In 95 A.D., the same year he was exiled to the island of Patmos by Roman Emperor Domitian, the apostle John is given a vision directly by God. He is also told to perform a simple but profound task, which was to WRITE:
"I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying, 'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,' and, 'What you see, WRITE in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia . . . ' " (Revelation 1:10-11, NKJV throughout unless stated)
"WRITE the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this." (Rev. 1:19)
"Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, "WRITE: 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.'" " (Rev. 14:13)
"Then he (an angel) said to me (John), "WRITE: 'Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!'" And he said to me, "These are the true sayings of God." " (Rev. 19:9)
"Now I (John) saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God . . .'
"Then He who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new.' And He said to me, 'WRITE, for these words are true and faithful.' " (Rev. 21:1, 3, 5)
The seven churches, mentioned in chapters 2 and 3, were actual first century Christian fellowships that existed along a mail route. Each city where a particular church resided had its own unique characteristics, some of which offered challenges and temptations to those who were believers.
For many years during the Roman period Ephesus was the largest city in the Empire second only to Rome. In the first century it had a population of more than 250,000, which also made it the second largest city in the world.
Ephesus was famous for possessing the pagan Temple of Diana, which is now considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The fanatical zealousness of those who worshipped this false god was known all too well by the Apostle Paul:
"And about that time there arose (in Ephesus) a great commotion about the Way (the way of life of a true Christian). For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no small profit to the craftsmen.
"He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said: 'Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship.'
"Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, 'Great is Diana of the Ephesians!' . . . " (Acts 19:23-28)
Smyrna was located at a strategic point along the Aegean coast. The city boasted the largest marketplace (Agora) of its kind in the world. Results of newer excavations of the Agora have shown the city was immersed in the worship of false gods. An altar to Zeus was discovered, as well as statues of Greek gods such as Hermes, Eros (the god of love (sex) from which we get the word Erotic) and Heracles.
Pergamos was the administrative center of Asia and the center of Caesar worship for the whole province. People in the city were required to worship Caesar or die. Additionally, the city contained the Great Altar of Pergamon, which displayed the likeness of Zeus (the king of the Greek gods) and a battle between giants and Olympian gods. This giant pagan altar was likely what was being referred to when God told the church he knew they lived "where Satan's throne is." (Revelation 2:13).
Thyatira was a trading town that was famous for its dyeing and was a center of the indigo trade. Among the city's ruins have been found inscriptions relating to Thyatira's guild of dyers. There are more guilds known to have been in Thyatira than in any other city in Asia Minor.
The inhabitants of Sardis bore an ill repute among the ancients for their voluptuous modes of life. The city is believed to have been the first place in the area that was converted by the apostle John's preaching. It also, however, may have been the first city that revolted from Christianity and one of the first that was laid to ruins.
Philadelphia was in the administrative district of Sardis and had a history of earthquakes.
Laodicea was originally called Diospolis (which means "city of Zeus"). It was one of the most important and flourishing cities of Asia Minor. The city minted its own coins, the inscriptions of which show evidence of the worship of Zeus, Apollo and the emperors. Laodicea, like Philadelphia, suffered from earthquakes.