Revelation 4:1-11

In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, I was with the exiles at the Chebar River when the heavens opened and I saw visions of God… And inside that were forms of four living creatures… As for the form of their faces: each of the four had a human face, with a lion’s face on the right and a bull’s face on the left, and also an eagle’s face… Above the dome over their heads, there appeared something like lapis lazuli in the form of a throne. Above the throne there was a form that looked like a human being. Above what looked like his waist, I saw something like gleaming amber, something like fire enclosing it all around. Just as a rainbow lights up a cloud on a rainy day, so its brightness shone all around. This was how the form of the LORD’s glory appeared. When I saw it, I fell on my face. I heard the sound of someone speaking (Ezekiel 1:1, 5, 10, 26-28).

The letters to the seven churches end at chapter three of Revelation and the primary apocalyptic vision of John that is the centerpiece of the letter begins here at chapter four. The average reader will easily discover when comparing the first chapter of Ezekiel and the fourth chapter of Revelation that visions of John and Ezekiel share much in common. Many of the descriptions are similar if not the same.

What is also similar is the social location of both visions. Both Ezekiel and John experience the throne room of God while they themselves are in exile. The question people inevitably have to face in exile is the question of control. Who is in control? Is God in charge or will the power that placed us in exile get the final word in our life and in history?

The apocalyptic visions of the prophet Ezekiel and the Apostle John are meant to encourage hope, unmask the present powers, and affirm God’s sovereign authority.

Most biblical scholars argue that John’s throne room vision is to be read theologically and not metaphysically. So the text should be read searching first for its meaning and significance.

1 After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’

The letter to the church in Laodiea ended with an invitation from Christ to hear his voice and to open the door. The voice invited John to enter through that door and he obeyed.

It is not uncommon for people to think of heaven as somewhere way above the earth. Popular understanidngs of heaven often include clouds and other references to things far above humankind. But more often than not the Scriptural description of heaven is not “way up there” but rather all around but not fully perceived. Heaven is the place where God reigns and that reign surrounds human history at all times, even though people may not want to recognize it.

It helps me to borrow the imagination of C.S. Lewis’ well-known vision of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Narnia – the realm of Aslan’s reign – is not far above but simply on the other side of the wardrobe. In the case of the Revelator, the vision of heaven is not far above but right beyond the open door.

Because heaven is the place where God reigns, it is also the control-room of history. This does not mean that God is determining the course of history from heaven and manipulating people by pulling all of the strings like somekind of puppet master. Rather heaven is the place where ultimate divine authority is at work. God is not treatened by the course of hisotry “on the other side of heaven’s door” because he is drawing all things, through sovereign love, unto himself.

2 At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3 And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.

At the center of heaven is a throne. Like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, John is fascinated with the ultimate throne of power in heaven and with the One seated on that throne. Three out of four occurances of the word throne in the New Testament (47 out of 62) are found in Revelation.

John does not describe the One who is seated on the throne in direct human terms. The One in authority is truly transcendent. He exceeds any human quality or explanation. John’s throne room vision frequently uses the words “seems” or “looks like” to acknowledge that the One seated in heaven surpasses all exact descriptions. Many of the metaphors about God are of light reflected off fine jewels and stones. What John sees is not his exact appearance but his glory radiating in an array of beautiful colors.

The rainbow around the throne is also found in Ezekiel, in both places it may be a reference to the covenant God made with Noah to which God is still remaining faithful.

4 Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads.

There are a multitude of interpretations regarding the twenty-four elders seated on thrones. One popular understanding is that they represent all of the hours in the day. If that is the case, then the signficance would be God’s non-stop authority over every hour of the day.

But the most popular interpretation, and the one that is found in Victorinus – the earliest known commentary on Revelation – is that the twenty-four elders represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. In this way the elders are the embodiment of the entire church – old and new. This identification would seem to be confirmed in chapter twenty-four where John describes the gates of the new Jerusalem as inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes, and the foundation walls bear the names of the twelve apostles (21:12, 14).

The twenty-four elders are dressed in the white robes of the baptized saints and they too have crowns on their heads and sit on thrones of authority. It is always theologically significant that the power of the Creator is a form of shared sovereignty. God has invited the church to participate in his redemption and to share in his domionion over creation. The people of the church are not by-standers in God’s work but participants in his reign.

5 Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6 and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,

‘Holy, holy, holy,

the Lord God the Almighty,

who was and is and is to come.’

The thunder and lightning around the throne are reminicent of God self-revelation to Moses at Sinai. They are reminders of God’s authority.

But God is not distant and inactive on the created side of the divide. His complete power – seven torches – and his complete presence – seven spirits – are filling not only all of heaven but all of creation. It is amazing the way John works to describe simultaneously the reality of God’s transendence with the mystery of his immanent presence.

The sea of glass may be taken directly from Ezekiel chapter one where the throne is found directly above the dome described there. But I can’t think of water without thinking about chaos (and the Hebrew words found in Genesis chapter one – Tohu Bohu). The sea which was such a forboding place of fear on earth, is now a sea of crystal and is as calm as glass before the authority and power of God.

The four living creatures are similar to those described by Ezekiel. There are again many theories or interpretations abou them. Some commentators have argued that they represent the four Gospels. But given John’s historical location, that seems somewhat improbable. The most popular and most plausible interpretation is that the four creatures represent the major categories of living things in God’s creation: wild animals, domestic animals, humankind, and flying animals. All that God has created participates in worship back to their Creator. (Think the Doxology: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God Almighty. All thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea…”)

9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, 11 ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’

While John was in exile fearful of the future, he received a glimpse of the heavenly control room. What was taking place – and what is still taking place – is worship. The entire creation finds its purpose when it is centered on the one who sits on the throne.

Several biblical scholars draw attention to the fact that the first words of the hymn in verse eleven are taken from the political language of the day: “You are worthy” greeted the entrance of the emperor in triumphal procession, and “our Lord and God” was introduced into the cult of emperor worship by Emperor Domitian.

For the Christian only the One who sits on the heavenly throne is worthy to receive glory and honor and power. All other claims to ultimate authority are blasphemous. From the perspective of the powers, then, the worship of the true God cannot help but be a profoundly subversive act. The people called “church” are those that refuse to allow the principalities and powers to have the final word in history. Rather, they are those who are already caught up in the worship of the One who was, and is, and is to come.

This vision gives those who are struggling hope. It gives those who are tempted to compromise their exclusive covenant relationship with God encouragement to remain faithful. And to those who live under the illusion that they wield supreme authority, it serves as a warning that, “He who sits in the heavens laughs” (Ps. 2:4).

