Seven Churches of Revelation
Seven Churches in Revelation – Literal Locations in Asia Minor
The seven churches in Revelation refer to seven literal churches described in Revelation, Chapters 2 and 3. These early Christian churches were located in Asia Minor during the era of the Roman Empire. Although the actual churches ceased to thrive in the centuries of Muslim control after the Romans, the archaeological remains of all seven locations currently exist in present-day Turkey.
Seven Churches in Revelation – Then and Now
The seven churches in Revelation are located in western Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), accessible by way of the Aegean Sea and the ancient trade routes between the West and East. For various reasons, whether trade, military, or pure hedonism, these cities were major cultural hubs throughout history. During the first few centuries after Jesus Christ, these Roman-controlled cities were also important in early Christianity.
…I was caught up in spirit on the Lord’s day and heard behind me a voice as loud as a trumpet, ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.’
Seven Churches of Revelation Video
- Ephesus – The desirable church that left its first love (Revelation 2:1-7). Ephesus was the influential capital city of Asia Minor on the Aegean Sea. Ephesus is now known for its huge metropolis of ancient streets, arches and ruins.
- Smyrna – The persecuted church that suffered poverty and martyrdom (Revelation 2:8-11). Smyrna was located north of Ephesus in a powerful trading position on the Aegean Sea known for its harbors, commerce, and marketplaces. The primary ruins of Smyrna are located in the modern Turkish city of Izmir.
- Pergamum – The worldly church that mixed doctrines and needed to repent (Rev. 2:12-17). Pergamum is located on the plains and foothills along the Caicus River in Western Turkey. It was considered a major city in Asia Minor since the 3rd century BC, and became a Greek and Roman hub for temple worship.
- Thyatira – The false church that followed a seductive prophetess (Rev. 2:18-29). Thyatira is located in western Asia Minor about 42 miles inland from the Aegean Sea. The ancient city was known for its textiles and dyeing trade, and is now known as the Turkish city of Akhisar.
- Sardis – The “dead” church that fell asleep (Revelation 3:1-6). Sardis is located on the banks of the Pactolus River in western Asia Minor, 60 miles inland from Ephesus and Smyrna. Popular ruins include the decadent temples and bath house complexes.
- Philadelphia – The church of brotherly love that endures patiently (Revelation 3:7-13). Philadelphia is located on the Cogamis River in western Asia Minor, about 80 miles east of Smyrna. Philadelphia was known for its variety of temples and worship centers.
- Laodicea – The “lukewarm” church with a faith that’s neither hot nor cold (Rev. 3:14-22). Laodicea is located in the Lycus River Valley of western Asia Minor, a primary trade route between the cultures of the West and East. Laodicea was known as a primary hub for the Roman aqueduct system.
Seven Churches in Revelation – Their Ultimate Significance
The seven churches in Revelation are literal churches from the first century AD. However, the seven churches in Revelation also have spiritual significance for churches and believers today. Indeed, the primary purpose for John writing his letters to the seven churches was to deliver Christ’s “report card” for the churches of that time. However, a second purpose for John’s inspired writings was to describe seven types of churches (and individual believers) that would surface time and again throughout history. These short letters to the seven churches of Revelation act as quick and poignant reminders to those who call themselves “followers of Christ.”
Church tradition indicates that the St. John moved to Ephesus with many Palestinian Christians around A.D. 65 before the fall of Jerusalem in 70. During Nero’s persecution against Christians in Rome at that time, both St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred in Rome. As the leader of the Asian church St. John was targeted by Roman authorities and exiled to Patmos (Rev. 1:9).
While on the island St. John received his apocalyptic vision about the spiritual situation of seven churches in Asian as well as about the future of the church and the world (1:10–11, 19). The order of the seven churches—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea—follows a route that a messenger would naturally follow in visiting the cities. During St. Paul’s ministry in Ephesus many churches were established in Asia.
