Resource 4 – Revelation 2:8-29

 

Our focus in this resource is Christ’s directives to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. All of these churches are literally surrounded by the worship of the deified emperors and the many gods of the Greco-Roman world. As we have seen, the imperial cult and the worship of pagan gods permeates virtually every aspect of society. The question facing us is: How do we translate Christ’s directives to our world today? Obviously, our twenty-first century Western society is vastly different from first century Rome. So how are we to apply Revelation’s message written to the first century church to our church today? I think a little work in biblical theology will give us some helpful tools to make this transition.

 

This paper will identify and explain key concepts in the Book of Revelation, and show how these concepts interrelate. All of these concepts are adapted from the Hebrew scriptures and the gospels. When linked together, they form a web of meaning. This web of meaning gives us a perspective, a framework that helps us understand the message of the letters. Understanding that web of meaning, that framework, helps us to apply the letters to the church today. In this paper, I will identify and define these concepts found in Revelation and then demonstrate how they form this web of meaning.

 

I will call these concepts, “signs,” showing us what to look for as we discern what’s happening in the Roman Empire and in our world today. I am not using “signs” as the key to a precise and faultless understanding, like numbers in an equation. I am using this term according to its definition in the Oxford Living Dictionary. There “sign” is defined as, “something regarded as an indication or evidence of what is happening.”[1] A “sign” is an “indication or evidence,” not “proof positive.”

 

In the first part of this paper, I will lay out, define and then summarize the concepts. Then I will turn to the Letters to the Seven Churches in the Roman province of Asia. I look at the frame John creates around these letters, the structure of the letters and then unpack the letters to the churches in Smyrna, Pergamum and Thyatira as representative examples of how applying these interrelated concepts helps us to read these letters and understand their message for us today.

 

A Web of Concepts

Created in the Image of God

We first see the concept that humankind is created in the image of God in the story of creation. In Genesis 1:26-27 we read,

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

 

This passage defines what it means to be human as distinct from everything else in creation. In these verses, we see that God creates humans with two unique capacities: to image and to rule. What do these capacities mean? And what does it mean that these capacities are intimately connected to the words, “of God”? I want to focus on these three key concepts: “image,” “dominion,” and “of God.”

 

Image

Stanley Grenz describes how the word, “image,” is used in the ancient world. He writes,

In the ancient Near East, images were viewed as representatives of the entity they designated. This was the case with physical images of monarchs. Ancient Assyrian kings, for example, erected statues of themselves in conquered territories, probably to represent their occupation of the land. The close link between the image and the king meant that reviling the former was viewed as an act of treason. Clines provides a telling comment about the intimate nature of this connection: “The image is no mere symbolic portrayal of the king, but stands in a spiritual union with him.” [2]

 

To say we are created with the capacity to image God, means we have the capacity to be in “spiritual union” or, that is, to worship and represent God. But, as we see, starting with the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit, this capacity can be corrupted. Adam and Eve’s capacity to worship shifted away from God to something else: the knowledge of good and evil, food, and a delight to the eyes (Genesis 3:6). Adam and Eve used the capacity God created in them to form an attachment to, or a union with, forbidden fruit. Instead of worshiping God, they worshiped what they wanted for themselves. The Oxford Living Dictionary defines, “worship,” as a “great admiration or devotion shown towards a person or principle as in, “the worship of celebrity and wealth.” [3]

 

Dominion

Another unique capacity God has created into humanity is to “have dominion.” To have dominion is the capacity to have an impact, that is, to shape and mold the world around us.

 

Of God

God’s intent, as God makes clear, is that humans would “image,” that is, worship God. In other words, we are created to live in intimate relationship with God. In his Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann writes:

the central concern of Israel regarding humanity (is) that the human person is a person in relation to Yahweh [italic his], who lives in an intense mutuality with Yahweh. This mutuality invites a “matchup” [a strategic pairing] between the character of Yahweh and the character of human personhood. [4]

 

In other words, God’s intention is that the intimacy between our lives and God would result in our lives being formed by God. And how does that intimacy happen? Only when we worship, honor, revere and open our lives to God.

 

As we worship God, we come to know who God is and how God rules (that is, has an impact on) creation. In knowing God, we come to understand how to reflect God in the world, that is, how to “have dominion” in a manner that honors and reflects who God is. In the very story of creation, we see the way in which God rules and how God’s rule impacts creation.

 

What is the manner in which God rules? In Genesis 1, we see God intervening in hopelessness and chaos. That’s the meaning of the Hebrew words translated, “formless void” and “darkness,” in Genesis 1:2, God’s Spirit hovers over hopelessness and chaos, and God simply speaks. The result becomes an ordered, beautiful, and very good world where all creation is blessed and lives in shalom, well-being for everyone. The Bible calls this Paradise. This is the only creation story in the ancient Mesopotamian world that does not involve violence. It’s all grace. Even the presence of the forbidden fruit gives Adam and Eve the gift of freedom, trust and dignity.

 

So, what does it mean that we are “of God,” formed to “have dominion?” Our calling is to impact our corner of the world in a similar, non-violent, gracious, life-giving way. God is constantly giving this mission to humankind:

  • This is the mission God gives to Adam and Eve. They are to tend the Garden so that it flourishes.
  • When Adam and Eve do exactly what God told them not to do, God speaks truth and extends grace.
  • This is the mission God gives Abram when God blessed him and said, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
  • This is the mission God gave the newly freed slaves when he made a covenant with them and said, “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom [extending grace] and a holy nation [showing who God is through their actions toward others]” (Ex 19:6).
  • And after the failures of Adam and Eve, Abraham, and Israel, it is the mission God gave his Son, Jesus Christ. And it is exactly what Christ does. Christ shows us what this looks like as he consistently intervenes in hopelessness and chaos with justice, love, shalom and speaking truth to, rather than focusing domination on, power.
  • Then it is the mission God and Christ give to the church (1 Peter 2:9).
  • And it’s exactly what is at stake in the seven churches Christ addresses in Revelation and in the church around the world today.

Adam’s mission is to rule over the Garden of Eden in a way that enables justice, love, shalom to thrive. But instead, Adam (and remember that the Hebrew word, adam, means, “humankind”) listens to and follows the evil serpent. In so doing, Adam uses his precious God given capacities to subvert God’s will creating hopelessness and chaos. His actions shut down Paradise on earth. What happened?!

