After his vision of the glorious Christ and his commissioning, John is told to write to the Seven churches. These are not the only churches in Asia (the Roman province in western Turkey), we know of churches in the small town of Colosse and nearby Hierapolis which looks down from a high cliff towards Laodicea, across the Lycus valley. Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written to these communities.
The risen Lord among the lampstands
Jesus ‘walks among the seven lampstands’ i.e. he walks with his people. He is here with us today, even though we are few in number and struggling.
Each church has an angelos that governs its affairs. This word has caused a lot of scholarly ink to be spilled. I think it is reasonable to believe that if God assigns powerful angelic beings to watch over nations, as in the book of Daniel, and angels to guard individual believers (Heb 2?) that he also has angels to look after small groups of his people.
However, this is God’s business, not ours. We should not be trying to contact our angels, who serve us as ‘ministering spirits’. They answer to God, not to us. Jesus gave us direct access to God. We do not need to go through an angel. If God choses to deliver a message to us through an angelic appearance, that is his business. Our job is to listen, obey and quake in fear and trembling.
Notice that the letter to each church was also to be read by the other churches. This highlights the unity and closeness of the early church at the end of the first century CE. A unity that we no longer experience.
Jesus intends for his commendations and admonitions to be heard by people in all of the churches. In fact, when we get to the letter to Sardis in 3.1-6, a general promise is given to all ‘overcomers’ who ‘remain victorious like them, dressed in white’.
Each letter follows a similar pattern:
- ‘To the angel of the church in …’ – the location of the church is named;
- ‘these are the words of …’ – A description of Jesus, using imagery from 1.12-16;
- ‘I know your works …’ – commendation for some aspect of the church’s life (although Laodicea misses out on this);
- ‘I have this against you …’ rebuke, admonition or warning (though not for Smyrna or Philadelphia);
- ‘Whoever has ears, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ – Listen up, everyone.
- ‘To the one who overcomes …’ A promise for those who conquer or overcome.
The background to all of the letters is the all-encompassing pressure exerted by the Roman empire. Asia, which we call western Turkey, had been a Roman province for nearly two hundred years. The province (or its leaders, at least) was now fiercely loyal to Rome.
The Roman empire survived for a millennium, because Roman practice was to govern through patronage. Rome won over and ruled through the local elites, who were rewarded generously for loyalty or ruthlessly removed for treachery. A very effective system.
Thus, it was in Asia that the Roman emperors were first celebrated and worshipped as gods. All of the towns addressed by Jesus had imperial temples where sacrifices and celebrations were held in honour of deified Caesars.
Religious persecution of christians?
The tension that Jesus addresses in his seven letters implies that the small churches faced persecution because of the faith. Civic life revolved around loyalty to Rome and the empire. Those who did not participate were viewed with suspicion, because they threatened the peace and prosperity of the city.
Local authorities held regular celebrations to honour the emperor. Trade guides met at the local temple. Commerce involved engagement with the imperial cult, at least as lip-service. Local citizens pledged allegiance to Caesar as Lord, celebrated him ‘as a son of the gods’ and praised him for bringing peace and prosperity to the whole world.
Can you think of anyone else who made these claims?
The followers of Jesus were under extreme pressure to conform.
There is no evidence of an empire-wide persecution of christians during the reign of Domitian. This is not to say that Domitian wasn’t a cruel autocrat. Just that he did not institute a policy of repression of christians.
The repression was local. Local leaders, who held significant power, knew who was involved and who was not. Social pressure and sometime legal coercion was used against non-conformists. The Jews enjoyed religio licita status, which exempted them from idolatrous practices. The earliest christian groups who were thought to be a Jewish sect, were afforded some protection. Some Jewish people, especially the wealthy well-connected ones, resented them, and apparently sometimes blew the whistle.
The call to overcome
The main thrust of the prophetic exhortation to the churches is a call to stand firm against the temptation to compromise in the face of opposition, seduction and persecution. The imperatives (command verbs) tell the story.
Ephesus (2:1–7): “Remember…Repent…Do!”
“Remember [μνημόνευε; mnemoneue] therefore from where you have fallen; repent [μετανόησον; metanoeson], and do [ποίησον; poieson] the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev 2:5).
Smyrna (2:8–11): “Do Not Fear…Be Faithful!”
“Do not fear [φοβοῦ; phobou]1 what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful [γίνου; ginou]2 unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10).
Pergamum (2:12–17): “Repent!”
“Therefore repent [μετανόησον; metanoeson]. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev 2:16).
Thyatira (2:18–29): “Hold Fast!”
“Only hold fast [κρατήσατε; kratesate] what you have until I come” (Rev 2:25).
Sardis (3:1–6): “Wake Up and Strengthen!… Keep it…Repent!”
“Wake up [γίνου; ginou]3, and strengthen [στήρισον; sterison] what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 2 Remember [μνημόνευε; mnemoneue], then, what you received and heard. Keep it [τήρει; terei]4, and repent [μετανόησον; metanoeson]. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (Rev 3:2–3).
“I am coming soon. Hold fast [κράτει; kratei] what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (Rev 3:11).
“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous [ζήλευε; zeleue] and repent [μετανόησον; metanoeson]” (Rev 3:19).
What is the Spirit saying to the churches today?