John needs no introduction beyond what is given in verses 1-2 (as Jesus' "servant," who "testified to everything he saw"), and beyond what he will give in verse 9 ("your brother and companion"). "The seven churches of Asia" are not just any seven, but a distinct group that will be enumerated in verse 11 and addressed individually in chapters 2-3. John makes no pretense of addressing every individual in "the seven churches of Asia" personally. As far as we know, he did not even go to the trouble of making a copy for each of the seven churches. He expected the churches to share the letter by having it read in each congregation and then passing it on to the next.
The letter includes one brief section specifically aimed at each congregation, so that in effect John is allowing—even compelling—the seven churches of Asia to read each other's mail! Unlike form letters today, which look personal but are not, this form letter will turn out to be far more personal than its introductory greeting promises—uncomfortably so, in fact! Years ago there was a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy asked Charlie Brown what he was reading. He said he was reading the Bible, the letters of Paul, and Lucy replied that she made it a habit never to read other people's mail. If these seven ancient churches were in some sense reading each other's mail in chapters 2-3, are we not reading someone else's mail throughout the entire book? Do these extraordinary prophecies really have anything to do with us?
This is a legitimate question, and the church began to ask it almost from the time the book of Revelation was written. One ancient Christian source appealed to the fact that both John and Paul wrote to seven churches (in Paul's case Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, Thessalonians and Romans) and cited this as evidence that both were, in effect, addressing the whole church "diffused throughout the whole globe of the earth" (The Muratorian Canon; Theron 1957:111). We may question the logic of this, especially when the writer claims that Paul got the idea from John. Still, the church's acceptance of the book of Revelation at the very end of its Bible—with solemn warnings in 22:18-19 against adding to or taking away from what had been written—stands as powerful testimony that John's words to "the seven churches in Asia" indeed became words to all Christian churches, always and everywhere. This development is anticipated already in the long title (vv. 1-3) prefixed to the letter proper. Certainly the beatitude on the one who reads and on those who hear and obey (v. 3) knows no limitation of time or place.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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