Bibliotheca Sacra October 1967
The Chronological Interpretation of Revelation 2-3
Robert L. Thomas
Widespread interest has been attached to the interpretation of the seven church messages of Revelation 2-3, and each approach is usually an outgrowth of the time period or periods to which these messages are assigned. Viewpoints varying from past to future application have been advanced, but the most prominent may be discussed under three headings: the prophetical, the historico-prophetical, and the historical.
THE PROPHETICAL INTERPRETATION
The prophetical interpretation looks upon these seven messages as being entirely future in their significance. There is absolutely no historical meaning in them; their import is intended for assemblies yet to be established on the earth. They are Jewish in their makeup, and are not to be identified with the body of Christ. The seven will occupy their places on the earth during the eschatological day of the Lord.1
Support mustered for this view includes the following arguments:
1. Verse nineteen of chapter one testifies to the unity of the Apocalypse, not to its twofold or threefold division, and therefore chapters 2-3 relate to the future just as do the portions beginning with chapter 4. 2 One’s acceptance of this proof must hinge upon his understanding of Revelation 1:19, and there is no unanimity in regard to this verse. For example, many hold that this verse expresses a threefold division, not a single entity.3 Still others see a twofold division. Consequently, the unity of the verse becomes of doubtful value in supporting the prophetic view.
2. It is the further argument of this viewpoint that the angels of Revelation 2-3 necessitate a connection with Israel rather than with the Christian church. With this the case, it is proposed, these churches must exist after the Gentile church is removed, i.e., in the future day of the Lord.4 Here, once again, the answer lies in questioning the premise of the argument: are angels never mentioned in relation to the church? The answer must be negative in light of such passages as I Corinthians 11:10.
Furthermore, it is possible to answer the “angel” argument by interpreting these seven angels to be human messengers. Contrary to Bullinger’s assumption, this is possible without making “angel” a title for a church officer. They may be “messengers” in the common usage of the term without necessitating any implications regarding church organization, i.e., Jewish versus Christian.
3.Proof for the prophetic perspective is also sought in evidence that no churches existed in some of these cities at this early date. This is done particularly in relation to the church in Thyatira, the basis of the assumption being statements by Tertullian (A.D. 145-220) and by Epiphanius (about A.D. 367) .5 If no church existed at the time of the Apocalypse’s composition, it stands to reason that one will exist in the future day, it is said.
It should be observed, however, that historical evidence to disprove the existence of this church is very scanty. Tertullian does not agree with the truthfulness of this assertion, but merely cites the claims of certain sects.6 Epiphanius too was answering unorthodox objections of the Alogi to the genuineness of the Apocalypse.7 The absurdity of this position is readily seen when one recollects the evidence of the Apocalypse itself. Whatever author may be suggested (if not the Apostle John, as we believe), “he would not have assumed as fact a thing known to be erroneous.”8 How much more true this is with the inspired apostle as author.9
The conclusion must be, “The seven churches of Asia Minor were real churches. They existed as actual historical entities in a province of Roman Asia in the closing decades of the first century.”10
It is felt that evidence fails to support the prophetic view. Therefore the historicity of these churches must be admitted, as is normal in the case of such literature, and the messages to them cannot be assigned to the future Day of the Lord in their interpretation.
THE HISTORICO-PROPHETICAL INTERPRETATION
The second viewpoint, the historico-prophetical, has had a remarkable popularity among expositors of the last century.11 It was not, however, unknown to earlier interpreters.12 This approach acknowledges the historical existence of the first-century churches addressed in the messages, but at the same time assigns a prophetic significance to them. This prophetic feature purportedly outlines the seven periods of church history from the time of composition to the coming of Christ for the church. Some advocates of this theory even go so far as to say that the prophetic interpretation overshadows the historical in importance.13 This is not true of the majority, however.
The more prominent points of evidence favoring the historico-prophetic interpretation are as follows:
1. One reason advanced lies in the “different and even opposed moral conditions” found in the various churches.14 So varied are the descriptions of the different churches, these could not characterize the state of the church in general at that time or at any other time.
Such reasoning as this rests upon the presupposition that each description characterizes the whole body of professing Christians at a given moment.15 This is nowhere stated, however. It is true that whatever is said to one church will have usefulness in connection with the others (i.e., “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”), but this does not imply that the principal virtues or faults of one church are meant as the main characteristics of others. In other words, advice that has urgent application in Laodicea may represent one of the lesser needs in Philadelphia and elsewhere. There is, therefore, nothing in the messages to preclude their application to different local congregations existing simultaneously in the last decade of the first century, or for that matter, in any other period.
