Revelation Book Club, Class 3 Reading Resource

 

The Flow of Revelation

In our second meeting, we saw John’s vision of the glorified Christ. The people in the churches John was addressing knew the stories about Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension from the Gospels and the Book of Acts. And they certainly knew the story of Jesus’s Transfiguration. But when they heard John’s vision of the glorified Christ read in worship, it must have been awe-inspiring.

 

After their experience of hearing this vision, they heard Christ speaking directly to them. Christ addresses each of seven churches in the major cities of the Roman province of Asia. They knew that in Jewish apocalyptic, the number 7 is a symbol for “complete.” So they knew that all churches were being addressed, not just the seven. For this same reason know that the seven messages are given so that all churches in all times and places can learn how to live in the context of empire from Christ’s teaching.

 

In this session, we will study Christ’s word to the church in Ephesus. But before we listen to Christ’s directives to these churches, we need to continue our background study. Our focus in this session is the Roman Imperial Cult and the challenge of serving Christ as Lord in Roman society.

 

Introduction to the Imperial Cult

The questions Revelation poses for all times are: Who is the true ruler? Whom will you worship?

 

Rome merges political, economic, judicial and military policy with religion. It’s a brilliant move. It’s hegemony. In other words, Rome makes the imperial cult inviting and enjoyable so that people want to participate. And their participation in the imperial cult legitimizes Roman government policy. Imagine how much more powerful oppressive political power is when religion stands behind it!

 

What did the Roman imperial cult look like? Here’s snapshot from Steven Friesen, probably the foremost authority on the first century imperial cults in Roman Asia.

 

According to Friesen, the Roman imperial cult engaged entire communities in hugely popular activities. He writes, “Such cults were highly valued. They were sponsored by the whole province…. The cities of the province paid for a temple, and the koinon(community leaders) appointed a high priest or high priestess every year. High priests and high priestesses of Asia were required to pay for the animal sacrifices and festivities as part of their office.”[1]

 

But, Friesen adds, “imperial cults were not simply a game played by the elite to legitimize their dominance in society. Imperial cults were much more than that. Imperial cults were also bullfights, footraces, wrestling, public baths, concerts by male choruses, and festivals for a city’s ancestral divine protector. Imperial cults were inscribed on public buildings, on altars, on state bases, in gymnasia, in temples. They were proper expressions of reverence by ‘the small and the great, the rich and the poor, the free and the slaves’ (Rev 13:16). In short, the worship of the emperors was a crucial part of Asian society in the first century CE.”[2]

 

Is this a problem? Oppressive power made attractive, even god-like, by society? Everyone joining in? It appears to work for everyone! Friesen writes, “The inscriptions (found by archeologists) give us access to the dominant symbolic universe in first-century Asia, where noble families were represented as fulfilling their pious responsibilities. From this perspective, the aristocrats demonstrated their benevolence, reverence, and virtue by their service on behalf of cities, the province, the empire, the imperial families, the gods, and the goddesses. They won praise and honor. Their names graced buildings, their statues adorned the streets and marketplaces. The citizens, the city council, and the provincial koinonmade decisions on behalf of the people. The masses celebrated the festivals, they witnessed the sacrifices, the went to the bullfights and the baths, they benefited from the largess of the elite.”[3]

 

But Christ says that supporting oppressive power—political, economic, racial, military, judicial—because it benefits you is absolutely unacceptable. “John’s Revelation articulated a way for his hearers and readers to understand their world, a way that was at odds with the basic tenets of public culture…. In John’s view of the world, members of the indigenous elite received their authority from Satan. They were secondary figures, subservient to the demonic power of Rome that exploited the world for its own purposes. Wealthy Asians executed the will of the great oppressor Rome. In John’s view, the general populace was understood as pitifully mistaken. The participation of the masses in imperial cults was the result of the deceptions of the beast from the land. They had been misled by the spectacular signs, by the demonic authority, and by the threat of death of nonconformity. Their participation was leading them to destruction.”[4]

 

The Cost of Faithfulness to Christ in Roman Society

Larry Hurtado takes us a step farther in our understanding. He focuses on what a commitment to Christ cost Christians living in the Roman Empire. There were political costs and social costs.

