|Smyrna (modern Izmir)|
The Book of Revelation (Part 2) : Seven Letters for Seven Churches
The series is adapted from ten hour-long teachings given in the Oxbridge Church a few years ago
Revelation Chapters 2 & 3
The Book of Revelation is a letter with seven other letters built into it. These seven are addressed to churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
We ought not to think that these were sent as separate epistles to each church however, rather the whole of the book of Revelation would have been sent to each church. Nor is it likely that John would have produced seven different copies: probably he just sent the original to the first church with instruction for them to copy it and pass it on. This is a practice that Paul would also have followed (Col 4:16).
We may wonder how John could have delivered a letter at all given his exile but there is a strong tradition through Eusebius and others that he was finally released from Patmos & that he returned to Ephesus.
These seven churches do not represent an exhaustive list of churches in the Asian region: other churches of importance existed that are not mentioned such as Troas, Colossae, and Hierapolis. It has been suggested that these seven were selected only to be distribution centres from where the Revelation could easily be passed on; however this is implausible given that the letters are so specifically addressed and that their detailed content would have meant nothing elsewhere.
We ought to note that this book was sent to Gentile churches. Some people like to paint a picture of the events described in this book as taking place only after we Gentiles have been beamed out of here in a “pre-tribulation rapture.” If so, then we have to believe that Jesus sent them to the wrong address!
No, this apocalyptic vision was sent to us, not to some supposed band of “tribulation saints” and so it well-behoves us to take careful note of its contents.
Jesus introduces Himself to each church by a different title drawn from chapter 1.
Ephesus: He who holds the seven stars in His right hand & walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands (2:1).
Smyrna: The First & the Last who was dead & came to life (2:8)
Pergamum: He who holds the sharp double-edged sword (2:12)
Thyatira: He who has eyes like a flame of fire & feet like fine bronze (2:18)
Sardis: He who holds the seven-spirits of God & the seven stars (3:1)
Philadelphia: He who holds the keys of David, He who opens and no one can shut, and shuts and no one can open (3:7)
Laodicea: The Amen, the Faithful & True Witness (3:14)
Technically each letter is addressed not to the church but to the “angelos” of that church. Who or what are these angels?
I do not believe that the term is meant to be understood in a supernatural sense as if each had some kind of guardian angel associated with it, for then the rebukes contained within would seem inappropriate: these letters are written to frail, sinning saints not heavenly beings. An angelos can simply mean a messenger, and the most likely interpretation is that a principal elder in each assembly is in mind. It would be his job to receive the communication & to pass it on to the flock.
The pattern in each is to give a commendation of works (where possible!) then a censure if required; with only Smyrna & Philadelphia escaping with no criticism at all. Hanging over every Church is the ominous threat that Jesus will come & remove its lampstand. Similarly every local church today is in a battle to retain its lampstand. The promise of Mt 16:18 is a guarantee for the Church Universal and not for particular local fellowships which sadly have often been prevailed against in history!
There is an eschatological message for each church. One overriding theme in the letters is the dominant theme of the Revelation itself which is that of “overcoming” (cp Rev 12:11). This highlights the essential unity of this book which some have attempted to deny.
Some in more recent times have attempted to identify the seven churches with distinct historical eras with the following order often suggested:
Ephesus: the post-apostolic Church
Smyrna: the persecuted 2nd & 3rd Century Church
Pergamum: the compromising state church of the 4th & 5th Centuries
Thyatira: the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages
Sardis: the Reformation era Church with “a reputation for being alive but dead”
Philadelphia: the vibrant missionary Church of the 19th Century
Laodicea: the lukewarm Last Days Church
All of this is of course based on the assumption that we are the last generation before the return of Christ & so represent the last of the churches. Whilst our designation as Laodicea is certainly an accurate diagnosis of our current lukewarmness (at least in the West), the obvious weakness of this kind of approach is that the assessment of historical periods must of necessity change overtime. Someone in 1000AD would interpret the seven historical periods very differently to us, and if we turn out not to be the final generation before the eschaton then in another couple of hundred years completely new designations will be required!