2. It is further argued that the contents of the seven epistles hint at their prophetic significance.16 By this is meant the language of the two chapters relating to the second advent which implies that the latter churches (or last church) continue up to the time of Christ’s coming.
How far this line of reasoning can be pursued is questionable, however, especially when there are possible references to Christ’s coming in two of the first three messages and a clear reference to His coming as early as the fourth message. In fact, one might easily conclude from the language utilized that Christ’s coming was as equally near for the first church, Ephesus, as for the last, Laodicea.
There is also the idea that the progressive development of evil portrayed in these letters is indicative of their prophetic character.17 Yet one cannot fully agree with this trend when he finds, for example, in Sardis one of the two worst spiritual states and in Philadelphia one of the two best spiritual states.18 To describe accurately the growing failure in the church, Philadelphia should have been placed early in chapter 2, certainly before Sardis and not vice versa, if declining spiritual states were a mark of these two chapters.
3.Probably the most widely used piece of evidence in favor of the historico-prophetical approach is the theory of a correspondence between seven periods of church history and the seven letters. It is felt that the successive periods of church history, as they have unfolded, are in themselves a substantiation of this viewpoint because of the high degree of correlation between them and the spiritual conditions outlined in the seven messages. Lange comments: “Ephesus is manifestly a picture of the church toward the end of the apostolic time, whilst Laodicea pictures it as it shall be in the last time….”19 In commenting upon Lange’s position, Craven, his American editor, adds, “The proof … that the Seven Churches are, in their order, representative of the predominant characteristics of the Church in the seven periods of her history is based entirely on observation of history.”20 In the terminology of Ironside, the key which fit the lock and opened up the explanation of the messages was the noticed similarity between them and the development of church history.21 Many expositors from a wide assortment of backgrounds have flocked to the opinion that a correspondence between church history and these seven messages exists.22
In spite of the abundance of impressive voices to speak in favor of the correlation of the passage with church history, there comes, however, the frequent question, “Does it really fit?” In speaking of the concept of successive church periods, Godet writes: “One may, doubtless, by taking up this latter stand-point, succeed in bringing out some ingeniously conceived points of harmony, but they always have a somewhat arbitrary character.”23 Is the application of these epistles really arbitrary, as Godet suggests? This is the question that must be faced squarely before giving credence to the historicoprophetic conclusion.
There does appear to be evidence to support; this arbitrary character. It can be noticed in the examination of some standard work on church history. Schaff, in speaking of the periods of church history, notes: “In regard to the number and length of periods there is, indeed, no unanimity….”24He then goes on to observe that if any general agreement exists, it is in respect to a threefold division into ancient (A.D. 1-590), medieval (A.D. 590-1517) and modern (A.D. 1517-1880) periods. If a further breakdown is desired, the author proposes a division of each of the three into three subdivisions, resulting in nine, not seven periods of church history.25
The same diversity of opinion that exists among church historians is found in the writings of expositors of the historico-prophetic school. The limited scope of the present treatment forbids an exhaustive comparison of the differences, but a typical example may suffice to illustrate the point: The message to Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6) has been variously interpreted in its prophetic meaning. Craven makes this “the period blending with the spiritual declensions of the preceding [period], and extending through the dark ages to the Reformation.”26 Conradi, on the other hand, refers the Sardian letter not to the pre-Reformation church, but to the church of the Reformation itself: “Surely Christ did not overlook this second greatest event in human history [i.e., the Reformation] when He gave the forecast to the seven churches, but pointed it out, as we shall see, very fittingly in the Sardis state.”27
One can, apparently, make the words to Sardis fit either of the two epochs, depending on whether he emphasizes the good features regarding the church or the bad. The inevitable course in this case must be to apply the term arbitrary to such a method of interpretation. Can it be said honestly that this is the key which fits the lock and opens up the explanation of the messages, when in reality the key is so poorly defined? The shape of the key varies radically from one interpretation to the next, and so who is to say finally what “the key” is?
