Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamos (Rev 2:1-17)

Roman Empire - First Century
The First Three Letters (2:1-17): The first three “letters” form a distinct unit, as indicated by the order of the concluding exhortation and promise at the end of each message (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum).
Each letter ends with the exhortation to “heed what the Spirit is saying” followed by a promise to “the one who overcomes” (2:7; 2:11; 2:17). This order is reversed in the final four “letters” to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
Ephesus was the largest city in the province, its key seaport, and its commercial center. Its most prominent feature was the Temple of Artemis or Diana, one of the so-called “Seven Wonders” of the ancient world.
The city was designated “temple warden of Asia,” a center of the imperial cult with temples dedicated to the emperor and Roma, patron goddess of Rome. Emperor Domitian designated Ephesus the “guardian” of the imperial cult for the province of Asia.
The Apostle Paul established the first church at Ephesus around 52 ad, and for a time it was his base of operations to evangelize the area (Acts 18:19-21; 20:31). From it “all they who dwell in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10).
John is commanded to “write” to the “messenger” at Ephesus. Everything that occurs within and about this church is open before the eyes of the Risen Christ. He possesses the seven stars and walks among the seven golden lampstands, tending to his people.
Jesus praises the messenger for his “works, toil and endurance,” and because “you tried and exposed them who affirm themselves apostles but are not.” He does not identify the false apostles or state explicitly whether they are members of the ‘Nicolaitans.’ This group’s teachings are not described. ‘Nicolaitan’ is a compound of niké (“victory”) and laos (“people”), and may denote “victory people,” “victory over people” or “he who conquers people.” The latter sense is most likely in light of later descriptions of the “Beast” as the one who conquers saints (nikaō)” and has authority over people (laos) (Revelation 13:7).
The church left its “first love.” The object of this “love” is not specified, whether God, things or other humans. Since a key theme of Revelation is its call for a faithful witness, most likely this church lost its “first love” or zeal to bear witness. If Ephesus does not repent, Jesus will remove its “lampstand,” the ability to bear light to the local community. The “coming” of Jesus in verse 5 is not his arrival at the end of the age, but his arrival in judgment for this congregation.
He that has an ear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Similar exhortations are found in Isaiah 6:9-10, Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 13:43, and Mark 7:16. The phrase is repeated at the end of each of the seven letters to Asia (2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22; 13:9), and it extends the application of each letter to all seven congregations.
The letter concludes with a promise: “to him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God.” At least three temple buildings to Artemis were built on the same site at Ephesus. The oldest structure featured a tree sacred to Artemis. In this verse, John alludes to the “tree of life” in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9), and this local history may be in view. For her adherents, Artemis was a source of life and therefore animal sacrifices were forbidden in her temple.
 “Tree” translates the Greek xulon. The common noun for a living “tree” was dendron, and xulon usually referred to dead wood from felled trees put to various uses (Matthew 26:47; 26:55; Acts 16:24). It is used several times for the “tree” on which Jesus was “hanged” (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24). This background points to Christ’s death on the Cross as the “tree of life.”
The reference to the “tree of life” links this letter to New Jerusalem in which the “tree of life” will be found (22:2; 22:14). Access to the tree of life lost by Adam’s disobedience is restored in the New Creation.
Smyrna was a seaport fifty-five kilometers northwest of Ephesus. It marked the start of a major road into the interior. As a leading commercial center, Smyrna prospered from its location and importation of goods by sea. The Roman imperial cult was well-established and widespread in the city.
Smyrna was renowned for its beauty. It claimed to be the “first city of Asia in size and beauty” on its coins. The origin of the Christian church at Smyrna is unknown. This is the only place within the New Testament where the city’s name occurs.
Jesus opens this “letter” by stressing his position as “the First and Last”; he has absolute authority over everything that transpires in this city. The church has no fear regardless of appearances and circumstances since he has the “last” word.
Jesus is the one “who became dead and lived,” another reference to the book’s opening vision. Though this church faces persecution and martyrdom, the resurrected Christ possesses the “keys of death and of Hades.” The name “Smyrna” is possibly derived from the word for “myrrh,” an ointment used in burial preparations.
Jesus “knows” the condition of the congregation. From his perspective, it is “rich,” though they live in an impoverished state. Their poverty is due to the “slander from among them who affirm they are Jews and are not.” He knows the congregation’s works; a reference not to good deeds but to faithful testimony borne in hostile surroundings.
Smyrna endures “tribulation” as a result of its faithful witness. The Greek term for “tribulation” (thlipsis) is the same noun found in verse 10, “you will have tribulation ten days” (also in 1:9 and 7:14, the “great tribulation”). This church’s poverty anticipates the Beast’s economic program to compel submission to its agenda (13:16-18). Christ promises not their escape from tribulation; instead, he awards faithfulness in it.
The “slander” or “blasphemy” (blasphémia) by certain Jews suggests a situation in which accusers denounced Christians to local magistrates for alleged offenses to the political order, accusations that led to legal prosecution. Likewise, the “Beast” has “the name of slander” or blasphémia upon its several heads, a mouth speaking “slanders” against God, His name and “they who tabernacle in heaven” (13:1; 5-6). Later the Great Harlot, Babylon, sits on a scarlet Beast “full of slanders” (17:3).
False accusations against saints demonstrate how Satan “slanders” or “blasphemes” believers, God and Jesus. Said accusers constitute a “synagogue of Satan” because Satan, the “Adversary,” is the force behind any legal harassment of the church. Although Roman authorities throw believers “into prison” (2:10), the action is attributed to the Devil.
Of the seven churches, only Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no rebuke or correction. Jesus does admonish this church to face boldly any tribulation and persecution that may come (“Do not fear what you are going to suffer”).
