The Seven Churches of Asia


Dr. W. A. Criswell

Revelation 1-3

5-21-61    10:50 a.m.


On the radio and on television you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the eleven o’clock morning message entitled The Seven Churches of Asia.  In our preaching through the Bible, for these last several months we have been in the Book of the Revelation, the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.  And last Sunday morning we spoke of the grand foundational outline that God hath given us of the book; the outline that reveals to us its interpretation and its profound and significant meaning.  It closes chapter one with these words:

Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;

The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in My right hand, and the mystery of the seven golden lampstands.

The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches:  and the seven lampstands which thou sawest are the seven churches.

[Revelation 1:19-20]


And the sermon this morning is an introduction to the great, significant second section of God’s outline of the book.

The first part, the first section, designated by our Lord, is written in the first chapter:  “Write the things which thou hast seen” [Revelation 1:19].  And so John wrote down the things that he had seen:  the vision of our Lord as He walked in glory and in power among the seven lampstands [Revelation 2:1].  Then he is set to write the things which are:  “The seven lampstands which thou sawest are the seven churches” [Revelation 1:20].  So when John comes to the second section of the Revelation, he is writing of the things which are; that is, the things of the churches [Revelation 1:19-20].  John lived, the author lived, in the same dispensation and administration and era that we live in.  He lived in the day of grace, in the day of the preaching of the gospel of the Son of God, in the day of the founding and the building up of God’s churches.  So he uses the present tense, “the things which are” [Revelation 1:19].  This is the prophecy, and the outline, and the unfolding of this era—this administration, this dispensation, this day and age in which we live.  So the second great section of the Apocalypse is a revelation of the course of this age, of the progress and development and consummation of the days of the churches [Revelation 2:1-3:22].

Then the third great section we mentioned, “And write the things which shall be meta tauta, “after these things,” after the churches [Revelation 1:19].  And in the fourth chapter of the Apocalypse, the angel said, “Come up hither,” and a door was opened in heaven, “and I will show thee things which shall be meta tauta, beyond, after, over these things” [Revelation 4:1].  When the days of the churches are done, when the churches have run their course, when the history of God’s dispensation of grace and administration of His churches is over with, and God’s people are caught up to heaven  [Revelation 4:1], then the Apocalypse comes and reveals the third great section of the book [Revelation 4:1-20:15], when the judgment of God shall fall upon this unbelieving world, and when men shall enter that awful, awesome period called “the tribulation, the great,” the Great Tribulation [Revelation 7:14].  Then the outline of that unfolding week of years is revealed here, that leads up to the great final consummation of the age; God’s judgment upon this world [Revelation 4:1-20:15].

Now this morning we are beginning an entrance into the second great section of the Revelation;  “Write the things which are” [Revelation 1:19], and in this, our Lord who sees the end from the beginning, will reveal, will outline, will unfold the course of this present age.  And He does it in the symbolism of His messages to seven symbolic churches, which represent all the churches of all ages and of all time [Revelation 2:1-3:22].  As long as churches are, these seven represent them all.  Now this message of introduction I have broken up into several parts; I could not begin to encompass it in one sermon.  As we enter this profoundly significant era, the one in which we now live, there are so many things to be learned; things of deep and lasting meaning, things that Christ addresses to us.  “The mustērion of the seven stars which thou sawest in My right hand, and the mustērion of the seven golden lampstands” [Revelation 1:20]—beneath these words and in these symbols and in this revelation are deep and profound things that Christ would have us know.

