Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 6

For the next few weeks I'll be posting on Revelation 2:1-3:22 - the Seven Letters to the Churches - out of my new book Living Apocalypse: A Revelation Reader and A Guide for the Perplexed.

The Letter to Pergamum (2:12-17)


Pergamum was not a city noted for its commerce, but for its great library and its importance as a center for many different forms of religious activity. In this regard, the imperial cult (emperor worship) was prominent, though not exclusive. The pagan god Asclepis was well known here and many came to the city to be healed. Temples to Zeus were in operation and several temples devoted to emperor worship existed. Living in Pergamum, surrounded by this deceptive religious environment, Christians were facing serious challenges to their faith.


(12) The familiar phrase ‘these are the words’ affirms the prophetic announcement. This time it is made by the One with the sharp two-edged sword. The reference goes back to 1:16 and confirms that Christ is the speaker.

(13) Christ’s words “I know where you live,” shows us his personal knowledge of their situation. He is in their midst. The reference to “where Satan has his throne” may be tied in with the fact that city of Pergamum was the center of the imperial cult, which propagated emperor worship. In these overwhelmingly pagan conditions the Christians had remained faithful. This portrayal suggests that difficulties in maintaining their faith had been experienced. No doubt, as mentioned, this involved the martyrdom of Antipas, a faithful witness to Christ.

(14-15) Christ has a few things against the church. Some in their midst hold to the teachings of Balaam, probably a typological reference, which represents incorrect and misleading teaching. Such a false perspective manifests itself through the Nicolaitans. As Balaam had misled the Israelites in the Old Testament resulting in their apostasy through idolatry and immorality (Num. 25:1, 31:16), so now the Nicolaitans were doing the same kind of thing in the midst of the church. They seem to be an enemy from within. The Nicolaitans’ standard is one of compromise with their pagan environment. Perhaps, they were saying, ‘Oh yes, faith in Christ is important, but it is not important enough to be persecuted for. It really doesn’t matter if one compromises and worships the emperor and is involved in all sorts of pagan activity.’ Compromise, not confrontation, was the way to survive. Where are we today? Lamentably, notions of compromise proliferate in the church, while confrontation is rare.

There is a fine line here between legalism and liberty. Where are we to confront, rather than compromise with our surroundings and contemporary lifestyle? How far do we go in the pursuit of personal peace and affluence, versus deciding what is right and wrong? Take the examples of divorce and prosperity. Sadly, the rate of divorce in the church today is almost as high as outside it. In many cases this is a result of compromise, often for nothing more than convenience or the fulfilment of immoral desires on the part of men and women. And prosperity has become the bane of the church. When riches are more important than people we’ve lost our way. Christians must stand together in confrontation, not compromise! Graciously challenging our culture and the church that follows it for the sake of Christ, is one of our vital callings.

(16) In addition, the whole church is to repent. What a revolutionary idea. Imagine the whole church in a city or country today recognizing the need to repent and begin anew. This could start with a mass public confession that we have sinned and not loved as we should. God forgive us and bring us a new beginning.

The church’s integrity and credibility in Pergamum is severely threatened. Some have accommodated to immorality and idolatry and must become more like the church at Ephesus in their testing of false apostles and their unwillingness to tolerate such compromise (see 2:2). A failure to repent will result in Christ coming in judgement, both to the church and those responsible for the things taking place.

(17) The conclusion incorporates two promises to the faithful. First, the hidden manna may allude to the tradition of the manna hidden by Jeremiah at the time of the destruction of the temple. There was a golden pot of manna kept in the temple (see Ex. 16:32-34; Heb. 9:4), and when the temple disappeared it was thought that this would re-appear with the arrival of the Messiah.

It is probably fair to see the manna as a reference to everlasting life, much as the tree of life was in the letter to Ephesus. Perhaps, the image refers to John 6:25-59. Here the manna is given in the desert, but it is not true bread. The fathers eat, but yet they die.

However, in Jesus, God gives true bread. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever as Jesus is the living bread which came down from heaven (see Jn. 6:47-51, 58). There may also be a contrast here between the eating of food sacrificed to idols and being given hidden manna to eat. Those who eat food sacrificed to idols in this context are faced with the sword of Christ, while those who overcome are given everlasting life.

The second promise, ‘a white stone with a new name on it known only to the receiver,’ is more cryptic. Numerous interpretations for this are in play, but we will stay with those most relevant to the context, while at the same time acknowledging that it is impossible to be able to decode this symbolism with any certainty as to the text’s meaning.

One possible interpretation is that the ‘white stone’ refers to a jury acquittal. In ancient times, a white stone was given to one who was innocent and a black stone was given to those found guilty. In this case, the white stone signifies the victor’s acquittal on the day of judgement.