Space constraints do not allow us to look at the individual messages in the kind of detail that they deserve though they are well-worth that kind of in-depth investigation. Every preacher has found these two chapters to be rich in sermon material!
Nevertheless let us take a brief look at each:
Ephesus was unofficially the capital city of the province of Asia. It had a large population and was an important religious centre with the temple of Artemis hailed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
It was also one of the most important Christian centres with a long & distinguished association with apostles and with other prominent 1st Century figures. Paul stayed there for three years (Acts 20:31) and it was the home at one time of Apollos, Priscilla & Aquila (Acts 18). Paul’s protégé Timothy pastored the church (1 Tim 1:3) and, of course in his old age it was the base of John himself. No 1st Century church other than Jerusalem can boast such an impressive list of names!
But the eminence of that list reminds us that “to whom much is given, much will be required” and there are real dangers to spiritual privilege where complacency sets in and it begins to be taken for granted.
Paul’s warning that ravenous wolves would enter in (Acts 20:29) had been fulfilled and by the time John writes this letter all these great men of God have long gone from the city and the church has been wrestling with false apostles instead (Rev 2:2)!
One of the recurrent themes of the seven letters and of the Revelation itself is that of falseness: those who are not what they claim to be. Here in a single letter we encounter false apostles, false Jews, and a false prophetess. Such deception is a huge end time issue (Mt 24:24)
Ephesus may mean “not lasting.” The word suggests something temporary, signifying a battle to hold onto something in danger of being lost. At the time it was a large port city with an important harbour on the river Cayster. That river was the source of its life bringing it much trade & wealth.
But rivers move! Over time depositions of silt forced new channels and the city was in a constant battle to prevent its vital harbour from silting up, a battle that would eventually be lost. The river drifted away & the city was cut off from the source of its life and vitality. Today this once thriving centre is a small Turkish town several miles inland
Ephesus is the drifting church which has left its first love (Rev 2:4). One of the worst dangers of the spiritual life is that of drift. Drift is gentle and gradual, subtle and quiet. So much so that you are not aware that it is even taking place!
The city did not last and neither would its church without repentance.
Smyrna (modern Izmir) is 35 miles NW of Ephesus. It was also a large port city with a good harbour and famous for its athletics games. Of these seven cities it is the only one that is still a major centre today.
The name Smyrna derives from the ancient Greek word for myrrh which always speaks of suffering in the Bible: Smyrna is the suffering church. Those who view churches as historical eras (see above) parallel Smyrna to the age of persecution under pagan Rome in the 2nd & 3rd centuries before the “Peace of the Church” in AD 313.
No rebuke is issued to this church. The church is blameless but despite this must still undergo poverty & tribulation (2:9)! The Greek word for poverty here speaks of the severest kind of lack, describing people who have nothing (Trench) & some suggest they were being periodically looted by opponents. Yet if Christ says “you are rich” (2:9) then you are rich indeed! (Cp Laodicea)
“I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9). There is no anti-Semitism here: John was a Jew himself. Some think the “synagogue of Satan” may refer to Judaizing Gentiles who had adopted Jewish ways or even converted to avoid persecution (Ramsey Michaels). However most opt for actual Jews, and we remind ourselves that,
"no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is on inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart… (Rom 2:28-29)
Polycarp was its bishop in later years and was martyred here in the mid-second century. According to The Martyrdom of Polycarp Jews participated in the mob that burned him alive, even breaking the Sabbath to gather the firewood; ironically proving they were not true Jews.
"Behold the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation” (2:10). Satan is named several times in the seven letters, an ominous foretaste of the role he is to play later in the book. The ten days is best taken symbolically: a long time but not a hopelessly indefinite period for a suffering people.
Here we see many seeming contradictions: the Smyrnans are poor yet rich, dying yet alive. Those who suffer martyrdom in Smyrna …will not be hurt by the second death” (2:11).
Pergamum was another important city about ten miles further inland.
