“The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20).
by David Rice
The view is widely held among our fellowship that the seven churches of Revelation chapters 1-3 have prophetic meaning to seven successive periods of time during the Gospel Age. Not that this is the only meaning. For there were congregations in each of these cities, literally, to whom John was instructed to write the messages given by Jesus, communicated through an angel. “What thou seest, write in a book, and send it to the seven churches: unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea” (Revelation 1:11 ASV).
This seems to mean that the Christian community in each of these locations received a copya of the book. That ensured that each congregation received the advice that Jesus intended for them specifically. Surely, each group wouldahave looked with special interest at the messagesgiven to their specific community. Thus, there was an immediate benefit, in John’s day, for Christians reading the counsel of Jesus that was framed specially for them.
This distribution of the book to at least seven communities would also impress upon all the authenticity of the composition, and that it came through an apostle. The engaging symbolism in the book would thus gain wide respect, and wide distribution, so that the Church in later times received a book with an historically sound transmission. For a book of this kind, that would be especially important.
It is likely that the Christian community in each location was sufficiently large that there were various gatherings in the same city, with a feeling of common fellowship and unity among them. It seems to have been the custom in those early times for each community to recognize one leader among them as a pastoral figure with a general concern for the brotherhood of his area. For example, James, the brother of Jude, apparently filled this role in Jerusalem, judging by references to him in the New Testament (Acts
12:17, 15:13, 21:18, Galatians 1:19, 2:12, 1 Corinthians 15:7, Jude 1:1).
Opening the message to each of the seven churches, the instruction is similar. It is reflected in this example of the first church. “Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write.” How did John comply with this instruction? He would have sent the message to the “angel,” or leader, of each community. Referring to spiritual leaders as “angels,” or messengers used by God to assist others, has examples in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
“The priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 2:7). Here the word “messenger” is from the Hebrew malak (H4397), rendered “angel” more than 90 times (“ambassadors” four times). In the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 11:10, “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels,” apparently refers to a sign of respect for leaders (rather than for guardian angels).
Seven Church Periods
On the next level, taking the seven churches to represent seven periods of the church through the Gospel Age, the “angel,” or messenger, in each case is widely considered to indicate that in each time period, Jesus used someone through whom to provide direction for the Church, suitable to the experiences of that time.
In Revelation 12, the faithful but persecuted woman in that chapter, the Church as an institution, has a crown of 12 stars. These represent 12 apostles, 12 individuals. In Revelation 1:16, where Jesus “had in his right hand sevens stars,” these also seem to represent individuals guided by Jesus to assist the Church at critical points in their history.
In the articles foregoing, there are specific suggestions identifying the messenger for each of the seven stages of the church. There is interpretation here, of course. The present writer agrees with the choices made. But brethren sometimes vary in their choices (this is true among the editors of this journal also).
For example, the Apostle Paul is often considered the messenger for the first period, because of his wide influence in establishing and advising so many ecclesias, and providing 14 books of the New Testament, through his epistles. The church was founded at Pentecost upon the apostles gathered at Jerusalem, before Paul was converted. But in the years following, Paul had a great influence shaping the church as it was weaned from the Law and expanded among Gentiles. Notwithstanding this, some brethren consider the Apostle Peter a candidate for the messenger of this period, because he was there at the beginning — and because Jesus gave to Peter the privilege of using the “keys” to unlock the high calling to Jews by his leading speech at Pentecost, and to Gentiles by his visit to Cornelius (Matthew 16:18,19).
How one segregates the time periods of the seven stages also influences one’s opinion about who the messenger of a given stage might be. This writer agrees with the divisions used in the foregoing articles. But brethren, including our editors, vary in how they divide the periods. Beginning with R336, in 1882, Br. W. I. Mann authored a series of articles on the seven churches. He links period six, Philadelphia, with the Reformation. If one follows this approach, then one would likely identify Martin Luther as the messenger of period six. A number of brethren, however, consider it more likely that the Reformation links to Sardis, period five, and Philadelphia to a period of Protestant expansion after the first 150 years of the Reformation. (Compare Revelation 9:5,10, where trumpet period five is a period of 150 years.)
In this case Martin Luther would connect with period five, Sardis; Luther’s predecessor, John Wycliffe would be a “morning star” in the latter part of period four; and one would look for another messenger for period six, Philadelphia — as the articles on those periods do.
Another option affects period four, Thyatira. One might consider that this period, where Jezebel (papacy) is expressly mentioned, began about 539 AD, the date beginning the 1260 years of Papal supremacy. In which case one might look for a messenger of Thyatira whose ministry is about that time. Notice footnote one, in the article about Thyatira, for this option.
However, for a moment, consider the results that flow from handling the time periods as they are in the articles of this issue. In this case, the AD year dates marking the opening of each period are: 33, 73, 325, 1157, 1517, 1667,1874. There are good reasons for these dates. The first date is apparent. That was the year the Church began at Pentecost.
The second date allows 40 years for judgment upon the Jewish system, which seems to be the point of Trumpet Judgment One (Revelation 8:7). The year 73 brought the end of Jewish resistance against the Romans with the fall of Masada, closing seven years of Jewish Revolt, from 66 to 73. Forty years also appears in the flood of Noah’s day, where it rained for 40 days. If getting into the ark, Christ, begins at 33 AD (1 Peter 3:21), then 40 days later, representing 40 years of judgment, takes us to 73 AD.
The year 325 is famously known as the date of the Council of Nicaea. “Early Christianity is generally reckoned by church historians to … end with the First Council of Nicaea (325)” (Wikipedia, citing Philip Schaff, 1998, History of the Christian Church). In this case, if Smyrna ran from 73 to 325, then it lasted for 252 years. This is an engaging number, as it is one part in ten of the more famous period of 2520 years, which leads to the smiting of the image in 1914. The corresponding Trumpet Judgment Two is about the fall of Pagan Rome (Revelation 8:8), an early portent of the fall of the entire image after 10 x 252 years.
