Studies in Revelation—Lesson 8
By Reta Halteman Finger
In this lesson, we will look at the cities where the churches addressed in Revelation 2:1-3:22 are located. (See maps in Lesson 7.) We’ll especially pay attention to the allusions John makes to the distinctive character of each city. More important for John’s purposes, however, is the character of the churches themselves amidst the dangers that surround them from pagan influence, as well as from what John perceives as false teaching from rival religious groups.
In the paragraphs below, notice how an allusion to something unique about each city—a characteristic for which the city was well known—comes through in the wording of the message for the church located there.
Ephesus: temples and trees. This major port city was home to the provincial governor and was dotted with various temples. Among them was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the temple of the Goddess Artemis, built over an even older tree shrine. Jesus’s power can top that, however, for those who “conquer” will receive “permission to eat from the tree of life which is in the paradise of God” (2:7).
Smyrna: from death to life. This beautiful port city was associated with myrrh, a spice used in death and burial in expectation of an afterlife. Jesus identifies himself as one who “was dead and came to life” (2:8). Totally destroyed in 600 BCE, Smyrna was rebuilt in 290 BCE, on the crown of Mount Pagus. The crown, or wreath, was common on coins in reference to Smyrna. Jesus’s promise to the faithful church in this city was “the crown of life” (2:10) and a promise not to “be harmed by the second death.”
Pergamum: Satan’s throne? The most spectacular city in Asia Minor lay in the shadow of this provincial capital’s acropolis. John’s reference to “Satan’s throne” (2:13) may refer to the huge altar to Zeus, the remains of which are located in a grove of trees on top of the acropolis. Antipas, the only martyr mentioned, was killed here. Those who conquer are promised “hidden manna” —perhaps that kept in the Ark of the Covenant? (Exod. 16:31-34; Heb. 9:4)— and a “white stone with a new name written on it” (Rev. 2:17). Astral prophecy was common in this region, and stones were carried for protection. The color white symbolized Venus, the morning star.
Thyatira: city of traders. The least important of these seven cities, Thyatira served as an outpost for the protection of Pergamum and Sardis. It was known for many well-organized trade guilds, such as those of slave traders, dyers who worked with the purple dyes made there, and bronze workers. Perhaps the “Son of God…whose feet are like burnished bronze” (2:18) is the true patron of the bronze guild. Though this church is briefly commended, most of the message condemns accommodation to the teachings of “Jezebel,” of whom John strongly disapproves. (More on this later.) Perhaps the “iron rod” from Psalm 2:8-9 also brings to mind trade guilds (Rev. 2:26-27).
Sardis: pay attention! Twice in its history, Sardis was caught in surprise invasions because of a lack of vigilance. No wonder Jesus calls this a “dead’ church who needs to wake up—or he will “come like a thief” at an unknown hour (Rev. 3:2, 3). No wonder Jesus is presented as the all-powerful One with the seven stars and the seven spirits, or winds, of God! Only a few in Sardis can wear the white togas of victory. Soiled clothes may represent accommodation to luxury and pleasure rather than false teaching.
Philadelphia: wine or grain? This city’s fertile, volcanic soil is suitable for vineyards. But in 92 CE, Emperor Domitian commanded half the vineyards to be cut down for grain. But when the grain crop failed, Domitian proved to be a poor patron compared to Jesus, who rewards faithful service. Like the church in Smyrna, the church in Philadelphia co-exists with a “synagogue of Satan,” whose identity we will explore later. The “key of David” will open or close the appropriate doors (Rev. 3:7; Isaiah 22:22).
Laodicea: rich and lukewarm. While touring the ruins of Laodicea and neighboring cities Colossae and Hierapolis some years ago, our group was shown the remains of water pipes used to bring hot water from the hot springs in Hierapolis several miles away. But by the time the water arrived, was it already lukewarm? Jesus’s message to the church at Laodicea begins with a terrible indictment—lukewarmness (Rev. 3:15-16). For a Mediterranean person, to be called lukewarm was worse than being “hated” (see Rev 2:6). Either cold or hot water was preferable to disgusting lukewarm water.
John says nothing positive about this church. A 2017 article on Laodicea in the Biblical Archeological Review confirms in detail what other commentaries have said about its wealth. Known for banking and textile production, its level of opulence compared with capital cities of the time. It had water and drainage systems, colonnaded porticos, five decorative fountains, four public baths, five agoras (markets), two theaters, and the largest stadium in Asia Minor. The medical center here was famous for an eye salve—the reason Jesus ironically calls this church “blind” in 3:17.
In light of this wealth, the Laodicean church was saying, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (3:17). From John’s perspective, self-sufficiency had seriously damaged the church. Yet Jesus still loves them and keeps knocking on their door (3:20).
Questions for Reflection or Discussion
Although there has been some persecution from outside, most of John’s concerns for his churches relate either to possible accommodation to pagan Greco-Roman culture or their toleration of rival religious groups. Take, for example, the Nicolaitans in Ephesus (2:6) or the “synagogues of Satan” in Smyrna (2:9) and Philadelphia (3:9).
- Make a list of all the persons or groups John opposes or warns his churches against. Whom is he talking about: Jews? rival Christian groups? backsliders?
- Do John’s criticisms of what is happening in the churches tell us any more about his theological beliefs? (For example, compare his concerns for the churches he is addressing and the teachings of Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1-14; 10:23-33.)
- Which of the churches addressed in Revelation sounds most like your home congregation or denomination?
- What are some ways that churches today might be affected by the character of the cities or regions in which they are located?
Sources used for this lesson
Fairchild, Mark R. “Laodicea’s ‘Lukewarm’ Legacy: Conflicts of Prosperity in an Ancient Christian City.” Biblical Archeology Review, Mar/Apr 2017. Vol. 43, No. 2, pp. 30-39.
Gorman, Michael J. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness. Cascade Books: Eugene, OR, 2011.
Grimsrud, Ted. Triumph of the Lamb: A Self-Study Guide to the Book of Revelation. Herald Press, 1987.
Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch. Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Augsburg Fortress, 2000.