The Most Revealing Book of the Bible 2:1-3:22
Christ the Revealer dictates to John a letter for each of the churches. They are filled with specific details with which the original readers would have been completely familiar and with which we are almost completely unfamiliar. The frame of reference obviously is first-century Asia Minor and not a twentieth century end of history.
A couple of general observations should be made before we look at the letters individually. First, it becomes plain that at least some of the congregations had been, were being, and would be persecuted. It is, of course, quite possible that the state was one of the agents of such persecution. However, the text nowhere specifies that; and it nowhere hints that a problem was constituted by the state's demand that Caesar be recognized as divine. This may be because Revelation is an earlier book than usually assumed and mandatory Caesar-worship had not yet become the policy of the Empire. In any case, church-state relations are not the primary concern.
Second, to get at what is the primary concern: it clearly regards the internal life of the congregations, namely their tendency to tolerate and follow false teachers, lose their sense of expectancy, drift into complacency, and generally allow their love of Jesus to cool. Then--as now--it seems to have been the case that the coming of persecution from the outside was as likely to steel Christians in their faith as lead them to renege; the greater threat was that the faith would become eroded through carelessness and lack of upkeep. And so, then--as now--the Revealer's prime concern is with apostasy, the losing of one's relationship to him.
Yes, persecution must be met and handled. Yes, sins of various sorts must be avoided. But above all, watch your fidelity to Jesus--maintain your relationship to him. For it is only in him that you will find the wherewithal for meeting persecution and avoiding sins, only in him you have the means of forgiveness and a way out. So take care to stay close to him.
Now "apostasy" is not a word widely used in the church today--and that is just as well if it is a case of our sitting in self-righteous judgment as to which of our brethren are loyal to Jesus or not. But even so, apostasy is the threat to us as it was to the seven congregations addressed by the Revealer. Both individuals and congregations do drift away from their strict loyalty to Jesus, even now are drifting away. And whether we call it by name or not, whether we show any concern over it or not, apostasy is what it is, the most serious situation Jesus Christ would warn about. Yes, most of the details of the seven letters are lost to us; we simply do not know enough about the historical situation. But the primary counsel of those letters is as much to the point as if Jesus were addressing them to the congregations where we live and in which we would be the hearers.
Each of the seven letters is constructed over a set pattern, the constituent elements of which are these:
From the fourth letter on, the order of the last two elements is reversed. If there is any significance to the switch, it escapes us.
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:
2 "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. 4 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. 6 Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 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.
It is most unlikely that "those who claim to be apostles" were claiming to be among the number of Jesus' original twelve. Rather, they would claim to be "those who were sent (of God)," which is what the word "apostle" means. They may be the same people as the "Nicolaitans" mentioned in verse 6; but that doesn't tell us much, because we have no knowledge of the Nicolaitans outside of these letters in Revelation.
Logically, a "Nicolaitan" would be a follower of "Nicolas"--whoever he might be. But the name "Nicolas" is itself built upon the Greek root found in the very next verse, nikontes, "him who is victorious," or "the victor." And this concept of "victor" is one that is central not only to these letters but also to Revelation as a whole. So whoever the Nicolaitans may have been, and whatever the line they were peddling, the Revealer classifies them with the thousands upon thousands of deceivers who, throughout the history of the church, have claimed to possess the key to personal success and victory. Nicolaitans (victory-promisers) are still very active among us; you can give specific name to those who would tempt you.
But Jesus says that to go with the Nicolaitans is apostasy and that true victory is
found only in fidelity to him. There is but one Victor--the faithful witness, first-born
from the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth--and the victory-claiming Nicolaitans
are not of him. And so the word to the church at Ephesus (and to us) is "Repent!"
This word, particularly prominent in this letter, also is prominent in the book as a
whole. "Repent" means to "turn around," or "come back";
and it is the one solution for apostasy. To go after any victory-promiser but Jesus
is apostasy; to repent is to turn back to him. And to the one who, through repentance,
finds his victory in Jesus, the promise is LIFE--in this case, the right to eat from
the tree of life that stands in the garden of God. In Adam, mankind lost access to
this tree and the second-order LIFE it represents. Here it is promised to those who
become victorious by remaining steadfast to Christ. At the very end of his book,
John will refer to this tree of life once more.
2. Rev. 2:8-11, to Smyrna
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:
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. 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 until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Who ever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.
