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

Temple of Artemis in Ephesus
The First Three Letters: The first three “letters” form a distinct unit. This is 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.” This is followed by a promise to the “one who overcomes.” This order is reversed in the final four “letters” to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (Revelation 2:1-17).

Ephesus was the largest city in the province of Asia, its chief seaport and 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 provincial center of the imperial cult. It featured temples dedicated to the emperor and Roma, the patron goddess of Rome. Emperor Domitian designated Ephesus the “guardian” of the imperial cult for the entire province.

The Apostle Paul established the first church at Ephesus around A.D. 52, and, for a time, it was his base of operations for evangelizing the surrounding area. From it “all they who dwell in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:19-21, 19:10, 20:31).

John was commanded by Jesus to “write” to the “messenger” at Ephesus. Everything that occurred within and about the church was open before the eyes of the Risen Christ. He possessed the seven stars and walked among the seven golden lampstands, thereby, tending to his people.

Jesus praised the messenger for his “works, toil and endurance,” and because “you tried and exposed them who affirm themselves apostles but are not.” He did not identify the false apostles or state whether they were members of the group he labeled the ‘Nicolaitans.’ The teachings of that group are not described. ‘Nicolaitan’ is a compound of the Greek nouns niké (“victory”) and laos (“people”). It may denote “victory people,” “victory over people” or “he who conquers people.” The latter sense is most likely considering the later descriptions of the “Beast” who “conquers” saints (nikaō)” and has authority over people or laos (Revelation 13:7-10).

The church at Ephesus had 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 to faithful witness, most likely, this church had lost its zeal to bear witness in a hostile environment. If Ephesus did not repent, Jesus would 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, instead, his arrival in judgment on 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 and it extends the application of each letter to all seven congregations (Revelation 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13, 3:22, 13:9).

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 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 (Genesis 2:9).

Tree” translates the Greek xulon. The common noun for a living “tree” was dendron; xulon normally referred to deadwood from felled trees that was put to various uses. It is used several times for the “tree” on which Jesus was “hanged.”. This scriptural background points to Christ’s death on the Cross as the symbolic significance of the “tree of life” in this letter (Matthew 26:47, 26:55, Acts 5:30, 16:24, Galatians 3:13, 1 Peter 2:24).

The reference to the “tree of life” also links this letter to New Jerusalem in which the “tree of life” will be found. Access to the tree of life that Adam lost by disobedience is restored in the New Creation (Revelation 22:2, 22:14).

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, the city prospered from its location and the importation of goods by sea. The Roman imperial cult was well-established and widespread in it.

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 there is unknown. This is the only place in the New Testament where the city is named.

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. He has the “last” word.

The Risen Christ is the one “who became dead and lived,” a reference to the opening vision of the glorious “Son of Man.” Though this church faces persecution and martyrdom, the Jesus possesses the “keys of death and of Hades.” The name “Smyrna” is derived possibly from the Greek 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 in their city. The poverty is due to the “slander from among them who affirm they are Jews and are not.” He knows their works; not their good deeds, but the faithful testimony they have borne in their city despite hostility.

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.” The poverty of this congregation anticipates the economic program of the Beast designed to compel submission to its agenda (Revelation 13:15-18).

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 resulted in 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.” Later, the Great Harlot, Babylon, sits on a scarlet Beast that is “full of slanders” (Revelation 13:1-6, 17:3).

False accusations against saints demonstrate how Satan “slanders” or “blasphemes” believers, God and Jesus. These 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,” the action is attributed to the Devil (Revelation 2:10).

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 until 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 the time when Daniel refused to eat food provided by the Babylonian king, food that was previously offered to idols. He and his three companions were then “tried ten days.” The allusion is fitting. Several of the seven churches are struggling with false teachings that promote “fornication” and “eating food offered to idols,” but deceptions that are rejected by the church of Smyrna (Daniel 1:12-14).

Faithfulness in tribulation results in “a wreath of life”. The Greek noun refers to a victor’s “wreath,” not to a royal crown or diadem. It represents a victory not royal authority, a victory achieved through faithful endurance (Revelation 3:11, 4:4, 12:1, 14:14).

The one who overcomes does not partake of the “second death,” identified later with the “lake of fire.” Followers of the Lamb “overcome,” but paradoxically, by enduring persecution and martyrdom that result from a faithful witness (Revelation 2:11, 20:14).

Jesus identifies Satan as the driving force behind persecution in Smyrna, although he does use human agents and institutions. The battles that are waged on a cosmic level in the later visions of the book play out 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. Occasionally, the city served as the seat of the provincial government of Rome and the center of the imperial cult. The first Asian temple in honor of Augustus Caesar was built at Pergamos in 29 B.C. The city’s patron deities included Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, and Asclepios. 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 almost unlimited authority or imperium. This included the right to execute criminals and political offenders. In contrast, 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” (Revelation 2:16).

The “sharp, double-edged sword” was introduced in the vision of the one “like a son of man,” and it is featured in the later vision of a Rider on a White Horse. This symbolic use links the letter to Pergamos to both visions (Revelation 1:12-20, 19:15-21).

Jesus is aware of the difficult situation of this church (“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 in Pergamos, 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; already, the church at Pergamos is threatened by beastly authorities (Revelation 13:2, 16:10).

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.” By his death, Jesus bore faithful witness, thus also, Antipas. Only the proconsul could execute a local. This means that 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. 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 (Numbers 25:1-3, 31:16, Revelation 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’ may also signify, “he who conquers people.”

Some Christians in Pergamos tolerated this move to accommodate pagan society. The warning that Jesus will 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 by him 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. It is now contrasted with “meat offered to idols”; the former yields everlasting life, the latter the “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 16:33-36, Numbers 11:7).

The “new name” promised by Jesus refers to the name of God or Christ inscribed on the foreheads of faithful believers, not to individual names assigned to each one. He reveals its true significance only to faithful saints; its possession means the complete identification of the believer with him (Revelation 7:1-4, 14:1, 19:12-16, 22:4).

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. The call for all to heed the Spirit universalizes each message to all true saints. Each believer is to hear (“he who hears”), and each message is to all the “churches.” Collectively, all seven letters communicate the words of Jesus intended for all the churches of Asia.