Posts Tagged With: Seven Churches of Asia

Revelation 13: Secret Messages

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At church each week I sit a row or two in front of a former POW from the Vietnamese War.  Ken is an immensely interesting man, both distinguished and completely humble at the same time.  I have heard him tell his stories several times of being detained in the Hanoi Hilton and every time the crowd — whether they were age 8 or 80 — was mesmerized.  Especially intriguing was his account of writing letters home to his wife.  However, these letters were filled with intelligence details written in seemingly innocuous code he had been taught in training for the war.  The Viet Cong would read his mail and pass it along as nothing more than a letter to a wife about remembrances from life at home or purely imaginative scenarios.  Hidden in there were details about how many detainees were there, their conditions, morale, and the sort.

Revelation 13 was the first chapter I ever read in Revelation.  I was 14 and I had heard of this chapter about weird monsters and the number 666.  Sounded like the kind of chapter a kid who listen to Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and who read Stephen King needed to read.  So I did.  And understood nothing that I read.

You may feel the same way today after reading this chapter.  Weird.  Puzzling.

I think it is best to think of this chapter like a letter to a detainee’s loved ones that might seem odd but innocuous to the outsider but had much meaning to those familiar with Jewish apocalyptic imagery and rhetorical devices.  How do you talk about the enemy when they read your mail?  Like this.

As chapter 12 ended we left the seven-headed red dragon Satan as he flooded the earth with waters of evil in an unsuccessful effort to drown the woman who gave birth to Jesus.  Today, out of that sea (a universal symbol in the ancient world of evil) comes a horrific beast.  With seven heads and the watery connection, we know this beast is a servant of Satan.  In the last half of the chapter, another beast arises from the earth who serves and glorifies the first beast.  On what is surely a take-off on the sealing of the righteous in chapter 7, this second beast marks on the right hand and forehead all of those in the area who wish to do business.  Finally, John says that this beast is a symbol for a human and using apocalyptic numerology (gematria) one can determine who this is from his secret number 666.

Yeah, clear as day, right?  Much ink has been spilled on this confusing chapter, and I don’t wish to add to it other than to give an interpretation that I think makes sense (the Internet is filled with scores of other interpretations).  After pulling back the curtain of reality in chapter 12 to show us that Satan is really behind the suffering of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, John lets the curtain back into place so all we see again are the human agents of Satan’s work of deceit and destruction.  There is a horrible beast of a power that will make the life of the Christians of Asia Minor difficult.  That beast will come by sea.  This is most likely the Roman government as a whole, with seven heads for the seven emperors there had been before this time, the mortally wounded one being the worst of all thus far, Nero.  Then, as the second beast is especially religious (13:15) the beast from the land is likely the government officials and religious personnel from Asia Minor who were especially loyal to Rome and would have put the greatest direct pressure on the recipients of this letter.  We know that greatest ostracizing and disenfranchising tool that natives would have had was the ability to turn people against a Christian’s business.  If you want money bearing the “mark of the beast” (the picture of the Caesar) you will have to play by our rules and leave your superstitions behind.  These Christians knew well the power of this beast.  The symbolic number 666 has been interpreted many ways, but the best seems to be that this is a reference to Nero, based on a popular belief that Nero was so evil he was going to come back to life again (the Nero redivivus myth).  In a sense, Domitian, who brought intense persecution to the Christians of Asia Minor shortly after Revelation was written (if a date in the 80s AD is correct), became that “second Nero.”  Domitian picked up where Nero left off.

In an effort to universalize this maybe we could say that the beast from the sea is any force that uses sheer power to work against God’s kingdom.  The beast from the land is the force that adds religion by coercion and intimidation into the mix.  That happened in the first-century Roman Empire, the tenth-century Roman Catholic Church, the twelfth-century Islamic Middle East, the early-twentieth century Nazi Germany, the mid-twentieth century Iron Curtain Communists, the twenty-first century terrorist camps in Afghanistan, and now the center of Africa as tribe battles tribe and ethnic group kills off ethnic group.  Brute Power and Religion used to support Brute Power has had many faces throughout history.

I believe these are the two verses that would have spoken loudest to the first faithful Christians reading this chapter:

So everyone on earth worshiped it — everyone, that is, whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life belonging to the lamb who was slaughtered. (13:8)

When one sees the immense power of these beasts, it is hard to imagine that anyone could resist doing what they want.  And in the ancient Roman society, most did follow the norm.  But these Christians can take heart that they have an allegiance to one who is even more powerful.  They can be those who will not bow a knee.