 

The Political Cost

In the first century Roman Empire, persecution of Christians did take place. But it was sporadic, intermittent and dependent on the whims of the local and/or imperial authorities. There was no official Roman policy regarding Christians. One of the worst persecutionsn the first century was carried out by Nero in the city of Rome. And it was horrific.

 

As Larry Hurtado writes, “To become a Christian [in the first three centuries] was typically fraught with seriouspotentialconsequences. Some Christians suffered the hostile attentions of political authorities, although for the first couple of centuries these situations seem to have been sporadic and localized.” [5]

 

The Book of Revelation is focused on seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. John, the author of Revelation, is exiled on the Island of Patmos because of his faith (Rev 1:9). In the seven churches, only one person, Antipas, is named for suffering persecution for his faith. Christ describes Antipas as “my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you” (Rev 2:13).

 

There was no organized, systematic political persecution of Christians in first century Asia. However, Revelation is filled with the warning that if Christians are faithful to Christ, political persecution may be expected. As Richard Bauckham writers, “it is not simply because Rome persecutes Christians that Christians must oppose Rome. Rather it is because Christians must disassociate themselves from the evil of the Roman system that they are likely to suffer persecution.”[6]

 

The Social Cost

Certainly, Christians were aware of the potential political costs of faithfulness to Christ. But in all likelihood, the social costs were a daily experience. The Roman Empire was overflowing with gods and with associations, that is, people joining together in groups for a wide variety of reasons. Philip Harland, one of the foremost authorities on these associations, lists the types of groups in the Roman province of Asia as follows: domestic, neighborhood, ethnic, groups with a deity in its name, occupational guilds, professional groups, groups of performers, athletes, gladiators, soldiers, gymnasts. And Harland lists groups activities as: dancing, festivals, initiations, processions, purifications, sacrifices, meals, and singing.[7]   

 

Groups and gods filled daily activities in society. And the activities of all groups involved the worship of gods. In the Roman world, the worship of other gods was a problem for both Christians and Jews. But it tended to be more of a problem for Christians in one sense. At this point in time, Jews were primarily identified by ethnicity. But the Church, founded by Jews, was intentionally growing beyond Jewish ethnicity to include more and more Gentiles. When Revelation was written toward the end of the first century, the vast majority of new Christians were Gentiles. As former “pagans” (not a pejorative term but the term used for people who are not monotheists), all of them had a history of participating in these social groups and worshipping other gods.

 

Hurtado expands on this reality:

It is probably the case that the social costs of becoming a Christian were exceptional in comparison with any other kind of voluntary religious choice of the time. In particular, if you became an adherent of almost any other religious group in the ancient world, this had no necessary effect upon your other religious duties or choices. You retained your ancestral deities and rites, and, indeed, could join more than one voluntary religious group without any sense of offense against any of the deities involved. But for Christian converts to observe conscientiously the demands that their faith laid upon them meant an exclusivist stance, abstaining from the worship of all deities other than the one God and Jesus. This had far-reaching implications for a Christian’s social existence.

 

Given the ubiquitous place of the various deities of the time in practically all areas of life, a conscientious refusal to honor the gods made it necessary to consider how to handle pretty much every social responsibility and activity. If you were a Christian living in a pagan household, for example a Christian wife of a pagan husband, or a Christian slave of a pagan master, how should you respond to the expectation of all members of the Roman household to participate in honoring the household deities (Lares)? If you were a member of a vocational guild, such as bakers or fishermen, what should you do at meetings when the tutelary deity of the guild was honored, e.g., with a libation? If you were invited to dine with relatives and/or friends in the temple of a pagan deity, should you accept the invitation? What about invitations to dine in the homes of pagan acquaintances? In these and many other settings, Christians face choices, often hard choices, about how to conduct themselves. And, however they responded to these questions, I repeat that the necessity to do so seems to have been unique to Christian converts in the Roman era.[8]