The Letter to Sardis: Revelation 3:1-6

Sardis was a prosperous city that by the end of the first century had seen better days. Of the seven churches, Sardis was the most protected. The cliff upon which the city was built gave it only one major access route and thus made the gates of the city easy to protect. When armies tried to attack the city they were always pushed away.

Sardis had never been taken captive as a city by direct assault.  However, twice in its history, 549 and 195 BCE, it had been conquered and its leader deposed by enemies who found a “chink in the armor” and were able to scale the cliffs and find a way into the city through a small access hole in the wall. In both cases while the city slept in the knowledge that its gates were secure, the citizens of Sardis awoke to find that they were under surprise attack. In 549 Cyrus captured Sardis by sending a climber up a crevice on one of the nearly perpendicular cliffs on one side of the city. In 195 Lagoras of Crete led fifteen men through the same entry point, opened the gates of the city from within, and allowed the armies of Antiochus the Great to capture the sleeping city. In poetry and wisdom literature of the day, Sardis had become synonymous with the dangers of over-confidence, pride, and arrogance. The history of Sardis demonstrated the need to be aware of enemies who come “like a thief in the night” (3:3).

By the first century the glory days of Sardis were in the past. In the sixth century BCE it had been the capital city of the kingdom of Lydia and later a center of Persian government. Although Sardis was no longer a major power center it was still the meeting place of several trade routes and it prospered from the fertile valley that lay below it. Ramsay describes it as, “A city of the past, a relic of the period of barbaric warfare, which lived rather on its ancient prestige than on its suitability to present conditions.” The people of Sardis were well known in the time of the Revelator for their luxurious and loose way of life. A city of decadence, Gonzalez writes that, “All in all, it probably was a comfortable but unexciting place to live.”

The Revelator’s letter to the church in Sardis is rather brief, however when it is contrasted to the other letters we may learn as much from what is not included in the letter to Sardis as we do from what is included. Unlike the circumstances faced by the other six churches, in this letter there is no mention of persecution, no reference to the danger of heresy, and no allusion to Jewish opposition to the church. It would appear that Sardis is unique among the seven churches in that it is not faced with any of the trials of its sister congregations.

3:1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.

The words of the Revelator, “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead” (2:1) paint a “picture of nominal Christianity, outwardly prosperous, busy with the externals of religious activity, but devoid of spiritual life and power.”

Sardis was coasting on its past glories and achievements with the same kind of assurance that the sentinels guarding the gate of Sardis must have felt before the city was taken by surprise.

This letter reminds me of the words of the prophet Ezekiel regarding the root sin of Sodom. Sodom is best known from the story of Lot in the book of Genesis for its grotesque sexuality and its obvious violence, but in Ezekiel chapter sixteen Israel is warned that they are participating in not only the sin of Sodom but they are also risking the judgment of Sodom as well.

As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it (Ezek. 16:48-50).

Sardis had the reputation of spiritual life and vitality, but in the sight of God it was dead. As Ramsay suggests, “The Church here is addressed, apparently with the set purpose of suggesting that the fortunes of ancient Sardis had been its own fortunes, that it had endured those sieges, committed those faults of carelessness and blind confidence, and sunk into the same decay and death as the city.” The church of Sardis was not alive enough to have enemies or confront heresy. It had simply become the model of non-offensive Christian faith.

 

Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. 3 Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.

All is not lost in Sardis. The message to the church contains four urgent commands from the Lord of the churches. These imperatives are a gift of grace. If death was the final word for the church captured by the spirit of apathetic faith no commands would be necessary, but the power of God that resurrected Jesus from the dead also makes it possible for the dead church to live again.

The first command is for the church to “wake up” (2:2). A more literal translation for “wake up” would be “keep watching.” Given the city’s history of vulnerability to surprise attack this command seems particularly relevant for the church in Sardis. The Christians in Sardis were participating in what Lutheran scholar Gerhard Krodel calls “ecclesiastical sleepwalking” but there is still time to wake up. The letter warns Sardis that the intruder it must prepare for is the Lord himself. “I will come like a thief,” says the Lord, “and I will come to you” (3:3). “Christ comes to rob them of the complacency that they mistake for true security.”

 

The second command is to “strengthen what remains” (3:2). If the church is near the point of death, what remains? Most likely it is the external forms of the Christian life – worship, rituals, disciplines, practices, fellowship – that are left in Sardis. We are often critical of the forms or structures of the church’s life together and there are certainly important moments in the life the church when we should analyze the effectiveness and relevancy of our routines, but it would appear that the Revelator is not critical of the forms that remain in Sardis as much as he is wary of the spirit with which they are lived out. What Sardis needs is not new forms as much as renewed filling of God’s Spirit.

The church is then called to, “Remember then what you received and heard” (3:3). The remembering that Sardis needs to do is a special kind of remembering. The kind of memory it had been keeping is a glorification of the past. Living solely in the past often causes the church to become stagnant as it dwells on all that has gone on before. The kind of remembering Sardis needed to do is the recalling of the presence of God that enlivened and gave power in the challenges of the past so that they could have faith to move forward into God’s future.

I am reminded here of the great faith chapter of Hebrews eleven. In that chapter the stories of the heroes of faith – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets – are recounted as part of the great cloud of witnesses to the life of faith. But these models of faith are not remembered so that the early church can glory in its past but so that they too, “could run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).

It is very easy for communities of faith to fall into the wrong kind of remembering. The wondrous work of God in the past can often become a point of reference not for future faith but for stagnant reminiscing. Sometimes when I hear churches rehearse the great days of their past I’m reminded of the words to Bruce Springsteen’s song Glory Days.

Now I think I’m going down to the well tonight

And I’m going to drink till I get my fill.

And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it,

But I probably will.

Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture a little of the glory of,

Well time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister

But boring stories of – glory days.

The stories of the church’s glory days may be taking place in hallways and board meetings rather than at “the well,” but nevertheless the church is called to a unique form of memory that does not simply dwell on God’s past work but remembers his power in order to help the congregation fulfill the fourth command given in the letter to the church – to “obey” what it has heard. Again like the believers to whom Hebrews is written, the church in Sardis needs to remember the great moments of faith in the past so that they can now, “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather healed” (Heb. 12:12-13).

The church is then called to “repent” (3:3). The letter to Sardis makes reference to some “who have not soiled their clothes” but instead walk with the Lord “dressed in white” (3:4). Those, however, who hear the word of the Lord and conquer the spirit of spiritual apathy “will be clothed like them in white robes” (3:5). These references to white, clean garments are almost certainly connected to the early church’s practice of dressing believers in white robes as they left the waters of baptism, symbolizing the beginning of the new life that they had received in Christ. It is not too late for the apathetic church. The change that they need to make is not radical, they simply need to remember what they already are – new creations in Christ Jesus. As the reformer Martin Luther would cry out when he was tempted – “I am baptized!” – the church in Sardis needs to remember what God had already formed them to be and return to the life of newness to which it had been called.

Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. 6 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

The renewal of the Sardis church will more than likely include risk. The Revelator writes that if the church can overcome their spirit of apathy, “I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels” (3:5). It is quite possible that the reference to the “book of life” is an allusion to the citizenship registries that were common in the Roman world. Some scholars have suggested that it is perhaps the case that the church in Sardis had gained acceptance in the culture by attempting to fit into the system and by at times denying the name of Christ. It may be that the faithful few of Sardis faced being removed from citizenship in the city, but Christ assures them that they will not be removed from the Father’s book of life. To awaken from complacency with the culture and with the city may mean that the Christians at Sardis risk being stricken from the city records of citizenship.  However, the Spirit is calling them to seek Kingdom citizenship first and to find their lives recorded and written into God’s on-going history.

I am reminded of the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that the church is called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. “But if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (Mt. 5:13). Unfortunately, it does not appear historically that the saltiness of a passionate faith was ever restored in Sardis. Ramsay writes that, “Sardis today is a wilderness of ruins and thorns, pastures and wild-flowers, where the only habitations are a few huts of Yuruk nomads beside the temple of Cybele in the low ground by the Pactolus, and at the distance of a mile two modern houses by the railway station.” There are many churches in North America that are in danger of becoming a vacant reminder of better days. For the people of God, the best days are always ahead of us, not because of who we are, but because of the God who calls us into his future.

The Letter to Thyatira: Revelation 2:18-29

 

The letter to the church in Thyatira is the longest and in some ways most difficult of the seven letters. It is interesting that this is the longest letter given that of the seven cities it was the least impressive politically and economically. Thyatira began as a military outpost at the intersection of several roads.  Conspicuous for having access to a strong bronze ore, the artisans of the city became well known for making impressive weapons.

The extended peace of Rome allowed Thyatira to move from a culture of war to a culture of trade. Thyatira especially became the center for several trade-guilds.  We know through archaeology of the following trade-guilds that met regularly in Thyatira: wool-workers, linen-workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leather-workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave-dealers, and bronze-smiths.

The spiritual problem that arose in Thyatira was likely connected to the pagan nature of these guild meetings. The guild meetings not only included many pagan and idolatrous elements, but wild partying and open sexual immorality also accompanied them. It would have been almost impossible for citizens of Thyatira to participate in the economy of the city without also participating in the guild meetings.

Highly influenced by the moral and sexual laxity of Roman culture, in the spirit of “what happens at in Thyatira stays in Thyatira,” these events were almost always filled with wild and drunken partying. As William Barclay writes, “The problem which faced every Christian in Thyatira was whether they were to make money or to be Christians.”

18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze:

The one who judges the church in Thyatira has the kind of eyes that burns and purifies. Like the purification and shaping of the bronze for which Thyatira was well known, the one who stands in authority of the churches intends to purify them.

19 “I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. 20 But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 

The problem in Thyatira was apparently a woman within the congregation who began to have great influence as a prophetess and teacher.  In the Old Testament Jezebel led the people into idolatry. Like the Nicolaitans who appeared in the letters to Ephesus and Pergamum, she was likely encouraging the Christians to participate more fully in the guilds of the city by denying the connection of the body and soul together. It is important for the reader to understand that her presence and her arguments were very subtle and so not clearly “outside” or obviously out-of-bounds for believers.  Given the division between the kingdom and the world that runs through the center of each person, the teaching of “Jezebel” can begin to make sense.

Here are the kinds of arguments that Jezebel was likely making:

  • The rituals of the guilds aren’t really meaningful to even the pagans.  They have become mere ritual.
  • We know the gods are nothing.
  • Participation gives us the opportunity to be a positive influence.
  • Our spirit matters more than our body.
  • If we do not participate we will not only be persecuted and left out, we will lose all relevance to the city and the guilds.

The tension is the very real – everyday – question of fitting in to the culture and prospering or living as a faithful witness to the kingdom and accepting whatever costs come with faithfulness.

21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22 Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. 

The Revelator has several responses to the tempting teaching of “Jezebel.” “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent her fornications” (2:21). The one who “has eyes like a flame of fire” (2:18) is merciful even to Jezebel and gave her time to repent. But she remains unfaithful. It is quite possible given the sexual nature of the guild festivities to take the inference to fornication quite literally. However, it is far more likely that John is joining the OT prophets in comparing the people to God to an unfaithful spouse.

The judgment on Jezebel is most likely a reference to the banquet couches upon which those who attended the guild feasts would have reclined. It is stark language. The couches or beds that are currently associated with partying and wild living will instead become associated with the distress and brokenness that they represent for Jezebel and her children – those following her teaching. This is an important aspect of the gospel. The narrow road is the road where life is found. But the broad road of accommodation to the culture looks like the right road but it always leads to brokenness and the life far from the life God created people to live.

The cost of faithfulness is not a matter of suffering now as the people of God so that we can experience the “good life” in heaven. The cost comes from witnessing to the “good life” now in a world that does not always understand nor embody God’s good purposes. The cost of discipleship is not delayed gratification but the cost of witness.

24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call ‘the deep things of Satan,’ to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; 25 only hold fast to what you have until I come. 

The phrase “deep things of Satan” is perplexing for scholars. It is likely that those who were following the teachings of “Jezebel” prided themselves on being wiser or more sophisticated than those who were remaining faithful. (They also may have been Gnostics pursuing the “secret knowledge” of the spirit). This is often the case for the faithful that not participating in the power and licentiousness of the culture feels like being left out of something. Especially for the young in the body of Christ it often feels like uniqueness is especially challenging when “everybody is doing it.” But these “deep things” do not lead to greater knowledge but to greater destruction.

26 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations; 27 to rule them with an iron rod,
as when clay pots are shattered— 28 even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. 29 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

In the letter to Pergamum we saw the contrast between the city that had been empowered to “bear the sword” for the Empire and Christ, the one who bears the two-edged sword.  Here the weapon is not a weapon of war but of commerce – the rod of iron.  The question is: who has the power of life and economy?  In other words, God may be Lord of the nations (armies), but is he also Lord over economies?

The answer seems to be that believers must trust in the one who has the power to crush all of the “clay pots” – the vessels made by human hands – of the world of business. The letter to Thyatira is important for us to hear because we all have a tendency to separate our lives into segments.  We separate the spiritual and the economic.  But for God there is no separation.

