Setting (1:9): John in the Spirit on the island of Patmos
In the same way as other sections of the Book of Revelation, the letters to the seven churches are
preceded by a setting. In this setting, the risen Jesus appears to John on the island of Patmos,
commissions him to write this book, and to send it to the seven churches in Asia.
John commissioned by the risen Lord Jesus to write (1:9-11). He then receives a vision of the
risen Jesus in the midst of his church (1:12-16). His response was to fall down as if dead
(1:17-19). Finally we are given an explanation of some of the symbols (1:20).
John commissioned by the risen Lord Jesus to write (1:9-11)
In verse 9, John introduces himself to his readers, and describes where he is when he received
the visions from the risen Jesus. He is their ‘brother’, showing that he is a member of the
Christian family, as one of the children of God who received Jesus and believed in his name (Jn
1:12). Both John and his readers were experiencing the same three things:
Firstly, ‘the persecution’. The Greek word here is ‘thilpsis’, which appears in many other places
in the NT, where it is variously translated: ‘tribulation’, ‘affliction’, ‘persecution’, ‘distress’ or
‘ordeal. The word basically means to be under pressure in a tight and uncomfortable place, rather
like grapes being squeezed in a wine-press. Notice that John and his readers at the end of the first
century were experiencing persecution or tribulation. It is possible for any Christian in any time
in history to experience this. Tribulation is not something which will only happen at the end of
the age. Paul warned the believers in Galatia that, "It is through many persecutions (tribulations) that we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22), and Jesus warned his disciples that, "In the world you face persecution (tribulation)" (Jn 16:33), so it is false comfort to claim that God will not allow his people to face tribulation. Even though believers may face tribulation, they will never face the wrath of God, because Jesus took that wrath on the cross.
Secondly, ‘the kingdom’. This is a paradox. Even though John and his readers were being
persecuted, they were still reigning with Christ. Their position in the kingdom of God is not
changed by persecution or even martyrdom. This is one of the most important messages of this
Thirdly, ‘the patient endurance’. Because believers reign with Christ, he gives them the power
to endure the persecution patiently, while maintaining their faithful witness to him, and not
falling to the temptation to worship the beast. Patience and faithfulness are some of the fruit of
the Spirit (Gal 5:22). This is the first of seven times in the book where patient endurance is
mentioned, or the saints are urged to endure patiently (also 2:2,3,19, 3:10, 13:10, 14:12).
John was on the island of Patmos. This was a small rocky island in the Aegean Sea, measuring
about ten by fifteen kilometres, about sixty kilometres west of Ephesus. It is often claimed that
Patmos was used by the Romans as a penal colony where they sent ‘trouble-makers’ to hard
manual labour in the stone quarries. However, there is little or no direct historical evidence for
this. The Roman historian Tacitus records that small islands were used by the Romans to banish
political prisoners. In Latin, this was known as ‘Relegatio ad insulam’ (relegation to an island).
Tacitus records the banishment of Silanus, who was retired to Gyaros, a grim uninhabited island
by Emperor Tiberius (Annals 3:38), and of Publius Suillius Rufus who was convicted of judicial
corruption and also banished from Italy to an island by Tiberius (Annals 4:30). He also records
that Emperor Nero banished many to the Aegean islands (Annals 15:71).
John was on Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony to Jesus” (1:9), probably
meaning that he had been exiled there by the local Roman governor because of his Christian
witness. So John certainly was experiencing tribulation.
He "was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day" (1:10). Even though John was physically a prisoner, he
was free in the Spirit, and able to receive this inspiring vision of Jesus. The Lord’s day probably
means our Sunday, the day the church remembers the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the
week (Jn 20:1). This is the first time the phrase ‘in the Spirit’ is used in the Book of Revelation.
It appears in the settings of four sections of the book (also 4:2, 17:3, 21:10), where it appears to
be used when there is a change of scene for the visions.
