John’s Letter to the churches
John was the younger brother of James, the sons of Zebedee and Salome. He was even tempered and introspective. He was a thinker with a soft voice and who was ‘good’ with words. He was one of the ‘inner circle’ of Jesus. He was on the Mount of Olives when Jesus revealed some information about the end of the age.
It is said that the Apostle, when he was ‘old’, wrote the Gospel of John, the three letters of John, and the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
At some time, generally believed to be during the reign of the emperor Domitian, who ruled from 81-96 AD, and who is reported to have exiled people rather than kill them, John was arrested in Ephesus and exiled to a ‘prison island’.
A very old man, in his 80’s, John was living on the island of Patmos. The island had been settled by Dorian Greeks by 500 BC and later the Ionians. In mythology, the island was named in honor of Artemis who, with her brother, convinced Zeus to raise up the island that had earlier sunk into the sea.
This small island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Roman Asia, at most 10 miles long and 6 miles wide and only 22 square miles, is a island of rocky hills and an irregular coastline with many bays. Locals raised goats, tended vines, and fished. On the side of the tallest hill there is a cave that faces northeast.
There were already some believers on the island when John arrived. When John arrived the believers secured the cave for John so that he might escape the heat and wind. Tradition indicates that it was in the cave that John lived for 18 months, and received his visions from God.
John, always a thoughtful person, was seriously concerned about the persecutions who’s target was the followers of Jesus. John had long been remembering that time with Jesus on the Mount of Olives when Jesus spoke of the end of the evil age and the beginning of the reign of God. Mark (13:3-27), Matthew (24:3-31), and Luke (21:7-28) give us an idea of what John heard as he listened to Jesus.
Many would claim to speak in the name of Jesus, but one should not listen to false teachers. There would be wars and rumors of wars. There would be ‘natural disasters’ such as earthquakes, famines, drought, and pestilances. And there would be signs in the sky.
Meanwhile the believers would be persecuted by Jews and Gentiles, religious and governmental, strangers and family would hate believers. Stand firm! Many would turn from The Faith and many "prophets" would give them false reasons. Passion for the Lord would cool.
An army would approach Jerusalem. Those who can should flee as soon as they hear. It will be a dreadful time because none will be spared. Jerusalem would be placed under seige and taken. The Gentiles will trample Jerusalem and set up an "abomination of desolation" in the holy place.
False christ’s and false prophets will perform signs and wonders and deceive many, yet The Gospel must be preached to all nations before the end of the age.
Immediately after this distress the sun, moon, stars, and seas will be seriously and obviously affected. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and the Son of Man will appear in glory and power. With a loud trumpet call He will send the angels to gather the elect from all over the earth.
As John remembered the life and teachings of Jesus, the acts of the Holy Spirit, and the condition of The Church, his mind was opened by God, and John was shown a series of visions.
Then John wrote down all that he could remember. Knowing that he was instructed to proclaim these visions to The Church, he finally wrote them down in as organized a fashion as he could.
John then wrote a cover letter for The Apocalypse. John carefully selected ‘seven’ churches to represent all of The Church, and addressed the cover letter to them. But The Apocalypse was to be read to all believers, in all the churches, beginning at Ephesus.
God was about to purify His Church, each believer, and the entire world. Believers would face a time of great tribulation, but they would be guarded from the ‘wrath’ of God against the ungodly. The believers would be rewarded, and unbelievers would suffer, as God’s justice prevailed.
The first church that would receive The Apocalypse would be Ephesus. Only one day sailing from Patmos (40 miles to the northeast), the ‘premier city’ in Roman Asia with a population of around 250,000. It was the seat of the proconsular government, and the cultural and religious center of Roman Asia.
Just to the east of the city was the temple of Diana, the largest building in the Greek world. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Artemis of the Ephesians she was called, and was known for her sacred palm tree, under which she was said to have been born, along with her brother Apollo.
But, as far as John was concerned, Ephesus was infamous for the three temples of the Imperial cult. In 29 BC a temple had been erected to honor the goddess Roma, and another to honor Julius Caesar.
The church of believers had been introduced to The Christ by Paul when he stopped briefly in Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem in the summer of 52 AD. It was visited by Apollos in the spring of 54 AD, but when Paul arrived, Apollos was gone and Paul corrected some errors. Paul nurtured the body of believers during the three years he stayed in Ephesus.
Jesus knew this church! He walks among the ‘lamp stands’ and sees all. Their hands were busy doing the Lord’s works. Despite the persecutions they had faced they patiently endured in the hope of the kingdom.
Their heads were in the right place. From the beginning they had tested those who sought to teach them The Gospel. And they could not tolerate evil doers among the believers. They were separated from the body in hopes that they would repent and be saved.
But their hearts were lacking. The passion for The Christ was gone. In the beginning they sought to evangelize both Jew and Gentile with enthusiasm. Showing their love to those outside The Faith. But now, though their love for one another was undiminished, they no longer were willing to risk what they had, to seek out others in need. "Remember! Repent! Do what you did at first."