Now He begins, “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven lampstands which thou sawest are the seven churches” [Revelation 1:20].  Now, those churches were historical.  They were local congregations, and twice in the book are they definitely named in their historical locations.  For example, in the eleventh [verse], when Christ introduces Himself, He says to John, “Write, write in a book the things which thou seest [Revelation1 :11], and send it unto the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia,” a province about the size of the state of Pennsylvania, “unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea” [Revelation 1:11]—in a great circle.  In the Roman province, the richest of all the Roman provinces, the Roman province of Asia.  That’s one time those seven churches are named in their cities.  They’re named a second time in the Revelation itself:

Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write…Unto the angel of the church at Smyrna write…And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write…And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write…And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write…And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write…And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write…

[Revelation 2:1, 8, 12, 18 3:1, 7, 14]

So as we enter this section, so meaningful in the Apocalypse, we are immediately presented with these seven cities and their seven historical churches.  So this morning, in the introductory message, we’re going to visit these seven cities [Revelation 2:1-3:22].  They were glorious in their day—magnificent, affluent, prosperous—and some of them were the glory of the ancient world.

The first city of the Roman province of Asia was Ephesus [Revelation 2:1-7].  Toward the southern part of Anatolia—Asia Minor, Minor Turkey—on the Aegean Sea, about three miles up the Caýster River was the great city of Ephesus.  The harbor was artificially enlarged, and the greatest ships that plied the Mediterranean world could find anchor there, and from thence went out carrying the commerce of the East to the West.  A great valley, Ephesus situated at the head of it, a great valley opened into Asia Minor; and into that valley poured the roads that connected Ephesus with all the principle cities of the Roman province, and through Ephesus was funneled the vast commerce between the east and the west.  It became one of the great commercial cities of the ancient world.

Its history is as illustrious as the city itself, both secular and sacred.  The city was founded in the dim and remote ages of the past by the Amazons, a race of people who were governed by marvelously gifted and able women.  It was there that their tradition said the mother goddess of the world was born, and there the Amazons built a beautiful city and a beautiful temple in which to worship their goddess.  As the centuries passed the Greeks conquered it, and the Greeks dedicated the city to their goddess Artemis, or in Latin, Diana.  And there in Ephesus the Greeks built the greatest Greek temple the world has ever seen.  It has been known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and when the time comes that I have opportunity to preach on the city of Ephesus as such, we shall follow the contour and the architecture of that glorious, incomparably beautiful temple.

Not only was Ephesus the home of the great temple dedicated to Diana, or Artemis, but it was also a city of art, and culture, and beautiful Greek architecture.  The theater at Ephesus was the largest in the civilized world.  And the great convocations that were held in that theater, and in all of the other temples that made beautiful and glorified that Ephesian city, are beyond words to describe.  But its sacred history is no less illustrious than its secular story.

For two years the most effective ministry in all Paul’s life was wrought in that Ephesian city [Acts 19:10].  The miracles that he wrought—so marvelous that people could bring handkerchiefs to him and he could touch them and they would take them and put them on the beds of the ill, and the ill would be well again—it was a tremendous ministry [Acts 19:12].  All Asia turned to Christ, forsaking temples, and forsaking tradition, and forsaking their pagan history.  It was an unbelievable ministry! [Acts 19:1-20].  One of the things they did in the city of Ephesus was bringing their books of cult, and magic, and sorcery, and necromancy—and when they were valued, it was more than fifty thousand pieces of silver [Acts 19:19]—turning aside from those old ways and entering the new era of the preaching of the gospel of the grace of God in Christ Jesus [Acts 19:20].  It was a phenomenal and a miraculous thing, Paul’s ministry at Ephesus [Acts 19:10], so much so that in the passage that you read, Demetrius the silversmith called his guild together and said, “Our work is being destroyed, making these idols, selling them for our living; for this man Paul woos the whole world away from the worship of great Diana of the Ephesians” [Acts 19:24-27].  It was in Ephesus that Paul wrote his great letter to Corinth called 1 Corinthians [1 Corinthians 16:8].  It was to the Ephesian church that he wrote the great letter to the Ephesians [Ephesians 1:1].

