Churches of Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamos

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
By Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
The First Three Letters to the Churches: The first three exhortations form a distinct unit. This is indicated by the order of the concluding exhortation and the promise at the end of each message (to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum). Each “letter” ends with the exhortation, “hear what the Spirit is saying.” This is followed by a promise - to the “one who overcomes.” This literary sequence is reversed in the final four letters to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

To the Church at Ephesus

Ephesus was the largest city in the province of Asia, its chief seaport and commercial center. Its most prominent manmade feature was the Temple of Artemis or Diana, one of the so-called “Seven Wonders” of the ancient world.

The city was designated “temple warden of Asia,” a provincial center of the imperial cult. It featured temples dedicated to the emperor and Roma, the patron goddess of Rome. Emperor Domitian designated Ephesus the “guardian” of the imperial cult for the entire province.

The Apostle Paul established the first church at Ephesus around A.D. 52, and, for a time, it was his base of operations for evangelizing the surrounding area. From it “all they who dwell in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:19-21, 19:10, 20:31).

(Revelation 2:1-7 – The Emphasized Bible):
Unto the messenger of the assembly |in Ephesuswrite:—
||These things|| saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, he that walketh in the midst of the seven lamps of gold:
I know thy works, and thy toil, and endurance, and that thou canst not bear bad men, and thou hast tried them who were affirming themselves to be apostles, and they were not, and hast found them false; and thou hast |enduranceand hast borne for the sake of my name, and hast not grown weary.
Nevertheless, I have against thee that |thy first lovethou hast left.
Remember, therefore, whence thou hast fallen, and repent, and do |thy firstʹ works||otherwiseI come unto thee, and will remove thy lamp out of its place, |except thou repent|.
But |thisthou hast that thou hatest the works of the Nicolaitanes, which ||I also|| hate.
||He that hath an ear|| let him hear what |the Spiritis saying unto the assemblies. ||Unto him that overcometh||—I will give |unto himto eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God --  {Gen. ii. 9iii.22–24Eze. xxxi. 2}.

John was commanded to “write” to the “messenger” of the church at Ephesus. Everything that occurred within and about it was open before the eyes of the Risen Christ. He possessed the seven stars and walked among the seven golden lampstands, thereby, tending to his people and observing all things.

Jesus praised the messenger for his “works, toil and endurance,” and because “you tried and exposed them who affirm themselves apostles but are not.” He did not identify the false apostles or state whether they were members of the group he labeled the ‘Nicolaitans.’ The teachings of that group are not described. ‘Nicolaitan’ is a compound of the Greek nouns niké (“victory”) and laos (“people”).

The term may denote “victory people,” “victory over people,” or, “he who conquers people.” The latter sense is most likely considering the later descriptions of the “Beast” that ascends from the sea and “conquers” the saints (nikaō); furthermore, it has authority over “people” or laos (Revelation 13:7-10).

The church at Ephesus had left its “first love.” The object of this “love” is not specified, whether God, things, or other humans. Since a key theme of the book is its call to faithful witness, most likely, this church had lost its zeal to bear witness in a hostile environment. If Ephesus did not repent, Jesus would remove its “lampstand,” the ability to bear light to the local community. The “coming” of Jesus in verse 5 is not his arrival at the end of the age but, instead, his arrival in judgment on this congregation.

He that has an ear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Similar exhortations are found in Isaiah 6:9-10, Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 13:43, and Mark 7:16. The phrase is repeated at the end of each of the seven letters to Asia and it extends the application of each letter to all seven congregations (Revelation 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13, 3:22, 13:9).
The letter concludes with a promise: “To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God.” At least three temple buildings to Artemis were built on the same site at Ephesus. The oldest structure featured a tree sacred to Artemis. In this verse, John alludes to the “tree of life” in the Garden of Eden, and this local history may be in view. For her adherents, Artemis was a source of life and, therefore, animal sacrifices were forbidden in her temple.

However, based on the usage of the Old Testament in the Book of Revelation, far more likely, one or more passages from it lie behind the references to the “tree of life,” specifically:

(Genesis 2:9) – “And Yahweh God, caused to spring up, out of the ground, every tree pleasant to the sight and good for food,—and the tree of life, in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
(Genesis 3:14-19) – “And to the man he said, Because thou didst hearken to the voice of thy wife, and so didst eat of the tree as to which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it, Accursed be the ground for thy sake, In pain shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.”
(Genesis 3:22-24) – “Then said Yahweh God—Lo! man hath become like one of us, in respect of knowing good and evil,—Now, therefore, lest he thrust forth his hand, and take even of the tree of life, and eat, and live to times age-abiding,—So Yahweh God put him forth from the garden of Eden,—to till the ground wherefrom he had been taken.”