This is the compromising church. Its members had been faithful in past persecution even though one of their number, Antipas had died (Morris cites a legend that he was roasted in a brazen bull). Now further persecution is on the way. Worse still, false doctrine has crept into the church which Jesus likens to the doctrine of Balaam (Numbers 22-24) whom Mounce describes as "a prototype of all corrupt reachers who betrayed believers into fatal compromise with worldly idealogy."
Pergamum is “where Satan has his throne” (2:13). The city was an important centre for emperor worship, as well as housing the High Altar of Zeus, which is now located in Berlin: all facts which help account for the description.
Asclepius the Greek god of healing symbolized by the snake, was also prominent here. In honour of him non-venomous snakes moved freely around rooms where the sick and injured slept in supposed healing rituals. The Rod of Asclepius is still the symbol for the medical profession today.
“I will give him a white stone and on the stone a new name written on it which no one knows except him” (2: 17). Commentators are uncertain about this reference, though we know that those newly-initiated into Asclepius worship were given a stone with a new name on it. Jesus however can promise far better!
Thyatira was the smallest & least important of the seven cities. The hometown of Lydia “a dealer in purple cloth” (Acts 16:14) it was associated with the dye industry amongst many other thriving trades in the city
This is the obscure church because we know so little about its Christian community, and yet we observe that this is the longest of the seven messages! God’s assessment of importance is very different from ours and so He may have the most to say to the least regarded in the Body of Christ.
“the words of the Son of God” (2:18) . This is the only place the title is used of Christ in the Book of Revelation, perhaps a riposte to the famous temple of the pagan sun-god Appollo, son of Zeus which was sited in Thyatira. But infinitely more terrifying is the sight of the One who has “eyes like a flame of fire & feet like burnished bronze” (v18).
Where Ephesus was slipping back spiritually this church was making progress: “your latter works exceed the first” (2:19). This is always a good thing to be said of us especially when we think of those figures in the Bible who started well & finished disastrously like King Saul and Judas. Let us aim to finish better than we started!
The flaw in Thyatira is an ironic one for us today: tolerance! Their sin is to“tolerate that woman Jezebel ” (2:20). Tolerance is our society’s highest ideal, but God does not tolerate sin in His Church. Jezebel is surely a nickname- neither a Christian nor a Jew would have named a child after one of the most evil women in the Bible. There was a mythical female fortune-teller associated with Thyatira but this is clearly a real person & someone associated with the church.
Her crime: “teaching & seducing my servants to pactice sexual immorality, and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (2:20).Food sacrificed to idols was a thorny issue in New Testament times (1 Cor 8). It was to become irrelevant as an issue for many centuries yet in our day with halal meat filling our supermarkets perhaps it has once again become a hot potato!
There were powerful trade guilds in Thyatira, the equivalent of later Freemasons and these were difficult to avoid joining if you wanted to make a living. But they ate food sacrificed to idols and their meetings often became orgies. Many think that this woman Jezebel was advocating compromise with the guilds & with the idols associated with them
This teaches us that one way Satan will oppress the Last Days Church will be through commercial pressures (Rev 13:16-17 “no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark”) and even in our day we are beginning to see big corporate interests intimidate those who would stand up for biblical values.
This Jezebel is also teaching us about the Great Prostitute of Babylon from Ch 17, indeed in many respects we can picture the whole situation in Thyatira as a microcosm of the themes of the wider book.
Sardis was a once proud capital of an ancient kingdom, at this time much reduced but still an important centre for the wool industry. In history it had been an almost impregnable stronghold. “Capturing Sardis” was a term used to describe an attempt upon the impossible. Despite this history records that the city was twice conquered militarily, on each occasion because its sleepy watchmen were negligent in their duty.
This is the sleeping church. The exhortation, “wake up & strengthen what remains & is about to die” (3:2) is timely: like the city of old Sardis’s church was in danger of being conquered whilst it slept.
Sleepiness is the end time danger for the Church: “they all slumbered and slept” (Mt 25:5).This world knows how to lull believers to sleep. We often associate the modern Church with Laodicea but actually Sardis is an equally good candidate to describe us!
