{3}         Letter to the 7 Churches (I) (Rev 2:1-29)


Part 2. Letters to the 7 churches (2:1—3:22)

2.1.      Ephesus (2:1-7)

2.2.      Smyrna (2:8-11)

2.3.      Pergamum (2:12-17)

2.4.      Thyatira (2:18-29)

        There are various explanations as to the nature and purpose of the letters. Some writers take them as real letters to historical churches, but also as a preview of church history in 7 periods. The order of the messages to the churches seems to be divinely selected to give prophetically the main movement of history. Others take them as oracles in which Christ issues words of warning and notes of encouragement after He inspects His churches.

        The 7 letters all have similar structures. Each is prefaced by a charge to write to the angel of that specific church, then followed by 4 parts: [1] identified the author (Christ) in descriptive phrases taken from the vision in ch.1, [2] acknowledged the church’s positive achievements (except in Laodicea and Sardis), [3] included words of encouragement, counsel, censure, or warning (except Smyrna and Philadelphia escape some note of censure), [4] closed with an exhortation to hear and a promise to those who overcome. The letters are designed to impress upon the universal church the necessity of patient endurance in the period of impending persecution. Believers will need to hold fast to their confession of faith and stand ready for whatever sacrifice may be required.

        PICTURE: John is encircled by mystic light from a source that he cannot see. In front of him are 7 giant lampstands in a circle. The glorified Jesus Christ stands among the lampstands. John is commanded to write the letters to the 7 churches, as dictated by Christ.


2:1       EPHESUS was the most important city of western Asia Minor. It was a commercial city with a major stadium, marketplace, and a large 25,000-person theatre. The Temple of Artemis (Diana in Latin) was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, about 4 times the size of Parthenon, 425 feet long, 220 feet wide, 60 feet high, with 127 marble pillars, 36 of them overlaid with gold and jewels.

The Christian faith came to Ephesus perhaps with Aquila and Priscilla in about AD52 (Ac 18:18-22). The apostle Paul remained in Ephesus for more than 2 years (Ac 19:8,10), followed by the ministry of Timothy later (1Ti 1:3).

The letter praised the church for its orthodoxy, childed them for the failure to love, and challenged them to repent and return to its original high ground.

[1] Author: Christ holds the 7 angels (in His control) and walks among the 7 lampstands (present in their midst and aware of their activities).

2:2       [2] Achievements: Christ knows their deeds as He walks in the midst of the churches. His knowledge are not so much separate acts as an overall manner of life. “Hard work” and “perseverance” describe the active and passive sides of their lifestyle.

The Ephesians had toiled to the point of exhaustion (Gr. kopos is excessive labour united with trouble; Paul uses the word primarily in connection with work of the gospel). They patiently borne the hostility of the society. Their trouble stemmed from people described as “wicked men” and “called themselves apostles but were found to be false”. They might be Judaizers from Jerusalem (2Co 11:13-23), Nicolaitans (2:6), or self-styled apostles. Paul predicted that “salvage wolves will come in among you” (Ac 20:29). In the book of Didache, the test for a true prophet is that “he has the behaviour of the Lord.” The Ephesians probably applied the test and found them not simply self-deceived, but deceivers.

2:3       This verse is somewhat repetitive to v.2. The church is again commended for its patience, its willingness to endure hardships, and its dedicated labour (the Greek perfect tense may suggest some specific work in recent history of the church).

2:4       [3] Teachings: Every virtue carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. It seems probable that desire for sound teaching and the resulting forthright action taken to exclude all imposters had created a climate of suspicion in which love within the believing community could not longer exist. Possibly, heresy-hunting had killed love and orthodoxy had been achieved at the price of fellowship. It does not mean the action of maintaining orthodoxy is wrong. But arguments about non-essential doctrines should include an element of love. Even those that hold non-orthodox beliefs may have done it out of ignorance; exhortation and explanation out of love could have resolve the problem.

They had forsaken their first love, possibly both love of God and love of humanity at large, but here it seems to refer to love for one another in the church. A cooling of personal love for God inevitably results in the loss of harmonious relationship within the church.

