In the Christian New Testament, there is one book that stands out as being quite unlike the rest. Of course, I'm talking about the book of Revelation, which spells out what will happen at the end of the world. It's filled with intense imagery of a beast rising from the ocean, angels at war, the Whore of Babylon, the battle of Armageddon, the seals, trumpets, and the number of the beast, 666. Wouldn't that be something great for me to talk about and decipher?
There's another part of the book that is a lot less talked about, though, and I find that really interesting considering it's at the very beginning of it. Before the author delves into the more famous part of his vision, he writes that Jesus has commanded him to write to seven particular churches in Asia, by which is meant modern-day Turkey. The churches in question are in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. While this entire territory was controlled by the Roman Empire at the time that Revelation was written (toward the end of the first century AD), these individual cities -- except for the final two -- were already ancient by then. Ephesus, for example, had been the site of multiple settlements dating back thousands of years before its re-establishment between the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Greek Dark Age.
All of these cities rose to prominence during the Hellenistic period and maintained their importance after passing to Roman control starting in the 2nd century BC. The author of Revelation is called John of Patmos, mainly he since he introduces himself as "I, John, who also am your
brother and companion in tribulation and in the Kingdom and patience of
Jesus Christ, was on the isle that is called Patmos." He has been identified with the Apostle John in several traditions but he doesn't even make this claim himself. However, it is commonly believed that this John was banished to the island of Patmos, presumably under the regime of the emperor Domitian (r. 81-96).
Domitian has inherited a somewhat ambiguous reputation as a persecutor of the early Christian church; while he was certainly intensely devoted to both the traditional Roman religion as well as the imperial cult (the latter for obvious reasons), there are no contemporary records describing him as specifically targeting Christians. It is said that he executed his cousin, the consul Titus Flavius Clemens, for converting to some obscure form of Judaism, but even that is up for debate. Domitian's religious policy probably did not extend harsh penalties to those outside of the immediate imperial service or those who did not aggressively engage in subversion or direct blasphemy. Later accounts written hundreds of years after the fact describe Domitian as very hostile to Christians, but there might be some conflation with the persecution of Diocletian which occurred 200 years after Domitian lived. Regardless, banishment was preferable to death, so whatever John's circumstances were, they were not anywhere nearly as severe as someone in his position would have experienced during the reign of Nero during the 60s.
It's pretty easy to see why someone on Patmos would be writing to those specific churches: the island itself is located off the western coast of Anatolia, not too far from Ephesus. Christianity's early history is intimately tied with important Greek-speaking cities in the eastern Roman Empire, and it is in these locations that many of the earliest and best-established Christian churches are found. Since these seven churches are so clustered together and John is particularly concerned with their activities, it could be argued that he was either from the area or at least spent a great deal of time there before his exile to Patmos.
The letters to the churches follow a fairly standard format. They're all addressed to the "angel" of each church, they contain some acknowledgement of the churches' activities, they may include a scolding for some issue or other, and some type of missive or encouragement to be more righteous. It's not clear whether or not these angels are literally heavenly beings or if they refer to the church hierarchy or just the churches or something else entirely.
Jesus has John write the following to the church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:2-6):
I know thy works and thy labor and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them that are evil; and how thou hast tried them that say they are apostles and are not, and hast found them liars; and hast borne, and hast patience, and for My name’s sake hast labored and hast not fainted. Nevertheless, I have something against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent and do the works as at first; or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, unless thou repent. But this thou hast: that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
In other words, Ephesus is commended for its devotion but rebuked for neglecting its "first love." It's clear from the rest of the letter that this can't mean the Ephesians lack any love for God because they're doing a great job ferreting out hypocrites and liars. They're keeping on-message. So what "first love" are they lacking? With all this purity testing going on, it's not a stretch to suggest that there was quite a bit of suspicion present in that church. Congregants were probably closed off and hostile toward one another. In other words, they had forgotten their love for each other. Perhaps the Ephesians were being too heavy-handed in their dealings with each other and lacked in forgiveness.
Notably, the Ephesians are congratulated for standing against "the deeds of the Nicolaitans." This group comes up again in the letter to Pergamos and that passage does a little bit more to shed some light on who they were and why what they did was so bad, so we'll come back to them.
To Smyrna (Rev. 2:9-11):
I know thy works and tribulation and poverty (but thou art rich), and I know the blasphemy of them that say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer. Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried, and ye shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of Life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. He that overcometh shall not be hurt by the second death.
So the Smyrnans are acknowledged for their good works even in the face of difficulties and are told that they will soon experience more persecution but that they will be rewarded with salvation for enduring it. The statements about false Jews and the "synagogue of Satan" probably refer to wishy washy non-Jewish converts to Christianity who were in some way complicit in the persecution of the more devout Christian community.
To Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17):
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write: ‘These things saith He that hath the sharp sword with two edges: I know thy works and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is; and that thou holdest fast My name and hast not denied My faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So thou also hast them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent, or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it.’
There is a slightly more aggressive tone here. While the church is commended for being faithful despite being near "Satan's seat" (possibly a reference to Pergamum's status as a major center of the Roman imperial cult and Roman authority in general), the Christian community there is apparently rife with heresy, including again a reference to the Nicolaitans. The reference to Balaam is interesting; Balaam was a non-Jewish, non-Israelite prophet of the Old Testament. Bizarrely, despite not following the Hebrew religion, he could only receive prophecies from the Hebrew God and he refused to lie about the things God told him. The king of Moab, Balak, tried to bribe Balaam to curse the Hebrews to prevent them from moving onto his land. Balaam declined again but apparently told Balak that if he really wanted to make God angry with the Hebrews, he needed to tempt them with sex and pagan worship. According to the book of Numbers, he did, and God sent a plague that ravaged the Hebrews. How exactly this relates to the church of Pergamum is unknown, though I guess we can infer that there was some type of sexual immorality and/or idolatry going on there.
But what of the Nicolaitans? Based purely on their name, they were the followers of someone named Nicolaos, a common Greek name at the time. This does not necessarily mean that this Nicolaos was Greek himself; it was normal for Jews and other non-Greco-Roman subjects of the Roman Empire to adopt Greek or Latin personal names for their various dealings with their societal superiors. There was, for example, a high priest of the Temple of Jerusalem known as Jason in Greek but Yeshua in Hebrew. From the second century forward, though, the main opinion of the early historians of the church decided that this Nicolaos was the same one mentioned in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. This Nicolaos (or Nicolas or Nicholas or Nikolaos, etc.) was a Greek (or at least a Greek-speaking non-Jew) who converted to Judaism and then converted to Christianity. He was evidently named one of the first seven deacons of the church following Jesus' death.
And that's pretty much the extent of the agreement about this movement and even that's based on writings coming more than a hundred years after the fact. The Nicolaitans are variously said to have practiced polygamy, to have eaten meat sacrificed to pagan gods (a big no-no), to have taught gnostic heresies, to have engaged in temple prostitution, and to have tolerated more traditionally pagan views on religion.
The final point would not be particularly surprising considering Pergamum's deeply pagan history and the fact that Christians up to the 5th century -- by which point Christianity had become the only legally permitted religion in the Roman Empire -- had to be reminded on pain of death to not worship pagan gods. Even Constantine I, the first nominally Christian Roman Emperor, remained the official head of the pagan Roman religion up until his death. A third century emperor, Philip the Arab, was said to have venerated Jesus alongside other deities such as Isis and Dionysus, although even ancient writers acknowledged that his interest in Christianity could not be substantiated beyond rumors to that effect. But even if Philip had no connection to Christianity, his purported attitude toward it and his attempt to incorporate it into a polytheistic mode of worship would have been a relatively common mindset. So if the Nicolaitans were more accommodating toward paganism than the basic tenets of Christianity allowed, their position would have been heretical but not at all unheard of, and indeed this problem would continue to be a source of controversy and tension in the Christian community for centuries afterward.
To Thyatira (Rev. 2:19-25):
I know thy works, and charity and service, and faith and thy patience, and thy works, and the last to be more than the first.
Notwithstanding, I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, who calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce My servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she repented not. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He that searcheth the reins and hearts; and I will give unto every one of you according to your works. But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine and who have not known the depths of Satan (as they say) I will put upon you no other burden. But that which ye have already, hold fast till I come.
The letter to Thyatira is one of the more controversial ones. It is unlikely in the extreme that there was any woman in the Christian or even broader Jewish community named Jezebel in the first century in Asia Minor. Clearly this appellation is just a way of attacking this otherwise nameless woman about whom we know virtually nothing as a consequence. Given the similarity between the accusations against her and those of the Pergamese church, we can infer that she taught some form of syncretic belief that straddled the line between Christianity and paganism. But what that level of syncretism was is unclear; venerating other gods would of course be beyond the pale, but what about eating food at a pagan festival? I mean, everyone gets hungry, and it was probably a pretty easy way to get free food. Does that imply a broader devotion to illicit forms of religious worship?
There is also another reference to "fornication," although it should be noted that this might not be literal sexual promiscuity. Terms like "fornication" and "adultery" are often used in biblical language to refer to idolatry rather than actual sex. It is however a particularly potent metaphor to use, especially in the context of a female church leader. But even though this passage is sometimes used to support the notion that women ought not have leadership positions in the Christian church, I don't think that was necessarily the intent here. There were many women in prominent leadership roles in the early Christian community, including eventually Roman noblewomen and other women of means. Indeed, a woman named Lydia -- also from Thyatira -- is featured in Acts as providing lodgings to Paul and his friends, and she was apparently a reasonably well-off dye merchant. While there is no evidence to suggest a relationship between Lydia and Jezebel, I do find it interesting that they are the only two women connected to the Christian community in Thyatira mentioned in the entire Bible.
