Leading Question: How does one know which of the seven churches of Revelation offers the closest match to our own experience?
For this week’s lesson on the seven churches in Revelation, the official study guide states that “we shall study them from the perspective of the original recipients.” Such an approach may leave some readers unsatisfied since Adventists traditionally have used the historicist approach for both Daniel and Revelation. Thus they plot all events on a historical line to the end of time.
That approach is rooted in the prophetic chapters of Daniel where each line of prophecy extends from Daniel’s day to the end of time. In 2 the great stone strikes the image and grows until it fills the whole world; in 7, either the son of man (7:27) or the saints (7:13-14) receive the kingdom; in 8 and 9 the sanctuary is restored; in 10-12 Michael stands up and delivers God’s people. In short, in Daniel, the historicist pattern is unmistakable.
Not so in the book of Revelation. Only when one imports the historicist method from Daniel – and there are many echoes from Daniel in the book of Revelation – can one “find” historicism in Revelation. Thus, having imbibed historicism from Daniel, pure historicists interpret the seven churches as seven successive eras of history, with Laodicea being the last. But the Book of Revelation itself doesn’t even hint at such an approach.
Similarly, the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25 most naturally refers to the second coming of Christ. But Adventist historicists have also seen that passage as a road map of the great disappointment because Ellen White adopts that approach in The Great Controversy. Remarkably, the writings of Ellen White also preserve the contextual understanding of the parable of the 10 virgins as applying to the expectation of the 2nd Advent itself. Ironically, the comments on the parable in the Seventh-day Adventist Commentary don’t say a peep about the historicist application.
Here are the two passages from Ellen White which should allow us to adopt a both/and approach to biblical passages that have been interpreted more than one way:
Historicist Interpretation: “The coming of Christ as our high priest to the most holy place, for the cleansing of the sanctuary, brought to view in Dan. 8:14; the coming of the Son of man to the Ancient of days, as presented in Dan. 7:13; and the coming of the Lord to His temple, foretold by Malachi, are descriptions of the same event; and this is also represented by the coming of the bridegroom to the marriage, described by Christ in the parable of the ten virgins of Matthew 25” (GC 426).
“The proclamation, ‘Behold the Bridegroom cometh,’ in the summer of 1844, led thousands to expect the immediate advent of the Lord. At the appointed time the Bridegroom came, not to the earth, as the people expected, but to the Ancient of days in heaven, to the marriage, the reception of the kingdom. “They that were ready went in with Him to the marriage, and the door was shut.” They were not to be present in person at the marriage; for it takes place in heaven, while they are upon the earth. The followers of Christ are to ‘wait for their Lord, when 20 He will return from the wedding.’ [Luke 12:36] But they are to understand His work, and to follow Him by faith as He goes in before God. It is in this sense that they are said to go in to the marriage.” (GC 427)
Contextual Interpretation: “As Christ sat looking upon the party that waited for the bridegroom, He told His disciples the story of the ten virgins, by their experience illustrating the experience of the church that shall live just before His second coming.” – Christ’s Object Lessons, 406
“The coming of the bridegroom was at midnight – the darkest hour. So the coming of the Christ will take place in the darkest period of this earth's history.” Ibid. 414
In short, the historicist interpretation may be helpful devotionally, but our study guide correctly focuses on the original recipients of the messages, seven very real churches in Asia minor. But regardless of the method of interpretation, one can find helpful personal applications.
These then are the messages to the seven churches. All references are from the NIV:
Ephesus (2:1-7): “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
Smyrna (2:8-11): “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.”
Pergamum (2:12-17): “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live – where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your 21 city – where Satan lives.
Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. 17
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”
Thyatira (2:18-29): “To the angel of the church in Thyatira write:
These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 19 I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. 21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. 23 I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.
24 Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, 25 except to hold on to what you have until I come.’”
26 To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations – 27 that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’ – just as I have received authority from my Father. 28 I will also give that one the morning star. 29 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Sardis (3:1-6): “To the angel of the church in Sardis write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. 6 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Philadelphia (3:7-13): “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8 I know your deeds. See, I have 22 placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars – I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. 10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.
11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. 13 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Laodicea (3:14-22): “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
21 To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
A “diversity” reminder. Another quotation from Ellen White is worth noting, one that again gives us “permission” to differ in our understanding of Scripture: The landmarks in Adventism are simple and secure. Our only problem comes when we try to make everything a landmark.
This quotation consists of the first two paragraphs of the chapter, “In Contact with Others” in the book The Ministry of Healing:
Every association of life calls for the exercise of self-control, forbearance, and sympathy. We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life, are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experience is alike in every particular. The trials of one are not the trials of another. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing.
So frail, so ignorant, so liable to misconception is human nature, that each should be careful in the estimate he places upon another. We little know the bearing of our acts upon the experience of others. What we do or say may seem to us of little moment, when, could our eyes be opened, we should see that upon it depended the most important results for good or for evil. – The Ministry of Healing, 483 23