2:5       The church is called upon to remember the earlier days in which love abounded in the congregation. Memory can be a powerful force, just like the prodigal son came to his senses when he remembered his father (Lk 15:17-18).

The present imperative “remember” (a continuing attitude)is in contrast to the aorist imperative “repent” (a decisive break). Paraphrase of the command: Bear in mind the loving relationships you once enjoyed and make a clean break with your present manner of life!

Love is an attitude toward the brethren that expresses itself in loving acts. Without love, the congregation ceases to be a church. Its lampstand is removed. From Ignatius’s Epistle to the Ephesians, we learn that the church at Ephesus actually heeded the warning.

2:6       The Ephesians were commended for hating, as Christ does, the practices of the Nicolaitans. This heretical group affected the churches of Ephesus (2:6), Pergamum (2:15), and Thyatira (2:20-21).

The problem is mentioned as eating food sacrificed to idols and committing sexual immorality. The problem with the food is probably eating the food in the pagan temples, not the meat sacrificed to idols and bought in the market. The sect seemed to last only a very short time.

W.M. Mackay finds 3 separate sects in Rev 2 which represent the 3 great obstacles to the witness of the church in all ages: Balaam, worldliness; Jezebel, false doctrine; Nicolas, ritualism.

2:7       [4] Promise: The exhortation to hear what the Spirit says precedes a promise in the first 3 letters and follows a promise in the last 4. This is simply a stylistic variation. The Spirit is either the prophetic Spirit sent by Christ to illumine His followers or the Holy Spirit.

The promise is to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God. The tree of life is the symbol of eternal life. The paradise was originally a Persian word for pleasure garden. Judaism used it to portray the abode of the righteous dead. Here it symbolizes the return to perfect fellowship with God which existed before the entrance of sin into the world.

“Overcomers” are not those who have conquered an earthly foe by force, but those who have remained faithful to Christ to the very end. The victory is analogous to the victory of Christ on the cross. The word expresses the struggle of Christians against anyone or anything that saps the Christian life of all that gives it strength and power.

2:8       SMYRNA (modern Izmir) is the only one of the 7 cities still in existence. [In addition, the small town of Bergama still stands on the plain below the acropolis of Pergamum.] After its destruction in ancient times, it was rebuilt in 290 BC. It had a famous stadium, library, and public theatre. It claimed to be the birthplace of the great epic poet Homer. In NT times, the population might have been about 200,000. It was described as “First in Asia in beauty and size.” The elderly church father Polycarp was martyred in Smyrna. From Ignatius’ letter to Smyrna, we learn that the church was already well organized, with a bishop (Polycarp), elders, and deacons.

[1] Author: The church at Smyrna was a persecuted church so the leter comes from the sovereign One (“the First and the Last”) and one who died and came to life again. As He was victorious over death, the believers in the church had the assurance of eternal life if killed in persecution. Normally, there is a certain appropriateness between the identifying characteristic of Christ and the church that is addressed.

2:9       [2] Achievements: The pressures faced by the church (afflictions and poverty) have not gone unnoticed by the Lord. In an antagonistic environment, Christians would find it difficult to make a living, and thus many were economically destitute. They may also have been the victims of mob violence and looting. Their poverty, however, was a material poverty as spiritually they were rich (contrast with the Laodicean church which claimed to be rich but actually poor; 3:17).

Christ is also aware of the slanderous accusations directed against the belivers by the Jews. The Martyrdom of Polycarp clearly described this hostility. Jewish hostility seemed to have originated from the Christians’ success in evangelizing Jews. Barclay lists 6 kinds of slander levelled against Christians: cannibalism, lust and immorality, breaking up homes, atheism, political disloyalty, and incendiarism. These Jews were described as not real Jews but “a synagogue of Satan” (Satan is Hebrew meaning “adversary”; its Greek equivalent means “slanderer” or “false accuser”).

Whereas the Ephesian angel is troubled by self-styled apostles, the Smyrnaean is troubled by self-styled Israelites.

2:10     [3] Teachings: The church is told not to be afraid of the suffering. While the persecution would be carried out by Roman authorities, it was in reality the work of the devil himself. He would try their faith through imprisonment and tribulation.