John’s attention is drawn when he heard a voice like a trumpet. He is told to write down what
he saw and send it to the seven churches. The Book of Revelation is the result of this command.
John saw a series of images and recorded them in words in the book we are now reading. The
seven churches are listed. These were in seven towns lying on a roughly circular route starting
from Ephesus, going north to Pergamum, then to the east and south as far as Laodicea, which lies
about sixty kilometres (40 miles) east of Ephesus. The total distance is around 400 km (250
These are real churches in real cities, and the message of this book would have been very relevant
to them. However these are not all the churches in the Province of Asia. We know that there were
also churches in other towns including Colossae, Hieropolis, Magnesia and Troas, so only seven
churches have been selected out of a larger number. Because seven is the number used in the
Scriptures to represent perfection, completion and totality, these seven churches probably should
be seen as representing the whole church, so this book written to them is relevant to the whole
church, in all places and at every time in history.
From church tradition we learn that John the apostle was the leader of the church in Ephesus
towards the end of the first century. Ephesus was the main church of Asia, so John had pastoral
responsibility over all the churches of Asia. The spiritual welfare of the believers in these
churches was of great concern to him, and he would be aware of the struggles and difficulties the
different churches were facing.
Jerome wrote this about John and the writing of the Book of Revelation, “In the fourteenth year
then after Nero, Domitian having raised a second persecution he (John) was banished to the
island of Patmos, and wrote the Apocalypse, on which Justin Martyr and Irenaeus afterwards
wrote commentaries. But Domitian having been put to death and his acts, on account of his
excessive cruelty, having been annulled by the senate, he (John) returned to Ephesus under
Pertinax, and continuing there until the tithe of the emperor Trajan, founded and built churches
throughout all Asia, and, worn out by old age, died in the sixty-eighth year after our Lord's
passion and was buried near the same city.” (Lives of Illustrious Men 9).
Vision of the Risen Jesus - in the midst of his church (1:12-16)
John heard a voice like a trumpet, but turned round to see seven golden lamp-stands, with one
like the Son of Man among them. John later explains that the lamp-stands are the churches
(1:20), so what he sees is Jesus in the midst of his church. The place to find Jesus is in his
church, among his people, as he promised, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am
there among them” (Mt 18:20). The Son of Man is the title Jesus consistently used to describe
himself in the gospels (eg. Lk 19:10). God addressed Ezekiel as son of man, to emphasise his
mortality as a human being, but Jesus was probably referring back to the glorious Son of Man
who was exalted before the Ancient of Days and was given all power and authority (Dan 7:13).
Revelation is a highly visual book. John is describing in words a vision he saw of the risen Jesus,
so this is what Jesus actually looked like in his vision. It would be perfectly possible to draw or
paint a picture of this image. However this does not mean that Jesus literally looks like this. It
would be grotesque to think of a physical sword coming out his mouth. Instead, each part of the
image brings a powerful illustration of a particular aspect of the nature of Jesus. We particularly
need to use the OT to help us interpret the vision, as well as seeing how the imagery is used
elsewhere in the Book of Revelation. In each of the letters which follow, different aspects of this
vision of Jesus are used to introduce the letter to each of the cities.
The description is similar to the appearance of the man clothed in linen who appeared to Daniel
and guided him through his final vision, which would suggest that Daniel actually saw Jesus
before his incarnation. “I (Daniel) looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like
flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words
like the roar of a multitude.” (Dan 10:5-6).
He was “clothed in a long robe with a golden sash across his chest”. This reminds us of the
garments for the high priest, a tunic with a sash (Ex 28:39), but it could otherwise be the royal
robe of a king, as Jesus did come as both priest and king. John then describes seven different
parts of the body of Jesus: his head, eyes, feet, voice, right hand, mouth and face.
“His head and hair were white”. White hair was commonly a sign of wisdom, otherwise white
represents purity and holiness. This description alludes to the Ancient of Days, whose clothing
was white, and hair like pure wool (Dan 7:9).
