If chapters 14 and 16 in the Gospel of John did not exist or were ignored, it would handicap an understanding of the mystery of the inter-workings of the Trinity. Likewise, if Revelation chapters 2 and 3 did not exist or were ignored, the mystery of the history of the churches of Christ would scarcely be understood.
Five interesting facts emerge from a look at the seven churches in Revelation 2-3:
- All seven churches, no matter how good or bad their doctrine or practices, were still called churches;
- All seven churches had different names, primarily based on their regions, but not necessarily by the political powers of those regions—as some were severely persecuted;
- No one church appears to be given authority over all the others, even though Ephesus was the leading urban center among those listed;
- All seven churches co-existed simultaneously as true independently identified churches—not merely as churches existing only in the mind of John—hence for the original readers of Revelation they did not exist in a chronological conception, but simultaneously; and
- All seven churches had distinctive doctrinal and practical orientations.
From these points it appears that Revelation 2-3 affirms a type of pluricity or denominationalism.
However, there exists a very long history of a single church dominating most of Western Christianity. Every branch of the Catholic tree is bent on proving and maintaining that it is the only legitimate and true church on earth. Only she has the right to decide who is and who is not to be called “church.” The Western Church has a very long history in which every possible biblical proposition has been stretched to validate the “one world church” model. Meanwhile, every biblical passage that would negate this preconceived “one world church” notion has been misapplied, shunned, or dismissed as irrelevant to properly understand church history. Revelation 2-3 seems to fall into this latter category.
Therefore, in this context, it is understandable that a straw man argument would be constantly echoed for the interpretation of Revelation 2-3. Once this view is taught, then it is immediately discredited, proving Revelation 2-3 to be totally irrelevant, unhelpful, and unuseful for biblically understanding church history. Thus by disproving a “chronological approach” to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, the conclusion is formulated that Revelation 2-3 has no place in understanding church history. “Nothing to see here. Let’s keep moving!” This straw man argument is nothing more than the fallacy of irrelevant proof. Disproving the “chronological approach” does not at all negate its usefulness to an understanding of church history.
Years ago, the “chronological approach” was soundly refuted by Reformed theologian Pierre Jurieu—in 1687! Jurieu juxtaposed the views of three precedent commentators on Revelation 2-3, showing their inconsistencies and contradictions in their chronological interlinking of this list of churches:
- Patrick Forbes (1564-1635), a Scottish Presbyterian;
- Cocceius (1603-1669), a Dutch Covenant Theologian;
- Henry More (1614-1687), A Jesuit Priest.
Jurieu, in my estimation, successfully refuted the “chronological approach.” He explained that this interpretive scheme necessitates an arbitrary application of the teachings of Revelation 2-3. Jurieu helped Western readers break free from the monolithic “one world church” interpretation of Revelation 2-3. Accordingly, the “one world church” approach suffers from the presupposition that only one church existed at any one time in the history of the churches. Therefore, each of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 to be placed in an end-to-end successive pattern.
Some difficulties of a “one world church” presupposition are:
- John used the plural “churches” eight times in Revelation 2-3 and a total of eleven times in the Book of Revelation, seeming to imply multiplicity rather than an ever-morphing unicity model;
- The end-to-end model is fraught with inconsistencies when any one church from Revelation 2-3 is superimposed on any era of church history, as was clearly proven by Jurieu;
- To this very day many ancient autocephalous churches continue to exist (e.g. Antiochene Orthodox Christian Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Greek Orthodox Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, and Syriac Church of St. Thomas in India—to name a few), each having its own historical identity and church history.
Philip Jenkins in his book, The Lost History of Christianity, exemplifies a new historiography in which other non-Western church groups are included.
- At any given period of time in any society where the church is planted varieties of churches immediately spring forth, in fulfillment to the prophecy of Jesus in Matthew 13:24-25 and following the example displayed within the church in Corinth in 1 Cor 1:11.
So, it is important for the interpreter of Revelation 2-3 to break free from this long-ingrained “one world church” model.
However, breaking free from a chronological interpretation is only the beginning of a proper understanding of this important passage. A cognitive reset is needed to apply the lessons of Revelation 2-3 to the history of the churches of Christ over these past 2,000 years.
