Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 10

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 Laodicea (3:14-22)


Laodicea was one of the wealthiest cities of its day. An example of the city’s immense wealth was the city’s refusal, after almost complete destruction by earthquake, of imperial aid to rebuild; they could afford to do it themselves. This city was known for its banks, its wool and textile industry which produced a special black wool, and for its medical school which developed an ear ointment and an eye salve.

Despite all its wealth, Laodicea was not completely self-sufficient. It seems that because of its location, the city was dependent on others for its water. The water was piped in through an aqueduct system that was fairly efficient for its day, but the quality of some of the water was less than desirable. As we study the letter it is important to keep these details in mind.


(14) In the salutation of this letter we have the usual identification of the speaker. The speaker’s description is not as clearly connected to chapter 1, as it is in all the previous letters, but there is an allusion to 1:2 that is not to be missed. 

The words here are, “Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.” The application of the word ‘Amen’ to Christ signifies that he, as God in the Old Testament, is trustworthy and completely reliable. ‘Faithful and true witness’ seems to re-enforce this contrast between Christ and the Laodecian church. The last phrase, “the ruler or beginning of God’s creation” has a close connection with Colossians 1:15-18. We have clear evidence that the Laodicean church, located about ten miles from Colossae, had read the letter addressed to the Colossians (Col. 4:16). The concern in both Paul’s hymn and the phrase here is to emphasize Christ’s lordship over all. Christ is the Amen, the faithful and true witness, and Lord over all creation.

(15) As in all the other letters it is made clear that the risen Christ knows the deeds of the church in Laodicea. In this case, there is no particular fault-finding in relationship to pagan activity as in some of the previous letters. Rather, the grievance is that the Laodiceans are neither hot nor cold; the desire is that they be one or the other.

This terminology brings us back to the water supply, or lack thereof, at Laodicea. In the introduction we noted that Laodicea was dependent on others for its water. There were two prominent sources or types of water in close proximity—that of Hierapolis, which was hot and medicinal, and that of Colossae which was cold and pure.

(16) The Laodicean church, because it is lukewarm is about to literally be vomited (a violent metaphor) out of Christ’s mouth. It is important to realize that both hot and cold are a contrast to lukewarm, but not to each other! Hot and cold then are not positive and negative descriptions, but both are positive in regard to what the church’s works should be. It is often thought that hot means ‘going all out for the Lord’ or a full commitment, while cold means, ‘no passion for the Lord’
or no commitment. If this is the case, the question we’re faced with is why Christ would approve of no commitment at all?

The fact of the matter is the church’s works are neither hot in a healing sense, nor cold in a spiritual sense. The church is clearly unproductive, and therefore Christ is about to vomit them out of his mouth. They are being called to accountability for their lack of works and it is in this sense that Christ wishes they were hot or cold, either one will do, but sadly they are lukewarm and therefore distasteful to him.

(17-18) The distinction between hot or cold, and lukewarm shares a contrast with presuming to be rich and truly being rich. Verse 17 shows something of the Laodicean lukewarmness and this may have accounted for their lack of Christian work. They have lost the ability to be self critical and therefore have a distorted view of themselves in relation to Christ.

The solution to this problem is to buy, metaphorically, from Christ true riches: gold that has been refined and made pure, white clothes of righteousness to cover their nakedness, and eye salve so they might see. This solution refers to the local banking center, wool industry, and medical school aiming to touch the Laodiceans where they live and to give them a new view of themselves.

(19) A principle occurring many times in scripture is that rebuking, confrontation, and discipline are expressions of Christ’s love. In light of this, Christians are to repent—a one time act—that turns them back in the right direction, and to continually be passionate in following in the footsteps of the crucified and risen One.

(20) The flip side of the love mentioned in verse 19 is demonstrated by this same Christ who is willing to stand at the gate and knock, awaiting a response from the one who hears his voice. Christ standing at the gate is not a threat, but a promise.

No doubt this imagery would have jolted the church. Its city entrances and exits were sealed by gates denying entrance to potential adversaries. Christ stands at the gate knocking, awaiting a welcome response. If anyone hears his voice and opens the gate he assures them that his or her hospitality will not be abused or taken advantage of, as might be the case with corrupt Roman officials.

The crucified and risen One still passionately cares for the Laodicean church in spite of its lukewarm state. He loves it enough to confront it, call for its repentance, and to promise anyone who invites him in a renewed experience of intimate community.

Perhaps, in the b part of this verse there is an allusion to the future messianic banquet where those from all tribes and nations will sit with the Messiah and share a meal. If so, this is in the present, a foretaste of the future where the future breaks into the present through the intimacy of sharing a meal together with Christ. This reality of active community should grow greater and greater in its intensity as we realize ‘the presence of the future’ in each of our lives and in the world in which we live.