So The Christ commends the church for their works and for their willingness to test the spirits of those who come to them. He also commends their steadfastness during persecution. But they must overcome their contentment, and once again get excited about proclaiming The Good News to those outside their everyday contact.
They should not be overly concerned about what evil might befall them. Reach out! Be faithful! To those believers who are victorious in following their Lord, they will be given the privilege of eating from the Tree of Life, which, unlike the sacred palm tree of Artemis, truly gives life, and had been available in the Garden of Eden.
Thirty-five miles north of Ephesus, one long day’s journey, was Smyrna. It lay on a trade route that ran from Rome, to Persia, to India.
Smyrna had begun as a Greek colony, but had been destroyed by the Lydians around 675 BC. The remains of the dead city were abandoned. But it had been re-founded around 250 BC by Alexander the Great, and was reborn as a prosperous city.
As Rome began its rise to power, Smyrna was the first city in the area to support the Romans, and was expected to stand by Rome to the last. Their loyalty was them build a temple to Roma in 195 BC, and to Tiberius Caesar in 23 BC.
There was a large Jewish colony in Smyrna, and a church that was likely visited, if not founded, by Paul during his stay in Ephesus.
To this church, suffering poverty and persecution amidst the wealth of Smyrna, The Christ says that He is the true first (at creation) and last (at the end of all things), unlike Smyrna. That He is the one who died and will live forever (not like Smyrna). Yet, because of their faith – they are truly rich.
Though the Jews tell lies and attack their character and reputation, and though they know more suffering is coming, whether prison or death, the affliction has a limited length.
Remain faithful! Do not look with your physical eyes. Rather, look beyond, with your spiritual eyes. Be faithful to the end and they would receive a victors wreath, a crown of life, and the second death, when unbelievers will be thrown into the lake of fire and eternally tormented, will not be their fate.
Only God gives new life, not Alexander or Caesar. As Smyrna has been faithful to Rome, so you want to be faithful to God, which has made you rich in The Spirit.
From Smyrna, the messenger would travel north 40 miles to the city of Pergamum. The ‘capitol of the king’, and the capital of the province of Asia. Here was found a great library, second only to Alexandria in Egypt, with some 200,000 volumes.
Here, there were built temples to Zeus (the ‘great altar’ reaching a height of 800 feet), Minerva, Apollo, Bacchus (known for parties), Hera, Demeter, Athena, and Asclepius (the god of healing, who’s symbol is the serpent).
But Satan took up residence here in 29 BC, when they built a temple to Roma and Caesar, because they also introduced the worship of the imperial cult into Asia for the first time. It was in Pergamum that the decree was written, whereby all people were required, once a year (or month), to offer a pinch of incense on the altar of Caesar and to declare their loyalty to Caesar as their god. Pergamum was the provincial capital of the state religion.
And the church lived in the midst of this evil. Here, the pressure to compromise was intense and pervasive. Whether the temptations of pleasures, such as Balaam advised Balak (Numbers 31:16, 25:1-3), or to be overthrown by the religious compromises of the Nicolaitans, or to learn other false teachings in the library, the believers must hold fast to their faith and not deny The Christ. Antipas showed the way as a faithful witness (martyr) who was the first recorded execution for The Faith in the battle against emperor worship. Do not compromise The Word!
As God’s manna sustained His people in the wilderness following the Exodus, so the Word of God will sustain them in the wilderness of Pergamum. Hold onto our faith, and you will be acquitted at the judgment, just as though Jesus cast his vote with a white stone in a Roman trial. It is the name of Jesus that will save you. It is the Word of God that saves you and condemns others as a two edged sword cuts both ways.
From Pergamum the letter was delivered to Thyatira, only 35 miles to the east, and the home of the Lydia that Paul had met in Philippi. She was a member of the trade guild that produced a purple dye from the roots of the madder plant.
The city was founded by the god Tyrimnus, but was also known for the worship of Apollo, the son of Zeus. He was the god of plagues, and one of his symbols was the locust, and another symbol was the ‘all seeing eye’.
But most importantly were the ‘guild gods’. Each guild, whether dyes, garments, pottery, tanners, or brass works, had its own god. To be a member of the guild you must pay homage to its god. These gods were known for their feasts and parties, to which all members were expected to attend and participate.
The church in Thyatira was known for its love, which led to works, and its faith, which led to patient endurance. And the works it did now were greater then the earlier ones. But beware! There is a Jezebel that is seeking to seduce the church, just as the guilds do. They are seducing the church to worship idols, just as the Jezebel in the scripture tempted Israel to worship the ba’als. The church is being told that to conquer Satan, you must first experience what Satan offers.
The Christ is angry and His eyes are like flames. The Christ searches the mind and the heart. The Christ sees more than the ‘eye’ of Apollo that only sees the physical world, and The Christ knows the plans of Satan behind the ‘deep secrets’ that Satan offers to seduce the people.
