It’s important to remember that we have very little concrete historical evidence for any of the churches in these areas or indication as to whether or not they heeded the Lord’s warnings and repented. This is largely due to the status of the church as persecuted until 312 a.d.
Christians flourished and grew all throughout Asia Minor, but obviously never attained any political or economic status until Constantine came to power. So it would be unwise to say anything about their spiritual status prior to that date given the fact that they were all very much in the minority and laboring simply to survive. It was an extremely hostile environment. We mustn’t forget that in 249-251 a.d. the emperor Decius issued a decree calling for the extermination of all Christians, something that was renewed under Diocletian in the early 300s.
But we do know a little about them (the best information is found in the Anchor Bible Dictionary), and I thought you might find it interesting.
(1) As for Ephesus, John the Apostle most likely lived there when not exiled on Patmos. We know that Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the church at Ephesus early in the second century a.d., so the church was still present. Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist, was associated with the church at Ephesus well into the middle of the second century. But the city as a whole suffered from the mid second century on. Plagues brought back by Roman troops in the latter half of the second century devastated the place. Worse still were the series of incompetent Roman emperors who wrought havoc in Ephesus well into the third century. Christians were severely persecuted under these emperors. Parthians and Goths also invaded the land and brought difficult times.
Notwithstanding this, the Christian presence in Ephesus continued, especially after the “conversion” of Constantine in 312 when Christianity was made legal. Many of the early debates on Christology and Trinitarianism involved bishops and theologians in Ephesus. My understanding is that the church continued there until overrun by the Muslim invasions of the 7th century. But we don’t know what spiritual condition it was in.
(2) Smyrna remained strong and grew prominent in the years following the letter to her. There is every indication that the church there persevered.
(3) The city of Pergamum did not treat the church well. The persistent influence of the cult of Asclepius made it hard for believers, as paganism was rampant. Julian the Apostate, Roman emperor in the 360’s, persecuted the church intensely. Pergamum as a whole declined after Julian’s death and never recovered. It was devastated by the Islamic invasions of 663 and 716.
(4) Thyatira is recorded as having a thriving civic and social life well into the third century. That doesn’t mean it deteriorated after that, but only that there is only solid archaeological evidence for its early life.
(5) Sardis continued to flourish as a city and the church there grew following Constantine’s “conversion” in 312. We don’t know its spiritual condition but it was present until the Persians attacked in 616, and of course the Islamic invasions of twenty and thirty years later were devastating.
(6) I don’t know much of what happened in Philadelphia, except that it flourished in the mid second century as a center of prophecy. It was probably where Montanism first emerged. Christians in Philadelphia in the second century were apparently quite bold and outspoken.
(7) There is some evidence that Laodicea retained its Christian witness well into the second century a.d. A man by the name of Sagaris, a bishop of Laodicea, suffered martyrdom for his faith sometime between 161 and 167 a.d. In 363 a.d. a church synod was held at Laodicea that established 60 rulings (called the Canons of Laodicea) which were acknowledged by later church councils as a basis for canon law (see The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:231). Toward the end of the 4th century Laodicea also became the seat of government of the newly established province of Phrygia Pacatiana. There was another devastating earthquake in 494 a.d. from which Laodicea seems never to have recovered.
The bottom line is that all Christians, in every province and country, at least until the early fourth century, suffered as a persecuted minority. As I said earlier, they had no political or economic power and were constantly threatened with extermination. I don’t think it can be said with any degree of certainty that the churches there were any worse off or more spiritually lifeless than other churches in other regions. All we know with certainty is that Christianity as a whole in Turkey suffered greatly following the Islamic invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries.
– Sam Storms