4 Lenses for interpreting the 7 Letters of the Revelation

Questions flood my mind as I prepare to begin men’s summer Bible study on the seven letters of the Revelation Sunday evening. How should we understand the distinct genre of Rev 2-3 in light of the apocalyptic character of the book? Why are the letters placed after ch 1, and the apocalyptic presentation of Jesus raised from the dead? What are the interpretive implications of understanding John the Apostle as the author? How should the various statements of encouragement and rebuke be understood? Should one or the other be emphasized? Do these themes correlate with each letter? Does Rev 2-3 have seven messages or one? These somewhat scattered questions may be addressed by employing four lenses to view the seven letters of the Revelation:

Genre. The seven letters stand out in the midst of apocalyptic language and imagery dominating the book of Revelation. Placed in chs 2-3, following the presentation of the risen Lord Jesus and review of salvation history in ch 1, the seven letters demonstrate that even the most magnificent apocalyptic motifs are intended to impact believers and churches in real time. One of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature is dualism: light and darkness, good and evil, heaven and earth, etc. These characteristics, together with the fact that apocalyptic allows for symbolic as well as actual numerology, sometimes challenge interpreters The seven letters in Rev 2-3 ground interpretation: John did not write to supply fodder for endless speculation or academic inquiry. The message of Revelation was to actual believers assembled in key cities under John’s purview.

Authorship. Is it possible that the Revelation, often considered altogether unique in its message, actually employs a unique genre in the NT to communicate doctrinal and ethical themes common to John’s letters and Gospel? Reading the Revelation with the belief that it was authored by John the Apostle provides handles for grasping its content, the seven letters included. If John was the author of the Revelation, then the seven letters should be interpreted alongside the NT epistles of 1-3 John. The apocalyptic imagery of the seven letters should be gaged not only in light of the broader language of the Revelation, but also 1-3 John and the Farewell Discourse in John 13-17.

Wholeness. With the exception of the church in Philadelphia, each of the seven churches receives some kind of rebuke. Jesus’ statements of condemnation easily become the primary teaching and preaching points. Within the broader apocalyptic judgment imagery of the book, the summons to repentance in Rev 2-3 receive an implicit exclamation point. But what about the words of commendation? While Jesus’ calls to repentance should have their due, they should not be isolated from His statements of recognition and encouragement to the churches. Each of the seven letters of Rev 2-3 deserves to be interpreted en toto.

Synthesis. The cities receiving the Revelation from John had distinct geographical, cultural and social backgrounds—and John may have employed these to contextualize the broader message of the Revelation. Yet, the common refrain concluding each letter, ‘listen and overcome,’ implies that the seven messages should also be understood as a whole. While some will not be satisfied with a simple call to hear and endure (doesn’t the Revelation have more for us that that?!), if the ancient context of the book and its recipients is given its due, continuing to heed the message of Jesus and enduring the persecutions that resulted was no small matter. Later John would write that those who overcome will inherit the New Jerusalem and all of its blessings (Rev 21:7). In the final analysis, the application of Rev 2-3  may simply be: ‘be devoted to the message of Jesus unto death.’ 

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