 

And this brings us to the next two interrelated items in our biblical web of connection: idolatry and the devil.

 

Application using Signs

But before we move to idolatry and the devil, let’s summarize the signs in this section and reflect using some discernment questions to help us as we look for these signs.

 

Summary of Signs: What are we to look for?

  • Image/Worship/Attachment
    • God given capacity to worship, form strong attachments to something or someone beyond ourselves.
  • Dominion
    • God given capacity to shape and mold the world around us.
  • Of God
    • Worshiping and serving God.
    • Living the prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
    • Intervene in hopelessness and chaos with justice, love, shalom and speaking truth.

Discernment Questions

  1. What priority does the worship of God have in the life of the churches in Revelation and in my life?
  2. Is worship, theirs (the churches in Revelation) and mine, going through the motions or being intentional about looking for God, honoring God, being transparent with God, and teachable by God?
  3. As I look at my own actions and the actions of others, do I see asserting power and control over others or speaking truth and extending grace?

Idolatry: How Our God Given Capacities Become Corrupted

Idolatry is a concept that has huge importance in the Bible and certainly in the Book of Revelation. But in the church today, it’s a concept that has lost its meaning. When you hear the word, “idolatry,” what comes to your mind? My guess is that for most people it’s little figures that people worshiped in the ancient world—a concept that has no relevance in our scientific, technological, wired world of today.

 

So what is idolatry? In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther defines idolatry this way, “What does it mean to have a god? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress…. That upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.” [5] In other words, even in the ancient world, it’s not the pagan gods but the self-interest of people whose desires are symbolized in pagan gods.

 

John Barton finds this understanding of idolatry, namely, that we create our own gods, in the Hebrew scriptures starting with Isaiah. He writes,

The recognition that idolatry really consists in making gods for ourselves [italic his] and putting our trust in them is the great breakthrough in Israel’s thinking about the matter, and I have suggested that it may be to Isaiah that we owe it. From Isaiah onwards the conviction grew that there simply were no other powers in the universe to rival Yahweh, the God of Israel, and that… however much worshippers might bow down to the idol and acknowledge it as a great power, it was really themselves they were worshipping all the time. [6]

 

Georg Braulik follows the same line of thought. He observes, “As soon as language about God becomes monotheistic, the formula about the jealous God loses its meaning…. The gods are no longer YHWH’s rivals; his rival is the human self-confidence of Israel.” [7]

 

Moberly also sees this understanding of idolatry in the New Testament. He points to Jesus words, “No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Moberly writes,

Here Jesus metaphorically depicts money and wealth in a personification [“mammon”] as a possible, and tempting, object of allegiance that rivals and can displace allegiance to God. In essence, it is a restatement of the logic of the Shema [“you shall have no other gods before me”], which is now formulated in such a way as to specify the danger of treating as God that which is not God. [8]

 

Nicholas Lash helps us make the connection between this biblical understanding of idolatry with our world today. He writes,

It is taken for granted, in sophisticated circles, that no one worships God these days except the reactionary and simple-minded. This innocent self-satisfaction tells us little more, however, than that those exhibiting it do not name as “God” the gods they worship.

 

All human beings have their hearts set somewhere, hold something sacred, worship at some shrine [because that’s the capacity God created in us. We can’t not do it. It’s what it means to be human—DAS]. We are spontaneously idolatrous—where, by “idolatry,” I mean the worship of some creature, the setting of the heart on some particular thing (usually oneself). For most of us there is no single creature that is the object of our faith. Our hearts are torn, dispersed, distracted. We are polytheists. And none of us is so self-transparent as to know quite where, in fact, our hearts are set.

 

Against this background, the great religious traditions can be seen as contexts in which human beings may learn, however slowly, partially, imperfectly, some freedom from the destructive bondage which the worship of the creature brings. [9]

 

Notice that idolatry corrupts the God given capacities that were designed to worship and serve God. We take the capacity to image, that is, to worship. Instead of using it as God intended, we, like Adam and Eve, use it to worship that which is not God. Adam and Eve worshiped the knowledge of good and evil and the fruit that looked so useful and beautiful. To quote Luther, that was the god from which they expected all good.

 

Then we use the capacity to have dominion to assert our will and take whatever it is we desire. The rule we assert on our corner of the world is not a reflection of who God is but a reflection of our self-centered agenda. Our impact on the world is not justice, love, shalom but some form, large or small, of hopelessness and chaos.

 

Application using Signs

Let’s summarize the signs in this section and reflect using some discernment questions to help us as we look for these signs.

 

Summary of Signs: What are we to look for?

Idolatry

Definitions:

  • Luther: A god from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress…. That upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”
  • Barton: Idolatry consists in making gods for ourselves and putting our trust in them. It was really themselves they were worshipping all the time.
  • Moberly: Treating as God that which is not God.
  • Lash: Setting of the heart on some particular thing. The destructive bondage which the worship of the creature brings.

How Idolatry corrupts our God-given capacities

Image/Worship/Attachment

We worship what is not God.

 

Dominion

We assert our will, establish our control over others to get what we want

 

Of God

Instead of intervening in hopelessness and chaos with justice, love, shalom and speaking truth as God intended, we violate others and create hopelessness and chaos.

 

Discernment Questions

  1. Where do we see examples of idolatry in the Roman Empire? What self-centered agendas do these Roman gods symbolize?
  2. Who is violated by the Roman Empire? In what ways are they violated?
  3. What is the role of the Roman Imperial Cult in this scenario?
  4. What is the responsibility of the church in this setting?
  5. Where do we see examples of idolatry in our society today? What self-centered agendas do these gods symbolize?
  6. Who is violated by the Roman Empire? In what ways are they violated?
  7. What is the role of the Roman Imperial Cult in this scenario?
  8. What is the responsibility of the church in this setting?

The Devil

What is the devil? As portrayed in the Bible, the devil, like the Holy Spirit, is not an actual, tangible being but a spiritual force. Sometimes the Bible portrays the Holy Spirit symbolically as a physical presence. In the story of Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descends as a dove. Similarly, sometimes the Bible portrays the devil symbolically as a physical presence. In the Garden of Eden, the devil is portrayed as a serpent, in Revelation as a dragon and in the temptations of Jesus as a person.