“His eyes were like a flame of fire”. Jesus is the one who is all-seeing, who knows everything,
with piercing eyes to search the hearts of people.
“His feet were like burnished bronze”. This probably shows his strength. Burnished bronze is a
strong metal purified and refined in a furnace. Later he will use these feet to tread the winepress
of wrath (19:15).
“His voice was like the sound of many waters”, probably sounding like the roar of great waterfall, perhaps symbolising his authority and majesty.
“In his right hand he held seven stars”. John also tells us that the stars are the angels of the churches (1:20). As the right hand is the place of authority and protection, the angels of the
churches have the authority of Jesus and are being protected by him. Each of the letters are
addressed to the angel of the church (eg. 2:1). It is difficult to be certain what the angel of the
church represents. The Greek word ‘angelos’ means ‘messenger’, and can refer either to a
heavenly being, or a human messenger. Perhaps the angel of the church is the representative or
the leader of the church, so the church leaders would be encouraged to read that they have the
authority and protection of Jesus.
“From his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword”. In a well-known passage, the author of the
Book of Hebrews describes the word of God this way, “the word of God is living and active,
sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12). This would strongly suggest that the sword
coming out of his mouth is the Word of God.
“His face was like the sun shining with full force”. If we look straight at the sun we are
completely dazzled, and cannot see anything else. In his vision, John was blinded by the glory
of Jesus and could not see anything else.
John's response (1:17-19)
Even though John had witnessed the transfiguration, and had seen the resurrected Jesus, he was
still overwhelmed with this vision of Jesus in his glorious risen state. As in so many theophanies
(appearances of God) in the Scriptures, the person who saw them fell down terrified, so the first
words are normally, 'Do not be afraid'.
We see the fluidity of apocalyptic writing in that Jesus, who was previously holding the stars in
his right hand, now places his right hand on John, who had fallen at his feet. We may wonder
what he had done with the stars, but that is not important in the vision.
Jesus now comforts and reassures John, and makes some amazing statements about himself: “I
am the first and the last”. This is a direct claim to deity, as this is how God the Father described
himself in the introduction (1:8). Through the Book of Revelation, there are many great
declarations of the deity of Jesus, and of his equality with God the Father, which remind us of
He is also 'the living one'. He was dead and is now alive forevermore. He died on the cross, and
was raised to life forever. “I have the keys to Death and Hades”. To have the keys for something
means to have authority over it. So through his death and resurrection, Jesus now has authority
over death. He sets us free from the power of death and from the fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).
Death is no longer the great enemy, but the gateway from this life into a better and more glorious
life in the presence of Jesus. This would be a great encouragement to readers facing martyrdom.
Later in the book, at his second coming, Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire,
together with all the evil powers (20:14).
John is again commissioned to write what he has seen and will see. He is to write down a
description of the vision he has just seen, what he is now experiencing while Jesus is speaking
to him, and to record the visions that are coming next. In the futurist approach to Revelation it
is suggested that this verse gives a key to the structure of the book, but this is unlikely.
Explanation of symbols (v20)
This is the first of John’s explanations, which are found throughout the rest of the book. The stars
are the angels of the churches, and the lamp-stands are the churches. Through the rest of the Bible
stars are sometimes used to symbolise God’s people. Jesus called the believers the light of the
world (Mt 5:14), and Paul says they shine like lights in the world (Phil 2:15), so we see that John
is using symbols that have consistency with images and descriptions used throughout Scripture.
The letters to the seven churches (ch 2-3)
The letters to the seven churches make an interesting study. When some background information
about the towns is known, the letter to each church is seen to be highly relevant to their situation.
Different characteristics of each city and its history are often alluded to in the letters. More
information about the city and the letter to the church can be found in commentaries and
especially WM Ramsay’s ‘Letters to the Seven Churches’. The letters also have important
messages for the church today, so make good material to preach from. One sobering thing is that
some of the churches appear to have taken on the characteristics of the city, rather than being a
distinctive witness to the city. Instead of the church being a light to the world, they were
following the ways of the world.