Here are several radical learning points that can be made from a reoriented understanding of Revelation 2-3:
- Though perhaps alluded to, Rome was not listed as one of the churches in Revelation 2-3.
- No state-church model seems represented among the seven churches of Revelation 2-3, except perhaps Thyatira—because of John’s use of Jezebel’s name.
Queen Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidon (1 Kings 16:31), was notorious for her massacre of the prophets of God (1 Kings 18:4) and for her challenge to the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:2). Further, Jesus in His letter to Thyatira accused that Jezebel of seducing His servants “to commit acts of sexual immorality and to eat things sacrificed to idols” (Rev 2:20). If the Apostle John’s use of Jezebel is considered an affirmation of the state-church model, then there exists a systemic problem with the state-church model from its inception.
The original readers from among the seven churches could not have conceived of a state-church model. Those in the church in Smyrna were to be thrown in prison (Rev 2:10). The ruling authority in Pergamum seems to be Satan, since John wrote, “where Satan’s throne is” (Rev 2:13). The church in Philadelphia was to enter “an hour of trial” (Rev 3:10), which is not consistent with a state-church model. The first readers of Revelation could not conceive of a state-church model, since their political system was that of the antagonistic grip of Roman rule.
- John’s mysterious use of the Nicolaitans points to a diversity among these churches. The "deeds of the Nicolaitans" were hated by the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:6). But those who taught the "doctrine of the Nicolaitans" were welcomed by the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:15).
Rather than a ever-morphing unicity, Revelation 2-3 prefigures a simultaneous multiplicity of denominations.
This same multiplicity found in the 16 different churches of the Medieval Cathars of Southern France (circa 1250). This same plurality of churches currently exists in the United States due to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
- John’s sprinkled use of the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9; 3:9), the dwelling of Satan (Rev 2:13), and the “depths of Satan” (Rev 2:24), seem to indicate rival doctrinal approaches that led to persecution of the true followers of Christ.
- If a chiasm is applied to the interpretation of the seven churches in Revelation, then Thyatira stands out as being in the middle of the chiasm.
The church of Thyatira is central in the chiasm with Pergamum and Sardis on each side. These middle three churches seem to prefigure a pattern of doctrinal drift. A similar pattern of apostasy is quite noticeable in the history of United Stated denominationalism!
This brief survey exemplifies the potential contributions of Revelation 2-3 to a proper understanding of the history of the churches. These epistles from Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor incorporate truths that can help the student of the Bible understand the mysteries of church history. Just like John 14, 16 are important chapters giving insight into the mysteries of the Trinity, so it is with Revelation 2-3 for understanding church history. Is it not time to reintroduce biblical primacy in the study of church history?
“On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church. …
“For those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, “salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit”; it has a relationship with the Church, which “according to the plan of the Father, has her origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church” [Rome, 16 June 2000; 6 Aug 2000], §17 and 20).
Pierre Jurieu, The Accomplishment of the Scriptures (Rotterdam & London, 1687), 1:7-18.
By the way, in researching the writings of two mid-16th Century Reformation historians, Johannes Sleidan and Jean de Haineault, I did not find any evidence of a chronological approach to interpreting Revelation 2-3. Nor was the chronological approach found in the writings of mid-16th Century Geneva publisher Jean Crespin.
Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died (New York: Harper One, 2008).
“Behold the Cathar Churches. All the Churches of the Cathars are sixteen. Please do not reproach me, reader, for calling them Churches, but reproach them, for this is what they call them. the Church of the Albanists or of Desenzano; the Church of Concorrezo; the Church of Bagnolais or of Bagnolo; the Church of Vincence or of la Marche; the Florentine Church; the Church of Val de Spolète; the Church of France; the Toulouse Church; the Carcassone Church; the Albigensian Church; the Church of Slavonia; the Church of the Latins of Constantinople; the Church of the Greeks [ibidem]; the Philadelphia Church in Romania; the Church of Bulgaria; the Church of Dragovisia. And they all have their origin in the last two” (Jean Duvernoy, “Frère Raynier de l’Ordre des Frères Prêcheurs, Des Cathares et des Pauvres de Lyons” [circa 1250]; from www.jeanduvernoy.free.fr [Online]; accessed: 8 Sept 2004; Internet; translation mine).