The seven churches of revelation are probably the one section of revelation that many feel they can consider without too much controversy. We can place their location with some accuracy and find they form a fairly small, squashed circle situated in Asia Minor. The two most extreme, Pergamum and Laodicea are little over two hundred miles apart and the majority of them are much closer indeed.
Despite the close geographic proximity of these churches we find, as the Lord Jesus in Revelation 2 & 3 takes the circular tour of them, that spiritually and doctrinally these churches are poles apart. In fact the spiritual difference is so great that some have taken these churches to be metaphoric and representative of the church throughout the ages. Personally I side with Adam Clark in his belief that these were real churches with real problems and that communally, all seven, relate to the church as we have it today.
One of the key phrases of this part of Revelation has to be 'he that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches' so as we take our tour of these churches we shall try to draw out the unique features they had that would be of value to us today.
Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and was famous for its' Goddess Diana. It contained the largest theater of the time seating some 50,000 people and was described as the first and greatest metropolis in Asia.
Ephesus was first visited by Paul briefly as part of his second missionary journey and then upon his third journey he stayed in the city for three years. With such apostolic attention, and later with Timothy resident Ephesus seems to have excelled in doctrine.
Being the closest church to Patmos; a port some 50 miles NNE of the Island, and also possibly because of its' apostolic links we find it mentioned first of the seven.
We find the problem it had was having left its' first love. I don't think that meant idolatry; with their zeal for doctrine I don't think that would have been tolerated. It means they had lost their passion; their zeal. They hadn't even left their love; they were faithful. But that heart stopping, pounding all absorbing desire had dissipated, and that had to be corrected.
Some consider this to be representative of the church in the apostolic age (100AD).
Smyrna is another port some 40 miles NNW of Ephesus. its' most famous Christian is probably Polycarp who was martyred in AD168. We find the key characteristic of Smyrna is the impending persecution. They were already weak and poor and suffering and the message from the Savior is that it was going to get worse.
Those that believe the seven churches are successive assign to Smyrna the period between 100AD and 316AD under the label the persecuted church. At first sight this church is a good argument for this division. How could they possibly have been poor and persecuted when only 120 miles away there is a church (Laodicea) that has so much wealth it has made them complacent. Surely if both churches existed at the same time then the rich one would have helped the poor. But would it? 120 miles would probably have been about 12 days journey at this time. In twelve days you can get anywhere on earth today; are we sure there aren't any poor persecuted churches out their that we haven't helped?
Continuing the circuit, about 35 miles north of Smyrna on the banks of the river Caicus, about 20 miles from the sea stood Pergamos. The city was famous for its' library and having been the place of invention of parchment.
We also have biblical mandate for saying that of all the locations this was the most important. Twice the Lord says to this church that he knows where they dwell. They dwelt where Satan had his seat. We don't know quite what that means; it could refer to the worship of sculapius in the form of a serpent, it could refer to the Roman governor in the area or it could be a reference to the invalidity of the synagogue there. Being simple I tend to believe it simply means Satan had a throne there. Satan is not omnipresent, he has to have a center of operations, and I suggest it was here for some reason we don't fully understand.
Some attribute this to the World Church of AD316-800.
Thyatira was on the borders of Lydia and Mysia and was the original home of Lydia the dyer of cloth. About 40 miles ESE of Pergamos and a similar distance NE of Smyrna this may well have been started by Lydia herself. If it was then it was now being run, or at least heavily influenced by a woman of very different nature: Jezebel.
Jezebel does bear a striking resemblance in metaphor to the papacy, which has prompted some to liken this church to the medieval church of 800-1517. Indeed I suspect it is this extended description that has prompted many Protestants to leap at this historic interpretation of the seven churches. However scripture is very precise. It says the church sufferest that woman Jezebel. The medieval church did not suffer Catholicism: it embraced it whole-heartedly. What we have here is an errant woman being allowed to run amok.
Sardis was the metropolis of Lydia in Asia Minor. It stood on the river Pactolus, at the foot of mount Tmolus. Sardis had once been the capital of the great kingdom of Lydia and the home of Croesus, the rich king, lay in the interior nearly a hundred miles east of Smyrna and north east of Ephesus. Though it had lost its former greatness it was still a considerable city in the first century.
Sardis is considered by some to be representative of the State church (1517-1750AD). If so it would actually be a stunning indictment of the reformation as it is the one church in which absolutely no good is found apart from its' reputation!
Philadelphia means brotherly love. It was a city of Lydia in Asia Minor, about 25 miles southeast of Sardis. Searching the annals of history reveals very little of this town, it was a bit of a non-entity, much like the church there, at least from the human perspective.
Yet if we read the account give by the Lord of Creation we find it is the only church that managed to escape both censure and persecution. We find it is small but with opportunity. We also find that in the end it will be vindicated.
Some assign this to the period of 1750 to 1900 under the title of the missionary church.
The city of this name mentioned in Scripture lay on the confines of Phrygia and Lydia, about 40 miles EESE of Ephesus, on the banks of the Lycus. It was originally called Diospolis and then Rhoas, but afterwards Laodicea, from Laodice, the wife of Antiochus II., king of Syria, who rebuilt it. It was one of the most important and flourishing cities of Asia Minor.
A famous feature that the town prided itself upon was that it had suffered an earthquake and when offered help to rebuild it respectfully declined as it had the resources to do the building itself. We find that the independence of the populace had rubbed off upon the church too. It was a complacent church that considered itself to have everything they needed. From Christ's point of view they were nauseating.
Those that assign periods to these churches make this one the church of today. I don't generally hold with this scheme; I think there are elements of each of these churches existing in different parts of the church today. The American church may be Laodicea; try spending a few months in china, or northern Nigeria or Indonesia.
However, insofar as we feel we can relate to Laodicea heed this. Rev 3:20 'behold I stand at the door and knock' is oftentimes used as a gospel verse. I know many that have been saved under it, and Amen to that. BUT: the verse is actually written to a church. Pray God that we don't become so complacent, independent and materialistic that our Lord and Savior is found outside knocking to come it.