Seven oraclesPMT 2015-086 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

The “Seven Letters of Revelation” are a familiar and popular section of John’s Revelation. A number of scholars point out, however, that these popularly-designated “letters” to the seven churches are not actually letters at all. Rather they are prophetic oracles or royal proclamations. And as such they perfectly fit in with the theme and flow of Revelation.

These seven messages do not appear to be epistles in that they “diverge from the normal models of Greco-Roman epistolary writing” (Alan Bandy). Each one begins with a command to write to a church rather than a salutation which is altogether lacking (even though Rev as a whole has a salutation, 1:4–5). Nor do they have appropriate conclusions which were “a standard part of all personal letters in antiquity” (R. L. Muse).

In addition, the opening of each “letter” immediately declares tade legei, “thus says,” or more literally “these things he says.” This is more in keeping with a prophetic oracle or royal proclamation. Clearly, these oracles are uniquely framed in the NT, differing from common epistolary forms.

In the OT the prophets occasionally send prophetic oracles by way of letter, but they are most decidedly oracles — oracles structured by the covenant lawsuit pattern. In Rev the seven oracles come from Christ who “is above all the Faithful Witness (1:5) whose legal testimony will be decisive when the heavenly tribunal examines the earthly covenant partners” (G. Campbell). The OT prophetic oracles open with “thus says” and are followed by a statement of who speaks (Yahweh). This is like the seven oracles in Rev beginning with tade legei (“thus says”) followed by a description of the authoritative speaker (usually the Son of Man, 1:13–20).

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In this regard, we must consider the following OT examples: “Then a letter came to him from Elijah the prophet saying, ‘Thus says the LORD God of your father David’” (2Ch 21:12). “Now these are the words of the letter which Jeremiah the prophet sent. . . . ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel’” (Jer 29:1, 4). “Zephaniah the priest read this letter to Jeremiah the prophet. Then came the word of the LORD to Jeremiah, saying” (Jer 29:29–30). We also see this form in the OT in a royal proclamation: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia” (2Ch 36:23). Outside of Rev the only time this common prophetic phrase is used in the NT is in Ac 21:11b. There Agabus issues a prophetic pronouncement regarding Paul’s coming captivity: “This is what the Holy Spirit says [tade legei].”

The oracles generally present two fundamental messages. Both of these message types conform to the OT prophetic pattern: (1) A warning message is presented to each of the churches, even to the two who are not rebuked: Smyrna (2:10) and Philadelphia (2:10–11). (2) A promise of salvation is given as the high point of each oracle (2:7b, 11b, 17b, 26–28; 3:4–5, 12, 21). These two message run throughout Rev’s narrative, with the salvation message being the goal of Rev.

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Since Revelation is an apocalyptic prophecy detailing God’s covenant curse on Israel, the structure and significance of these seven messages as prophetic oracles is significant. Even if widely misunderstood.
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  1. […] [3]  Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “The Seven ‘Letters’ are not Letters” (7/17/2015), […]

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