One repetitive phrase that strikes the reader of the second and third chapters of Revelation is “He who an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Each message to the seven congregations ends with this phrase (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). What should we make of this?

First, each congregation is addressed individually, but not privately. Notice that the recurring phrase is “what the Spirit says to the churches” (plural). John expected each congregation to respond appropriately to what was written not only to it but also to the other six churches. This understanding is also supported by the fact that there is no manuscript evidence for the individual messages to have independently circulated. All extant manuscripts have all seven messages together. In other words, the messages never existed independently, but only as part of a whole work.

Second, we know from Paul’s letters the names of several other cities in Asia Minor in which there were Christian congregations. Why were no messages written to them, why these seven congregations? There are several possible answers to this question, but the best answer has to do with the number seven. The number seven has a symbolic meaning of complete or all-inclusive. By identifying just seven churches, John designates the messages to be for all churches, wherever they may be located.

Third, each church receives a message reflecting its own situation and indicates that each of the seven churches seems to possess a distinct character and personality. Although there are differences in the situations and personalities of the congregations, there is one overarching challenge: whether or not to compromise true faith (even if it entails serious social, economic, or political consequences). Will the people of God in these cities join the Nicolaitans, Balaamites, followers of Jezebel, and Laodiceans who are participating in various forms of compromise and accommodation or will they be faithful? The letters to the seven churches were designed not only to comfort the afflicted but also to afflict the comfortable (those who were tempted to assimilate into the attractive pagan culture).

Finally, it is helpful to ask some questions while studying these messages. What type of congregation and individual Christian is Revelation attempting to form? How is the character of a community of faith developed and shaped? When individuals come together to form a Christian congregation, a faith community, that congregation is more than the sum of its parts, more than the sum of the individuals that make it up.

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