Revelation: Letters to the Seven Churches

Ephesus: Smyrna: Pergamum: Thyatira: Sardis: Philadelphia: Laodicea

The seven churches to which the letters are addressed are those mentioned in the prologue of Chapter 1. We have no reason to doubt that these were specific words of the Lord Jesus to these seven churches, addressing their condition at the time of writing. Yet undoubtedly they had a wider significance to the Christian communities of the time; either to warn or to encourage. They were perhaps 'tracts for the time'. We may notice two other points:

  1. 1. The letters can speak to us today; as each letter ends with the words 'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches' (2:7, et seq). But the message is to the individual: it is 'to him who overcomes....'. So far as the churches were, and still are (more so!) worldly, apostate etc, the Lord looks for revival not through the church but through the individual.
  2. 2. The letters cannot be divorced from the rest of Revelation. 'These are the words of him...' (2:1 et seq) all have a backward look to chapter 1; the message to the overcomers looks forward to chapters 21-22. It is this which causes some to see prophetic elements in the letters, seeing them sequentially through history from Pentecost to the End Times1.
2:1-7: Ephesus

Ephesus is the best-known church to us, as we have Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Ephesus was a prime city of the Roman province of Asia; as such it was a centre of pagan worship and cults. We know it was the home of a sizeable Jewish community (Acts 19:13,17)
The Lord found much to commend in Ephesus: hard work, perseverance and a holding to true doctrine. Yet there is a complaint: they have fallen from their first love and are thus commanded to repent.

v1. 'angel' An angel is a messenger and could have just as well been human as one of the heavenly host.
'church' Gk ekklesia is literally ek, out of, and klesos, calling. The usage of the word was an assembly of gathering of those 'called out' of the world.
v2. 'I know your deeds'. Nothing is hidden from the Lord. If we at times are tempted to feel complacent or comfortable let us realise he knows all that we do (and don't) and think and will be judged as Christians on our deeds2 (1 Cor 3:12-15; 2 Cor 5:10)
'you cannot tolerate wicked men'. For this they are commended- does thsi not teach a lesson? 'Tolerate' is Gk bastxeo- 'to support a burden'; 'wicked' is Gk kakos- evil by nature (as opposed to outer deeds)
'tested'- the Gk is pirazo, a word signifying 'assay'. This refers to those who are 'false'; they had exercised spiritual discernment.
vv4-5. In face of this commendation, the complaint is that they have 'forsaken (their) first love'. They are warned to recall the height from which they have fallen. 'First' is protos signifying 'foremost': their love for Jesus had taken first place, but now they have neglected this love. The threat was to the 'lampstand' which symbolised the church. The threat was to their assembly.
v6. Nicolatians. This may have one of two possible references:
-a heretical sect that worked out a compromise with pagan society. They taught that their spiritual liberty in Christ gave them leeway to practice idolatry and immorality.
-a group who sought division: the word 'Nicolatian' being a compound of nikoo (to conquer) and laos (the people); making the church into a two class system.
Christians constantly need beware of the warnings of vv4-6- and heed the command (v5): 'Repent'. For repentance is not a one off act at the beginning of the Christian life, but also a continual turning back to God.
v7. 'to him who overcomes'. The Greek is nikonti - the one who conquers. It is in Christ that we are 'more than conquerors' (Rom 8:37); it is our faith that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4-5). If we believe in Jesus, the Son of God, we are 'overcomers'. Yet if the seven letters teach us nothing else they will serve notice that this is no cause for complacency.
The reference to the 'tree of life' and the 'paradise of God' refer us back to Gen 2:16-17;3:1-3. For the Christian, the result of the Fall has been overcome!
On the prophetic view, 'Ephesus' is considered parallel to the church from Pentecost to AD60. During the first generations the church largely stood free of apostasy and division and compromise. Yet even so they fell from their first love. We note that Paul's earliest epistles are addressed to the 'church' (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:2), his later epistles are to 'the saints' (Eph 1:1;Phil 1:1) or 'holy and faithful brothers' (Col 1:1)

2:8-11: Smyrna

Smyrna was a wealthy city, proud of its Roman association and a centre of emperor-worship. The large Jewish community was hostile.
This letter is purely one of commendation and encouragement. Their Lord was aware of their suffering and that, in a wealthy city they were poor- yet they were truly rich (cp 2 Cor 6:10). They were warned of the Jews, who really belonged to Satan. And in fact the Jews did collude with the Romans in persecution. But they were encouraged to be faithful: they would receive the 'crown of life'; they would not be hurt at all by the 'second death'.

