Once a very important road in Asia Minor ran north along the Aegean coast from Ephesus into Smyrna and then to Pergamum. Another road that began at Pergamum ran southeast to Thyatira, farther south to Sardis, then southeast to Philadelphia and again southeast to the famous tri-city area of Hierapolis. Laodicea, Colosse. Thus we see the location of the seven churches of Revelation in sequence, political, ecclesiastical, or historical considerations aside.
When Christ gave his Revelation to John, at least a score of churches had been established in the province of Asia, which stood within the boundaries of the Attalide Kingdom of Pergamum. As representative of them, he selected these seven in the outlying cities of the renowned imperial route that formed a big loop in Asia. Beginning with Ephesus, each one was then a great cultural and commercial center.
These cities are now found in the Aegean region of Turkey, a fascinating area for pastors, professors, archaeologists, and lay people interested in church history.
The Ruins Of Ephesus
The magnificent ruins of Ephesus lie near the modern town of Selchuk. At the edge of the town is the great and influential temple of Diana, which, along with its many religious purposes, was used as a depository for city and private treasure. Today the site is completely desolate—a swampy area in rainy seasons.
Ephesus is doubtless the most sprawling of the seven cities, and very likely it boasted the largest church. This famous port was once connected with the Aegean by a channel of the river Cayster. The river constantly deposited at its mouth a great volume of silt, and this deposit eventually severed the city’s naval ties with the outside world. This explains why Paul, on his way to Jerusalem, decided to sail past Ephesus and invited the elders of the church to Miletus (about fifty miles to the south) for his farewell message. Only in the distance can the sea be seen today from the midst of the ruins of Ephesus. The famous Arcadian Way and the warehouses bespeak a once busy city harbor, with its great volume of business and its many vices. The large theater (Acts 19:29, 31) with a seating capacity of 25,000 had a stage with three stories. Among the many ruins, a six-story building, several heathen temples, elaborate baths, the Odeon, the Library of Celsus, and the Gymnasium are striking. Located somewhere nearby was the school of Tyrannus. The Marble Road has a number of statues and other sculptures, some of which depict in relief the warriors with their various ornaments (Eph. 6:14–17). Paul and his fellow workers doubtless trod this road many times in their efforts to evangelize the city. What remarkable experiences the Apostle must have had there during the two years when the whole Asiatic population heard the Word of the Lord (Acts 19:10).
In a totally heathen place, a completely orthodox church stood in the midst, with the best of pastors. Yet supreme love for the Saviour was lost. Consequently the lampstand too is gone, and Ephesus exists today merely as a heap of ruins.
Smyrna, A Modern City
We move northbound to Smyrna, the modern port city of Izmir, which, with a population of nearly half a million, is Turkey’s third-largest city. The ancient Agora, or market place, covers a small area in a crowded downtown section. Very likely, Paul himself traveled here during his two years in Asia Minor and founded the church. The people no doubt had read Peter’s First Epistle. From both Jews and Romans the church of Smyrna knew well what persecution meant. There was a large Jewish community in Smyrna that still exists, though greatly diminished in number.
The Roman persecution was particularly severe, and some turned away from the faith. But we recall the classic answer of Polycarp to the Roman soldier who was trying to induce him to recant his faith: “Fourscore and six years He has been faithful to me. Can I be unfaithful to Him now?” With these words he met his rewarding death. His body is buried on a high hill awaiting the final resurrection.
This largest modern city in the area of the seven churches does not have a single local believer today!
Pergamum And The Tourists
Farther north, seventy miles beyond beautiful groves of olives and figs, stands Pergamum, a most strategically situated ancient capital on top of, and on the slopes of, the Acropolis. The modern Turkish town of Bergama, located in the valley below, has a population of about 20,000. It enjoys a steady flow of tourists.
Nearby, the grand establishment of Asclepium is built around a sacred spring. Pergamum owed part of her greatness to this center. Patients from all over the empire, among them the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, ran there to be healed in its supposedly miraculous waters. The sick gathered around the great Incubation Chamber with its complex underground passages and were treated through a method of suggestion. The colonnaded walk, library, theater, and marbled basins were means through which the sick were helped during treatment.