 

As a spiritual force, how can the Holy Spirit or the devil impact our physical world? By working through people! When people follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, God’s will becomes embodied. It’s what we commit ourselves to do whenever we pray the Lord’s Pray, “thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

What is God’s will? God’s will is truth, justice, compassion, community, shalom (the well-being of all). When people discern and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, their actions create a consequence, an impact, a result. The Bible calls that result, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and identifies that fruit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Have you seen that fruit?

 

What kind of spiritual force is the devil? In John 8:44, Jesus tells us, “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” In other words, the devil works through a combination of two primary strategies: lying in all its forms (e.g. manipulation, deception, duplicity) and domination in all its forms (e.g. force, seduction, coercion).

 

Revelation concurs with Jesus’s assessment of the devil. In 12:9 John writes, “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.”

 

As a spiritual force, how can the devil impact a physical world? By working through people. When people follow the devil, the devil’s agenda comes to life. God’s will is truth, justice, compassion, community, shalom. The devil’s will is to undo and reverse what God wants or perhaps has made), sending creation back to hopelessness and chaos.

 

When people put into practice this lying and domination, there are winners and losers, the elite (those in control) and the other (those controlled). The result, the “fruit,” is chaos, confusion, fear, destruction. Or as Paul writes in Galatians 5:20b, “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” God’s beautiful creation and people’s lives become a wilderness.

 

Application using Signs

Let’s summarize the signs in this section and reflect using some discernment questions to help us as we look for these signs.

 

Summary of Signs: What are we to look for?

The Devil

Character:

  • The father of lies, the great deceiver
  • A murderer

Discernment Questions

  1. What different forms of lying have you seen people use (in business, government, education, families, church, etc.)? Make a list.
  2. What different forms of murder (i.e. force, seduction, coercion) have you seen people use? Make a list.
  3. What forms of lying and murder have you seen in the Roman Empire?

Agenda: To undo all that God values

What God Values What it looks like when God’s values are undone
Truth Lies
Justice In the Bible, justice is advocacy for the oppressed. When Justice is undone it is oppression for the powerless.
Compassion

Write off, judge, denigrate, malign, slander

Community

Divide, us and them, racism, isolate, discrimination

Shalom 

In the Bible, shalom is peace, well-being for all. When Shalom is undone, there is chaos and hopelessness.

Grace Control over the other

Discernment Questions

  1. Where do you see examples of what God values undone in the Roman Empire?
  2. How is Christ calling the church to respond?
  3. Where do you see examples of what God values undone in our society?
  4. How do you think Christ is calling the church to respond?

Idolatry Makes Us Deaf to God

When people worship God, who God isshapes and forms their lives. When people worship something other than God, for example, power, money, or success; a fascinating, deadly dynamic takes place. Psalm 135:15-18 describes this dynamic. When people practice idolatry, they become impermeable and unresponsive to what is outside them or beyond their self-centered agenda.

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
   the work of human hands. 
16 They have mouths, but they do not speak;
   they have eyes, but they do not see; 
17 they have ears, but they do not hear,
   and there is no breath in their mouths. 
18 Those who make them
   and all who trust them
   shall become like them. 

 

The Book of Revelation, which is a powerful statement against idolatry, picks up this theme from the Psalmist. Revelation 9:20-21 says,

20 The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshipping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. 21 And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.

 

These passages from Psalms and Revelation are two of many biblical passages that describe the crippling impact of idolatry and it’s this: idolatry is spiritually anesthetizing.

 

Several times in the gospels Jesus Christ says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” People who practice idolatry have ears. But they are anesthetized in the sense that they are deaf to the voice of the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, to have ears and not hear is to be unrepentant. It is to be as spiritually lifeless as an idol and at great risk of being trapped in that spiritually “dead” state.

 

So, it is not surprising that every letter from Christ to the churches in Revelation, many of whom are colluding with idolatry, ends with the admonition, “1Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Nor is it a surprise that the Book of Revelation is filled with one shock after another. These shocks are alarm bells intended to wake at risk people in the churches from their idolatry induced anesthesia.

 

Spiritual anesthesia is disastrous. When our ears are closed to the Holy Spirit, we lose the ability to fulfil our God given calling to worship and serve God. We become spiritually dead in the sense that we are unplugged from the God who created us, redeemed us and loves us. Then the world loses out on the life-giving presence of God pouring out, moment by moment, day by day through us. The qualities embodied in God: truth, justice, compassion, community, shalom, grace are replaced by our own self-centered agendas

 

Application using Signs

Let’s summarize the signs in this section and reflect using some discernment questions to help us as we look for these signs.

 

Summary of Signs: What are we to look for?

Idolatry – Makes Us Deaf to God

  • When people practice idolatry, they become impermeable and unresponsive to what is outside them or beyond their self-centered agenda.
  • Idolatry is spiritually anesthetizing
  • To have ears and not hear is to be unrepentant

Discernment Questions

  1. In the letters to the seven churches, are there people identified who appear to be deaf to God?
  2. Is a connection made between their deafness and their practice of idolatry?
  3. If so, what is that idolatry?
  4. What might be the consequences of their idolatry for them, the church, the Roman Empire, and the people Rome harms?
  5. Can you think of an example from today or in history where decision makers did not listen to any voice but their own? What were the consequences?
  6. Have you ever found yourself having ears but not listening to God? What helped you begin to listen again?

 

How the Devil Uses Idolatry to Weaponize Humankind’s God Given Gifts

We turn our attention briefly to the stories of the temptation of Jesus. In these stories, we see the devil baiting the hook of idolatry, hoping to catch Jesus and thereby destroy Jesus’ mission. It’s exactly what the devil did to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Then the devil was successful. But not with Jesus. What was the difference? What did Jesus do?

 

How does the devil tempt Jesus?

