The Revelation to John was addressed to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. There were other churches in the province (Colossae and Troas), but seven were chosen to represent the entire church (see Number Symbolism). The letters to these churches (Rev. 2–3) present a picture of diversity in Christianity. The church of Ephesus, which had been founded by Paul, and remained for many centuries one of the chief centers of the eastern church, was zealous in guarding against heresy (that of the Nicolaitans), but lacking in Christian love. The church of Smyrna appears to have stood up well under harassment and, sometimes, the imprisonment of its members. Pergamum was an important religious center, with a famous shrine of Zeus, a temple of Asklepios with a renowned medical school, and a temple of Augustus; “Satan's throne” may mean any of these, but probably refers to emperor worship. The church had suffered some persecution but it had remained faithful, though there was some laxity with regard to the Nicolaitans. The church of Thyatira abounded in love and faith, service and patient endurance, but allowed the evil teachings of a prophetess Jezebel. The church of Sardis was outwardly flourishing, but not without serious damage to its spiritual life. Philadelphia, on the other hand, was a city where Christians were isolated in the community; but the church had remained faithful. At Laodicea the church seemed to be flourishing, but was spiritually poor. (See Map 14:E3.)
Each letter is specific and contains praise and criticism, warning and encouragement as appropriate. But the plural “churches” at the end of each letter shows that they were meant to be read by every church. They are part of the opening vision of Revelation, where John saw the heavenly Son of man surrounded by seven lampstands, which were the seven churches. The letters show that this was not meant as a picture of an ideal church, but as a means of showing the churches as they really are, with their heresies, quarrels, and weak faith, but also with their faith and hope and love. This introduction to the Revelation plays an essential part in the book's purpose of warning and comfort.
David H. van Daalen