As a prophetic, apocalyptic, and “epistolary” text, Revelation is addressed to real communities living in the first century A.D. Just as Paul wrote letters to specific communities with specific issues, we must assume that John of Patmos did not pick seven churches on whim. He had their situation in mind. So it may be helpful to ask, “What did John of Patmos see?”
Of course, from the text we know that he was the receiver of an apocalypse: he saw the glories of heaven and the “shock and awe” of the battle of good and evil. He saw worship in heaven, and shared the visions of heavenly worship so that our worship of God on earth would participate in it. Among some of the most moving passages in Revelation is John’s first vision of heavenly worship, in which twenty four elders, seated on thrones, worship God who sits on the throne. There are also four living creatures worshipping God and surrounding the throne. The twenty-four elders “fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever; they cast their crowns before the throne” (Rev 4:9-10). We will explore the worship of God in greater detail in Part 3, but one cannot help but remark at the image of these powerful figures throwing their crowns away in worship of God.
John saw strange creatures and powerful visions: First, John sees a Lamb “standing as if it had been slaughtered” with seven horns and eyes (5:6). He later sees a Dragon, and two beasts who serve the Dragon. The beasts could only be described by likening them to animals and earthly things, and they seem menacing (they appear in Rev 13). Along with these figures, John sees the whole drama of the battle between good and evil. But besides these apocalyptic images, John also saw seven churches that either needed a wake-up call or encouragement as they faced persecution or living in a rotten culture.
Today incredible historical work has filled in the background behind Revelation so that we can fruitfully imagine what John had seen. First of all, John was living in the Roman Empire, probably sometime around 80-100 A.D. He saw that it was a common practice for the people of Asia Minor and in most parts of the Empire to venerate the Emperor and the goddess Roma, which represented the city of Rome.
But John saw the Empire for what it was. As one commentator has noted, for John “something was rotten in the heart of Rome.” Looking back on history, one is inclined to agree. The history of the Roman Empire involves many remarkable things, like their expansive system of roads and aqueducts, and their contribution to the arts and sciences. But there is a dark side in every history, and the history of this Empire has its share of darkness. In particular, the Roman Emperors were hardly godly. They were often merciless in their use of power, and fashioned themselves as gods to be worshipped.
John was particularly disgusted with this practice of Emperor worship, and in everything that Rome (he calls it “Babylon” in Revelation) represented. As the superpower of the Mediterranean world, Rome controlled everything: money, civil peace, and religion. The Emperor had his own evangelium or message. There was a sense that when one submits to Rome, the Empire in exchange guarantees Pax Romana, or civil peace throughout the Empire. While this peace, which did exist for some time, proves to be remarkable, it comes at a cost. Submitting to Rome required venerating the Emperor and observing the cult of Rome, which would be idolatrous for any Jew or Christian. The dilemma is that those who refuse to observe these cults could be imprisoned, exiled, or worse.
In Rome itself, Christians had experienced persecution under the Emperor Nero (54-68 AD), who could be considered a beast in his own right. Over the next few hundred years, there were periodic local persecutions at first, and then more widespread ones. While it seems that there was not a sustained persecution of Christians in Asia Minor at the time, John prophetically saw the threat of persecution for those who did not comply with the Emperor-worship, and he and other Christians probably knew of the vicious persecution of the church in Rome, which had claimed the lives of Peter and Paul, among others. In time, Christians would face intense persecution and martyrdom across the Roman Empire.
As we reflect on Revelation, it can be helpful at times to call into question the Empires in which we live. Sometimes it becomes clear that we face political, economic, or social “beasts” and powers that seem to push away from living freely and fully for God. To be sure, we must reflect carefully on such “beasts” and the idea of “warfare” in Revelation. Simplistic readings are dangerous, and can lead to disasters like the incident with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas in the 1990s. Nonetheless, it is certainly safe and trustworthy to let the message of Revelation challenge us to profess allegiance to God alone, and not to money or political parties or anything else.
With all of this, John saw churches standing in the balance. Some churches were materially poor or seemingly insignificant. These churches needed encouragement to persevere in their faith. He saw other churches that were located in important cities, and may have sensed that the believers there had grown complacent because of their material wealth or social standing. Here, the scholarship has been quite helpful in demonstrating John’s knowledge of their locations. He uses his intimate knowledge of the geography and character of each city to deliver memorable and incisive messages.
