The Seven Letters in Revelation are Sermons on the Rest of the Book
Imagine you are tasked with preaching the entirety of Revelation to your congregation in a single sermon. The whole book. One sermon. Majoring on relevance and application. How would you do it?
Or maybe it’s a more casual question from a friend at the coffee shop: “So what’s the deal with Revelation? Se
ems pretty cryptic and weird and nothing like my life or relevant to the modern world. Explain that to me.” You’ve got until the coffee gets cold. Go.
What would such a sermon (or conversation) look like? How would you consolidate 22 chapters of some of the most intense, complex, disputed, and visceral material in the Bible into an easily applicable and understandable (three-point) sermon or summary, tailored for the person you are talking to? Is there a way to leap-frog all the modern controversies regarding the book and simply tell people what they need to hear? And how do you focus on the practical implications of the book without getting bogged down in the infinitely complex minutiae?
Easy. Copy John. He’s done it for you already. Revelation 2-3 provides you with seven exemplary interpretations and applications of the book as a whole.
Revelation is a Letter
If you want to understand the book of Revelation you need to appreciate that it is a letter. To be clear: Revelation doesn’t just contain letters, the whole thing is a letter. It’s other things too, which makes interpretation complicated, but it never ceases to be a letter.
This should be obvious, because Revelation actually tells you that it’s a letter in the first chapter:
I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and the Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea” (Rev. 1:10-11).
Now it’s well recognized that a portion of Revelation is a letter, as chapters 2-3 of the book are obviously letters (“to the angel of the church in Ephesus write,” Rev. 2:1). But look back at those verses in 1:10-11. They clearly apply not to some subset of the book (ie, chapters 2-3), but rather to the book as a whole. The seven churches that are mentioned in 1:10 are the same seven churches of Rev. 2-3. Seven letters, seven churches. What is John supposed to write to these seven churches? Not just what he hears (2:1) but also “what you see.” Which means that John’s vision in 4-22 is no less a part of what he is supposed to give to these churches. The whole book begins with a vision (“write what you see,” 1:11), and the rest of the book (after the letters) resumes that vision:
After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this” (Rev. 4:1).
This is a significant and undervalued key for interpreting the whole book. Everyone acknowledges that Revelation contains letters, but they then revert to other genres for Rev. 4-22 (namely prophecy and apocalypse). Here’s the deal, though. Revelation doesn’t just contain letters, it also is a letter. It’s easy to treat Rev. 2-3 as a kind of aside or parenthesis in the book, but if Revelation as a whole is a letter then these letters aren’t mere asides, they are central to the book’s purpose and content.
This observation doesn’t change the fact that Revelation is also a prophecy and a vision. Revelation is a couple of things all at once. It is simultaneously a vision (or apocalypse), and a prophecy, and a letter. The problem, though, is that we often forget that it is a letter. We normally think of Revelation in terms of its apocalyptic character, and therefore treat it as something strange and otherworldly and abnormal. If you ask someone what Revelation is about they will tell you about judgements and demons and the Beast and something about 666 and perhaps the False Prophet and the Antichrist and locusts and hellfire and the New Heavens…. All that is apocalyptic, and all that is important; it’s also hard and visceral and controversial and confrontational. It’s what makes the book challenging. We can’t ignore the apocalyptic character of Revelation. But it is also a letter, and letters are highly ordinary. Letters are easy.
Seeing the letter character of Revelation makes it easier to interpret
Why are letters easy? Think about the last time you received a letter (or email or text or other modern equivalent). Why did you receive it? The purpose of the letter was probably quite clear. It was likely to thank you for a gift, or to ask you about something, or to instruct you in some way. Letters are straightforward. You know exactly why you are receiving it. Some of the details may be obscure (“who’s this person they keep referring to?”), but the intent is usually clear. You always know the why, even if the what is obscure. In fact, you probably only need to look at the return address to know the intent of the letter you are receiving. The purpose is usually obvious.
Though the structure of letters has changed since ancient times, the purpose and intent has not. Ancient letters fall into a relatively small number of easily discernible intents. To encourage. To thank. To praise. To exhort. To request. So which one is Revelation?
It’s in this respect that we can look at Rev. 2-3 as a hermeneutical key to the rest of the book. Read through chapters 2-3 and describe the purpose of these letters. Is the primary point to inform or to thank or to instruct/exhort? Clearly it’s the last of those. These letters are imperatival. They are not primarily designed to inform these churches about future events, or to thank them for what they have done, but rather to exhort them in their present circumstances. The future is certainly part of the picture, but the point is the present actionable item, whether that be to persevere, to repent, to return to one’s first love. The purpose of the entire book is to exhort these 7 churches in Asia.
Revelation 2-3 as Exhortational Guide
All of this gives us a general guide for interpreting Revelation: the apocalyptic and prophetic character of Revelation ultimately serves its ultimate and far more obvious exhortational goals. This book wasn’t written to provide you with a cryptic proof that so-and-so is the antichrist, or that the world will come to an end on October 29th 2022. It was written to remind you that the State (in all its forms) is a Beast, and that pleasure is seductive, and that wolves come dressed as shepherds, and that God wins, and that the overcomers will be written in the book of life.
And all of those themes are very clearly and propositionally articulated in chapters 2-3.
Which brings us to our conclusion. The seven letters are models for interpreting the one letter. John has embedded the exhortational key(s) to this prophetic and apocalyptic book in its first few chapters. If you are looking for a model for preaching Revelation, look no further than Revelation! The kinds of exhortations that one might derive from Rev. 4-22 are right there in Rev. 2-3. Letters have a point, and the point is usually obvious. So what is the point of Rev. 4-22? Why, Rev. 2-3 of course. The kinds of exhortations we find in Rev. 2-3 are the same kinds of exhortations that constitute “the point” of 4-22.
That’s not to say that Rev. 4-22 contains merely “illustrations” or “parables” or “morality tales.” No, the rest of the book is a prophecy and an apocalypse, but defining what that means is beyond the confines of this post. So keeping matters relatively simple for the sake of the present argument, let’s distinguish between content and purpose. The content of Rev. 4-22 is an apocalyptic prophecy describing the entirety of Redemptive History beginning (roughly) with the First Resurrection and concluding (definitively) in the Second Resurrection. It’s about the future. But why provide the church with such a prophecy? Not to describe but rather to exhort. The content of Rev 4-22 is historical but the point is exhortational. Which brings us back around to our opening question. How am I being exhorted? In a manner consistent with the pattern laid out in Rev 2-3.
Revelation 2-3 lays down for us a pattern for exhortation. That doesn’t mean that everything that needs to be said has already been said, or that you should just stand up on Sunday and read one of these letters to your congregation, or recite it at the coffee shop. It means that Rev. 4-22 is for churches that are resisting persecution but have lost their first love, or who need encouragement in the midst of slander, or who have been infiltrated by false prophets, or tolerate syncretism, or who are really dead inside. It’s for churches that are faithful and long for their reward or, by contrast, are apathetic and need to be warned. It’s for churches like ours in fact.
Find your church, or yourself, on the list, and preach Rev 4-22 like John did.