(21-22) The future is promised to anyone who overcomes. As Christ overcame and sat with his Father on his throne, so all who overcome will share in this victory and rule. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 9

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 Philadelphia (3:7-13)


Philadelphia was a smaller and more recently developed city than any of the other seven cities addressed in these letters. Because of its location it is often called the ‘gateway to the East.’ It was a fairly rich city with much productive agricultural land and some industry.
Although destroyed by an earthquake, as was much of the region surrounding it in 17 CE, it was quickly rebuilt through imperial aid and its people remained loyal to the emperor. Temples dedicated to the imperial cult as well as many pagan gods were in prominence and Christians in this city were in a similar situation to the others John has already addressed.


(7) The words of this letter are from “he who is holy and true.” The risen Christ, as in the previous letters, addresses the church. Christ himself is called the Holy One. This was a common title used for God in the Old Testament and here it affirms Christ’s deity. He is also the True One, an affirmation of his complete reliability. The One who is holy and true holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open. This is a loose reference to Isaiah
22:22-25 and is likely to refer to the fact that Christ, who is holy and true, exercises authority over whoever enters the new Jerusalem, the proverbial dwelling place of God. We may also have a polemic against the Jews who were persecuting Christians in Philadelphia and seemingly attempting to exclude them from the household of God.

(8) As for the church at Philadelphia, we again have the statement that Christ is completely aware of its works. Similar to the letter to Smyrna, he doesn’t have anything against believers here. The threat facing these churches in both letters is external, not internal. Both receive praise, not accusation.

The “open door” in verse 8, is likely to be a kind of parenthesis on the assessment of the church. It assures the Philadelphian Christians of Christ’s absolute authority over entrance to heavenly Jerusalem in spite of their present rejection by the Jews. At the same time, it may also have been intended to encourage them to continue in missionary efforts, both in Philadelphia and other regions. Christ knows they are weak, but that in the midst of this they have not rejected his word, nor renounced his name, therefore he encourages them.

Let us think of ourselves in this context. In our own weakness we too must hold on to Christ’s word and to his name. Even though we are weak (though usually not as a direct result of persecution), it is essential to realize that strength comes through holding on to Christ in these situations. The Philadelphians are an excellent example of Christians holding on, gritting it out, and standing firm in spite of having little strength.

(9) This reference to the Jews is similar to that which is in the letter to Smyrna. In both letters there is a conflict between those who are the people of God, namely the church, and those who claim to be the people of God, the Jews. Remember, in the New Testament a true Jew is a Christian. Those who claim to be Jews in this passage and are not are those who are not Christians. They are Jews in a physical sense, but not in a spiritual sense and will eventually acknowledge that Christians are the true people of God. Instead of all the nations coming to the feet of the Jews (Isa. 49:22-23), here we have a reversal of this prophecy in the sense that it is the nation of Israel—the physical descendents of Abraham—who now will come to realize that true Israel is the church, which Christ loves.

(10) Since they have held steadfast, the Philadelphian Christians are to be spared from the impending trial that is to come. “Those who live on the earth” is a phrase that is used many times in the Apocalypse to speak of those who are enemies of Christ and the church (6:10, 8:13, 11:10, 13:8). The coming hour of trial is to be a test of those who are not Christians. Yes, Christians will be persecuted and even martyred before Christ returns, but ultimately they are to be spared the wrath of God as he begins to destroy Satan. Christians are ultimately assured they will be spiritually protected through all that takes place.

(11) Another central motif that returns throughout the book is the
promise: “I am coming soon.” Christ will return with power and glory to complete his redeeming work and to consummate the rule of God, a rule which began in a unique way with his first coming. ‘Soon’ refers to a prophetic view of salvation history. In the b part of verse 11 they are again instructed to hold on (a present imperative) to what they have. In this case, the instruction is probably a reference to keeping Christ’s word, not denying his name and remaining steadfast. In other words, they are to hold fast to the integrity of their Christian lives so that no one will seduce or lure them away from victory.

(12-13) The one who overcomes will be given a secure place in the New Jerusalem. Philadelphia, remember, was located on ground that could not be trusted. Earthquakes forced people to abandon parts of the town and to live in outlying areas. The promise of a sure place in God’s presence would have brought great assurance and it should continue to do for us in our present circumstances. Christ additionally promises to write the name of his God, his God’s city, and his own new name on those who overcome. To have the name of God written on them shows that they ‘belong’ to God. The city, the New Jerusalem, written on them aims to show that they have citizenship in God’s city. Having Christ’s new name written on them infers seeing him in the fullness of who he is and this speaks of the special relationship of anyone who overcomes and the Christ who overcame. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 8

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 Sardis (3:1-6)


This ancient city was built on a steep hill and was known for its past wealth and commerce. In Sardis there were temples dedicated to Artemis and to Cybele, a goddess thought to have the power to bring the dead to life.

