The communication to seven mystical teachings of the Roman province Asia is just what it appears to be: seven letters addressed to seven real churches, blessing them and warning them. All the fantasies of theologians through the years attempting to make these churches into church “ages” have failed. These seven churches, however, do represent problems and principles by which the Church universal has been edified in every age, and so it will be until Jesus comes. These congregations were chosen because churches like them will always exist. They exist today. Loveless, persecuted, compromising churches. Corrupt, dead, faithful churches. And the lukewarm church. They’re around, like the poor, “always with us.”
In the above sense, the seven churches of John are no different than the seven churches to which Paul wrote letters: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, Thessalonica. Thankfully, no one -that I have read- tries to weave tales about the mysterious epochs that those letters represent. They are simply congregations that had problems and graces worthy of our consideration. It can be argued, as it is by some, that most of the New Testament was written in response to difficulties that arose in that early church. The Spirit-sent responses serve as the basis for the normalizing of the Christian Church of all time.
Ephesus. (2:1-7) Jesus is seen here (2:1-2) as the One Who knows all about them, the One from Whom they can hide nothing. Most persons looking at the Ephesian Church probably praised it, based on the very catalogue of good things that Jesus saw, too.( 2:2-3). But Jesus knows their need and addresses it.
The city of Ephesus was the largest and most prosperous of the seven addressed. As Paul discovered (Acts 18), its prominence was further enhanced by its devotion to the goddess Diana. Nevertheless the Gospel prospered greatly here, after the initial struggles. Following Paul’s work there, Timothy ministered to the dynamic church. Later still John himself was an elder in this congregation. One can only speculate what went through John’s heart as he sees his own people being rebuked so in the Spirit’s words. The great love of God which permeated the congregation at one time, due to the ministry of 40 years of work by Paul, Timothy and the apostle of love, is now fallen from its first intensity (2:4-5). Though this is the “only” charge against it, the sentence is clear: repent, or else!
Here we are introduced (2:6) to the Nicolaitans. It would seem that their identity must remain one of the unsolved mysteries of Revelation. In verses 14-15, speaking to the church at Pergamos, there is a possible link to the teachers of the “doctrine of Balaam”, those in the early days and our own who put stumbling blocks in front of God’s people, such as sexual issues and participating in the idolatry of this world. And, based on the name, some have speculated that they were followers of one Nicolas. Did the deacon of Acts 6 fall away, or is there another Nicolas?
Since this party is no longer with us, it is just as well that we do not know who they were. One thing is certain: the Ephesians knew who they were, and knew how to hate their deeds. The lesson for us is clear. Hate what God hates. Enemies of God are our enemies. With David we can pray the prayers of vengeance on these enemies. However, in Christ, there is the balance of mercy, whereby we pray that those enemies will not remain inimical to God. It would seem that the Church at Ephesus had left behind its compassion for the lost. Without this, it is fit to be removed.
Overcomers in this church are promised greater things than the prosperity of Ephesus can produce: nourishment from the tree of life in Paradise itself (2:7). The “stick” of having the lampstand removed from its place coupled to the “carrot” of eternal pleasure ought to be enough to entice the true believer to carry on to the end.
Smyrna. (2:8-11). Here they are again. We’ve met John already. Now here is a whole church full of suffering saints, pastored by an appointee of the apostle John named Polycarp, one who was burned alive for his faith. Christians suffer. Christians die at the hands of antichrists. We simply must see and believe this. And the greatest encouragement given is that if we overcome, that is, stay faithful until death, we will not be hurt by the second death. (2:10-11) In fact, Jesus’ personal i.d. here is “the One Who was dead, and came to life.” (2:8)