Let’s start with Ephesus
Dear Ephesus1 “Write this.
TO: The angel of the Ephesus church.
You’ve got a message. It’s from the one who holds seven stars in his right hand and who walks among seven gold lampstands. Here it comes. 2 I know all about the good you’ve done for others, your hard work, and your patience in tough times. I know you don’t tolerate sin and you put self-proclaimed apostles to the test, revealing some of them as frauds. 3 I also know you’ve patiently suffered because of me, yet you never quit on me.
4 Still, there’s a problem. You used to love with passion. Not anymore. 5 Think about that. Look how far you’ve let yourself fall out of love. Hit the brakes. Turn around and go back to expressing your love the way you used to. If you don’t, I’m pulling the plug on your lampstand and taking it back. 6 But you do have this going for you: you hate what the Nicolaitans are doing. I hate it, too. 7 You’ve got ears. Use them. Listen when the Spirit talks to the churches. Win your spiritual battles. Everyone who does gets to eat from the life-giving tree in God’s paradise. I personally guarantee it.”
Dear Smyrna8 “Write this.
TO: The angel of the Smyrna church.
You’ve got a message from the one who is the first and the last, and who died and came back to life. Here it is. 9 I know the troubles you’re facing. I’ve seen your poverty—though you’re rich. I know about the slanderous criticism you’re getting from people who call themselves Jews. They’re not Jews. They belong to the synagogue of Satan.
10 You’ve got some suffering ahead. Don’t be afraid of it. The devil is going to manage to get some of you thrown into prison. It’s going to test your faith. This will go on for 10 days. Hold onto your faith for as long as you live—all the way to the grave. Do that and I’ll crown you with life. 11 You’ve got ears. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Those who win their spiritual battle with this world have nothing to fear from the death after death—the Second Death.”
Dear Pergamum12 “Write this.
TO: The angel of the Pergamum church.
You’ve got a message. It comes from the one who carries a sword, sharpened on both edges. Here it is. 13 2:13. You live in the city where Satan keeps his throne. I also know that you’ve stayed true to me anyhow. You didn’t give up on the faith even when my minister, Antipas, was executed right there in your city, which Satan calls home.
14 But I have a problem with you. You allow people who follow the teachings of Balaam to remain active members in your church. Balaam is the one who, during the Exodus, advised Balak to lure the Jewish people into worshiping idols and committing sex sins. 15 You welcome followers of the Nicolaitans, too. 16 Admit it’s wrong, then stop it. If you don’t, I’ll be coming in a hurry. And I’ll be bringing the sword of my mouth to fight off those people. 17 You’ve got ears. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Those who win their spiritual battle with this world are in for a feast. They’ll get manna from heaven that this world doesn’t even know exists. They’ll also get white stones with their new names written on them. Only they will understand why they got that name.”
Dear Thyatira18 “Write this.
TO: The angel of the Thyatira church.
You’ve got a message. It comes from the Son of God, whose eyes blaze like fire and whose feet glisten like polished bronze. Here it is. 19 I know about your faith, your love, and the good work you do to serve others. I know about your persistent endurance, too. And I know that you’re doing more to help others than ever before.
20 But I have a problem with you. You tolerate that Jezebel. She calls herself a prophetess, but she’s teaching my people to commit sex sins and to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. 21 I’ve given her plenty of time to stop her sexual immorality. She doesn’t want to stop.
22 I’m warning you, I’m about to throw that woman into a sickbed of suffering. Anyone who climbs in bed with her is going catch it, too. They can avoid it, though, if they’ll change their way of living. 23 I’m going to feed this woman’s spiritual children a disease that will kill them. That way believers in churches everywhere will realize that I can see into the minds and hearts of people. I’ll give you what you deserve, based on what you did. 24 I have a different message for those of you in Thyatira who ignore Jezebel’s teachings and what they call “Satan’s deep secrets.” I’m not loading you up with guilt.
25 All I ask is that you hold on until I come. 26 I’ve got something for those of you who win the battle. If you keep doing what I’ve taught until the end, you’re going to boss the nations. 27 You’ll rule them with the power of an iron rod shattering a clay pot. 28 I got my authority from my Father. You’ll get your authority from me. I’m giving you all the power of the morning star, the Messiah. 29 You’ve got ears. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
Ephesus was one of the largest and most important cities in the Roman Empire—and home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Temple of Artemis. Paul spent three years in Ephesus helping start the church. He was so successful that the Christian movement hurt the local idol-making business. Business people started a protest that ended in a riot, which forced Paul to leave the city. The river that once connected the city port to the Aegean Sea gradually silted over. Ephesus is an abandoned ruin and a tourist site.
It’s not clear if the writer is talking about the church’s love for God or for one another. Scholars debate it. Some say it may not matter in many cases because people who truly love God will love others, too.
It’s unclear if Jesus is threatening to punish the church soon or later, on Judgment Day.
“Nicolaitans” may refer to a group of Christians with religious ideas that most other Christians rejected. One theory is that Nicolas, mentioned in Acts 6:5, led the movement. Nicolas, along with Stephen, was one of seven men the original disciples of Jesus chose to help them by feeding impoverished fellow believers in Jerusalem.
 2:8. Smyrna, today the Turkish city of Izmir, was a well-protected and easily defended inland port city. It was about a 40-mile (70-km) walk north of Ephesus, on Turkey’s west coast.
“Second Death” refers to souls getting pitched into the lake of fire where they die and stay dead forever (Revelation 20:14).