Thus, here is the problem for Jezebel and the Christians of Thyatira, God doesn’t divide our lives between the physical and the spiritual or the sacred and the secular.  God doesn’t allow us to segment our lives that way.  We don’t get to say, this is the business part of my life, this is my family part, this is my spiritual part, etc.  Although we at times may wear different hats of responsibility, God sees our life as a unified whole.  For God you can’t say, “It’s not spiritual, it’s business” because it all belongs to him.

The Letter to Pergamum: Revelation 2:12-17

Pergamum is located about sixteen miles from the Aegean Sea. It was not as important an economic or commercial center as Ephesus or Smyrna, but it was an important religious center. The city contained temples to Zeus, Athena, Dionysos, and Asklepios. It boasted one of the world’s greatest libraries. It was so famous, in fact, that the word “parchment” is derived from its name.

2:12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword

This letter is one that mentions specific persecution. In a city like Pergamum, which served as the capital of the province and a center for emperor worship, the local authorities would bear the “right of the sword” to execute at will those who might rebel against imperial authority. But here it is the sovereign Christ who possesses the double-edged sword of final judgment. John mentions the sword that protrudes out of the mouth of Christ earlier in 1:16.

Many scholars point to the significance of the sword’s location: the mouth. The sword of Christ is not a sword that brings violent destruction like the sword Caesar carries in his hand. It is the sword that brings truth and discernment. Certainly the central issue for Pergamum is “witness.” They are being called to be a witness for Christ. But the kind of witness they are matters. Their call is not to respond to the empire with its weapons, rather they are – like Christ – to bear the sword of truth.

Serving Christ rather than Caesar is central. But how one respond to their enemy is part of the way one witnesses to the rule of Christ.

13 I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.

There is great speculation over the meaning of the term “Satan’s throne.” Here is a good description from Carol Rotz: “Several historical possibilities have been suggested: the temple of Augustus and Roma that may have been built at the foot of the acropolis at Pergamum; the altar of Zeus; the proconsul’s bench where he sat to judge; the temple of Asklepios who was designated Savior and whose symbol was the serpent; or Pergamum as a center of Christian persecution, the Imperial cult, or Greco-Roman culture. It may even refer to the uniquely shaped major hill (acropolis) in the city. Whatever the specific reference, the threat to Christianity is clear. There is a rival throne to that of God and the Lamb” (Rotz, 70).

In the Scripture Satan is always seen as the great accuser. He is viewed as the one who, as in the case of Job, tests the faith and commitment of the people of God. It seems likely, given the political and cultural climate of Pergamum, that the faithful there will continually have their faith tested.

John mentions the likely martyrdom of Antipas in Pergamum. Antipas is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible and so we are left to theorize about the circumstances of his life and death. Some scholars have speculated that the unusual name Antipas was given to this person originally in honor of Herod Antipas – the son of Herod the Great who reigned over Galilee during the time of Christ’s ministry. Thus, it may be the case that Antipas the martyr was a radical convert from allegiance to Rome to commitment to Christ.

New Testament scholar Bruce Longenecker has written an amazing little book around the character Antipas entitled The Lost Letters of Pergamum. The book is a series of fictional letters between Antipas and Luke. In Longenecker’s tale Antipas is building a great library (which existed) in Pergamum in honor of the emperor and would like to add Luke’s writings to the library. Through the reading of Luke’s gospel and then later Acts he becomes interested in Jesus and begins meeting with a couple of local gatherings of believers in order to learn more about this unusual carpenter from Nazareth.

One of the “churches” Antipas meets with is quite accommodated to the culture surrounding it. The people there are interested in Jesus as a moral teacher, but find many of his ideas about wealth and power antiquated. The other house meeting that he encounters is quite different. The culturally elite leader of the meeting serves the lower class members, and there is a bond between them that both fascinates and convicts Antipas.The members of the second church are put on trial for disloyalty and Antipas chooses to die in their place.

I highly recommend the book not just for its interesting narrative value but because Longenecker does such an amazing job of describing what life would have been like in the first century for Christians in places like Pergamum.

14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. 15 So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

The letter to Pergamum seems to be the inverse of the letter to Ephesus. The Ephesian Christians became so focused on standing up against false teaching and pagan practice that they lost their essence of love. Pergamum, on the other hand, struggled with living so close to the culture that its life was accommodated to the values of the culture and its witness was in danger of being lost.

The story of Balaam is found in Numbers chapter 22. He led the Israelites astray by consorting with the daughters of Moab. John uses this image to describe the work of the Nicolaitans (mentioned also in the letter to Ephesus). The primary issue apparently has to with meat sacrificed to idols. Meat was frequently sacrificed to the local gods at pagan feasts before being shared with the public or sold in the open market. This issue had been important in the ministry of the apostle Paul as well.

“Fornication” in this text may refer simply to a lack of fidelity to God. In the Scriptures running after idols is often thought of in terms of marriage or covenant fidelity. To worship other gods is frequently described as a lack of marital fidelity to God (see for example Hosea). But it also in this case may imply that some who were participating in the cultic worship practices of Pergamum – like the festivals where the meat was sacrificed to the idols – were also entering into the physical and highly immoral acts that surrounded those pagan feasts.

16 Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.

The promise of Christ is that his judgment will come, but those who keep fidelity to him will receive hidden manna and a white stone. During the time of Balaam the Israelites were being fed with manna. Like the young men of Judah living in Babylon who refused to eat at the king’s table but were fed by God’s blessing, those who avoid being accommodated to the practices surrounding the meat sacrificed idols will be fed not only by Christ’s presence but ultimately by his eschatological feast.

The white stone may refer to the tessera that is the ancient equivalent of a ticket used for admission to public festivals. Avoiding accommodation to the first century culture may lead to alienation, but those who are faithful are promised admission to the messianic feast. Johnson argues that, “The interpretation that makes the best sense to me is the so called tessera hospitalis. When two friends were about the part they would divide a white stone in half. Each friend would inscribe his or her name on one of the halves and give it to the other. It became the symbol of their friendship and the symbol of their promise to maintain that friendship as long as the stone lasted. Jesus is promising intimate friendship to those who overcome. His name on my half. My name written on his half. It is my new name that he writes – my new identity that he gives me” (Johnson, 86).

The Letter to Ephesus: Revelation 2:1-7

Exploring Revelation 2:1-7

Chapters two and three of Revelation contain seven letters addressed to the seven churches that made up the most popular trade route through Asia. Although these seven brief passages are referred to as “letters” they are really more like seven messages or oracles that are proclaimed by Christ to the churches through John the Revelator.

