Maybe it’s just my naivety, but it never occurred to me that anyone might see these Churches as anything but, well.. Christian Churches. However, I have recently become aware that there is indeed an alternate view; held by the minority to be sure, but one that deserves to be studied and reconciled nonetheless.
Some might wonder, why is this important? The book says what it says either way, right? Yes.. and no. The book says what it says, to be sure. But to whom? The book of Revelation is addressed to the Seven Churches; not just Chapters 2 and 3, but the entire book. Therefore it is of utmost importance that we understand to whom this book is addressed, so that we may also understand what will befall whom.
An Overview of Supporting Arguments Contending for Non-Christian Jewish Assemblies
The supporting arguments presented by those contending that these entities are non-Christian, Jewish assemblies rather than Christian churches, are as follows:
- The word translated as church in actuality means assembly; specifically, a non-Christian Jewish assembly.
- The verbiage used when addressing each assembly indicates that these are not Christians, but Jewish unbelievers, mainly due to the absence of salvation indicators.
- The book of Revelation concerns Israel and non-believers, and not the Church.
I’d like to address each of these points individually in three separate posts. But before we move on to the First Argument, let’s read the introduction to the Churches in Revelation 1:9-20:
“I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.’
“Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.’“
First Argument: “The word translated as Church, in actuality, means Assembly; specifically, a [non-Christian] Jewish Assembly”
The word translated Church in the passage above, is ekklesia (1577). It is used 111 times within the New Testament (NASB). Out of those 111 times, 110 occurrences have been interpreted and translated in a Christian sense. As with most biblical words, the full meaning is determined by the context in which the word is used. In other words, it has been determined by the context of the passage to mean a public gathering of Christians or the worldwide body of Christians throughout the earth.
The one exception to this is Acts 7:37-38, where Stephen is presenting his defense and quotes Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses says, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren”; and explains that this Moses was in the congregation (or ekklesia) in the wilderness with the Angel of the Lord, and the fathers of Israel. Clearly, this is a reference to an entirely Jewish assembly of people.
Origin and Meaning of Ekklesia
Ekklesia was “a common term for a congregation of the ekkletoi, the called people, or those called out or assembled in the public affairs of a free state, the body of free citizens called together by a herald (kerux ) which constituted the ekklesia. In the New Testament, the word is applied to the congregation of the people of Israel”. Ekklesia was not initially used in reference to Jewish or Christian religious assemblies. This is why, in Acts 7:37-38 above, Stephen uses the word ekklesia to identify the congregation of the people of Israel.
Origin and Meaning of Sunagoge
When translating the OT, translators used the word sunagoge (4864) in what seems to have been an attempt “to designate the people from Israel in distinction from all other nations”. As the Church began to rise, the term Episunagoge (1997) was initially used in order to differentiate them from the Jewish community; i.e. “when a gathering of Christians is referred to”. Not long after, the Christian community, making full use of the ‘called people’ epithet, was designated for the first time as the ekklesia to differentiate it from the Jewish community or sunagoge.
Concluding Thoughts on The First Argument
Interestingly, out of the 56 uses of the word sunagoge in the New Testament, all refer to a Jewish assembly or Synagogue; without exception. When you compare that with the uses of ekklesia, in which 110 times out of 111 uses refers to the Church, it becomes clear that the authors did not unwittingly choose these words; rather, they were clearly intentional in the messages they presented.
Next week, we’ll explore the second supporting argument presented by those believing these entities to be non-Christian, Jewish assemblies rather than Christian churches; to determine if this seeming intentionality is also present in the letters written directly to the Seven Churches.
Until then: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-26 ESV