This is a weekly article series working through the book of Revelation.
“John to the seven churches that are in Asia:” Revelation 1:4
What might we say is the significance of John addressing Revelation to the seven churches that are in Asia? It does two things. First, it grounds it in reality. This gives the book credibility as attested to by the naming of actual places and actual churches residing in those places.
Secondly, it gives us the appropriate angle from which to read and properly understand Revelation. It shows us that even though Revelation is written primarily in allegorical or apocalyptic language, not every word should be interpreted that way. John was literally writing to seven literal churches in a literal region known as Asia in the late first century.
John’s address grounds firmly in reality what otherwise may at first glance seem like a psychedelic trip outside of time and space. It accomplishes this by directing our senses to something we can observe and test. There is, in fact, an Asia, and there are in fact seven churches in Asia historically attested to by the earliest Christians. It is interesting to hear what later witnesses had to say about what happened to these churches. But that’s a story for a little later. Back to the significance of this single line of Scripture.
As I was saying, John first grounds the original recipients of this letter somewhere geographically on planet earth. Specifically in Asia; even more specifically, in the seven places he names in 1:11. This is not typical of the secular apocalyptic or allegorical writers of that era. They wrote in allegory almost exclusively.
But in Revelation John begins with a literal prologue (1:1-3) and a mostly literal introduction (1:4-3:22). Only later, beginning in chapter four, does he adopt a fully apocalyptic style right up until he ends Revelation with literal language in his epilogue (22:8-21). Still, some go to the dangerous extreme of reading Revelation almost entirely as allegory from beginning to end. This is what we want to avoid as the text really doesn’t support that.
To avoid such confusion, John gives us a clue that we should be reading this literally when he writes, “To the seven churches that are in Asia.” Couple this with the later revelation that these seven churches were actual churches that existed in Asia at that time, and you have a pretty clear picture that John does not intend this section to be read entirely as allegory. Those who do risk turning seven direct messages to seven specific churches into allegories about the “seven churches” of all time.
That’s not to say that there isn’t something to learn from the messages written to these seven actual churches in Asia. It’s just to say that if you want to be reading it correctly, you need to be reading it like it is actually their mail. That’s what we will be doing throughout the rest of this commentary. You may find it interesting and refreshing to see what comes from doing our best to read it through the eyes of the original recipients.
To summarize, we’re going to be reading Revelation literally when it calls for it, and allegorically when the allegorical is called for. The text determines this with clear, grammatical indicators, such as John addressing Revelation to seven specific churches that actually existed and are attested to by historical eye-witnesses. The first of the seven churches which John wrote Revelation to was the church in Ephesus. It is believed that John lived in Ephesus before he was exiled to Patmos (which is where he says he was when he wrote Revelation in 1:9). Ephesus is also where he lived out the last of his days until his death.
It is comforting to know that though Revelation is shrouded in much mystery, it is still grounded in actual history. Lord willing, this realization will illuminate our reading and understanding of Revelation. May we ever be pointed to God in Christ for us as we proceed to read through this mysteriously wonderful text. The road ahead will be filled with many shadows, but we will fear no evil, for our Good Shepherd is with us; His Word of Law and Gospel will comfort us.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)
Until next time, the grace and peace of Christ be with you.
This is a weekly article series working through the book of Revelation. It is followed every Friday morning at 8 am (CST) by a live devotion dealing with the same subject matter and often additional material for your edification. Tune in Friday mornings on Christ Hold Fast's Facebook Page to learn more and ask questions.