  • The first temptation, takes place in the wilderness. The bait is bread. What does bread symbolize? Remember, Jesus is fasting. He hasn’t eaten in 40 days. The devil assumes Jesus is thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great to have some bread?” The bread symbolizes whatever is our greatest desire in the moment.
  • In the second temptation, the devil shows Jesus all the splendors of the Roman Empire. Jesus hasn’t begun his ministry yet. The devil assumes Jesus is wondering how it will go. “Will I be successful or not? Wouldn’t it be great to have success guaranteed?” The bait is a guarantee of the power and wealth of the greatest empire the world had seen.
  • The third temptation takes place in Jerusalem where Jesus will be crucified. The devil assumes Jesus does not want to suffer – especially the horrific, humiliating death of crucifixion. And as we see in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus certainly didn’t want to. The bait is freedom from suffering. The devil says that God will be just fine with it. And he quotes the Bible to prove it.

In each case, the devil baits Jesus by focusing on one thing only: what Jesus wants most. That’s where idolatry begins. Worshiping little figures is a manifestation of idolatry. But the essence of idolatry is focusing exclusively on what I want. We focus exclusively on what we want and assert our will to get it. That’s idolatry. Idolatry corrupts the amazing gifts God built into us—capacities to worship him and bless the world with God’s character. (I unpack the temptations of Jesus in my sermon on March 10 which is on the St. Thomas website.)

 

Once the bait is swallowed, the person asserts his will and acts without any reference to God whatsoever. Then the devil’s agenda is enacted by a person. And the fruit of that action is chaos, confusion, fear, destruction which, of course, is the devil’s agenda.

 

The Bible calls the action that flows from idolatry “sin.” The cause is idolatry. The result is sin. The consequence is fulfilling the devil’s agenda. A Greek word for “sin” is hamartia,(e.g. 1 John 3:4) which is an archery term that means, “missing the mark.” Instead of fulfilling the expectations God has for us, using our God created capacities to worship him and impact the world with his presence, we miss the mark.

 

How does Jesus neutralize the devil’s temptations? He never allows his focus to exclude everything except what he wants. Over and over, Jesus hits the target set out for us in creation. He worships and serves God. In so doing, he neutralizes the temptation, avoids idolatry and creates justice, truth, justice, compassion, community, and shalom as his Father intends.

 

Application using Signs

Let’s summarize the signs in this section and reflect using some discernment questions to help us as we look for these signs.

 

Summary of Signs: What are we to look for?

How the Devil Uses Idolatry to Weaponize Humankind’s God Given Gifts

 

Flipping our Worship

The devil’s agenda is to flip us from worshiping God to worshiping idols. The devil tempts Jesus with three different baits:

  1. Bread, that is, offering us what we want
  2. Guaranteed success
  3. Avoidance of suffering

The devil flips us from God to idolatry by getting us to zero in exclusively on what we want most. When we take the bait, we swallow the hook of idolatry, push any thought of who God is and what God wants out of the picture.

 

Flipping from Serving God to Sin

Just like Adam and Eve, when our entire focus is on what we want, we simply assert our will and take what we want. In so doing, we sin, that is, we miss the mark God intends for us and for the world.

 

When the church flips from worshiping and serving God to idolatry, what hope is there for the church or the world?

 

A Call to Worship

How did Jesus neutralize temptation? By worshiping God. Worshiping God is one of the main themes of Revelation. Revelation is to be read in worship (1:3). When John sees the glorified Christ (1:12-18), he falls before him. We are to do the same. Worship permeates the book.

 

Discussion Questions

  1. What bait was being used in the Roman Empire?
  2. How were churches to respond to this bait?
  3. What bait do you see being swallowed in our society today?
  4. What kind of behavior do you see this idolatry generating?
  5. What trends regarding participation in worship of God do you see happening in our society?
  6. Do you ever see churches offering bait to draw people into worship?
  7. How might the Holy Spirit be calling the church to be faithful to God in the midst of this idolatry?

Idolatry: Collusion with the Devil

Jesus says the character of the devil is lying and murder. In fact, that’s exactly what the representatives of the Roman Empire did to Jesus. They said he deserved to be crucified and they murdered him. How often do we see these characteristics, lying and murder, in the Roman Empire?

 

This is an example of Rome’s lying and murdering before the empire was established. This example is taken from historian Bettany Hughes in the Smithsonian series, “Eight Days That Made Rome.” At the end of Episode 1, “Hannibal’s Last Stand,” she says this:

In 146 BC, Roman forces led by Scipio’s grandson (Scipio defeated Hannibal at Carthage in 202 BC) razed Carthage to the ground. The entire population was massacred or enslaved. The suffering must have been hideous. Men and women were strung up, disemboweled, raped, beheaded. Meanwhile the Romans set about rewriting history portraying the civilized Carthaginians as rank barbarians who deserved no mercy in defeat. The very same year, the Romans also sacked the Greek city of Corinth making Greek culture their own. Such stomach-turning ferocity and cynical mythmaking was essential. The triumphalism of a people embarking on a massive imperial project….

 

In their defeat of Carthage, we also see key features of the Roman Empire starting to emerge. An irrepressible belief in their right to rule, a ruthless determination to win at any cost and a complex identity lionizing honor and decency as well as instigating campaigns of violence and terror. Welcome to the brave new Roman world. [10]

 

What are the idols that drive Rome to use these tools? Does the imperial cult and worship of Greco-Roman gods have a function to hide the lying and murdering, bless and celebrate Rome’s actions? What is the role of the church in this environment? This is what Revelation is about.

 

Revelation helps the church to see and speak truth about Rome’s lying and murdering and the evil behind them. In Revelation 13 we will see the symbols of the Beast from the Sea and the Beast from the Land. Just as in Daniel 7, the Beast from the Sea is vicious: the body of a leopard, the paws of a bear, and the mouth of a lion. Not a creature you’d want to meet on a dark night. Where does this beast’s power come from? John says, from Satan (Rev 13:2). Who is this beast? For Daniel, it is the occupying Hellenistic rulers of Judah, leaders like Antiochus Epiphanes (translation: “Antiochus, the manifestation of god”). For John, the Beast from the Sea is Roman imperial rule.

