Note that many significant churches, such as Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, Rome, Colosse and Hierapolis were passed over by Christ. The churches were not chosen for prominence but typical worth.
EPHESUS was the most important and strategically located church of the first century. Ephesus was the most easily accessible city in Asia, both by land and sea. Most of the trade came to the Aegean via the port of Ephesus. The great road from the Euphrates terminated there, as did roads from Cayster valley and Maeander valley to the south. Its location, therefore, favored its religious, political and commercial development, and presented a most advantageous field for the missionary labors of Paul. The apostle taught at Ephesus for two years (Acts 19:10), and the apostle John and Timothy pastored its church.
Here the great temple of the goddess Artemis (Diana), one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World, was adorned by the wealth of all Asia. This city was the stronghold of Satan’s ungodly power. From Ephesus, idolatry as well as Christianity spread all over the known world of that day. Here was waged the fierce warfare between the powers of righteousness and the powers of unrighteousness—between the God of Light and the Devil of Darkness. Ironically, this capital of idolatry was known as “the light of Asia. For its brief Christian history, fewer places are better proof of the conquering power of the Christian faith.
SMYRNA was the loveliest of the seven cities and the rival of Ephesus, with its excellent harbor and well protected gulf. It was one of few planned cities of the ancient world. It received its name from myrrh, one of it its principal commercial products. The name Smyrna comes from myrrh, which was used in the embalming of the dead in ancient times. Myrrh was widely used as a sacrificial gift in religious ceremonies. This was due to its connection with death and resurrection. Significantly, it was one of the gifts the Magi presented to Jesus (Matthew 2:11).
Smyrna’s natural and commercial location brought commerce, and through commerce came much wealth and splendor. The Jews were numerous and influential in this city.
In A.D. 23, a temple was built in honor of Tiberius and his mother Julia, and the Golden Street, connecting the temples of Zeus and Cybele, is said to have been the best in any ancient city. It was one of the first cites to engage in worship of the Roman emperor and was a faithful ally of Rome in the region. The imperial laws against Christianity were enforced severely in Smyrna. Modern Smyrna, known as Ismir, is still the largest city in Asia Minor.
PERGAMUM was a city of Mysia in the ancient Roman province of Asia, in the Caicus valley, three miles from the river, and about fifteen miles from the sea. It was not linked by any of the great roads. Our word parchment is derived from pergamum. Unlike Ephesus, Smyrna, it was not a commercial city. Of the structures, which adorned the city, the most renowned was the altar of Zeus, which was 40 feet in height. It was one of the wonders of the ancient world. There were beautiful temples to the four great gods: Zeus, Dionysus, Athena and Asklepios. Pergamum was chiefly a religious center of the province. The temples of Askelpios (with the emblem of a serpent) were the closest thing to a hospital in the ancient world. It was known as “the city of temples.” The city was the principal center of the imperial cult and Christ identified it as “the throne of Satan” and “the place where Satan lives.”
Today, Pergamum is known as Bergama, the Turkish corruption of the ancient name. It possesses around fifteen mosques and one of its mosques is the early Byzantine church of Sophia.
THYATIRA was about half way between Pergamum and Sardis. It was smaller and least significant of the seven cities. Ironically, the longest letter is written to it. It was a wealthy town in the northern part of Lydia in the Roman province of Asia, on the river Lycus. The city had no significant religious importance. There was no outside threat of persecution; the threats came from within the church. It became a source of error and immorality under the leadership of a woman, called Jezebel.
Thyatira was specially noted for the trade guilds which were probably more completely organized there than in any other ancient city. Every artisan belonged to a guild, and every guild, which was an incorporated organization, possessed property in its own name, made contracts for great constructions, and wielded a wide influence. The guilds were closely connected with the Asiatic religion of the place. Today, Thyatira is represented by the modern town of Ak-Hissar; it has a population that is largely Greek and Armenian, yet a few Jews live among them.
SARDIS was about twenty-eight miles south of Thyatira, situated in the fertile valley on the junction of five roads at the foot of Mount Timolus. It was one of the oldest and most important cities of Asia Minor, and until 549 B.C., the capital of the kingdom of Lydia. It had a history of degeneration. Already devastated by war in the first century, it was destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 17, and it never recovered its former importance. The ancient city was noted for its fruits and wool, and for its temple of the goddess Cybele, whose worship resembled that of Diana of Ephesus.
The Christian church in Sardis was a degenerate church in a degenerate city. The apostate members of the church were in the minority at Pergamum and Thyatira but they were predominated Sardis. Sardis means “escaping ones” or “the ones who come out,” possibly pointing to those who broke with Rome during the Reformation of A.D. 1517 to 1750.
PHILADELPHIA was twenty-five miles south of Sardis on the junction of the approaches to Mysia, Lydia and Phrygia. It was called “the gateway of the East.” It was the center of missionary effort for the Hellenistic way of life. Philadelphia means “brotherly love.”
It is not so ancient as many of the other cities of Asia Minor, for it was founded after 189 B.C. on one of the highways that led to the interior. It became an important and wealthy trade center, for as the coast cities declined; it grew in power, and retained its importance even until late Byzantine times. Grape growing flourished in the vicinity. Today, it is known as Ala-shehir (“City of God”) and is still a Christian town.
LAODICEA was the chief city of Phrygia, strategically located in the Lycus valley on the intersection of three important roads, about forty miles southeast of Ephesus. It was a great and wealthy center of industry, famous especially for the fine black wool of its sheep and for the Phrygian powder for the eyes, which was manufactured there. In the vicinity were the temple of Men Karou and a renowned school of medicine. In the year A.D. 60, the city almost was destroyed by an earthquake, but so wealthy were its citizens that they rejected the proffered aid of Rome, and quickly rebuilt it at their own expense.
It was a city of great wealth, with extensive banking operations. The church of this great center of clothing manufacture was naked in God’s sight and did not realize it. In addition, its city was famous for ear and eye salves but the church did not realize its spiritual blindness.
In A.D. 1071, this affluent city was taken by the Seljuks; in 1119, it was recovered to the Christians by John Comnenus, and in the 13th century, it fell into the hands of the Turks. Today, its ruins are called Eski Hissar, or old castle.