The Local Church of Revelation
by Rick Shrader
All conservative scholars agree that Revelation is the last book to be added to the canon of sixty six inspired books and that the apostle John is the author. John is given his three-fold division of the book as, “the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter” (1:19). The first division contains only chapter one, the things which John was presently seeing. The second division must be chapters two and three concerning the seven churches of Asia, because the third division is obviously what follows in chapters four to the end, “I will show thee things which must be hereafter” (4:1).
The description of the seven churches of chapters two and three, “the things which are,” constitute the last revelation concerning the New Testament church. This comprises the church age which will last until the tribulation, described in chapters four to twenty two, begins. The appearing of Jesus Christ to John on the Isle of Patmos (vs. 9) happens more than sixty years after Christ’s resurrection and ascension back to heaven. There were many other things happening at that time to which the Lord might have turned John’s attention, but the Lord was supremely interested in seven small local churches in Asia.
The order in which the churches are mentioned has been the source of many interpretations. The historicists see seven periods within the church age ending with the apostasy of the Laodicean age. But it is better to see the seven churches as the “things which are” in John’s time. The order they are mentioned simply corresponds to the circle in which John would have traveled when delivering the letters, starting in Ephesus and ending in Laodicea.
The letters to the seven churches become uniquely important to us because they represent the final form of the local church, churches that were planted most likely by the apostle Paul’s efforts and were now under the direct influence of the apostle John. Not that there is contradiction in the New Testament but rather a solidification of the doctrines, a settling of the foundation into concrete form. There are many significant components to the churches in these two chapters. Here are five which are very important.
Jesus is doing the speaking, that is, the revealing to John. Red letter editions of the Bible use a lot of red ink in these chapters. In chapter one, verse one, we see that God the Father gave this revelation to Jesus Christ Who gave it to His angel who gave it to John who is now giving it to God’s servants. John sees Jesus as He is in His post-ascension, glorified body. Paul confessed earlier that “though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more” (2 Cor. 5:16). From now on Jesus will be in the form that flesh takes when it is resurrected and glorified, even as John testified, “when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
John describes our Lord in this fashion:
12 And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; 13 And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. 14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; 15 And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. 16 And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. (1:12-16)
Jesus is walking among the candlesticks which are the seven churches. He has the angels (pastors) in His right hand. He says to every church, “I know thy works.” Each description of Him is applied to one of the churches as it relates to their spiritual condition. He is the Head of the church; resurrected, glorified, eternal, omnipotent, and Owner of the scroll, the deed to the whole earth. One by one He will peel off the seals and claim the rightful ownership of His own creation.
The Apostle John
John is the last of the apostles and the last of the inspired writers of Scripture. There will be many who claim the title: Muhammad, Joseph Smith, and still today we have groups like the New Apostolic Reformation with such well-known men as C. Peter Wagner and Rafael Cruz.1 But they are false apostles about whom John often spoke (1 John 4:1). No man since John was baptized by John the Baptist or walked with Jesus during His life on earth, nor have they seen Christ after His resurrection as Peter declares, “whom, having not seen, ye love” (1 Pet. 1:8). True apostles like John suffer and die. Preachers may make pulpits famous, but apostles and prophets made prisons famous.
John declares himself as the last biblical writer:
18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: 19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (22:18-19)
The Bible is a canonized collection of 66 books of which Revelation is the last. To a train of 66 cars, one can only take the last one off or put one more on. That is why this statement is properly placed here. This is the last one to be put on. Matthew Henry so eloquently said, “This sanction is like a flaming sword, to guard the canon of the scripture from profane hands. Such a fence as this God set about the law (Deut. 4:2), and the whole Old Testament (Mal. 4:2), and now in the most solemn manner about the whole Bible, assuring us that it is a book of the most sacred nature, divine authority, and of the last importance, and therefore the peculiar care of the great God.”2 No one ought to assume himself a Bible writer, or even claim that “God told me,” who does not also claim for himself the wrath of God mentioned in these verses.
The Seven Churches
Jesus stood in the midst of seven golden lamp stands and declared, “the seven candlesticks are the seven churches” (1:20). They are golden because they are most precious in His sight. Jesus could have appeared in Jerusalem and instructed the scattered Jewish nation or in Rome and corrected the great world power. But “the things which are” concern God’s primary agency in this age of grace, the New Testament local church. He walks among them and holds their messengers in His right hand. He knows them intimately, encouraging or correcting where necessary.
Churches aren’t perfect as these seven churches demonstrate and serve as examples for all churches to come. Five of the seven receive severe reprimand but all hear words such as, “I know thy works,” and “nevertheless I have somewhat against thee,” and “be thou faithful unto death,” and “that which ye have already, hold fast till I come.” The command to “repent” is given to five of the seven churches and the admonition to “overcome” to all. The same could be and should be said to all churches throughout the age.
