John in Turkey

John's Seven Churches

John's Seven Churches

 

Article: Seven Churches,_Seven_Wonders

Seven Churches Bibliography by Colin J. Hemer

 

Table of Contents:

Ephesus

Smyrna

Pergamum

Thyatira

Sardis

Philadelphia

Laodicea

Introduction

 

Church tradition indicates that the apostle John moved to Ephesus with many Palestinian Christians around a.d. 65 before the fall of Jerusalem in 70. During Nero’s persecution against Christians in Rome at that time, both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. As the leader of the Asian church John was targeted by Roman authorities and exiled to Patmos (Rev. 1:9). While on the island John received his apocalyptic vision about the spiritual situation of seven Asian churches as well as about the future of the church and the world (1:10–11, 19). The order of the seven churches—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea—follows a route that a messenger would naturally follow in visiting the cities. During Paul’s ministry in Ephesus many churches were established in Asia. Hence these seven churches seem to represent many other churches that were in Asia at the time (e.g., Miletus, Troas, Assos, Cyzicus, Magnesia, Tralles, Metropolis, etc.). The style of the seven messages is similar, with the heart of each focused on commendation and correction concluding with a promise of victory. The historical and spiritual situation of each church aids in interpreting the details of its message.

Ephesus

Ephesus

The church in Ephesus (2:1–7) was commended for its hard work and perseverance. The church encountered much spiritual opposition from the temple of Artemis as well as from the fourteen or more other Greek deities that were worshipped. Ephesus was also a center of magical practices (Acts 19:19). False apostles in the church were also a problem. At Miletus Paul had warned the Ephesian elders that some from their own company would distort the truth (Acts 20:29–30). Timothy was to make the Ephesians Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Philetus stop teaching false doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3, 19–20; 2 Tim. 2:17–18). Such external and internal conflict had caused the church to lose its first love of Christ and his saints. The site of Ephesus had moved three times during its early history. Unless the church repented, Jesus threatened to move its lampstand from its place of prominence among the Asian churches. (It does not mean Jesus would do away with the church.) The victorious Christians in Ephesus were were promised to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God. Paradise was the name for the Garden of Eden in the Greek Old Testament. Outside Ephesus was the grove Ortygia which was thought to be the traditional birthplace of Artemis. The sacred grove called a paradeisos still drew pilgrims in the first century. The Christians were thus promised an eternal paradise far superior to that possessed by their pagan counterparts.

Smyrna

Smyrna

The church in Smyrna (2:8–11) had experienced great pressure from the Jewish authorities, called the synagogue of Satan. No archaeological evidence exists today for such a synagogue. It had closed its doors to Christians, and its leaders were inciting the Roman authorities to persecute the church. The Jews later had a similar role in the martyrdom of the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp. The crown of life is a possible allusion to the acropolis Mount Pagus that looms over the city. Such ancient writers as Aristides describes it as Smyrna’s crown. Whatever temporal crown the citizens of Smyrna enjoyed, the believers were guaranteed an eternal crown. They were also promised exemption from the second death. There existed in the ancient world a connection between death and Smyrna. Its name is identical to the Greek word for the sweet–smelling spice in which dead bodies were wrapped (e. g., Jesus; John 19:39). A number of mourning myths became associated with Smyrna, particularly that of Niobe whose tear–stained face was thought to be etched in the marble of nearby Mount Sipylus.

Pergamum

Pergamum

Pergamum Theater

The church of Pergamum (2:12–17) existed in the place where Satan had his throne. This reference probably does not refer to the altar of Zeus that sat atop the thousand-foot acropolis that towers over the lower city. Rather it refers to the city as the seat of the provincial koinon, or assembly, whose leader was also the chief priest (“the beast out of the earth”; 13:11–17) of the imperial cult—the first cult temple in Anatolia.

The Roman governor of Asia exercised the power of life and death—the “right of the sword” (ius gladii)—in his province. Jesus stated he held even higher authority with his sharp, double-edged sword. One church leader named Antipas had already been martyred in the city. He was the only person named in Revelation as a martyr. The imperial cult temple housed a white stone stele inscribed with a decree issued by Fabius, the governor of Asia, around 9 b.c. It decreed that Augustus’ birthday should be made an official holiday in Asia as well as mark the beginning of the municipal new year. The birth of Caesar Augustus was called the beginning of life and breath (cf. Rev. 3:14). And his birthday was declared the beginning of good news for the world (cf. Rev. 14:6). The emperors made the same claims to deity as Jesus Christ! No wonder the Christians refused to take the mark of this beast and worship him.

