b. The Lamb and the churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, and Thyatira (Revelation 2). The recipients of the seven letters share much in common. Their connection with the Lamb is noted in the introductions. They are all related to God through faith in Jesus Christ. What emerges as different is the particular circumstance of each. Some face persecution. Others have begun to rely upon themselves more than upon God. Still others find themselves being infested by false teachers.
The map below shows the location of the seven churches addressed in Revelation. The map is from BibleStudy.org on the Internet.
Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7) Ephesus is the first church addressed. Coming from Patmos, this would have been the first location the messenger would reach as he traveled to the mainland.
Historical setting. Human occupation in the area dates from the 1200s B.C.E., although the legendary formation of a "city there by Androklos, an exiled prince of Athens, dates from the 900s. Ephesus was invaded about 650 by the Cimmerians and destroyed. When the city reemerged, it produced some significant cultural leaders: grammarians, philosophers, painters, physicians, poets, and satirists. Under the Lydians, who came about 560, the city became wealthy and influential, but ultimately fell to Cyrus and the Persians. It remained part of the Persian Empire from 547 to 479 and under Persian influence for another century and a half. The link with the Greeks was strengthened in several concerted efforts to oust Persia from Asia Minor. With the coming of Alexander the Great in 334, the city came under Greek control. During the rule of Alexander's successors, the city passed to the control of the Seleucids of Syria and was relocated. From 263 to 197, Egypt took control of the area. Seleucid attempts to reclaim Ephesus were unsuccessful and the region fell to Eumenes II, the king of Pergamum, in 197. Eumenes' childless grandson bequeathed Ephesus to the Romans.
Once under Roman control, the city's economic base eroded. An insurrection in 88 B.C.E. led to the destruction of the city by the Romans. There was great loss of life in and around Ephesus, but the city gained two years of independence. Re-conquest by Rome brought greater economic hardship. Ephesus became the capital of the Province of Asia in 27, when Augustus became emperor.
The Celsus Library, from "Ephesus, in Wikipedia
Cultural setting. Already in the third century B.C.E., Ephesus had emerged as a vital center for Mediterranean commerce. The present ruins are of buildings constructed from the time of Augustus. After suffering a setback by the earthquake of 17 C.E., the city once again became the prime commercial center in the region. Its citizens enjoyed a cultured and prosperous standard of life. When Paul arrived in the city, the population probably exceeded 400,000 residents, the most of any city in the Province of Asia.
Additionally, Ephesus was a center for philosophy and the bastion for the worship of Artemis. As worshipers of idols, the citizens of Ephesus would have followed an indigenous code of ethics.
The culture is described as Ionian, but influences from the East as well as from Rome could be felt. What one might expect in any large city of its type could be found”agora, bath, library, temples, amphitheater. Craftsmen of all sorts, priests, and merchants worked their trades. Past time activities included the brothel and other entertainment to satisfy the cravings of men.
Religious setting. The chief goddess of Ephesus, Artemis, was, in Greek mythology, the daughter of Zeus and Leto and the twin of Apollo. She became the goddess of the hills and forests”the wild countryside. But she was also worshiped as the mother goddess. In Roman times, Artemis became associated with Diana. The worship of Artemis was not limited to Ephesus, but Ephesus became her guardian. The Ephesian temple has been called one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
The Jewish population of Ephesus was significant. According to Josephus, Jews in Ephesus had been granted the right to exercise their own religious customs, including keeping the Sabbath. The emperor Augustus later confirmed these privileges. The Jews were exempt from Roman military service (Antiquities of the Jews, 14.10.223-29; 16.6.1-2; 160-65). But even so, under Augustus, there was pressure on the Jews by the pagans to worship the local gods. Although the Jews of Ephesus were Hellenized, there is no record that Jews were forced to pay homage to idols.
The church in Ephesus. For the history of the church in Ephesus, we need to begin with Acts 19. When Paul first set foot in the city seven or eight years earlier, he met a dozen disciples who had not been baptized properly. With more accurate teaching, these were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then, Paul went to the synagogue, where he reasoned about the kingdom of God for three months. He withdrew from the synagogue due to opposition to his message and began daily teaching elsewhere in the city. Paul was in Ephesus for a total of three years (Acts 20:31). During the last two of those years, he taught disciples who carried the gospel throughout the Roman Province of Asia. Paul's ongoing preaching and miracles among the Gentiles in Ephesus created an economic crisis for the silversmiths, who relied on the purchase of images of Artemis. Finally, due to an uproar, Paul was forced to leave Ephesus.