In the passage, “tree” translates the Greek xulon. The common noun for a living “tree” was dendronxulon normally referred to deadwood from felled trees. It is used several times in the New Testament for the “tree” on which Jesus was “hanged.” This scriptural background points to his death on the Cross as the symbolic significance of the “tree of life” in the exhortation to the church at Ephesus (Matthew 26:47, 26:55, Acts 5:30, 16:24, Galatians 3:13, 1 Peter 2:24).

The reference to the “tree of life” also links this letter to the New Jerusalem in which the “tree of life” is found. Access to what Adam lost through disobedience is restored in the New Creation, and the original “curse” is reversed, as follows:

(Revelation 22:1-3) – “And he pointed out to me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, issuing forth out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the midst of the broadway thereof. And, on this side of the river and on that, was A TREE OF LIFE, bearing twelve crops of fruit every several month, yielding its fruit; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations, And NO CURSE shall there be any more; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be therein,—and his servants will render divine service unto him.”
(Revelation 22:14) – “Happy, they who are washing their robes, that their right may be unto the TREE OF LIFE and, by the gates, they may enter into the city.”

To the Church at Smyrna

The city of Smyrna was a seaport fifty-five kilometers northwest of Ephesus. It marked the start of a major road into the interior. As a leading commercial center, the city prospered from its location and the importation of goods by sea. The Roman imperial cult was well-established and widespread in it.

The city was renowned for its beauty. It claimed to be the “first city of Asia in size and beauty” on its coins. The origin of the Christian church there is unknown. This is the only place in the New Testament where the city is named.

(Revelation 2:8-11 – The Emphasized Bible):
And unto the messenger of the assembly |in Smyrnawrite:—
||These things|| saith the first and the last, who became dead, and lived:
I know thy tribulationˎ and destitution, |neverthelessthou art |rich|, and the profane speech from among them who affirm that they themselves are ||Jews||, and they are not, but a synagogue of Satan.
Do not fear the things which thou art about to suffer. Lo! the adversary is about to cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried and may have tribulation ten days. Become thou faithful until death, and I will give thee the crown of life.
||He that hath an ear|| let him hear what |the Spiritis saying unto the assemblies.
||He that overcometh|| shall in nowise be injured by reason of the second death.  --  {Is. xliv. 6 (Heb.); xlviii.12 (Heb.). Dan. i.12, 14.}

Jesus opens this “letter” by stressing his position - “The First and Last.” He has absolute authority over everything that transpires in this city. The church has no fear, regardless of appearances and circumstances. He has the “last” word, period.
The Risen Christ is the one “who became dead and lived,” a reference to the opening vision of the glorious “Son of Man” walking among the “seven golden lampstands.” Although this church faces persecution and martyrdom, Jesus possesses the “keys of death and of Hades.” Possibly, the name “Smyrna” is derived from the Greek word for “myrrh,” an ointment used in burial preparations.

Jesus “knows” the condition of the congregation. From his perspective, it is “rich,” although they live in an impoverished state. The poverty is due to the “slander from among them who affirm they are Jews and are not.” He knows their works; not their good deeds but, instead, the faithful testimony they have borne despite local opposition.

The church endures “tribulation” because of its faithful witness. The Greek term for “tribulation” (thlipsis – Strong’s #G2347) is the same noun found in Verse 10, “You will have tribulation ten days.” The poverty of this congregation anticipates the economic program of the “Beast from the earth” used to compel submission to its political and religious agendas (Revelation 13:15-18).

The “slander” or “blasphemy” by certain Jews suggests a situation in which accusers denounced Christians to local magistrates for alleged offenses to the political order, accusations that resulted in legal prosecution (blasphémia – Strong’s #G988). Likewise, the “Beast” from the sea has the “name of slander” or blasphémia upon its several heads, a mouth speaking “slanders” against God, and “they who tabernacle in heaven.” Later, the Great Harlot, Babylon, sits on a scarlet Beast that is “full of slanders” (Revelation 13:1-617:3).
False accusations against saints demonstrate how Satan “slanders” or “blasphemes” believers, God, and the Lamb. The accusers from Smyrna constitute a “synagogue of Satan” because Satan, the “Adversary,” is the force behind their legal harassment of the church. Although Roman authorities throw believers “into prison,” the action is attributed to the Devil.
Of the seven churches of Asia, only Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no rebuke or correction. Jesus does admonish this church to face boldly any tribulation and persecution that may come (“Do not fear what you are going to suffer”). The congregation already has endured trials without wavering but, rather than reward its members for past victories, Jesus announces an intensification in trials (“the Devil is about to cast some of you into prison that you may be tried and may have tribulation ten days”).