In the Pergamos phase the nominal church gained power, leading the church into “Babylonian captivity” of a spiritual kind. If this takes us to the heart of the dark ages, in 1157, then the Pergamos phase would be 832 years. This is precisely the number expressed in Jeremiah 52:29, when natural Israel went captive to Babylon following the capture of Zedekiah.
Thyatira, from 1157 to 1517, would be 360 years, one prophetic span often used in prophecy. Here are comments from Br. Frank Shallieu, about Revelation 2:21, about the period of Thyatira. “I gave her space to repent … and she repented not.” “The word translated ‘space,’ from the Greek word chronos, means “a time.” A symbolic year as used in prophecy is … 360 years” (The Keys of Revelation, page 63).
Sardis, from 1517 to 1667, would be 150 years, corresponding to the “five months” of Trumpet Five in Revelation 9:5,10.
Philadelphia, from 1667 to 1874, would be 207 years, an odd number of years, divisible as follows — 3 x 23 x 3. Three is the number of redemption. This period spanned the time from period five, founded upon the Ransom (justification by faith), to period seven, also founded upon the Ransom (and its full import, restoration for all). During the Philadelphia period, preparing for the coming of Christ by the Adventist Movement was predicated upon the prophecy of 2300 years.1
(1) 207 is also the number of years the northern 10 tribe kingdom existed, from the reign of Jeroboam through the reign of Hoshea.
That the seven churches of Revelation contain prophetic meaning to seven sequential periods of church development is supported in various ways. Here is a brief and simple approach. The concern for Ephesus was a loss of their first love. The glow of that first zeal and love for Christ is well testified of in the narratives of the Book of Acts. So that message connects well to the early Church.
The message to Smyrna is to be faithful “even to the point of death” (Revelation 2:10 NIV). In this period the devil, through Pagan Rome, would “put some of you” into the prison house of death by various persecutions. The severest of these persecutions would endure for “ten days” — 303 to 313.
The faithful “Antipas” of Pergamos was commended for his faithfulness. This name means against father, evidently meaning against recognizing one person (such as the pope) as the spiritual father of all. In this period the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, lordship, ascended with the development of the nominal church — followed in church four, Thyatira, with the observation that spiritual “Jezebel” corrupted the whole (Revelation 2:20).
Jesus said to those in period four, “hold fast till I come” (Revelation 2:25). To period five, “I will come … as a thief” (Revelation 3:3). To period six, “I come quickly” (Revelation 3:11). To period seven, “I stand at the door, and knock” — Christ returned (Revelation 3:20, Luke 12:36). This series speaks of progression.
One might wonder whether the second messenger should be an apostle, or someone else following the apostolic era. That option engaged us for some time in past years, but we presently favor the widely held view that the Apostle John, who outlived the other apostles, and outlived the judgment on Jerusalem by a generation, was messenger number two.
If one takes the first seven judges of Israel — Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, and Jair — to represent the seven messengers of Revelation, as this writer does, notice that Ehud dispatched Eglon with a twoedged dagger. The Apostle John, with his Gospel and his first epistle, dispatched gnosticism with a two-edged sword of truth (Ephesians 6:17, Hebrews 4:12). Like Eglon, gnosticism, “science [gnosis] falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6:20), for a time took up a threatening residence among God’s people. But Eglon was not an Israelite, and gnosticism was not Christian.
John’s disciple, Polycarp, was a notable early Christian martyr. His truly noble example, declining to render even a small tribute to pagan gods, cost him his life. This gave heart to many others in the Smyrna period that would later endure the “Great Persecution,” 303 to 313, initiated by Diocletian.2
(2) From 33 to 313 was 280 years, or 40 weeks of years. Forty weeks is the standard period of human gestation. Thus, the Christian Church, threatened with extinction, was “born” to a stable condition through pain, as a woman travails in birth.
The foundation doctrine for the seventh period is the Ransom. This may be indicated symbolically in Nehemiah chapter eight. In this chapter we have Ezra, a teacher and spiritual leader of the people, serving under Nehemiah, the appointed ruler or governor. We think Nehemiah is a picture of our Lord Jesus, and Ezra a picture of one who served under Jesus as a teacher and spiritual leader during the Harvest — the seventh messenger. The foundation of Br. Russell’s understanding of the Truth was the Ransom. He went further than Luther, building upon Luther’s restoration of the essence of the Ransom, to show its greater implications, namely, the restoration of all from the curse of death, to a full opportunity for life.
In Nehemiah 8:4, “Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood … made for the purpose.” Wood reminds us of the wood of the cross, the tree on which Jesus died. This in turn reminds us that sin came into the world at the tree in the garden. The “platform” on which the Divine Plan is founded is the Ransom.
The remainder of verse 4 lists 13 persons, separated into 6 and 7, standing with Ezra. Thirteen is the number that elsewhere represents the Ransom: Jesus, the perfect one, seven, upon whom our sins are laid, six. In verse 7 we have a second set of 13 persons helping people to understand the teachings of Ezra. “They read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” — as ministers of the truth have done cooperatively during the harvest.
In this reading and hearing of the scriptures, they “found written … that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month” (Nehemiah 8:14). This was a celebration they had forgotten about, and appreciated now with zeal. The Feast of Tabernacles, as this feast is termed in Zechariah 14:16, represents the kingdom blessings of mankind. This is the wonderful truth that was forgotten by Christianity, but preached and taught “distinctly” during the harvest.
We note with interest that the restoration of the Ransom under Martin Luther was marked by his posting the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517 — and that the seventh messenger completed his work on the same date, October 31.