individuals, although the church group is comprised of individuals..
Keep in mind that the seven churches listed here were not the only churches in existence at the time this book was written. This fact supports a theory that the letters are representative of the issues that Jesus specifically wanted to address in all churches for all remaining earthly time.
Love is very well defined in scripture in 1Cor13. It is very important to firmly understand these principles and the primacy of Love in the Kingdom of God. Please read it. Every day.
Reference John 15 and numerous other passages.
Also, you may find some benefit in the essay on the Kingdom of Heaven.