The letters to the churches are natural and interesting to read. The New Testament was largely written to churches, even though those churches may have had apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers in them. These seven letters, like the earlier epistles, were addressed to believers at specific locales. Though believers today comprise the universal church, or body of Christ, every believer ought to be a baptized member of a local church. This is the organization that Christ loves and to which He writes letters. As Paul finished his first epistle to the Thessalonians he wrote, “I charge you by the Lord, that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren” (1 Thes. 5:27). As he finished his epistle to the Colossians he wrote, “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16). This is most natural because that is where the believers would be. As John was finishing this book of Revelation, the Lord said, “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches” (22:16). John would faithfully make the circle from Ephesus to Laodicea, delivering the letters and later the whole book to seven local churches. Why? Because that is where the “holy brethren” would be gathered. John also received this revelation on “the Lord’s day” (1:10), “the first day of the week” (1 Cor. 16:2), as in Troas, “when the disciples came together” (Acts 20:7).
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit baptized the believers into the body of Christ on the day of Pentecost. When Jesus ascended back to the Father’s right hand, the Holy Spirit descended and began His office work in the age of grace, the church age. He is the Baptizer, the Sealer, the Withholder, the Convicter, the Empowerer, the Inspirer. The Holy Spirit dwells on the earth only through regenerate people. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). “In whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22). Some may build a habitat for humanity, but we are a habitat for divinity!
The book of Revelation contains one of the most unusual descriptions of the Holy Spirit in all of Scripture. In 1:4 He is described as the “seven Spirits which are before His throne.” In 3:1, “These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God.” In 4:5 John sees, “seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.” Then in 5:6 John sees the Lamb slain Who has “seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.” Some see this as a reference back to Isaiah 11:2 where the Spirit is described with seven attributes. Walter Scott says of John’s description, “The plenitude of His power and diversified activity are expressed in the term of ‘seven Spirits,’ the fullness of spiritual activity.”3 Joseph Weiss wrote, “Seven is the number of dispensational fullness and perfection, and as there are seven churches, making the one Church, so there are ‘the seven Spirits of God,’ making up the completeness of the one gracious administration of the Holy Ghost.”4 It would be safe to say that the Holy Spirit does a mighty and complete work in every believer, hence every church, throughout this age. He will be removed only when the church herself is removed (2 Thes. 2:6-7.
The Angels of the Churches
Pastors described as angels is also a unique but not unheard of description in the Scripture. We know that the word angelos means a messenger, and that is what pastors are to their churches. It is not unusual either for demons to be called “angels” or “stars” (see 12:4, 7, 9). David was said to be “as an angel of God” to Achish (1 Sam. 29:9) and Mephibosheth said to David, “My lord the king is an angel of God” (2 Sam. 19:27). Old Testament priests were “messengers of the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 2:7). In the New Testament John the Baptist was “my messenger” (Mk. 1:2) and his disciples were called “messengers” (Lk. 7:24). Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a “messenger of Satan” (2 Cor. 12:7). All these are translations of angelos. In 19:10 an angel will say to John, “I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren” meaning that angels and church leaders have very similar functions as messengers.
The angels, or messengers, of the churches were seen in the Lord’s right hand, as if He walked with them through their church saying “I know thy works . . .” It is not out of order to notice the singularity of pastors in these churches. Though a church may have more than one pastor serving the church, it cannot have less than one. And in these cases that one is uniquely important. Whereas, however, each letter starts out with Jesus addressing the pastor and walking and talking with him, each letter also gives way to the Holy Spirit working in the entire congregation with the repeated phrase, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” The pastoral responsibility gives way to the congregational responsibility.
And so . . . .
The local churches in various cities and countries are seen to be the primary focus of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, the pastors, and the congregations in this age of grace. The world will never understand how such seemingly powerless entities can affect great things for God. But we should never despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10). “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Cor. 1:27). It was to the poor and little church of Smyrna that the Lord said, “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich)” (2:9). “Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?” (Jas. 2:5).
Our reward is in heaven. The book of Revelation doesn’t end with chapter three. The church is raptured out during the seven terrible years of tribulation, never to be seen or mentioned as on the earth. During the first scene in heaven (chapter 4) the saints receive their crowns and cast them down at Jesus’ feet. Then (chapter 5) the saints from every kindred and tribe sing upon the crystal sea, “Thou art worthy” to the Lamb. In chapter 19 the church returns from heaven with Christ on white horses and then reigns with Him for a thousand years. The last two chapters, 21 & 22, describe the beautiful city, which is our abode eternally, coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband, as the church, the bride of Christ, is adorned for her husband, the Son of God.
Until then, let us be doing what John writes, “The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely” (22:17). Amen. Even so, come , Lord Jesus.
- See, “Deception in the Church,” http://www.deceptioninthechurch.com/orrel65.pdf.
- Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol vi. (Old Tappan: Fleming He. Revell Co., nd) 1188.
- Walter Scott, Exposition of the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1982) 24.
- Joseph Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation (New York: Cosimo, 1900) 27.