A Study of the Seven Churches of Asia
by Al Maxey


(Ephesus) (Smyrna) (Pergamum) (Thyatira)
(Sardis) (Philadelphia) (Laodicea)


Ephesus was a wealthy, cultured, and vital city of Asia Minor. It was the capital of the Roman province of Asia. An important trade city, having a large harbor, it was located on the left bank of the river Cayster. There were highways connecting it with the other major cities of the Empire. As an international city it had peoples from all over the world converging on it. The population in Paul's time was estimated to be at 350,000.

Ephesus was first settled by the Ionian Greeks in the 11th century B.C. It fell under Roman control in 133 B.C. The heat in the summer was said to be very great, with heavy and violent rainstorms. Fever was quite common.

The city was a large religious center. The Temple of Artemis (Diana) was located here. This temple was a treasure-house, a museum, and also a haven for criminals. It was easily the most overwhelming sight in the city. It was dedicated to the Mother Goddess of the earth. It was burned down by Herostratus in 355 B.C. on the night Alexander the Great was born; was rebuilt at enormous cost; considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was said to have taken 220 years to build. Made of marble, it was 340' long, 164' wide, supported by 127 columns, and stood at the head of the harbor.

In the center of the Temple, concealed by curtains, was the image of Diana. It was said to have fallen from the sky ("Remember, therefore, from where YOU have fallen" --- Revelation 2:5). It may well have been a meteorite. A large trade was done in miniature images of Diana (see Acts 19:23-41 .... the account of Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of this goddess).

Ephesus was noted for its great theater (Acts 19:29) which seated 50,000 -- the largest in the Greek world. It was carved on the western side of Mt. Oreosus. Ephesus was also famous for its magical arts. One type of book was known as Ephesia Grammata ("Ephesian Writings"), consisting of formulas for performing exorcisms (see Acts 19:11-20 for Paul's impact on this).

The church here was established by Paul around 54-55 A.D. Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos, Tychicus, Timothy, Paul and John all lived and worked here. The church was about 41-42 years old at the time Revelation was written.


Smyrna was located about 40 miles north of Ephesus on a gulf which reached 30 miles inland. It was founded about 1000 B.C. by colonists from Lesbos. It was captured by the Ionians in about 688 B.C. and made a very rich and powerful city. Smyrna was destroyed in 580 B.C. by Alyattes, King of Lydia. It was not rebuilt until 300 years later. This city became part of the vast Roman Empire in 133 B.C.

A prosperous city, with two excellent harbors and several major highways, it was second only to Ephesus in trade and exports. It was noted for its great beauty, and was built to be a model of all future cities in the land --- often called the "perfect city" and "the glory of Asia" and "the first of all the cities in Asia" (i.e.: first in beauty, first in literature, first in loyalty to Rome). To those in this city Jesus designates Himself "the first and the last."

Smyrna had a spacious, straight street which ran from one end of the city to the other. This was its most famous street and was known as the "Golden Street." At one end (by the sea) was the Temple of Cybele, and at the other end of the "Golden Street" (by the foothills) was the Temple of Zeus. Along the street were various other temples --- to Apollo, Asklepios (whose emblem was a serpent), and Aphrodite.

The city had a large library and public theater, and was filled with monuments to pagan deities and great men (Poseidon, Homer, etc.). It was a city of wealth and commercial success, and boasted a large wine industry. It was also a politically important city, and regarded favorably by Rome. It had always backed Rome in her battles and campaigns, and gave a donation of clothes to the army during a campaign against Mithradates (in the Far East). Rome showed her gratitude by heaping many honors upon Smyrna, and by holding court here. Smyrna was very conscious of its greatness, and was said to be the most municipally proud of all the cities of Asia Minor. Mommsen called it a "paradise of municipal vanity." To the residents of Smyrna, earthly honors were the first and last...not the Lord!

It was located by Mt. Pagus, and there were several temples girding the top of this mountain, glittering like a crown. These buildings encircling the top of Mt. Pagus actually resembled a crown when viewed from the city. Indeed, it came to be known as "the Crown of Smyrna." Smyrna was also known as "the Crown City." Jesus said to the church there, "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).

This city was also a center for the worship of Dionysus (originally a god of fruitfulness and vegetation; later god of wine). The mock death, burial and resurrection of Dionysus was celebrated annually there, and was rehearsed and practiced frequently during the year. The priests who officiated at this ceremony were given crowns to wear. Jesus says to them that it was HE "who became dead and lived" (Rev. 2:8).

In Revelation one finds the only mention of the church in Smyrna. This is also the only mention of this particular city in the NT writings. There is no specific information as to how the church was planted there, but it likely was the result of Paul's teaching in the School of Tyrannus while he was in Ephesus during his 3rd missionary journey (54-58 A.D.) --- see Acts 19:9-10.

