How are we supposed to read prophetic literature? If all Scripture is “profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness,” does this mean that we need to receive all Biblical prophecies with an eye to the future? To answer this question, we must first understand that biblical prophecy was written nearly 2,000 years ago, and that it was originally written to a different group of people than those of us who are reading it now. Certainly when it was written it spoke of future events, but as we study Biblical prophecy many of those events have already occurred. They were future events to the original audience who heard it or read it when it was first given.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is when we read Jeremiah 25:12, “when seventy years are accomplished I will punish the King of Babylon…and will make it perpetual desolations.” Jeremiah gave this prophecy as the Babylonian Empire was taking over the entire Middle East. It would be several decades later, after Jeremiah had died, that another prophet would be reading the scrolls of Jeremiah and would come across this prophecy. We read in Daniel 9:2, “I Daniel understood by books the number of the years, whereof the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah the prophet, that he would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem.” Here Daniel realized that Jeremiah’s prophecy was related directly to his current situation and he was able to rejoice that the promise that God had made through Jeremiah was being fulfilled, then, in his own lifetime.
Seeing this prophecy and fulfillment of prophecy should help us to guard against presumptuous interpretations that imagine that we are the final fulfillment of prophecies in Scripture. We never want to presume that we are the primary audience being spoken to in the prophecy, and we do well to understand all biblical prophecies in light of the original audience who would have first received the message.
In John’s Revelation of Jesus, especially in light of the first three chapters, there is a wide range of speculation as to what John’s vision means. Some have come to believe that the seven churches of Revelation represent seven separate periods of church history over the past 2,000 years. This errant view says that each church represents a segment of church history and each messenger is a historical figure from this era. For example, the church of Ephesus is said to represent the first age of the church from A.D. 33 to A.D. 170. The messenger is claimed to be the Apostle Paul, although there is no argument from Scripture or any evidence for this beyond pure conjecture. According to this subjective extrapolation, other church ages were led by men like Irenaeus, Martin Luther, and John Wesley, none of which finds any authority in the pages of Scripture.
We do best to understand the Revelation of Jesus Christ speaking to His churches to represent first and foremost, Jesus speaking to his actual churches there in Asia Minor in the first century when John would have recorded this prophecy. We do not need a mystical explanation that goes beyond the original intention and reassigns new meaning to a perfectly clear and needful message. Seeing Christ rebuke and encourage His churches in the first century, we in the 21st century can understand that where we are similar to these churches, His rebuke or encouragement comes to us. Just as we might read in the gospel accounts of the loving correction of Christ to His disciples and understand the heart of the Savior towards His followers, we should read Christ’s loving direction for the actual, historical, factual, real churches in Asia Minor and understand that His desires for His churches have not changed.
Reflect: If the churches in Revelation are real churches, how is this section of Scripture profitable for us?