The Revealer nowhere shows any desire to evaluate a congregation according to the organizational criteria we would be inclined to use. And so, although admittedly hard pressed and poor, the church at Smyrna is judged to be rich. How so? Plainly, rich in her faithfulness to Jesus.
John, we now should note, was writing in a day different from ours: the Jews were slandering the Christians rather than vice versa. (Not long after the time of John, Christians proceeded to do a notable job of slandering and persecuting in their turn. Jewish-Christian relations might go better today if both groups would confess that they have been guilty as opportunity presented itself.)
But the book of Revelation stands above and points beyond this bilateral slandering. For John, "Jew" is a very highly respected and valued term. Indeed, he sees the Christian church as a continuation of Judaism and the end-state of history as involving reunification of the two into the one people of God. Nevertheless, given his faith as to who Jesus is, John can draw no other conclusion but that the Jew who refuses to accept the fact that God has designated Jesus as the awaited Messiah is not being true to his own Judaism, is not (in this action) a true Jew, no matter what he may claim on other grounds. The Christians who accept this fulfillment of the Old Testament promises are thus more faithful to the Jewish tradition than are the Jews who refuse and oppose it. And to the extent that these Jews slander and persecute the church, to that extent they have apostatized from their own God-given faith and become "the synagogue of Satan."
This is John's theological analysis, but he nowhere draws the conclusion that the Christians are free to retaliate (or even defend themselves) against these Jews. Don't let them shake your faith in Jesus; but for the rest, God can take care of them. And what God has in mind to do, we will discover later, is to bring them to the truth, help them become trueJews once more, and through Jesus Christ, restore them to the one people of God.
John's interpretation undeniably is a Christian one; as such it cannot be acceptable to believing Jews. But neither can John be accused of anything like anti-Semitism, the encouragement of scorn and hatred toward a person because of his racial background. Either Jesus is the one who Revelation claims him to be or he is not; thus he should receive either the ultimate loyalty of all men or of none. There is no way men even can be Christians and Jews without the necessary inference that the other group is way off the track in its assessment of Jesus. But this difference (which if, from the one side, is to be called "anti-Semitism," from the other must just as truly be called "anti-Christianity") is not where the human-relations problem lies. "Anti-Semitism" must refer, not to the basic theological distinction, but to the attitudes and actions one takes toward Jews as persons. The Christians in Smyrna were under attack by some of the Jews, but there is no evidence that John taught or approved the hatred of anyone.
Smyrnean Christians, we are told, will be thrown into prison and put to the test. Jesus' promise of victory is never that of exemption fromsuffering but always of the strength and help that will see one through suffering. The "ten days" probably is the customary reference for "a short time" rather than a calendar prediction. But the upshot is that faithfulness unto death (not simply "as long as you happen to live" but "even to the extent of accepting death as a consequence of faithfulness") is the way to LIFE. Here is stated the paradox that is basic to the Revelator's concept of second-order LIFE-a restatement, perhaps, of Jesus' "He who loses his life for my sake will find it."
"The second death" refers to what we earlier called "second-order DEATH." John will enlarge upon the idea later; but part of the promise to the victor is immunity from the second death.
12 "And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword:
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. 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. 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 Revealer here identifies himself as the one with the two-edged sword; and the particular theme of the letter is judgment against apostasy. Pergamum is the place "where Satan's throne" is, for this city was a center for a number of pagan religions. The temptation for the church members here was syncretism, the watering down of their Christianity by importing into it ideas taken from other faiths and philosophies; the concrete examples of Balaam and the Nicolaitans are cited. Syncretism--involving for us, perhaps, more of borrowings from political, psychological, and social philosophies than from religious ones--is no less a danger now than then. It is apostasy and incurs judgment.
We do not know the story of the martyr-witness Antipas, who here, in Christ, merits the same title that earlier was given to Christ himself; we wish we did.
Balaam, obviously, is a derogatory name used to identify some false teacher with the Old Testament apostatizer Balaam. Whether the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans are the same group, related groups, or two different groups, we cannot tell. In any case, their impulse was to lead people away from true loyalty to Jesus. The reference to "fornication" could be to literal sexual promiscuity; however, it could with more likelihood be, as John elsewhere uses it, a picking up of the Old Testament custom of using "fornication" to speak of a promiscuous chasing of other gods.