Reasons for Hostility Toward Christians

Hurtado writes, “The basic reasons for the social and judicial hostility experienced by early Christians and reflected in the texts we have been examining are these: the ubiquitous place of the pagan gods in the social life of the time, and the Christian requirement to abstain from joining in the reverencing of the traditional gods. Given these two factors, it was, thus, almost impossible to avoid a clash, or at least serious tensions, between the common expectations that people should join in honoring the gods in practically every social venue, and the contrasting behavioral demands of the Christian faith, especially with reference to what Christians were supposed to deem “idolatry.”

 

The title of Keith Hopkins’s book on the Roman period, A World Full of Gods, vividly captures this pervasiveness of various divine beings and many observations in their honor. In practically every social setting, there were several kinds of deities that were acknowledged. He writes:

 

The Roman world was chock-full of religiosity, with a dizzying array of religious groups, movements, customs, activities and related paraphernalia.

 

Roman homes, for example, typically had shrines for honoring the guardian divinities of the household, and participation was expected of all members of the household. Civic and public offices typically involved religious connotations and responsibilities, such as leading in the ceremonies held in honor of the deities that guarded the city. There were deities that upheld the larger Roman imperial order, such as the goddess Roma, and the divinized emperors as well, and participation in the rituals directed to these state divinities was expressive of a loyalty to, and enthusiasm for, Roman rule. Associations of trades people had the respective patron deities, and meetings typically included at least token ritual actions to acknowledge and honor them. Military units had their various patron divinities and there were regular rituals in honor of them. Indeed, practically any formal dinner included ritual acknowledgement of deities, and were often held in rooms that were part of the temple of this or that god. In short, birth, death, marriage, the domestic space, civil and wider political life, trades and work, the military, socializing, entertainment, arts and music were all imbued with religious significance and association with various kinds of divine beings…. Major and central portions of civic space were occupied by temples to various deities, and these were often the most impressive buildings in urban areas….

 

There were public ceremonies in honor of various gods. These included processions of priests and devotees accompanied by musicians and elaborate performances by mimes and players who acted out the myths of the gods. Images of the gods were paraded, and the event might finish with a ceremony in the temples of various deities, and perhaps animal sacrifices that then provided the basis for a banquet. There were also often daily ceremonies for various gods, such as those attested for Isis, which involved the ritual opening of her temples in the morning and closing them in the  evening, and public bathing and dressing of the image of the goddess, all of these actions involved elaborate gestures and often accompanied by music and singing In view of the large number of deities in the Roman era, especially in larger cities one might have been able to witness public ceremonies any day of the week, larger and more elaborate ones at various points in the year.

 

But I emphasize again that acknowledging and reverencing the varies pagan deities ran through the whole of Roman-era society, not only in formal and public ceremonies, but also in small, informal occasions such as meals of guilds, voluntary associations and even families. As noted in passing already, social meals often/typically included a token libation poured out to a designated deity, and sometimes social dinners were held specifically I n honor of a given god. Invitations to such occasions might well have been delivered orally, but examples of written invitations survive as well…. The meals that followed sacrifices to gods were overtly cult-meals, and partaking was itself participation in the worship of the deity to whom the sacrifice had been offered. But, to underscore the point, various (perhaps most) other social occasions, especially those in which food was shared, also involved at least ritual gestures acknowledging this or that deity. It would have been difficult, thus, for Christians to have participated in a wide variety of social occasions without having to consider whether they could do so in good conscience.