Smyrna was also one of the great centers of Caesar worship in Asia Minor. Caesar worship was compulsory, and once a year a citizen must burn a pinch of incense on the altar to the godhead of Caesar. Once he performed this duty he was given a certificate declaring him to be a citizen in good standing with Rome. All a Christian had to do, to insure that he/she would be left in peace, was burn a pinch of incense and say "Caesar is Lord." Many, however, followed the principle in Rev. 14:9-11 and refused!

Polycarp (who studied at the feet of the apostle John), a leader in the church at Smyrna in later years, refused to make this sacrifice. As a result, he was burned at the stake during the Olympic Games on Saturday, February 23, 155 A.D. As he died he declared, "Eighty and six years have I served Christ, and He has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" In Smyrna the church was the home of many such heroes!

This city also had a large Jewish population, who would often inform on the Christians to the authorities, and who would incite outbreaks of violence against them. "In a city where the splendor of heathen worship might well have suffocated the life out of the Christian church, in a city where the pride of men looked down on the humble Christians with arrogant contempt, in a city where every Christian was between the devil of the demands of Caesar worship and the deep sea of Jewish slander and malignancy, there were Christians who were faithful unto death" (William Barclay).


Pergamum was built on a huge conical hill in the fertile Caicus river valley. It had a perfect view of the Aegean Sea, which was 15 miles away. When the empire of Alexander the Great was divided up following his death, Pergamum became the capital of the powerful, wealthy and independent kingdom of Mysia. In 190 B.C. (with Roman help) they expelled Antiochus III (the king of Syria) from the city. At his death, in 133 B.C., King Attalus III bequeathed Pergamum and his entire kingdom to the Romans. It became the royal city of Asia and served as the political capital for more than two centuries.

In the 2nd century B.C. the king built a library which is said to have contained 200,000 volumes. Later this library was given to Cleopatra by Antony. The word parchment is derived from the Latin Pergamena charta which means "paper of Pergamum." Some contend that parchment was invented in Pergamum for the purpose of transcribing books for its great library. This was the largest library outside of the one in Alexandria, Egypt.

This was not a great commercial city (unlike Ephesus and Smyrna), but rather was noted for being a center of art, culture and learning. It was also the administrative center of the province. In addition, it was a stronghold of pagan worship. Christianity here was faced with three distinct types of pagan religion:

There is no record of when the Lord's church was established in Pergamum, or by whom. The city is never mentioned in the NT writings, except in this epistle by Jesus in Revelation. Nor is there any reference to it in the Ante-Nicene Fathers. It was probably established during Paul's work in Ephesus on his third missionary journey, however (see Acts 19:10).


Thyatira was not nearly as important or as large as the other cities mentioned in Revelation. Nevertheless, it was still a busy commercial center, and also quite wealthy. It was located in the northern part of Lydia, near the border of Mysia, on the Lycas River.

It was refounded by Seleucus Nicator in the 3rd century B.C. (before that it was just a small, insignificant village). A major highway passed through this city, which made it a good location for trading. It was especially well-known for its trade guilds (wool workers, linen workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leather workers, tanners, potters, and the like). Its best known products were its woolen goods, and its dyed fabrics. It was particularly famous for its purple dye (which is today known as "Turkish Red"). Lydia (Acts 16:14-15) was from this city, and was a seller of purple fabrics/dye (she was in Philippi at the time of the Acts 16 account, very likely serving as a foreign representative of her trade guild).

There is no evidence of how the church was started in Pergamum. Some think Lydia may have returned home and shared the good news with those of her native city. Others point to Acts 19:10 and the time of Paul's work in Ephesus.

Several gods were worshipped in Pergamum: Aesculapius, Baachus, Artemis. The most important, however, was Tyrimnos (the chief deity of the city and identified with the Greek sun god Apollo). In his honor games were held at various intervals. The temple to the goddess Sambethe (a Chaldean sibyl) was also located here. At this shrine was a prophetess (well known in the city) who claimed to receive knowledge from this goddess. She then imparted this information to the worshippers who came to the temple. She seems to have had her "Christian counterpart" in the congregation there in the form of Jezebel. There were no temples to the emperors here. This was the smallest of the seven cities, but it received the longest of the seven epistles from Jesus.


Sardis was the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, and was one of the most ancient and renowned cities of Asia Minor. It lay a little over 30 miles SSE of Thyatira. Ancient Sardis was built on top of a 1500 foot high hill which projected from the northern side of Mt. Timolus. The sides of this hill were smooth, perpendicular rock which provided a natural citadel. It was inaccessible except for a narrow passage, easily defended from above, which joined it to the Timolus range of mountains. Although considered impregnable, it was still twice captured:

  1. In 549 B.C. by Cyrus (king of Persia). A soldier named Hyroades saw one of the soldiers in Sardis come down the narrow passage to retrieve a helmet that had rolled down. The passage was not really guarded at this time, as the people were over-confident. The Persians climbed up the passage and took the city.

  2. In 218 B.C. by Antiochus the Great. A soldier named Lagoras performed the same service as Hyroades, and the army captured Sardis --- again by surprise during the night.

In light of this history, the Lord's warning to the congregation becomes a little more meaningful: "If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you" (Rev. 3:3).

