Image from Wikimedia Commons
A reconstructed view of the acropolis of ancient Pergamon by Friedrich Thierch.
”To the seven churches”
John addresses the Book of Revelation “to the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4)―the churches in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The map below shows where these churches were located.
In each of the seven churches, the believers gather together, eager to hear what God has written to them. And they discover that He has included a special message to their own church! You can imagine how excited they would have been―an excitement tinged, perhaps, with a little trepidation, too. What had God written to them?
But remember that the messenger would have delivered the whole Book of Revelation to each church. So the believers in each church were to hear more than just the message addressed specifically to their church. They were to hear all seven messages. And, of course, they were to hear the whole book.
Why these seven churches?
There were undoubtedly other churches in Asia at this time. So why did God send this letter to these particular churches?
The key reason is this: They represent all local churches over the whole period of Church history. The challenges and conditions those churches in Asia Minor experienced reflect those that―to varying degrees and in various ways―the whole Church worldwide would experience during this age. So we can think of the Book of Revelation as a letter to every local church.
The plan of each message
The seven messages to the churches follow a similar pattern. As an example, we’ll look at what Jesus says to the church in Pergamum (2:12-17).
1Jesus commands John to write to “the angel” of each church. Who are these angels? Of the various suggestions that have been made, the most likely seems to be that these are actual angels (rather than humans) who exercise some kind of responsibility for a local church. Hence Jesus directs His seven messages both to these seven angels, and to their corresponding churches here on Earth. And so this message begins: “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:”.
2Jesus begins each message by telling them something about Himself―usually drawn from the vision of Him in the first chapter. So to this church Jesus says, ”The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword”. This recalls 1:16: “from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword”.
3Jesus tells the church what He knows about them. To this church, Jesus says, ”I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.”
4Where necessary, Jesus corrects the church, calls them to repent, and tells them how He’ll judge them if they don’t repent. In the case of this church, it was indeed necessary. He writes, ”But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practise sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.”
5He brings encouragement to faithful believers. For this church, Jesus doesn’t do this. However, to the church in Sardis―which was in a worse spiritual condition than Pergamum―Jesus writes, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (3:4).
6He says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” .
7Jesus makes one or more wonderful promises to “the one who conquers” . The word “conquers” can also be translated as “overcomes” or “is victorious”. It’s a key word in Revelation. So, to the church in Pergamum, He writes, ”To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it”.
The Roman world
What kind of world were these churches in?
Perhaps the best way to appreciate what they were up against is by looking at the image at the top of this page. It’s an artist’s impression of the Acropolis of Pergamum, painted in 1882. It was based on archaeological investigations. The city had an acropolis―an imposing hill in the city, rather similar to the famous acropolis in Athens.
On this acropolis stood various buildings. To the left is the great altar of Zeus. Above it is the temple of the goddess Athena, with a colonnaded building behind it. Above that is the temple of Trajan, one of the Roman Emperors. This shows the importance of the imperial cult―worship of the Emperor. Pergamum was, in fact, the regional centre of this cult. That’s probably why Jesus called it the place “where Satan’s throne is” (2:13).
This painting is a view of Pergamum’s acropolis as it would have been sometime in the second century AD, a few decades after Revelation was written. However, the great altar of Zeus and the Temple of Athena were both in existence at that time.
Idolatry―worship of the Emperor and of pagan gods―was part of the fabric of the Roman world. It was all around you. And the cities were awash with sexual immorality.
But in the midst of this idolatrous and immoral world, God had His people. A visitor to these cities would have seen the temples and the altars―they couldn’t help but see them! But they wouldn’t have seen any church buildings. The New Testament tells us of believers meeting in homes and (in one instance) in a hall (Acts 19:9). To the outside world, the churches were all but invisible.
The churches were lampstands in that dark world. Jesus tells John, “the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (1:20). The lampstand would have been a stand on which an oil lamp was placed.
In Scripture, the Lord Himself is associated with light. For example, at the end of Revelation, we read “They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light” (22:5). The light symbolises the presence of God. Just as the lampstand carries a lamp, each church, so to speak, is to carry the presence of God. Each church is to be alight with God’s presence, shining as a light in a darkened world. They’re to be witnesses of God, and to Jesus Christ, and to His salvation.
What did the pagan Roman world think of Christians? Christians were called atheists, because they didn’t worship the pagan gods. And they were called haters of the human race because they didn’t show political loyalty to the emperor and thus the Roman empire. Christians were considered to be disloyal, subversive and dangerous.
Some believers also faced opposition of another kind―from Jews.
So faithful Christians faced all kinds of difficulty:
1They faced harassment from the authorities.
2They faced opposition from the society around them.
3In places, they faced harassment from Jews.
At the time Revelation was written, persecution was local and sporadic. There wasn’t any Empire-wide programme of persecuting Christians. Nonetheless, there was the possibility that you might have to suffer and even die for Christ. A man called Antipas had paid that ultimate price (2:13). John himself writes that he was “your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (1:9).
Deceivers in the churches
There was another problem. This problem came from within the church.
