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)

Introduction

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.

Text

(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.”

Summary

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.

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