When Paul left, there was another pastor named Timothy who became the leader of the church [1 Timothy 1:3].  And that church listened to some of the greatest preaching in the world; because Apollos was converted at Ephesus after Paul had left [Acts 18:24-28].  And Apollos was the most brilliant and able orator the Christian church has ever produced.  I think Apollos wrote the letter to the Hebrews, called in your Book the Epistle to the Hebrews.  No piece of literature in peroration, in figure, in symbol, in speech and oratory rivals the majestic tones of that glorious sermon that you read called the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Apollos was converted in Ephesus [Acts 18:24-28], and he preached the gospel first in Ephesus [Acts 18:25-28].  Then after the ministry of Timothy [1 Timothy 1:3]—and by the way, Paul wrote 1 Timothy to the preacher while he was pastor of the church in Ephesus [1 Timothy 1:3]—after the days of Timothy had passed, John, the sainted disciple John, came to be pastor of the church in Ephesus.

In 66 AD the great uprising and rebellion came to pass in Judea that was destroyed by Vespasian and by Titus, who forever destroyed Jerusalem.  And in the days of those uprisings, the Christians fled away from Judea, and among those Christians who fled was John, the disciple of the Lord.  And in about 69 AD he came to Ephesus.  And for about thirty years or longer, John was pastor of the church in Ephesus.  And while he was there, the pastor of that congregation, he was exiled by the emperor Domitian into the isle lonely Patmos [Revelation 1:9], which is in front of Ephesus and to the south about twenty-five or thirty miles.  Later, John was privileged to return to his congregation and died there in Ephesus a natural death.  And his tomb can be shown to this day; for many centuries a church had been built over it.

Ephesus today is desolate.  The Caýster River in which the harbor had been made is silted over for miles.  Ephesus is several miles now back and away from the sea.  And the giant lizards, startled in amazement at the sight of a man, dart hither and yon, over majestic cyclopean stones carved out of porphyry and marble; darting over great cornices and capitals and columns that once were the amazement and wonder of the world; desolation, and miasmic silence, and death.  On the hillside can be seen the great theater, the greatest in the world, its gigantic stones gnarled with brush and scrubby trees.  And over here to one side can be seen the ruins of the great temple to Diana, the stones broken and scattered over a vast area, and the site itself sunken down into the earth, a foul and fetid pond, breeding malaria-bearing mosquitoes, and for miles and for miles in the valleys and on the hills, those ruins of marble and porphyry and stone scattered everywhere.  Once one of the great cities of the world, and now silence, and death, and disease, and malaria.

Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and turn, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and remove thy lampstand out of its place, except thou turn!

[Revelation 2:5]

This was the message of our Lord to the church at Ephesus.  And every syllable of its silence, and every miasmic mosquito that carries death, and every hour of its widowhood and silent desolation point up the message of Christ, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” [Revelation 2:7].

Forty miles north of Ephesus is the great, ancient city and modern city of Smyrna [Revelation 2:8-11].  Smyrna is one of the most magnificently situated cities in the earth.  At the head of the gulf of Smyrna—which reaches inward into Asia Minor about thirty miles—where the hills run down to the sea is the location of Smyrna.  It was laid out about the fourth century BC by the Greeks, who loved architecture and symmetry and expressed it beyond any race of people who has ever lived.  Smyrna was the glory of Asia, according to the Romans.  The streets were broad and straight and spacious; they were colonnaded with beautiful Greek columns.  The most famous of the streets was the golden street, beginning at the bay, at the blue waters of the Aegean Sea, and running upward until it found its climax at the base of Mt. Pagos.  At the beginning of the golden street was the beautiful temple of Sipylênê, the goddess of nature.  Then as you walked along its broad, spacious colonnades, to one side the glorious temple to Apollo; on the next side the glorious temple to Aphrodite; on the next side the glorious temple to Asclepius; and over here a beautiful monument where Homer was supposed to have been born; and then ascending the street until finally you came to the great glorious temple of Zeus that blocked the street on the great mountain of Pagos; a glorious city if ever there was one, the city of Smyrna.  And the wealth of the world coming into its harbor; coming down, the great caravans from the interior brought in it affluence and riches beyond compare.

