The seven cities of the churches addressed were all located in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). A basic knowledge of each city brings the situation of each church into focus. The seven churches do not represent the church universal in the various ages of history. In other words, the church at Laodicea does not signify the church of the last days. However, praise and blame given to each church are certainly representative of the church in any age.
At the end of the first century Ephesus could legitimately lay claim as the most important city in Asia Minor. It was a significant commercial and export location in the region. The church's significant witness in Ephesus is found in its intolerance of evil. The congregation has not been afraid to stand for what is right and they have not grown tired in the face of difficulty. The problem with such a decisive witness is that it can breed an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. The Ephesian Christians have "abandoned the love you had at first" (2:4). Such a charge is very serious. A church motivated more by rooting out evil than by love will cease to be a church.
Any evidence for the identity of the Nicolaitans is purely circumstantial, but in the letter to the church at Pergamum two characteristics of the group are mentioned-- they eat food sacrificed to idols and they practice sexual immorality.
Smyrna is the only city of the seven addressed that is still in existence (modern Izmir). Smyrna had the largest theater in Asia Minor and also prided itself as the home of a vast library and a great stadium. Apparently, a portion of the Jewish population of Smyrna joined with Roman officials to oppress the Christians there. We do not know the nature of the oppression other than it is referred to as "slander." The Romans exempted Jews from emperor worship because of their strict monotheism, and it seems for a while Christians fell under that exemption as they were viewed as nothing more than a sect of Judaism. But as the tensions between the church and the synagogue intensified over the decades, it appears that the synagogue had a stake in distinguishing itself from the church. And as the Gentile population of the church grew, its status as a Jewish sectarian movement was questioned by the Romans.
The Smyrnans are promised "the crown of life" if they are "faithful until death." This crown does not signify royalty (Greek; diadema), but victory (Greek; stephanos) which was the laurel wreath awarded in athletic competitions.
The library at Pergamum boasted a collection of over 200,000 volumes. The upper shelf of the city was home to impressive royal buildings, including a massive altar to the god Zeus. Most significantly, Pergamum was the official center in Asia for the imperial cult, the worship of the emperor. The reference to Christ being the sharp two-edged sword may be a veiled reference to the emperor's power to impose capital punishment as the "right-side of the sword." To call Jesus the sharp two-edged sword is to undermine the emperor's claim of power over life and of death. In actuality, it is Jesus who alone has such authority. The official seat of imperial worship is where "Satan makes his throne" and "where Satan lives."
Unlike the Ephesians, who have resisted and opposed the teachings of the Nicolaitans, such teaching seems to have infiltrated, to some extent, into the ranks of the church at Pergamum. The church is warned to repent or God will take action by way of the truth.
Those who conquer will receive hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written on it. There was a belief among some Jews that the manna hidden in the Ark of the Covenant would be revealed in the messianic age. What to make of what is being said in reference to the hidden manna is difficult. The meaning of the white stone is also not clear. It was a courtroom practice of the time (though not universally) for the jury to vote for the defendant's guilt with a black stone and for innocence with a white one. To have a new name inscribed on the stone is reminiscent of a thread which runs throughout Scripture in which to name someone is to have power over that person. From the early chapters of Genesis we are told that God desires to name humanity as his, but that men and women continue to want to name themselves by going their own way.