Because of their feeling of security, the people of Sardis had always had a tendency to become soft and complacent. They lived in luxury and splendor, and were a proud, arrogant, and overconfident people. This was a city with a great past, but at the time of the writing of Revelation it was only a 3rd rate city (in time, it ceased to exist altogether). It tried to live on its past accomplishments, but its present condition was insignificant in comparison. So also with the church there: "You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead" (Rev. 3:1).

The name Sardis appears in the plural in the Greek. The ancient city was built on top of a 1500 foot high hill, but when the people outgrew these facilities, they began to build at the foot of the hill. Thus, Sardis was divided into two separate sections: Ancient Sardis at the top of the hill, and the more Modern Sardis at the foot of the hill. Thus the significance of the name Sardis appearing in the plural form in the Greek.

Sardis was known for its commerce. Chestnuts were first made an article of commerce here, and were known as the "nuts of Sardis." Pliny says the art of dyeing wool was invented here. It was here that slave traders first became stationary and set up shops, as opposed to traveling about with their human merchandise. It was also noted for its manufacture of coins, and of a compound metal known as electrum.

The patron deity was Cybele (a goddess of nature), but other gods were worshipped here as well. In 17 A.D. Sardis (and eleven other cities) was destroyed by a powerful earthquake. It was rebuilt with the help of the Roman Emperor Tiberius who contributed heavily out of the national treasury, and who also remitted their taxes for five years.

There was no real outward threat to the Lord's church in Sardis, as was the case with some of the other congregations addressed in Revelation. The threat came from the fact that they were being lulled into a spiritual stupor. "Neither pagan opposition nor heretical and libertinistic excesses threatened this church; it suffered from spiritual dry rot and deadness" (R.C.H. Lenski). In a single generation, the church here was repeating the history of the city of Sardis for the past 1000 years:


Philadelphia is a Greek word meaning "brotherly love." It was named for its founder: King Attalus II Philadelphus, of Pergamum (159 - 138 B.C.). He was a great admirer of his brother and predecessor (Eumenes II, king of Lydia), and thus was given the name "brother lover." When he founded this city he named it after this honor which had been bestowed upon him.

This city was not as ancient as many others in the area. It was first settled around 159 B.C., and became a Roman possession in 133 B.C. It had been called by many names: Flavia, Neocaesarea, and even the nickname Little Athens because of its many temples and festivals to pagan deities.

It was located at the foot of Mt. Tmolus, on the banks of the little river Cogamus. It was about 83 miles west of Smyrna. North and east from the city stretched a great volcanic plateau (the Katakekaumene or "Burnt Region," also called the "Decapolis") which was famous for its grapes. Wine was the chief source of revenue for this city. Baachus (the god of wine) was worshipped here. Today the major product of this area is opium!

Philadelphia was located on a main trading route from west to east, thus the city became an important and wealthy trade center. The city was completely destroyed in 17 A.D. by the great earthquake which leveled a total of twelve cities.

The city was founded primarily for the purpose of being a center from which the Greek civilization and culture could be spread eastward. Thus, it was from its very beginning considered a missionary city. And it was quite successful in its mission. Philadelphia preached loyalty to Hellenism. The congregation (like the city) also was a preaching group, but their message was acceptance of and loyalty to Christ Jesus!


Laodicea was located 40-50 miles SE of Philadelphia, and 11 miles West of Colossae, and 6 miles South of Hierapolis --- (see Col. 4:13, 16 and Col. 2:1; 4:15). In the year 361 A.D. a Council was held here which established the canon of the New Testament.

It was founded by Antiochus II, a Seleucid king who reigned from 261 - 246 B.C. It was named after his wife, Laodice, who later poisoned him. It was originally built as a strong garrison on the strategic eastern trade route. It was also a center of Hellenic culture. After 190 B.C. it became a great, wealthy center of industry, and was especially famous for its high-grade black wool. It was a financial Mecca; the home of the millionaires of the day; the city of bankers and high-finance. There were many luxuries for the people (theaters, a stadium, a gymnasium equipped with baths, etc.).

Laodicea was situated in the area of some hot springs which emitted lukewarm water that was used in their baths. There was also a famous school of medicine here, which was noted for its production of a remedy for weak eyes called "Phrygian powder."

It was a very wealthy and self-sufficient city. After an earthquake in 60 A.D., they refused any assistance from the Roman Empire. Tacitus writes: "The same year Laodicea, one of the most famous cities of Asia, having been prostrate by an earthquake, recovered herself by her own resources, and without any relief from us." Such wealth attracted the Jews. In 62 B.C. Flaccus (the Roman governor of Asia) seized some contraband gold being shipped illegally to the Jews in Jerusalem. From this amount of gold it was estimated that there were nearly 11,000 Jews in the city of Laodicea at the time.

The city was a center for Emperor worship. "The Cult of Carian Men" was also located here, a group identified with Zeus. The people of the city were so rich and self-reliant that they were all but unbearable ..... an attitude which carried over into the church there.

Introduction Ephesus

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