Polycarp was the pastor at Smyrna.  And on the side of Mt. Pagos, in the great theater, there Polycarp was condemned to death, and a little lower down, there he was martyred, and Smyrna became the place of martyrdom and of suffering.  In the place where Polycarp was burned to death, a few years later, there fifteen hundred Christians at one time reddened the soil with their blood; and a little later, eight hundred Christians.  There Irenaeus studied, and became the great link between John and Polycarp.  Polycarp, the disciple of John, down at Ephesus, and Irenaeus, who wrote so voluminously of the days of the apostles.  “Be thou faithful unto death, Smyrna, and I will give thee a crown of life” [Revelation 2:10].

About, fifty miles to the north of Smyrna and fifteen miles from the sea was the great city of Pergamos [Revelation 2:12-17].  Pergamos always was a capital city.  It was founded in dim antiquity by the Aeolian Greeks after the destruction of Troy; built on an impressive acropolis, bounded by two rivers.  It was the ancient capital of Mysia.  It was the capital of the Attalid, the kingdom that was a part of the Alexandrian empire when it broke up.  And when the Romans carved out the kingdom, the province, of Asia, Pergamos was still the capital of the Roman province of Asia.  All through the centuries and the centuries Pergamos was a capital city.  It was not a commercial city like Smyrna or like Ephesus; it was a university city, it was a cathedral city, it was a governmental city, and the rich kings and chiefs brought to it the glory of their affluence as they lavished wealth upon one great beautiful building after another.  I suppose the view of Pergamos, as you’d stand on the plain and look up to it, would have been a celestial vision of the city of God itself; Pergamos, the capital of the province, and the capital of the provinces and kingdoms before it.

Pergamos; it was famous for two things especially.  One: one of the greatest libraries of the world, rivaling the library of Alexandria, was at Pergamos.  It had more than two hundred thousand volumes in it, in that day an enormous number when you consider every volume had to be written by hand.  Your name for “skin” upon which your diploma is written, a parchment, comes from Pergamos.  In the corruptions of languages, as it goes from one to the other, pergamos comes out in our language as “parchment”.  You see, the Ptolemaic Egyptian government had a government monopoly on papyri.  On the Nile River there grows a plant, looks like dill, and when you flatten it out like flax, you can interweave it and it’ll be paper.  Your word paper comes from papyri, papyrus.  It was only made in Egypt; and the Ptolemaic government had a monopoly upon it.  Well, Ptolemy, down in Egypt, got angry at Eumenes, king of Pergamos, and he interdicted the sale of any more papyri to Pergamos.  They didn’t have anything to write their books on, so Pergamos invented a way of writing material that did away with papyri.  They were the first to use skins on which to write their volumes, and those skins were called pergamons, “parchments” in our language.

Not only was it a great intellectual center, but Pergamos was noted for another thing: there was a marvelously beautiful temple there dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing.  And by the temple of Asclepius was the world famous medical school, and students came from all over the Mediterranean to study medicine there in the city of Pergamos, and invalids came, and the sick came, and it became a mecca for untold thousands of people all over the Mediterranean world.  As the days passed—and we must hurry—Pergamos declined, and now there’s just a wretched little Turkish village at the base of the mountain called Bergama, a Turkish corruption of the ancient city of Pergamos.

Now we are turning south into the circle; from Ephesus to Smyrna to Pergamos, we’ve been going north.  Now we turn south thirty miles down, and this is the city of Thyatira [Revelation 2:18-29].  Nothing is known about the ancient story of Thyatira.  In the days of the Romans it was a commercial city, especially noted for the guild of dyers and weavers and coppersmiths.  And Lydia, from Thyatira, was in Philippi, a Roman colony, there selling her purple goods, her beautiful woven and dyed clothes-cloth and garments, selling them to the affluent Romans who had retired as army officers from Rome and were now dwelling in the Roman colony of Philippi in Macedonia.  Lydia was a seller of purple, of purple goods, made in Thyatira [Acts 16:14].

