John wrote the book of Revelation while in exile on the Isle of Patmos. The letters to 7 churches occurs early in the book.
Churches were not buildings; church building didn’t start until the early 200s AD, and John wrote around 90 AD. All of these churches took place in people’s homes or in public places, including the outer court of Jerusalem’s Temple (Acts 2:46) or in Rome, public places that were probably warehouses or apartments. Most of them were in people’s homes; usually the homes of the wealthy or well-to-do because they would have the room. This explains why James was so mad about rich people getting treated specially and poor people humiliated: the people saying to the rich “Come sit here!” were their friends and peers! Treating the poor the same as the rich wasn’t that easy when they were packed into your hall.
However, even though small gatherings met separately in people’s homes, most people considered the “church” as all church meetings in a city. Thus Ephesus might have multiple gatherings but people and the apostles considered it one church, and local church officers treated it that way. The best modern equivalent are mega churches with satellite campuses: they are all Church on the Way for example, but meet in different locations.
The 7 were churches in Asia Minor that were all attached to a city.
Rev. 2: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
“Angel” in this passage could be translated as “messenger.” This could still mean an angel, or it could mean the human elder or representative of a particular church. In this case, the elder would be responsible for telling his church what the Holy Spirit said, and helping them to change.
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.
Note: “tested those who claim to be apostles.” These days you read a lot of “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Even some Christians don’t even want to know doctrine, and claim that Jesus did not found a religion.
Nonsense. Of course He did. Christianity rose from Judaism, which was founded on a system of God-given law and revelation. Jesus – also God — called twelve core disciples to carry on as apostles after Him. God has really never been a laid-back, whatever, “anything goes” God! The early church knew this, and doctrine was very important to them – because if you lose doctrine, then you lose faith, then you lost salvation.
3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Ephesus was where the huge mob led by angry merchants had attacked Paul and Silas. The church had been under persecution for some time, but they were brave and steadfast.
4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.
Love for both God and each other! As James and John both said, you cannot hate people and love God. You must love them both. And this was a big, big deal:
5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
Whoa! We may think we can get away with no loving people as long as we are correct in our doctrine and don’t lose faith. But this is wrong! It is vital to know what we believe, and to believe it. It is equally vital to love one another, or you may indeed lose your salvation. Remember the teaching on forgiveness? To be forgiven you must forgive.
6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
The Nicolaitans were heretics even then. These were the guys who decided that because they were forgiven in Christ, they could worship pagan idols and have intercourse with anything that moves, just like Roman society did. And of course they tried to teach the heresy to the churches – particularly, as it seems, in Ephesus. Fortunately, the church fought back and did not accept the teachings.
7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Interestingly, the word for “paradise” has its root in a Persian word meaning “walled pleasure garden!” Paradise isn’t for anyone who just wants to waltz in. The Garden of Eden was closed to Adam and Eve when they sinned, and only those who believe in Jesus Christ go to heaven.
8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
Thanks to its harbor on the Mediterranean Sea, Smyrna was rich and beautiful. Today it’s the city of Izmir, Turkey’s 3rd largest city.
In Biblical times it was proud of its association with Rome and happy to adopt emperor worship. Persecution of the church started early, and in the early 200s a church father named Polycarp would be martyred.
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.
The First and the Last: The Alpha and the Omega! “The First and Last” is one of the Names of God:
“This is what the Lord says—
Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty:
I am the first and I am the last;
apart from me there is no God. (Isa 44:6)
By referring to Jesus Christ as the First and the Last – or in the words of the Greek alphabet, the Alpha and the Omega – John identifies Jesus Christ with God the Father.
9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
Making it even harder on the small church, a large Jewish population was very hostile to the new church. This is a brutal saying – “a synagogue of Satan” – but it was the truth. At this point Satan was using unconverted Jews to drive a sword through the church’s heart. John had a history of warning the churches against Satan and his work, and spends a good deal of the letter of 1 John saying so. But remember, Satan cannot defeat faithful believers. “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them.” (1 John 5:18)
Nevertheless, Satan can do damage through the unsaved who serve him – but do not be afraid.
10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
Be faithful, even through hard time! Note that the crown you are promised here is not the word for metal crowns worn by kings. Scripture refers to believers as conquerors, kings, and priests, but here the word means the laurel wreath that victors in athletic competitions wear. A king may just be born to the throne and never do anything to earn his high station. But a victor in the games trained hard and out-ran everyone else to win. The meaning is to be strong! Be brave!
11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
The “second death” is being thrown into the lake of fire. Satan and his angels will be tossed into the flames. So will unrepentant sinners. Yikes. Let’s not be that.
Pergamum exists today as modern Bergama, a district of Izmir Province in Turkey. In Biblical times it was a major trade city in Asia Minor. The name “Perganum” means “citadel” because it was built on a cone-shaped hill rising 1,000 feet above the surrounding valley.
12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
Pergamum was devoted to dark powers since it was the official center of emperor worship in Asia! We don’t know much about the martyr Antipas, but if he was put to death before John wrote Revelation, then he was a very early martyr. Clearly the church is standing fast even in the face of persecution. John wrote Revelation during the reign of Domitian, who was the first emperor to methodically persecute the church, probably because the church hated the emperor cult so much – especially in Pergamum, which loved it because it got them royal favor.
14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.
Back in the OT during the time of the Exile, the gentile prophet Balaam was working for the king of Midian, who wanted to hurt the Israelites. Balaam advised the Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men and urge them to bow down to idols, which many of them did. John uses Balaam as an example of corrupt teachers who taught Christian men that it was quite all right to have any kind of sex they wanted to, just like the surrounding Romanized Gentiles did.
15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
The Nicolaitans were similar, only they added that men would indeed be sinning if they had extra-marital relations – but that was OK because they would simply receive more grace, and wasn’t that a great thing? (Wow.)
16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
So don’t do that! “The sword of my mouth” – remember that when God speaks in power, people fall down. No one can stand up by themselves in the presence of God when He unveils His power and glory, no one. It is only by God extending mercy and acceptance that anyone is able to stand.
17 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
Hidden manna: the Gentile converts may not have known what that was, but the Jewish ones did and would teach the rest. This was the manna that resided in the Ark of the Covenant, that was a reminder of God’s miraculous provision for His people.
White stone: with a new name: The stone was probably an invitation to the great banquet. Jesus told a parable about an uninvited guest who got tossed out on his ear. Only the invited – i.e. the saved – will be able to enter in. The “new name” refers to the name of a victor. Victorious generals sometimes changed theirs or their sons’ birth names to celebrate their victories. Caesar Germanicus for example. was not born with that name. When he was 9, the Senate granted his new first name thanks to his father’s victories in the wild provinces of Germania.