Thyatira

Thyatira

The church in Thyatira (2:18–29) was plagued by a false prophetess symbolically named Jezebel after the evil queen of Israel who worshiped idols. She along with the Nicolaitans advocated compromise with certain pagan practices. Meat in the ancient world was dedicated to the gods at the pagan temples before it was sold in the public markets; many Christians refused to eat such meat sacrificed to idols. Thyatira was known for its trade guilds (cf. Lydia; Acts 16:14) which would hold banquets in the pagan temples. After eating and drinking, the diners often engaged in sexually immoral acts on the couches (klinai) where they lay. Jezebel and the Nicolaitans apparently condoned such behavior because of a false understanding of freedom in Christ.

Sardis

Sardis

The church in Sardis (3:1–6) had become dead in spite of its reputation. Twice before the city’s acropolis had fallen because Sardis had fallen asleep and let down her guard. Cyrus defeated Croesus in 546 b.c., and the Cretan general Lagoras captured it for Antiochus the Great in 218 b.c. Greek cities maintained a list of citizens in a public register. When someone committed a criminal action and was condemned, he lost his citizenship and his name was then erased from the register. The believers who perserved would never be blotted from the eternal book of life. Sardis was noted as a textile center, producing wool to make the himation, the most common outer garment for men and women in the Greco-Roman world. The color white in Revelation always denotes purity and worthiness. Hence white garments would be a suitable reward for the victors.

Philadelphia

Philadelphia

The church at Philadelphia (3:7–13) stood at an important junction of the imperial post road that ran from Rome through Troas, Pergamum, and Sardis on through to Tarsus and the East. They had an open door through which to share the gospel. Yet here too a synagogue of Satan opposed the believers. Although no archaeological evidence for a synagogue has been found, a 3rd-century a.d. inscription was found 10 miles east of the city mentioning a “synagogue of the Hebrews.” Philadelphia was located in an earthquake-prone region called the Catacecaumene. Both Sardis and Philadelphia were devastated by earthquakes in a.d. 17. Asian temples were built to withstand severe earthquakes. Their foundations were laid on beds of charcoal covered with wool fleeces, which caused the structure to “float” on the soil like a raft. Each block was joined to another by metal cramps, so that the platform was a unity. The temple would be the most secure structure in the city, hence the promise to be a pillar in the temple of God was one of security and safety. Inscribed pillars are found throughout Aegean Turkey. A dra matic example in situ is the temple of Zeus at Euromos with dedicatory inscriptions on ten of the eleven standing pillars. Jesus will write divine names as well as his new name on those human “pillars” who overcome. Philadelphia received a new name twice in the first century: the first time after the a.d. 17 earthquake to “Neocaesarea” in gratitude for Tiberius’ generosity, the second time to “Flavia” after Vespasian gave financial assistance following a similar catastrophe.

Laodicea

Laodicea

The church in Laodicea (3:14–22) was closely related to its sister churches at Colossae and Hierapolis. Its spiritual condition was lukewarm—neither hot nor cold. Six miles north of the city were the thermal springs (not drinkable) at Hierapolis, whose white calcareous cliffs were visible in the distance. To obtain drinking water, the Romans built an aqueduct that ran five miles south to an abundant spring (now in Denizli). The cool spring water would become lukewarm as it passed through the aqueducts into the city. The city was strategically located for trade and commerce, and became a leading banking center. It had accepted aid from Rome following earlier earthquakes. However, after the earthquake in 60 that devastated many Asian cities, only Laodicea refused to accept Roman financial assistance because she was so wealthy. This attitude of material self-satisfaction, “I am rich,” had seemingly entered the church also. The church’s spiritual blindness was ironic because a famous salve for treating eye disease was produced by the medical school there. The exhortation to buy white garments to cover their shameful nakedness is another example of irony. For the believers were living in a city where the Romans had established textile factories to manufacture clothing from the famous black wool of the region. Laodicea was a “throne city” because a citizen Zeno became king of Cilicia in 39 b.c. and of Pontus in 36. His family continued to rule in some measure in Anatolia over the next century. The Zenoid family figures prominently on the Laodicea’s coinage. Again the victors are promised that they will sit with Jesus on his heavenly throne.

John and the Seven Churches

John and the Seven Churches

The persecution that broke out after the murder of Stephen is often cited as the occasion for John coming to Ephesus. Acts 8:1 says that the church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria; however, the apostles remained in Jerusalem. There is no biblical evidence that John went to Ephesus in the 30s. A more likely scenario is that John, heeding Jesus’ warning to flee Jerusalem when it was surrounded by Roman armies (Luke 21:20–21), moved with a community of Palestinian Jewish believers to Ephesus after the Jewish revolt broke out in 66 CE. Both Peter and Paul had recently been martyred in Rome under Nero, so John would have naturally filled their leadership vacuum. He ministered for some three decades to Christians in and around Ephesus, writing the Revelation, the Gospel and three Epistles.