But, the Christians of Asia Minor are mentioned in this passage in another place, too:

It [the beast of the earth] was granted the right to make war against God’s holy people and to defeat them. (13:7)

That too is this group of faithful Christians.

And now we are back to what has become one of the paradoxical main themes of this book: There is a great rescue coming.  Hold on.  You will be taken safely through it if you do not give up the faith.  But that rescue is not physical.  You will have to lay this life down and go through the second death in order to live forever with the Lamb.

What do you think of this mysterious chapter?

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Revelation 12: Victory by Faithfulness

In Revelation 12, John pulls back completely the curtain on the Seven Churches’ physical persecution.  Behind the persecutions of the Roman government, the economic embargoes on Christians and their businesses, the ways in which people are making their Christian neighbors feel ostracized and unwanted, behind all of this is the fury of Satan who has been cast out of heaven and is on his way down to the pit of fire.  In this cryptic book, this may be the clearest John gets as to why this is happening.  For that reason, some commentators have called it the center of the book, which it pretty much is chronologically too.

Satan — that ancient, devious, seven-headed red serpent (12:9) — is a defeated foe.  He knew enough (prophecies? conversation with God? his own observation?) to know that Jesus would be his undoing.  He Revelation+12+WOMAN-WITH-CHILDsets out to kill this child at birth.  But this plan is thwarted, and Satan and his angels are cast onto the earth.  Knowing he cannot get to the child, he goes after his mother (a character that no one before the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages interpreted as Mary, rather is either the true Israel with stars for the twelves tribes or more likely the Church where the twelve stars would be the apostles).  Further punctuating his waning power, Satan does not even succeed in drowning the woman with his terror.

Satan is defeated.  Do you believe it?  He does.

We probably have a hard time believing Satan is a conquered enemy because Jesus’ victory over Satan is an “already– not yet” victory.  Think back to yesterday’s post.  Satan suffered his fatal blow at the cross.  That was D-Day.  He is “already” conquered, but the complete victory has “not yet” come.  That V-E Day will be at Christ’s return when the New Creation comes and Satan and his friends Death and the Grave are thrown into the destroying pit of fire.

The original readers of this chapter would have had a hard time believing that Satan was losing power, too.  Evil raged about them.  Rome was Satan’s puppet, and Rome seemed to be winning.  For the recipients of Revelation, their “victory day” was still in the future, in fact they would not see it this side of the second death.  John acknowledges this:

Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to wage war against the rest of her children, those who keep God’s commands and the testimony of Jesus. (12:17)

Rome will not touch the whole Church, but these seven churches in Asia Minor are within Rome’s grasp.  Satan is defeated, but he is trying to take as many down with him as he goes.

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In this pivotal chapter of Revelation also comes the greatest piece of advice the Christians of Asia Minor will get in this book.  How is Satan defeated?

They conquered him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony, because they did not love their lives unto death. (12:11)

The power of victory resides in the blood of Jesus.  He has purchased their rescue.  But they have a role to play in the reversal of Satan’s power as well.  They must stay true to God.  They must spread the news about the Lamb.  They must let go of the pleasures of this life, not fearing even death itself.  The testimony of their witness — both in their words and their actions of faithfulness to the end — render the power of Satan and Rome powerless to stop them.

What did you notice in this chapter? 

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Revelation 11: A Turning Point

The-turning-point-in-relationships-signTurning points.  We love them.  Or hate them, depending on which way things turn.  When things start turning in a favorable way, they are the dawning light of a new day.  They possess hope enough to fight on.

D-Day was one such turning point.  Thursday, June 6, 1944.  Tides turned for the Allied Forces on that day.  That Hitler and the Axis Powers had gone from the hunters to the hunted was becoming clear.  However, there was still fighting to be done.  V-E Day would not be for another eleven months, Wednesday, May 8, 1945.

In many ways I read this chapter, seemingly the contents of the bittersweet “little scroll” of chapter 10, as a similar turning point.

