Biblical Studies (NT)/II. THE SEVEN ASIAN CHURCHES
REVELATION: VISIONS OF THE END
II. The Seven Asian Churches
NOTE: Revelation is an enigmatic work which presents a challenge for interpreters. While most of the ideas presented in these lessons can easily be found in numerous published works, they are not presented here as definitive, but as a starting point for further analysis and discussion.
Jesus Speaks to the Churches
John writes, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying, ‘I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last,’ and ‘What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’” (1:10-11). These churches were in the Roman province of "Asia", an area which is in western Turkey today. Chapters 2 and 3 consist of messages addressed specifically to these seven churches. Jesus says, “I know your works!” reminding them that he knows what is happening in his churches. He outlines the strengths and weaknesses of each church, warning them to steadfastly hold on to the faith which they have received. He promises great rewards to those who resist temptation, saying, “Because you have kept my command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon all the world” (3:10). He adds, “To him who overcomes, I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (2:7).
Although Revelation is addressed in the first instance to these seven churches, it is clear that what Jesus says to them is meant ultimately for the Church in all times and places, for after each church’s message, seven times in all, Jesus says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). Since these churches are presented as an example for all of us, it is of interest to us to know a little about them.
Not far from the isle of Patmos on the Asian mainland was the port city of Ephesus, which was situated at the estuary of the River Cayster. It was the chief city of the region and one of the most important business and cultural centers in the empire outside of Rome. Although in John’s time it was on the coast, it is now several miles inland due to natural changes in the coastline. Its ruins have been extensively explored and excavated.
Ephesus was the chief of the seven churches in Asia. Paul, Peter, and John all spent time there, with John being in the position of leadership at the time of his exile. The Ephesians possibly had some pride with regard to their position of prominence among the Asian churches, but Jesus reminds them to whom the churches really belong, saying, “These things says he who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands” (2:1). Apparently, the Ephesians had strayed from their original purpose, for Christ warns them, “Repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place” (2:5). It seems the warning was not heeded, for despite efforts to save it, the famous port gradually silted up and Ephesus was left high and dry, cut off from the main source of its wealth. All that remains of Ephesus today are its ruins.
Also on the coast, about forty miles to the north of Ephesus, was the city of Smyrna, the “glory of Asia.” It still exists today, though it is now called Izmir. Like Ephesus, Smyrna had the double advantage of being located on a major highway and having an excellent port. Rich farmland surrounded the city, and it was a natural terminal for a busy inland trade route. The city had been destroyed by the Lydians in 627 B.C. and was little more than a village for three centuries. But in the third century B.C., Smyrna began to revive as a business and cultural center, and by the end of the first century, it had made so much progress that it rivaled Ephesus in importance. Smyrna, therefore, was known as the city that had died and come back to life. So Jesus’ opening words were especially significant for the church there. He says, “These things says the first and the last, who was dead and came to life” (2:8).
The city’s leadership was consistently loyal to Rome. This loyalty had initially been inspired by the threat of Antiochus the Great of Syria at the beginning of the second century B.C. This threat made Rome a very desirable friend and ally. As a token of Smyrna’s loyalty, a temple was erected in the city to “the goddess Rome” in 195 B.C. Over two hundred years later, in 26 A.D., construction was begun on another temple for the worship of the Roman emperor, who at the time was Tiberius.
The city was famous as a center of learning, particularly in the fields of science and medicine. It was also known for its architecture, especially its beautiful temples and its public buildings, which formed a ring around the top of Mount Pagos, like a crown. In reference to this “crown of Smyrna,” Jesus says to the church there, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).
Pergamos, or Pergamum, was about a hundred miles north of Ephesus, in the region known as Mysia. It was situated about fifteen miles inland. There is still a small town on the site today, though over the years the name has changed slightly and it is now called Bergama. Pergamos’ time of glory had been in the third and second centuries B.C., when it was the capital of a small independent kingdom. In the second century, at the instigation of King Eumenes II (197-159 B.C.), a library was built which was second only to that of Alexandria, in northern Egypt. There was also a famous school of sculpture. The city’s affluence was tied to a number of flourishing industries, including agriculture, wool products, silver, and parchment, which was invented there. It became a part of the Roman province of Asia when King Attalus III, probably sensing the inevitability of Roman domination, bequeathed the kingdom to Rome in 133 B.C.
Jesus says, “These things says he who has the sharp two-edged sword” (2:12). The sharp, two-edged sword is apparently a figurative way of referring to the power of words, for in the previous chapter, John describes Jesus as having a sharp, two-edged sword coming out of his mouth (1:16), and later on in this chapter, Jesus himself refers to the sword of his mouth (2:16). This is a fitting introduction for a city which was famous for its parchment and its library. Jesus continues, “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is” (2:13). This is a reference to the “throne of Zeus” which was located on the top of a hill overlooking the city. Zeus, as the chief of the gods, was a particular symbol of paganism, and the city was a major center for pagan cults. In addition to Zeus, there were temples dedicated to Athena (goddess of wisdom), Apollo (god of prophecy, music and poetry), and Asklepios (god of healing). It also became the site of the first temple erected for the worship of Caesar in 29 B.C., during the reign of Augustus. Some of these temples employed “priestesses,” who were actually prostitutes, as a part of their worship.