 

Then we see the Beast of the Land. This beast is described as speaking like a dragon (Rev 13:11). In Jewish apocalyptic, the dragon is a symbol of Satan. What is listening to Satan like? Shockingly, John says it’s entertaining! What is the Beast of the Land? It’s the Roman Imperial Cult. And it puts on quite a show (“performs great signs” 13:13). But don’t pay attention to the show because it’s there to distract from the truth. John says that it’s all deception, “By the signs it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth” (Revelation 13:14). The beast is a liar, just like the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).

 

How are people responding to this lying? They are mesmerized by the Beast of the Land—the Roman Imperial Cult. And so they worship the Beast from the Sea, that is, Roman imperial rule. They’ve taken the bait. They’re getting everything they want: entertainment, thriving economy, and the pax romana. In the Roman imperial cult, religion marries and blesses Roman imperial power with all its lies and horrific violence. This collusion between religion and oppressive, untruthful power (lying and murder) is what makes the Roman Imperial Cult demonic. It flows from the devil’s character and baiting. Hence, Christ’s insistence that the seven churches not participate in this collusion in any way. Eating food sacrificed to idols might seem innocent. But, to use Revelation’s imagery, they are eating the bait of the Beast of the Land, blessing the Beast of the Sea and participating in the lying and murderous work of the Dragon.

 

Application of what we are learning:

Using the Summary of Signs sections, read the news of the day. Not just politics but all the different parts of the news from economics to sports to entertainment. Do you see any of these signs? Remember, we’re not making an analysis as if we are God. We’re simply noting possibilities as in, “It looks like there might be a sign here.” So see if you see a sign, and then reflect on ways in which the church might respond to that situation

 

My Initial Reflection: Pervasive Individualism

One characteristic that I see in our society today is pervasive individualism. That’s concerning because in the Garden of Eden and in the temptations of Jesus, an exclusive focus on the self is the devil’s hook for idolatry. From paying attention to our Biblical signs, we know that individualism is a very dangerous and perhaps anesthetized place to live. It’s dangerous both for ourselves and for those in our sphere of influence.

 

I wrote my doctoral dissertation in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Much of it is dated. But I think this next section still applies to the individualism we see today:

In his book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff states that therapeutic understanding dominates our culture.[11]  When the therapeutic triumphs, there is “nothing at stake beyond a manipulatable sense of well-being.”[12]  So while faith focuses on obedience to God, the therapeutic focuses on creating experiences and environments that will be self-pleasing.  Truth, obedience, morality, and loyalty are replaced by the supposedly higher value of feeling good.  As Christopher Lasch states, “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious.  People today hunger not for personal salvation … but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health and psychic security.” [13]

 

The subjective experience of feeling good is a primary focus in our therapeutic culture. In his essay, “Romanticism and the Consumer Ethic,” Colin Campbell notes the fundamental difference between this therapeutic orientation and the Christian faith:

The “self” becomes, in effect, a very personal god or spirit to whom one owes obedience.  Hence “experiencing,” with all its connotations of gratificatory and stimulative feelings, becomes an ethical activity, an aspect of duty.  This is a radically different doctrine of the person, who is no longer conceived of as a “character” construed painfully out of the unpromising raw material of original sin, but as a “self” liberated through experiences and strong feelings from the inhibiting constraints of social convention. [14]

 

Rieff notes that “religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased.” [15] 

 

How the Church Might Respond: Modeling the Importance of Worship and Community

We are created for worship. It is essential to being human. As we learned from Jesus in the wilderness temptations, it is the only antidote to idolatry and sin. We can’t be human unless we worship God. We simply need to make worship one of the highest priorities in our lives.

 

We’re also made for community. As we go about our daily lives, we can model the importance of relationship. Let others experience our commitment to them.

 

Let’s turn now to Revelation and to the letters to the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia.

 

General Introduction to the Seven Letters to the Churches

After experiencing the powerful vision of the glorified Christ in Revelation 1:12-16, we come to what’s known as the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. However, this heading—letters to seven churches—can create some false perspectives. As Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza writes,

The so-called “seven letters” are not real letters…. They form a unit which is an integral part of Revelation’s inaugural vision. As prophetic messages, they address the whole church in Asia Minor. The number seven symbolically indicates their universal character. Geographically, all seven communities mentioned are situated on main Roman roads and form a circuit starting from Ephesus, the nearest city to Patmos. They thus symbolically represent the whole church in Asia Minor, one of the main centers of early Christianity. [16]

 

The Frame around the Letters to the Seven Churches

John sets the Letters to the Seven Churches in a frame. In the section before and the section after, John hammers home the difference between the rule of Rome and the rule of Christ.

  • In Revelation 1:12-17, John presents a vision of Christ as ruler. As we have seen, that vision is given as a sharp contrast to the rule of the Roman emperor.
  • In the vision after the Letters to the Seven Churches, John observes worship in heaven (Revelation 4 and 5). This scene too provides a stark contrast to the worship of the imperial cult. John is calling churches to join in the worship of God and Christ the Lamb who, in contrast with the emperor, are worthy to receive glory and honor and power.

Koester writes,

Greco-Roman worship traditions also included hymns to the gods, and the literary settings in Revelation suggest comparisons. Worshipers wear white robes and may hold palm branches, as people did at Greco-Roman festivals. The elders lay wreaths before God as people did when honoring a Hellenistic or Roman ruler. The singers in Revelation are like the choruses (choirs were called hymnodes) that praised traditional deities such as Artemis of Ephesus, Zeus, and Dionysus or sang hymns to Augustus at his sanctuary at Pergamum. There are also analogies in the way worship scenes include acclamations given by a vast company since publicly shouting praises to the ruler for salvation and lauding his majesty was a feature of imperial life. For the writer, the critical question is whether the praises are being given to the Creator and the Lamb or to other figures that would take God’s place. [17]

 

Structure of the Letters

The letters to the seven churches follow a similar format. The structure is a strategic part of the message. The structure follows this progression:

  1. “To the angel of the church write…”
  2. “Thus says…”
  3. A characteristic of the glorified Christ as described in Rev. 1:12-15. The specific characteristic fits the need of the specific church. It provides the basis for overcoming the problem that church faces.
  4. “I know…” followed by a description of the church.
  5. Christ’s directive for the church including a command to “remember” and “repent”
  6. “Let anyone who has an ear listen…” Biblical code. A call to wake up from the anesthesia of idolatry, a call to repent.
  7. A promise “to everyone who conquers,” that is, who does what Christ directs.
  8. This promise is a characteristic taken from the description of the New Heaven and the New Earth as described in chapters 21-22.