2:1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:

One of the fascinating questions about Revelation 2-3 is why each letter is addressed to the “angel” of the particular churches. There are three possibilities. The first is that the letters are simply addressed to the messenger or pastor at each congregation. The Greek word for angel is the same as the word for messenger. However, it seems clear that the message in the letter is not addressed only to the leaders of the churches but to the church as a whole.

A second possibility is that John is addressing a spiritual entity that has either been assigned by God to care for each congregation or that has taken captive each church. But that seems highly unlikely contextually and would be a very unusual use of the term given the rest of the Scripture.

The majority of NT scholars offer a third alternative. They argue that the word “angel” is to be taken metaphorically as a way of describing the ‘ethos’ or ‘spirit’ of each church. In the same way that when all of parts of a human body come together a person becomes more than the sum of their parts, so too a community of individuals takes on a unique ethos or spirit that is more than the sum of its parts. The letter to Ephesus is addressed to all of the people who make up the church there, but the Lord wants to address the ethos or spirit that is emerging from their life together.

At around the time Revelation was written (approximately 95AD) the population of Ephesus was about 225,000. Although that would not be considered a major city today compared to New York or Los Angeles, in the first century that population size made Ephesus a major cosmopolitan center of culture and commerce. It is by far the largest of the seven cities addressed in Revelation 2-3. It was a major center of both cultic and emperor worship. The highlight of the city was the temple to Artemis (in Greek) or Diana (in Latin) [pictured]. The temple to this well-known and highly honored goddess of fertility was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

We can piece together from other sections of the Scripture that the church in Ephesus began under the influence of Aquila and Priscilla about AD 52 when Paul left them there on his way from Corinth to Antioch (see Acts 18:18-22). On his next missionary journey, Paul remained in Ephesus for more than two years (see Acts 19:8, 10) and sometime later Timothy ministered there (1 Tim 1:3). But it is also believed that prior to being exiled to Patmos, Ephesus was home for the apostle John and was the center of his ministry for a number of years.

“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3 I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 

Jesus Christ, through the Revelator, praises the church in Ephesus for the very quality that we saw in chapter one as the primary virtue of the book of Revelation – patient endurance. They were living in the midst of perhaps the most challenging city in “Babylon” (or Rome) in which to maintain faith, and yet they were working diligently and enduring in the faith with great patience.

There certainly would have been many challenges to keeping faith in first-century Ephesus. Perhaps more so than any other city of the day, Ephesus was the center of cultural change. Located on four different water passages, every known culture and language would pass through Ephesus in pursuit of economic trade. The affluence of Ephesus would have posed a significant temptation to faithful discipleship. But most challenging would have been the lure of the pagan and nationalistic rituals that filled the temples in the city. As William Barclay comments, “The worship of the temple was a weird, ecstatic, hysterical business. To the accompaniments of shouts and wailings, the burning of incense and the playing on the flute, the worshippers worked themselves up into an emotional and hysterical frenzy in which the darkest and most shameless things could and did happen” (Barclay, 5).

The paganism of Ephesus pervaded every aspect of life in the city, including day-to-day economics. You may remember that the Apostle Paul was forced to leave the city because his preaching had begun to affect the sales of miniature statues of Artemis or Diana. Imagine what gambling means to Las Vegas, Nevada, what Walmart means to Bentonville, Arkansas or what Kellogg’s cereal means to Battle Creek, Michigan and it would be getting close to the pervasive nature of the cultic practices that filled Ephesus.

Historically, whenever the Christian church has found itself in the midst of rapid cultural change, and especially as it has found itself in the urban centers of secular culture, it has been forced to create “filters of orthodoxy.” The Ephesian church worked diligently and patiently at discerning the false from the true, the holy from the profane. They were praised for using their filters of orthodoxy to keep the faith pure in a time of great challenge.

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

The majority of NT scholars connect the rebuke in verses 4-5 to the praises mentioned in verses 2-3. In the process of developing great filters of orthodoxy, the Ephesians had lost the centrality of Christian love for Christ and for one another that had connected them in the first place. “The Ephesian converts had known such a love in their early years; but their struggle with false teachers and their hatred of heretical teaching had apparently engendered hard feelings and harsh attitudes toward one another to such an extent that it amounted to a forsaking of the supreme Christian virtue of love” (Ladd, 39).

This loss of Christian love is not a small matter. If the Ephesian church does not recover their connection of love they will be removed from the lampstand of the churches. The threat here is reminiscent of Paul’s concern for the Corinthian church in the great love chapter – 1 Corinthians 13. One may have amazing spiritual gifts, passionate spiritual devotion, and world-shaking Christian faith, but if it is not accompanied by love, it is nothing. I might paraphrase this letter to the Ephesian church this way, “If you stand up against the heretical threats to the church’s doctrine with the most sophisticated lenses of orthodoxy and discernment you can create, but don’t have love, you are the gatekeepers of ideas but you are not the church that reflects the life of the one who walks among the lampstands.”

6 Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

The exact nature of the Nicolaitans’ teachings is a mystery for historians. It is most likely that they were teaching some form of either Gnosticism or antinomianism. Gnostics taught a radical separation of the soul and body. The goal of Gnosticism was to find the secret knowledge (“gnosis” means knowledge) that would help the soul escape the body and enter into the realm of the spirit. Antinomianism means anti-law. Some took the early church’s rejection of Torah (the Law) as a complete rejection of any ethical standards. The effect was basically the same: a rejection of the unique claims of the faith on the body. For Gnostics, as long as one’s spirit was connected to God, one could do whatever they wanted with the body. For antinomians, living wildly could be claimed to be an act of faith demonstrating how truly free one now was from the law.

If this is indeed the nature of the Nicolaitans, it is clear that this form of teaching is to be rejected. Like the church in Ephesus, the contemporary church located in the midst of a culture of rapid change has to find that balance between grace and truth that Jesus embodied perfectly in his life. Loving discernment, convicted civility, and a generous orthodoxy are all ways that some contemporary theologians have tried to describe the life Christ implores the Ephesian church to discover.

Grace without conviction becomes sentimentality. Truth without love becomes legalism. The angel of the church honors Christ when it is empowered by his Spirit to embody grace and truth.

7 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

There is a great deal of debate about what the meaning of the “tree of life” is here in this text. Because many of the believers in Ephesus were not Jewish there is some question as to whether or not John intends to make a reference to the tree of life in Genesis, or whether he is making a reference to the important role that trees played in the cultic religions in Ephesus.

If it is the former, it may mean that the tree of life that was barred from Adam and Eve in the garden is now available to those who will connect with the life-giving Spirit of Christ, now and into eternity. If it is the latter, then the meaning would be that the saints should reject the life offered by the cultic religions and find the abundant and eternal life offered only in relationship to Christ.