They are to suffer persecution for 10 days (or “within 10 days”), possibly a round number indicating a short period of time or a number symbolizing extreme, complete tribulation but of a limited period.

The reward for faithfulness is the crown of life, that is, the crown that is life itself. It is not the royal crown (Gr. diadema) but the wreath or garland (Gr. stephanos) that was awarded to the victor at the games.

2:11     [4] Promise: Overcomers are promised that they will not in any way (strong double negative in Greek) be hurt by the second death. The second death was a rabbinic term for the death of the wicked in the next world.

2:12     PERGAMUM was called as “by far the most distinguished city in Asia.” It was build on a cone-shaped hill above the surrounding valley. It Greek name (Pergamon) means “citadel”. It boasted a library of more than 200,000 volumes. It was a centre of worship for the gods Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, Asklepios. The great altar of Zeus was built in the city. There was also the shrine of Asklepios, the god of healing.

Christ commends their faithfulness to His name but rebukes them for allowing in their midst teachers who had encouraged them to accommodate themselves to the prevailing culture.

[1] Author: Pergamum was the first city of Asia to receive permission (in 29 BC) to build a temple dedicated to the worship of a living ruler Augustus. It was the provincial capital where the proconsul was granted the “right of the sword” with the power to execute at will. The sovereign Christ with the two-edged sword would remind the Christians that ultimate power over life and death belongs to God.

2:13     [2] Achievements: Christ acknowledges their difficulty of living in a hostile environment. “Where Satan has his throne” may refer to: [a] the great thronelike altar to Zeus that overlooked the city from the citadel; [b] the cult of Asklepios whose symbol was the serpent (which is used to describe Satan in 12:9 and 20:2); [c] the city as the seat of the cult centre of emperor worship.

Even when Antipas was martyred in their city during the reign of Domitian, they kept their faith. The name was mentioned by Tertullian in his book.

2:14     [3] Teachings: They were guilty of allowing people with the teaching of Balaam among them. It refers to Balaam’s activity in advising the Midianite women how to beguile the Israelites into acting treacherously against the Lord in Nu 25 and Nu 31:16. Thus Balaam became a prototype of all corrupt teachers who betrayed believers into fatal compromise with worldly ideologies. Some such teachers taught the way of compromise or a lax attitude to pagan society and religion.

“Food sacrificed to idols” likely refers to meat that was eaten at pagan feasts rather than that sold in the open market after having been offered to idols. “Sexual immorality” was part of the pagan festivities. The verse may refer to idolatrous practice or religious infidelity.

2:15     “Likewise” may mean that the Pergamum church followed the Nicolaitans and was led astray by the cunning of Balaam as described in v.14. It was an antinomian group that accommodated itself to the religious and social requirements of the pagan society. Some believe that there were 2 different groups: Balaamites and Nicolaitans, both disobeying the Jerusalem council in regard to idolatrous practices and fornication.

2:16     The fault of Pergamum was the opposite of Ephesus where the heretics were rooted out but love was missing. Unless the church repents, Christ will come and fight against them with the sword of His mouth, once against reminding them about the sword. While possibly only a portion of the church has fallen to the mistake, the whole church was guilty of not taking action against their presence.

“Coming” may mean judgment in their lifetime or the final (second) coming of Christ.

2:17     [4] Promise: To the faithful, the Lord promises some hidden manna and a white stone incribed with a new name known only to the recipient. Manna was the food supernaturally supplied to the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt. The “hidden manna” refers to the pot of manna in the ark for a memorial to future generations. In 2 Maccabees 2:4-7, at the time of the destruction of Solomon’s temple, Jeremiah took the pot and hid it underground in Mt. Nebo. There it was to remain until the coming of the Messiah. Here, it may mean the heavenly food of spiritual Israel in contrast to the unclean food supplied by the Balaamites.

There are many interpretations for “the white stone”. As the verse refers to food, the stone may be the token for admission to the banquet. It is white to symbolize the triumph of their faith. It likely contains the name of the one who overcomes.