Hence these seven churches seem to represent many other churches that were in Asia at the time (e.g., Miletos, Troas, Assos, Cyzicus, Magnesia, Tralles, Metropolis, etc.). The style of the seven messages is similar, with the heart of each focused on commendation and correction concluding with a promise of victory. The historical and spiritual situation of each church aids in interpreting the details of its message.
The Church in Ephesus
to the angel of the church in Ephesus, write this:
‘The one who holds the seven stars in his right and walks in the midst of the seven gold lampstands says this : ” I know your works, your labor, and you endurance, and that you cannot tolerate the wicked; you have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and discovered that they are imposters.
Moreover, you have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. But you have this in your favor: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”
“Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the victor I will give the right to eat from the tree of life that is in the garden of God.”
The church in Ephesus (2:1–7) was commended for its hard work and perseverance. The church encountered much spiritual opposition from the temple of Artemis as well as from the fourteen or more other Greek deities that were worshipped.
Ephesus was also a center of magical practices (Acts 19:19). False apostles in the church were also a problem. At Miletos St. Paul had warned the Ephesians elders that some from their own company would distort the truth (Acts 20:29–30). Timothy was to make the Ephesians Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Philetus stop teaching false doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3, 19–20; 2 Tim. 2:17–18).
Such external and internal conflict had caused the church to lose its first love of Christ and his saints. The site of Ephesus had moved three times during its early history. Unless the church repented, Jesus threatened to move its lampstand from its place of prominence among the Asian churches. (It does not mean Jesus would do away with the church.)
The victorious Christians in Ephesus were were promised to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God. Paradise was the name for the Garden of Eden in the Greek Old Testament. Outside Ephesus was the grove Ortygia which was thought to be the traditional birthplace of Artemis.
The sacred grove called a paradeisos still drew pilgrims in the first century. The Christians were thus promised an eternal paradise far superior to that possessed by their pagan counterparts.
The Church in Smyrna
to the angel of the church in Smyrna, write this:
‘The first and the last, who once died but became to life, says this : “I know your tribulation and poverty, but you are rich. I know the slander of those who claim to be Jews and are not, but rather are members of the assembly of Satan. Do not be afraid of anything that you are going to suffer. Indeed, the devil will throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will face an ordeal for ten days. Remain faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.’
“Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor shall not be harmed by the second death.”
The church in Smyrna (2:8–11) had experienced great pressure from the Jewish authorities, called the synagogue of Satan. No archaeological evidence exists today for such a synagogue. It had closed its doors to Christians, and its leaders were inciting the Roman authorities to persecute the church.
The Jews later had a similar role in the martyrdom of the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp. The crown of life is a possible allusion to the acropolis Mount Pagus that looms over the city. Such ancient writers as Aristides describes it as Smyrna’s crown. Whatever temporal crown the citizens of Smyrna enjoyed, the believers were guaranteed an eternal crown.
They were also promised exemption from the second death. There existed in the ancient world a connection between death and Smyrna. Its name is identical to the Greek word for the sweet–smelling spice in which dead bodies were wrapped (e. g., Jesus; John 19:39).
A number of mourning myths became associated with Smyrna, particularly that of Niobe whose tear–stained face was thought to be etched in the marble of nearby Mount Sipylus.
The Church in Pergamum
to the angel of the church in Pergamum, write this:
The one with the sharp two-edged sword says this : ‘I know that you live where Satan’s throne is, and yet you hold fast to my name and have not denied your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was martyred among you, where Satan lives. yet I have a few things against you. you have some people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the Israelites: to eat food sacrificed to idols and to play the harlot. Likewise, you also have some people who hold to the teaching of (the) Nicolaitans. Therefore, repent. Otherwise, I will come to you quickly and wage war against them with the sword of my mouth.
Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the victor I will some of the hidden manna; I shall also give a white amulet upon which is inscribed a new name, which no one knows except the one who received it.”