It is also possible that the “tree of life” became a way in the early church of describing the cross of Jesus. In this case, it could mean that the church will always find the way of love as it discovers the way of the cross.

Either way, the essence of the promise is that those who discover the loving way of Jesus in the world today, live with the assurance of being part of his eternal kingomd of life and love into eternity.

Revelation 1:1-20

As we begin to study the book of Revelation, we are unfortunately hindered by our limited time together. So I wanted to give you an opportunity to dig some more in your own study. Below is a short verse by verse commentary on the first chapter. My hope is two-fold, First, to do this for as much of the book as I can. Second, since much of our time will be spend looking at the big picture of Revelation, I want to offer you a chance to study Revelation verse by verse. My God bless your study.

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants[a] what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant[c] John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

The genre of Revelation is what is called “apocalyptic literature.” The word revelation comes from the greek word apokalypsis, or apocalypse as we translate in English. Now when we think of Apocalypse we tend to envision something akin to the destruction of the world, but that isn’t accurate to what John is saying or envisioning in Revelation. The world apocalypse literally means “unveiling” or a revealing of what is really the case in the world. So the purpose of Apocalyptic literature is to inspire faithfulness in the church as its people live in a time of temptation.

Apocalyptic Literature was not unfamiliar to the readers of Revelation. So they likely had the tools to decipher John’s cryptic language. The other major section of apocalyptic literature in the Bible comes in the book of Daniel. Daniel was written in a time when the people of Judah lived in exile in Babylon. One of the primary problems the people of God faced in exile, wasn’t violence or persecution, but it was the the attractiveness of Babylon’s life. As they lived in exile, assimilation into the pagan culture surrounding them was quite easy and very tempting. After a full generation in Babylon, it would be easy to believe that the hope of the previous generation, God, is not the real source of life in the world, but the real source of life in the world is instead the wealth and empire of Babylon.

We can see the lure of assimilation in many stories of Daniel. The strong and bright young men of Judah are tempted to eat at the king’s table. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – seemingly alone – recognize the meaning behind paying homage to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue and are thrown into the fiery furnace. And Daniel must either obey the king’s edict regarding prayer or be thrown into the lion’s den. All of these stories are about maintaining the unique faith and practices of being God’s people in the midst of an empire that is attempting to erode that uniqueness. Therefore, Daniel also includes apocalyptic language that helps the faithful be able to have the eyes to see that Babylon is not a nation that is at heart good or by nature eternal. Rather, the apocalypse of Daniel helps the people recognize the coming fall of the empire, the judgment it will face, and the new future God has for his people.

This “revelation” belongs to the Father and the Son and is given to John through a unique heavenly messenger (angelos). The primary point of the message is to reveal or uncover what must soon take place. This line regarding what “must soon take place” has often read as though what is then given to John is a detailed prediction of the immediate (or now distant) future. The weight of biblical scholarship, however, argues that the point of apocalyptic literature is not to give a precise (or even hidden) roadmap to future events so much as it is to reveal the nature of world as it will be discovered in the on-going unrolling of history.

This may seem like a small differentiation, but it is an important one. I often think of apocalyptic literature as less like a roadmap to future events than as a divinely inspired pair of glasses that the faithful put on for a time in order to interpret the world from God’s perspective. Revelation reveals what must take place because it uncovers the truth about the things in which people are tempted to place their trust. For example, Rome may call itself the “Eternal City” but the truth about it is that, like all principalities and powers before and after, it is not eternal but only temporal. Revelation gives the faithful a pair glasses to see the ruins of Rome well before they come into existence. From the perspective of those on earth in the first-century, Rome is a city and empire that is unlike anything the world has ever known. Rome offers people security and wealth, a hope and a future. It purports to be the source of abundant life. But from heaven’s perspective, it is not eternal but incredibly temporal. It’s wealth and power come at the expense of those who get trampled under its weight. It is not the source of life but, more often than not, the purveyor of death. With the right pair of holy, revelatory glasses on, the faithful don’t look at Rome and see the goddess of life, but they instead see a beast that stands under God’s judgment.

This unveiling of the truth shows what “must happen soon.” Revelation reveals the truth of the way things already are under the reign of Christ. From heaven’s perspective Rome already stands under judgment, but soon the curtain will be pulled back and it will be fully revealed.

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.

John’s opening summary ends with the first of seven beatitudes interspersed in the book (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7,14). The selection of seven–the perfect number underscores the fullness of blessing that is given to those who hear and keep what is written in the book (Resseguie, 64). There will be a lot of sevens in Revelation since it is the number the of completion. This particular beatitude encourages the reader to put on their listening ears, and this command is two-fold. First it has to do with how this letter was read in the church. Much like pastors, at least I do, when preaching tell you, “this next part is really good so pay attention.” John is reminding those who hear this letter at their church to pay attention. But, not just to hear the words, but the kind of listening that you take to heart and obey. This theme of listening will continue throughout the book of Revelation. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus pronounces a series of blessings upon those who “will seek first the kingdom of God.” The blessings are quite contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day. People typically killed their enemies. You don’t hear much about people loving their enemies and turning the other cheek to them. However, these counter-cultural blessings offer the wisdom of God’s unique way of life, which runs quite contrary to the life of the world. This word of blessing, in Revelation, assumes that Revelation will be read in such a way that as people hear and understand its call to radical faithfulness their lives will be uniquely blessed by God. John will make it clearer that this blessing may not, and probably will not, include long life and great wealth. Rather, this blessing will primarily consist of knowing that one’s life is rooted in the eternal treasures of God and cannot be taken away.

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Grace and peace we should recognize as a common opening to many of the New Testament letters. Some scholars have suggested the reason letters start that way is because of how it connects both our gentile and jewish connection. The Greek word for Grace, charis, was a familiar phrase for greeting, much like “Hello!” Likewise, the Hebrew word for Peace, shalom, was a familiar Jewish salutation. So grace and peace is a unique merging of the gentile and Jewish culture in the life of the church.

We also can see John’s use of triads, series of three. Grace and Peace comes from three sources. Moreover, Christ also has three characteristics.

Grace to you and peace from
the one who is
and who was
and who is coming
and from
the seven spirits who are before his throne
and from
Jesus Christ,
the faithful witness,
the firstborn of the dead,
and the ruler of the kings of the earth

These titles are twofold for John. Their expansiveness amplifies the sovereign nature of God. For example, “the alpha and the omega…who is and was and who is to come the almighty” emphasizes god’s eternal nature, his omnipotence, and his essential being. From this biblical passage we can draw out our theology about who God is. Not only do they teach us about God, but it also contrasts with the “counterfeit divine” John mentions later, who “once was, now is not, and yet will come” (17:8). So, John is simultaneously teaching us about God, while also helping us see the true God, and the true things of the world, over the counterfeit God’s of the world. What are those counterfeit Gods? Well we don’t have to worry about those just yet, John wants us to focus our attention on the divine things.

