I, John, your brother and co-partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus, found myself in the island called Patmos in consequence of the word of God and the witness of Jesus. I found myself in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like that of a trumpet saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last,” and, “What you see write in a book, and send to the seven assemblies: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
In this passage, we have the introduction to the seven churches. John connects himself to them as both a brother and fellow partaker in their tribulation and the kingdom. In verse 9, the Greek lacks the second article to show that these two words (brother and co-partaker) should be taken closely together. Compare this with 6:11, 12:10. Αδελφος (co-partaker) means a fellow-member of a religious party in this case. Fellowship in suffering naturally was an essential mark of early Christianity (2 Corinthians 1:7, Philippians 3:10, 4:14). The word θλιψει is used, but many Bible translators have chosen to translate it “suffering”. The word is specific to meaning tribulation. Preterists have taken this as a reason to say that the book of Revelation was fulfilled in the first century, but I don’t see any reason to validate that. The Great Tribulation is mentioned in chapter 7:14, and this tribulation seems much more likely to be common trials and persecution that the early church suffered. Tribulation is not God’s wrath upon the wicked world, but rather describes that which the fallen Babylon world does to the citizens of the New Jerusalem.
Notice that John finds himself in two places. He locates himself first “in Patmos”, and then “in the Spirit”. Both of these have the locational term ἐν. Some scholars have said that this second usage cannot mean simply, “I was in”, but rather, “I fell into the Spirit”. But that seems to me an isogetical presumption. The only thing that would cause us to assume the second statement is different than the first is an assumption that you cannot be in two places at once. Yet, here John uses that kind of wording. Compare Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus in John 3:13. Granted, this is a debated verse because of the manuscript variances, but it would appear that Jesus is saying that He is in heaven while still being on the earth talking to Nicodemus.
The book of Revelation is the first time in Christian literature that the Lord’s Day is mentioned.
“I heard behind me a loud voice” – compare Ezekiel 3:12 – “Then the Spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me a loud rumbling sound…”
Our author writes to seven ecclesia. The word ecclesia comes from the Hebrew kahal. Kahal means assembly. When speaking of the assembly itself, ecclesia is used. When speaking of the gathering place of the assembly, the word synagogue is used. Thus, we have places like Acts 7:38 where Stephen calls the Israelites the church (ecclesia), or in Acts 19:32 where the church (ecclesia) was in confusion and chanted, “Great is Artemis” for two hours. Obviously, it isn’t the church that is rioting and chanting this. The Greek word ecclesia is used to simply refer to the assembly. The assembly would, then, be the people who identify as Christian, and are specifically located in a certain city, area, region, or country. When we think of “churches”, our mental picture is typically that of the synagogue, and no the church. Congregations are not ecclesia. Ecclesia, when speaking of the people of God, is never at any time in the New Testament specified to a gathering smaller than the city.
Next notice that he chooses seven. There are more than seven churches in Asia Minor. For example, why didn’t John write to Colosse, which is next door to Laodicea? The number seven is specifically chosen as biblical numerology. This is used to say that the vision is intended for the whole of the church. Indeed, the number seven is found throughout the book. There are seven spirits, seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, the Lamb has seven eyes, there are seven bowls of wrath, seven beatitudes, etc. Thus, we assume that John is using the number seven at a few different levels: seven specific churches, but also seven in the numerological sense of meaning the total, or global, church.
Lastly, we desire to understand the reason behind the choice of these churches. One thing that we probably will never be able to conclude is why they are mentioned in this specific order. We cannot conclude that they are various “church ages”, because they are literal churches that are being written to. Not only that, but we cannot say that there is any “age” that the whole of the church acting in a specific way. Just like in John’s time there were specific congregations that needed specific words of encouragement or rebuke, so too there are specific congregations today that need specific words sent to them specifically. Most likely the seven churches are chosen because of their placement upon the trade route. It would be quicker to distribute these letters to the whole of the church by sending them directly to the places of commerce and trade, where there will be the most likelihood of other believers visiting.