A different possibility considers the ‘white stone’ a ticket of admission to festivals or assemblies. This could relate to the messianic banquet and therefore be some sort of extension of the idea already found concerning the hidden manna.

On the other hand, some would see the reference to the ‘new name’ known only to the receiver as carrying the major emphasis. From a biblical point of view, ‘name’ may have to do with character. If this is the case, the new name refers to the quality, nature, or status of the receiver. In other words, the new name was a reference to the receiver’s new character and known only to the receiver in the sense that one’s reception of it is between he or she and God.

If this is so, the reception of this new character is and must be embraced and experienced by the one who overcomes. This means that no one can receive this reality and assurance for us, nor can we live on the basis of another’s experiences. The reality of new life must be experienced now by each person as we look forward in hope to its final completion and our eventual and ultimate transformation on the glorious day when we are privileged to see Christ face to face. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”


We explored the second and third letters to the churches in 2:8-17. In both letters we noted the identification of Christ as the speaker, referring us back to chapter 1.

The words are those of the First and the Last (2:8) and the One who has the sharp double edged sword (2:12).

In the letter to Smyrna, it was pointed out that in some sense they were poor—yet rich. They were, in fact, spiritually rich, though they suffered afflictions and were about to suffer even more. They were tested by the devil for a period of time, but in the midst of this they were called to be faithful, despite facing the ultimate and devastating consequence of death. Anyone who overcomes will not be harmed by the second death or the finality of death.

Four things stand out in this letter:

1) Christ is the speaker and has authority to speak as the First and the Last, as the One who died and came to life.

2) Christ knows the situation of the church at Smyrna. He recognizes their poverty but proclaims them to be rich.

3) Believers are being persecuted and will be tested by the devil.

4) Believers are called to be faithful in spite of this persecution, with the promise that the one who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.

After Smyrna, the next letter is addressed to Pergamum. It is evident that this church is suffering persecution by an extremely pagan and hostile environment as well. In face of this persecution, they have not renounced Christ, but have remained true to his name and faithful to his authority.

In this letter, however, there are a few things stated against this church. There are some in their midst who hold to false teaching. The whole church is called to repent or face judgement.

Anyone who overcomes will be given the sustenance of hidden manna and a cryptic white stone with a new name.

Four things stand out in this letter:

1) Christ is the speaker and has the authority to speak as the One with the sharp double edged sword.

2) He knows their situation and that they have remained strong and not renounced their faith in spite of persecution stemming from their pagan surroundings.

3) They must purge the false teaching and are called to repent or face judgement.

4) The one who overcomes will be given everlasting life.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

The ZigZag Café

We will be convening here at the ZigZag café, Suisse, on Thursdays for conversation and dialogue.

I invite you to stop by every Thursday for the question of the day. Your thoughts and participation are most welcome. Pull up a stool, avec un café, un thé, ou un chocolat chaud, et un croissant, and join in here on Thursday at the ZZ café.

For today:

If you don’t go to church, why not?


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 5

For the next few weeks I'll be posting on Revelation 2:1-3:22 - the Seven Letters to the Churches - out of my new book Living Apocalypse: A Revelation Reader and A Guide for the Perplexed.

The Letter to Smyrna (2:8-11)


Smyrna was a large city with a passionate loyalty to Rome. There were temples erected to the goddess of Rome and to many Roman leaders. Christians in Smyrna were surrounded by this pagan environment and challenged to live in allegiance to the crucified and risen One. This is both a joy and a task. We may find ourselves in quite similar situations, needing insightful guidance and true wisdom in following in the footsteps of Christ.


(8) “These are the words” is an affirmation of the prophetic character of what is to follow. The identification of the speaker as the First and the Last, the One who died and has come to life, refers back to 1:17-18. There is again in this letter the explicit relationship of the risen Christ to the church. To those facing persecution, even death, he is the victor and is in their midst.

(9) Christ knows their difficulties. He is aware of their poverty, which may have been brought about by the confiscation of their goods and property. Even in the midst of these problems he says, “You are rich.” This is likely to be a reference to their spiritual richness. We can contrast this with the letter to Laodicea (3:17-18):

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; white clothes to wear, so you can cover your nakedness

This is such a good lesson for us to hear. Similar to the Laodiceans, we often equate material possessions with riches. It would seem, on the contrary, that true riches are spiritual. In 3:18 one is counseled to buy from Christ gold refined in the fire, the true way to become rich. Purity comes from Christ alone.

The thought here stands against much of what we are bombarded with in our own day concerning values and wealth. We can say there are two senses of being rich and two senses of being poor. In each case both are dependent on one’s relationship to Christ. Consider and ponder these important words for yourself and the church today!