The final source of grace and peace, Jesus Christ, has carefully chosen titles for John’s pastoral purpose. He is the “faithful witness,” which refers to his fiathfulness unto death as well as to his public testimony. As a witnes she takes a stand for the truth and against he falsehoods and lies of evil, and this he is a model for the church that is called to be a witness (11:1-13). Second he is “the firstborn of the dead,” a reminder that God’s new creation is a reality in Christ. Jesus is victor over death and the dead-wielding actions of the beast. And third, he is “the ruler of kings of the earth.” Unlike the beast who claims sovereignty, Christ is ruler over the world (Resseguie, 67).

Ultimately, what John is doing here is reminding the people of the purpose they have been called to. Just like God did for his people in the Exodus from Egypt and from Babylon, so too has God, in Christ, demonstrated his love by freeing the first century church from the dominion of Rome. They have been called out and set apart as his people in the world. They have been given that special responsibility as a kingdom of priests to mediate the love of God to all the nations. Christ did not make a kingdom for his people but is making a kingdom in and through his people. As Eugene Boring writes, “As a priestly community the church mediates to the world God’s reconciliation of the world in Jesus, the Sacrificed Priest, and instead of sacrificing to the emperor on the Roman altar, the church sacrifices itself on the true altar of God. As a royal community the church represents and signifies the rule of God as already present in the world” (Boring, 78).

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

This begins a tension we will see throughout Revelation between the “already” and the “not-yet.” What we must come to grips with is how to represent or mediate the “already” reign of Christ to a world that doesn’t yet see it or acknowledge it, while also recognizing the potential challenges and costs that come with living as faithful witnesses to a kingdom that is “not-yet” fully revealed. Nevertheless, the call of the church is to live as those who give glory to the one eternal ruler.

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit[h] on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”

John writes from the Isle of Patmos. We can glean from the text that he had been forcibly sent to Patmos. It was a common practice for the empire to banish potential “problems” to a location with a small population. That way there were not enough people for stir up a revolt.

The letter is addressed to the seven churches in Asia. Scholars have pointed out that the seven churches are listed in the order of the most popular trade route through Asia. I imagine something like Interstate 10, starting in Los Angeles California, going through Phoenix, Houston, Baton Rouge, Mobile, Tallahassee, and ending in Jacksonville Florida. We see yet again the number seven. The word comes to John like a trumpet. Revelation is a soft and distant melody. It is a “noisy book” that breaks the comfort of the status quo.

12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

As the worshipers of Christ in Asia are invited into the mysterious message of John’s apocalypse they are told from the very beginning that the primary threat the empire has against them is the fear of death. Like Pharaoh who wore a snake on his head to remind the people that he was not only the source of life but that he could at any moment strike out and be the source of their death, the Caesars of Rome will purport to not only be the source of life but also the potential of bringing death. But the church must never forget that the One who walks in each moment amongst the church is the one who has defeated death and holds in his hands the keys of Death and Hades.

This is the amazing journey we are about to be invited by the Revelator to join: the exciting journey of those who live in empires that are called by many names as faithful witness to the One who was, and is, and is to come

The Letter to Smyrna: Revelation 2:8-11

 

Of the seven letters, only two are positive and affirming: this letter and the letter to the church in Philadelphia. What is unique about both the church in Smyrna and Philadelphia is that they were both struggling greatly from a human perspective. If you went back in time and had to join one of the seven churches, from a human perspective Smyrna is the least enticing option. Yet from the perspective of Christ, it is the one most affirmed and valued.

2:8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:

The first century city of Smyrna was an amazing city that had overcome a difficult history. Situated approximately thirty-five miles north of Ephesus, Smyrna was a prosperous port town. Of the seven cities addressed by the Revelator, Smyrna is the only one that continues to exist today as a thriving city – the Turkish city of Izmir.

Smyrna’s location adjacent to a deep gulf made it a highly desirable location for nearly every major political power of the region for generations. Although it had been the location for many civil wars and conflicts, the city’s prime location allowed it to be repeatedly rebuilt. Most significantly to the New Testament period, Smyrna had been destroyed in 580 BC by Alyattes, the king of neighboring Lydia, but was rebuilt in 290 BC by Lysimachus and Antigonus as a model city. The rebuilt city of Smyrna boasted a famous stadium, library, and the largest public theater in Asia.

Smyrna developed a special relationship with the rising super-power of Rome. Approximately 265-146 BC while Rome was in a struggle for regional supremacy against the Carthaginian Empire, the citizens of Smyrna sided squarely with the Romans. Smyrna became the first city to build a temple to the honor of the goddess Roma (ca 195 BC) and later, in 23 BC was awarded the honor of building an additional temple to the emperor Tiberius. The city’s ability to emerge from this nearly three hundred year period of abandonment and become one of the preeminent cities of the empire gave to Smyrna the frequent title, “The City That Died Yet Lives.” It should not surprise us then, that the phrase used to describe the one who is speaking through the Revelator is the one “who was dead and came to life” (2:8). Like the city of Smyrna, the one who judges the churches died, yet lives again.

It was the popular practice of ancient historians and poets to associate the etymology of the name Smyrna with the valuable ancient resin myrrh. Although the similarity in sound is obvious, there is no evidence to support any actual etymological tie between the two words, “but there is evidence to support the belief that the coincidence was seen as significant in antiquity.” Given its history of political turmoil and frequent physical destruction it is not surprising that in poetry and myth Smyrna became associated, like the valuable embalming ointment myrrh, with great suffering. But also like myrrh, the city became associated with the expectation of the overcoming of death through resurrection.

The credit for the resurrection of Smyrna belonged almost entirely to Rome. In the minds of the first century citizens of Smyrna, it was due to their allegiance to Roma and to the gods of the empire that their life as a major city had been restored. In response to the blessings bestowed upon it by Rome, Smyrna became a major capital of emperor and cultic worship. The citizens of Smyrna wanted the city to continue to be a place where the gods would show favor upon their faithful worshipers.

9 “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.

The church of Smyrna appears to have held a special place in John’s heart. For John, there are two cities at work simultaneously in Smyrna. On the one hand, the city itself endured great suffering, but in giving itself over to the empire of Rome it has received its reward – a crown of buildings, wealth, and honor, but on the other hand, the second city of Smyrna, the church, like its host city, is now facing its period of struggle and its time of possible death.

