That follows an earlier post, in which I explained how Revelation 4-22 presents a single, coherent, engaging story, in the form of a highly symbolic vision. Asking how that story correlates to events in actual human history is an interesting discussion, and may turn out to be important at points, but it's not the main question to ask. The main task is to pay attention to the flow of the story, to listen to what it's teaching.
We'd then need to look for how this story applies in everyday life. For that, we need the letters to the 7 churches (Revelation 2-3). Taken together, in totality, they tell the story of any typical Christian church. We hear of the kinds of things the risen Jesus routinely wants to praise a church for, and the kinds of things he wants to see them work on. Those lessons are the outworking of the vision in Revelation 4-22.
So it helps, in preparation for reading Revelation 4-22, to draw the threads of those 7 letters together.
Read each letter separately
Each letter also does its own thing, so we mustn't lose the distinctive pictures of each church by amalgamating them. Jesus has (next to) nothing negative to say to two of the churches (Smyrna, Philadelphia), and just wants to encourage them to keep going. Jesus has (next to) nothing positive to say to two of the churches (Sardis, Laodicea), making his message one of stinging rebuke. The other 3 churches are a mixture of good and bad.
There are also geographical and other contextual notes in some of the 7 letters (such as to "Satan's throne" in Revelation 2:13, and being "neither hot nor cold" in Revelation 3:16) that make sense of the particular instructions given. The detail from the portrait of Jesus at the head of each of the 7 letters is carefully chosen to introduce the specific instructions that will follow. The reward for those who are victorious at the end of each letter is carefully worded to draw the instructions together, often (but not always) anticipating details in the vision to follow. We should pay attention when those details then occur within the vision, remembering which church was being asked to pay attention at that point.
That's the warning of reducing the messages to these 7 churches to a bland amalgam of all 7 (akin to losing the richness of having 4 gospels by compiling a single synopsis of the 4).
Read the letters together
With that out of the way, so you don't mishear what I write next, let's hear the spectrum of joys and challenges faced by churches.
The churches are praised for
- Hard work (Ephesus, Thyatira)
- Identifying and rejecting false teaching / false apostles (Ephesus)
- Keeping going without weariness when persecuted and suffering (Ephesus, Pergamum, Philadelphia)
The churches need to
- Be faithful in the face of intense persecution (Smyrna, Philadelphia)
- Hold on to what they have (Thyatira, Philadelphia)
- Not be led into idolatry, or more precisely eating food that has been offered to idols (Pergamum, Thyatira)
- Not be led into sexual immorality (Pergamum, Thyatira)
- Return to their first love [either love for the Lord, or for each other] (Ephesus)
- They're dying, and they need to strengthen before they die as a church (Sardis)
- Dependence on Christ rather than thinking they don't need him (Laodicea)
It will be noted there are three main themes here
Ephesus is marked by perseverance. Smyrna has been slandered by ethnic Jews who show they're claim to be Jews to be a lie by persecuting the Christian church. They're about to face 10 days of intense persecution, which requires them to be faithful unto death. Pergamum has just come through a period of persecution, in which Antipas was martyred. Philadelphia is also a place where there is opposition from Jews; to reward them for past endurance, they will be protected from the "hour of trial" that is about to come upon the whole world.
Related to this, Ephesus and Thyatira are both praised for their hard work, for their deeds.
Sexual immorality and idolatry
Pergamum and Thyatira are both in danger of those who lead God's people into sexual immorality, and into idolatry (which manifests here as eating food offered to idols). In Pergamum, we learn of some who copy Balaam in leading God's people into these ways. In Thyatira, a specific woman nicknamed Jezebel is being put up with, but she's misleading God's servants into these ways.
The implication in both these churches is that such influences should not be tolerated. The church's sin towards Jezebel is specifically called out as tolerating her (Revelation 2:20). Jesus holds against the church in Pergamum the fact they have people there who copy Balaam, which logically means he thinks those people shouldn't be there.
It seems these are the two ethical areas where compromise was tempting.
We've seen that Jezebel "misleads" God's servants towards idolatry and sexual immorality, but the modern days versions of Balaam "teach" this (Revelation 2:14), so the church's fault is also that they put up with false teaching.
We also meet a group called the Nicolaitans. It's hard to know exactly who these are, whether they were following the teaching of someone called "Nicholas", or whether their teaching flowed from a concept that we have victory (Nikos) in Christ. The Ephesian church is praised for hating the practices of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6), and the church at Pergamum is criticised for having some who hold to their teachings. So, again, whoever they were, the Nicolaitans were teaching falsely, which led to practices Christ hates.
Finally, the Ephesian church is praised for testing those who claim falsely to be Christ's apostles (Revelation 2:2) with the result that they do not tolerate wicked people who should not be tolerated.
Taken together, these examples show that the pressures of sexual immorality and idolatry, and possibly the temptation to compromise in order to dampen the heat of persecution, does not just arise from the innate desires of members of the church or from the pressures of the world around. Within the churches there are people teaching these forms of compromise. As well as persecution from without, the churches need to beware a false Christianity being peddled within.
As we read the vision in Revelation 4-22, the story that plays out is meant to impact daily life in these churches, and so in any and every church. We should listen out for how the vision helps churches hold on to the real Jesus in the fact of fakes being peddled, helps churches hold on in the face of intensifying persecution, and helps churches resist compromise in sexual morality and with other religions.