A few decades before this church received the Book of Revelation, Paul had said this to the elders of the church in Ephesus: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, . . . . I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, . . . .” (Acts 20:28-31).
And that’s exactly what happened. After Paul’s death, ”fierce wolves” came in among the churches, ”not sparing the flock”. From within the churches, people arose “speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them”.
1In Ephesus there were those “who call themselves apostles and are not” (2:2).
2In Ephesus and Pergamum there were “Nicolaitans”.
3In Pergamum there were some “who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practise sexual immorality” (2:14).
4A false prophetess in Thyatira referred to as “Jezebel” was “teaching and seducing my servants to practise sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (2:20).
Very probably, all these deceivers were encouraging believers to compromise with the world, for example, by going to feasts where pagan gods were honoured, and participating in Emperor worship. In this way, they could make life a lot easier for themselves.
And at least some of these false teachers were also condoning “sexual immorality” . That refers to spiritual immorality―in other words, idolatry―and to immoral sexual behaviour.
Behind all this false teaching, of course, was Satan, “the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9).
This false teaching was like a cancer. Any church that didn’t deal with it was doomed. Ultimately, it would have destroyed the church.
Our own world
We in the Western world today don’t live in world surrounded by pagan temples and idols. (Of course, Christians in other cultures may well do.)
We do, however, have a secular, humanistic, and materialistic society. Our society imposes subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on believers to conform to the world’s beliefs and way of life. We face pressure to compromise with the world around us.
But God calls His people to be faithful to Him. The Book of Revelation, “can be seen as one great call to faithfulness even to the point of death” . One writer says, “. . . when I was . . . a student, I found baptismal services incredibly sobering occasions. For the church I attended had the custom that as each baptismal candidate was baptised we sang some words of the Risen Christ to the church at Smyrna . . . : ‘Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life . . . .’”
God’s resistance movement
We believers live in enemy-occupied territory. Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). But John writes, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Satan has no right to be here―Satan and his forces are an occupying power.
During the Second World War, resistance networks were set up to fight against the Nazi forces in occupied countries. Many resistance fighters were captured and tortured to obtain information. Those who refused to co-operate suffered terribly; many were executed. Every day, these brave resistance fighters operated in the shadow of death.
We, too, live in enemy-occupied territory. And so we’re to be the Lord’s resistance fighters. We’re to challenge the culture of this world. We’re to bear witness to Jesus in our words and our lives. We’re to withstand and overcome Satan and his forces. We’re to play our part in making “disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Under attack by Satan
We live in enemy-occupied territory. So how does our enemy Satan attack us? He attacks in two basic ways:
►He tries to deceive us. He “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). John describes Satan as “the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9).
►He attacks through persecution, or the threat of persecution. That may take many forms, including social ostracism, mockery, verbal or physical abuse.
Persecution, so often, has served to strengthen and grow the Church. One early church leader, Tertullian, who lived from around 155-220AD, wrote, “We spring up in greater numbers as often as we are mown down by you : the blood of the Christians is a source of new life.” 
But, through history, deception has―overall―been far more damaging to the Church.
So how do you stop yourself being deceived?
Here’s an example. If you wanted to be able to spot a fake antique, what must you do? You must spend lots of time studying and handling genuine antiques. Rule number one is this: know what the real thing looks and feels like!
And that’s how it is with spiritual deception. We need to know the real thing. We need to know the truth―the truth about God and about Jesus Christ, the truth about our identity in Christ, the truth about salvation. And that’s surely one reason why the first chapter of Revelation tells us so much about the triune God, and about who we are in Christ.
In the next part, we’ll look at the spiritual state of the seven churches. We’ll focus on how Jesus opens and closes His message to one of the churches by way of example―the church in Pergamum.
FOOTNOTES  Barry Webb writes, in his comments on the lampstand of Zechariah 4:1-14: “We are therefore driven to the conclusion that the lampstand represents the community – the people who are involved with Zerubbabel in the work of rebuilding the temple. It is a community ‘alight’ with the presence of the all-seeing, all-knowing God, who dwells in their midst.” The Message of Zechariah: Your Kingdom Come (The Bible Speaks Today), by Barry G. Webb, pages 92-93. Published by IVP, London in 2003.  Quoted from The Returning King: a Guide to the Book of Revelation, by Vern Sheridan Poythress, page 44. Published by P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, in 2000. Published online here, accessed on 14 July 2021.  Quoted from Faithful unto Death by Paul Beasley-Murray, published online here, accessed 22 August 2022.  Quoted from The Apology of Tertullian for the Christians. Translated . . . by T. Herbert Bindley, M.A., Merton College, Oxford, chapter L. Published by Parker and Co., London and Oxford, in 1890. Published online here, accessed on 5 September 2022.
CREDITS ► Text copyright © 2023 Robert Gordon Betts ► Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.► Image on page 1 entitled ‘Acropolis of Pergamon’. Image published here and considered by the Wikimedia Foundation to be in the public domain in the United States. In other jurisdictions, re-use of this content may be restricted.