The truthfulness of Trench’s observation, thus, is well-attested: “There is no agreement among themselves on the part of the interpreters of the historico-prophetical school. Each one has his own solution of the enigma, his own distribution of the several epochs; or, if this is too much to affirm, there is at any rate nothing approaching to a general consensus among them.”28 It would appear, then, that the historico-prophetical system is beset by difficulties and unsupported by any conclusive evidence.”29 A final alternative is yet available to the interpreter of Revelation 2-3, however.
THE HISTORICAL VIEW
The possibility still remaining is the purely historical view. This is the viewpoint which takes Christ’s words as being strictly appropriate to the historical situations of seven first-century churches of Asia Minor. It does not deny that these seven represent spiritual states that typify local churches of all locations and all times within the Christian era, but it does deny that a given spiritual state is more prevalent at one time than it is at another. In other words, the symbolic states are simultaneous rather than consecutive, in their coverage of the church age.
The supports for the historical view may be summed upas follows:
1. The whole context of the Apocalypse necessitates this interpretation. It is foundational in understanding this book to recognize its emphasis upon the imminency of Christ’s return, and the purely historical approach is the only one that allows for this meaning along with maintaining the historical existence of the seven churches.
The historico-prophetical view cannot make such a claim, because a consistent application of its interpretation would mean that Christ’s coming is imminent for only one of the churches, the last. This would be the only one pictured prophetically for which Christ’s coming was an any-moment expectation. On the contrary, however, there are definite references to His imminent return in the fourth and sixth letters, and possible reference in the first, third, and fifth message. If the historico-prophetical be the correct viewpoint, Christ would be guilty of deceiving these other churches, for His coming could not possibly take place within their periods of church history. Philadelphia, for example, was given a false hope of deliverance as an encouragement in persecution, since Christ’s coming could not occur until the Laodicean period. The folly of accusing Christ of such moral conduct is apparent, and consequently the inability of the historico-prophetical approach in allowing for the doctrine of imminence throughout the church age must be admitted.30
It is revealing that Harrison uses the supposed prophetic character of these letters to disprove the imminency of Christ’s return; he speaks of “a seven-fold historical development of the Church (Revelation 2 and 3), evidently requiring an extended period of time.”31 By this observation he argues against a Scriptural teaching of an any-moment return of Christ, for Christ spoke these words to a generation duringwhose existence He could not have come back. Harrison’s case is not convincing, however. If one is forced to choose between the imminent return of Christ and the prophetic nature of the seven messages, there is no question that the decision of Scripture is in favor of Christ’s imminent return.
The realization must be that Christ’s return was just as much a possibility for the Ephesians as it was for the Laodiceans. This is possible when “the things that are” (Rev. 1:19) are represented by seven simultaneous “church pictures” rather than seven successive ones. With this understanding of the words, the church age could have been very short, even terminating in the generation of John the Apostle.
Since the historical view alone allows for such simultaneity and imminence, it is acceptable in view of the context of the Apocalypse.32
2. A second reason for adopting the historical point of view lies in the absence of any word of Scripture to indicate an additional prophetic outlook in these two chapters. Walvoord agrees that no such statement is to be found when he says: “The prophetic interpretation of the messages to the seven churches . . . is a deduction from the content, not from the explicit statement of the passage.”33
Admittedly to speak of this absence is an argument from silence, but coupled with the Scripture’s usual unambiguity in such matters, it assumes increasing importance. Customarily, when the Bible makes a declaration regarding the future, there is no room for doubt about its character as prophecy. But to those who “superinduce upon it [a literal sense] a prophetical,” Trench poses the following searching questions: “What slightest hint or intimation does the Spirit of God give that we have here to do with the great successive acts and epochs of the kingdom of God in the course of its gradual evolution here upon earth? Where are the fingerposts pointing this way? What is there, for instance, of chronological succession? Does not every thing, on the contrary, mark simultaneity, and not succession?”34There are no such pointers to lead the expositor to any conclusion other than the historical.
3. As a third factor to support the historical interpretation, attention is called to the type of literature in Revelation 2-3. This is normal epistolary style, quite similar to the epistles of Paul and other New Testament writers. In these other writings, no serious thought is ever given to finding a typical prophetic meaning in a passage that manifestly deals with a historical situation in the city or cities addressed.”35 Instead the words are interpreted in light of the historical context. In other words, what did they mean to the first century recipients of Asia Minor?
