There are seven letters written to seven actual churches in the area we now call Turkey, but these churches also represent the whole church throughout the ages.
When we consider these churches we need to identify in them the traits we see in the church of our day
The posts that follow this will be devoted to the study of each of these letters. However, in this and the next post I want to give something of the background to each letter so that you can better appreciate the wonderful way that the Lord Jesus communicates to His people.
The first thing to note concerning the letters is that the names of the cities tie in with the character and condition of the churches. How can this be? Yes, it is wonderful, but consider the following:
Ephesus: Desirable One
Ephesus means ‘desirable one’ and the city was famous because it housed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the great temple of the pagan goddess Diana. It was also a major banking centre and its inhabitants loved money almost as much as they loved Diana. In His letter to the church in that city Jesus focused on the fact that they had forsaken their first love, their love for him.
Smyrna: Burial Herb
The city housing the second church address by Jesus was Smyrna. This is a word derived from Myrrh, the spice used in preparing bodies for burial (John 19:39). Smyrna was the first centre of emperor worship and many Christians were burned at the stake for refusing to say “Caesar is Lord”. The most well-known of these martyrs was Bishop Polycarp who was put to death by fire in AD 155.
Pergamum: Marital Consumation
The name of the third city, Pergamum, is given in most reference books as meaning ‘fortress’ but it is more likely, that the name derives from the Greek word ‘gamos’, married, and more specifically, sexual consummation. The city housed the temple of the serpentine god Æscalapius and the three major features of the worship of Æscalapius were drunkenness, sexual licence, and occult healing. In his letter to the church there Jesus writes: ‘You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality’ (Revelation 2:14).
The meaning of the name Thyatira is very obscure. Some say it simply means ‘Castle of Thya’. Some believe that it comes from the Greek words, thea, ‘a female deity’ and tyrannos, ‘a tyrant’, and there are others who say the name comes from thuo, ‘to sacrifice’, and by derivation ‘incense’. Another view is that the name was based on the ancient city of Tyre, the birth place of the infamous queen Jezebel who Jesus references in the letter.
Sardis: Precious Remnant
The meaning of the word Sardis is, as far as I can determine, ‘precious remnant’ and this would certainly fit with Jesus’ commendation which starts with the words: “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me dressed in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4).
Philadelpia: Brotherly Love
The name of the 6th city was Philadelphia which most believe means ‘brotherly love’ which finds its echo in the words of Jesus to the church there that He would make their enemies fall at their feet and “acknowledge that I have loved you” (Revelation 3:9)
Laodicea: Rule of People
The name of the last church was Laodicea which is most likely a composite of ‘Laos’, meaning ‘people’ and ‘dike’ meaning ‘justice or rule’. So, the word Laodicea could mean either ‘rule of the people’ or ‘rule over the people’. The relevance of this to the letter will have to await a subsequent post but think for a moment of the problems that occur when a church is ruled solely by democratic will of its members or by the decisions of just one ‘Pastor’.
In my next post I will outline some of the history and situation of each city and this will give a greater appreciation of just how wonderfully each letter is constructed and phrased.