vv8-9. In view of their coming persecution, Jesus refers them back to 1:17-18: though he had died, he was alive for ever. In opposition to the ones who would destroy, he promised life to the full. (John 10:10)
'poverty'. The Gk ptoceia is a strong word, suggesting destitution.
v9. Those who claimed to be Jews were not 'true Jews'' their outer circumcision counted for nothing and they committed a slander (KJV from Gk 'blasphemous')- cp Rom 2:23-25.
v10. 'crown of life'. (Gk stefanon tos zeos). This is the crown that 'lasts for ever' promised to those who love God (cp James 1:12; 1 Cor 9:25)
v11. 'second death'. The allusion is to Rev 20:6: to the fate of those who will be lost for ever in the fire of hell. It cannot hurt them; The Gk adikeo signifies an injustice- and to the believer that final fate is contrary to the justice won them by Christ.)
The prophetic view would place Smyrna in the immediate post-apostolic era through 2 1/2 centuries of persecution (AD 60-312). We do not have to suffer persecution for our faith, but we need to be extra sure of the roots of our faith.

2:12-17 Pergamum

Pergamum was the capital city of the Roman province of Asia. It was inland from the sea, a centre of wealth and fashion. Most notably it was a religious centre, with major temples to Zeus, Aphrodite and Aesculapius.
In view of this, the members of the local church are commended for keeping true to the Lord, even in the face of martyrdom. Some had fallen astray; either by way of pagan worship and sexual immorality or by holding to the teaching of the Nicolatians (cf v6). The warning, as to Ephesus, is to repent.

v13. 'where Satan has his throne' This refers to the centres of pagan worship: that is where Satan has his throne. Basically, we either worship the God and Father of Jesus Christ or we worship Satan.
Antipon: this is the name of the first martyr of Asia, traditionally roasted to death in the Domitian persecution.
v14. 'teaching of Balaam' We read of Balaam in Numbers Chs 22-25. He posed as a prophet of the true God but led the people astray into false worship and sexual immorality. (25:1-2).
'food sacrificed to idols'. In the edict of the Council of Jerusalem, Gentiles were commanded 'to abstain from food polluted by idols' (Acts 15:20). This was a major issue in the early churches (Rom 14:2-4,14; 1 Cor 10:25-31).
v15 (as also v14) 'hold to the teaching'. The Gk krateo implies 'to take hold of' in a transitive sense.
v16. 'the sword of my mouth'/ The reference is back to 1:16. The warning is that God's Word has cutting power- and power to cut away. The worship of other gods has always been forbidden in God's covenant (e.g. Exod 34:14; Judg 2:2)
Christians need very carefully to keep to purity of life and of faith and not to 'mix it'. We do not bear witness by being popular, but by being true to our Lord who eschewed the popular way (Matt 4:5-6). We need to live in the world but not be of it.
The prophetic view would be from AD313-600. In AD 313 Constantinople3 embraced Christianity: AD 600 saw the rise of papal power. When Christianity became the official state religion it was much harder to keep from the world.

2:18-29: Thyatira

Thyatira was a smaller city than many of the others, founded as a military outpost ca. 300BC. By the 1st century AD it was a busy industrial centre famous for its many trade guilds. It was especially famous for its rich purple cloth. One of the dealers in this cloth was Lydia, converted by the preaching of Paul (Acts 16:14).
The Lord knew of their faith and their works which were clearly abundant (v19). But, like Pergamum, the church of Thyatira was seduced into gross immorality: a particular woman was responsible. Those who committed adultery with her were warned of severe discipline, and if they failed to repent, of the final ddiscipline4.

