A Saga of Seven Churches
The first century was the best of church history, it was the worst of persecution, it was the age of faith, it was an age of fear, it was the era of belief, it was an era of doubt, it was the season of virtue, it was a season of wickedness, it was the beginning of hope, it was the end of death. What the Holy Spirit was saying to the seven churches in Revelation covered all of these themes (Rev. 1-3). They were each located in the Roman province of Asia. In ancient times, the seven cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea followed the same carrier route in a northward arc. John ordered them by their distance from Patmos, his place of exile circa AD 80 (vv. 1:4, 11, 20). In order, here are the modern Turkish cities that approximate these locations: Selçuk (2 mi/3 km; see here), İzmir, Bergama, Akhisar, Sart, Alaşehir, and Denizli (4 mi/6 km; see here).
When interpreting Revelation, theologians categorize all end times perspectives into four categories: futurism, historicism, idealism, and preterism. Futurists consider most of the events in Revelation and other apocalyptic texts such as Daniel to be primarily in the future. This is the most common view in eschatology, the study of the end times. They believe the fulfillment of Revelation to be a succession of current and future events. Alternatively, historicists read John's apocalypse to see how it plays out gradually throughout the whole Christian era. For example, they may hold Nero (37–68), Leo X (1475–1521), or Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) to be the antichrist for their specified times in history. Idealists reflect on abstract ideas and virtues when interpreting Revelation. Therefore, the antichrist could be something more like a zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, that affects all humankind rather than a specific individual. Finally, preterists understand the apocalyptic events narrated by John to have primarily or fully happened in the first century. Thus, Christians read the New Testament, not to anticipate the end times, but to participate in God's covenant with the church. In this essay, I apply all four eschatological views in my treatment of the seven churches.
What the Spirit is Saying
In scripture, the number seven represents completion and wholeness (e.g., Gen. 2:1-2; Exod. 20:10-11; Matt. 18:21-22). It is also the number of branches on the menorah (H4501), or the temple's lampstand (shown at the top). With this in mind, let us consider the seven churches in Revelation to be a model of all Christendom throughout time and space. In other words, the Holy Spirit still speaks to the churches today, and Jesus still delegates a heavenly messenger to each of our lampstands. First, we have to realize what the Spirit said to the first-century congregations of Asia Minor to grasp what he is saying to us now. Each of the letters presents this basic format: a christological greeting, intimate details that about the congregation, and a criticism accompanied by encouragement. Jesus ended each letter by saying, "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." Here is a historical-grammatical exposition of the text blending the first-century perspective with a twenty-first-century parallel:
Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7): Paul of Tarsus founded the church of Ephesus during his two-year stay sometime between AD 53 and 55 (Acts 19:1, 10). The Christians there had to stand firm in a city renowned for its pagan tourism industry centered around its large statue of Artemis (cf. Acts 19:35). It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Jesus praised the Ephesians for their devotion to God in such a hostile atmosphere. Yet, their love for him grew cold while they fended off imperial cultists as well as (Nicolaitan?) heretics who professed Jesus. They forgot Paul's lesson to their Aegean neighbors in Corinth: "And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2). Jesus contrasted the Artemis cult's tree orchard with the Tree of Life in the garden (paradeisos; G3857, "paradise") belonging to God (Gen. 2:8-9).
Ephesus today: represents those who emphasize doctrine but do so without compassion. They are "heresy hunters" who cannot read scripture without thinking about their next argument over the finer points of theology. Many of them lose their sense of divine mystery, if not their faith in God outright. While it is noble to defend the faith against outside threats of skepticism and inside threats of false teaching, the modern "Ephesian" must not forget the whole point of that defense: hope in the resurrection (1 Pet. 3:15, 21).
Additionally, we moderns are not above making pilgrimages to visiting monuments such as the Statue of Liberty. While it is a good thing to appreciate where you live and work to improve your community as a law-abiding citizen, let that not blind us to love God and neighbor. If patriotism means having a fondness for the land of one's fathers (Latin: patria), then we do not sin. Yet, if such devotion becomes nationalism, the supremacy of one's nation to exploit others, we must repent. While it is true that God places us in our times and borders (Acts 17:26), Jesus also tells us to baptize disciples from all nations (Matt. 28:19).
Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11): This city was also very loyal to Rome, which rewarded it with various building projects such as universities and medical centers. Its civic architecture was stunning. However, the Smyrnaean Christians were poor, but Jesus commended them for their spiritual wealth. Like Ephesus, Smyrna was a major epicenter for the Roman imperial cult. In fact, they tried to outdo their Ephesian counterparts in dedication to Caesar. The church of Smyrna also had to deal with a Jewish population hostile to Christians, often turning in their neighbors for calling Jesus "Lord and God" instead of Domitian. While Roman law exempted Jews throughout the empire from having to pay tribute to Caesar, they now deemed Christians as a separate religious sect. The synagogue leaders agreed as they considered the followers of Jesus to be a ragtag group of apostate Jews and their heathen converts. In his gospel, John noted, ". . . the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue" (9:22). Around the time John penned Revelation, the synagogue leaders added this malediction to their liturgical Eighteen Benedictions titled Birkat haMinim (H1293, H4327, "Blessing on the Heretics," i.e., Jews with unorthodox kinds of beliefs):
For the apostates let there be no hope . . . Let the nozerim ["Nazarenes," believers in Jesus of Nazareth, cf. Acts 24:5] and the minim [Jewish heretics] be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed are you, O LORD, who humbles the arrogant.
This is why Jesus called these leaders the "synagogue of Satan" because of their violent and bitter hatred of his followers in the Smyrnaean church. Do not read this as an antisemitic slur, because this was an in-house criticism of Jews by Jews. Furthermore, the Essenes—the ascetic Jewish community who lived at Qumran and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls—also labeled corrupt leaders as the "synagogue of Beliar," another name for Satan (1QH 2:22; cf. 2 Cor. 6:15). Jesus warned the church that the Romans would imprison them for ten days, a numerical symbol of obedience to God's authority (e.g., Ten Commandments, 10% tithe). For their endurance, Jesus promised the crown of life to outlast the laurel wreath crowns earned by Olympic athletes.
Smyrna today: represents lower- and working-class Christians who know they have riches stored in heaven. They respond to God's sovereign grace through faith despite threats of violence and murder in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, many of the nonprofit businesses and parachurch ministries in these places are toxic. They demand money from downtrodden people and eager to report addicts of drugs and alcohol to law enforcement instead of rehabilitation clinics. The modern "Smyrnaean" does not idolize celebrities of entertainment, professional sports, or even church leadership, but looks up to Jesus as the only recipient of their devotion.
Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-17): What Jesus called the "throne of Satan" is now an archaeological restoration at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. In the first century, the gentiles of Pergamum offered incense to Caesar at this high altar dedicated to Zeus. The city was very loyal to Rome, especially during the emperor Domitian's (AD 51–96) persecution of the church there. Some of the Christians, such as Antipas, had been martyred in Jesus' name for refusing to call Domitian "Lord and God" as he demanded. However, the Pergamonian church trifled with pagan beliefs and a heretical sect known as the "Nicolaitans" whom Jesus compared to Balaam son of Beor, a Mesopotamian false prophet who misled Israel into paganism (Num. 22; Deut. 23:4). Some of the members still worshiped idols and solicited the cultic prostitutes. Jesus told them to repent (metanoeō; G3340)—to change their minds about sin—or else face swift judgment. Yet, those who stand firm God will strengthen with manna as God did the Israelites (Exod. 16:31). He will also engrave their names onto a small white stone. In ancient Rome, politicians awarded victorious athletes a white stone they could use for admission into private feasts held in honor of the gods. As the true Lord and God (Rev. 1:8), Jesus will outdo the Romans by offering admission to the eternal heavenly banquet prepared only for those who endure the world (Matt. 12:1-14; Luke 14:15).
Pergamum today: represents those churches who dabble in culture and sinful customs while claiming to follow Jesus. This applies to churchgoers in both developed nations who blend postmodern and humanistic views with scripture, and to those in developing nations who syncretize indigenous forms of paganism with Christianity. In short, both humanism and paganism deny the existence of one true God, thereby making truth relative to one's culture and place in history. The "Pergamonian" of today must realize the Lord our God is one, the Lord alone (Deut. 6:4). He is the absolute truth for all nations no matter what. If we endure to death with this belief and practice, Jesus will give us that VIP ticket into his heavenly wedding feast to celebrate his victory over sin and death.
Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29): This was the hometown of Lydia, the dye merchant Paul baptized in Philippi (Acts 16:11-15, 40). She may have had a role in planting the Thyatira church afterward. If so, Lydia's piety contrasts with the idolatry of Jezebel, a wicked queen who forced the Israelites to forsake God and worship idols (1 Kgs. 16:31; 18:4-19; 19:1). Idolatry also served as the underlying motif when Jesus spoke of his eyes burning with flames and his feet appearing like burnished bronze. Thyatira was a metalworking city, and its bestselling merchandise was bronze idols forged by fire. Perhaps, Jesus used the illustration of an adulterous woman to jog their memory of Lydia. The church leaders of Thyatira were derelict because of their false teaching and intimidation of faithful members. Just like when God told the prophet Elijah that he had a faithful remnant in Israel who opposed Jezebel (1 Kgs. 19:18; Rom. 11:4), he was keeping a group of devout believers that would endure to the end (cf. Matt. 10:22; 24:13; Mark 13:13; James 1:12) and govern nations during Christ's millennial reign. They would also receive the "morning star," an allusion to the planet Venus which symbolized victory in Greco-Roman culture. However, its main typology was a messianic interpretation of Num. 24:17, which also points to Jesus' mention of a sword emanating from him (Rev. 2:12, 16).
Thyatira today: represents those who distort the Christian faith to make it adhere to postmodernism and secular humanism. Although we moderns may not worship physical idols, we still need to recognize philosophies such as these which negate God's existence, attributes, or sovereignty. Moreover, we must not be deceived by them to deny that Jesus came as God himself in human form, died on the cross, and experienced a physical resurrection. John rightly called anyone who denied these tenets an antichrist (1 John 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7). Just as Thyatira, our churches are plagued with false teachers who browbeat sincere Christians and foment schisms among local parishes and whole denominations.
Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6): This was the only city out of the seven that did not have an imperial cult. The Sardian gentiles had a better relationship with their Jewish community than the others, too. As a result, the church of Sardis reflected their pagan neighbors in culture and socioeconomics. In the absence of persecution, they could openly profess their Christian faith and reach out to the unbelievers. While this made the Sardians feel "alive" and relevant, Jesus scolded them for works that were rather faithless and ineffective. The city of Sardis had a dubious history of being caught off guard after dark, from various raids that startled absent-minded guards to an earthquake in AD 17. Likewise, Jesus said his return would also catch them by surprise if they did not keep watch for it (Matt. 24:43; Luke 12:39). There was a small minority among the Christians of Sardis who were faithful to Jesus. In ancient times, no one would dare walk into a temple with dirty clothing. The Sardian church soiled their clothes with sin as one who dyed plain fabrics, but Jesus would give them the white robe of glorification if they repented.
Sardis today: represents the megachurches of today that teach something like the gospel, but dilute it by focusing on wealth creation and other everyday concerns. They pride themselves on having extensive programs for all ages and demographics, and especially their relationship with the outside world. In general, megachurches downplay genuine discipleship of Jesus to recruit new members with vain promises of good health and great wealth. Like the church of Sardis, megachurches exist in affluent districts in and around large cities. However, their cultural influence rarely translates to a spiritual revival of the community at large. The "Sardian" of today must not only expect Jesus' return, but also know and teach others what he even taught. Only those who endure suffering in the name of Christ will receive a white robe, eternal riches, and perpetual wellbeing (Rev. 7:14)
Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13): This city was founded by Attalus II (159–138 BC), who received the nickname Philadelphos (G5361, "brotherly love") because of his loyalty to his brother Eumenes II (d. 160/159 BC) on the battlefield and in government. However, in the first century, the residents wanted to rename it "New Caesarea" because the emperor Tiberius (42 BC–AD 37) generously relieved Philadelphia from having to pay taxes for five years after an earthquake leveled it in AD 17 (Tacitus, Ann. 2:47). The city suffered many other seismic events over twenty years. Jesus compares and contrasts these themes to promise the Philadelphians relief greater than anything a political leader could offer. Unlike the catastrophic earthquakes of the past, the church of Philadelphia would be an unshakeable "pillar" of faith and stability. Rather than becoming a "New Caesarea," the Philadelphian church would inherit the heavenly "New Jerusalem" for eternity. They knew about the Romans' sack of Jerusalem and desecration of the temple in AD 70. This would also be the capital of a new Israel uniting Jews and gentiles to worship God without the fear of excommunication from the Jewish leaders from the "synagogue of Satan."