 

A refusal to take part in the religious ceremonies of household, guild, or city would have aroused puzzlement, even suspicion, resentment and anger from other pagans. An unwillingness to join in daily acknowledgement of the guardian spirits of the home would likely have been regarded by others in the home as registering some sort of disloyalty to the household. Moreover, they might well feel that such actions could anger guardian spirits as well, which could expose the household to dangers such as illness. Individuals may have been able more quietly to absent themselves from civic processions and other public ceremonies. But this, too, was perhaps not quite as easy as all that, for other members of one’s family or social circle might well notice conspicuous absences. Also, what was a Christian to do when invited by relatives or acquaintances to various dining occasions, which would likely involve some acknowledgement of a pagan deity?[9]

 

I note again that those who were engaged in businesses would have faced questions arising from adopting Christian faith. They likely would have wanted to maintain social and business ties, and that would have involved social occasions in which pagan deities might be acknowledged. If they were members of a guild, could they take part in meetings and group dinners in which a libation to the tutelary deities featured? If they absented themselves, this might well have produced hostility from other guild members. If Christians attended, what should they do? Quietly acquiesce, or look the other way, or stare at their feet? For others as well, then as now, social dining was a setting in which people formed and maintained associations expected of them, and at such events also there would often have been rituals acknowledging deities. By taking part in such occasions was a Christian tacitly participating inappropriately in reverencing these deities? And what level of participation was inappropriate? This sort of question was relevant, practically unavoidable, for almost any kind of social event.[10]

Conclusion

In his book, Reading Revelation Responsibly, Michael Gordon writes:

 

As Christian individuals and communities in Asia Minor interacted with family members, friends, business associates, and public officials who did not share their conviction that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ the basic early Christian confession (Rom 10:9), these believers were faced with hard questions and decisions. Should they continue to participate in social activities that have a pagan (non-Jewish, non-Christian) religious character? This would include most activities: watching or participating in athletic and rhetorical contests; buying and eating meat in the precincts of pagan temples; and frequenting trade guilds, clubs, and events in private homes, each with their meetings, drinking parties, and banquets. They would even have wondered, “Should we or can we go to pagan temples to do our banking or purchase meat? Should we acknowledge the sovereignty of the emperor when asked to do so at a public event in the precincts of his temple, or at another of the many events in his honor?

 

Some believers continued to participate in such activities, while others did not. It was the latter group that created serious social conflict. Their confession of Jesus’ lordship and their separation from normal Greco-Roman religious, social, and political activity was seen by pagan non-believers—that is, by most people in their cities—as unpatriotic and atheistic. Some of them were harassed unofficially, but some were likely excluded from guilds and others investigated by government officials. At least one of them (John) was exiled as punishment for his behavior. He says that his experience was not isolated, but part of a larger event of testimony and persecution. At least one of the faithful was actually killed, either by mob or by official action: Antipas of Pergamum (2:13). There may have been others….

 

The target of Revelation’s prophetic critique is imperial idolatry (civil religion) and injustice (military, economic, political, and religious oppression), and specifically Rome’s imperial idolatry and injustice…. Furthermore, the target of Revelation’s critique is not limited to Rome. “Babylon” means Rome, but it also means something more than Rome. Indeed, the absence of the word “Rome” from Revelation is significant, even if Rome is in view. The absence of the word forbids us, so to speak, from limiting Revelation’s significance to the first century…. Revelation is a critique of all idolatries and injustices similar to those of Rome, throughout history and into the present.[11] 

Growth of the Church

Given these challenging circumstances, the growth of the early church is astonishing. In his book, Destroyer of the gods, Larry Hurtado tells the story of the growth of the church. He writes:

 

About 30 AD, a new religious movement appeared, initially comprising circles of Jews in Roman Judaea, in which Jesus was central in its beliefs and practices. At some point thereafter (scholars debate exactly when), but certainly by the latter part of the first century AD, adherents of this movement began to be referred to as ‘Christians,’ initially by outsiders; and by the second century, the movement came to be known as ‘Christianity’…. Within a decade or two, it had spread to a number of cities in present-day Turkey and Greece, also Rome, and likely other places as well, such as Alexandria (Egypt). Initially made up of Jews, the movement also quickly expanded transethnically to include non-Jews, ‘Gentile’ converts, that is, former ‘pagans.’