There are many websites which contain photographs of the cities of the seven churches and the
archaeological remains in each that can still be seen today.
It is often suggested, particularly in the futurist view of the Book of Revelation, that the seven churches describe seven successive periods of church history, with the modern church
represented by the lukewarm church of Laodicea. There are many problems with this approach,
as there is no objective way of determining which church represents which period of church
history. Strangely it makes the Reformation the period of dead Sardis. It is also a questionable
assumption to say that we are now in the last period of history. It also tends to ignore the life of
the church outside Europe and the Western World.
Structure of the seven letters
Though normally referred to as 'letters', the messages from Jesus to the seven churches in Asia are not actually letters, as they do not contain the standard elements of a Greek letter, which are present in most of Paul's letters. They do not contain the name of the author and address, or the part containing the blessing and prayer, and do not end with a benediction of grace.
Each of the letters have the same general pattern, with the following main parts:
1. Greeting: 'To the angel of the church that is in ...'. This is the same for all seven letters,
containing the name of the town or city.
2. One or two parts of the description of the risen Christ from chapter one, often particularly relevant to the church being written to. This is introduced with ‘These are the words of’. The Greek is 'tade legei', which are the words which were used to introduce an imperial edict.
3. Commendation containing praise for the church, beginning: 'I know', or 'I know your works'. For Sardis and Laodicea these words introduce the criticism, as they receive no praise.
4. Criticism of the church describing some failure or weakness, beginning with, 'But this I have
against you' or similar wording. The criticism is followed by a correction, a call to repentance, and a threatened judgement. The criticism is omitted for Smyrna and Philadelphia and replaced with a call for continued faithfulness.
5. A promise to the faithful introduced with the words, 'To everyone who conquers ...'. Each of the promises is drawn from part of the description of the heavenly Jerusalem (ch 21) and often particularly relevant to the particular church being addressed in the letter.
6. An exhortation. 'Let anyone who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'
The wording of this is identical in all seven letters.
For some reason, the promise and exhortation (parts 5 and 6) are reversed for the first three churches. Each exhortation is addressed to the churches (plural), so each letter is to be read by all seven churches and remains relevant to all churches all through history. There is no documentary evidence that each individual letter was ever distributed separately. The strengths and weaknesses of each church are to be known to all the others, so they have to walk in the light. They can then help and
pray for each other.
The problems in the churches:
Three are troubled with false teachers: Ephesus, Pergamum, Thyatira
Two are afflicted by persecution: Smyrna, Philadelphia, and receive no criticism
Two are plagued with spiritual poverty: Sardis, Laodicea, and receive no praise
Letter 1 (2:1-7): Ephesus - lost first love
Ephesus was the largest city and the major port of the Roman province of Asia, but Pergamum
was the provincial capital and seat of government. It was an important commercial centre with
a population of about 250,000. The harbour was gradually silting up, and eventually became
unusable, after which the city fell into ruins. The ruins of the city are now several miles inland.
Ephesus was a centre for magic and pagan religion, particularly the worship of Artemis. The great
temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Paul preached for two
years in Ephesus on his third missionary journey, which ended when there was a riot because the
sales of silver shrines of Artemis had fallen dramatically (Acts 19:23-41). Paul also encountered
Jewish exorcists (Acts 19:13-16), and many who turned to Christ burned their books of magic
Surrounding the temple of Artemis was a garden, known as the ‘Paradise of Artemis. This
contained a sacred palm tree which was a place of refuge for criminals on the run, known as the
‘tree of life’. This appears on coins issued in Ephesus. In the letter, Jesus gives a far better
promise, “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in
the paradise of God” (2:7). The believers have a place of refuge in the heavenly Jerusalem where
evil-doers are excluded.