Spiritual warfare. Perhaps the most relevant background for appreciating the epistle to the Ephesians is that of spiritual warfare. The common battle is presented as being with principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This is plainly demonstrated in the account of Paul's preaching in Ephesus. Some unbelieving Jews attempted to drive out evil spirits by evoking the name of Jesus but were themselves afflicted by demons (Acts 19:13-16). Sorcery was widely practiced and became the focus of attention in preaching the gospel (Acts 19:19).
Because the central shrine of Artemis was located in Ephesus, along with images to other gods, the gospel also targeted idolatry. The gospel was so convincing that many forsook their leading goddess. Gentile converts understood that the call of God allowed no compromise with the doctrines of demons. New believers burned their scrolls on sorcery. In the epistle, equipping oneself with armor appropriate for this spiritual battle is urged.
Jews and Gentiles. A second background to Ephesians lies with Jewish-Gentile relationships. Much is said about unity in Christ and that unity is brought about through the cross. Initially, the gospel went to the Jews of Ephesus. The first converts were Jews (Acts 19:8-9). But then when Paul turned his attention to the Gentiles, a substantial quantity of Gentile was added (Acts 19:10-27) and the numbers seem to have tilted toward the non-Jewish population (see Acts 20:21).
The Hebrew Scriptures. A third area that will give the reader a foundation for the study of Ephesians is Jewish literature. The Old Testament prepares one to understand the work of God in Jesus Christ. Paul speaks of the "mystery that pertained to the manner in which God would fulfill his promise to Abraham to bless all peoples through his descendants. This plan was a mystery to the minds of men until God revealed it through Jesus and through the apostles (Eph. 3:3; Gal. 4:4-5; 1 Pet. 1:10-12). Many of the Christians in Ephesus were Jews, who had knowledge of their history and the apocalyptic language of their scriptures.
The letter to the church at Ephesus. Each of the letters employs a portion of the imagery used to describe Jesus in chapter one. The display shows that the Christ is addressing each church, and he does so with authority. Can you find the distinguishing characteristics use in the address to the Ephesians? He is the one who holds the seven stars and walks among the lamp stands. Christ knows their deeds, hard work, and perseverance. He also knows they do not tolerate the wicked and put to the test those who falsely claim to speak with the authority of the apostles. They have endured hardship and been faithful to the name of Jesus. They have stood against the teaching of the Nicolaitans, those whom we suppose taught a compromising position with the world. Is this not a worthy testimony to the fidelity of people? So why would Christ threaten to remove his recognition from those who have defended the cause of their Master so strongly? Look at verse 4.
No matter how diligent a church may be, if it has lost the essential life blood of what distinguishes it as part of the kingdom of God, it is living dangerously close to be expunged. Jesus had upheld the ideal that the greatest commandment is to love God first and one's fellow humans second (Matt. 22:34-39; cf. Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). The apostle John had emphasized the essential link between truth and love (2 John). Somehow, the church had distinguished itself with regard to the "truth, but had it had lost the "love aspect, which was an essential witness to the truth. Repentance and a return to a full commitment to their Lord would lead to being able to eat from the tree of life”to enjoy life with God. The tree of life was removed from man's access in the Garden of Eden following the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:22), but it shall be made available to them (Rev. 22:1-5).
Smyrna (2:8-11) An Ionian city located on the coast of the Aegean Sea, Smyrna was the second city visited by the messenger. The Lydians took the city in the 7th century B.C.E. But about 300, Alexander the Great took it and began to Hellenize it. The city had been prosperous until the earthquake of 178 B.C.E. As the Romans began their ascendancy, Smyrna aligned itself with Rome instead of Pergamum. Though they had many gods that reflected their Greek culture, they began to pay tribute to Roman religion to show their loyalty.
