The Seven Churches, Part 1

September 29, 2019

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

Book of Revelation

16th Sunday after Pentecost

The Seven Churches, Part 1

Revelation 2:1-29

         Last week, in the final verses of Chapter 1 of the Book of Revelation, the vision of the Son of Man, Jesus, instructed John to write about “the things which are.” Those things which are, are the seven churches in Asia Minor. Each church was to receive a personal letter from Christ himself through his spokesman John. These were real letters to real churches with real needs.

         The literary construction of these letters is amazing. If you look at the letters to each of the churches closely, you will soon see that there is a pattern to each of the letters. Let’s take the letter to Ephesus as an example. First, there is a command to write to the church. “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:”

         Second, there is a description of the one sending the message, who we know is Christ. And each of his descriptions is taken from verses 13-18 in Chapter 1, when John sees the vision of the Son of Man. “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands” or in the case of the church in Pergamum, “the one who has the sharp two-edge sword.”

         Third, the church is congratulated and commended on what it is doing right, especially in the midst of the persecution, “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance…” Fourth, the author chastises the church for its failures and shortcomings since persecution does not justify any laxity in Christian living or commitment. “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.”

         Fifth, there is a challenge to keep the faith and a promise of reward if that is done. Since each church is different, each letter reflects the situation in its own particular setting. “Therefore, remember from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the deeds you did at first…” And near the end of each letter is the same urging to obey what Christ is telling each church, “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

         So, in my Bible, I have marked each of these sections in a different color and I soon see the pattern of writing emerge as Christ addresses each of the seven churches. We will get into the detail of each church in a minute, but first, would you pray with me?

PRAYER

         The first church on the Roman postal route was the great port of Ephesus with a population nearing half a million people. Now Pergamum was the official capital of the province of Asia, but Ephesus was its greatest city. It was called the “Light of Asia” and the “Market of Asia.” Ephesus was the highway to Rome. When the Roman Proconsul came to take up office as governor of Asia, he had to disembark from his ship at Ephesus and enter his province from there.

         Ephesus was considered a free city by the Roman Empire. A free city could self-govern and it was exempted from ever having Roman troops garrisoned there. Yearly, Ephesus held the most famous games in Asia, much like the Olympics, which attracted people from all over the province.

         Ephesus was the center of the worship of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, the Moon, chastity, and the patron and protector of young girls. In Greek mythology, Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and the twin sister of Apollo. The Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The image of Artemis was one of the most sacred images in the ancient world. It was by no means beautiful, but was a squat, black, many-breasted figure. In Ephesus, pagan religion was at its strongest. It was a notorious center of pagan superstition.

         The city was famous for the amulets and charms which were supposed to be infallible remedies for sickness, to bring children to those who were childless, and to ensure success in any undertaking. People came from all over the world to buy them. The Temple of Artemis was also a center of crime and immorality. Any criminal who could reach the temple area was granted the safe right of asylum. The temple possessed hundreds of priestesses who were sacred prostitutes. Ephesus was an evil place.

         So, as we read the letter to Ephesus, maybe you can now understand what Jesus is saying to them. He commends them for their deeds, hard work, and perseverance in not tolerating this kind of evil. He commends them for testing those who might call themselves apostles and finding them to be false in their teaching. Some of these false prophets were the Nicolaitans, who were heretics and held to the teaching of eating foods sacrificed to idols and committing sexual immorality. Jesus is pleased that the Christians in Ephesus have done all these things to fight the evil and have not grown weary.

         But despite their hard work and perseverance Jesus says this, “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” Ephesus is known as “The Loveless Church.” The Ephesians had been so hard-nosed about ridding evil from their midst that all enthusiasm had gone out of their religion for the Church. Their rapture of love for Christ and their fellow brothers and sisters had disappeared. Christ wanted them to remember what they used to be, to repent of their ways now, and to do the work of the church, asking for God’s grace as they bear the fruit of the Christian spirit.

         As we continue along the postal route, we come to the church in Smyrna, know as “The Persecuted Church.” Smyrna was the loveliest of all the cities of Asia, commonly called the Ornament, or Crown, or Flower of Asia. It had a constant west wind blowing through its streets. It was a great trading city with a safe harbor that came into the heart of the city. Behind the city rose the Pagos, a hill covered with temples and noble buildings. Smyrna was founded as a Greek colony around 1000 B.C. Around 600 B.C., the Lydians broke in from the east and destroyed it. Then about 200 B.C., it was rebuilt as a planned city with great, straight, broad streets. The Street of Gold began at the Temple of Zeus and ended with the Temple of Cybele, a goddess known as the Roman mother.

         Like Ephesus, Smyrna also was a free city and had long been loyal to Rome. It was also the first city in the world to erect a temple to the goddess Roma and the first city to erect a temple to the Emperor Tiberius. In Smyrna, culture flourished. It had a stadium, a magnificent public library, and one of the largest theaters in Asia Minor. It was the birthplace of the poet Homer.

         However, the Jews were especially numerous and influential in Smyrna and hostile to the Christian Church, probably because the Christians drew many converts from their numbers. Look what John writes, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Many corrupt Jews were usually the instigators of the Christian’s persecution. John calls the Jews the “synagogue of Satan,” a reverse of the Jewish expression, “the assembly of the Lord.”