In Ephesus was a large temple dedicated to Domitian, containing a huge statue of him, which was
deliberately destroyed after his assassination. The head and arm of this statue has been restored,
and is displayed in the museum in nearby Selcuk. After his death the Roman senate made a
decree, “ended by decreeing that all inscriptions referring to him must be effaced, and all records
of his reign obliterated." (Suetonius. Domitian 23). There are several inscriptions around the ruins
of Ephesus where the name of Domitian has been chiselled away.
Ephesus was given the honour of being the temple keeper of the temple to the emperors, being
given the official title of ‘Neokoros’. Following the riot described in the Book of Acts, the town
clerk reminded the city of their status as temple-keeper, “Citizens of Ephesus, who is there that
does not know that the city of the Ephesians is the temple-keeper (neokoron) of the great Artemis,
and of the statue that fell from heaven.” (Acts 19:35).
When passing near Ephesus towards the end of his third missionary journey, Paul called the elders of the church to Miletus to meet him. There he warned them that false teachers, who he describes as savage wolves, would arise even from among themselves. “I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.” (Acts 20:29). Later he left Timothy as his representative in Ephesus to deal with false teachers. “I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations
rather than the divine training that is known by faith”. (1 Tim 1:3). It appears that the church
listened to Paul’s instructions and dealt with the false teachers by testing those who claimed to
be apostles and finding them false (2:2).
The Nicolaitans (2:6) were an mysterious group of false teachers who also were causing trouble
in the church in Pergamum (2:15). They were probably a Gnostic group who denied the deity of
Jesus and were deceiving members of the church, and leading them into immorality.
Towards the end of the first century, John became the leader of the church in Ephesus. There
seems to have been a problem of lack of love in the church (2:4). This could be love for God or
love for each other, probably both. In his first letter, also written in Ephesus, John exhorts his
readers to love one another (1 Jn 4:7-12). Perhaps in their zeal to test false teaching, they had
become overly suspicious of each other.
Jerome records an account of the words of John in his old age which are relevant, “Blessed John
the evangelist, when he was staying in Ephesus until extreme old age, used to be carried to church
with difficulty by the hands of the disciples. He was not able to put many words together with his
voice and was accustomed to utter nothing but this during every gathering: ‘Little children, love
one another.’ Finally, the disciples and the brothers who were present became irritated
because they constantly heard the same thing over and over, and they said, ‘Teacher, why
do you always say this?’ He answered with a statement worthy of John: ‘Because it is the Lord’s
command, and if it alone is done, it is enough.’” (Jerome Commentary on Galatians 6:10).
Jesus threatened to remove their lamp-stand if they did not repent (2:5), meaning that they will
cease to be a true and living church, and will lack the light of Jesus shining through them. Even
though there was a strong church in Ephesus for many centuries, where some important church
councils where hosted, there is no church there now, the lamp-stand has been removed.
Letter 2 (2:8-11): Smyrna - suffering persecution
Smyrna is now the modern city of Izmir in western Turkey, lying about fifty kilometres (35 miles) north of Ephesus. In the first century it was a attractive city and centre of culture, known as ‘the glory of Asia’. The city had been destroyed by an earthquake in 580 BC and lay in ruins for three hundred
years. In 290 BC it was rebuilt as a carefully planned city with beautiful buildings. It was city that
had been dead and came back to life, just as Jesus had (2:8).
Smyrna was one of the first cities to build a temple to Roma, the spirit of the Roman empire, as
early as 195 BC, so it became an important centre for emperor worship. Smyrna was an important
supporter of Rome. The historian Cicero described Smyrna as, “the city of our most faithful and
most ancient allies” (Philippics 11.2.5), and Livy praised Smyrna “for extraordinary loyalty”
(Hist Rome 38.39.11).
