Are the Seven Churches a Map of Church History?
Tuesday's liturgy contains a reading from the message to the Church at Sardis, from the book of Revelation.
Revelation contains seven messages written to "the seven churches, which are in Asia."
Some Christians, particularly in the Protestant world, think that these seven messages contain a map of Church history, from the first century until the end times.
Are they right?
About the Seven Churches
The names of some of the seven churches to which John writes are familiar to us. The very first of the seven--Ephesus--is already familiar as the place to which St. Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians, for example.
Others are less familiar, but they were all located in a particular part of what is now Turkey, in the Roman province of Asia Minor.
We know that there were more than seven churches in Asia Minor at the time. Another one was the church at Colossae, to which St. Paul addressed the letter to the Colossians.
Which raises a question . . .
Why did St. John write to these seven?
Part of the reason may be that he was more familiar with--had spent more time in--these seven than some of the others.
Another factor is that the seven all apparently lay upon a single circuit of Roman road, allowing a courier to drop off copies of Revelation as he went along his route.
In fact, John is writing from the Island of Patmos, where he was in exile (not the same as prison), and Ephesus--to which he directs the first of the seven messages--is the closest of the churches to Patmos. The rest of the seven messages (to Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea) are in the order one would expect a courier to take to reach them all.
But surely part of the reason is that John wanted to write to seven churches because of the symbolic value of the number. Seven is extremely prominent in the book of Revelation, and that leads us to ask what it may symbolize here.
It should be noted that, although the seven messages to the seven churches are often called "seven letters," this isn't strictly accurate.
The book of Revelation is one large letter that is addressed to all seven of the Churches (see the address at 1:4). Within that one large letter are seven sections containing particular messages to the seven churches, much in the same way that a person today might send an email to several people and have sections of the email speaking directly to each of the addressees.
The number seven often signifies wholeness or completeness in the Bible, and so that may be its meaning here. The seven churches to which John writes may signify all churches in one way or another.
Thus the kind of problems they have--and the kind of spiritual victories they have--can be seen in churches everywhere, both in Asia Minor and elsewhere, both in the first century and in later centuries.
If understood in this way--"the seven in some way stand for all"--then matters are fairly straightforward.
But some Christians claim that the sequence of messages represents something far more specific . . .
Particularly in the Protestant world--and particularly among those who believe in the Rapture--a claim is made that the seven churches represent a series of time periods--ages--that map the course of Church history.
Thus some speak of an church age symbolized by Ephesus, followed by another age symbolized by Smyrna, followed by another symbolized by Pergamum, and so on.
Each age is held to have the same kind of spiritual characteristics mentioned in the individual messages.
According to people who advocate this theory, you can even assign dates to when each period began and ended.
It's certainly an interesting idea, but there is still a larger question . . .
Why would anyone think this?
As evidence for the theory, advocates could point to individual things mentioned in the seven message and say that they correlate to particular things in Church history.
They can--and do--point to message to Thyatira, which mentions the false prophetess Jezebel, as corresponding to the Middle Ages and to the Catholic Church, which they see both as misleading the people like a false prophet and as the Whore of Babylon mentioned later in the book.
They may then point to the message to Sardis as corresponding to the Protestant Reformation, in which Martin Luther helped "strengthen what remains" (Rv. 3:2).
Often they hold that we are in the next-to-last age (Philadelphia) or the last age (Laodicea).
And all this fits with the kind of narrative of Church history that they favor.
But there's a problem . . .
This kind of interpretation is notoriously dangerous.
It's far too easy to find something in the Bible, note a perceived, superficial similarity to something in Church history, and then turn it into a kind of hidden prophecy.
That kind of thing happens all the time, and the results are predictable: People make the prophecy bend to their preferred ecclesio-social-political narrative, see themselves as living in or near the last days, and sometimes even make predictions that then fail to come true.
At which point the interpretation is adjusted and new predictions made.
