THE SEVEN CHURCHES
The Apostle John was told: "Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea" (Rev.1:11). These cities on the popular communication routes and the Christian congregations therein were familiar to the Apostle John. The letters to the churches in the seven cities of Asia Minor (present day Turkey) form a small portion at the beginning of the Book Revelation. They are regarded as having been written to be read together, for encouraging the readers to remain loyal to their faith, provide them comfort and warn them about the catastrophic events described in Revelation.
By the church (ekklesia) is meant the Christian community which existed in each of these cities. They were flourishing Roman towns with Christian communities, which had probably developed in their Hellenised Jewish communities. In almost all these cities, members of the Christian community compromised with the prevailing religious atmosphere and there were signs of weakness and disappointment. John reflected on the problems threatening Christianity and reminded Christians of the punishment and rewards, and asking them to endure longer for the Second Coming.
The seven golden candlesticks represent the seven churches. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. Each lampstand represents one of the Christian communities in Asia Minor. All these seven cities are now in Turkey, which has 98% Muslims. Christians are sparse and all the early church buildings are in ruins. Istanbul has the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church. Hagia Sophia, the largest church in the world, is situated in Istanbul. Muslim-majority Turkey opposes members of other religions holding meetings or publishing literature to explain their faith.
The Apostle John is identified as the author of the Book of Revelation and the fourth gospel. He was the son of Zebedee, together with his brother James. He decided to follow Jesus while fishing in Lake Galilee. He became one of Jesus' closest, and was with Him on various significant occasions such as the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion. "When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple there whom He loved, He said to His mother, 'Woman, behold your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother! And from that hour the disciple took her into his home' (Jn.19:26-27). 'The disciple whom He loved' is said to be John.
Tradition holds that Mary went with John to Ephesus. During his residence in Ephesus, he is claimed to have gone to Smyrna where he won Polycarp to Christianity and made him the bishop.
Greek tradition has it that, after arriving in Ephesus, the story of John's miracles reached Emperor Domitian and he was called to Rome. His power was tested in the presence of the emperor by making him drink a cup of poison, which killed a criminal, but did not harm John. A tradition relates that John was taken to Rome as prisoner and cast into a cauldron of hot oil, but he came out unharmed. He was also asked to raise a girl, who had supposedly been slain by an evil spirit. Impressed by what he witnessed, Domitian decided only to banish him to Patmos. (The worst punishment reserved for criminals, not sentenced to death, was to strip them of their civil rights and banish them to a remote corner of the empire). John does not give any detail regarding the cause of his exile. He only says that he was exiled to Patmos on account of the Word of God and the testimony of Christ (Rev.1:9). In Patmos, John was unchained and free to go wherever he wished. His banishment lasted till the death of the emperor.
John wrote the fourth gospel and the Book of Revelation in Patmos, and finally returned to Ephesus where he died and was buried. He is thought to have died at a great age, claimed to have been 120. By the end of the second century, most of the churches in western Asia Minor regarded John as their founder. Patmos was one of the volcanic islands in Aegean Sea, about 80 km south of Ephesus. The island was 'deserted and uncultivated, covered with and made impassable by thorns and shrubs, and by reason of its aridity completely barren.'
When John arrived in Ephesus, the most bewildering fact for him was the popularity of the imperial cult and that some Christians were actually participating in it. The temples, altars and major civic buildings were adorned with garlands, images of the emperor and other gods. There was never a shortage of gods and goddesses.
In those times, the Christians in any city hardly exceeded 1% of the total population. Though there were a few members of considerable means, most of them were from lower classes. In Roman eyes, they were not regarded as a threat; the cause of persecution was their refusal to take part in the imperial cult.
