Two summers ago I joined a group on a Journeys of Paul tour so I could do some research in Ephesus, and our itinerary included the sites of Revelation’s seven churches (Rev. 1–3). A congregation at each of these sites received a message from Jesus. And while two thousand years separate us from the original audiences, Jesus’ words then are still completely relevant.
Ephesus: Love Lost. The Ephesians lost their first love. And like them we may grow lazy spiritually or maybe even jaded. The solution? Twice Jesus says to “repent” and, (the big surprise) do the works we once did. Return to our works? Aren’t we supposed to eschew a works-based Christianity? Isn’t love about affection?
Think about the works a fiancée does. Her love and affection show in her deeds, in how she talks about her guy. Nobody has to tell her to avoid flirting. Her actions reveal her heart. Whom do we love?
Smyrna: Poor but Rich. What today is the waterfront city of Izmir was once the site of suffering for first-century Christians. They endured persecution and consequently received Jesus’ encouragement without rebuke or warning. Many commentators note that “Smyrna” is a Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew word “myrrh.” To make myrrh, one must crush a fragrant plant. It has been said that the church at Smyrna, being crushed by persecution, gave off a fragrant aroma to God. Jesus reminded them that though they were poor, they were truly rich. The Church still suffers, and she still receives great promises.
Pergamum: All-Inclusive. Citizens of Pergamum worshiped at the temples of Zeus, Athena, and Aesculapius. And the church stood firm against the obviously false teaching of pagan cults. Yet sadly it was the words of their own teachers that pulled them down.
Like Christ-followers in Pergamum, we live in a time when false teachers scream out against Jesus’ exclusive claims. It’s cool to be spiritual, but not if it breeds the kind of so-called intolerance that says Jesus is The Way (John 14:6), and not if we have to use awkward words like “sin.” Jesus challenged the church to embrace the Truth without compromise.
Thyatira: Tolerant. Inscriptions on the site of ancient Thyatira dating back to Vespasian (about AD 69) mention corporate guilds. First-century trade guilds were probably more organized than in any other ancient city, and all serious artisans belonged. Guilds possessed property, made contracts, and exerted wide influence. This made it nearly impossible to survive economically apart from membership
. In the church at Thyatira some followed false teachings. Many experts think heretics encouraged believers to join the trade guilds, which involved eating meat sacrificed to idols and committing immoral acts. The church’s flaw was probably that they tolerated people who encouraged going for profit over following the Prophet.
Sardis: Complacent. Sardis’s smug citizens felt nothing could reach them as they sat atop a 1,500-foot cliff. But in 546 BC Sardis fell to Cyrus. Herodotus records why: when a soldier dropped his helmet and it rolled, he took a secret passage down to reclaim it, failing to consider that the enemy was watching. With the newly gained knowledge, Cyrus’s army made a surprise attack and plundered the city.
To the church at Sardis Jesus warned, “I will come like a thief” (Rev. 3:3). Believers hearing these words would have thought of their complacent ancestors. The message: Sometimes in shoring up our weaknesses we fail to reinforce our strengths.
Philadelphia: Weak. Philadelphia had a long history of earthquakes. And while contemporary experts advise people to stay indoors under door frames when tremors rock them, in ancient times, people ran outside cities to escape being buried. When the shaking stopped, they returned to find only pillars standing.
To people with little strength in Philadelphia, Jesus promised, “I will make you pillars” and He told them they would dwell inside His city forever. Jesus makes the weak strong and He offers future security to all who endure.
Laodicea: Lukewarm. Water traveled six miles through an underground aqueduct to reach ancient Laodicea. Mountain water from Colossae arrived at “room-temperature”; steaming water from Hierapolis’s hot springs arrived lukewarm. Think of hot coffee or ice-cold lemonade vs. tepid varieties of the same.
I once heard a speaker say Jesus’ words to Laodicea meant His followers should be either “on fire” spiritually or openly hostile, but never neutral. Yet Jesus would never encourage hostility! In His message to Laodicea, both hot and cold are good. What really bothers Him is the “lukewarm” temperature of ho-hum faith.
We need the same warnings as our first-century brothers and sisters. But we also receive the same promises. Though poor, we can be rich. And we can dwell as pillars in the city of our God.
Adapted from Sumatra with the Seven Churches (AMG).