What this structure teaches us

  1. Each letter is written to the angel of the specific church. In other words, what happens in each church matters in the outside of time domain we know as heaven.
  2. “Thus says” links the letter to the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets.
  3. Including a characteristic of the glorified Christ grounds each letter in that powerful vision at the beginning of Revelation.
  4. “I know” demonstrates that Christ is intimately engaged in each church. He knows what’s happening.
  5. Christ’s directive signals his Lordship over the church. He has work for each church to do.
  6. The call to listen reiterates John’s words in Revelation 1:3, “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.” These words are focused on the importance of reading the Book of Revelation in public worship. They also point to the importance of reading and studying God’s Word in the worship and life of all churches.
  7. All churches need to “conquer,” that is, to address the issues Christ is raising and work through them. Clearly, the church is not a place just to hang out.
  8. The promise at the end of each letter links the life of each church to the end of time destination God will create as described in Revelation 21-22.

Gregory Beale provides an overview of the situations in these seven churches. He writes,

Three general divisions can be discerned among the seven churches. The first and last are in danger of losing their very identity as a Christian church…. The churches addressed in the three central letters have, to varying degrees, some who have remained faithful and others who are compromising with pagan culture…. The second and sixth letters are written to churches that have proved themselves faithful and loyal to Christ’s “name” even in the face of persecution…. All of the letters deal generally with the issue of witnessing for Christ in the midst of a pagan culture. [18]

 

The Seven Churches Addressed in Revelation, All Located in the Roman Province of Asia

 

[19]

 

The Church in Smyrna: Revelation 2:8-11

8And 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: 9I 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. 10Do 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. 11Let 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.

 

Commentary on 2:8-11

We don’t know the origins of Christianity in Smyrna. We know that Ignatius of Antioch stopped in Smyrna on his way to Rome to be executed in 107 CE. And we know that he met with Christian leaders in Smyrna. We also know that he wrote letters back to Polycarp (a Christian leader from Smyrna who would be martyred in 156 CE). And we know that the city of Smyrna was very loyal to Rome. Temples were built there to both the goddess Roma (the personification of the Roman Empire) and the Emperor Tiberius.[20]

 

The Christians in this church are suffering and living in poverty and yet Christ, who knows them, says they are rich. What is the wealth that Christ sees in them? Perhaps these passages give us a perspective: 2 Cor 6:4-10; James 2:5. We can discuss what wealth is in these passages when we meet.

 

2 Corinthians 6:4-10

4As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

 

James 2:5

5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

 

Conflict between Jews and Christians intensified (v 9). Some Jews (whom the letter calls “false Jews” and a “synagogue of Satan”) would inform the Roman authorities regarding who the Christians were and where they lived. Here’s an excerpt from a letter Pliny (a Roman governor in what is now Turkey) wrote to the Emperor Trajan (approx. 112 CE):

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome. [21]

 

Because Jews were acting as informants, Christians were about to suffer even more (v 10). These Jewish informants are “false” Jews because they are not faithful to the God of the Torah. Their actions, in fact, reflect the actions of Satan because Satan is the one who works through lies and domination.

 

Christ encourages the church in Smyrna saying, “Do not be afraid.” They are not to be afraid because Christ is Lord of all history (the First and the Last). Moreover, he is the One who experienced persecution and death and overcomes them through resurrection (see 1:8b, 17b, 18 and 1 John 4:4). The devil will use hardship in an attempt to undermine their faith. But they are not to fear the devil because Jesus has defeated him (1:1, 18). Furthermore, God works through these tests to reveal who trusts him and who doesn’t (1 Cor 11:18-19). There is a sense in scripture that because God gives us free will, God does not know how we will react until we react.

 

Christ says that “some” (not all) will (literal translation of the Greek) “have tribulation,” that is, experience intense suffering. But the time of testing will be limited (“ten days” is a reference to Daniel 1:12-15 when Daniel and his friends refused to embrace total allegiance to the king). Those who patiently endure and are faithful (remember 1:9) even to the point of death will receive “the crown of life.” In other words, being killed by the authority of Rome because of faithfulness to Christ will result in a crown of eternal life (see 20:4-6) just as Christ won resurrection through faithfulness in facing death by Roman crucifixion.

 

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you see evidence of any of the signs we discussed above?
  2. What possibilities do the signs point to?
  3. What is the church being called to do?
  4. Do you see any application for the church today?

The Church in Pergamum: Revelation 2:12-17

12And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword: 13I 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. 14But 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. 15So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17Let 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.

 

Commentary on 2:12-17

What has the church done right? What are their challenges? What do we know about them?

 

To help us understand the context, Elaine Pagels describes what John might have meant when he says, “You are living where Satan’s throne is.” Pergamum was the location of a large temple dedicated to Zeus.Nearby, another temple, the Sebasteion was dedicated to Aphrodite. Each contained reliefs of emperors exerting power over their subjects. [22] We have seen the images are from the Sebasteion. These are places of worship that honored the Satan-like brutality and dehumanization (see John 8:44) enacted by Roman emperors. In that sense, also, Satan is on the throne. Satan is always the ultimate source of persecution. In Smyrna, Satan worked through “false” Jews. In Pergamum, a center of Roman government, Satan works through political powers. Rome uses the power of the sword to persecute Christians.

 

Christ commends the church. In the midst of this persecution, the church has been faithful to Christ. Antipas, martyred for his faith, is a prominent example of this faithfulness.   

 

But there is a group within the church that is compromising with paganism (v 14). This compromise is understandable. In the Greco-Roman world, all guilds formally recognized Caesar’s deity. Guilds would hold festivals that included feasts (which would include emperor worship), food sacrificed to idols and in so doing “practice fornication.” Regarding the meaning of “fornication” in this context, Resseguie writes,

Fornication is metaphorical for compromising behavior in the religious, socioeconomic, and political spheres. [23]

 

Food Sacrificed to Idols: What is this about and why is it so dangerous for the churches?