When Paul arrived in Ephesus in AD 53, the city had the largest Jewish community in Asia Minor, reaching about 10,000 people. He returned to the city later and stayed for 3 years. When Paul preached that gods made by human hands were not gods at all, a silversmith called Demetrius, who made gifts for the Temple of Artemis, realised that his business was in danger and persuaded his friends to gather in the theatre and protest. Although the riot was calmed by officials, Paul decided to leave.
The worship of Mary as the Mother of God was something they could understand easily. The Great Mother had been worshipped for thousands of years under various names such as Kubaba, Cybela, Ma, Anaites, Artemis or Diana. Pagans thought that the Mother of God of the Christians was probably one of the new forms of their already popular Great Mother of many names. However, the local people could not tolerate the refusal of sacrificing to the imperial cult. To them, this was denying divine honour to the emperor and was regarded not just a religious matter, but political subversion.
When Constantine adopted Christianity in AD 312 as the State religion, the pagan temples and surviving institutions of Ephesus received a mortal blow. The images of Artemis were defaced. Her statues were destroyed or buried. Pagan wall paintings were plastered over or scraped off. Statues were sent to lime kilns or crosses carved on their foreheads. Churches were erected from the material of Roman monuments.
John praised the Ephesian Christians for the persecutions they suffered without growing weary (Rev.2:1-7). The Ephesian Christians reflected the general situation faced by the Christians of the time: disappointment in the condition of Christianity and falling away from their original love. Leaving one's first love must seriously and critically retard the purpose of the church. Nevertheless there is always the chance to awaken before corruption eats up the whole body. Remember, from where you have fallen, and repent.
Ephesians are complimented for the hatred they have shown to the Nicolaitans. Nicolas, a convert to Judaism in Antioch (Acts 6:5), and one of the seven deacons of Jerusalem in the first century, became the originator of an early heresy which was named after him. His purpose was to achieve a compromise between Christianity and the prevailing social norms of the time, by reconciling the observance of certain pagan practices, such as the liberty to commit sexual sins, retaining membership in the Christian Community. John is more explicit about them in his letter to the church in Pergamos. He also refers to the same heresy in his letter to the church of Thyatira.
A Christian is a faithful warrior for Christ, overcoming false teachers and patiently enduring opposition.
This city is now known by the name Izmir. The letter to the church in Smyrna is in Rev.2:8-11. Instead of their constituting an assembly of God, they had become a synagogue of Satan. They are praised for their works, tribulation and poverty; but they are rich in the Lord. They are encouraged not to fear any of the things they were about to suffer for Christ, because the suffering is only for a short while. Their Saviour was Lord of history and conqueror of death. Persecution made the church stronger.
Polycarp is a shining example of one who was faithful unto death, as he was burned at the stake for refusing to deny God. Remember the promise to those who remain faithful.
Some scholars claim that when John referred to Satan's throne in his letter to the church at Pergamos (Rev.2:12-17), he had the Great Altar, whose walls were decorated with reliefs showing the battle of Greek gods, which stood on the Acropolis, in mind. On the plain stood the famous sanctuary of Asclepius, the temple of the healer God, which attracted pilgrims and patients from distant corners of the world. Pergamen congregation was praised for not having given up their faith despite all the pressures on them. Despite their faith, some of the Christians in Pergamos were practising the heresy of Balaam (Num.22-25; 31:16). The church was wedded to the world to obtain worldly advantages. Excavations have brought to light the remains of a number of church buildings in ancient Pergamos. The best known of these is the Church of St. John, probably built in the 4th century.
Among all the cities to which John's letters were addressed, only Thyatira was founded on flat land without natural defences. It was therefore invaded and plundered easily by the armies which passed through the area.
Lydia, the first Christian that Paul encountered at Philippi on European soil, was a native of Thyatira. She was a dealer in purple, one of the sources of wealth of Thyatira. At the place by the riverside, where Paul met Lydia, is a church people now use for baptisms.