v18. 'Son of God' The divinity of Jesus is emphasised in the Thyatiran church- probably because they had embraces the gnostic5 heresy of the day.
v20. Jezebel- almost certainly a code-name for the temptress of the church. Jezebel figures in the history of Judah, married first by Omri then by his son Ahab (1 Kings 16:31). Jezebel brought in Baal worship to the Temple (vv32-33) and was referred to as a 'cursed woman' (2 Kings 9:34). Yet Jezebel called herself a 'prophetess' and it was by her teaching that she misled so many. Do we have here prefigured the great prostitute of Chs 17-18?
'tolerate' The Gk is more positive: eao- to give permission
v26. 'authority over the nations'. We recall (1 Cor 6:2-3) that Christ's saints will 'judge the world': a truth to be revealed (20:4)
v28. 'morning star' looks forward to 22:16
The prophetic view would link this letter to a lengthy period of the seventh to fourteenth centuries. This was the period of the Holy Roman Empire; of the collusion of church and state and of papal power. It was the period of many Roman practices against which the Reformation was directed. The church became arbiter between man and God, exalted Mary, taught the doctrine of purgatory and sold indulgences and led to the Inquisition when the blood of many saints was spilled. Whether it is right to link this Romish system and its excesses with 'Jezebel' and even more the 'great prostitute', its false teaching did seduce many away from true faith and many did suffer.
We may certainly beware the danger of these spiritual forces arrayed against us, from 'liberal Christianity' to New Age. The Smyrna and Thyatira letters remind us of the need, without being pharasaical of maintaining purity of belief and life.

3:1-6: Sardis

Sardis lay on the major trade route from Ephesus and was capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. Now the Acropolis was uninhabited. An impregnable fortress 1,500 feet above the valley, yet it had twice been taken by might for lack of watchfulness.

v2. 'wake up'. The Gk gregoreo is to 'be alert'. It was the command to the disciples in Gethsemane (Matt 26:41).
In view of the warning given, we recall 1 Thess 5:6.
'about to die'. mellei apothanein. mellei implies virtual inevitability and thanatao is 'put to death'.
v3. 'remember'- 'be mindful': a warning given to Ephesus. For (cp Luke 12:35-40) otherwise the Lord will come 'like a thief.
v4. Only those6 who 'walk' with Jesus are dressed in his white 'robe of righteousness' (Isa 61:10) which belongs to those who 'put on the Lord Jesus Christ' (Rom 13:14). Such will have their names in the Book of Life (Rev 20:12): they are those who overcome.
Again and again the timeless message for all Christians from these Seven Letters is of repentance and watchfulness.
The prophetic association is with the church of the Reformation (ca 1500-1750). Just when the church was all but dead under papal rule, on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his "Ninetyfive Theses' to the church door in Wittenburg.

3:7-13: Philadelphia

We know little about Philadelphia. Its name means, literally, 'brotherly love'. Comparison with the letter to Smyrna suggests a large congregation of (unbelieving) Jews. (3:9 cp. 2:9)
The Lord's words to Philadelphia are words of commendation: 'they have kept my word and not denied my Name'. They do not need to justify themselves against the Jews nor fear the coming persecution. For they have the promise 'I am coming soon'.7
This is the promise to all faithful Christians: the Lord is coming soon. We may perhaps approach this letter in this context.

vv7-8. 'kept my word'. tereo is to 'watch over'. The Christian does not just receive the word but keep watch.
'deny my name' The Gk arneomai is to 'disown' A 'name' stands for the person: the Christian will not deny Christ. They may have little strength of their own: what the Christian does have is 'keeping of the Word' and 'owning to' Jesus.
v9. 'fall down at your feet'- an act of worship. The Christian keeps the Name of Jesus uplifted: all will worship that Name (Phil 2:10)
v10. 'keep you from the hour of trial' The Greek can mean 'through' The Christian is promised to be kept (The Greek is tereo as in v9), watched over in his trial. We recollect that when Nebuchadnezer threw God's three servants into the fiery furnace he saw four men there (Dan 3:25). There may also be a prophetic reference to the Great Tribulation prior to the consummation of the Age.
The promises made to those who overcome are:
(a) 'a pillar in the Temple of my God' Gk otulos here is figutrative and represents permanence.
(b) three 'names' remembering omega signifies all that is implied by the Name.

(i) 'the name of my God'- like all other names was 'written on him' The Gk apatho is 'to record', i.e. God's ownership: the true believer belongs to God (cf 1 Cor 6:19)
(ii) 'the name of the city of my God'; the 'new Jerusalem' (cf 21:2)
(iii) 'my new name' (v12): all that is in Christ by virtue of redemption
If we view this letter prophetically it spans the post-Reformation period, when the way was opened for missionary outreach; another sense of the 'open door' (v8). Today few keep the word of God: it is held in dishonour and disrepute; the name of Jesus is disowned. Maybe we should identify ourselves fittingly with the Laodicean church.