A German archaeological group is diligently excavating the ruins of Pergamum. The Acropolis was a spectacular site, with the palace of the Attalide dynasty at the very top. On it were also the library, whose 200,000 volumes were later carried to Alexandria, the gymnasium, the race track, the excellent water system, the baths, the great amphitheater. The homes stood on the lower terraces. All in all Pergamum was a beautiful capital city, comparable to some capitals today.
Christ called Pergamum “Satan’s seat.” The temple of Zeus, of which all the statuary and sculptured frieze is in East Berlin, was an exceptionally idolatrous center. After the Romans became heir to the kingdom of Pergamum around 30 B.C., they built the first temple, where the emperor was worshiped. The immense structure of the Basilica in Pergamum, at the edge of the present town, is the largest ruin in all Asia Minor. In it Christians were commanded to worship the statue of the emperor and burn incense before it. Some subscribed to this revived doctrine of Balaam; others, like the faithful Antipas (whose legendary tomb the Turkish guide is quick to point out), preferred to forego their lives rather than worship the emperor. The ruins of this great heathen cultic center remind us that Antipas did not lose his life but gained it.
Thyatira, Or Modern Akhisar
We now turn east and, by following the great loop, arrive after a trip of fifty miles at Thyatira. The name is no longer Thyatira, for the modern Turkish city of Akhisar (White Castle) with a population of 30,000 is situated there. From this city came Lydia, a purple-seller and a worshiper of God (Acts 16:14). The province was also called Lydia, and the purple garment woven whole at Thyatira was known as “Lydia.”
Akhisar has no striking ruins, only a small area of antiquity at its center. Like Tarsus, Syrian Antioch, and Damascus it is known as a continuous city, where the new was built on top of the old.
Thyatira’s importance dates to its refounding by Seleucus Nicator as a Macedonian colony and military outpost around the middle of the third century B.C. Through its two staple industries, dyed fabrics and copper work, it became a busy commercial center. Lydia was probably an agent of some great manufacturing concern and doubtless traveled to find markets for the product. The dyers of the various companies were united in guilds, many of which are mentioned in inscriptions. The members were always identified with the prevailing religion and offered common sacrificial meals.
The church of Thyatira therefore faced the issue of idolatry, since some of its members undoubtedly were working men and women. Jezebel, a certain woman in the church who exerted an influence like that of Jezebel in Israel, taught authoritatively that it was perfectly normal to be a Christian and also remain a member of the ordinary pagan society, indulging in idolatry and taking part in heathen rituals. The majority of the church tolerated this compromise. The small number that did not apparently failed to condemn this influential woman outright for her association with idolatrous practices and propagation of the heathen guilds. The guilds became a great snare to the church in Thyatira. The nature of the guild feasts is vividly portrayed in ancient reliefs found throughout Asia Minor.
All the commercial prominence and the highly organized heathen guilds are now entirely gone. Along with them, the church of Thyatira, which did not realize the great threat to her very existence, is also gone! Today the dwellers in Akhisar are entirely oblivious of the colorful history of their place and the reference in the Scriptures to an assembly that at one time existed in their very town.
Sardis, Once Glorious
From Thyatira we move directly south and arrive at Sardis, known as Sart in the Turkish tourist guidebooks. It is about forty-five miles west of Smyrna and is off the main highway. Sardis, the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, was one of the greatest and oldest cities of Asia Minor. The various ruins give evidence of this. Archaeological excavation is being carried on under the auspices of Harvard University.
The Lydians are referred to by Josephus as descendants of Lud (Ezek. 27:10; Jer. 46:9). They were contemporaries of the earlier Hittites. Sardis (the name has the same origin as the stone, sardius) lay in the middle of the Hermus valley. This valley was watered by the river Pactolos, which flowed from the beautiful surrounding mountains. The Acropolis, the site of the original city, stood 1,000 feet high and bore an impregnable fortress-citadel. The great prosperity of Sardis became a byword. The name “Croesus,” that of the last Lydian king, was adopted for the Greek word, “gold.”