The next part of the verse shows that the Jews themselves were likely to have been involved in the persecution of Christians at Smyrna. In this case the persecutors may have been Jews according to the flesh, since in the New Testament a true Jew is one who is in Christ (Rom. 2:28-29).

These persecutors of the Smyrnian Christians were not really Jews in this sense. They had in fact degenerated into becoming Satan’s advocates (see John 8:42-47). The ‘synagogue of Satan’ may refer to a specific Jewish synagogue in the city where there was a particular anti-Christian attitude resulting in persecution of the Christian community.

(10) It is worth noting again the motif running through the book that things may get even worse, but believers are not to fear. Even though persecution takes place through the Jews, Roman authorities, or others, it is ultimately the devil that is at the root of the problem. This motif comes to its summit in 17:1-18:24 where we find the judgement on Babylon. Deception and evil continue until the ultimate defeat of the devil himself in 20:1-15.

It is important to remember in the Apocalypse and in some sense throughout Scripture that there is this conflict between sovereignties, which in this book is clearly resolved with God as victor (also Eph. 6:10-18). Some of the believers will therefore suffer and be put into prison for an indefinite period of time. The devil will put them to the test. For some this may ultimately result in death for their faith and believers are called to be faithful even in the midst of horrendous circumstances. They are encouraged not to give up. The Lamb is, and will be, victorious.

This is another vital lesson for us. In the midst of trials and tribulations one is to hold on to life, not death. I would suggest that there may be some confusion for us here as many of us may be in the habit of embracing death rather than life. We are attracted to false apostles, chase after idols, and are enamoured with material possessions. The call is to be faithful. But to what? To God, to Christ and his redeeming work, and to the ultimate difference that work makes to the orientation or goal of one’s life. This should be a powerful reality in our lives. If it is not, we should be asking ourselves some serious questions. Do we really believe, and if so are we choosing and acting in accord with our belief? What a tremendous challenge for the church. Choosing and acting on God’s revelation means far more than just talking about it. Faith is an action and a choice that has an impact on the world for the sake of Christ and his redemption.

Maybe we need to be in the position of suffering persecution for there to be that ‘cutting edge’ necessity of holding firm to the faith. Do we have it too easy? By this I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of our own struggles, but only to say that in whatever the circumstances, we are called to choose life and to act upon it. We must affirm this reality through our choices and actions and work out our salvation for God is at work in us (Phil. 3:12-21).

(11) We again have the formulaic closing of the promise to the one who remains faithful and overcomes. This one will not be hurt by the second death, which in the Apocalypse is seen as final destruction, whereas the first death is merely physical. The relevance of this verse, for both the Christians at Smyrna and for us, is clear.

In some cases there will be periods of trial, even to the extent of death. Death at the hands of others is a travesty, but ultimately irrelevant when compared with the awesome judgement of God. Everyone who overcomes persecution will receive the crown of life, emphatically contrasted here with the destiny of the second death. Both are real prospects; therefore, those who already possess life must take care to hold on to it in all circumstances as they look forward to receiving the crown. In this way the faithful will avoid God’s punishment and therefore live forever in his presence. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 4

For the next few weeks I'll be posting on Revelation 2:1-3:22 - the Seven Letters to the Churches - out of my new book Living Apocalypse: A Revelation Reader and A Guide for the Perplexed.

The Letter to Ephesus (2:1-7)


Ephesus was one of the prominent cities of the ancient world and may have even been the greatest in all of Asia Minor. The famous temple of Artemis was located there, as well as two temples devoted to emperor worship (see Acts 19:17-41). Religious syncretism proliferated and there was much superstition. No doubt this strongly pagan environment contributed to making life difficult for Christians, much as it does for us in our Ephesus today.


(1) The letter, as we have seen, is addressed to “the angel of the church in Ephesus.” Clearly, the prophetic message is for the church itself. The words about to be spoken are those of the “one like a son of man,” the same one who has been identified with similar characteristics as the Ancient of Days. He is the risen Christ who is present in the midst of the churches.

The formulaic introduction, “these are the words,” found in all the letters is very close to the prophetic pronouncement in the Old Testament (“thus says the Lord”) and not only reminds us of the prophetic character of these seven letters, but also of the whole of the Apocalypse. Each letter concludes with a formulaic exhortation: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”

(2-3) We have a recurring affirmation (see the other six letters) of the exalted Christ’s knowledge of what is going on among his people, one of the most important motifs in each letter and especially applicable to us today. Christ is with his people. He knows what’s happening in their midst, both corporately and individually. He knows their deeds; he knows of their hard work and perseverance to hold on to true faith in him.