The church in Pergamum (2:12–17) existed in the place where Satan had his throne. This reference probably does not refer to the altar of Zeus that sat atop the thousand-foot acropolis that towers over the lower city. Rather it refers to the city as the seat of the provincial koinon, or assembly, whose leader was also the chief priest (“the beast out of the earth”; 13:11–17) of the imperial cult—the first cult temple in Anatolia.
The Roman governor of Asia exercised the power of life and death—the “right of the sword” (ius gladii)—in his province. Jesus stated he held even higher authority with his sharp, double-edged sword. One church leader named Antipas had already been martyred in the city. He was the only person named in Book of Revelation as a martyr. The imperial cult temple housed a white stone stele inscribed with a decree issued by Fabius, the governor of Asia, around 9 B.C.
It decreed that Augustus’ birthday should be made an official holiday in Asia as well as mark the beginning of the municipal new year.
The birth of Caesar Augustus was called the beginning of life and breath (cf. Rev. 3:14). And his birthday was declared the beginning of good news for the world (cf. Rev. 14:6). The emperors made the same claims to deity as Jesus Christ! No wonder the Christians refused to take the mark of this beast and worship him.
The Church in Tyhatira
to the angel of the church in Thyatira, write this:
‘The Son of God, whose eyes are like a fiery flame and whose feet are like polished brass, says this ” I know your works, your love, faith, service, and endurance, and that your last works are greater than the first. Yet I hold this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, who teaches and misleads my servants to play the harlot and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her harlotry.
So I will cast her on a sickbed and plunge those who commit adultery with her into intense suffering unless they repent of her works. I will also put her children to death. Thus shall all the churches come to know that I am the searcher of hearts and minds and that I will give each of you what your works deserve. But I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not uphold this teaching and know nothing of the so-called deep secrets of Satan: on you I will place no further burden, except that you must hold fast to what you have until I come.
“To the victor, who keeps to my ways until the end, I will give authority over the nations. Hw will rule them with an iron rod. Like clay vessels will they be smashed, just as I received authority from my Father. And to him I will give the morning star.”
“Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
The church in Thyatira (2:18–29) was plagued by a false prophetess symbolically named Jezebel after the evil queen of Israel who worshiped idols. She along with the Nicolaitans advocated compromise with certain pagan practices. Meat in the ancient world was dedicated to the gods at the pagan temples before it was sold in the public markets; many Christians refused to eat such meat sacrificed to idols.
Thyatira was known for its trade guilds (cf. Lydia; Acts 16:14) which would hold banquets in the pagan temples. After eating and drinking, the diners often engaged in sexually immoral acts on the couches (klinai) where they lay. Jezebel and the Nicolaitans apparently condoned such behavior because of a false understanding of freedom in Christ.
The Church in Sardis
to the angel of the church in Sardis, write this:
The one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars says this: ‘I know your works, that you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Be watchful and strengthen what is left, which is going to die, for I have not found your works completely in the sight of my God. Remember then how you accepted and heard; keep it, and repent.
If you are not watchful, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come upon you. However, you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garment; they will walk with me dressed in white, because they are worthy. The victor will thus be dressed in white and will never erase his name from the block of life but will acknowledge his name in the presence of my Father and of his angels.
“Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
The church in Sardis (3:1–6) had become dead in spite of its reputation. Twice before the city’s acropolis had fallen because Sardis had fallen asleep and let down her guard. Cyrus defeated Croesus in 546 B.C., and the Cretan general Lagoras captured it for Antiochus the Great in 218 B.C. Greek cities maintained a list of citizens in a public register.
When someone committed a criminal action and was condemned, he lost his citizenship and his name was then erased from the register. The believers who preserved would never be blotted from the eternal book of life.
Sardis was noted as a textile center, producing wool to make the himation, the most common outer garment for men and women in the Greco-Roman world. The color white in Book of Revelation always denotes purity and worthiness. Hence white garments would be a suitable reward for the victors.