In 546 B.C. the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, attacked and captured the city. During the Greco-Persian wars it changed hands. In 334 B.C. it surrendered willingly to Alexander; after again changing hands between other powers, it finally became part of the Roman empire, its fame greatly diminished. Sardis was probably the first city to use coined money and to develop certain innovations in music. In A.D. 17, it was devastated by an earthquake. Tiberius contributed liberally to its rebuilding. Because of this great indebtedness to the Romans, the city gave itself completely to the cult of emperor-worship.
The cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum vied for the title of First City of Asia. The Lord’s message to the church at Sardis, the glory of which has gone down in history, begins with the pronouncement that she is dead. And this is actually the condition of the city, now only a small hamlet. A dead church, a dead city!
Doubtless, outsiders who looked at the church of Sardis noticed much religious activity, but her inner life spoke differently. Her doings were like the rattling of dead bones. Scripture often refers to the sinful as dead (e.g., Ezek. 37:1–4; Eph. 2:1; 1 Tim. 5:6; Rev. 3:1). The church of Sardis was tenderly invited by the Lord to repent. The letter does not state the particular sin of this church. Could it have been general complacency and smugness? Did the members coast along with everyday pagan life, unchristian practices, and the heathen culture of the larger society? The downfall of the church of Sardis came subtly. Yet some were faithful and kept their garments clean.
One of the main features of the ruins of Sardis is the magnificent temple of Artemis, built during the fourth century B.C. by Alexander the Great in the glen of Pactolos. The system there was very similar to the worship of Diana at Ephesus. Right behind it at the eastern end are seen the walls of a Christian church built before the fourth century A.D. We ponder upon the immense heathen temple, totally destroyed but for a few standing columns and walls. We look also at the Christian church—everything but its walls gone! Their destruction was not accidental. Dark idolatry met its doom. But why should the church have met this destiny? Christ gives the reason in his letter to her. Although she heard and received the body of truth, she was not awake but was in a miserably dead state. At an unexpected hour, Christ came like a thief and executed judgment. In how many places one may read the same story: here the ruins of a heathen temple, there the ruins of a Christian church. Woe to any church that sinks to the level of the unholy heathen temple!
The Road To Philadelphia
We drive southeast over a dusty gravel road and arrive at the modern town of Alasehir, which is on the very site of Philadelphia. One can also come by train from Izmir. The present population is about 12,000. Other than those specially interested in visiting it because of its mention in Revelation, no stranger ever sets foot in Philadelphia.
“The city of brotherly love,” at one time the site of a spiritual, active church, is without any Christian witness today. There are remains of some walls and the barely noticeable site of an ancient theater, but no other ruins. Once there were a number of temples, where religious festivals were attended by people from all over. Hence the city was later nicknamed “Little Athens.”
Philadelphia was founded by Eumeneus, king of Pergamum, on the slope of Tmolus and on the plain below. It was named after his brother Philadelphus (Attalus II), known for his loyalty to Eumeneus. The valley was fertile enough to support a city, and the Pergamene kings needed it as a communication center. It lay directly on the imperial Roman road. Its long valley constituted an open door to Phrygia and the regions beyond. Christ, however, had provided for her an open door that no one could close. It was a missionary city, founded a century and a half before Christ to spread the Hellenistic civilization eastward. In this task it was very successful, as it thoroughly supplanted the Lydian language and culture. The open door set before the church was her mission, which no power could or ever will be able to stop.
Philadelphia was prone to earthquakes. Following the one in A.D. 17, most of the inhabitants felt unsafe and moved to the surrounding country, where they dwelt in tents. In contrast to this, Christ promises to overcomers the ultimate stability of being built into the temple of God. Tiberius rebuilt the destroyed city. In gratitude, the name Neoceasarea was ascribed to the city. Its name was altered on two other occasions in servitude to emperors. In allusion to this, Christ promises to inscribe permanent new names upon the true believers there.
It is interesting to observe that the church of Philadelphia had only a little strength, the humble and unassuming spiritual power that the Lord seeks in any church. However, not a word of censure is implied.
