Romans grew their Empire by taking over territories but allowing them to take part in what was called “The Roman Peace.” This allowed these territories to keep their religions and their temples, provided they pay tax to Caesar. And for the most part, it kept these tribes peaceful towards the Empire and allowed them to be far-spread throughout the world. In the years following the death of Christ, Emperors like Caligula, Nero, and Domitian began to end this Peace. They demanded you put your faith in the Roman deities-themselves. Now many of those called Christians refused to take their allegiance away from Christ. If the opposition to the Empire wasn’t killed, they were imprisoned, which is where tradition places the author of this text. John was believed to be imprisoned on the island of Patmos (a Roman Penal colony) just off the coast of the seven churches he writes about. They aren’t just random churches that God pulls out of a hat, they are the churches experiencing the same local persecution that places John in prison. So John writes to them, to help them endure this persecution. Remember the promises of our Kingdom and the renewal and reconciliation of all things. Remember the promise of Resurrection. That each of us will share in the victory of Christ. Remember the promise so that you can endure this violent and painful persecution. Look to the cross for action. Look to the resurrection for victory.
Now the “end of the age” was not the end of the world. It was the end of Roman dominance in the world. God will return to his throne where seemingly he has allowed Rome to sit. And so John writes to inspire endurance. Imagine being defeated by the enemy. Imagine all your people being down and out on a battlefield. Hope seems to be lost. Compromise seems to be your only option. And then a leader arises and shouts to your people:
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Rome’s dominance was fastly spreading. Culture as a whole was changing. Greco-Roman traditions snuck their way into Jewish and Christian life. To be a Christian was simply not practical. Nor was it safe. John writes to tell the Christians the final battle between Satan (Rome) and God is fastly approaching. So you MUST endure. Do NOT lose hope. Things will probably get worse before they get better. More of us will die. Persecution will increase. But stand for Christ. Stand for his kingdom. Even to death. Remember what we have been promised. Christ will return in full power and glory and we, not Rome, will be victorious. We are his people. We must live as he called us to live. Let us not delve in the practices of the pagans. We must not grant Rome such simple victories. We must remain pure. We must remain holy.
The first church John writes to is Ephesus. Ephesus, being a port city, had greatly been taken over by Roman culture. One of the primary features were two massive statues to Titus (destroyer of the temple in Jerusalem) and his brother Domitian. Domitian was known for demanding worship of the Jews and the Christians. He fought to be called “Lord and God.” (4v11) Six of the seven cities in John’s letter had pledged their allegiance to worshiping this Emperor. And so the language John writes with will directly address the “Lordship” of Domitian.
Here you find Domitian with seven stars in his hand. As often is the case, the New Testament authors rob all divine language associated with the Emperors and place it on the true Lord that is Christ. Caesar wore a sash and a robe. The double-edged sword the destructive tool of the Roman soldier. In just the first chapter of Revelation we find these power images taken from Rome and placed on Christ.
John begins with seven letters to seven Churches; prophetically speaking (like the OT prophets) of how God views their dealing with the current political climate. He praises, rebukes, and admonishes them for how they have lived their faith in the face of persecution and cultural shift.
Ephesus: Ephesus had gone through much cultural and religious change. In Acts we find this church displaying great loyalty to God as they denounce their former ways. They were passionately on fire for the Lord. We find in Revelation 2 that this passion has fizzled away as the Greco-Roman culture has become more common in the daily lives of the church. While their faith and perseverance has not caved, they haven’t shown the boldness they once had when they burnt their sorcery scrolls publicly as told in Acts 19.
Smyrna: In AD 26, Emperor Tiberius placed a temple and cult within the city. There were many Jews who were rather indifferent to the inclusion of this cult and shared in their practices. The Jews in Smyrna were practicing with the pagans while claiming to be part of a synagogue. The loyal ones who would not adapt to Roman’s Emperor worship were arrested.
Pergamum: This was the home of the Roman governor of Asia Minor (the location of the seven churches). “I know where you live-where Satan has his throne. (2v13)” The white stones (2v17) were commonly used to post declarations of the Empire. The governor was the one who decided upon capital punishment known as “the right of the sword.” Here this language is given to God’s victory. (2v12).
Thyatira: John here is using OT characters (Balaam, Jezebel) to describe a person or group of people who have been leading the people of God astray. John, still practicing Jewish law, was condemning the churches of Pergamum and Thyatria forsaking their purity by practicing sexual immorality (likely in religious practice) and eating food that had been sacrificed to the Roman idols. These churches have not remained set apart from the unholiness of the Empire. John writes in 2v24 that not all have been led astray. To those who remained pure, endure to the end, and you will find victory. But not just victory, this kingdom will rule the nations. (They will receive the promise of the Israelites.) The star and scepter are illusions to Numbers 24.
“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel.
Sardis: In the year 17 AD Sardis suffered from a great earthquake that nearly devastated the city. John is implying that they have shown strength in greater destruction than their current one. They overcame before and they can again. They had a reputation of being alive and overcoming, but now they are dead in the face of Rome’s power. (3v1) John draws back to the scene of the Israelites worshiping the golden calf and God speaking of his “book” that those loyal to his deliverance will find their names in. The book is often a tool to inspire the hearer to endure through all kings of hardships. Like the hardships of Moses who stood for the ways of God and rebuked the ungodly people.
Philadelphia: Also victim to the great quake of 17 AD, Philadelphia was known for always being on the edge of destruction. The Pillar is a symbol of something stable; a symbol of endurance for the city that had so little. To them the promise of the new Jerusalem comes. A kingdom unlike yours-a kingdom that has no end- is coming down from heaven and will soon be in your midst.
Laodicea: Colossae was known for it’s cold water supply. Hierapolis was known for its hot springs. Laodicea being found in the middle was known for having water with a high mineral content. Being found in the middle, their water supply was lukewarm. Neither hot like that of Hierapolis, nor cold like that of Colossae. Both hot and cold water is useful, but the lukewarm water of Laodicea was despised and know to have caused vomiting. Jesus compares the Christians in Laodicea to their water supply. Seemingly they just exist and have no purpose or action in their world. After an earthquake in 60 AD, the Laodiceans refused Roman aid and built their city up using their own resources and thus building up an independence and a great wealth. John rebukes them for not using this wealth to help those Christ has called into his kingdom. Hot water has a purpose. Cold water has a purpose. But will you Laodiceans submit to your purpose?
John finishes his letters to his churches and moves into describing God’s victory. He does so by using all sorts of imagery already found in the Old Testament scriptures. The language gets weirder going forward as John uses popular literary techniques to describe judgement and the realm of the gods.