The imperial cult engaged in a wide variety of worship events. Worship took place in sanctuaries, in trade and professional associations such as trade guilds, inprivate homes, and athletic events. Honor was given to various gods and deified emperors. At these worship events, banquets took place. At the banquets, food was served that had been used in worship as an offering to the gods.

 

To refuse to eat food sacrificed to idols would make life complicated. As Koester writes, “Christians might want to participate in private meals to maintain good relationships with family, friends, and business associates, yet doing so could give the impression that they honored gods in whom they did not believe. But refusing to join in such means was also a problem, since it risked offending people, which could make life socially and financially difficult.”[24]

 

To refuse to participate in the worship done by a guild could result in being removed from the guild and, therefore, the loss of one’s livelihood and social ostracism. So, some taught that accommodating to this culture was permissible. They said that accommodation was being patriotic—a good citizen. But Christ says these teachers are like Balaam, a pagan hired by Balak, king of Moab, to use Moabite women to seduce Israelites to idolatry and immorality (Num 22:5-25:3; 31:8, 16).

 

Paul had a nuanced approach to eating food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8 and 10). But Revelation clearly requires that the churches not eat food sacrificed to idols. To understand why Revelation takes this position, we need to understand the theme of true and false worship in the visions of Revelation 4-22. Koester describes this theme:

Scenes of heavenly worship center on the God who creates all things, acts justly, and brings salvation, and the Lamb who redeems people from every nation (4:11; 5:9-14; 7:9-14; 15:2-4; 19:1-4). Contrasting scenes show people worshiping the dragon and beast, which oppress people, slay the faithful, and ruin the earth (13:1-18). The vision of conflicting forms of worship challenge readers to ask where their loyalties lie—with God or with those who would take God’s place? By making sharp contrasts in the visionary world, the writer presses readers to see the implications of worship practices in their social world. They are to live out their identity as priests of God in contexts of competing religious claims (1:5-6; 5:9-10). [25]

 

The church is responsible to repent by holding these teachers accountable. If the church overcomes this sin of accommodation, God will be the One who provides manna that will sustain their lives eternally. They will be given “the white stone” which is the invitation to the heavenly banquet (Rev 19:9; 21:2). They also receive “a new name,” that is, a new identity. That new identity is the victorious name of Jesus who is the Word of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords (Rev 19:12, 13, 16).

 

Discussion Questions

  1. To you see evidence of any of the signs we discussed above?
  2. What possibilities do the signs point to?
  3. What is the church being called to do?
  4. Do you see any application for the church today?

 

The Church in Thyatira: Revelation 2:18-29

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: 19I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. 20But 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. 21I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22Beware, 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; 23and 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. 24But 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; 25only hold fast to what you have until I come. 26To 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—28even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. 29Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. 

 

Commentary on 2:18-29

What has the church done right? What are their challenges? What do we know about them?

 

It is important to affirm again that the purpose of John’s Apocalypse is not to make Christians long for a time in the future when they are finally removed from the challenges of this world. The purpose is to empower the Church to live faithfully and creatively in the present. As Richard Bauckham observes:

[Revelation] recognizes the way a dominant culture, with its images and ideals, constructs the world for us, so that we perceive and respond to the world in its terms. Moreover, it unmasks this dominant construction of the world as an ideology of the powerful which serves to maintain their power. In its place, Revelation offers a different way of perceiving the world which leads people to resist and to challenge the effects of the dominant ideology. [26]

 

The letter to the church in Thyatira begins with “the words of the Son of God.” Literally translated, the Greek is, “Thus says the Son of God.” Thyatira was the center of the cult of Augustus as “the son of god.” The letter to the church in Thyatira confronts that claim affirming that Jesus is the true Son of God. The words, “Thus says,” are the words of the Hebrew prophets who spoke God’s word to God’s people. So this is not simply a letter. It is the directive to the church from Jesus who is their prophet and the king of kings.

 

The Son of God makes a powerful affirmation of the works he sees in this church. They are:

  • Love (agape) for God and others: In other words, Christ sees and affirms their compassion and commitment.
  • Faithfulness (pistis) to God and the church: They bear witness even in the midst of conflict.
  • Service (diakonia) to those in need. Ian Boxall writes that this “is the quality of ministry exemplified by the Lord himself.”[27]
  • Endurance (hypomone) in the midst of persecution and false teaching: They have faithfully faced and dealt with these major challenges.

This is an impressive list. And the Son of God adds that they are growing in these qualities.

 

But there is a problem. Apparently, a minority of people in the church tolerate the teaching of a women who “calls herself a prophet” (v. 20) but is actually a false prophet. Here she is given the pseudonym, “Jezebel.” Why was this teacher in the church called “Jezebel”?

 

Perhaps you recall the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. We see Jezebel’s influence on Israel in that story. Here is the beginning of the story of Jezebel in 1 Kings 16:31-34. King Ahab (king of the northern Kingdom of Israel from 874-853 BCE). Ahab took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King (and Baal priest) Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him. 32He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33Ahab also made a sacred pole. Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.

 

This syncretism Jezebel initiated had a powerful impact on the people of Israel. It effectively undermined Israel’s faith in Yahweh who said in the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2). Jezebel also worked to kill the prophets of Israel.

 

Later in the story, Joram, Ahab and Jezebel’s son, became king of the northern Kingdom of Israel. The prophet Jehu confronts him saying, “What peace can there be, so long as the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue?” Then Joram reined about and fled, saying, “Treason!” (2 Kings 9:22-23).

 

The Hebrew scriptures frequently use the phrase, “whoredoms and sorceries,” to describe the worship of other gods. It is not referring to adultery and prostitution. It’s syncretism: the worship of gods other than Yahweh which is infidelity toward God (e.g. Ex 43:16; Lev 17:7; Deut 31:16; Judg 2:17; 8:33; Jer 2:1-3; Hos 1-3).

 

When Christ says, “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,” he is making a powerful statement against syncretism with pagan culture.

