In my last post I wrote about the significance of the names of the cities that hosted the seven churches to which Jesus wrote. In this post I will give you a little historical and geographic information to help you better appreciate and understand these letters.
Revelation 2:13 reads, concerning the church in Pergamum, “I know where you live — where Satan has his throne”. Now what could Jesus have meant by that? Well, Pergamum stood at the base of a large conical hill. About halfway up the slope of this hill was a massive altar to Zeus. From a distance, it looked like a giant throne belching smoke from the sacrifices made on it. The city also housed the temple of Æscalapius, the serpentine god of healing. Pergamum appears to have been the seat of Satan worship after the cult of Æscalapius moved there from Babylon.
Thyatira was a city controlled by guilds (trade unions). It also housed the famous fortune-telling shrine of Cybele, the queen of heaven. Here, castrated priests worshipped by self-flagellation and fire-walking. Is it any wonder that Jesus referred to himself in his letter to them as ‘the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze’? The most notorious priestess of Cybele in Israel’s history was Queen Jezebel, and so it is no surprise to find this church’s false prophetess referred to by that infamous name. In Pergamum, the threat was infiltration from without, but here in Thyatira, the threat was corruption from within. Queen Jezebel came from Sidon and married King Ahab as part of a political settlement. She introduced Baal worship into Israel, and here in Thyatira her namesake seems to have been doing the same thing. By all accounts, it was not Baal who was worshipped, but his consort Ashtoreth, alias Cybele, queen of heaven, mother goddess. Incense was a prime ingredient in pagan worship, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that the name of the city means … ‘incense’.
Sardis was a hugely wealthy city and had been the home of the legendary king Croesus. The city was on top of a cliff, and so its inhabitants thought that it was impenetrable. On more than one occasion in their history they had become complacent and the enemy had been able to breach their impressive security. Jesus had nothing good to say to this church. He told her to “Wake up!”, and accused them of having a reputation of being alive, while they were in fact dead. They were complacent and deceived. They needed to remember what they had received and heard, and to repent and obey!
The history of the city of Philadelphia is particularly appropriate to the calling God placed upon his church there. The Greeks founded it as a missionary city to spread their language and culture into that part of the world. Despite its being in an earthquake belt, and often subject to tremors, it succeeded brilliantly. In his letter to the church there the Lord Jesus tells them that he has opened a door which no one can shut; a door of missionary outreach into the world.
Laodicea is the last church addressed in these seven letters. Once again, the history and situation of the city provides the basis for the Lord’s analysis of the church’s condition. It was a very wealthy city with a well-developed banking sector. It also had a vigorous clothing manufacturing industry, and a renowned medical facility which specialised in eye ointment. Another feature which characterized the city was its system of aqueducts, which transported water in from the hot springs just outside town. However, by the time the water reached the city, it was no longer hot, but tepid and nauseating. Jesus wishes that this church were either cold or hot, but not tepid. Laodicea had a second source of water from a nearby town. Its main water source was from hot springs, but its secondary source was cold. Jesus is saying, “If you were spiritually like cold water, you would be refreshing. If you were like hot water, you would be a source of healing. Yet you are like tepid water, nauseating and good only to induce vomiting!” Jesus called the people of this church poor, blind, and naked. He urgently advised them to obtain from him real gold, white clothing, and spiritual salve for their blindness. They had material wealth, fine clothing and world-renowned eye salve, but their spiritual condition was the opposite.
I suggest that you reread Revelation chapters two and three armed with this insight into the location, geography and history of the cities. I am sure that the letters will come more alive to you. In my next few posts we will travel from city to city and try to apply the main lessons of each letter to the church of our day.
This is where ‘the rubber hits the road’.