There was a large Jewish community who were exempt from worshipping the emperor. They
were hostile to the Christian community and would report Christians to the authorities for failing
to worship the emperor. The letter refers to the slander of the Jews, who are called a synagogue
of Satan (2:9). In AD 156, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was burned alive for refusing to worship the emperor, after the Jews reported him to the governor. Polycarp was a disciple of John, and would have been in the city when they received this letter.
The Christian community was facing persecution and martyrdom. They were materially very
poor, but spiritually rich (2:9). This is in contrast to the church in Laodicea who were materially
rich, but spiritually poor (3:17). Jesus encourages them to be faithful, even to death, as they will
be rewarded with the crown of life (2:10). In the same way that the city of Smyrna has been
faithful to Rome for three centuries, the believers are urged to remain faithful to Jesus. The
reward is the crown of life. The Greek word for crown is ‘stephanos’, which was the crown given
as a reward for winning the race in the Greek games. Paul refers to this in his letter to Corinth,
“Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath (stephanos),
but we an imperishable one.” (1 Cor 9:25). In the ruins of Ephesus is a carving of the Greek
goddess Nike, the goddess of victory, who is wearing a crown of leaves. The believers are urged
to conquer through their faithful witness to Jesus and are promised the crown (stephanos) of
victory, like that worn by Jesus and the 24 elders (3:11, 4:4, 6:2, 12:1, 14:14). Smyrna had an
emblem known as ‘the crown of Smyrna’, which was a garland of flowers worn by worshippers
of Cybele, a female warrior goddess. On coins from Smyrna, Cybele is portrayed with a crown
looking like the walls of a city. Jesus is offering a better and longer-lasting crown.
The promise to those who conquer, is that they will not be harmed by the second death (20:15,
21:8), the everlasting punishment for evildoers. Jesus had no criticism of this suffering church,
and encouraged them to remain faithful to him. A church still exists in Smyrna (Izmir) today.
Letter 3 (2:12-17): Pergamum - compromise with false teachers
Pergamum is now the modern town of Bergama. In the first century it was the official capital and
seat of government of the Roman province of Asia. It was situated on the top of a huge rocky hill. It was an important cultural centre with a famous library. It was also a centre of emperor worship. A temple was dedicated to ‘the divine Augustus and the goddess Roma’. In the early second century the governor, Pliny, wrote to Emperor Trajan, asking whether his treatment of Christians was correct. He could identify the Christians because they refused to bow before an image of the emperor, burn incense and curse Christ. If they refused, he told the emperor that they would be sentenced to death. In his reply,
the emperor confirmed this policy, saying that people can prove they are not Christians by
worshipping the Roman gods.
The original city was situated on top of the hill, acropolis, where there was a huge temple to Zeus
which looked like a throne. The reference to Satan’s throne (2:13) could either refer to this, or
to the city being the centre of Roman government. The main part of the temple to Zeus is now
reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. This was decorated with carvings of giants with legs which were serpents. The city was also a centre of healing, where people worshipped the god Asclepius represented by a serpent, which was a symbol of Satan (12:9).
The city had two temples to Rome. The first was dedicated to Augustus (29 BC), and the second
to Trajan (early second century AD). An inscription in the Bergama archaeological museum describes Pergamum as ‘metropolis of Asia and twice neokoros’. Twice the city had been awarded the right to build a temple to the emperor, giving the city higher status and imperial favour.
The church was resisting the pressure to worship the emperor, and one member, Antipas, had
already been martyred (2:13). However they were tolerating false teachers, so Jesus warned that
he will come and fight against them with the sword from his mouth (2:12,16), which is the Word
of God. They were also compromising with pagan religions, by eating food offered to idols and
being involved in immorality (2:14), just as the Israelites were led astray by Balaam (Num 25).
There is some mystery about the white stone (2:17). It could represent the freedom of the city
given to a civic hero, or some other reward. Small stones or tokens made of terracotta, bone or
lead, known as ‘tessera’ have been found. It is thought that these were given out to the
population, which served as admission tickets to watch the displays in the amphitheatre. If this
is the case, then the promise of a white stone is the guarantee of admission to the heavenly city
to those who conquer.