Some will be cast into prison. In the Roman world, prison cells were holding pens for accused criminals until their trial or execution. Imprisonment was temporary and often preceded execution. This reality is implied in the exhortation, “Become faithful until death.”
The church at Smyrna will be tried and endure tribulation “ten days.” Numbers in Revelation are figurative. The “ten days” alludes to the time when Daniel and his compatriots from Jerusalem refused to eat food provided by the Babylonian king, food previously offered to idols. He and his three companions were then “tried ten days.” The allusion is fitting. Several of the seven churches are struggling with false teachings that promote “fornication” and “eating food offered to idols,” deceptions rejected by this church:

(Daniel 1:12-14) – “I pray thee—prove thy servants ten days,—and let them give us vegetable food that we may eat, and water that we may drink: then let our countenances be looked upon before thee, and the countenances of the youths who have been eating the delicacies of the king,—and, as thou shalt see, deal thou with thy servants. So then he hearkened unto them, according to this word—and proved them ten-days.”

Faithfulness in tribulation results in “a wreath of life”. The Greek noun refers to a victor’s wreath, not to a royal crown or diadem. It represents a victory, not royal authority, and victory achieved through faithful endurance (Revelation 3:11, 4:4, 12:1, 14:14).

The one who overcomes does not partake of the “second death,” identified later with the “lake of fire.” Followers of the Lamb “overcome,” but paradoxically, by enduring persecution and martyrdom that result from a faithful witness (Revelation 20:14).

In this letter, Jesus identifies Satan as the driving force behind the persecution of the church in Smyrna, although he does use human agents and institutions to do so. The battles that are waged on a cosmic level in the later visions of the book play out in the daily struggles of the churches of Asia in their respective cities.

To the Church at Pergamos

The town of Pergamos lay sixty kilometers north of Smyrna and twenty kilometers inland from the Aegean Sea. It was not a major center of commerce. Occasionally, the city served as the seat of the Roman provincial government and the center of the imperial cult. The first Asian temple in honor of Augustus Caesar was built at Pergamos in 29 B.C. The city’s patron deities included ZeusAthenaDionysus, and Asclepios. Prominent was a large altar dedicated to Zeus Sotér or “Zeus the Savior.”

(Revelation 2:12-17 – The Emphasized Bible):
And unto the messenger of the assembly |in Pergamumwrite:—
||These things|| saith he that hath the sharptwo-edged sword:
I know where thou dwellest, where |the throne of Satanis; and thou art holding fast my nameand didst not deny my faithˎ even in the days of Antipas, my witness, my faithful one, who was killed near you, where |Satandwelleth.
Neverthelessˎ I have against thee, a few things,—that thou hast there, such as hold fast the teaching of Balaam,—who went on to teach Balak to throw a cause of stumbling before the sons of Israel, to eat idol-sacrifices and to commit lewdness|thuseven ||thou|| hast such as hold fast the teaching of the Nicolaitanes |in like manner|.
Repent, therefore, |otherwiseI come unto thee speedily,—and will fight against them, with the sword of my mouth.
||He that hath an ear|| let him hear what |the Spiritis saying unto the assemblies.
||Unto him that overcometh|| I will give |unto himof the hidden manna, and I will give unto him a white stone, and |upon the stonenew name written, which |no oneknoweth, save he that receiveth it.  {Nu.xxxi. 16 (xxv. 1, &c.). Is.lxii. 2lxv. 15.}.

This letter opens with Jesus wielding the “sharp, double-edged sword,” an appropriate symbol of his ultimate authority over the power of Rome, be it local or universal. Imperial soldiers were armed with a short double-edged sword for stabbing in hand-to-hand combat, the rhomphaia, the same Greek noun applied here to the “sword” wielded by Jesus.

The sword symbolized the power of life and death. The Roman proconsul had virtually unlimited authority or imperium. This included the right to execute criminals and political offenders.
In contrast to imperial magistrates, Jesus is the one who wields ultimate power over life and death, not Rome. Whatever authority is wielded by governing authorities is derivative. The Risen Christ wields the sword to warn errant members of this church - if they refuse to repent he “will come and war against them with the sword of his mouth.”
The “sharp, double-edged sword” was introduced previously in the vision of the one “like a son of man,” and it is featured in the later vision of a Rider on a White Horse. This symbolic use of the “sword” links the letter to Pergamos to both visions (Revelation 1:12-20, 19:15-21).

