Ephesus was the most prominent city of Asia and the eventual capital of the Roman province. It was home to the Temple of Artemis (Greek: Diana) considered one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, which was at the center of the controversy involving Paul as was recorded in Acts 19. The temple was important because it was the major bank for the Mediterranean world. This simple fact should make clear to students the center and seriousness of the controversy surrounding Paul in the riot at Ephesus. We should pause to note “…the love of money is the root of all evil.” There was a fear for loss of potential income and prestige. Economics were at the center of many of the controversies recorded in Acts. And we have a woeful lack of knowledge about how the Greeks and later the Romans perfected the use of myths, emperor cults and worship to fund their provinces, the leaders and cities. The temples of the Greek or Roman gods and to a much higher degree, the temples of the emperors of Rome, with the Pantheon and their priests, were the funding principals for the Empire. They were both mint and bank. It is always about the money. It is in Ephesus where Paul spent better than two years in the establishment of the church. The city’s population was then estimated at about 300,000.
Smyrna was the second city of prominence of Asia. It was about 40 miles from Ephesus, and was considered one of the most beautiful cities of the ancient world. Its ruins contain temples to Augustus, Tiberius, and Hadrian. The beginning of the church in Smyrna is unknown, as it is only here mentioned in the scriptures. The indication in the writing to Smyrna is that the early tribulations there were wrought at the hand of the Jews (v.9).
Pergamum was the capital city of Asia up to the end of the first century when that honor was granted to Ephesus. It was noted for its library, which was second only to that of Alexandria. The city was also the site of one of the three largest Asklepieions in the ancient Roman Empire. Asklepieions were worship centers dedicated to the god of health and the centers of medical technology (the symbol for which was a pair of coiled serpents — the caduceus). Pergamum also gave the world the use of dried and cured skins for writing (initially animal skins). The material was called Pergamum charta in Latin and parchment in Greek. The city was also the site of temples dedicated to Augustus, and later Trajan and Severus. The references to the “throne of Satan” and “where Satan dwells” in Rev. 5:12, 13, undoubtedly refer to the abundance of false worship and to the worship of Emperors and the abominations attendant with services in those temples.
Thyatira was a center of commerce mainly as it was home to numerous trade guilds. It was a city of considerable wealth gained from the thriving trade. As with Smyrna, nothing is known of the church at Thyatira save what is written in this book. It was the home of the Persian woman Lydia (Acts 16:11–15, 40), but we can only speculate on the beginning of the church there based on the record in Acts. The letter to Thyatira is the lengthiest of the letters to the churches.
Sardis was a principal city mainly due to its long history. The city was in decline after 17 AD when an earthquake had destroyed it. Though rebuilt by the time of the writing, Sardis never regained its population or splendor. As the rests, Sardis was a pagan city. While there are no indications of early temples to emperors, there are remains of several cult and Greco-Roman temples. There are imperial cult temples dating from the reign of Septimius Severus.
Philadelphia was also a major trading center located on the principal East-West trade route. Philadelphia was also a religious center for the cult of Dionysius and other pagan deities. The city was destroyed in both the 17 and 60 AD earthquakes and was immediately rebuilt. The modern city of Alasehir, Turkey stands on the site of the ancient city. According to John McRay, there was little of value to be excavated in Philadelphia due to the severe seismic history (the most recent major quakes were in the last quarter of the twentieth century).
Laodicea was a garrisoned city renowned for its trade and more so for its strong Greek influence. It was also a well-known retirement center, and that fact may figure in understanding the remarks made to the church. Like Philadelphia, Laodicea was destroyed by quakes and rebuilt several times. John McRay wrote, “…by the time of the next serious earthquake in AD 60 the Laodiceans rebuilt without any outside aid from Nero. Such a proud self-sufficient attitude is indicated in the book of Revelations, where the Laodicean church is depicted as saying, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I have need of nothing.’” [McRay Archaeology 246]
Historians generally note that this city had nothing much either to commend it nor to condemn it, and that it was found much as it was described in the letter. [It is also postulated by some that it is to Laodicea that Paul wrote in the letter commonly thought as written to the church at Ephesus, as Ephesus is not mentioned by name in most ancient manuscripts; and we do know Paul had concerns for the church at Laodicea (Col. 4:16). But that is speculation and a speculation that ignores that the letter to Ephesus was filled with praise while it seems that anything written to Laodicea might have had just a little bit less. We also know that Paul spent considerable time in Ephesus, and only a little in Laodicea. Again, we need to remind ourselves that God knows how to keep his plan and particulars intact.]
General Notes on the Letters to the Seven Churches.
Common elements in the seven letters — 1.) The command from Christ to John to write is present in all. 2.) Each is addressed through the angel watching each congregation. 3.) A title is given to Christ – though different in each letter, most of the titles refer to the appellations given in C. 1. 4.) Praise or blame is listed for the condition of the church. 5.) A charge or warning is issued to repent, to return or to maintain that which was right. 6.) A promise is given to the victorious. 7.) A call is listed to all to heed what “the Spirit says unto the churches.”
The importance in each letter is given not only within the message, but also in the titles given to Christ. The titles and appellations given of the Son of God have an integral relationship to the rest of the text. They call attention of all readers to the eternal being of the Son of God and emphasize the death and resurrection of the Lord. Note the Apostle writes that He is “…the first begotten of the dead.” “Him that loved us and washed us (or loosed us) from our sins,” “…And every eye shall see him, and they which pierced him, and all kindred of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so Amen.” You will also find other phrases repeated, “…that which is, and which was, and which is to come.” Likewise, the phrase “I AM alpha and omega,” being unique for its reference to the Tetragrammaton (an invention of Jewish Rabbis to render the name of God unpronounceable, through removal of the vowel markings), and for the name of God (“I AM THE I AM”), and for the implication of Christ being the beginning and the end of all authority, or simply – the beginning and end of all things.
Another present symbol is “He which has the sharp sword with two edges,” which in every usage within prophesy refers to the Word of God as it has proceeded from the Son. The use of this symbol is to alert the congregations to the position and authority of the Son of God and of the Word (Greek: Logos). That He is the only begotten Son of God and carries in His person the full and abiding authority and power of the Father, The Lord of Hosts, Almighty God, who sent him to earth, with his consent, to die and to be raised again that those who remain obedient to Him unto death might gain rest in the eternity of life in heaven with God, His Son, and with the heavenly host.
This is in sharp contrast to the spurious doctrines finding way into the churches of the first century. The first departures were due to the Jewish influence and these doctrines are mentioned in the letters to some these churches (2:9 & 3:9). This point is extremely important to keep in mind during the interpretation of the signs within the prophecies. The new divisive doctrines were collectively known as gnosticism (from the transliterated Greek word for knowledge). It is also the forerunner of many religious departures that abound today. There is no false teaching now that does not have its footing in the Jewish interpretive doctrines and the Gnostic doctrines of the first century.