Jesus states in this letter that he "will kill her children with death," which perhaps sounds harsh, and I guess that's kind of the point. However, I don't think this is a reference to Jezebel's literal children, but rather those who follow her apparently heretical teachings without repentance. The community as a whole seems to get off relatively unscathed here with Jesus saying he won't impose any further burdens on those who have remained faithful.
To Sardis (Rev. 3:1-5):
I know thy works, and that thou hast a name that thou livest, but thou art dead. Be watchful and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard; and hold fast and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life, but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
This to me has to be the biblical equivalent of "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed." The church in Sardis evidently was known for its past good deeds, but by the time of the letter, it must have fallen into complacency and inactivity. This is why it's "dead" -- it lives on as a church in name only. But it's not too late: there are still people there who are keeping the faith and if the rest of the community's Christians can get on the same page, they'll be fine too.
To Philadelphia (Rev. 3:8-11):
I know thy works. Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it. For thou hast a little strength, and hast kept My Word, and hast not denied My name. Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but do lie — behold, I will make them to come and worship at thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. Because thou hast kept the word of My patience, I will also keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world to try them that dwell upon the earth. Behold, I come quickly; hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
More talk about false Jews and the synagogue of Satan, but the Christian community as a whole is lauded for its faith. No dire warnings or urgent messages to repent. Philadelphia must truly have been the city of brotherly love!
To Laodicea (Rev. 3:15-19):
I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of My mouth. Because thou sayest, “I am rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing,” and knowest not that thou art wretched and miserable, and poor and blind and naked, I counsel thee to buy from Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich, and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed and that the shame of thy nakedness may not appear, and anoint thine eyes with eye salve, that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
Ouch. Laodicea seems to have gained a reputation for not doing a whole lot of anything. The Laodiceans think they're doing all right because they might be prosperous -- and Laodicea was a relatively wealthy regional center of commerce -- but they are presumably not rich in spirit. The "gold tried in the fire" is surely a reference to the spiritual wealth that has been gained through martyrdom, often through burning (the Antipas mentioned in the letter to Pergamum, for example, was put to death by burning).
Modern readers probably take away from the cold and hot statement that Jesus would prefer the church to be either fully awful or fully righteous rather than "lukewarm," but I think this maybe extends the metaphor a bit too far. I think the point of the statement is a comparison to food or water, which is usually not desirable when it's neither hot nor cold. This is why John has Jesus saying he would spit Laodicea out of his mouth; it's just gross. A cold drink is refreshing and a hot meal is fulfilling; if the church could do one or the other spiritually, that would be preferable to what they have going on now, even if that means they don't get everything completely right.
The seven letters to the seven churches are interesting because of what they reveal about early Christianity in the Greek-speaking part of the eastern Roman Empire. There is a major preoccupation with rooting out apparently semi-pagan heresies. As I mentioned earlier, this would continue to be a problem for the Christian church in later years when it adopted a more formal, more orthodox structure. It also was, interestingly enough, a perennial problem for their Jewish forebearers; the Old Testament is overflowing with admonitions against worshiping other gods or adhering to idolatry.
Also of note is that all of the churches except for Laodicea get at least some credit for doing something right. It is an acknowledgement that even if there was no single Christian community, or indeed one single codification of Christian thought at this time, that a framework of correctness was developing. The fact that specific heresies could be called out at this early a stage shows that a consensus was building as to what was acceptable within the boundaries of what was becoming Christianity. Since we'll never know exactly what Jezebel or the Nicolaitans did, we have to fill in the blanks and assume that their specific heresies were eliminated fairly early on.
As with most things in the Bible, there is no clear agreement among modern Christians as to the significance of the seven letters. Some take the position that they refer specifically to those churches as they existed at that time. Others see in them guidelines for all churches in all times, which I suppose makes sense: there aren't many 21st century Christian churches that approve of temple prostitution. Still others say that the letters aren't directed at those churches at all, but rather represent a metaphorical prophecy about the progression of the entire Christian community; that Laodicea represents what will ultimately happen to all churches in the modern age when they abandon their core teachings in favor of material comfort and a desire not to rock the boat in the face of external social pressures.
In addition to all of the above, the term "seven churches of Asia" is also the inspiration for the title of Seven Churches, the 1985 album by the band Possessed, which was arguably the first death metal album ever released. While the lyrical content has absolutely nothing to do with the actual seven churches, it's a truly badass album that gets pretty regular rotation in my house and is definitely one of my absolute favorite metal albums of all time.