About eighty miles to the north of Ephesus and about fifty miles inland lay the city of Thyatira, known today as Akhisar. The city had been founded by Seleucus I in the early third century and was therefore a “son of Seleucus.” It was not a city of great importance, but it was a commercial center, and there were a number of trade guilds. It was also a garrison town. The Thyatirans were expert metalworkers who were known for their work with alloys, with which they made helmets, swords, armor, and no doubt other useful implements of a more domestic nature.
Jesus’ opening words to the city, as a son of Seleucus which was famous for its metalwork, will have immediately caught the church’s attention. He says, “These things says the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and his feet like fine brass” (2:18). Also, as a military town, his closing words would have made an impression: “He who overcomes, and keeps my works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations” (2:26). Unfortunately, the heathen practices common to the other cities in the area were practiced in Thyatira also, for Jesus says, “You allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and beguile my servants to commit sexual immorality and to eat things sacrificed to idols” (2:20).
Paul’s first convert when he crossed into Europe was “a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira” (Acts 16:14), but as far as we know, the city did not play an important role in the growth of the early church.
Sardis was about fifty miles to the northeast of Ephesus. There is still a town on the site, but over the years it has come to be known as Sart. It was the provincial capital of the region of Lydia, which five hundred years before Christ had controlled most of the coast of Asia Minor and its offshore islands. Sardis was famous for its arts and crafts. It was also the first place to mint gold and silver coins. In the past, the Lydian kings had been so wealthy that King Croesus, who ruled in the middle of the sixth century B.C., had become a legend for his riches, and it was said that the sands of the River Pactolus, which ran through Lydia, were golden. Croesus overstepped himself in 549 B.C., however. He attacked the mighty Persian Empire, who defeated him soundly and colonized Lydia. Sardis then became the seat of Persia’s regional governor. The story of how the Persians had overcome the supposedly invincible citadel at Sardis with a surprise attack was well-known. Hence Jesus’ words: “If you will not watch, I shall come upon you as a thief, and you shall not know what hour I shall come upon you” (3:3).
Three hundred years after the defeat by Persia, Lydia was conquered again, this time by the Romans. It was still under their control at the end of the first century A.D. when Revelation was written. Despite huge relief efforts by Rome, Sardis never recovered its former glory after it was devastated by a great earthquake in 17 A.D. The town, though humbled, did continue to exist however, and the passage in Revelation is evidence that there was a Christian community there in the late first century. Jesus alludes to the city's diminished glory when he says to the church, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, and yet you are dead” (3:1). The church, like the town, had a reputation because of a former glory which no longer existed. Sardis was also famous for its garment industry (hence our word sartorial). With this in mind, Jesus says, “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the book of life” (3:4-5).
Philadelphia, which today is the Turkish town of Alaşehir, was about seventy miles inland from Ephesus. The name means “brotherly love.” The city derived its name, not from a reputation for brotherly love among its inhabitants, but from its founder, King Attalus II Philadelphus, who ruled the region from 159 to 138 B.C. He was so named because of his devotion to his brother. In addition to being an agricultural center, Philadelphia was a producer of leather goods and textiles. It also served as a commercial link between other cities. Like Sardis, Philadelphia was devastated by the earthquake of 17 A.D. Located right on the fault, it is said to have suffered after-shocks for twenty years.
Philadelphia’s church had been faithful in spite of persecution, hence Christ’s introduction: “These things says he who is holy, he who is true” (3:7). Christ continues his description of himself with a quote from Isaiah: “…he who has the key of David, he who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens” (3:7). If this message follows the pattern, these words had a special meaning for Philadelphia in some way, but it is no longer clear how.
Christ closes the message by saying, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go out no more” (3:12). The church in Philadelphia has indeed been a pillar, surviving to the present day in spite of the advance of Islam. It can take comfort in the words of Jesus: “Because you have kept my command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon all the world” (3:10).
The last of the seven churches which Jesus addresses in Revelation is Laodicea, the “lukewarm” church (3:16). Laodicea was situated about a hundred miles inland from Ephesus. Its ruins can be found near the modern Turkish town of Eskihisar. Colossae and Hierapolis were neighbors of Laodicea, and there was much communication between the churches in these cities. Paul writes in his epistle to the Colossians, “Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16). Unfortunately, the epistle to Laodicea which Paul mentions has not been preserved for us. It probably disappeared along with the church to which it was addressed.
Laodicea was founded by the Seleucid king, Antiochus II, who controlled the area between 261 and 246 B.C. He named the city for his wife, Laodice, who ironically was later responsible for his death, after he divorced her and married another woman for political reasons. The city was situated on a busy trade route which was largely responsible for its considerable prosperity. This prosperity was such that after suffering extensive damage in the earthquake of 60 A.D., the city refused an offer of assistance from Rome and rebuilt the city using money from its own coffers. It was a major banking center, and Cicero himself is said to have cashed drafts there en route to Cilicia in 51 B.C.
Laodicea was also famous for its black wool, from which were made clothes and carpets, and as a center of medicine. Its eye salve was particularly famous. However, despite all of these advantages, the city was spiritually poor. In reference to those things for which it was famous, Jesus says, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (3:18).
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