         There were many slanders leveled against the Christians. They were called cannibals, because during communion they ate the body and blood of Christ. They were accused of orgies of lust because they had Agape or Love Feast meals together. They were accused of splitting families, because some family members became Christian and others did not. They were accused of being disloyal because they would not say “Caesar is Lord.” And they were accused of being atheists because they had no images of gods like the heathens.

         But Jesus knows their plight, and that the Christians will soon suffer afflictions, poverty, and even imprisonment for their worship and faith in him. Jesus urges them to be faithful, even to the point of death promising them the crown of life. The people of Smyrna knew what loyalty was. He also promises them that if they overcome this persecution, they “will not be hurt by the second death.” In other words, after they die a physical death, they will not die a spiritual death, but will be in God’s presence for eternity

         The postal route then takes us to the city of Pergamum, which has been called “The Compromising Church.” Pergamum had been the capital of Asia for almost four hundred years by the time John wrote this letter. It was built on a tall conical hill which overlooked the valley below and from which you could see the Mediterranean fifteen miles away. Pergamum was a city of culture. It was famous for its library, which contained over 200,000 parchment rolls, and was only second to the great library in Alexandria. The city was one of the great religious centers of the empire.

         John writes to the church, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is, and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith …” Pergamum is referred to as the place “where Satan has his throne.” It was the center of Caesar worship for the province. People were required on pain of death to take the name of “Lord” and give it to Caesar instead of Christ. To a Christian, there could be nothing more Satanic than that. In this city, the Roman proconsul had the right of the sword, the power of life and death, and could use it against the Christians.

         Christians of Pergamum lived with the temples to Athene, Zeus, and Asclepios in their midst, and yet, still witnessed to others about Christ. Jesus even calls them his “faithful witness.” However, once again there were some Nicolaitans who were worshiping among them and following a policy of compromise with Rome to save themselves from trouble. Jesus says that he will go to war against these people who were seducing the church into compromise with his own words.

         In Hebrews 4:12, it says that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edge sword. Jesus says he will use this sword against the Nicolaitans. After all, in the Word of Christ, there is conviction of sin, an invitation to God, and the assurance of salvation.

         Those who overcome the threat of the Caesar worship and the compromise with the Nicolaitans on sexual immorality and eating meat sacrificed to idols, will receive some of the hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written on it. You see, manna had been stored in a pot in the Ark of the Covenant by the Israelites and kept in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple. When that temple was destroyed in the sixth century B.C., legend has it that Jeremiah hid away the pot of manna in a cleft in Mount Sinai, and that when the Messiah returned the pot of manna would be discovered again. For a Christian to receive a portion of the manna meant that he would enter into the blessedness of the new Kingdom that would come.

         Likewise, one of the commonest of all customs in the ancient world was to carry an amulet or charm with a sacred name of a god on it. To know this god’s sacred name gave the possessor special power over demons. But to those who overcome, God is going to give them his name on a white stone, so that they will be safe in life and death because they know the only true God.

         And lastly, we come to the city of Thyatira, which has been called “The Corrupt Church.” The longest of these seven letters is written to the least important of the seven cities. Thyatira was only important because of it geographical position. It was a great commercial town and lay on the road which connected Pergamum with Sardis.

         Thyatira was manned by a garrison of armed Macedonian troops placed there as an outpost to protect Pergamum. Thyatira was not a center of Caesar worship, but did possess a fortune-telling shrine, presided over by a female oracle.

         Thyatira had an extraordinary number of trade guilds, which were associations for mutual profit and pleasure of people employed in certain trades. These guilds held common meals often in a temple which began and ended with a sacrifice to the gods. The meat offered to the gods would then be eaten. Many of these meals ended in drunken revelry and slack morality. The question was, could Christians really be a part of the debauchery?

         In Thyatira, there was a strong movement, led by the woman addressed as Jezebel, which pled for the Christians to compromise with the world’s standards in the interests of business and commercial prosperity. She was urging and misleading the Christians to reconsider their values and join the guilds. But the Christians didn’t want to compromise their Christian values and would not eat the meat sacrificed to idols and would not wallow in the sexual immorality and sin of the temples. Since Christians could not morally join the guilds, it cut many of them off from commercial business work and from purchasing certain foods. Their very livelihoods were being tested.

         Jesus promised those who held fast to not knowing the “deep things of Satan” that he would reward them with authority over the nations through the conquering Messiah and the possession of the morning star who is Jesus Christ. These Christians were encouraged by John not to submit to the ways of the world, but to stay obedient to the Word of God.

         Brothers and sisters in Christ, today we have traveled the postal route to the first four of the seven churches in Asia Minor; churches which Jesus called out for being loveless, persecuted, compromising, and corrupt. So, what kind of church could Jesus accuse us of being?

         Maybe you don’t recognize us yet. We still have three more churches to visit. But I hope we are not the Loveless Church of Ephesus; whose members were more concerned about the morality of its members than reaching out into the community and putting their love into action.

         I hope we are not the Persecuted Church of Smyrna; a church surrounded by persecutors, disruptions, and divisiveness. I hope we are not the Compromising Church of Pergamum; compromising with the beliefs of heretical groups within their midst who do not follow the teachings of Christ. And lastly, I hope we are not the church at Thyatira, the Corrupt Church, whose members were being misled about the Word of God and whose values were being questioned because they were not like the sinful outside world.

         We are the body of Christ. How do we see ourselves? But more importantly, how does Jesus Christ see us? Do we truly present him as the Son of God to each other, to our community, and to the world.

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