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While exiled on the island of Patmos, thought to be between 94-96 AD, the Apostle John received a vision from Jesus Christ with the instructions: "... 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" (Revelation 1:11).
Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of Roman roads that stretched from Ephesus to Laodicea. "It is no accident," notes John McRay, "that the letters in Revelation 1-3 are arranged in this same sequence. Beginning with Ephesus, the roads follow a geographic semicircle, extending northward, turning to the east, and continuing southward to Laodicea—thus connecting the cities on what must have functioned as an ancient postal route" (Archaeology and the New Testament, 1997, p. 242).
Jesus used some of the characteristics of each of these cities to spiritually evaluate its congregation and to prophesy the history of His Church up to His second coming. John was told: "Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are [at the present time], and the things which will take place after this [in the future]" (Revelation 1:19). Hence part of the message of Revelation would apply to John's time, and part would be for future generations.
Christ recognizes the effort of the Ephesian Christians to keep and teach biblical truth: "I know your works, your labor, your patience and that you cannot bear those who are evil" (Revelation 2:2). It was also in Ephesus Paul warned: "For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves" (verses 29-30).
Archaeologists have found in the ruins of Ephesus one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple of Diana, or Artemis, also mentioned in the Bible (Acts 19:27). Thousands of priests and priestesses served the temple, and many of the priestesses were dedicated to cultic prostitution. It would have been difficult to live as a Christian in the midst of such an immoral city. Knowing this, Christ promises: "To him who overcomes, I will give to eat from the tree of life [symbolizing eternal life], which is in the midst of the Paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7).
The next city on the ancient postal circuit was Smyrna, the main center of emperor worship. Jesus tells the church in Smyrna: "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days" (verse 10).
These words were not only prophetic, but had a literal fulfillment in John's day. History records that during the time of John's exile Christians endured violent persecution during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96), who declared himself a god. Once a year the head of household had to appear before the authorities, burn incense to the emperor and declare, "Caesar is lord." Those who refused were branded as traitors and either sentenced to death or exiled. Since Christians confessed they had only one Lord, Jesus Christ, they were mercilessly hounded. John, the last living Apostle of the original 12, was apparently banished to Patmos for this reason.
Many Christians in Smyrna died because of these fierce persecutions. William Barclay comments, " Such was the reverence of Smyrna for Rome that as far back as 195 B.C. it was the first city in the world to erect a temple to the goddess Roma" (Letters to the Seven Churches, 1957, p. 29). Christ encourages and reminds the Christians in Smyrna that He is offering them something Caesar worship could never provide—the chance to live forever. He exhorts them: "He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death" (Revelation 2:11).
Pergamos was the Roman capital of Asia Minor and the center of religious, medical and artistic culture for the region. The city's famous library, with 200,000 parchment rolls, was rivaled only by the library in Alexandria, Egypt. Christ tells the church at Pergamos: "I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan's throne is" (Revelation 2:13), and warns against giving in to the pagan worship dominating the city (verses 14-16).
The mention of Satan's throne in Pergamos likely refers to the worship of its most popular deity, the serpent god Asklepios Soter, who supposedly healed the sick. William Barclay comments: "From all over the world, people flocked to Pergamos for relief of their sicknesses. R.H. Charles has called Pergamos 'the Lourdes of the ancient world'...Thus, pagan religion had its center in Pergamos. There was the worship of Athene and Zeus, with its magnificent altar dominating the city [now partially reconstructed in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin]. There was the worship of Asklepios, bringing sick people from far and near, and above all there were the demands of Caesar worship, hanging forever like a poised sword above the heads of the Christians" (The Daily Study Bible, notes on Revelation 2:12-17, Bible Explorer Software). Pressure to compromise in Thyatira Thyatira was important for its commerce in wool and textiles, and was especially famous for its fine woolen cloth, usually dyed in a shade that came to be called Thyatiran purple. Lydia, a seller of purple and convert to Christianity, had come from Thyatira (Acts 16:14).
Ancient Thyatira was excavated from 1968-1971 and inscriptions at the site reveal the existence of trade guilds, many of them associated with the powerful textile industry. Since Thyatira was also a religious center, and the powerful guilds demanded the religious participation of their workers in their banquets, it was difficult for Christians to resist falling into idolatry. Christ also warned the Christians in Thyatira about compromising: “Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols" (Revelation 2:20).
"The teaching of Jezebel [probably a symbolic name] apparently reasoned that an idol is of no consequence, and advised Christians to eat such meals. That these meals all too readily degenerated into sexual looseness made matters worse... some Christians would welcome a heresy of this type. It enabled them to maintain a Christian profession while countenancing and even engaging in immoral heathen revels" (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 1975, p. 71).
Christ reminds the Thyatiran Christians they must come out of worldly society, no matter how enticing it appeared, and not compromise with the truth. He promises those who remain faithful that they will be arrayed, not in Thyatiran purple, a cloth used mainly by Roman royalty, but at His coming with the spiritual mantle of rulership over the nations (Revelation 2:26-27).
The wealth of Sardis, which had been the capital of the Lydian Empire under the opulent King Croesus, was legendary. Christ exhorts this church: "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God" (Revelation 3:2).
The Sardian brethren could readily identify with a warning to be watchful. The only two times Sardis had been conquered were when its citizens had become overconfident and failed to watch. (See full article for details.) Christ uses this lesson to drive home a powerful spiritual point to His Church: "Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you" (Revelation 3:3).
An imperial road passed through Philadelphia from Rome to the east, so it became known as "the gateway to the East." Christ tells this church: "These things says He who is holy, He who is true… Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more" (Revelation 3:7, 11-12).
Philadelphia means "brotherly love." The city was named after the love the king who founded the city held for his brother. The city was established by Attalus II (159-138 B.C.), who was called Philadelphus ("brother lover") in honor of his loyal affection toward his brother, King Eumenes II of Pergamos. The New Bible Dictionary comments: "As Philadelphus was renowned for his loyalty to his brother, so the church, the true Philadelphia, inherits and fulfills his character by its steadfast loyalty to Christ" (1982, "Philadelphia," p. 926).
The last city on the trade route was Laodicea, a rich commercial and banking center. The Laodiceans were famous for producing shiny, black wool clothing and boasted of an outstanding medical center specializing in eye ointments..
Christ tells this church: "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot… So then, because you are lukewarm… I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich… and have need of nothing'—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—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 may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eyesalve, that you may see" (Revelation 3:15-18).
"For all its wealth, the city had poor water," says The Expositor's Bible Commentary. "The water either came from the nearby hot springs and was cooled to lukewarm or came from a cooler source and warmed up in the aqueduct on the way" (notes on Revelation 3, Zondervan software). Christ uses the Laodiceans lukewarm and distasteful water to point out their poor spiritual state is equally offensive to Him. He detests the Laodicean attitude of compromising with God's laws.
Further, even if their clothing were world renowned, Christ tells them their "spiritual garments" were in pitiful condition. He recommends they focus instead on buying from Him the spiritual clothing of true righteousness He later describes as "fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints" (Revelation 19:8).
Jesus next tells the Christians in Laodicea, who were blind to their true spiritual condition, that the "Phrygian powder" concocted in their medical center as an eye ointment was useless. Instead, He advised them to use His true spiritual eye salve so they can clearly see and repent of their compromising attitudes.
Lastly, Christ warns them not to put their trust in their physical wealth but in Him, who can develop the true gold that comes building righteous spiritual character. This solid advice is of lasting value to all Christians at any time in its history.
The Good News magazine (Jul-Aug, 2001)