(The Seven Churches of Asia Minor, based on Revelation 1-3, is the subject of the Winter Bible Study in SBC churches. )
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ…. the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:1-5).
An Episcopal church or a United Methodist church receives a letter from the bishop which is read to the congregation the following Sunday. The letter scalds the church for its failure to live up to its obligations, keep its pledges, or honor certain commitments. Following the reading, a discussion breaks out within the membership. Several people, who may have joined the fellowship only recently, are concerned and want to know, “Who does the bishop think he is? What gives him the right to rebuke us?”
The minister is glad to answer the question. “We are not on our own out here. We are a member of this denomination. The denomination owns this church. The bishop is the local ruling authority for the denomination. We may or may not like his assessments and rulings, but there they are.”
Those of us whose churches observe congregational forms of government never receive letters from the bishop for the simple reason that we don’t have them. Our churches are autonomous (self-governing, independent) and cooperate to whatever extent we can, feel led, or choose to.
So, here are the seven churches of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey): Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. They receive this circular letter which is to be read, no doubt copied, and then sent on its way to the next church.
Five of the seven churches are told to “shape up or ship out.” That is, they’re told to “Repent or else.” Only two of the churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, get off without a rebuke.