Philadelphia today: represents those Christians who have Posttraumatic Church Disorder (PTCD), a form of spiritual trauma not unlike Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They have an unshakeable faith in Jesus despite being shaken from past spiritual abuse under manipulative church leaders and/or the outside world. While the ancient church of Philadelphia had good leaders, the allegory of unshakeable faith best describes those Christians who remain faithful to God no matter what. This applies to believers who also gather together in war zones and countries hostile to Christianity. The "Philadelphian" extends brotherly and sisterly love to fellow Christians and knows that "church shouldn't hurt." Jesus rewards them with God's peace "which surpasses all understanding" (Phil. 4:7).
Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22): Whereas Jesus focused on the history of the other six Asia Minor cities, with Laodicea he alluded to their physical geography. The city was dead center between the hot springs at Hierapolis and the pure, cold streams of Colossae. As a result, the water piped in from the local aqueducts was lukewarm. While thermal water was beneficial for therapy and cool water was useful for drinking, the ancients judged tepid water to be useless for either. Yet, Laodicea was a wealthy city despite its poor water quality. Jesus was reprimanding them for being so ineffective. Both hot and cold are valid expressions of the Christian faith, meaning the church is to a place of healing and relief. In the text, Jesus spits the lukewarm water from his mouth out of distaste just as we do today. In ancient times, it sickened people due to its high, unfiltered mineral content. In other words, the church of Laodicea was making their neighbors spiritually ill, not just failing to convert them with evangelistic zeal.
In AD 60, a major earthquake rattled Laodicea. When Rome offered a disaster relief package, the city declined, mentioning its strong economy and self-reliance. Instead of bragging about their wealth, Jesus was instructing the Laodiceans to humble themselves before God so they could obtain spiritual riches more valuable than earthly ones. Laodicea was distinguished for its international banking system, black wool textiles, a medical school, and the manufacture of a famous eye salve named collyrium. Accordingly, Jesus was telling the Laodicean Christians that they do have the capacity to heal and to treat their neighbors' spiritual blindness. Paul greeted the Lycus Valley churches of Laodicea and Hierapolis in his letter to nearby Colossae, all three of which were planted by a disciple named Epaphras (Col. 1:7; 4:12). He also mentioned another epistle he wrote to the Laodiceans that is now lost to us (vv. 2:1; 4:13-16). Sometime between AD 60 when Paul wrote the Colossians letter and when John composed Revelation, the church of Laodicea lost its faith and efficacy. Jesus was asking them to invite him back into their homes and house churches, but they had to choose to welcome him.
Laodicea today: represents those churches that do not effectively bring healing or comfort to their people. Most of us know what it feels like to work outside for hours and then take a sip of lukewarm water or sports drink—yuck! The faithful and helpful church must preach the good news of Jesus in a way that both inspires sinners to repent and mature in their knowledge of God. We must be careful about how we communicate the gospel, even if we speak the truth. For example, trying to manipulate people into making a decision for Christ by emphasizing hell usually results in shallow religion, not faith. Jesus himself only spoke of eternal judgment with believers, especially religious hypocrites such as the Pharisees and Sadducees (see here & here). The good news which brings us comfort is not that we are merely saved from hellfire, but even more, that we are born anew to know the perfect love of God in Christ (1 Pet. 1:22-25). The "Laodicean" of today effectively teaches others how to worship God "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you led your holy apostles to ordain ministers in every place: Grant that your church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may choose suitable persons for the ministry of Word and sacrament, and may sustain them in their work for the expansion of your kingdom; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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