The congregation already has endured trials without wavering, but rather than reward its members for past victories Jesus announces an intensification in trials (“the Devil is about to cast some of you into prison that you may be tried and may have tribulation ten days”).
Some will be cast into prison. In the Roman world, prison cells were holding pens where accused criminals were held for trial or execution. Imprisonment was temporary and often preceded execution. This reality is implied in the exhortation, “become faithful until death.”
Smyrna will be tried and endure tribulation “ten days.” Numbers in Revelation are figurative; the “ten days” alludes to Daniel 1:12-14 when Daniel refused to eat food provided by the Babylonian king, food previously offered to idols. He and his three companions were then “tried ten days.” The allusion is fitting. Several of the seven churches struggled with false teachings that promoted “fornication” and “eating food offered to idols,” deceptions rejected by the church of Smyrna.
Faithfulness in tribulation results in “a wreath of life”. The Greek noun refers to a victor’s “wreath” not a royal crown or diadem; it represents a victory not royal authority, victory achieved through faithful endurance (3:11; 4:4; 12:1; 14:14).
The one who overcomes does not partake of the “second death” (2:11), identified later with the “lake of fire” (20:14). Followers of the Lamb “overcome” paradoxically by enduring persecution and martyrdom that result from a faithful witness.
Jesus identifies Satan as the driving force behind persecution, though he uses human agents and institutions. The battles waged on a cosmic level in Revelation’s latter visions manifest in the daily struggles of the churches of Asia.
Pergamos lay sixty kilometers north of Smyrna and twenty kilometers inland from the Aegean Sea. It was not a major center of commerce. The city was at times the seat of the Roman provincial government and the center of the imperial cult (the “Temple Warden” or neōkoros for Asia). The first Asian temple in honor of Augustus Caesar was built at Pergamos in 29 bc. The city’s patron deities included Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, and Asklepios. Prominent was a large altar dedicated to Zeus Sotér or “Zeus the Savior.”
This “letter” opens with Jesus wielding the “sharp, double-edged sword,” an appropriate symbol of his ultimate authority over the regional center for the Roman government. Imperial soldiers were armed with a short double-edged sword for stabbing in close quarter combat, the rhomphaia, the same Greek noun applied to Christ’s “sword.”
The sword symbolized the power of life and death. The Roman proconsul had virtually unlimited authority or imperium, including the right to execute criminals and political offenders. But Jesus is the one who wields ultimate power over life and death, not Rome. Whatever authority is wielded by governing authorities is derivative. Jesus wields the sword to warn errant members of this church; if they refuse to repent, he “will come and war against them with the sword of his mouth” (2:16).
The “sharp, double-edged sword” was introduced in the first vision (1:16) and features in the vision of a Rider on a White Horse (19:15-21). This symbol links the letter to both visions.
Jesus is aware of this church’s difficult situation (“I know where you dwell, where the throne of Satan is”); he commends it for “holding fast my name and not denying my faith.” The congregation has remained steadfast despite outside pressure.
Satan’s throne” may refer to the altar of Zeus, to the temple to Augustus or to the Roman governing authority based in the city. More significantly, it is a verbal link to the satanic “throne” of the “Beast” from the sea (13:2; 16:10); already the church at Pergamos is threatened by beastly authorities.
At least one Christian has been executed, “Antipas my faithful witness.” The same term was already applied to Jesus, “the faithful witness and the firstborn of the dead” (1:5). By his death Jesus bore faithful witness, so also Antipas. Only the proconsul could execute a local, which means most likely Antipas was condemned by Roman authorities.
The “teaching of Balaam” alludes to the story of Balaam who attempted to serve God and money by cursing Israel for the king of Moab (Numbers 25:1-3; 31:16). God caused him instead to bless Israel. But Balaam found another way and taught the Moabites how to corrupt Israel through fornication and idolatry. “Fornication” is metaphorical and refers to idolatry. The problem is accommodation to the idolatrous practices of the surrounding culture (2:20; 14:8; 17:2-4; 18:3; 18:9; 19:22).
The proponents of this teaching are probably identical with the Nicolaitans. In popular etymology, ‘Nicolaitan’ was the Greek equivalent of ‘Balaam,’ a name when spelled in Hebrew may mean “master of the people” (i.e., Ba’al [“lord, master”] + ‘am [“people”]). As pointed out above, ‘Nicolaitan’ could mean “he who conquers people.”
Some Christians in Pergamos tolerated the move to accommodate pagan society. Christ’s warning to wage war against them is conditional and therefore cannot refer to his final “coming” at the end of the age. More likely in view are visitations in judgment to purge the church.
The “hidden manna” refers to the manna kept in the Ark of the Covenant. “Manna” symbolized Yahweh sustaining Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 16:33-36). It is now contrasted with “meat offered to idols”; the former yields everlasting life, the latter “second death.” It is not clear what the “white stone” portrays; possibly it is related to “manna” since manna is elsewhere compared to “white bdellium stones” (Exodus 16:3; Numbers 11:7).
The “new name” promised by Jesus refers not to individual names assigned to believers but to the name of God or Christ inscribed on their foreheads (7:1-4; 14:1; 22:4; Isaiah 62:2). To receive it is to receive Christ’s name, the one that “no one else knows” (19:12-16). He reveals its true significance only to faithful saints; possession of it means the believer’s complete identification with Jesus.
He that hath an ear, Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!” This exhortation is repeated at the end of each of the first three letters. Though each letter is addressed to a congregation’s “messenger,” the call for all to heed the Spirit universalizes each message. Each believer is to hear (“he who hears”), and each message is to all “the churches.”
This format excludes the idea of assigning individual letters to specific historical periods. Collectively, all seven letters communicate the Risen Christ’s words to all the churches of Asia.