The Church in Philadelphia
to the angel of the church in Philadelphia, write this:
” The holy one, the true, who holds the key of David, who opens and no one shall close, who closes and no one shall open, says this: “I know your works (behold, I have left an open door before you, which no one can close). You have limited strength, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Behold, I will make those of the assembly of Satan who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying, behold I will make them come and fall prostrate at your feet, and they will realize that I love you.
Because you have kept my message of endurance, I will keep you safe in the time of trial that is going to come to the whole world to test inhabitants of the earth. I am coming quickly. Hold fast to what you have, so that no one may take your crown.
The victor I will make into a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will never leave it again. On him I will inscribe the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from my God, as well as my new name.”
“Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
The church in Philadelphia (3:7–13) stood at an important junction of the imperial post road that ran from Rome through Troas, Pergamum, and Sardis on through to Tarsus and the East. They had an open door through which to share the gospel.
Yet here too a synagogue of Satan opposed the believers. Although no archaeological evidence for a synagogue has been found, a 3rd-century A.D. inscription was found 10 miles east of the city mentioning a “synagogue of the Hebrews.” Philadelphia was located in an earthquake-prone region called the Catacecaumene.
Both Sardis and Philadelphia were devastated by earthquakes in A.D. 17. Asian temples were built to withstand severe earthquakes. Their foundations were laid on beds of charcoal covered with wool fleeces, which caused the structure to “float” on the soil like a raft. Each block was joined to another by metal cramps, so that the platform was a unity.
The temple would be the most secure structure in the city, hence the promise to be a pillar in the temple of God was one of security and safety. Inscribed pillars are found throughout Aegean Turkey. A dramatic example is the temple of Zeus at Euromos with dedicatory inscriptions on ten of the eleven standing pillars. Jesus will write divine names as well as his new name on those human “pillars” who overcome.
Philadelphia received a new name twice in the first century: the first time after the A.D. 17 earthquake to “Neocaesarea” in gratitude for Tiberius’ generosity, the second time to “Flavia” after Vespasian gave financial assistance following a similar catastrophe.
The Church in Laodicea
to the angel of the church in Laodicea, write this:
‘The Amen, the faithful and true witness, the source of God’s creation says this: “I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot or cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. for you say, ‘I am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,’ and yet do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
I advise you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich, and white garments to put on so that your shameful nakedness may not be exposed, and buy ointment to smear on your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and chastise.
Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, (then) I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me. I will give the victor right to sit with me on my throne, as I myself first won the victory and sit with my Father on his throne.’
“Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
The church in Laodicea (3:14–22) was closely related to its sister church in Colossae and Hierapolis . Its spiritual condition was lukewarm—neither hot nor cold. Six miles north of the city were the thermal springs (not drinkable) at Hierapolis, whose white calcareous cliffs were visible in the distance.
To obtain drinking water, the Romans built an aqueduct that ran five miles south to an abundant spring (now in Denizli). The cool spring water would become lukewarm as it passed through the aqueducts into the city. The city was strategically located for trade and commerce, and became a leading banking center. It had accepted aid from Rome following earlier earthquakes.
However, after the earthquake in 60 that devastated many Asian cities, only Laodicea refused to accept Roman financial assistance because she was so wealthy. This attitude of material self-satisfaction, “I am rich,” had seemingly entered the church also. The church’s spiritual blindness was ironic because a famous salve for treating eye disease was produced by the medical school there.
The exhortation to buy white garments to cover their shameful nakedness is another example of irony. For the believers were living in a city where the Romans had established textile factories to manufacture clothing from the famous black wool of the region. Laodicea was a “throne city” because a citizen Zeno became king of Cilicia in 39 B.C. and of Pontus in 36.
His family continued to rule in some measure in Anatolia over the next century. The Zenoid family figures prominently on the Laodicea ‘s coinage. Again the victors are promised that they will sit with Jesus on his heavenly throne.