Most students are eager to get into the action of Revelation as soon as possible. Therefore they tend to skip over chapters two and three in the Book of Revelation without realizing their importance. But the churches give us an almost inexhaustible storehouse of wisdom and knowledge. The seven churches are representative of the church as a whole; the number seven symbolizing completion or perfection.
The primary role of these letters concerns what was actually happening in each of the seven local churches that existed during the time of John’s writing. Secondly, their representative character reflect the conditions of the congregation, as well as the individuals within each assembly, found throughout its history. The third emphasis explains their prophetical nature. Many scholars see in the churches seven periods or ages existing from Pentecost until the Rapture.
Ephesus: The Backslidden Church (2:1-7)
Ephesus was located at the mouth of the Cayster River on the western coast of Asia Minor and was considered one of three of the greatest cities of proconsular Asia. The city was well known for its religious as well as commercial achievements. Here the great roadways of the ancient world converged to give the city the title of "Vanity Fair of Asia."
Paul had established the church in Ephesus on his third missionary journey (Acts 19) and had labored there for three years (Acts 20:31). Other leaders, such as Apollos (Acts 18:24); Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:26); and Timothy, one of the first apostolic representatives of Ephesus (I Timothy 1:3), helped lead the church at Ephesus to the greatest heights of Christian service. According to tradition, the Apostle John had lived there before and after his exile on the island of Patmos.
Ephesus, meaning “desirable,” was the backslidden church. The key phrase in this letter is thou art fallen. Although they were commended for their zeal and devotion, their many good works, and the testing of the spirits of those who claimed to be apostles, there was still something lacking in their spiritual perfection. It’s easy for us to forget what’s truly important in the Christian life, until, like the Ephesian assembly, we’ve fallen from our first love.
As victors we are promised access to the tree of life symbolizing the eternal and abundant reality found in Jesus Christ. Ephesus represents the apostolic church of the first century.
Smyrna: The Persecuted Church (2:8-11)
The city of Smyrna was located 40 miles north of Ephesus at the southeast end of the Bay of Smyrna which stretched inland some thirty-five miles. Today the modern city of Izmir, which numbers some 270,000 inhabitants, covers the site of the ancient city of Smyrna.
The city was well known for its beauty and Greek culture. It had been rebuilt by Lysimachus into a planned city with broad, well-paved streets that ran at right angles with beautiful temples and other buildings on every side. The "Street of Gold" was most impressive with the temple of Zeus (Jupiter) at the western end and Cybele (Diana) at the eastern end. The city of Smyrna wound around the rim of the bay at the floor of its magnificent acropolis, the 525-foot Mount Pagus. The city, being loyal to Rome through the years, was the first to erect a temple to the goddess Roma and was chosen in A.D. 26 to erect a temple to the godhead of Tiberius.
Smyrna, suggesting “bitter,” is associated with the word myrrh and pictures the persecuted church of the second and third centuries under the pagan empire of Rome. According to church history, as many as five million Christians may have been martyred for their faith during this period. Rather than place a pinch incense on the altar and claim allegiance to Rome, they were willing to face losing their earthly possessions as well as their lives.
If we are faithful unto death, we are assured a crown of life. We can be confident as overcomers that the second death will not have any power over us.
Pergamos: The Compromising Church (2:12-17)
The city of Pergamos was located fifteen miles inland from the Aegean Sea and three miles north of the Caicus River. The city was situated between two rivers (the Selinus and Cetius which flowed into the Caicus River) and built atop a large conical hill that rose 1000 feet in height. Pergamos was in the southern province of Mysia which later formed the Roman district of Asia (modern Turkey). The kingdom of Pergamum had flourished under the Attalids, but was bequeathed to Rome in 133 B.C. when its last king, Attalus III died.1
Pergamum was noted for its extensive library, consisting of over 200,000 volumes on parchment. The word parchment is in fact a derivative of the name Pergamum.
Pergamos, denoting “elevated,” or “thoroughly married,” prefigures the worldly church that began with Constantine and extended to the seventh century. Many view Satan’s seat or throne (Rev. 2:13) as a reference to Pergamos being the center of Caesar worship. Yet there were many in this assembly who remained faithful to the Lord and hadn’t denied the faith.
The doctrine of Balaam has to do with the danger of compromise. Some in this church were tolerating sin in their very midst! Whenever the believer is involved with the world, he is in danger of spiritual adultery.
As triumphant believers, we are promised a threefold encouragement: (1) we will be given to eat of the hidden manna; (2) we will be furnished a white stone; and, (3) we will be granted a new name written in that stone.
Thyatira: The Lax Church (2:18-29)
The letter to Thyatira is the longest of the seven letters, yet written to one of the least important cities. The city of Thyatira was about 35 miles southeast of Pergamum on the road to Sardis. It was founded by the Lydians, but later captured by Seleucus, Alexander's general. During the Pergamean kingdom it was used as a military garrison with a company of Macedonian soldiers, yet it was without natural defenses and became subject to repeated invasions.
The city was noted for its commercialism having the greatest number of trade-guilds of any other city in Asia. Lydia, whom Paul met at Phillipi, was a "seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira" (Acts 16:14-15, 40). The area was known for its purple dye and woolen fabrics. The temptation to compromise would have been great in Thyatira, due to the necessity of belonging to one of the trade-guilds.
Thyatira, signifying “continual sacrifice,” foreshadows the Papal Church of the Middle Ages. In the letter to Pergamos we note the rise of the papacy, while in the Thyatiran assembly we recognize the height of popedom.