 

To take a set of estimates now often cited by scholars, there may have been about one thousand Christians in 40AD, about seven to ten thousand by 100 AD, about two hundred thousand or a bit more by 200 AD, and by 300 AD perhaps five to six million. One recent estimate of the number of sites where there were bodies or ‘communities’ of Christians posits a hundred or so (many of these comprising several house-based groups) by 100 AD and two hundred to four hundred sites by 200 AD. In the early third century, the Christian writer Tertullian claimed that Christians were numerous, ‘all but the majority in every city.’[12]

Yes, given the costs of being a Christian in the Roman Empire, this growth is astonishing!

 

We now turn our attention to Christ’s directives to seven churches living in the context 0f the Roman Empire—the context we learned about above. What will Christ say to them? We begin with his letter to the church in Ephesus.

 

The Greco-Roman Context of the Church in Ephesus

Ephesus was the largest city in Asia Minor and Rome’s center for the administration in Asia. Koester writes,

Its harbor made it a hub in a network of seaborne commerce, and a well-developed road system gave it access to inland markets. It was the largest emporium in Asia. Enormous sums of money were kept in the temple of Artemis, making Ephesus a center for finance…. There were fishermen, fish merchants, linen weavers, wool dealers, bakers, potters, silversmiths, and carpenters. Ephesian slaver dealers sold slaves for local use and shipped many to Rome and other markets.[13]

David Barr adds,

The great temple to Artemis that Ephesus built was called one of the wonders of the ancient world. A monumental marble structure—the largest in the Hellenic world—built on swampy ground, it was an engineering wonder. And it housed the worship of a very important deity: the Ephesian Artemis, whom the Romans called Diana.[14]

Ephesus also had a temple dedicated to the emperor Augustus, another for the Egyptian god Sarapis, and another for the emperor Domitian. Nero built a sports stadium also used for gladiatorial contests. There also was a gymnasium complex, public baths, a theater with seating for 24,000 and a huge market surrounded by a colonnade filled with hundreds of statues honoring Roman leaders and gods.

 

Throughout the city there were affirmations of the imperial cult—the worship of the emperor and the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods. Just walking into the city, one passed through the monumental city gate built in 3 BCE and dedicated to “the emperor Caesar Augustus, son of god and high priest” (pontifex maximus).

 

The images here of Augustus and his wife, Livia, are not from Ephesus but are representative of imperial cult images.

 

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus. Pontifex Maximus means “chief high priest”—the highest position in the Roman Imperial Cult. [15] 

 

An imperial cult statue of Livia, Augustus’ wife, as the goddess Opis with a sheaf of wheat and a cornucopia.[16]

 

Question: What do these images say about each of these people?

 

Landmarks in Ephesus:

The Grand Theater of Ephesus. It’s mentioned in the book of Acts (Chapter 19), where a riot started against Paul. [17]

 

The Temple of Artemis—one of the Seven wonders of the world. [18]

 

The Celsus Library [19]

 

The magnificent buildings, statues, and images including those on Roman coins; the multiple, impressive cult activities plus the flourishing economy create a noise that shouts for undivided attention. It’s not unlike the way our 24-hour news cycle, sports, entertainment, smart phones, iPads and endless opportunities grasp our attention today.

 

The question is: who will hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches? At the end of each letter we hear these words, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). Revelation begins with, “blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in [the book]” (1:3) and just before the end implores, “Come out of [Babylon], my people, so that you do not take part in her sins” (18:4).

 

Revelation 2:1-7

1To 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: 2I 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. 3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember 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. 6Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7Let 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.

 

Notes on Rev 2:1-7

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: (2:1)

  • Each letter begins, “To the angel of the church in” followed by the name of the city.
  • According to Resseguie, each of the seven churches is represented by an angel. The angel in heaven embodies the inner reality of the church on earth. He writes, “The angels of the churches most likely represent the spiritual condition of the church…. The messages to the churches are addressed to angels because the churches’ inner nature needs to change.”[20]

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: (2:1)

  • The stars represent the seven angels who represent the seven congregations.
  • The seven lampstands represent the seven churches.
  • Koester writes, “The lampstand imagery suggests first that they are communities of worship within the tradition of Israel. Just as a seven-branched lampstand stood before God with in the sanctuary, their congregations stand before the risen Christ (1:12).”[21]
  • Clearly, Christ is intimately aware of the spiritual condition of each church. As churches, Christ our Lord is in our midst.