The concluding promise to the victor seems to be constructed, in this instance,
from allusions to the Old Testament period of Israel's wandering in the wilderness
(which also, by the way, is where the story of Balaam is to be found). The
"manna," the bread from heaven, is sustenance from God. The white stone
may refer to the lot-sign that designated God's positive, "yea" decision
through the Urim and Thummim (Ex. 28:30). An old Jewish tradition says that the
name of God was inscribed on the Urim and Thummim. Later references to Christ's
"own new name" (3:12) and "a name known to none but himself"
(19:12) make this reference particularly meaningful. The emphasis is upon the
"comingness" of Christ; and the promise is that the victor will come
to know more of Christ, know him more intimately and completely, than presently
is possible. He is the Christ of "more to come."
4. Rev. 2:18-29, to Thyatira
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:
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. 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. 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. 26 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end,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.
I will give authority over the to nations; 27 to rule I them with an iron rod, as when clay pots are shattered--
As with Balaam, "Jezebel" is a code name identifying some person with the Old Testament queen who was particularly noted for her effort in leading Israel away from the faith and into idolatry. The references to her fornication, her lovers, and her children are probably not literal but, rather, suggestive of the Old Testament model for describing those who teach false religion and lead others into apostasy. What might have been the relationship between this Jezebel, the Balaam at Pergamum, and the Nicolaitans, we simply are unable to say.
The Christian victory, it is made more explicit in this case, comes through participation in "the endurance of Jesus," involves holding fast until he comes; and the promise is that the victor will also participate in "the sovereignty of Jesus." The reference to ruling the nations with an iron rod (which John uses a number of times) is from Psalm 2:9. In this instance particularly, it sounds very cruel and bloodthirsty. Nevertheless, if such is the interpretation, it stands quite out of harmony with the overall picture of Jesus that John presents. We must assume, then, that at this point he would not want to be taken with complete literalness. The Christian sovereignty over the nations is in outlasting them, watching them deteriorate and go to smash through their own corruption; this--rather than our setting out to do the smashing with iron rods, bombs, or anything of the sort--is John's picture. But, yes, the promise is that the victor will see the nations go under, to be replaced by the rule of Jesus Christ.
In Rev. 22:16, Jesus calls himself "the morning star"; that the morning star here is given to the victor, then, may intend Christ's gift of himself. The morning star is also the herald of the dawn and thus a symbol of hope.
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. 2 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. 4 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.
More than the church at Smyrna, the one at Sardis may be like what we know. There, "I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich." Here, "you have a name of being alive, but you are dead." Any church you ever have seen? The Revealer does not judge by outward organizational standards but only by the measure of fidelity.
Revelation belongs to the New Testament tradition of perpetual readiness and not to the calendarizers. As in the Gospel teachings, Jesus still warns that his coming will catch apostate sleepers unawares--in soiled robes.
Better they should be clothed in white robes, which are, throughout Revelation, the symbol of purity and victory. The promise to the victor, in this instance, is not only the white robe, but is an interesting play on the concept "name." There are two (just two) alternatives: either, in the presence of the Father and his angels, Christ will acknowledge your name, or else your name will be struck off the roll of the living, i.e., of those destined for second-order LIFE. An important implication follows, one the remainder of the book will bear out: the roll of the living is kept on an up-to-date basis, names can be added and (as here) names can be deleted-it all depends upon the person's fidelity. Hear, you who have ears to hear.
7 "And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:8 "I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying--I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 11 I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens:
The Revealer now identifies himself as the one "who has the key of David," the converse, perhaps, of the earlier "keys of death and Hades." The reference is to Isa. 22:22, which also speaks of opening in a way that none shall shut. The allusion is used here to suggest that Christ opens or shuts the entrance to eschatological promise. And the small, weak church at Philadelphia has before it a sort of eschatological opportunity that no persecution or seduction can close off.
John refers to the church's Jewish opponents as before. That they will fall down at the church's feet is not the threat of conquest and enslavement but the promise that they will come to recognize the truth of that for which the church stands.
And "because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you..." The message is plain: we do not (ca not) endure out of the strength of our own endurance; we keep close within his endurance and so are kept by him. What we are to be kept through are the end-time trials that John will describe shortly.
The promise to the victor, in this instance, is built around the imagery of the temple. He shall stand as a very element of the house of God. The name of God will be written upon him as the high priest wore on his forehead a golden plate inscribed "Holy to the Lord." He will be addressed for delivery to the New Jerusalem (the description of which climaxes the book). And he will bear the new, "more to come" name of Christ. (Later scenes will refer to the Christians' being sealed with these names; John is tying these letters into the rest of his book.)