Notes on the Letters (Rev 2-3)
To appreciate the seven letters, it is important to recall the mission of the Church as best as we can construct it from Revelation, and to note the content of the letters.
The Mission of the Church
John is writing letters to seven churches. The Greek word for church is ekklesia, which is derived from the verb ekkaleo. Ekkaleo means “to call out” or “to summon.” In one sense, a church is an assembly of people. But as Daniel Harrington has noted, the early Christians adopted ekklesia because it helped them express how they have been “called by God out of the darkness of their former lives and into the light of Christ and the life of discipleship.” Thus, ekklesia “expressed the early Christians’ consciousness of [the Church’s] divine election and their mission.” This is not any assembly, but an assembly of people who have heard God’s call.
John expresses this by stating that Jesus “has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father” (Rev 1:6, 5:10). He is addressing this to people who have been assembled and called out by God to be a priestly people for God. Of course, this remains our mission today. As the Council Fathers have taught at Vatican II, the people of God share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and royal offices (Lumen Gentium 10-12, 31). Obviously, lay people are not ordained priests, but they still possess a priestly character and mission, namely that of sanctifying the world to Christ. Just as one asks a priest to bless a person, a place, or a thing, we are called to be a source of blessing for the whole world by how we live.
This declaration that God has made us into a kingdom and priesthood for God is also significant in terms of worship, which is one key motif in Revelation. This will be explored in greater detail in Part 3. But for now, it is important to recall that John understands the mission of the Church. We are a people called to live in a certain way that bears witness to others, and hopefully draws them to pledge allegiance to Jesus, who is truly “my Lord and my God,” as opposed to the rulers of the world.
The Form of the Letters
In the typical letter of the time, the sender and the recipient are always identified. For example, in Paul’s Letters, he usually identifies himself as a servant, and at times as an apostle. At the beginning of his letters, Paul also notes those in his network who are writing with him: Timothy, Titus, and others. Revelation is no different on two accounts. This identification is key, as the original hearers/readers might have wondered if John’s message is trustworthy.
The human author, John, identifies himself in the prologue as their brother who shares with them in Jesus “the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance” (Rev 1:9). So John is not there to shame the seven churches, but to correct them with love in truth, for he too shares in their distress. He shares their faith and their hope. John is also identified as a servant of God, and John’s task is ultimately to bear witness to the seven churches through prophecy and apocalyptic in the text, which can be seen as an encyclical letter.
But the divine author is ultimately God, as John makes clear: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:4-5). In the same prologue, John also offers praise to Jesus: “To whom who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Rev 1:5-6).
God is identified using terms, titles, and ideas that are clearly orthodox. John identifies God as the one who is, echoing the revelation of God to Moses in Exodus (“I am who I am”, Ex 3:14), who was, and who is to come. When John speaks of the “seven spirits” before God’s throne, he may be referring to the seven gifts of the Spirit as described in Isaiah. Some suggest that “seven spirits” is a way of speaking of the perfection of the Holy Spirit. This latter point is helpful, since both then and now there is a belief in the spiritual sphere, both in the presence of the Holy Spirit but also of evil spirits. Hence the instruction not to believe every spirit, but to test the spirits (1 Jn 4:1-3) and to test everything and hold fast to what is good (1 Thess 5:19-21). So if the message comes from the Holy Spirit, understood in terms of the perfection of “seven spirits,” it must surely be trustworthy. Finally, John identifies the author as Jesus. Each title given to Jesus is key in Revelation.
Jesus is the faithful witness: he reveals God fully and finally (Dei Verbum 4). Jesus bears witness to God’s plan and desire for us and for the world. John makes a big deal about authentic witness, and the example he sets is Jesus, who faithfully persevered in following the will of his Father unto death. Clearly, many in the seven churches fail to witness authentically, but they can conquer if they remain close to God. Indeed, every reader or hearer of Revelation is challenged to give true witness to others by persevering in right faith in Jesus (even unto death), and in living morally.
Jesus is the firstborn of the dead: this idea resonates with other passages in the New Testament, and with the idea that Jesus is the New Adam. In scripture, our origins are traced to Adam. Sin is traced from Adam on, but in Christ a new path is opened up such that all will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor 15:22). All of those who are in Christ have hope in this new life. Even the language of “firstborn” implies that others will also be born subsequently.
Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth: as we have seen, one of John’s concerns is the practice of emperor-worship. But the kings of the earth are not supreme. There are kings, but Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Later on in Revelation, John will demonstrate the supremacy of Jesus by sharing the visions of the Dragon, the Beast from the Land, and the Beast from the Sea, all of whom seem terrible and immensely powerful. But there is one figure who decisively triumphs over all of them: the Lamb.
How the Seven Letters Work
The basic structure of each letter involves 1) the identification of Jesus using a symbolic phrase or idea, 2) commendation for any good that is seen in that church if applicable, 3) calling out any bad activity or practice seen in that church if applicable, 4) promises and commands from Jesus to the church, 5) a promise “to the one who conquers.”
In each letter, the symbolic identification of Jesus highlights aspects of his person and work. For example, he identifies himself as “the one with the sharp two-edged sword” to Pergamum (Rev 2:12). This highlights Jesus’ role as judge. In fact, his judgment cuts to the heart. With regard to commendation or calling out, two churches have nothing bad said against them (Philadelphia, Smyrna), and two churches have nothing good said about them (Sardis, Laodicea). The rest received mixed messages, at times commending and at times calling out.
One must remember that the language is often symbolic and “coded,” but not in any intricate way like the so-called “Bible codes.” The codes are more or less ways of calling out the bad, but they require careful interpretation. For example, the letter to Smyrna calls out those “who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” In this passage, neither Jesus nor John are not calling out all Jews, but specifically Jews in Smyrna who are slandering the church there. Richard Bauckham points out that slander is prohibited both for Jews and Christians, so on one level the Jews in that city who slander are not true Jews, just as Christians who slander are not true Christians. But there is a deeper argument here: those who slander or accuse are actually participating in the work of Satan, who is the “accuser of our brothers” (Rev 12:10).  This passage should therefore be read carefully; it does not promote anti-Semitism.
In other letters, John calls out “Balaam” and “Jezebel,” code names for figures in the community that are encouraging practice or thought that runs against the tradition of the Church. John presumes that his readers/hearers would know the Scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) well. They should be familiar with Balaam and Jezebel, and recognize the association. We do the same even today, in positive and negative ways. Sports fans are always on the lookout for the next “Michael Jordan,” which doesn’t mean that we are looking for the reincarnation of Michael Jordan, but someone with a similar competitiveness and marketability. So these names are code language, and whoever was identified as “Balaam” or “Jezebel” was to be avoided.
The most fascinating aspect of the letters, however, is the way that John is able to play on the history, geography, and characteristics of a city to render God’s judgment. For example, in the letter to Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22), the church is called out for being lukewarm and for thinking it is rich and needs nothing. Laodicea was a fairly prosperous town; it was known as a banking center and it had good commerce, so the Christians here may well have thought of themselves as rich and self-sufficient and able to see because of their access to fine garments, jewelry, and eye ointment. Craig Koester further notes that Laodicea was so well off that it was able to refuse help from Rome to rebuild after an earthquake around 60 A.D.  But they are no better than their water. Laodicea’s water was lukewarm in comparison to the cool water of Colossae and the hot water springs of Hierapolis, another nearby city. This helps to explain why John is so harsh about the Laodiceans’ false sense of security about their richness and prosperity.
The Letters In Relation to the Whole Text
It is important to note that John addresses seven churches. Seven is a symbolic number that has a connotation of wholeness or perfection. So in a sense, these letters can be seen as messages to the whole Church. The message is thus “catholic” in the sense that it pertains to the whole (katholikos, from katholou = pertaining to the whole, universal). For the reader, it can be helpful to place oneself in one of the seven churches. It is probably the case that at various times, we will identify with different churches addressed in the letters.
For example, there are times when we are as lukewarm and complacent as the Laodiceans, and there are times when we think we are alive like those in Sardis, but are in fact dead and need to strengthen what remains by “remember[ing] what [we] have received and heard” and obeying and repenting (Rev 3:1-3). But there are also times when we are facing affliction like those in Smyrna; in such a situation, we can receive consolation: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10).
So we too must hear what the Spirit says to the Church and repent and persevere. But our converted living and perseverance should be seen in how we worship, not simply in a prayer meeting or at Mass, but in terms of how we live our entire lives. This will become more evident when we consider the major themes of Revelation. For in the main body of Revelation (chapters 4-22), there are visions of heavenly worship, of a multitude of martyrs, and of the earth, whose fate hangs in the balance. These are all meant to indicate that our worship is witness, and that our witness is demonstrated in how we live and even die for our faith.