John receives a vision of two witnesses guarded safely through a period of persecution (42 months = 1260 days = 3.5 years = time, times, half a time → were all symbolic ways to depict an indefinite period of trial, based on Daniel 8).  However, when that time period is over and their message has been faithfully delivered, protection is lifted and the people of the “great city” of “Sodom” or “Egypt” kill them and leave them for public disgrace.  After 3.5 days, the two are resurrected and whisked away to the heavens.  At this point the angelic chorus of God’s throne-room breaks into unmatched praise and announcement of a decisive turning point.  Now is the time “to destroy the destroyers of the earth” (11:18).

Who exactly are the “two witnesses”?  There are many, many interpretations.  This may be one of the most contested passages in the book.  Almost all see that the two witnesses are described as Elijah (fire devouring enemies, shut up the sky from raining, v.5-6) and Moses (water turned to blood, calling down plagues, v.6), but who or what is being referred to by these figures?  If this vision is talking about actual people, I am most drawn to the suggestion that this would be Peter and Paul, both of whom died during the reign of Nero in public ways in Rome (always the “great city” in Revelation, and understandably like the immoral Sodom and tyrannical Egypt, v.8).

Now, fifteen years later, the Jesus movement did not in fact die as one might have expected it to after the persecutions of Nero.  Almost as if it were “back from the dead,” as strong as ever before, the tables have turned.  There are dark days ahead for the seven churches addressed in this book as Domitian brings a second wave of persecution in Asia Minor, but God will see them safely through this as he did before, at least safely through the second death of martyrdom to the great reward of new life.  Rome dealt its death-blow to those brought to Christ by the apostle to the Jews (Peter) and the apostle to the Gentiles (Paul), but death could not keep her down.  The fate of the kingdoms of the world is sealed at this point.  Victory is in sight.  Rome is going down.  Rome is now the hunted.  Justice is coming.  In many ways, what we will see as we keep on reading will be the undoing of the forces of evil opposed to God.

Verse 15 may be one of my favorite verses in the entire Bible:

The seventh angel blew his trumpet, and loud voices were heard from heaven.  “Now the kingdom of the world has passed to our Lord and his Messiah,” said the voices, “and he will reign forever and ever.”

There is nothing that God is after more than the redemption of His creation — people and place.  This is the New Creation, when this world is rescued from the forces of evil and it becomes the domain of God once again.  Here in the middle of the book we are given a glimmer of the glory to come.

What do you think?

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Revelations 3: The Jesus of the Churches

2171172330103330085S500x500Q85Promises.  We all get a lot of them.  Promises are only as good as the one making the promise.  Making promises isn’t the same as wishful thinking.  To give a good promise you must have the ability to deliver on that promise.  In each of the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3, Jesus makes a promise to bring something — good or bad — to someone because of what they have done or not done.  In every case, Jesus makes it clear he possesses what is necessary to fulfill his promise.

Each of the seven letters starts with a description of the ascended, victorious Christ.  Then at some point in each letter Jesus promises something to either those who have persisted in wickedness or faithfulness.  John has done a masterful job of connecting promises with aspects of Jesus’ description in each letter so that the point is driven home that Jesus possesses the ability to deliver on what he has said. (Click here for a PDF of this chart.)

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We don’t just serve a God of wishful thinking.  Jesus doesn’t just hope he can help us.  We aren’t just crossing our fingers and wishing on a star.  Our God makes promises, and He possesses all that is necessary to fulfill those promises.

What did you notice in this chapter?

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Revelation 2: Balancing “In” And “Not Of” The World

Live in the world, but do not become like the world.  That is the calling of a Christian, and a formulation we have probably all heard all of our lives.  (Did you know that phrase is not actually in the Bible?  The concept certainly is.)  We are called to be involved in the lives of non-Christians, not a detached group that vilifies, hates, and avoids those not like us.  We are called to shape the culture in which we live for the sake of Christ.  At the same time we are called to remain unspotted from the filth of this world.  We are not to become so like our non-Christian neighbors that we are shaped by their culture.

That is a challenging balance to maintain!

In Revelation 2-3, John addresses the seven churches of Asia, each in turn, in what are most like little “letters” to each.  A common theme running throughout these interesting sections is the way in which each church has interacted with the pagan, sinful culture in which they live.  Life in the first-century Roman Empire required one to worship the pagan gods and the Emperor.  Most of the publicly available meat came from sacrifices offered to pagan gods.  Business required a person to be a part of a trade guild (like a union) that had a patron god.  Public life was immensely immoral, especially sexually immoral.  Like any large economy, it was important to turn a buck, one way or another.  How do you live as a follower of Christ in such an environment?