 

As the leader of the Asian church John was targeted by Roman authorities and exiled to Patmos (Rev. 1:9). While on the island John received his apocalyptic vision about the spiritual situation of seven Asian churches as well as about the future of the church and the world (1:10–11, 19). The order of the seven churches—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea—follows a route that a messenger would naturally follow in visiting the cities. During Paul’s ministry in Ephesus many churches were established in Asia. Hence these seven churches seem to represent many other churches that were in Asia at the time (e.g., Miletus, Troas, Assos, Cyzicus, Magnesia, Tralles, Metropolis, etc.). The style of the seven messages is similar, with the heart of each focused on commendation and correction concluding with a promise of victory. The historical and spiritual situation of each church aids in interpreting the details of its message.

 

The addressees of the book of Revelation were seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. W. M. Ramsay states that the province “embraced the W. parts of the great peninsula now called Asia Minor, including the countries Mysia, Lydia, Caria, and great part of Phrygia, with the Dorian, Ionian, and Aeolian coast-cities, the Troad, and the islands off the coast (Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Patmos, Cos, etc.)” (“Asia,” Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, 1.171). Why these churches were singled out over other churches in the area has been an ongoing topic of discussion. The result of Paul’s 2 1/3 year residence in Ephesus (a.d. 52–54) was that “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10). Such widespread dissemination of the gospel thus occurred some two decades (early dating c. 69) or four decades (late dating c. 95) before Revelation was written.

 

Six other sites are certain locations of churches in the first century: Troas (Acts 16:8–11; 20:5–12; 2 Cor. 2:12; 2 Tim. 4:13), Miletus (Acts 20:15, 17; 2 Tim. 4:20), Colossae (Col. 1:2), Hieropolis (Col. 4:13), Tralles and Magnesia (Ignatius). Richard Oster has listed 37 Anatolian cities where Christian communities were established in the first and second centuries. None of the cities that follow are on his list, although he acknowledges that because such books as Revelation were designed as circular letters, this increases “the number of Christian sites that can be inferred from early Christian literature” (“Christianity in Asia Minor, ” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1.938). Other possible sites include Assos, which was approximately twenty miles overland from Troas via a Roman road, Mitylene, Chios, and Samos (Acts 20:13–15). Priene was an important Greek city along the route between Miletus and Ephesus, and Cyzicus was the most important Asian seaport on the Propontis (Sea of Marmara). The late E. M. Blaiklock suggested that Aphrodisias “will probably soon be added to the list of Ten Towns of Asia known to have been first-century centers of Christian witness” (NIDBA [ed. E. M. Blaiklock; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983] 31).

 

In a personal letter responding to my question regarding the source of that assertion, Edwin Yamauchi wrote: “As I am not aware of any first-century evidence for Christians at Aphrodisias (and think it highly unlikely), I suspect that Dr. Blaiklock was probably guessing when he wrote on Aphrodisias” (May 3, 1992). The excavator of Aphrodisias, the late Kenan T. Erim, wrote: “The earliest known name of an Aphrodisian bishop is that of Ammonius, who participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325. Two early Christian martyrs, apparently put to death under Diocletian, were also ascribed to the city” (Aphrodisias: City of Venus Aphrodite [New York: Facts on File, 1986] 33). Given the prominence of Aphrodisias (re Augustus’ statement: “Aphrodisias is the one city from all of Asia I have selected to be my own” [ibid., 1]) and its proximity to the three churches of the Lycus valley, undoubtedly the gospel was preached there at an early date. No historical evidence has yet been discovered to verify the existence of a first- century church there, however.

 

Several of these cities are more prominent than Thyatira and Philadelphia. W. M. Ramsay has convincingly suggested that the order of the churches in Revelation represented a circular postal circuit that a courier would follow. Thus these churches were primary communication centers fcontentrom which secondary messengers would be dispatched so that other churches in their respective districts could read the correspondence. Revelation, then, was meant for a larger audience than the designated churches. But I want to return to two more basic questions: why just seven churches? And of these seven churches, why begin with Ephesus?

John’s Seven Churches

Origin Destination Distance Km/M
Patmos Miletus 72/45
Miletus Ephesus 74/46
Ephesus Smyrna 80/50
Smyrna Pergamum 112/69
Pergamum Thyatira 76/47
Thyatira Sardis 63/39
Sardis Philadelphia 45/28
Philadelphia Laodicea 90/56
Ephesus Laodicea 466/289

The distances were measured on the Barrington Atlas of the Classical World using a Brunton Digital Map Measurer. The distances are over 95% accurate. Higher accuracies are difficult because of the page creases and the way the maps overlap in the atlas.