14 "And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God's creation:
15 "I know your works, you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.' You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches."
Perhaps deliberately, the Laodicean letter is something of a summary, hitting with somewhat more power than the others do. The church as a whole (now as then), what does it add up to? Not outright, bold apostasy; it hasn't enough guts for that. But neither can it be called faithful and true--as the Amen himself is called in the verse preceding. No, more like weak tea that is too flavorless to drink as tea, yet strong enough to be ruined as water; not hot enough to invigorate, nor cold enough to refresh.
Verses 17-18 invite an interpretation that may be too neat to be true, but we'll share it anyhow. The ancient city of Laodicea was noted for three things: its wealth, its wool, and its medicine. The table below divides the diagnosis and treatment plan suggested by Jesus in these three categories.
|Strengths of the Historical Laodicean Economy||What the Laodiceans Thought they Were||Jesusí Assessment||Jesusí Prescription--What the Laodiceanís Needed|
|Wealth. It was a banking center.||Rich.||Poor.||The "gold" that can go through the fire of suffering with Jesus.|
|Wool. It had sheep galore.||Well attired.||Naked.||White robes woven of Christian fidelity rather than Laodicean wool.|
|Healthy. It was the site of a medical school.||Healthy.||Blind.||Eye ointment to heal the sort of blindness the pagan medical school encouraged rather than cured.|
Verse 19, then, is crucial: Christ's reproof and discipline are a mark, a necessary aspect, of his love. Both the church and the world need to be punished--as much as cry out for punishment. Unpunished, they no doubt will simply continue their drift toward destruction. With reproof and discipline, they might just answer the challenge to be on their mettle and repent. In the pages to follow, John will portray a great deal of trauma and suffering. In the effort to understand and justify it, we need continually to remember what is said here: "I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent."
Verse 20 is probably the favorite and most-used verse in the book; but also, it probably intends much more than we customarily see in it. The verb tenses are important. Jesus stands knocking now (present tense). If he who has ears to hear also has enough get up and go to answer that knock, Jesus will (future tense) come to supper with him. The reference could be to the Lord's Supper; it could be to the great wedding supper of the Lamb (the eschatological banquet mentioned by John and known throughout the Bible); it could be both, there being evidence that they were thought of together and seen as related. But the implication is clear that how you jump to the door at Jesus' present knocking determines whose your table will be when suppertime comes--and this was the very word the lazy Laodiceans needed to hear (and lazy churches today as well).
The promise to the victor is also more powerful in this instance--and with emphasis, again, upon the verb tenses. "The one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I have conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne." His victory--in the cross and resurrection--is the power and accomplishment of ours. And in that victory he sat down with the Father on his throne--can it be sheer coincidence that the next chapter opens with a vision of the throne of God? John builds beautifully; and his transitions are neat indeed.
Truth to tell, John is better at writing transitions than I am at reading them. To this point, Revelation has been firmly anchored to John on Patmos and the seven congregations of first-century Asia Minor; after this point, we hear of them no more. Now, as it were, we leap off into space and things go unreal; there is little or nothing we can latch on to as linkage with our own experience or history.
For a long time I felt the discontinuity of this break (with a decided preference for the first part of the book) and felt it as a decided flaw in the work. What possible transition is there between the one part and the other? John has given us two different books rather than one.
But finally I got ointment for my blind eyes, and now I see (or think I do). John has been focusing on seven lowly little churches in a minor part of the world at a less than epochal time in history. That focus has been fine enough even to give us allusions to some of the grubby individuals involved--Balaam, Jezebel, and the Nicolaitans--those along with not so grubby John and Antipas. In Chapter 4, then, the picture suddenly cuts away from all this to heaven and to the throne of God.
However, what John intends, I now am convinced, is nothing other than to tell his churches: "Look, my friends, whether you recognize it or not, your history is part of the great and universal mission being directed from God's throne. What you do and what happens to you is an integral and meaningful part of the wonderful thing God is doing with the cosmos, through Christ, to Evil, for mankind. My story starts with you and ends with all things being made new--but it is one story! Until you can understand what it is you're part of, you're bound to see yourself and your efforts as lowly; you're defeated before you even get into the game. But look at it once with me from the true perspective of God's throne, and you'll see that because of Jesus there's no way we can lose--no way!"
What better transition could one ask for?