Why churches in these seven cities were identified first recipients of the first set of visions is, as noted, a subject of conjecture. These seven cities also act as a type for the churches in Asia rather than being the only churches worthy of address. While the letters are specific to these seven, the letters may be viewed certainly today as representative of problems common to many assemblies.
It is again useful to note that the letters are listed in all texts as written to the “angel” of each of these churches. As noted, it is absurd to think that this refers to other than a heavenly angel or messenger; and so these should be taken as previously noted: written from Christ, through an angel standing for each of these assemblies; and delivered to John, who acts as both prophet and scribe to each of the churches. While these things occurred the churches and Christians were yet under the direct supervision of the remaining Apostles, prophets and disciples with the indwelling or gifts of the Holy Spirit. The “manifold wisdom of God” was not fully published until the end of these prophesies and this book; and the assemblies did not all yet stand upon their own. Understood this way, this is a further indication that the visions are quite specific to the actual churches addressed. The seven are listed as prominent churches of the region. Sometime just into the third quarter of the First Century, the center of Christianity had moved northward out of the region of Judaea and into Asia.
We need to be careful about numerical interpretations and their applications here and within the rest of the Bible (there will be more on this later). I note that many accept that the number seven (which appears at least fifty times in Revelation) is generally viewed as the number indicating completion or perfection. If so, the seven churches may be set forth as examples for all the churches of this region and further acting as types for the churches in general.
The Seven Churches
As was just noted, the center of Christianity had by the time of the letter and a decade prior to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, moved into the regions north of Palestine and into the Roman province of Asia where all these assemblies were located. The churches of Judea and the surrounding areas had begun their decline both in numbers and “importance.” These seven cities were steeped in Greek culture but were Roman through alliance and allegiance.
Archaeologist John McRay suggested the seven cities were addressed in the order in which they might typically be traveled to by road, beginning with Ephesus and continuing a semi-circular main route with to Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. These were the major cities in the region with populations, in each case, of more than 100,000. Each city was quite modern with plumbing, water and sewer systems, paved roads, and postal systems. For the most part they enjoyed considerable commerce based upon their locations near the Adriatic and due to the presence of the Roman temple systems.
“With the evidence of archeology thereby weighed, there should be no doubt that the cities of Revelation were centers for Emperor Worship – the Imperial cults and Greco-Roman paganism. Augustus had authorized emperor worship in the provinces of Asia and Bithynia in 29 BC. Of the seven cities, Ephesus, Pergamum, and Smyrna were honored as ‘Temple Wardens’ in the first century, (in honor for their care of temple properties) and later were given the higher distinction of ‘Twice Temple Wardens.’”
[McRay Archaeology 243]