There was a serious condition in this congregation involving a woman called Jezebel who was teaching her disciples to commit fornication and to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. She was a modern counterpart of the Jezebel of the Old Testament who was teaching the servants of God to compromise.
There was also a remnant in this assembly who had not yielded to the immorality and idolatry described as the depths of Satan.
Our promise as conquerors relates to the millennial kingdom, where we will reign and rule with Christ. The “morning star” is none other than Jesus Himself. I might add that according to one well-known Christian author, sexual sin is one of the greatest problems in the church today, involving both leaders as well as laypersons!
Sardis: The Dead Church (3:1-6)
Sardis, located fifty miles east of Smyrna and thirty miles southeast of Thyatira, was at one time in history the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. Under Croesus, the king of Lydia, Sardis reached its zenith of wealth and luxury. It was during Croesus' reign that the city fell to Cyrus, the Persian king (546 B.C.). Sardis later came under the jurisdiction of Pergamum until 133 B.C. after which it later became a Roman administrative center.2 In A.D. 17 the city was destroyed by an earthquake which due to the generosity of Tiberias and the sum of 10,000,000 sesterces, was rebuilt. Today there remains only a small village named Sart amongst the ruins of a once great and prominent city of Asia Minor.
Sardis, symbolizing “to escape,” depicts the church that existed after the Reformation. Although the movement started as a great work of the Spirit through men such as Luther, Wycliffe, and others, it soon turned into a cold, formalistic, and lifeless movement
The Lord saw them as having a name they were trying to live; yet they were, in fact, spiritually dead. Sometimes it’s easier for us to lean on our past glories and reputations of yesteryear! Twice the city of Sardis had fallen due to carelessness and their failure to watch! As a chiild of God a state of vigilance is necessary in every area of life.
In every assembly there is what we preachers call the “faithful few.” If you’re part of this group the Lord has given you a threefold pledge: (1) you will be clothed in white raiment; (2) your name will not be blotted out of the book of life; and, (3) the Lord will confess your name before the Father and His angels.
Philadelphia: The Faithful Church (3:7-13)
The city of Philadelphia, located 28 miles southeast of Sardis, was founded in 140 BC by Attalus II. His royal nickname, "Philadelphus," was given to him due to his love for his brother Eumences. The name means "brotherly love."
The city was devastated in A.D. 17 by an earthquake which also destroyed Sardis and ten other cities in the area. Many of the citizens were fearful to return to the city and live, due to quakes which lasted for twenty years afterward. A Christian witness remained through the thirteenth century and Philadelphia, along with Smyrna, are the only two cities that remain today of the seven. Today the city of Philadelphia is known by the name Alasehir, a prosperous and typical Turkish city.
Philadelphia, denoting “brotherly love,” portrays the greatest age of missionary and evangelistic efforts since the church of Ephesus. This church was characterized by the open door. There were great revivals, beginning with George Whitefield, followed by John and Charles Wesley, and many others. When William Carey sailed for India in A.D. 1793, the great missionary movements began.
The congregation was described as having a little strength. This wasn’t because of large membership, but was due to their spirituality. They had also stayed faithful to God’s Word and hadn’t denied His name.
As victorious believers we are to be made a pillar in the temple of God, which speaks of that which is permanent. We are guaranteed the name of God; the name of the city of God, which is new Jerusalem; and a new name which belongs to Christ.
Laodicea: The Lukewarm Church (3:14-22)
The city of Laodicea was located approximately 90 miles east of Ephesus and 45 miles southeast of Philadelphia. Founded by the Seleucid king Antiochus II, the city was named after his sister and wife Laodice. The city was built on the borders of the province of Phrygia, in the Lycus Valley, where it joined the Maeander river. There were many cities that bore the name Laodicea, yet none as famous as Laodicea-on-the-Lycus. Its commercial success was destined by it being on one of the great trade routes to Asia. It was a great banking center and one of the wealthiest cities in the ancient world. In A.D. 60 an earthquake devastated the city, but imperial aid was refused and the city was rebuilt through its own resources. Another source of wealth was the garment industry. The area was famous for a glossy, black wool which came from a particular strain of long-haired sheep prevalent until the 19th century.3
The city of Laodicea was also famous for its medical school, where an eye salve called "Phrygian powder" was well known throughout the ancient world. The city's water supply came from hot mineral springs six miles to the north in the area of Hierapolis. Cubicle blocks made of stone, three feet in diameter, were cemented together to from the aqueduct to the city.
Today the ruins of the city are seen as they extend through the soil and tall grass, pitiful monuments to a city that once boasted of their having "need of nothing" (Rev. 3:17).
Laodicea, implying “the rights of the people,” describes the apostate church of the last days. The Laodiceans were lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, and their indifference was absolutely nauseating to the Lord. In their estimation they were self-sufficient, but Jesus tells them they are poor, blind, naked, and were to buy gold tried in the fire, and white raiment, that they might be clothed. They were also counseled to anoint their eyes with eye-salve that they might see.
The problem was that the Laodiceans were unable to see their true spiritual condition. Rather than boasting of earthly riches, they needed the true spiritual riches that could only be found in Christ. Rather than possessing rich ebony garments notable to that area, they needed a robe of righteousness that only Jesus could provide.
Christ stands outside this church knocking to gain entrance. For those individuals willing to open the door of their hearts, He promises to fellowship with them and grant them the priviledge of sharing His throne.