Letter 4 (2:18-29): Thyatira - moral compromise and false teachers
Thyatira is now the modern town of Akhisar. It was the least important city, but it received the
longest letter. Not much is known about the town of Thyatira, and not much archaeological
excavation has been carried out. This means that it is difficult to identify particular details
concerning the town mentioned in the letter.
It was an important commercial centre, where they produced woollen goods, and a famous purple
dye extracted from the roots of the madder plant, which was very expensive. It was the home of
Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, who met Paul in Philippi (Acts 16:14). To succeed in business it
was necessary to belong to the local trade guild, each of which were dedicated to a particular god.
Food was offered to their god before being eaten in banquets, at which prostitutes would be
provided for the entertainment of the guests. These were referred to as the ‘after dinners’. It
would be very difficult for a believer to earn a living if they did not belong to the trade guild, so
there would be great temptation to compromise over this. The issue of eating food offered to idols
and attending banquets was addressed by Paul in his first letter to Corinth (1 Cor 8-10). Ramsay
said that more trade guilds are known in Thyatira than in any other Asian city. The designs of
coins issued in Thyatira show the great prosperity of the city.
The church has several important qualities which are praised: love, faith, service and patient
endurance. These qualities are increasing, so their last works are greater than their first (2:19).
This is opposite to Ephesus, who had abandoned their first love (2:4).
A woman referred to as Jezebel is being tolerated by the church (2:20). It is unlikely that this is
her actual name, but more likely that her behaviour was similar to Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab
of Israel. She was perhaps one of the leaders in the church, and was teaching that it was
acceptable for Christians to attend these banquets and eat food offered to idols. Jesus described
himself as the one with eyes like a flame of fire. He can see everything that is going on in the
lives of the believers. He will use these eyes to search their minds and hearts (2:23). He gives a
warning that he will come in judgment against this woman who is behaving like Jezebel, the wife
of king Ahab in the OT, who also led God’s people into idolatry.
The final promise is to those who conquer and continue to do the works of Jesus until the end
(2:26). This is the only promise with an additional condition. The promises to the other churches
are simply to those who conquer. The believers in Thyatira are urged to persevere and to continue
to resist the temptation to compromise.
Letter 5 (3:1-6): Sardis - dead not alive
The city of Sardis is located on the banks of the Pactolus river in the Hermus Valley at the
junction of five roads. It remained an important and very wealthy commercial city for many
centuries. The Lydians lived here as early as the 13th century BC and were the first to mint coins
of gold panned from the river in the 7th century BC. The last and most famous king of the
Lydians was unbelievably wealthy Croesus (560-546 BC). Sardis was situated in a very fertile
area, and the city continued to be rich.
The acropolis or citadel of the city was built on a spur of Mount Tmolus about 1500 feet (500m)
above the plain. The acropolis was difficult to reach and was considered unassailable by an
enemy. Today, much of that hill has been eroded away, but remains of the city can still be seen
on the summit. The city spread until it soon had an upper city and a lower city in the plain far
The city was over-confident and tended towards slackness. Twice in their history, enemies had
come, and entered the city by climbing the cliffs, at the top of which they found no guards on
duty. In 546 BC the Lydian king Croesus and city of Sardis fell to Cyrus and the Persians. The
Persians were in the valley below the citadel. A Lydian soldier dropped his helmet over the city
wall and scurried down the rock to get it. A Persian carefully marked this in his memory and
afterward scaled the city wall, with other soldiers, to capture the city for Cyrus. Croesus was
taken prisoner. Herodotus tells the story of the fall of Sardis (History 1:84). The confident city
In 334 BC Sardis surrendered willingly to Alexander the Great and the city became the
administrative centre for the Seleucid dynasty. In 214 BC the city fell to Antiochus III - The Great
through the use of tactics almost identical to those which caused its fall to the Persians more than
three centuries earlier.