Remember, the recipients of Revelation were persecuted Christians, targeted because they were identifiably different from their neighbors.  An easy way to avoid that persecution, though, is to lessen the degree to which you stand out as different.  A little cultural accommodation never killed anyone, right?  Maybe it might even keep you alive to share the gospel another day.  Jesus, who is in their midst (1:12), has seen their lives and has a message for each, usually focused on the way that church has chosen to live in their non-Christian society.

For ease of discussion I am including a chart that places each of the seven churches (and two other groups) on a continuum according to how they chose to interact with their culture (click on the graphic to enlarge and print from this PDF).  As you read through the “letters” to the seven churches, see if you can tell why I have placed them where I have.

There was a group in the churches of Asia Minor who were extreme accommodationists.  The Nicolaitans seemed to believe (like the Gnostics) that a Christian showed his superior spiritual strength by engaging in all the sinful practices of pagan life but without that affecting his soul.  The followers of “Balaam” (2:14) and “Jezebel” (2:20) — surely, two code names — were likely Nicolaitans.  It appears that this sort of thinking had been influential to various degrees in the churches of Thyatira and Pergamum.  The Laodiceans had developed the same sort of arrogance those in their city had who have become rich and self-sufficient (3:17).  Given that the Christians in Sardis were not suffering any persecution at all, it would appear they had chosen not to stand out from society in any great way.  Jesus scolds these churches for their compromise of doctrine, purity, and zeal.

At the other extreme would have been Christians who were on guard against this sort of cultural accommodation to such a degree that they isolated themselves from society, becoming judgmental and unwelcoming to outsiders.  While immensely pure, they also lacked the love for others that God so desired His people to have.  The Pharisees (literally the “set-apart ones”) would have the best known example of this mentality, though they were not Christians.  Of the seven churches of Asia Minor, the church in Ephesus was most known for this lack of love, and thus Jesus highlighted this compromise of attitude (2:4).

Only the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia escape any criticism at all from Jesus.  These centrist churches seemed to recognize their role as shapers of culture and were doing so admirably, even if that did mean that both of them would have to sacrifice their own comfort to do so.

Of course, this same continuum can be used to describe churches at any time in history and any place on the globe.  God’s kingdom in always an alternative community, different from the cultural norm.  He calls us to be the “kingdom of priests” (1:6) who stand in the gap as mediators with one hand on God and one hand in the world.

What do you think?

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Revelation 1: The King is in Your Midst

Jesus figures significantly in this first chapter of Revelation.  There should be no wonder; this is the “revelation of Jesus Christ” as verse one tells us.

John greets the seven churches of Asia Minor with a grand praise of Jesus, their common Savior:

Jesus the Messiah, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. (1:5)

Now, stop for a moment.  Think how provocative that flourish of praise is.  John is ascribing a power to Jesus that is equal or even surpasses the Caesar.  Is this god of the Christians more powerful than the Caesar who rules all other regional kings of the Mediterranean?  What a dangerous way to start a book to people persecuted for their seditious beliefs!

Lest there be a misunderstanding, this is a different kind of king.  Yes, he has conquered kingdoms.  He holds in his hands trophies of powers that have been vanquished.

He touched me with his right hand. “Don’t be afraid,” he said.  “I am the first and the last and the living one.  I was dead and look!  I am alive forever and ever.  I have the keys of death and Hades. (1:17-18)

Jesus is not a king like Caesar.  He certainly desires the hearts of those who address him as king, but he is not seeking more soil and greater riches.  He has conquered a power greater than Caesar himself.  His greatest victories are spiritual.

John not only says great things about Jesus in this chapter, he even has a vision of Jesus as well:

So I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me.  As I turned, I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the middle of the lampstands “one like a son of man,” wearing a full-length robe and with a golden belt across his chest. (1:12-13)

As we start this book, it is important for us to note where Jesus is in this vision.  He stands in the midst of seven lampstands, which verse 20 tells us signify the seven churches to whom this book is written.  Thus, as we start this book we see Jesus standing in the midst of his suffering people.

Jesus is a mighty king but also a compassionate comforter.

What stood out to you in this chapter?

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