The church in Smyrna faced threats from two directions. The first threat came from the empire of Rome itself. The problem Rome continually faced was how to unify an empire that covered such a vast territory and included so many various cultures, languages, and histories. Something was required to unite all of the diverse citizens of Rome into a unified collective. As Barclay writes, “None of the extant religions was capable of being universalized. But one thing was capable of being universalized – the spirit of Rome itself. The peace that had been established by Rome – the Pax Romana – had made life easier, orderly, and prosperous… It was not difficult to turn the spirit of Rome into a power which men were gratefully willing to worship” (Barclay, 17).

It became a practice of the ensuing emperor worship that once a year a citizen was required to burn a pinch of incense on the altar to Caesar, and having done so, the citizen was given a certificate verifying their participation in their civic duty. Although participation in this kind of ceremony of worship had religious overtones, it was primarily a political statement. Those who refused to participate in this act would be held not only in religious contempt, but also in political suspicion. Imagine if you were at a professional sporting event and the person sitting next to you not only refused to stand and remove their hat during the singing of the national anthem, but they turned their body away from the flag and in their body language made it clear to all around them that they were not going to give attention, let alone honor, to the flag. How would that person be viewed and treated by those who witnessed their lack of participation? Even in a democratic society like America where the freedoms of speech and of public demonstration are protected, a person who openly defied a moment of patriotism would be risking social stigmatization and bodily injury.

If a person in modern day America would be held in suspicion for not participating in a routine act of allegiance to the state, how much more in a first century city like Smyrna, where Rome was highly treasured as the great benefactor in the city’s rebirth, would those who refused to participate in the ceremonies of emperor worship be held in suspicion? Like the fate of the Hebrew children who refused to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, the believers of Smyrna faced the persistent threat of political persecution from an empire that held them in suspicion.

A second and more challenging hazard apparently came from the community of Jews living in the city. Having espoused the ideals of Rome and having been granted several privileges because of their allegiance to the empire, the population of Smyrna had a very open citizenship policy. This openness made the city one of the major population centers for Judaism and an area in which Jews were granted comparatively significant political rights. For example, Jews could worship their God freely as long as they were willing to participate in various civic aspects of the city’s life.

The Revelator writes in this text that he knows, “the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Although we must be careful not to use this statement to justify anti-Semitism, because certainly the acts of persecution that were done to the Christians by Jews in Smyrna pale in comparison to the horrible acts of persecution that Christians have enacted against Jews in history, it is nevertheless clear that great conflict arose between the church in Smyrna and some of the city’s Jewish citizens. It is likely that the Jews of Smyrna were given an exemption from participation in the cultic practices of emperor worship. As long as they did not stir up trouble in the city, they were not conscripted into the Imperial cult but were allowed to worship Yahweh freely.

Although many of the Christians in Smyrna were certainly Jewish, Gentiles also were converting to the Christian faith. It is probable that the Gentile believers, as a response to faith, stopped participating in the cultic worship practices of the empire and claimed exemption from those rites based upon their now belonging to a Jewish faith. In the eyes of the empire, however, these new believers were not Jews they were Gentiles. From the perspective of the Jews of Smyrna these believers were seen as a threat to their peaceable way of life because whatever political waves they created with the Roman leaders carried the potential of wiping out the civic privileges currently granted to the Jewish citizens. So, although the new believers claimed to be part of a Jewish faith, they were openly rejected by the Jewish citizens of Smyrna, leaving them outside the umbrella of protection afforded the Jewish population and thus vulnerable to persecution.

John also acknowledges in this verse that he is aware of their poverty. It is likely that this poverty is a literal material poverty and not poverty in some spiritual sense. The economic welfare of the believers of Smyrna would certainly have been threatened because of their faith. As G. E. Ladd states, “We may assume that the poverty of the Smyrneans was not due alone to their normal economic condition but to confiscation of property, looting by hostile mobs, and to the difficulty of earning a living in a hostile environment” (Ladd, 42).

10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

In addition to economic threats the church in Smyrna was faced with the threat of death. Some of the Christians in Smyrna will be thrown into prison for ten days. It seems unlikely that “ten days” is meant to be symbolic of a short period of time. If the Revelator followed his usual pattern, the symbolic number for a short period of time that eventually ends is the number forty. It is more likely that ten days is the average period of time between being taken into custody by the state, being tried for treason, and being publicly executed. (It is also possible that the ten days refer back to the time when Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were tested for ten days when they refused to eat the defiling food of Nebuchadnezzar – see Daniel 1:12). The Roman state did not like to burden itself with long periods of incarceration of criminals, thus prisoners faced fines, exile or immediate death. It seems clear that John believes many of the Christians in Smyrna would face death, spurned by the Jewish population and executed by the Roman authorities.

It is very possible that the reward of a “crown of life” is also a particular reference to Smyrna. In the first century Smyrna’s most majestic buildings sat high up on Mount Pagus so that as one sailed into its port, one would see what poets spoke of as “the crown of Smyrna.”

The Greek word used for “affliction” in this verse is the word thlipsis – which means pressure or crushing pressure. It brings to mind sitting under a boulder and having constant and crushing pressure put down upon a person.

11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.”

The command again is to have the ears to hear the truth the Spirit is communicating that so many seem to miss.

The idea of the “second death” is likely a reference to the idea that in the return of Christ all of the dead would be resurrected and face judgment. It is not the “first death” at the hands of those who persecute those who refuse to honor Caesar as Lord, that the Christians in Smyrna should fear but the second death that awaits those who refuse to honor Jesus as Lord that should be feared.

Although the church faced difficult persecution, there is almost a subversive nature to the way the Revelator views the status of the church in Smyrna in contrast to the city itself. From the perspective of earth the city of Smyrna is rich and powerful. The city wears the crown awarded to it by the empire. From the perspective of earth, the Christians of Smyrna are not only poor and foolish, but they are suspicious outsiders who refuse to participate in the systems of power that make the city great.

From the perspective of heaven, however, the city of Smyrna is poor because it has placed its hopes and security in powers that cannot survive “the second death.” The “crown of Smyrna” which was the city’s source of pride, like all material objects, will eventually crumble into ruin. From the perspective of heaven, the church of Smyrna is rich because its members have oriented their life together toward a crown of life that never fades nor can ever be taken away.

It is interesting that of the seven churches addressed in Revelation, only the church of Smyrna still exists. Smyrna, now Izmir, remains a vibrant center of Eastern Orthodox worship and education. The practice of Christian faith has never been easy in Smyrna, there have been various forms of political pressure and persecution over the last nineteen centuries, yet its faith still speaks.