2:18     THYATIRA was situated on the south bank of the broad and fertile valley of the Lycus. It started as a military outpost. It was a centre for manufacturing and marketing and with many trade guilds. Lydia (Ac 16:14), the dealer in purple cloth came from Thyatira. The god of the city was Tyrimnos (the incarnate Apollo), the patron of guilds.

The church of Thyatira was commended for their life of active service but they tolerated the prophetess Jezebel who led them into an unholy alliance with the doctrines and practices of their pagan neighbours. It is the longest of the 7 letters.

[1] Author: “The Son of God” likely refers to Ps 2:7 because Rev 2:27 quotes Ps 2:9. The name stands in contrast to the god Tyrimnos who was acclaimed as son of Zeus (so also was Apollo). Only Christ is the true son of God. “Blazing eyes” suggest the penetrating power of Christ’s ability to see through the seductive arguments of Jezebel. Feet like burnished bronze convey the idea of strength and spendour that can stamp out all opposition to His rule. Both images are similar to Dan 10:6.

2:19     [2] Achievements: Christ is aware of the deeds of the church. They are listed as love, faith, service, and perseverance. The first two identify the motive forces of Christian activity, and the other two are the results. While the love of the Ephesian church had decreased (2:4), the practical expression of love at Thyatira had grown.

2:20     [3] Teachings: The major problem is that some were led astray by the self-styled prophetess Jezebel into fatal compromise with the secular environment of sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols. This parallelled wicked queen of Ahab (1Ki 16) who led the Israelites into idolatrous worship of Baal.

2:21     The fornication of which Jezebel was not willing to repent was her adulterous alliance with the pagan environment.

2:22     Severe punishment is about to be imposed to Jezebel and her adulterous associates. The futuristic present stresses the imminence and certainty. She is to be cast onto a bed of sickness and pain. For Jezebel, the time for repentance had passed but the church still had the opportunity to repent.

The use of the term “bed of suffering” may indicate that the false teacher champions the opposite, that is, an escape from suffering. Her heresy is the ancient equivalent of the current “gospel of prosperity”. We have to be weary of the modern “health and wealth” gospel.

2:23     Jezebel’s children refer to those who have embraced the antinomian doctrines of their spiritual mother. The principle of divine judgment is clearly stated: “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.” (Jer 17:10)

2:24     Christ turns to the rest of the church, that is, those in Thyatira who have not been led astray by the Jezebel party. “Knowing Satan’s deep secrets” is a reference to the view that in order to appreciate fully the grace of God, one must first learn the depths of evil. This is wrong. Later gnosticism held such a view.

2:25     For these people, Christ lay no additional burden “except that you hold on to what you have until I come.”

2:26     [4] Promise: The conditions are to overcome and to do the will of Christ until the end. Jewish eschatology teaches that the followers of the Messiah would share in His final rule (Ps 2:8-9).

2:27     Overcomers will rule the nations with an iron scepter. “Rule” means to “shepherd”, meaning the wielding of the shepherd’s staff or club. The “iron scepter” may have been and oak club capped with iron. The description of this rule as the shattering of the potter’s vessel speaks of the absolute power of the victorious Christ and His followers over the rebellious nations.

2:28     Overcomers are also promised the morning star. The meaning is not clear. Possibilities are: [a] immortality as in Dan 12:3, [b] the dawn of eternal life, [c] the Holy Spirit.

2:29     Beginning with this letter, the order is changed and the exhortation follows the promise. There is no apparent reason for this change except for a variation in literary style.


        We need to avoid the weaknesses of these churches. On one hand, the church needs to maintain purity of teachings by rejecting non-orthodox teachings described as Balaamites, Jezebites, Nicolaitans that lead the churches to compromise with the moral standards of the pagan world. On the other hand, we need to act in love, even in the midst of dispensing discipline.

        We also pursue material wealth in this world, and often neglect to pursue spiritual wealth. This is a wrong focus. In God’s judgment, only spiritual wealth will be counted. The “overcomers” in these letter are those who overcome or succeed in their spiritual lives. Material wealth has absolutely no bearing on success.