With feet of burnished bronze, as though made by the brass guild, The Christ will trample those who succumb. There will be great distress, including death to adults and children. God will allow them to suffer because their actions have determined their suffering.
Hold on to The Faith, and be victorious. Then receive authority over nations in the thousand year kingdom, and receive a new life, and immortality in Christ.
The letter was then to be delivered to Sardis, 30 miles to the southeast. Sardis had been the capital of Lydia, the most powerful kingdom of Asia. With shear cliffs protecting the acropolis, except for a very narrow ridge to the south, the city was considered impregnable.
But in 549 BC Cyrus the Persian, destroyed Sardis when the city was captured reportedly because of a lack of vigilance. When the city was rebuilt, it again became the most powerful in Asia, and thought that it would never again be defeated. Then in 218 BC a sentry slept while on duty, and Antiochus Epiphanies was able to take the city because of the lack of vigilance. Sardis had a reputation for greatness, but in reality was just living the dream of the past.
Sardis had worshipped Cybele, the ‘mother goddess’, for a long time, and now had added a temple to Artemis. But the city had been rejected as a site for an imperial temple.
The city was most known for carpet making and for its luxury clothing trade.
The church was also living on its reputation. It had once been known for its works. It had the reputation of being alive, mostly because there were still some believers that continued the work of the Lord, but the church was mostly dead.
The church needed to wake up, and not let the enemy destroy it. Be vigilant! Remember The Gospel and strengthen the remnant. Repent and change. Put on the spiritual garments of victory, not the luxury garments of Sardis.
Then the church of Sardis will have a name that The Christ will declare before The Father and will be living the life that is now just a memory of the past.
Only 20 miles east of Sardis, the letter was delivered to Philadelphia. Philadelphia was founded by Emmenes, but named in honor of his brother Attalus, who was a loyal and loving brother. The city was located on a major north/south trade route and was founded in order to spread Greek civilization into Lydia and Phrygia. There was a strong Jewish community in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia was known for its wine and the god Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, was worshipped there.
Time and again the city changed its name. After the 17 AD earthquake damaged the city, Tiberius gave assistance to the rebuilding effort. The city re-named itself Neo-Caesar in his honor. That was changed back under Nero.
The church was known for its works, and for their loyalty to The Christ. The Christ, who is the key to The Father (Isaiah 22:22, 36:3) and to whom has been granted the authority to decide who will enter the new Jerusalem, will come soon. Hold firm! Be more loyal to The Christ then Attalus was to Emmenes. All else may be on shaky ground, but those who are victorious will be considered like pillars of a temple. Their faithful endurance will be a foundation of The Church.
The members of the synagogue, who refuse to admit that Jesus is The Christ, and oppose those who believe, are not true Jews, in that they have not recognized God’s Anointed One. There will come a time that they will be forced to recognize the authority of The Christ, and they will do homage to your faithfulness. But the believer will be spared the trial that is going to be faced by every other inhabitant of earth.
Unlike the city, whose name is temporary, the believers will be marked with the name of YHWH, the name of His Christ, and with the name of the Eternal City.
From Philadelphia the letter is taken 40 miles to the southwest, to the city of Laodicea. The city was named after the wife of Antiochus II, in 250 BC. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 AD and was rebuilt by locals, after they refused imperial assistance.
Laodicea was wealthy. It was the banking center, where ‘gold flowed freely’. In part this wealth was the result of power. Laodicea was the center of the judicial district, where justice ‘flowed with the gold’.
Laodicea was known for raising black woolen sheep and the production of a glossy black wool. But they were even more famous for their medical school, which had invented an eye salve, called Phrygian Powder, which made the eyes water.
Colossae had cold water. Hierapolis had healing hot springs. But by the time that the water arrived in Laodicea from six miles away, it was only lukewarm. The warm mineral water was used by the medical school, to trigger vomiting.
The people of Laodicea were proud and conceited.
The church was likely founded by Epaphras (Colossians 4:12f) during Paul’s time in Ephesus. The church considered itself to be blessed by God, as was evidenced by the many and rich blessings it enjoyed. They were self sufficient, and needed nothing. As such, they had become indifferent to The Gospel. They were neither cold nor hot, and The Christ would vomit them out, that is, utterly reject (Leviticus 18:25, 28, 20:22) them.
The church seemed blessed, but they were spiritually poverty stricken. The Word of God warned that they should seek true wealth, the pure gold of The Gospel, which has been refined. Seek the robes of white which The Christ will supply, not the black robes of Laodicea. And seek a salve for their spiritual eyes, not just for their physical eyes. The Christ is the faithful and true witness, not corrupted as was the legal system in Laodicea.
‘The purification that is coming will hurt. I do it because I love you! Truly repent. I am even now knocking on your door. Let me in! Listen to me! You will experience such wealth at the wedding banquet, that the citizens of Laodicea cannot imagine. Be victorious and sit on my throne. This is the A-men of God. These things will surly happen.
And now, the letter of the Apocalypse has been brought to you.