The church in Thyatira was materially insignificant, but the letter to them (Rev.2:18-29) is the longest. This was probably because the city was known for the popularity of its pagan trade guilds and the church there must have felt their strong pressure. He praises the church for enduring the persecution patiently. Their major problem was the toleration of the activities of a woman named Jezebel, who claimed that she was a prophetess. This woman seems to have been able to lead many Christians in Thyatira to immorality and to worship pagan gods, like her Old Testament namesake. The Lord gave her a chance to repent, but she continued her evil ways. God sees, tests and searches the hidden depths of the human heart. Think what should be the response of a Bible believing church. It is never too late to repent. Remember His promise that we will have unhindered enjoyment of His fellowship, if we repent.
By the end of the first century, Sardis had a population of 100,000. During the Roman rule, it was one of the most prosperous cities of the region. The message to the Church in Sardis (Rev.3:1-6) gives the impression that it has completely surrendered to the temptations. There was apostasy (following the teaching of false prophets), worshipping the imperial cult, and not embracing the faith heartily. They accommodated themselves to the heathen customs of their neighbours. The church in Sardis is regarded as dead. It exists only in name. Unless it wakes up, it will be punished. A graphic description of some of the historic ministries! Once it had a name for spiritual achievement, then it became lifeless.
Only a few had 'not soiled their garments.' Therefore, it was censured stringently. The few Christians who have kept their faith are the conquerors. They have not defiled their garments; they have not fallen into heresy. They are worthy of being rewarded with eternal bliss and their names will not be erased from the Book of Life. Ask yourself if your deeds are complete in the sight of God. Those who reject Christ have their names blotted out of the Book of Life, for they are dead.
The church in Philadelphia, named after John, was a rectangular building of six pillars of reused stone material and upper structure in brick. Three of the pillars have survived.
Philadelphia is the only church, except Smyrna, about which nothing bad is said (Rev.3:7-13). This church is either small in number or poor or both; but they have not denied Jesus. They have followed the example of Jesus with patient endurance. Though they have little power, they have kept Jesus' word; those who keep their faith, will be rewarded.
The false church has popularity, influence and money, but it will one day bow before the few saints of God who take the truth to the world.
Excavations in Laodicea have revealed crosses at the ruins, probably showing that the city had more than one church as early as the fifth century or earlier.
The church is not accused of apostasy, immorality or idolatry (Rev.3:14-22). Neither are they charged with following the teaching of a false prophet. They are condemned for their pride and self-satisfaction. It has a big budget, but no blessing. It has prestige, wealth and political power, yet spiritually poor. They are accused of being lukewarm-neither hot nor cold.
John seems to be familiar with the rare luxury of the region in respect to hot springs at nearby Pamukkale. The church at Laodicea was not able to understand the real source of the richness of a church. What is our condition today?
The Laodicean Christians were wealthy and contented to a degree that they thought they do not need Jesus. This is pitiable. They could only become rich by turning to the Lord. They were poor because what they owned was only material. They were blind and could not see their obligations. They were naked because their clothes did not give them any spiritual warmth. They had neither refused the faith, nor embraced faith strongly enough to provoke persecution. The peaceful happy life they led was only illusory. What do you learn about lukewarmness?
John's remark about eye salve seems to derive from the fame of the eye medicine produced from powdered Phyrigian stone in Laodicea. In a city famous for eye medicines, the church remained blind!
In order to be rich in reality, we must buy gold refined by fire- the true Christian faith which will endure the test. While the sought after garment of Laodicea provided only material warmth, those who withstand and die wear the white garments of a martyr. Apart from the Word of God, there is no life or hope for the churches.
The Risen Lord stands at the door knocking and inviting those inside to open and receive Him. The gracious invitation is not to the church collectively, but to each individual within it. The door of eternal happiness is opened by obedience and faith; we are called to repent and join Christ at the festal meal. Think of the consequences of not being an overcomer. The churches in the seven cities of Asia Minor should remind us of the destruction that awaits those who are fallen and do not repent. Beware!