If it holds true that Revelation is more of a cyclical text than a linear one, then we can see these seven letters as the first way that John will deliver his message of conversion, repentance, and the need for witnessing. He will soon shift from prophetic letters to a full-blown apocalypse, but even there, it is not all doom and gloom. Rather, the message is one of hope and consolation, for John sees what we so often fail to see: that God alone is victorious. In the meantime, reading these letters to the seven churches as letters to us can be seen as an invitation for all of us to consider what the Spirit is saying to the Church even today.
In Part 3, we will examine more closely some of the main themes in Revelation, so as to outline a “theology” of the Book of Revelation. This can help us as readers appreciate both how rich and challenging Revelation can be. Some key topics will be God, the Dragon and the Beasts, the meaning of worship in Revelation, and how to appreciate the “numerology” of Revelation (all the fours, sixes, sevens, and twelves). As we near the end (of the blog series!), we will conclude with suggestions from the Church’s tradition and from scripture for actualizing the Book of Revelation.
 For a good and accessible Catholic devotional book on Revelation and its connection to the Mass, see Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper: Mass as Heaven on Earth.
 Wilfrid Harrington O.P., Revelation. Sacra Pagina 16 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2008). Pp. 12.
 The ancient Roman historian Suetonius noted that the Emperor Domitian, who reigned from 81-96 AD, liked for people to address him as “My Lord and My God.” Suetonius, The Life of Domitian. Par 13. As an aside, this makes Thomas’s confession in the Gospel of John quite powerful.
 With this in mind, we should note that Luke’s Gospel in particular wishes to show that the evangelium of Jesus is the true Good News, and that Jesus, not the Emperor, is the true ruler of the world and the guarantor of peace. Pope Benedict XVI gives a moving, but brief treatment on this in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.
 Under Roman law, Jews were exempt from observing the cult of the Emperor, and the first Christians were able to enjoy this exemption for a time since they were an offshoot of Judaism. By the time Revelation is written, there has already been significant tension between Jews and Jewish followers of Jesus, which helps to explain why Christians are “feeling the heat” with regard to Emperor worship.
 After a fire devastated Rome in 64 AD, Nero blamed the Christians. The ancient Roman historian Tacitus notes that after this fire, Nero “inflicted the most exquisite tortures” on Christians. This included feeding Christians to wild beasts and using them as human torches. See Tacitus, The Annals Book 15, Section 44.
 On the danger of getting too caught up in “warfare,” we need to go no further than to recall the disaster of the Branch Davidian cult in Texas in 1993, where people died needlessly because of the cult leader’s belief that he himself is the one worthy to open the scroll in Revelation 5:2. He ended up leading his followers in resistance to “the Beast,” whom he took law enforcement agents to be. Such fundamentalist interpretation is to be avoided at all costs, especially because John of Patmos imagines a spiritual warfare manifested in perseverance amidst persecution, not actual violence.
 Daniel Harrington SJ, The Church According to the New Testament: What the Wisdom and Witness of Early Christianity Teach Us Today. Pp. 49
 Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation. Pp. 124-125. Bauckham notes that the reason why some non-Christian Jews are called part of the “assembly of Satan” in Revelation “is because they ‘slander,’ i.e., lay false accusations, which is the activity of the devil (diabolos means ‘one who makes false accusations’) and Satan (12:9; Satan means ‘accuser…’). It also links them with the beast, who blasphemes (slanders) not only God but also his people (Rev 13:6)… By denouncing Christians to the authorities, claiming that Jewish Christians are not Jews and so should not enjoy the legal status of Judaism as a religion, they aid and abet the beast’s opposition to the worship of the true God.”
For a helpful article on Jewish-Catholic relations, see Avery Cardinal Dulles, “The Covenant With Israel,” in First Things. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2005/11/the-covenant-with-israel
 Catholics hold that God’s covenant with Israel still stands. See Nostra Aetate 4, and for the perspective of Paul, himself an accomplished Jew, Romans 9.
 Koester, Revelation, Pp. 69; Harrington SJ, Book of Revelation, Pp. 56.
 Craig R. Koester, Revelation and the End of All Things. Pp. 68.