A secluded city, Sardis tended to lack vigilance as it was twice captured by enemies for failing to post guards at the city walls, an interesting parallel to the problem in the church. Seclusion often produces complacency, just as embracing the world produces compromise.

Many churches today are similar to this city. Attempts to seclude and separate proliferate, while there is a wholesale failure to post guards at hearts, minds and imaginations, which are deeply entrenched in worldly ways.


(1-3) These words are spoken by the One who has the ‘seven spirits of God.’ This phrase, as understood back in 1:4, symbolizes the Holy Spirit (see also Zech. 4:1-10; Rev. 5:6). The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches (see 1:20).

The risen Christ knows the deeds of the church in Sardis. Their reputation is one of being alive, but in reality the community is dead. There may have been some evidence of life, but in verses 2-3 they are told with five imperatives that it is not sufficient. They were commanded to “Be watchful,” “strengthen what remains,” “remember what was received and heard,” “keep it,” and “repent.” Their lives were characterized by a lack of completion, constantly falling short of full commitment and vigilance. They needed to turn from their complacency and re-orient their lives.

If the church at Sardis is not watchful they are warned that Christ will come to them in judgement. This probably should be thought of as present judgement, even though ‘the thief coming’ is a reference to final judgement in several contexts. Often in the Apocalypse this kind of language can refer to a visitation of judgement in the present, typologically prefiguring the final judgement. In any case, the second coming will come whether the church is watchful or not, and this seems to confirm the previous interpretation of a present judgment in this context.

(4) The word used here is ‘yet’ or ‘nevertheless.’ This time it is not an introduction to what Christ has against the church, but rather an affirmation that there are some in the church who have not accommodated to the general laxness regarding pagan attitudes, lifestyles, and the church’s half-hearted commitment to Christ. Those who have not adopted this way of life, but have held on to Christ wholeheartedly will walk with him dressed in white, a reference to those justified. Following the crucified and risen One is a task and joy that demands loyalty and faithfulness. “For they are worthy” refers to their justification through the work of Christ and to the fact that they have not done anything to jeopardize that position.

(5-6) There are three promises to those who overcome. First, they are promised to be dressed in white, or ‘justified’ before God (7:9, 10, 13-17). Second, the ones who overcome are never to be blotted out of the book of life; in other words, he/she has everlasting life. Third, is the promise that Christ will acknowledge their names before his Father and the angels. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”


The fourth and fifth letters to the churches in 2:18-3:6 have been analysed. Both letters, as in all the previous ones, affirm the speaker as Christ. In the letter to Thyatira he is described as the Son of God “whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” He commends the church for her works, love, faith, and perseverance. However, there were some who were compromising with false teachings to the extent that Christ announces his imminent judgement if they do not repent. He instructs those who haven’t compromised to hold on to what they have until he comes. The one who overcomes and does the works of Christ will be given a share of his authority over the nations.

The second letter is to Sardis. In this letter Christ is described as the holder of the seven spirits of God and the seven stars, both of which are referred to in chapter 1. Again, the presence of the risen Christ is emphasized in his words, “I know your deeds.” Apparently the church at Sardis had a fine external reputation for being alive, but Christ says that in reality it is dead. They are admonished to, “Be watchful, strengthen what remains, remember what was received and heard, keep it and repent.” They too are warned that if they are not watchful Christ will come to them in judgement. However, there are some in Sardis who have not fallen into complacency and away from commitment. They will walk with the risen Christ. Anyone who overcomes is promised everlasting life and acknowledgement by Christ before his Father.


Friday, May 2, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 7

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 Thyatira (2:18-29)


Thyatira was the least known and least remarkable of all the cities in the letters. The city was rather plain, not having the visual splendor or character of the others. The words of the letter are addressed to a developing church in a growing city, neither of which had gained the prominence of Ephesus.

We learn from the ancient inscriptions that Thyatira was a manufacturing center comprising wool and garment workers, potters, dyers, tanners, and bronze smiths. From these inscriptions we also learn that trade guilds, or what we might today call trade unions, were set up for the craftspeople. These guilds played a major role in the life of the city.

Trade was so important to the Thyatirans that they even had their own god, Tyrimnos, who was a provider and advocate for the city trades. Some coins manufactured here had this god pictured on them. Tyrimnos is represented as grasping the emperor’s hand, while other coins celebrate the deification of the emperor Domitian’s son, portraying him seated on a globe surrounded by seven stars.

Because of such strong Roman influences, we again need to be aware of the activity of the imperial cult in this city. The Thyatiran Christians were exposed to an organized paganism which impinged on their lives in many ways.