The church was rather complacent, like the city. It had the reputation of being alive, but was
actually spiritually dead. This is probably the most severe condemnation of a church in any of the
seven letters. Jesus introduces himself as the one with the seven spirits of God (the Holy Spirit)
(3:1). It appears that this church needs submit once again to Jesus and experience the life of the
Spirit. He calls the church to wake up and return to him. If they do not, he warns that he will
come like a thief at an unexpected time (3:3), just as enemies had surprised the city of Sardis in
However there were a few faithful members of the church, who will be rewarded (3:4). Those
who conquer will also receive their reward, as long as they wake up and repent before it is too
late. The city of Sardis is now in ruins and there is no church there.
Letter 6 (3:7-13): Philadelphia - faithful in persecution
Philadelphia is now the town of Alesehir. It was founded by Attalus II Philadelphus of Pergamum around 150 BC, who named it after himself. Its purpose was to be a frontier city for spreading Greek culture into Phrygia and Lydia - ?a ‘Gateway to East’. It was located in an unstable area where there were frequent earthquakes. The people felt too frightened to live in the city because the houses were often shaken and split by these. The city was in fertile farming country with vineyards, so they worshipped Dionysus, the wine god. The city was given a new name in gratitude to the generosity of the emperor following an earthquake. It was a centre of emperor worship, where Christians were often reported to the authorities by the Jews. Jesus introduces himself as the one who has the key to open the door (3:7), just as the city was a gateway to the east. The church also has an open door for missionary work, just as the city was a centre for spreading Greek culture. Jesus praises the church for their faithful witness in persecution, and calls them to hold fast. Their reward is to become a pillar in the temple of God (3:12), a strong supporting structure in contrast to the unsafe unstable city. Paul referred to James, Peter and John as pillars in the church (Gal 2:9), so Jesus promises that the saints will be honoured before the presence of God. They will also receive a new name, just as the city did. He has no complaint against them. The church remained strong until the Turkish invasion in the 12th century, and still remains there today.
Letter 7 (3:14-22): Laodicea - lukewarm
Laodicea was a rich and prosperous city on an important road junction, close to Hieropolis and
Colossae in the Lycus valley. It was an important centre of banking, the production of fine glossy
black wool, and of a famous ointment for eyes made out of crushed rock, called ‘Laodicean ointment’. It was an wealthy and arrogant city, refusing financial help from the emperor after an earthquake in AD 60. Tacitus recorded that, “Laodicea arose from the ruins by the strength of her own resources, with no help from us” (Tacitus Annals 14:27)
Laodicea really did have lukewarm water which made people want to vomit (3:16). Nearby Hieropolis had hot medicinal springs, with very hard water was rich in lime, which left chalky encrustations over the landscape. This is now the well-known tourist destination of Pammukale. The hot water came from Hieropolis through pipes to Laodicea, by which time it had cooled down to be lukewarm. The hard water left thick mineral deposits in the pipes, almost blocking them. Remains of these water pipes can be seen in the ruins of Laodicea. Colossae had cold freshwater, which was also piped to Laodicea, by which time it was warmed up to become lukewarm.
The church had no problems with false teachers or persecution, but was criticised by Jesus for its self-sufficiency, which made it ineffective. Its supposed strengths were actually weaknesses. They claimed to be rich but were actually poor, even though the city was a banking centre. They claimed to see, but were actually blind, even though the city produced a famous eye ointment. They claimed to need nothing, but were naked, even though the city was a producer of fine woollen clothes (3:17-18). Instead of relying on themselves, they were called to buy gold, clothing and ointment from Jesus.
The most well-known criticism was that they were lukewarm, just like their water. Jesus calls them to ‘be hot’ and repent (3:19), and to open the door he is knocking on. Even though this verse is often used evangelistically, it was originally addressed to the church. There is no church and no city in Laodicea today, all that remains is a pile of ruins.