Such should be the case in the messages of the Apocalypse. Darby, himself an advocate of the historico-prophetical view, admits that these two chapters differ from the prophetic portions of the book.36 Though not considering the difference sufficient to rule out the prophetic from the non-apocalyptic second and third chapters, Darby does note significantly the difference in literary construction. Except for occasional references to future events such as the coming of the Lord or the hour of trial, the letters treat historical conditions and circumstances, and do not partake of the apocalyptic character that dominates the book after the third chapter.
Understanding the normal method of interpreting epistolary literature to be historical, then, one concludes that there is this additional factor in favor of the historical viewpoint.
After all the evidence is tallied, one is inclined to accept the appraisal of Lee: “One cannot, however, overlook the historical character which is stamped on the Epistles throughout…and which distinctly points to a state of things actually before St. John’s mind as existing in the several Churches.
That such teaching is applicable for reproof or for encouragement throughout all future time, is firmly to be maintained; but that definite periods of the Church are here predicted, or that these Epistles refer severally to successive aspects of the Divine Kingdom, may well be doubted….”37
Such a conclusion is not at all inconsistent with the dispensational approach to the Scriptures. In fact, it harmonizes perfectly with the doctrine of Christ’s imminent return throughout this age, which doctrine is so intimately associated with the pretribulational coming of Christ for His church.
Furthermore, the historical interpretation encourages a sound application of the grammatico-historical method of interpretation to the letters, such as might not be possible if the interpreter is diverted by his consideration of prophetic details. These two chapters are rich in truth for local congregations throughout this age, when understood in the light of their surroundings, and the student of God’s Word would do well to make full and proper use of them in his ministry.
1E. W. Bullinger, The Apocalypse or “The Day of the Lord,” p. 68.
2Charles H. Welch, This Prophecy, pp. 59-61.
3Fordiscussion of this point, see the writer’s “John’s Apocalyptic Outline,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 123 :334-41, October-December, 1966.
4Bullinger, op. cit., pp. 66-68.
5Ibid., p. 70.
8Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John, p. 340; cf. William Henry Simcox, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (CGT), p. 61.
9Advocates of the prophetic view also argue on the basis of a difference in emphasis between these messages and the epistles of Paul. These are said to be grounded in a system of works while literature of the church rests on the system of grace (Bullinger, op. cit., pp. 63, 162-63). It is true that no classic passages on the doctrine of grace can be found in these letters, but this is far from saying that they do not rest on a grace principle. Works of the Christian life are in no way incompatible with grace, even in the writings of Paul (cf. Eph. 2:8-10). It is the concept of works done in compliance with Mosaic law that the apostle rules out, because they exclude the grace method of approaching God (cf. Rom. 3:21-22). On the other hand, however, good works are the necessary counterpart of faith and grace, and the emphasis upon such in these chapters is not per se an argument against relating them to the dispensation of grace.
10Carl F. H. Henry, “Lessons from the Apocalypse,” Christianity Today, 9:16, December 4,1964.
11To name just a few, L. R. Conradi, The Impelling Force of Prophetic Truth, pp. 30-31; John Peter Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, XXV, 139; Arno C. Gaebelein, The Revelation, p. 33; J. B. Smith, A Revelation of Jesus Christ, pp. 61-62.
12Richard Chenevix Trench, Commentary On the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia, pp. 301-3. Trench lists among others the Franciscan Abbot Joachin of Floris (died A.D. 1202), the Puritan Thomas Brightman (died 1607), Joseph Mede (died 1638), and Cocceius (died 1669).
13Gaebelein, loc. cit.
14Kelly, Lectures on the Revelation, p. 24; cf. Smith op. cit., p. 61; J. N. Darby, Notes on the apocalypse, p. 11.
16Kelly, The Revelation, p. 75.
17John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, pp. 52-53.
18 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, I, 451-52.
19 Lange, op. cit., XXV, 139.
20Ibid., p. 141. Grant describes this most important principle as “the suitability of application itself” (F. \V. Grant, The Prophetic History of the Church, p. 5). Scofield agrees with the importance of this point: “Most conclusively of all, these messages do present an exact foreview of the spiritual history of the church, and in this precise order” (C. I. Scofield, Reference Bible, (1917 edition), pp. 1331-32).
21H. A. Ironside, Lectures on the Revelation, pp. 35-36.