John writes to assure them and to warn them about the dangers of succumbing to these influences. The words of the victorious Christ show he is the true patron of the church and its work. He is the ‘Son of God’ arrayed with notably very similar characteristics as the carefully refined metal produced in the furnaces of their city.

As we look at the letter in more detail, keep this introduction to the local context in mind as it will be helpful, even essential, to understanding the text. We will see that a raised awareness of environmental particulars provides a useful picture for relevant theological application that holds true for our own contexts and situations. Whenever we can have pertinent background information about a city, its people, and culture it will enhance and enrich our interpretation of the text.


(18) The title, ‘the Son of God’ appears here for the first and only time in the Apocalypse. The Son of God stands in stark contrast to the local deities and the Roman emperor. He is the crucified and risen One, the true and only Son of God. The eyes of blazing fire and the feet of burnished bronze no doubt carry local significance for the Thyatirans and at the same time leave no question as to whose words these are. This same description is used by John as he turns to see who is speaking to him in the first vision (see 1:12-16).

(19-20) The risen Christ is not unaware of the deeds of the Thyatirans. John notes there is more love, faith, service, and perseverance than there was previously. (This church then stands in contrast to Ephesus where the believers are told to do the things they did at first). However, there are some problems with the church. The teaching of the prophetess Jezebel is misleading believers. Consequently, this false teaching is similar to that of the Nicolaitans in the letter to Pergamum.

Jezebel of the Old Testament is the link. It was she who enticed many Israelites to the cult of Baal (1 Kings 18:4, 19). The parallel is, as Jezebel in the Old Testament misled the Israelites, this Jezebel in Thyatira is doing the same thing in the midst of the church. Often in these letters the greatest threat to believers is the threat from within. The contrast between untruth and truth is subtle, yet profound. A half-truth is usually more deceptive than an outright lie. Therefore, in our own day, whether it’s Greek philosophy, materialism, New Age, or some form of contemporary humanism, Christians must be aware that the threat is as real from inside as it is from outside the church.

(21) The woman representing Jezebel is a destructive influence who refuses to repent, implying that the prophetess has already been warned. She has been given time, but she has refused.

(22-23a) The result of the refusal to repent is impending judgement. She will be inflicted with suffering and her followers will suffer great tribulation unless they repent, literally, of her works. Her children will be killed, putting an end to her misleading seduction into a compromised Christianity.

Certainly, the Christians of Thyatira were in a difficult place. As I mentioned earlier, the trade unions were likely to have been a focal part of local life. There is some evidence for feasts or assemblies taking place in the city. These types of functions were probably where the pressure was put on to conform to various forms of idolatry or sexual immorality. I imagine many fraternities or organizations today are similar. Because of business reasons, if being a member of the ‘right’ organization is advantageous, many Christians might think, “Why not? It’s not really idolatrous or immoral to be involved in various initiation rites and besides, being a member of that social group is good for business.” We must be careful here not to compromise. Idolatry is a serious, although a not always evident, matter.

(23b) The judgement over Thyatira in verses 22-23a will not go unnoticed. All the churches will realize that it is Christ who searches the inner being and it is he who will give to each one according to his or her deeds (Jas. 2:14 ff; Rom. 2:3 ff).

(24-25) Christ now addresses those who have not compromised. No other burden will be placed on them. They are to hold onto what they have, a reference most likely to verse 19, until Christ’s return.

(26-29) Two things are to be given to those who overcome and do the works of Christ, as contrasted here to the works of Jezebel in verse 22.

First, those who overcome will be given authority over the nations. In support of this a loose quote from Psalm 2:8-9, a messianic Psalm is given, probably chosen because the objects ‘iron scepter’ and ‘pottery’ had local significance in the life of Thyatirans.

This is another central motif in the Apocalypse. Those who overcome will actually have the privilege of ruling with the conquering Christ. He has been given authority over the nations and his rule is an everlasting one that will continue from age to age.

Everyone who overcomes and does the work of God is now given authority in a similar way as the Messiah himself. The authority he has received—the authority that belongs to him and him only—is now to be shared with those who remain faithful to the end. The faithful not only share in Christ’s victory, but also in his never-ending rule. This is the first promise.

Second, those who overcome are given the morning star. This is another difficult symbol, much as the white stone in the previous letter. It may have had some local, even national significance in that the morning star was thought to represent Venus and was a symbol of sovereignty and victory. If it is used in this way it is further assurance that Christ, not Venus, is the victor and finally reigns over all, and this victory is also shared with and given to those who overcome (Rev. 22:16 shows Christ as morning star, or victor). This is the second promise.

What is given is important in this letter. First, we have Jezebel being given time to repent. Second, Christ gives to each according to their deeds. Third, in contrast to this, anyone who overcomes and does his works is given his authority and ultimate victory. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”