While the church of Philadelphia is also gone, this city was the last of the seven to be conquered. And no one was able to rob the believers of their eternal crown.
Laodicea, The Lukewarm
City after city, church after church, discloses judgment. But only after we travel southeast sixty miles on a poor road and arrive at Laodicea do we see the worst judgment. There the church received the most scathing rebuke.
Nearby stands the Turkish city of Denizli with a population of 30,000. This area is very important for its New Testament associations, since it includes the three ancient cities of Colosse, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, all within a radius of ten miles (Col. 4:13). Hierapolis is built around copious hot springs. Renowned for their healing power, these springs are still running and are enjoyed by many throughout the year. The spectacular cliffs of lime, deposited over the centuries, are a striking phenomenon, now called Pamukkale (Cotton Castle). This was a center of pagan cults. Hierapolis has an immense and quite intact amphitheater as well as many other ancient structures, but no archaeological excavation has been done. According to early tradition, a church was founded in Hierapolis by the Apostle Philip, who died there.
Southeast of Hierapolis are the ruins of Colosse. Northeast of Colosse is Laodicea. The three cities were closely related, as were the churches in them.
Laodicea was by far the largest and wealthiest of the three. The letter in Revelation is full of allusions to its riches. Originally called Diospolis, city of Zeus, the city was enlarged by the Seleucid Antiochus II and named after his wife, Laodice. Its important location made it an extremely prosperous commercial center. Roads radiated from it in four directions. Its situation as the most important junction between East and West made it a base for banking houses and millionaires. Laodicea became legendary for the gold she possessed. Christ advised the church to buy fire-tested gold from him to be truly wealthy. It was world-renowned for the fine quality of its woven garments, produced from a breed of sheep (today extinct) with long, soft, glossy black wool. Christ instructed the church to buy white clothes from him in order to cover the shame of her nudity. The town was famous for physicians and medicines, one of which was “Phrygian powder,” rubbed on the eyes as a cure for various eye diseases that still afflict many people in these parts. Christ wanted the church to buy eye-salve from him to cure her blindness.
Laodicea’s banks, woolen factories, medical schools, fortifications, and great Roman garrisons were widely known. The church prospered financially along with the city and became a lukewarm, powerless, earthly organization.
To the people round about, the place is known as Eski Hisar (Old Castle). It is in the most desolate condition of the seven cities. The whole ruined area is covered with fields. Once in a while a peasant or a shepherd wanders nearby.
The ruins stretch for hundreds of acres and give mute testimony to past greatness. Unfortunately, many stones have been carried away by villagers through the past centuries, as from other sites. But enough are left to build another city.
A large rock tower houses such an intricate plumbing system that any modern city planner would like to see it. Hierapolis nearby offers the best of hot springs. Laodicea did not have her own water but had a perfect aqueduct system that carried water from a long distance. The water was neither hot like that of Hierapolis, nor cold like that of Colosse. It was lukewarm, and so was the condition of the church that used it.
The Laodiceans used their riches to build two large theaters and a great stadium, all with a seating capacity of tens of thousands. These are still visible but are deteriorating. No systematic archaeological excavation and no renovation is being done; great archaeological wealth lies waiting. It would be worthwhile for a group of Christian archaeologists and students to secure permission from the Turkish government and camp in Laodicea one summer, to excavate and to witness to the people living nearby. Common labor can be secured for a dollar a day.
No Christian can visit Laodicea without sadness of heart. On a Lord’s Day morning our small group held an informal service pondering the message to that church. Immediately a group of peasants came near and stood around us. We made a few remarks on the Word, prayed, sang, and offered them Gospel portions in their language. Before leaving, I pointed to the ruins and asked: “What are these?” One of them gave us a quick and simple answer: “Tash” (stones). Gone are the riches, wealth, and fame of Laodicea! Not even its memory is preserved for the dwellers nearby. Christ had declared to the church, “Because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I am going to spew you out of my mouth.” May the Church of Christ today be spared a similar judgment!
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more