22From very early times the historico-prophetical treatment of the seven letters has come from the pens of writers of the continuous-historical persuasion in regard to the Apocalypse. Joseph Mede is one example of this type. Cf. William Milligan, Discussions on the Apocalypse, p. 269. Therefore, the historico-prophetic approach cannot be limited to the futurist viewpoint of the book.
23 F. Godet, Studies in the New Testament, pp. 303-4. Milligan agrees that the correspondence is artificial: “The history of the church cannot be portioned off into successive periods marked by characteristics to which those noted in the seven epistles correspond” (Milligan, op. cit., p. 269).
24 Schaff, op. cit., I, 14.
25 Ibid., 1,14-19.
26Lange, op. cit., XXV, 141.
27 Conradi, op. cit., p. 243.
28 Trench, op. cit., p. 309.
29One further argument, the incredibility of not having predictions to cover the church age in Revelation, is worthy of brief notice (Scofield, op. cit., p. 1331). This is unacceptable as evidence, however, because it denies God the prerogative of remaining silent when He chooses. Furthermore, there is found elsewhere ample revelation regarding the progress of the church in the present age (Walvoord, op. cit., p. 52).
30 F. C. Jennings, recognizing the problem of harmonizing the doctrine of imminence with the historico-prophetical scheme, seeks to reconcile the two by postulating a late discovery of the prophetic element. “…. The church at large has not discerned this interpretation of these letters until the last century…. If the Lord’s people could say we are clearly only in one of the earlier conditions of the churches and others must yet intervene, it would destroy absolutely the sense of any immediate coming . . . .” (The Seven Letters, copyright 1909, pp. 64-65). Has this “discovery” been confined to the last century, however? Apparently not. See footnote 12 above for writers of a much earlier date who held this position.
31 Norman B. Harrison, The End, p. 237.
32The characteristic of simultaneity is also an answer to two additional arguments utilized by the historico-prophetical school: (a) The words “the things that are” (ha eisin) in 1:19 are said to support this interpretation (William Kelly, The Revelation, p. 75). According to the threefold division of the verse and thus of the entire book, chapters 2-3 must encompass the whole scope of the church’s earthly existence. To comprehend the condition of the Christian church from John’s time to the events depicted at the beginning of chapter 4, it is necessary to posit seven consecutive stages of church history, moving in order from the first message to the last. (b) It is also held that the number seven is a number of revolution of time, indicating in these chapters a prophetic sampling of seven successive conditions of the whole visible church (Joseph Mede, The Works of Joseph Mede, pp. 296, 905; see also Kelly, The Revelation, p. 75, and Lectures on the Revelation) pp. 24-25. Since seven is the number of totality, the entire age of the church must be encompassed in seven consecutive epochs. Yet neither argument necessitates succession as opposed to simultaneity. There is no valid objection to making each of the seven messages applicable to the entirety of the period; the concept of totality is equally applicable in this sense as in that of consecutive periods, as Godet writes: “The number seven indicates here, as it always does, a totality. But the idea of the book is that of a simultaneous, not that of a successive, totality, as those think who see in these seven churches the portraiture of the principal phases of the history of the church. . . . It is the starting-point of the Lord’s progress which should be here indicated, this starting-point is the state of the church at the time of the vision, and not the unrolling of its future history, which is contained rather in the subsequent visions” (loc. cit.).
33 Walvoord, loc. cit.
34Trench, op. cit., pp. 307-8.
35 Kelly finds in Daniel 3-6 a case where there is supposedly a mingling of the prophetic with the historic. He contends that the historical events there recorded have a deeper, more profound meaning than mere history. There is typical meaning in these happenings, and the types serve as prophetic hints to prepare the ground for the predictions beginning in Daniel 7 (Ibid., pp. xii-xiii). For one to find validity in this approach, he must first demonstrate satisfactorily that such literary principle exists in Daniel. Some would feel that such a treatment of a historical passage is highly allegorical, and differs little from the method of the Alexandrian school. One is tempted to feel that the “technical minuteness of application” to which Kelly so strongly objects might be none other than the grammatico-historical method of interpretation (ibid.). To rest one’s case upon such precarious hermeneutics is highly inadvisable.
36John Nelson Darby, Notes on the Apocalypse, p. 10.
37 William Lee, The Holy Bible with an Explanatory Critical Commentary (F. C. Cook, editor), IV, 513.14.