Thirty miles down is the ancient capital of the Lydian kingdom called Sardis [Revelation 3:1-6].  Sardis looked to be the most impregnable fortress in the whole world.  It was built upon a northern spur of Mt. Tmolus, and at the base of it ran the Pactolus River; it was practically unassailable.  This was the capital of the Lydian kings, and the most famous of the Lydian kings was Croesus, who is known to us for his illimitable wealth.  Part of the wealth of Croesus, the capital city of Sardis, the kingdom of Lydia, part of the wealth of Croesus came from the gold in the sands of the Pactolus River, and the first money that was ever made was made in Sardis under the leadership of Croesus their king.  The reason we have money was because of the Lydians; they were the first to mint gold and silver coins.  When Solon came to Croesus you have one of the most famous interviews in the world.  When Cyrus entered—when we get to Sardis I want to speak of how that was done—when Cyrus conquered Sardis, the city was in the glory of its heyday.  Students of Herodotus and Xenophon would be interested in Sardis, because it was on the great plains around Sardis that Xerxes gathered his army and marched against Greece when he was defeated in the battle of Marathon.  The days have passed, and Sardis has decayed and is now represented by a wretched little village, Turkish, at the base of the mountain called Izmir, a Turkish corruption of Sardis.

Thirty miles further down south and a little east you come to the sixth city, Philadelphia [Revelation 3:7-13].  Philadelphia was built in about 130 BC by Attalus II, the king of Pergamon.  And his name was Attalus Philadelphus, and the city was named Philadelphia for him.  The reason Attalus built the city there: beyond was the wild tribes and province of Phrygia, and Attalus built that city on the edge of the province of Phrygia in order to teach those wild tribesman Greek language, Greek culture, Greek worship, and Greek life.  Philadelphia was the marketplace for all Phrygia.  It never became prominent or overly populous because of the frequent earthquakes.  In the days when John wrote this letter from Christ to them, it had not even law courts of its own but was made a part of the jurisdiction up there at Sardis.  As the days passed, it fell into desolation and has vanished from the earth.

Forty-three miles further south and a little east, in the Lycus Valley, is the seventh church, the church at Laodicea [Revelation 3:14-22].  From the Aegean seacoast comes the Meander River, and about one hundred miles up, about one hundred miles from Ephesus, on the interior, the Lycus River pours into the Meander.

The churches of the Lycus Valley are some of the most famous of antiquity.  Three of them are named here in the New Testament.  Near the confluence of the Lycus and the Meander, on one side, on the north side of the Lycus, was the church Hierapolis, where Papias was pastor; pastor about the same time Polycarp was at Smyrna, and John in the latter days at Ephesus.  Papias was also a disciple of John.  Papias was pastor of the church at Hierapolis.

On the south side of the Lycus River was the city of Laodicea.  And about thirteen—from eleven to thirteen miles up the Lycus River was the city of Colosse, where Philemon lived, to whom [Paul] sent Onesimus, his runaway slave [Philemon 8-17], and to whom he addressed the letter to the Colossians [Colossians 1:2].  Now Laodicea is located near the mouth of the river on the south side.  It was a mercantile city.  The valley brought the great caravans and trade routes of the East into Laodicea on their way to the Aegean seacoast and to the whole Roman world.  They were the bankers of the Roman province of Asia, all that interior, and they became rich and affluent.  When the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 AD, they refused, proudly so, the proffered help of Caesar and of Rome, and they rebuilt their city themselves.  Today it is a waste and a desolation.

Ephesus at least has the view of the rolling sea and a beautiful sailboat going by once in a while.  Laodicea sits in silent widowhood, her great splendor strewn in the valley and on the hillside in silence, in desolation, and in death.