3:14-22: Laodicea

Laodicea lay on one of the main trade routes and was a prospering trade centre. It was famed especially for its rich black wool and also for the eye ointment it produced. It was also a major centre of commerce and banking, and most Laodiceans were wealthy. The church was clearly worldly, relying on worldly riches and resources. But the Lord's warning is that they have become 'lukewarm' and nauseate him.8
Jesus rebukes the church and pleads with each individual to repent: to 'buy from (him)', to 'open the door' at which he knocks. Those who do so and return to true faith are promised 'to be with me on my throne' (v20)

v14. 'the Amen' The Gk amen is a transliteration of the Hebrew. Typically 'Amen' means 'let it be so'. Taken as an appellation it describes one who is faithful to his promises and we find the faithfulness of God as covenant God, expanded in e.g. Deut 7:9; Isa 49:7.
v16. 'hot'. The Gk zeotos has its root in zeo 'to boil'. We find the same word in Rom 12:11- 'keep your spiritual fervour' (KJV 'be fervent in spirit')
v17. 'you do not realise...'. Worldly riches can blind us to a state of spiritual poverty.
'pitiful' The Gk eleeinos has its root in eleos, mercy. One can sense the Lord's pathos for these self-satisfied Laodiceans: his pleading with them to return to him
v18. 'god refined in the fire'- true faith, cp 1 Pet 1:7. Faith is a gift to be received (Rom 12:3)
'white clothes' (see v4). This is more important than the black wool which brought worldly wealth.
'salve'. Again, they must discard reliance on their medical remedy, so as to grow true spiritual insight.
v20. This verse is often used in an evangelistic context. But here the reference is to those Christians who have left the Lord out of their lives.
The prophetic insight must place the Laodicean church as the End-time church, and we can identify ourselves as living in the end times. The End-time chucrh is worldly in its organistainal aspect, more concerned with acquiring wealth than with Jesus. Such religion is abhorrent to him. If the Lord is seeking revival in the End Time, it will be through faithful, revived individuals. He is not interested in a revived church per se.

1.Lehmann Strauss ('Revelation', Loizeaux Bros, p34) says:"Any personal study of church history brings us to this conclusion; though all history study is partially subjective
2. See my comments on James 2:12
3. Basically, Constantine became emperor in AD313 after victory over Maximus at the battle of Milvian Bridge. The night before the battle, he saw a vision of a Cross in the sky with the inscription in hoc signa vinca ('by this sign conquer') That night he made a pact with Satan that if he won the battle, he would declare himself to be a Christian and Christianity to be the state religion. Hundreds of Christian leaders arranged the baptism of legions of the Roman army. Then at a meeting of 400 bishops he presided as head of state and was declared head of the church. It became popular to become "Christian". Popular histories of Christianity see Constantine's 'conversion' as a high-water mark. We must question such a judgment for ourselves.
4. It is clear that to sin and not repent will lead to discipline, and that may include the ultimate discipline of physical death. (cf Rom. 6:23; 1 Cor 11:29; Jas 1:14)
5. The Greek heresy essentially (a) denied Jesus' deity (b) said there was an unbridgeable gap between material and spiritual save by special knowledge (gnosos)
6. Clearly there was within the church at Sardis a 'faithful remnant'. Such a remnant will protect an institution from God's final judgment (Gen 19:15)
7.If we are tempted to ask: "Why 20 centuries' delay?", we can be sure: no promise of Scripture will be broken. Jesus will come back. The O.T. prophets looked for a coming Messiah as Saviour and as Judge. (e.g. Isa 11:1-5;61:2 When Jesus came to his own (the Jews) they did not recognise Him but rejected Him (John 1:10-11). Be he had come as Saviour first (we may speculate what would have happened if the Jews had received Him (John 1:12). Indeed Paul tells us 'Israel experienced a hardening of heart in part until the full number of Gentiles has come in' (Rom 11:23). The delay is, on God's part for salvation of the Gentiles, on man's part, because of disbelief'. Thus the entry of the Jews into the Promised Land was held back 40 years by sin and disbelief when they were but a few days' march away! If we follow Sir Robert Anderson (Forgotten truths, Kregel Publications, Ch.9), the 'current' delay is due to apostasy in the church
8. Laodicea, short in its own natural water supply received a source of water piped from a natural spring many miles away. This (hot water) spring ws saline; by the time it reached Laodicea the water was lukewarm and a powerful emetic.