 

Beale reflects on what Jezebel is teaching. He writes,

The idols she was teaching about were economic idols, as Baal was for the Israelites. Israel did not think they were denying Yahweh, but they also worshiped Baal for prosperity of the economy. It appears that, under Jezebel’s influence, they [her followers] saw no inconsistency in doing this, since nations around Israel also worshiped multiple gods. “Jezebel” was teaching something similar in the church of Thyatira. [28]

 

Thyatira was a city with many trade guilds. As Koester writes,

Thyatira had a textile industry with associations of dyers, wool merchants, linen workers, and clothing cleaners. Other groups included coppersmiths, tanners, leather cutters, and bakers. The city was also a regional center in the Asian slave trade network. An inscription mentions a slave trader who oversaw the public market at Thyatira and funded festivities for the imperial cult…. There were civic events and gatherings of family and friends. [29]

 

Reddish describes on the challenge for wealthy and merchant class Christians,

At the feasts of the guilds, meat that had been offered to the gods was served. What was a Christian to do? Did eating such meat involve one in the worship of these other gods? The dilemma faced by these early Christians was one of assimilation to their culture. To what extent could one participate and not compromise one’s faith? [30]

 

“Jezebel” was teaching that eating food sacrificed to idols was no problem and many people in the church followed her teaching. Others may have disagreed but they tolerated her teaching. Perhaps she attracted wealthy merchants to the church because of her teaching. But for Christ, this syncretism with the idolatry that was embedded in the Greco-Roman economic system was not acceptable. We need to remember that this economic system was built on slavery, on the fixed stratification of society, and on the patronage system. Only the elite made economic decisions, and they made them with their own interests in mind.

 

Christ message continues,

22Beware, 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; 23and I will strike her children dead.

 

Obviously, adultery is committed on a bed. But adultery is a metaphor for eating food that has been offered in sacrifice to gods. The Greek word translated, “bed,” kline, is the same word used for the couches people recline on at banquets. Jezebel teaches that the accommodation of eating food sacrificed in the worship of gods at these banquets pleases both Rome and God. But Christ makes is clear that God is not pleased. For Jezebel, her approval of reclining on these couches will result in her reclining on a bed of illness. And those who follow her will experience “great distress.” Jezebel’s “children” are those who follow her teaching. The death they will incur is likely the “spiritual death” being removed from the church.

 

23bAnd 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. 24But 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; 25only hold fast to what you have until I come. 

 

The deep things of Satan refer to what Jezebel is teaching. In fact, it’s what we learn in our signposts. Koester explains, “John identifies such teaching with Satan, since he considers idolatry to be demonic (Rev 9:20; 13:4, 11-14).” [31]

 

26To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end,

 

In Rome, victorious armies wore the laurel crown of conquerors in the triumphal processions. But in Christ’s perspective, those who are faithful to him are the true conquers. They live the works of Christ to the end. Rather than lying and murdering, they commit themselves to truth, justice, compassion, community, and shalom.

 

26bI will give authority over the nations; 27 to rule them with an iron rod, as when clay pots are shattered—28even as I also received authority from my Father.

 

Like so much of Revelation, this verse is based on the Hebrew scripture, specifically Psalm 2:7-9,

7 I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
   today I have begotten you. 
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron,
   and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”  

 

In these verses from Psalm 2, God gives authority over the nations to God’s Son, the Messiah. To the faithful people in the church in Thyatira, people who have no power in the Roman Empire whatsoever, Christ gives that power. One of the profound messages of the Book of Revelation is how it transforms the ancient images of violence. As Koester writes,

The messianic Lion of Judah… exercises authority through his death as the Lamb (5:5-6). Through the shedding of his own blood, he builds the kingdom (1:5-6; 5:9-10). Similarly, the message to Thyatira says that Jesus’ followers conquer by keeping his works, which consist of love, faithfulness, service and endurance (2:19, 26). At present, the faithful break the power of the nations by their witness to God and Jesus. Their refusal to capitulate to the ways of the world is a victory for truth over falsehood. The promise also points to the culmination of the book, where the faithful are resurrected to endless life and reign with Christ in New Jerusalem. The surprise is that there, the nations no longer need the iron rod, for the turn to God and the Lamb for light and healing (21:24-26; 22:2). [32]

 

28bTo the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. 29Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. 

 

At the end of Revelation, the morning star is identified. Revelation 22:16 says, “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” 

 

As the morning star, Jesus is the sign that a new day is coming. That new day is the New Jerusalem “where the redeemed reign forever in Christ’s light (Rev 21:23; 22:5).” [33]

 

Discussion Questions

  1. To you see evidence of any of the signs we discussed above?
  2. What possibilities do the signs point to?
  3. What is the church being called to do?
  4. Do you see any application for the church today?

The Rev. Dr. David Smith

 

 

[1]https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sign

[2]Stanley J. Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, 198.

[3]https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/worship

[4]Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, 453.

[5]Quoted in R.W.L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, 37.

[6]Quoted in Moberly, 38.

[7]Ibid., 38.

[8]Ibid., 38-39.

[9]Quoted in Moberly, 36.

[10]https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/shows/eight-days-that-made-rome/1005670

[11]Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud(New York: Harper & Row, 1996).

[12]Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 13, quoted in Lundin, The Culture of Interpretation, 5.

[13]Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations(New York: Warner Books, 1979), 33, quoted in Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World,182.

[14]Colin Campbell, “Romanticism and the Consumer Ethic: Intimations of a Weber-style Thesis,” Sociological Analysis44 (Winter 1983), 285-286, quoted in Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World,216.

[15]Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 24-25, quoted in Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World,186.

[16]Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Proclamation Commentaries) (Kindle Locations 801-807). Kindle Edition.

[17]Ibid., 128.

[18]G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry Downers Grove: IL, 2008, 243.

[19]http://www.freebibleimages.org/illustrations/seven-churches-maps/

[20]Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Vision, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation, New York: Penguin Books, 2013, 55.

[21]from Pliny, Letters10.96-97, found at http://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html, accessed on 02.21.17.

[22]Pagels, ibid., 11-13, 47-49.

[23]James L. Resseguie, The Revelation of John, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009, 91.

[24]Koester, 99.

[25]Koester, 101.

[26]Bauckham, ibid., 159.

[27]Ian Boxall, The Revelation of St John, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006, 63.

[28]Beale, 248-249.

[29]Craig Koester, Revelation, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014, 295-296.

[30]Raddish, 64.

[31]Koester, 301.

[32]Koester, 309.

[33]Koester, 309.

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