The Letter to the church at Smyrna. What part of the imagery from chapter 1 is used here? Does he not combine the sense of eternity with the act of redemption? Would you say the language of the text suggests the Christians in Smyrna were impoverished in a physical way, but not in spiritual matters? What kind of opposition had they encountered? Were they about to suffer more? If so, what did Jesus promise?
Mention of the Jews suggests unbelieving Jews were allied with the Romans. Enjoying certain freedoms, they claimed to be true Jews, while Christians were not. In reality, those who accepted Christ as the Messiah were the true Jews. Persecution was coming for the Christian, but their fidelity would result in receipt of the crown of life. The "crown of life is eternal life itself.
Pergamum (2:12-17) The city became the center of a significant kingdom during the Hellenistic period, being ruled by the Attalid dynasty (281-133 B.C.E.). King Attalus III bequeathed Pergamum to the Romans in 133. It was a city of temples. The city's location sixteen miles from the Aegean Sea made it the third stop of the messenger bearing the Revelation.
Note the imagery that refers to Jesus”the one "who has the sharp, double-edged sword (v. 12). The reference to Satan's throne is not specifically linked with Jewish unbelief as suggested by the reference to Smyrna”"a synagogue of Satan. We suspect that here in Pergamum, the reference is to pagan worship. A second notation is made”"where Satan lives. In the midst of this environment, Christians at Pergamum had remained true to Christ. They remained unwavering even though one of their number, Antipas, paid the price with his life. But while their faithfulness is extolled, the church there took a soft view of those among them who believed in compromise. The example of Balaam is given to reinforce the nature of their insufficiency. They must deal with those who approve of participating in idol worship through eating meat they believe to have been sacrificed to idols. They must turn from sexual immorality that was often associated with pagan worship. They must confront the Nicolaitans, who seemed to be of a similar ilk.
Thyatira Moving nearly 50 miles inland from the Aegean Sea, the messenger would come to Thyatira. The city was originally a Macedonian colony, which engaged in the worship of Apollo, Asclepias, Artemis, and Dionysus. It became famous for its dyeing, where its trade guilds outnumbered those of other city in the Province of Asia. These included guilds for workers in leather, linen, wool, baking, bronze, pottery, and even slave trade. This was the city of Lydia, whom Paul taught at Philippi (Acts 16:13-15).
Evidently, there was much to commend the church at Thyatira. The Lord extols them for their deeds, love, faith, service, perseverance, and even increasing display of affection for Christ. With this kind of resume, why would Christ threaten to discipline them? Naming someone among them "Jezebel recalls an Old Testament character by that name. Jezebel was the wife of Ahab and devotee to Canaanite worship (see 1 Kings 18). At Thyatira, there was such a person who called herself a prophetess. The church tolerated her. She influenced believers there to participate in the sexual immorality associated with pagan worship. The promise to those who did not succumb to Jezebel's teaching is association with the Christ in his rule over the nations. The quotation is from Psalm 2 and describes the sovereign rule of the anointed of God.
c. The Lamb and the churches: Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (Revelation 3)
Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6) Sardis is located seven miles east of Smyrna, along a highway that connected the interior of the country with the Mediterranean Sea. The history of the city dates from before 8th century B.C.E., when it was the capital of the Lydian Empire. Sardis passed to the control of the Cimmerians (7th century B.C.E.), then to the Persians and Greeks (6th century). The Seleucid ruler, Antiochus III assumed its master in the 3rd century B.C.E. When Rome extended its empire over Asia Minor, Sardis became a Roman possession. In 17 C.E., an earthquake destroyed the city. After rebuilding, Sardis emerged as a significant city in the area.
To Sardis, Jesus is represented as the one "who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. He had already used the seven stars symbolism to the church at Ephesus. The use of the two here emphasizes his authority to address them. He is the one associated with the Spirit and with the messengers to the churches. The message is startling. The church had a good reputation among humans, but internally, the church was "dead. The congregation as a whole is admonished to "wake up, strengthen what remains, and repent. There were a few in Sardis who were faithful to God's call and they were promised victory. He does not offer specifics as to the nature of their offences; surely they could figure that out.
Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13) Dating from 189 B.C.E., Philadelphia received its name from King Eumenes II of Pergamum, who founded the city. The name recognized the love he had for his brother, Attalus II, who succeeded him. When Attalus II died (133 B.C.E.), he bequeathed the kingdom to the Romans, who made it part of the newly formed Province of Asia (129 B.C.E.). In 17 C.E., the city was destroyed by an earthquake, but was rebuilt by Tiberius.
