John has seen the Risen Lord standing in the midst of seven lampstands, representing the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 1:12-20). Jesus is not an absent landlord: He is intimately aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the churches of His people. Before the Revelation proper can be given, He has messages to give for His people in their specific circumstances in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea: the letters to the seven churches in Asia (Revelation 2:1-3:22).
Each letter maintains a similar layout: Jesus speaks to the congregation through the “angel” of that congregation, and speaks of Himself in terms of the descriptions given in Revelation 1:12-20 (save the reference to Jesus as the Son of God in Revelation 2:18, a reference to Jesus used often in 1 John; e.g. 1 John 4:15). Jesus then commends each church for all that is commendable (save for Laodicea, for which there is no commendation). Jesus will then set forth His concerns, critiques, and condemnations for each church (except for Smyrna and Philadelphia, for which there are no critiques). Jesus concludes each letter with a promise for those who “overcome” and the exhortation for all who have ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Jesus finds many reasons for encouragement. Ephesus has patience and works, has not grown weary, has exposed false apostles for what they are, and hates the works of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:2-3, 6). Despite poverty, tribulation, and persecution from the Jews, Smyrna is truly rich and has stood firm for Jesus (Revelation 2:9). Pergamum has held fast to Jesus’ name and did not deny the faith despite dwelling in the midst of “Satan’s throne” and official Roman persecution (Revelation 2:13). Jesus knows of Thyatira’s love, faith, ministry, patience, and works (Revelation 2:19). Some in Sardis maintain righteousness and holiness and are worthy of life (Revelation 3:5). Philadelphia, despite weakness and persecution by the Jews, has maintained the faith and has not denied it, and will be preserved through the hour of trial (Revelation 3:8-10).
Yet Jesus has many concerns for His churches. Ephesus has left its first love, and without returning to their former works, will lose their place (Revelation 2:4-5). Pergamum and Thyatira have some among them who have compromised too much with the pagan world around them, participating in sexual immorality and food sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2:14-16, 20-23). Sardis has the reputation for life, but is actually dead; they need to wake up and repent (Revelation 3:1-4). Laodicea is lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, and is about to be spit out: they claim to be wealthy and in need of nothing but in fact are in need of everything. In humility they must turn back to Jesus for true wealth, clothing, and healing (Revelation 3:15-18).
Jesus is preparing His churches for tribulations and difficulties which are about to come upon them, encouraging them to remain steadfast despite the challenges. This is told to Smyrna and Philadelphia explicitly (Revelation 2:10, 3:10), and will affect the other churches as well. All the churches do well to “clean up” the challenges existing within the congregation so that they will be ready and able to stand firm when the external difficulties come upon them!
Jesus provides promises to those who “overcome”: John is responsible for 24 of the 28 uses of nikao, overcome, in Scripture, and 17 of those are in Revelation. Those who overcome will eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God (Revelation 2:7), will not be harmed by the second death (Revelation 2:11), will receive the hidden manna, and a white stone with a new name on it (Revelation 2:17), will receive authority over the nations to rule with a rod of iron and be given the morning star (Revelation 2:27-28), will be arrayed in white garments, will not have their names blotted out of the book of life, and Jesus will confess their names before the Father (Revelation 3:5), will be made a pillar in the house of God, and will have the name of God and the name of the city of God written on them (Revelation 3:12), and will sit with Jesus on His throne, as He sits with the Father on His throne (Revelation 3:19). In the midst of persecution, poverty, and trial, the hope of victory, power, wealth, and eternal life would encourage and sustain the Christians of the churches of Asia.
What are we to make of these letters? Jesus is sending messages to specific churches in their specific contexts, exhibiting a familiarity with each particular city and its history and environment. Smyrna, as a city, died and lived again, and was wealthy (Revelation 2:8-9). Pergamum was the center of Roman power in the area, full of idols and paganism, and thus understood as where Satan and his throne dwelt (Revelation 2:13). The glory days of Sardis were in the past; it had only been conquered twice when its defenders were not particularly alert (Revelation 3:1-3). Laodicea was famous for its wealth, its school of ophthalmology and its eye-salve, and notorious for the lukewarm quality of its water (cf. Revelation 3:15-18). Nevertheless, each letter also concludes with the exhortation for those who have ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:4, 3:13, 3:22). In these seven churches we see the same types of strengths and weaknesses, and benefits and challenges as have existed in churches throughout time and continue to exist to this day. Some churches stand firm for the truth but lose their love and zeal for God, like Ephesus; other churches maintain love and zeal but have many compromising the truth, like Thyatira. Some churches seem alive but are dead, like Sardis; not a few churches are complacent but really weak, like Laodicea.
We can gain much encouragement from the letters to the seven churches in Asia. We should stand firm and not deny the faith even in the face of poverty, persecution, or tribulation. We must be on guard against the dangers of false teachings and the tendency to compromise with the world. Jesus reproves and chastens those whom He loves; we should be zealous and repent of all sin (Revelation 3:19). Let us listen to the word of the Lord, opening the door for Him, and share with Him in His feast forevermore (Revelation 3:20)!