These seven Epistles, so far, will guide our future studies. We believe they are not only historical, but also prophetical. Doubtless they are strictly historical, and this fact must be allowed its full weight in studying their prophetic character. Seven churches actually existed in the seven cities here named, and in the condition here described. But it is equally clear, that they were intended, by Him who knows the end from the beginning, to bear a prophetic meaning, as well as a historical application. They were selected from amongst many, and so arranged and described as to foreshadow what was to come. To limit their application to the seven literal churches then in Asia would be to mar the unity of the Apocalypse, and to lose the promised blessing. "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy." The character of the whole book is prophetic and symbolic. The second and third chapters are no exception to this. They are introduced by the Lord Himself in their mystic character. "The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in My right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches."
The number seven is characteristic. It marks a complete circle of the thoughts or ways of God as to time. Hence the seven days of the week — the seven feasts of Israel — the seven parables of the kingdom of heaven in mystery. It is often used throughout this book, which takes up Jew, Gentile, and the church of God, as responsible on the earth. Hence we have seven churches, seven stars, seven candlesticks, seven angels, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven vials or the seven last plagues. Only in chapters 2 & 3 is the church seen as responsible on the earth, and the object of divine government. From chapter 4-19 she is seen in heaven. Then she appears in full manifested glory with her Lord. "And the armies which were in heaven followed Him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean."
In the body of the book, especially from chapter 6, the Jews and Gentiles come before us, and are judicially dealt with from the throne of God in heaven. But this will not take place till after the church — the true bride of the Lamb — is caught up to heaven, and the merely nominal corrupt thing finally rejected.
The threefold division of the book, as given by the Lord Himself, makes the order of events quite plain, and ought to have immense weight as a principle of interpretation in the study of the Apocalypse. In chapter 1:19 He gives us the contents and plan of the whole book: "Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter," — or, literally, "after these things." "The things which thou hast seen" refer to the revelation of Jesus as seen by John in chapter 1; "the things which are," to the time-condition of the professing body as presented in chapters 2 & 3. "The things which shall be hereafter" are from chapter 4 to the end. The third division begins with chapter 4. A door is opened in heaven, and the prophet is called to come up. "Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter," or "after these things." It is the same phrase in chapter 4:1 as in chapter 1:19. The things which are, and the things which shall be after these things, cannot possibly be concurrent. The one must end before the other begins.
When the number seven is used, not in a literal but in a symbolic sense, it always signifies completeness. It is evidently thus used in chapters 2 & 3. There were other churches, we know, besides those named; but seven are selected and associated to present a complete picture of what would afterwards be developed in the church's history on earth. The more important moral elements which then existed, the Lord foresaw, would reappear in course of time. Thus we have a sevenfold or divinely perfect picture of the successive states of the professing church during the entire period of her responsibility on the earth.
We will now take a rapid glance at the outline of the seven churches; and give a general idea of the different periods in history to which they apply.
Outline of the Seven Churches