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.  3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. (2:2-3)

  • Unlike earlier in church history, at this point “apostles” are people like Barnabas and Timothy who are engaged in missionary activity.
  • Resseguie observes, “The identity of the false apostles is unknown, but their presence at Ephesus points to one of the main conflicts in the book: falsehood versus truth. The Ephesians defeat evil with their toil, patience, and intolerance of evil.”[22]

4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. (2:4)

  • There are several words for “love” in Greek. The primary ones are: ἀγάπη agape (“unconditional”);ἔρως érōs(“erotic”); and φιλία philia(“friendship”). The Greek word translated, “love,” in this verse is “agape.” It’s the unconditional love God has for us. Paul says, “God proves his love (agape) for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
  • So the church has a passion for truth but has lost the unconditional love for God and one another that also reflects who God is. How could this happen? Ian Boxall observes, “Passion for truth, especially religious truth, can so easily degenerate into an unloving witch-hunt against those with whom one disagrees.”[23] In other words, it’s what happens when I have come to the conclusion that I’m right and you’re wrong and therefore believe I am justified in rejecting you.
  • The church has developed a keen sense of who is on the right side and who is on the wrong side when it comes to participating in the imperial cult. But they have abandoned the unconditional love they formerly had for God and one another. They have become highly critical, fault finding and arrogantly look down on those they believe are wrong. Assuming they are right and others are wrong, they withdraw from others.

Note: Reflecting on the life of Christ, the apostle John writes in his gospel, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The church in Ephesus assumes it’s following Christ—discerning and following the truth. But without love, they are not following Christ.

 

 5Remember 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. (2:5)

  • Agape, unconditional love, is the love that not only unites the church and makes it a community, but also is the DNA that identifies the church as belonging to God and Christ.
  • Notice the three imperative verbs from Christ: “remember,” “repent,” and “do” the works they did at first. If the church does not live out these commands, it’s very actions will contradict the identity of Christ and in so doing will be removing Christ from its life. As Reddish says, “The people would have the outward trappings of a church, but they would be spiritually dead.”[24]
  • In other words, it will become a church in name only, devoid of the presence of Christ. So the church will actually be living a lie which will be disastrous both for the church and the witness of the church in the world.
  • What’s your observation or reaction to this?

6Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of [not the people who are called – DAS] the Nicolaitans, which I also hate [and for whom I died on the cross – DAS]. (2:6)

  • James Resseguie writes, “Like the Israelites who fell into idolatry on their trek to the promised land, Christians are tempted to put down roots in Babylon [the symbolic name John gives Rome] and abandon their trek to the new promised land. The Jezebels, Balaams, and Nicolaitans are the voices of Babylon within the Christian communities urging compromise and assimilation.”[25]

7Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches (2:7)

  • Is this the Spirit speaking or Christ? Are they the same? Koester writes, “The Spirit does speak with its own voice and even calls on Christ to “Come” (Rev 14:13; 22:17). The Spirit can be distinguished from Jesus yet does not work independently 0f Jesus. The Spirit of prophecy is the witness of Jesus (19:10).”[26]
  • One of the main themes throughout the Book of Revelation is the danger of idolatry. That’s a word that, to our great loss, is no longer in our vocabulary. The loss of that word is a great loss because when we lose the word, we lose the concept. Idolatry simply means loving something more than God. And the Bible as a whole and certainly the Book of Revelation affirm that idolatry is the root of human sin.
  • The Bible teaches that we are created in the image of God. The Hebrew word translated, “image,” is the word, “mirror.” In other words, to be human is to accurately mirror who God is. But when our primary focus is something other than God (which is idolatry), we “miss the mark” of genuine humanness. “Missing the mark” is the definition of the Bible’s primary word for “sin.” But notice, this is not about morality, it is about failing to accurately mirror God in our both our worship and our actions. To put it in other words, it’s a failure to live the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “hallowed be thy name.” That phrase literally means, “let other people see who you are, God, your holiness, your uniqueness, by what I say and do.”
  • The Bible has a great deal to say about idolatry and its toxicity. When our main priority is something other than God, that priority (idol) holds us in its grip. This dangerous characteristic of idolatry is told in a passage that is repeated throughout the Bible. Here’s an example: Psalm 115:4-8