Reference to a church at Philadelphia is first found here in Revelation. We read of the church later in the writings of Ignatius (about 112). Ignatius found a united church, but one surrounded by false teachers and exponents of Judaism. He painted the false teachers as schismatics and wolves who advocated wicked pleasures. He warned against frauds and traps set by "the ruler of this world (Ignatius, Phila. 2, 6). Ignatius describes the situation at Philadelphia much as the letter to them in Revelation.
What parts of the symbolism regarding Jesus are used in the address to the Philadelphians (v. 7)? The letter to Philadelphia comes from the one "who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. He maintains authority over circumstances that affect the church. What is the spiritual status of the church in Philadelphia (vv. 8, 10)? He acknowledges the faithfulness of the body against those who claim to be true children of God, but who deny Christ as his Son. Who are those "who are of the synagogue of Satan? Notice the following line about them. Is the emphasis not on their denial of Jesus and his teaching on his love for his people? What special blessing will Jesus give the Philadelphians in "the hour of trial? What is the purpose for the hour of trial? What does the expression "I am coming soon convey? Look at the statement in connection with the coming of the hour of trial. The coming of Christ here does not necessarily refer to the end of the world but to Jesus' coming in judgment. The crown of v. 11 refers to life, not to a physical crown placed on the head. What does Jesus promise to the faithful in Philadelphia (v. 12).
Laodicea (3:14-22) The last city on the circuit, Laodicea, was located on an east to west travel route in the Lycus River Valley. Founded around 260 B.C.E. by the Seleucid king, Antiochus II, the city received its name from the king's wife. The city was known for its agriculture, banking, medicine, and black wool. In 60 C.E., the city was damaged heavily in an earthquake. In 79 an amphitheater was dedicated to Vespasian.
The church in Laodicea is known to us from Paul's letter to the Colossians (Col. 2:1; 4:13-16). Of its earlier history, we know nothing else. There is indication that there once existed a "letter from Laodicea, but of its contents we are not informed; we only know Paul asked the Colossians to read it.
What characteristics of Christ do you find used to introduce the letter to the Laodiceans? Is he not "the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation? All but the "Amen is found in the salutation (1:5); the "Amen is assumed from the description. Jesus is the "So be it!
The church at Laodicea stands alone in not having some commendation. Although it had a notable past, the church is unhealthy spiritually. What was there about the church in Laodicea that led Christ to say that because they were lukewarm, he would spit them out of his mouth? But, was their plight hopeless? What were they called to do to regain Christ's favor?
Observations. Questions raised for contemporary Christians abound. They pertain to life with a congregation where their first love has evaporated. They pertain to persecution. They pertain to detecting teaching that stands in opposition to the truth of God. With respect to Sardis, one gets the picture that most of the congregation needed reformation. Who is responsible for leading the reformation? What should be the attitude of the more "spiritual toward those who are less spiritual? How should one continue with a church that is dominantly unspiritual? Then in Laodicea, questions that arise have to do with continuance in a church that is indifferent. A minority cannot always bring about revival or set the path for productivity. But all share in the responsibility for righteousness. Answers to these questions are not necessary for exegesis, but they are important for application in the modern church. Solid exegesis precedes hermeneutics; hermeneutics should not move past the principles established by exegesis.
If it is true that The Apocalypse continues the theme of Daniel in the sense that the kingdom of God will not only come but will overcome human kingdoms, then the letters to the seven churches provide insight into how "churches should behave in the light of their position under the reign of God. There is much to commend the churches. At the same time, their compromises with a world controlled by Satan is serious. We may concluded that these churches are expected to defend the faith, be intolerant of evil, commit to the love of God, keep from associating themselves with idolatrous worship that includes immorality, and find satisfaction in earthly poverty and heavenly riches.
We may also glean that the mission of the kingdom of God is not defined by the social gospel, liberation theology, or the gospel of prosperity. It is not identified with civil religion, Christendom, or a physical kingdom. The kingdom of God by its nature is spiritual in character; it is divinely redeemed, divinely driven, and divinely judged.