General comments on the letters —
1.) Ephesus: the church at Ephesus suffered from indifference – they had “lost their first love.” Many good things are mentioned (v.2&3). Nicolaitans are listed by Irenaeus to be followers of Nicolas, one of the seven listed as deacons in Acts, although that is likely nothing more than some want-to-be folklore leaving a stain against the name of one of the first deacons, of whom nothing certain is known beyond his appointment in Jerusalem. This theory or note could amount to little more than the repeating of folklore by Irenaeus and others whose works are full of such things. Excepting the mention here and at Pergamum, the Nicolaitans are unknown to history. They are suggested to be Gnostics by some ancient and modern commentators. But, then how could they possibly know, having all written well beyond the first century? The actual issue is that nobody knows a thing about the Nicolaitans. (Irenaeus, Ante – 352)
The short form for Gnosticism taught the existence of two Gods: one as the creator of the universe, the other a greater God who offered salvation to men. Scholars and historians have identified three distinct schools of Gnosticism: 1.) Ascetism – Where spiritual communion with God is attained through solitude, visions, and ecstatic experience (it is this idea which gave rise to monasticism). 2.) Libertinism – higher knowledge achieves oneness with God, through use of the intellect: this attachment is above concerns of morality or physical concerns, and therefore there is no sin (this is obviously a forerunner to the doctrines of Jean Calvin). 3.) Docetism – Christ’s flesh or humanity was an illusion: by example, Jesus was born of Joseph and Mary as a man. He only became the “Christ” at his baptism by John, and then at the crucifixion he became the man Jesus again; (just a man, because the redeemer could not have had a flesh and blood body) and therefore Jesus, the man, and not Christ, the Anointed, died upon the cross. [Green, Unholy, 382]
2.) Smyrna was an approved assembly though persecuted. As with all these churches, Christ knows their doings (v.9). Obviously, persecution here began by the hand of the Jews. These problems were to last a short time, (“ten days”), but if they were faithful (even) unto death they would receive their reward. In this last statement we find the overall theme of the book of Revelation.
3.) Pergamum had been a stumbling block to those who would do good. There is the first mention of martyrs, Satan’s throne, the teaching of Balaam, the Nicolaitans again are mentioned, etc. etc. There are many things behind the troubles at Pergamum. However, the main charge against the church is allowing false teachers to flourish which is the root of all apostasy.
4.) Thyatira stood accused of worldliness. This is the longest of the seven letters. The church there was tolerant of worldliness and its workers, such as the one likened to or named “Jezebel.” The historic Jezebel, Ammonite wife of King Ahab, was the most corrupt queen in Israel’s history. She helped lead her husband, the king of Israel, into idolatry. The effect was felt into succeeding generations through the corruption of her children (see 1 Kin.16:31, 33; and 22:52). Marrying Jezebel’s daughter had an influence upon Joram (or Jehoram), as is found in 2 Kin.8:18, and 9:6. Exactly who would be contrary enough to hang the name of Jezebel on their daughter, either then or now? As such, it is likely the name Jezebel is being applied allegorically. Christ said, “I will give unto every one of you according to your works.” Repent or die. That is not allegorical.
5.) Sardis was spiritually dead. Their condition is the exact opposite to Pergamum. Where Pergamum had a few who were defiled and teaching or holding false doctrines, Sardis had only a few who were not (v.4).
A not-so-obvious lesson in this text is that the few Christians there who had not “soiled” themselves, had not been sanctioned or instructed to go elsewhere – to run over to a neighboring congregation or start a new one down the road, due to the circumstances within the church. Their worship was identified as still acceptable to the Lord despite the conditions within the assembly and for most of the Christians worshipping there. It is an individual and a collective thing – and the levels are clearly not the same.
6.) Philadelphia is the second in the seven listed as an “approved” assembly. The difference between Smyrna and Philadelphia is that Philadelphia was to be kept from trial. Here the Jews are also at the center of the problems; but the situation is indicated to soon change (v.9). So much for the notion that “good” churches will not have trials.
7.) Laodicea is likened to tepid or viscid water: lukewarm, murky — good for nothing. This is the second longest of the seven letters. There is no mention of good characteristics as was the case in rest of the letters. The outlook for churches such as Laodicea is dismal unless changes were made.
Several promises are made, or described conditions are given to the faithful and to those from these assemblies who repent. The promises to the faithful:
They shall eat of the tree of life.
They shall not be hurt of the second death.
They shall be given to eat of the hidden manna, and will be given a white stone upon which is written a new name.
They will be given power over the nations to rule with a rod of iron, and will be given the morning star.
They will be clothed in white raiment, and their names will not blotted out of the book of life, but will be confessed before the Father in heaven and his angels.
They will be made a pillar in the temple of God and shall have written upon (them) the name of God, and of the city of God, and “my new name.” They will be given to sit with Christ upon his throne.