The wealthy city of Pergamum, a day’s walk from Turkey’s northwestern seacoast, was famous for its medical center and its huge library of more than 200,000 works. The ruins are near the modern city of Bergama.
It’s unclear how Pergamum was the host of Satan’s throne. Some scholars guess the writer was talking about the many pagan religions in the city. There are ruins of many pagan shrines and temples there. But some scholars guess the writer was talking about emperor worship because Pergamum was an important headquarters of the Roman occupation of the region. Emperor worship was a problem for Christians because they refused to worship the emperor who had the power to execute them. Some emperors, such as Nero (AD 37-68) and Domitian (AD 51-96) did just that.
There’s no indication who Antipas was. Fair guess it wasn’t Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee who beheaded John the Baptist and tormented Jesus the morning of the Crucifixion. Emperor Caligula banished him in about AD 39 to what is now France. That was perhaps about a decade after the crucifixion of Jesus.
There’s no record of Balaam, a pagan prophet, giving this advice to Balak, king of Moab in what is now the country of Jordan. They show up together in Numbers 22-23, where Balak hires Balaam to put a curse on the approaching Jews led by Moses. The Jews get lured into sex sins in Moab (Numbers 25) and Moses later blames it on Balaam’s advice (Numbers 31:16).
It’s unclear what the writer means by the white stone. It could symbolize a vote of “not guilty.” Jurors used white stones to cast a “not guilty” vote for a defendant, and black stones to vote “guilty.” Or the stones might point to a legend about jewels falling from the sky along with manna, during the Jewish exodus out of Egypt. It could also symbolize a ticket into heaven, since people in ancient times often used marked stones to get into a feast or a celebration. There are many other educated guesses that scholars have made.
Kings occasionally gave selected subjects new names to reflect something about that person. Jesus gave Simon the new name “Peter,” which means “rock.” Peter’s faith and preaching became the bedrock upon which the church was built. His sermon on the Day of Pentecost, some two months after the crucifixion of Jesus, produced several thousand converts to the Christian movement (Acts 2).
The city of Thyatira, in northwestern Turkey, was the hometown of Lydia, an apparently rich woman who sold expensive purple cloth. When she was living in Philippi, she became a Christian through Paul’s ministry. She invited him and his colleagues to use her home to start the local church. Her hometown was famous for its cloth-making industry and its guilds of dyers.
Eyes like fire and feet like polished bronze come from a prophecy in Daniel 10:6. The reference to bronze would have caught the attention of people in Thyatira because the city was famous for its guild of bronze workers.
“Jezebel” is probably just a code name for the leader of a heretical movement. Jezebel from Jewish history was King Ahab’s wife from Phoenicia, in what is now Lebanon. She tried to kill all God’s prophets in Israel and replace them with her prophets from another religion (1 Kings 18:13). She became infamous for her idolatry and witchcraft (2 Kings 9:22).
Prophecy plucked from the line of a poem, Psalm 2:9.
“Morning star” was Jewish code for the Messiah. The idea seems to have come from Numbers 24:17, and the promise that a star will rise from among the Jewish people. Some associate the morning star with Venus, which rises in the sky a few hours before the sun. Some Roman armies carried emblems of Venus on their banners, to symbolize their strength. Julius Caesar claimed to descend from the goddess Venus. His banners called her the goddess “who conquers.”
When John introduces the message Jesus has for the church in Ephesus, he describes Jesus as someone “who walks among seven gold lampstands” (2:1). Earlier, John reported, “The lampstands are the seven churches” (1:20), which included the church in Ephesus. Do you think John meant that literally? Do you think the Spirit of Jesus actually shows up for worship services, at least on occasion?
Jesus has nothing bad to say about the church in Smyrna. Instead, he encourages the people: “I’ve seen your poverty—though you’re rich” (2:9). What does that look like? In what way is a church or a person rich when their bank account is awfully low?
Jesus tells the church at Smyrna that if they hang onto their faith during the tough times ahead, they have “nothing to fear from the death after death—the Second Death” (2:11). The Second Death is the lake of fire (20:14). John describes what happens when someone lands in the lake of fire. They “suffer that torture forever” (20:10). How do you react to that? Pick one reaction or write one of your own.
- I believe that hell is a real place where lost souls suffer in flames forever.
- I believe that lost souls are punished by a final death that forever ends them. It’s the death that lasts forever, not the suffering.
- I can’t believe God would do anything like this to anyone.
- I believe this is part of the symbolism written into Revelation.
In letters to Pergamum and Thyatira, Jesus condemns the Christians there for putting up with the teachings and sex sins of “Balaam” (2:15) and “Jezebel” (2:20). These are two characters from the Old Testament. Balaam was a seer who tried to put a hex on Moses and the Jews during their exodus out of Egypt (Numbers 22). Jezebel was an idol-worshiping queen of Israel who tried to kill all of God’s prophets (1 Kings 18:4). Some scholars say these names symbolize false teachers. And they say the sex sins represent spiritual adultery—worshiping or at least tolerating other gods, such as the Roman emperor, portrayed as a god. Do you agree that this is symbolism, or do you tend to think there were people teaching a version of Christianity that was okay with sex sins?
LIFE APPLICATION. Jesus commends the church at Ephesus for holding onto the faith. But he says they don’t love like they used to. “Look how far you’ve let yourself fall out of love. Hit the brakes. Turn around and go back to expressing your love the way you used to” (2:5). What does that problem look like in churches today? What are clues that a church has, to a degree, fallen out of love with Jesus?