We've seen it all before, and so many times.
Spiritual vs. Literal
It can't be ruled out that God would have non-obvious layers of meaning in Scripture--what the Church refers to as the "spiritual sense" of the text.
It's even possible to draw significant spiritual lessons from this type of interpretation.
But particularly when it comes to finding hidden prophecies, the track record is dismal--both for Protestants and Catholics.
It's also ironic that this kind of allegorical approach would be applied by people who--as the advocates of the seven ages interpretation typically are--tend to be emphatic about resisting allegory and sticking with the literal sense of the text.
I suspect, though, that there is another reason why they tend to favor this view, one of which they frequently are not aware of . . .
Making it all fit
We've mentioned how this style of interpretation tends to fit the preferred narrative of the one sketching it out, and that's certainly true with this case--with Thyatira and Jezebel corresponding to the Dark Ages and the Catholic Church, with Sardis representing the Reformation, and so on.
However, there is another aspect to the narrative fitting that is not as clearly perceived.
I can say that because, when I was an Evangelical, I was taught this view, I accepted it, and eventually I saw through it.
One of the things I noticed was this: There is a problem getting the book of Revelation to fit the way it is commonly understood in contemporary Evangelical circles.
One of the most common views today about the end of the world is that we are living shortly before an event called the Rapture, in which Jesus will return from heaven and catch away those who believe in him.
They will go back to heaven for a period of time while all hell breaks loose on earth--a period known as the Tribulation.
This period is described in the book of Revelation. In fact, it takes up the bulk of the book of Revelation (say, chapter 4 to the first part of chapter 20).
The problem is, it's hard to make Revelation fit that.
Everybody agrees--because it's obvious--that the first part of the Revelation (e.g., ch. 2-3, in which the seven messages are found) deals with the first part of Church history, material that is already in our past.
Everybody also agrees--because it's obvious--that the end of the book of Revelation deals with the end of the world, the new heaven and the new earth, material that is still in our future.
The problem is figuring out how the middle part of the book applies to history.
We are told, right at the beginning and again at the end of the book, that it was given to show God's servants what must happen "soon," which would suggest that the bulk of the book would apply to a period the original audience would regard as "soon."
But this is contradicted by the Rapture advocates, who hold that the bulk of the book applies to material that is still in our future and would in no way have been regarded as happening "soon" by the original audience, some twenty centuries in our past.
Getting from here to there
How can Rapture advocates get from the early material in Revelation, which clearly applies to the past, to the bulk of the material, which they think applies to the future?
One way would be to say that there is just a gap in the book, that it leaps over the bulk of Church history and goes straight to the end.
Some are willing to do that, but others have a way of taking the edge off that uncomfortable leap.
That's where the seven ages theory comes in: If the material in chapters 2 and 3--the seven messages--also represent seven ages that span Church history, then there is a way of avoiding the multi-century--and now multi-millennia--leap.
Chapter 1 would then apply strictly to the first century, chapters 2 and 3 would apply to both the first century and the rest of Church history, and then chapter 4 would pick up with the end times.
John's summons to heaven in 4:1 ("Come up hither") can even be seen as symbolizing the Rapture (sort of), which is nowhere mentioned in the book, despite its alleged prominence as an end time event.
But there's a problem . . .
It's still forcing the text
While the seven ages view shows the ingenious lengths to which people can go to get biblical text to fit their preferred narrative, it is still a house of cards.
It's built on multiple assumptions that are nowhere stated in the text and that appear to go against what the text manifestly does say.
In particular, it goes against the book's claim that it discloses what would happen "soon."
One can admire the ingenuity of the theory, and it's always fun to find hidden meanings in a text, but just because a theory like this can be proposed does not mean that there is good evidence for it.
In fact, in this case, there's not.
Which is why this theory is particularly unconvincing for anyone not already convinced of the Rapture theory, or the idea that Revelation applies principally to the future rather than what the original audience would have regarded as "soon."
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