I heard someone say, “Christians from the beginning of the church have been expecting Christ’s return at any time and that nothing had to happen before His return; therefore, it is incorrect to say that the letters to the seven churches are prophetic of the condition of the church through the ages.” How would we explain this?
The argument against the prophetic interpretation needs to be taken seriously because it is easy to read into Scripture what it really is not intended to say. J. N. Darby wrote, “there is a remark of one of the old fathers (so-called), to this effect, that ‘he reads Scripture well, who brings back a sense from it, and not one to it.’” This is an important admonition, yet we cannot ignore that there are symbols, metaphors, and types that greatly enhance the so-called “plain text.” Scripture is multivalent. So the question here is whether we are justified in taking Revelation 2 and 3 as prophetic history.
The passage in Matthew 17:10-13 seems to present a similar situation. The scribes were thinking of the prophecy in Malachi 4:5: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” Although not explicitly said, the argument by the scribes that Elijah had not come was likely intended as an argument against the Messiahship of the Lord. Their argument may have been, “See, Elijah has not come; therefore, you must not be the expected Messiah.” However, if the nation had received the Lord’s messianic claim, then John the Baptist would indeed have been Elijah—that is, the prophet in the spirit of Elijah. But, the Lord being rejected, the prophecy points to a yet future Elijah (Rev. 11:1–14). Thus, the prophecy of the appearing of Elijah was being restricted and misunderstood by the scribes, and, in a similar fashion, the prophetic history of the Assembly in Revelation 2 and 3 is being restricted and misunderstood.
It is important to remember that the view of Revelation 2 and 3 as a prophetic history was not realized until the 19th Century. It is only by looking back at the actual history that we can see that it is in fact a prophetic history. If the Lord had come during the apostle’s day, then the letters would indeed have been letters merely to the local assemblies of that day. But now, with most of the history of the Assembly period behind us, the lessons of the prophecy are supremely interesting and important, and we are now responsible for knowing those lessons.
Consider just one of those lessons that is solemnly important today. Philadelphia is clearly an assembly in a good condition, of which it is said, “you have kept my word” (3:8, 10). It is also said to this same assembly, “hold fast what you have” (3:11). The plain history is that during the early part and into the middle part of the 19th Century a great deal of truth was brought out and expounded which had been ignored since the days of the apostles. Certainly, these words to the Philadelphian assembly should speak to us today. We are in danger of failing to “hold fast” the truth brought out during the 19th Century.
But there is more. It is not just a “deposit of truth” that we are in danger of losing, but the open word—the living stream. Notice that in Revelation 3:8 we read, “you have kept my word”—not “words.” This distinction reminds us of John 14:23 where the Lord encourages His disciples to keep His “word.” The significance is that we are to hold to the whole Word of God, as a living stream made good to us by the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 2:27), not just a certain deposit of truth. Thus, progress is expected, but whatever is new will not overthrow what has gone before.