In addition, the passage compliments the Christians in Ephesus for their steadfastness in difficult times. These are all characteristics of the Christian life—there are certainly others, but in this context these are emphasized. Christians at Ephesus had succeeded in not accepting evil men and in testing those who claimed to be apostles, but were charlatans. It is a pity we are not as careful today.

(4) The Ephesians are charged nevertheless, with forsaking their “first love.” ‘First love’ in this context primarily refers to a love for one another. However, this lack of love for one another may be rooted in a loss of love for God. Perhaps, the Christians in Ephesus overemphasized good works and some non-essentials of God’s redemption in Christ, thereby creating an atmosphere of back-biting and suspicion in which their love for one another could no longer be practiced. They may have fallen into some form of dogmatic orthodoxy, which helped them in regard to not tolerating the evil men and false apostles, but it left no room for Jesus’ teaching in John 13:35, “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Without this others-directed love, what they supposed was orthodoxy fell far short of its goal.

(5) Christ exhorts the believers to first of all ‘remember’ where they used to be. In other words, ‘You used to love one another and God, but now you’ve created a situation where neither can take place.’

We too should consider this: how often do we set up situations and atmospheres where it is next to impossible to love God and one another? Whether it is personal issues related to pride, arrogance, or some other manifestation of sin, there is a call to focus on redemption and learn in a deeper way the meaning and relevance of Christ’s salvific work. A redeemed memory is crucial to living out our faith for the sake of Christ and for others. How important it is to remember well!

The second exhortation is to repent. This motif surfaces again and again in the letters. Notice carefully the directive is not just repent, but repent and do the things you did at first. The church is called to action. If there is no repentance the church will be removed from its place with Christ and the other lampstands. The danger of immediate judgement is stressed, but at this point it is not yet a certainty. Repent and do are crucial imperatives for this church to embody. The possibility of the church regaining its ‘first love’ is very real, though this can only be recovered by remembering, repenting, and doing.

(6) Verse 5 is followed by a commendation for hating the practices of the Nicolaitans, just as Christ does. The Nicolaitans were most likely a libertarian sect who compromised with the pagan society around them. This gives us another indication of the high level of syncretism at Ephesus and the pressure the Christians there faced.

(7) This is an exhortation to hear what the Spirit says to the churches, but it is Christ who is speaking. The verse seems to imply the word of Christ is the word of the Spirit. Christ is not identical with the Spirit, but he speaks to the churches through the Spirit. The relation between the two here is very similar to that in John 16:12-15.

The next phrase, “to everyone who conquers,” should not fix our attention solely on the individual overcomer, but on Christ himself who through his sacrifice makes the victory possible. His victory gives the believer the potential to persist in faith and persevere in hope to the end. All who overcome are granted the “right to eat of from the tree of life” (representing everlasting life and renewal in this context). “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 3

For the next few weeks I'll be posting on Revelation 2:1-3:22 - the Seven Letters to the Churches - out of my new book Living Apocalypse: A Revelation Reader and A Guide for the Perplexed.

Please join us and share your comments and insights.

In all seven letters there is a clear indication that the speaker is Christ, and a careful look shows us that each letter echoes back to chapter 1 (2:1 corresponds to 1:12-15, 2:8 and 1:17-18, 2:12 and 1:16, 2:18 and 1:14-15, 3:1 and 1:4, 16, 3:7 and 1:18, 3:14 and 1:2).

There is then a remarkably close relationship between the letters and chapter 1. We also should keep in mind, however, that the relationship of the letters to other parts of the book is pertinent as well. The heavenly city of Jerusalem in chapters 21 and 22 is contrasted to the seven earthly cities in that it is God’s city, the city to which all the promises made to the earthly cities looks forward. In chapters 4-20 there are also parallels of expression or symbol, suggesting John may have had the circumstances of the churches in mind, calling for patient endurance and faithfulness, giving warnings against idolatry, and Satan’s powerful and attractive deceptions. The point we need to continue to focus on is that there is an internal coherence to the book as different parts relate to each other. Going further, we could also say there is an overall coherence between the Apocalypse and the rest of Scripture. Systematic and precise divisions fail to do justice to the text.

These letters, as the rest of the Apocalypse, are as pertinent today as they ever were. Think of the churches as symbolic for churches throughout the centuries. Consider the impoverished state of the church in our times. Consumerism, idolatry, confused and superficial theology and spirituality, empty minds and blinded hearts, characterize far too many Christians and churches, showing that we have much to learn from each letter. Read together they will provide critique, wisdom and insight for our lives. As we face the powerful threat of cultural, religious and political manifestations that set themselves up as authoritative and endanger faith and allegiance to the crucified and risen One, we want to be informed about and aware of whom we follow and obey.