Jesus is aware of the difficult situation of this church (“I know where you dwell, where the throne of Satan is”). He commends it for “holding fast my name and not denying my faith.” The congregation has remained steadfast despite outside pressure.

Satan’s throne” may refer to the altar of Zeus in Pergamos, to the temple to Augustus, or to the Roman provincial authority based in the city. More significantly, it is a verbal link to the satanic “throne” of the Beast from the sea; already, the church at Pergamos is threatened by beastly authorities (Revelation 13:2, 16:10).

At least one Christian has been executed - “Antipas my faithful witness.” The same term was already applied to Jesus, the “faithful witness and the firstborn of the dead.” By his death, Jesus bore faithful witness, thus also, Antipas. Only the proconsul could execute a local. This means that Antipas was condemned by Roman authorities.

The “teaching of Balaam” alludes to the story of Balaam who attempted to serve God and money by cursing Israel for the king of Moab. Instead, God caused him to bless Israel. But Balaam found another way and taught the Moabites to corrupt Israel through fornication and idolatry. “Fornication” is metaphorical in this passage and refers to idolatry. The problem is accommodation to the idolatrous practices:

(Numbers 25:1-3) – “And Israel remained among the acacias,—and the people began to go away unchastely unto the daughters of Moab; who invited the people unto the sacrifices of their gods,—so the people did eat, and did bow themselves down unto their gods. Thus, Israel let himself be bound unto Baal-peor, and the anger of Yahweh kindled upon Israel.”
(Numbers 31:16) – “Lo! they became unto the sons of Israel, by the advice of Balaam, the cause of daring acts of treachery against Yahweh, over the affair of Peor,—and then came the plague against the assembly of Yahweh!
(Revelation17:1-2) – “And one of the seven messengers who had the seven bowls came, and spake with me, saying—Hither! I will point out to thee the judgment of the great harlot, who sitteth upon many waters,  with whom the kings of the earth committed lewdness,—and they who were dwelling upon the earth were made drunk with the wine of her lewdness.”

The proponents of this teaching were probably identical with the Nicolaitans. In popular etymology, ‘Nicolaitan’ was the Greek equivalent of ‘Balaam,’ a name when spelled in Hebrew possibly means, “master of the people” (i.e., Ba’al [“lord, master”] + ‘am [“people”]). As pointed out above, ‘Nicolaitan’ may also signify, “he who conquers people.”
Some Christians from the church in Pergamos tolerated this teaching to accommodate pagan society. The warning that Jesus would wage war against them was conditional and, therefore, could not refer to his final “coming” at the end of the age. More likely, this was a reference to visitations by him in judgment to purge this church.

The “hidden manna” refers to the manna kept in the Ark of the Covenant. “Manna” symbolized Yahweh sustaining Israel in the wilderness. It is now contrasted with “meat offered to idols.” The former yields everlasting life, the latter the “second death.” It is not clear what the “white stone” portrays; possibly, it is related to “manna.” Elsewhere, “manna” is elsewhere compared to “white bdellium stones” (Exodus 16:33-36, Numbers 11:7).

The “new name” promised by Jesus refers to the name of God or Christ inscribed on the foreheads of faithful believers, not to individual names assigned to each one. He reveals its true significance only to faithful saints. Its possession means the complete identification of the believer with him. The clause alludes to a passage from the book of Isaiah, a promise made originally to Israel but now applied to faithful followers of Jesus in the city of Pergamos (Revelation 7:1-4, 14:1, 22:4).

(Isaiah 62:1-2) – “For Zion’s sake, will I not hold my peace, And for Jerusalem’s sake, will I not rest,—Until her righteousness go forth as brightness, And her salvation, as a torch that is lighted. So shall nations see thy righteousness, And all kings thy glory; And thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of Yahweh will name.”
(Revelation 14:1) – “And I saw, and lo! the Lamb, standing upon the mount Zion,—and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand, having his name and his Father’s name written upon their foreheads.”
(Revelation22:3-4) – “And no curse shall there be any more, and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be therein,—and his servants will render divine service unto him, and they shall see his face, and his name [shall be] upon their foreheads.”

He that hath an ear, Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!” This exhortation is repeated at the end of each of the first three letters. The summons for all saints to heed the Spirit universalizes each message. Each believer is to hear (“he who hears”); each message is to all the “churches.”


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