Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death. Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this. The mystery of the seven stars which 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 which you saw are the seven churches. Revelation 1:12-20
By 95AD, the Apostle John is now the last living apostle and has been confined to the island prison of Patmos by the Roman Emperor Domitian. While there, he receives a visit from the glorified Christ and is told to write what he has seen, what is, and what is to come (1:19). This order of how to record the Revelation (Greek apocalupsis) is also how to interpret the Revelation.
The Revelation begins with the Seven Letters to the Seven Churches which are Christ's final instructions to the Church He is building (Matt. 16:18). Because of the order they are given, these are not just pragmatic guides to the seven churches in the first century, but prophetic to all churches for the past two thousand years. Technically, there are four levels of applications that these magnificent letters can be understood by:
Historical- these were seven, literal churches existing in John's day. But understand that by 95AD, there were thousands of churches scattered throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. These seven are simply a 'sampling' of the churches that would ever come to be. It seems, given the meaning of the names, that these churches were purposely chosen to represent all the kinds of churches that would ever come
Congregational- these letters applied to a corporate grouping of "types" of churches that would come to exist, as well as to all believers as each letter exhorts those "with ears to hear" to take heed to the message given therein
Individual- Christ exhibits His omniscience by pointing out the individual struggles and glories of believers in each of these churches. He knows our struggles. He knows our victories. He is there walking amongst us, in our midst, as we move through time towards our glorious future (Rev. 1:13)
Prophetic- Due to the order in which these letters are given, they present (in hindsight) a panoramic view of God's omniscience and sovereignty. Note also the corresponding Pauline epistle and Matthew 13 "Mystery Kingdom" parable which perfectly compliment Jesus' final letters to the Church
There is a division between the first three churches, and the last four. This division is noted in the subtle structure change in the letters themselves.
For instance, the letter to the church at Ephesus concludes with...7 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” ’
To the church of Thyatira, the order flips...26 And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations—27 ‘He shall rule them with a rod of iron; They shall be dashed to pieces like the potter’s vessels’—as I also have received from My Father; 28 and I will give him the morning star. 29 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Again, it's a subtle change, but a change nonetheless that likely means that the first three churches are no longer in existence, while the last four remain and overlap each other.
People don't often think about it, but Jesus had spoken His seven "Mystery Kingdom" parables after His official rejection by the nation of Israel. Jesus' ministry had a shift in His 3 1/2 year ministry around the time of Matthew 13, where instead of preaching "Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand," to the message of His own, coming crucifixion. Furthermore, since the Church was a mystery to the Old Testament prophets and even the disciples then, these Mystery Kingdom parables would perfectly overlay the coming seven Churches here in Revelation 2-3. The Apostle Paul also wrote seven letters to seven churches if you take away the personal letters- Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and the duplicates of 2 Cor., 2 Thess.
Condemnations & Commendations
Take note there are two churches that receive NO condemnations from our Lord Jesus Christ. These are the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia. But even between these two, there are differences. Smyrna, the persecuted church is offered no hope of escape, but are told to persevere and they will receive the crown of life. But to the second church, Philadelphia, they are told they will be rescued. This is an important difference that reinforces the aforementioned division. Smyrna is told to persevere through it, and Philadelphia is told they will be delivered from it.
Also, note there is only one church that receives NO commendations from our Lord Jesus Christ, the church of Laodicea. This is a wealthy, but spiritually lukewarm church that thinks they need nothing and believe their present conditions warrant their self-assigned righteousness. Jesus is revulsed by them and warns them sternly to repent and turn to Him or else. This will be the church that enters into the 70th Week.
Thyatira (largely representing the Roman Catholic Church) is threatened to be cast into great Tribulation unless they repent.
Sardis (largely representing the Protestant denominations) is threatened to be caught unaware of our Lord's return. They will be just as surprised as the godless will be when it happens because they were spiritually asleep thanks in part to their dead and lifeless orthodoxy.
Laodicea will have to (unless they repent) buy their gold refined through fire, meaning, they will have to learn the hard way by entering into the 70th Week and becoming martyrs (like Smyrna) to be redeemed.
To the church of Philadelphia alone, Christ reserves this special blessing to those who "have not denied His name and are of little strength" to be kept from (Greek tereo ek) the hour of trial that is coming upon the WHOLE earth.
Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. Revelation 3:10-11