Revelation 2 and 3. Seven what? Seven letters? Or something else?
The messages Jesus sends to the seven churches of Asia found in Revelation 2-3 are often thought of as letters – since the command to John is to write to the angels of those churches. But in many ways what is dictated does not have the form of a letter. The message-sender is identified, but not by name, and nor are there greetings. The opening formula, ‘these are the words of ’ are more reminiscent of a prophetic oracle than a letter. Is ‘letter’ the best way to think about what these pieces of communication are?
‘Why worry?’, you might ask. Isn’t the point to read them? Which is true. But we might have expectations of a letter that make what Jesus says in these messages strange. Why is he so stern? Why the rebukes and the threats to remove lampstands, to come like a thief upon sleepers, to spit his church out? Where is his tender love for his people and his unshakeable commitment to them? Are we allowed in the church at the start by grace, but need to stay in by our works? Is that the point of these messages?
It may help to think of these messages as more like communiques from the field commander to the troops on the battlefield, than personal letters from one individual to others. Jesus the Messiah, who stands at the head of the armies of heaven (Rev 19:11-16), whose troops are willing in the day of battle (Psalm 110), is writing as the great general to his churches, ‘personified’ here as angels, angels who might be imagined as part of the hosts of heaven. (The churches are ‘angelified’ rather than personified, really). The book of Revelation is a book full of conflict, conflict in which Christians are caught up, and must play their part. Sometimes the church is numbered (Rev 7:4-8, 14:1) like an Old Testament muster of fighting men (Numbers 1). And each message concludes with a promise to ‘the one who is victorious’, which sounds like a general exhorting his troops to fight in the hope of what victory will bring.
This may help explain why Jesus speaks so fiercely, and his expectations are so high. Jesus must lead his churches through a great conflict, and so he wants them to be fit for the fight. He must point out weaknesses in his churches and he must expect them to be dealt with, or he must deal with them himself. For this is not a drill. His people can come through, stand firm, bear witness, suffer and be victorious if they are ready, and not weakened by apathy, fear, entanglement with idolatry or impurity, inattention, lack of endurance, or a failure of insight. But if they lose their ability to love (Ephesus) or give way to fear and prove unwilling to suffer to be faithful (Smyrna) or fail to see teaching which leads them into sin (Pergamum), or allow such teachers to continue unopposed (Thyatira), or if they fall asleep (Sardis) or give up in the face of pressure (Philadelphia) or fail to see their true spiritual need, and fail to go to Jesus for it (Laodicea), then the churches will not be fit for the fight, and the hope of victory will be eclipsed by uncertainty.
This is not to say that Jesus’ troops will not be ready for the fight. I take it that Jesus is the kind of general that knows how to prepare his troops for battle, and to give them all they need to be victorious. But part of what they need is a frank communique to cause them to address their weaknesses so that when the day of testing and battle and suffering witness comes, they may stand.