4 Their idols are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
5 They have mouths, but do not speak;
    eyes, but do not see.
6 They have ears, but do not hear;
    noses, but do not smell.
7 They have hands, but do not feel;
    feet, but do not walk;
    they make no sound in their throats.
8 Those who make them are like them;
    so are all who trust in them.

  • When the church does not intentionally discern, listen to and following the Spirit, it is practicing idolatry. It is devoted to a different priority.
  • The problem is that we are all created in the image of God. In other words, to be human is to reflect God. When we practice idolatry, we live out self-centered agendas rather than the love, justice, righteousness and compassion that God embodies. As Psalm 115 says, we, in a sense, become dead. Unable to hear the Spirit’s voice, end up violating both ourselves and others.
  • It’s right here where we see the ultimate importance of John’s message. The church must not participate in the imperial cult or it will be the church in name only. Then the church becomes toxic to itself and society because it’s living a lie. The solution begins with the church giving herself to the true worship of the living, unconditionally loving God.

To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God. (2:7)

  • Koester writes, “Revelation transforms the images of conquest and victory, which brought high honor in Greco-Roman culture, into a call for Christians to resist aspects of that culture. Faithfulness to Jesus could bring dishonor in society, yet in Christ’s eyes the faithful are worthy of the victory wreath (Rev 2:10; 3:11).”[27]

This statue of Artemis is found in her temple in Ephesus, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The goddess Artemis was a fertility goddess. Some say the ornaments on her chest in this statue are breasts; others say they are fruit. Either way, those who worshiped Artemis saw her as a kind of tree or source of life.

  • We read about the tree of life in the paradise of God in Revelation 22:2. There, in the New Jerusalem, John describes the tree of life this way. It has “twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
  • John is making clear here that there is only one true source of life – and that is relationship with God. Whatever Artemis and the rest of the pagan pantheon have to offer is not truly life.

The Rev. Dr. David Smith and The Rev. Fran Gardner-Smith

 

NOTES:

[1]Steve J. Friesen, “The Beast from the Land,” in Reading the Book of Revelation, (ed. David L. Barr. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 51-52.

[2]Ibid., 59.

[3]Ibid., 64.

[4]Ibid., 64.

 

[5]Larry W. Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2016, 1.

[6]Richard Bauckham The Theology of the Book of Revelation Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 38.

[7]http://philipharland.com/greco-roman-associations/

[8]Hurtado, Why on Earth, 14-15.

[9]Hurtado, Why on Earth, 73-78.

[10]Hurtado, Why on Earth, 93-94.

[11]Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011, 31-34.

[12]Larry W. Hurtado Destroyer of the gods, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016, 2-4.

[13]Koester, ibid., 256.

[14]David L. Barr, Tales of the End, Salem: OR, Polebridge Press, 2012, 78.

[15]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontifex_maximus

[16]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livia

[17]http://www.ephesustravelguide.com/denizhans-blog/private-christian-heritage-tours-of-ephesus

[18]http://virtualreconstruction.com/wp/?p=605

[19]http://virtualreconstruction.com/wp/?p=579

[20]Ibid., 81-82.

[21]Koester, ibid., 255.

[22]Resseguie, ibid., 86.

[23]Ian Boxall, Commentary on the Revelation of St John, London: A&C Black, 2006, 50.

[24]Mitchell G. Reddish,Revelation, Macon, GA: Smyth&Helwys, 2001, 54.

[25]James L. Resseguie, The Revelation of John, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009, 36.

[26]Koester, ibid., 265.

[27]Ibid., 265.

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