Write to the angel of the church in Ephesus . . . to the angel of the church in Smyrna…to the angel of the church in Pergamos . . . to the angel of the church in Thyatira . . . to the angel of the church in Sardis . . . to the angel of the church in Philadelphia . . . to the angel of the church in Laodicea . . .

[Revelation 2:1, 8, 12, 18-3:1, 7, 14]

I have done this this morning in order for a group of things that I hope to preach in these coming Sundays.  This is all the time that I had was just to identify these places; one or two little brief things to say about them.  One is this:  I have done this for one reason, that we might get our heads clear of the persuasion that when we deal with the Apocalypse we are dealing with mythology, and with the intangible, and the ethereal, with the unknowable, with the enigmatic, and the modern word “mysterious.”  Oh, no!  Our Lord is speaking to actual congregations, to actual people, to actual churches, in actual situations, and actual places.  The Christian religion is never unearthly, and intangible, and ethereal!  The Christian religion has to do with you, and your problems, and your life, and your home, and your destiny, and your soul, and your forever, now and then!  It’s down to earth; it walks where people walk, it lives where people live, it works where people work, and Christ has a message to His churches!

Second thing I have done this is:  these churches were picked out of a great vast host of other churches.  In the Lycus Valley for example, I named three; Laodicea was chosen.  Why was not Hierapolis?  Why was not Colosse?  Why was not Apamea?  Famous churches in the Lycus Valley; why was Thyatira chosen?  One of the most insignificant places you can imagine.  Or Philadelphia; think of overlooking Rome, or Corinth.  Think of the great church at Antioch, or Caesarea, or Jerusalem, or down in Alexandria.

These seven were chosen because in them Christ found great symbolic situations that represent eras in the progress and development and the life of His people.  And they represent messages that Christ has for us today.  You see, He says:

The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest, and the mystery of the seven golden lampstands . . .

[Revelation 1:20]

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

[Revelation 2:7]

Underneath these symbols, and in this sacred arithmetic, and down in these messages, and in these sentences, and in these revelations, and in these words, you have great things of God; the mystery of the seven stars, of the seven lampstands.  “He that hath an ear to hear” [Revelation 2:7], and a heart to believe, and eyes of the soul to see, Christ has great messages for His churches.

I witness truthfully when I avow to you, I never stood at so deep and expansive a sea in my life as I stand now on the shores of this great Apocalypse, and look through the vista of the ages that are yet to come in God’s grace, or that are still upon us in His elective purpose, and see the hand of God with us today, with His churches tomorrow, whether here or in heaven, and to the final great climactic consummation of the age.  “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit of God saith to His churches” [Revelation 2:7].  So we begin this second great section of the Apocalypse, written for you, to you, that we might know the plan of God for our lives and for the lives of His people; whether it is here, or whether it is in the upper and glorious world that is yet to come.

Now while we sing this song, a hymn of invitation and appeal, somebody this morning to give his heart to Christ, you come [Romans 10:9-10].  Somebody this morning to put his life in the fellowship of His church, you come.  At the 8:15 o’clock service this morning we had the largest harvest, I think, I have seen since we have begun conducting those early morning hours.  My heart rejoiced as God blesses His truth, the preaching of His Word; not what a man sits down and thinks up, not a fellow philosophizing, not a metaphysician describing what he supposes is true and not true, but the immutable Word of God.  Blessing it, blessing it, sanctifying its every syllable, favoring and honoring its every invitation.

And while we sing this appeal this morning, in that host in the balcony, there is a stairway at the back on either side; there is a stairway at the front on either side; come, come.  And the host on this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front: “Pastor, I give you my hand; a sign, a token I have given my heart to God” [Romans 10:9-10].  Or “Pastor, the whole family of us comes.  This is my wife; these are our children.”  We had two wonderful families come at the 8:15 hour.  Does God bid you here?  If the Spirit bids you come, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.