“you have a reputation that you are alive yet you are dead” (3:1).As we have seen falseness & deceptive appearances figure strongly in the letters. Of how many large, seemingly vibrant churches today could it be said that they appear alive but are in fact dead? This church pleased men but it did not please God.
“if you will not wake I will come upon you as a thief & you will not know what hour I will come against you” (3:3).No external threats are mentioned. Perhaps Sardis was so innocuous the enemy wasn’t interested in attacking it. The church itself is the problem in Sardis & Jesus presents Himself as the threat!
Thhis verse has real eschatological significance. The “thief in the night” imagery is greatly abused in end time prophetic thinking when it is insinuated that we can have no idea of when Jesus returns and that it could take place at any moment. Yet we are told quite specifically when Christ is coming like a thief: at Armageddon (Rev 16:14-16) and not before then!
The Bible does not actually teach that authentic, faithful, and alert believers will be taken by surprise at His return but only the sleeping and the unprepared (1 Thess 5:1-5). It is those who like Sardis do not maintain a watch who will be swept away.
Philadelphia was situated in a fertile river valley on the main road from Sardis to Laodicea. It was located on a fault line that made it susceptible to earthquakes. The church is small & yet no other of the seven receives such rich promises, and as with Smyrna there is no rebuke.
Philadelphia is the faithful church, “you have little power & yet you have kept My word & not denied My name” (3:8)
The promise “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world ” (3:10) most likely refers to the assaults upon the Christian church throughout the Roman Empire that were to characterise much of the next two centuries. Certainly we may not take this verse as a Get Out of Jail Free card for the Great Tribulation: that would fly in the face of one of Revelation’s central theme which is the need to endure tribulation patiently not to hope to avoid it!.
The open door (3:8) is often used today to refer to evangelistic opportunities but in context it more likely refers to access to Heaven (so Mounce). The book will end with a vision of an open door: a city whose “gates are never shut” (21:25)
The overcomer will be a “pillar in the temple of God” (3:12). Commentators point to the fact that Philadelphia’s people regularly had to flee into the countryside to escape quakes. But nothing can shake the foundations of the New Jerusalem.
Laodicea, situated in the Lycus River valley on an important trade route was an extremely wealthy banking centre. One major problem for the city was that it had no natural water supply so water had to be piped in from a distance. Consequently cold fresh water from Colossae mixed with hot volcanic water from Hierapolis resulting in a tepid supply, useless for drinking until chilled.
The lukewarm church was rich, satisfied and complacent. Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake in AD60, and whilst other cities accepted financial aid from Rome to rebuild Laodicea turned it down & proudly used its own wealth to rebuild without outside assistance.
Similarly the church turned down God’s help!
: “you say I am rich, I have prospered and have need of nothing (3:17) . Once again though appearances are deceiving. "...you are wretched, poor, blind and naked.”
Part of Christ's remedy is for them to use their wealth to "buy" from Him, notably “eye salve to anoint your eyes” (3:18). This is an apparent reference to a nearby school of medicine which specialised in eye salve for curing eye diseases. But there is no cure for Laodicea’s blindness!
Jesus has nothing good to say to Laodicea , not even to a faithful remnant. Instead He is pictured stood outside the door of His own church, trying to gain admission. Imagine this church gathering excitedly to have read to them a letter sent from Jesus Himself. Then imagine their shock at hearing what He had to say to them!
In conclusion let us not miss the individual application of the messages to those in our own assemblies. A local church is more than the sum of its parts but still each individual member helps to determine what kind of a fellowship it will be.
All churches will have members who exemplify the characteristics of these churches and as a consequence each of our assemblies will be a mixture of Ephesians, Philadelphians, Laodiceans etc. Every church has its Ephesians who have left their first love, its faithful Philadelphians, its lukewarm Laodiceans and so on. If there are enough Philadelphians in a place then the church can become Philadelphia, if enough Laodiceans it will become Laodicea instead.
Which of the seven churches am I helping to create?