The seven churches were real congregations of real people with real problems in real cities at the end of the first century…. Although the individual letters reflect the particular situation of the church in each city, all the messages are addressed to all the churches. Each congregation is to hear not only the message addressed to it, but “what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”… The messages do not have the form of the Hellenistic letter – Revelation as a whole has that – but they do resemble the imperial edicts of Hellenistic kings and the Roman emperors, thus placing what the risen Christ as “king of kings” says to the churches over against the emperor who falsely claims this role of world rulership…. The letters are addressed to churches in sizable cities. By the end of the first century, Christianity was an urban phenomenon. The Christians in John’s churches were not simple peasant people on the back country, but residents in the principal cities of their time, struggling with the issues of how the Christian witness could be made real and viable within the political and cultural life of a sophisticated urban population. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
[The letters to the seven churches] are very important for understanding the whole book. They give us more information about a group of churches in Western Asia than most other NT books do about their addressees. When we come to the great visions of chaps. 4ff, we need to keep reminding ourselves that these are reported in order to convey a message to the Christians of those cities. Part of the misuse of Revelation is based on the misunderstanding that the message is primarily addressed to Christians of our time if they can decode the author’s symbols. Rather the meaning of the symbolism must be judged from the viewpoint of the 1st century addressees – a meaning that needs adaptation if we are to see the book as significant for the present era. (Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 782)
It is important to remember again and again that this is a first-century document, as both these commentators emphasize. These letters “do not symbolize ‘seven ages of church history.’ John did not foresee a long period of church history after his own time, but expected the end to come soon.” (People’s New Testament Commentary) This viewpoint is in contrast to that put forward in the previously mentioned Scofield Reference Bible. That commentator, while not arguing that these letters are unrelated to the specific churches also argues that in the “seven letter” we are presented with “seven phases of the spiritual history of the church from say, A.D. 96 to the end…. Most conclusively of all, these messages do present an exact foreview of the spiritual history of the church, and in this precise order.”
What we have in the next two chapters, then, are letters, but letters more as a literary construct, for the entire book of Revelation is written as a letter of sorts. Real churches are addressed, and no doubt the verses about those churches reflect some of the issues they were experiencing first-hand. But the author is also seeing the problems as more universal. What one church may be experiencing as a problem now may soon become a problem for another church. Hence, all the churches are to read all these “letters,” but the concerns are primarily first-century concerns. Only when we acknowledge that may we ask how the concerns may find expression in our day and time.
Revelation 2:1-7: While the “letters” are addressed to churches, they are addressed to the angels of each church. Remember the context is a visionary one – John is in the Spirit. Ephesus was the capital of Asia and the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. In addition to being the political capital of Asia, it was also the economic and cultural capital of the province. The city was full of temples, including six to Roman emperors. “A generation before John’s time, the city had been a center of Pauline mission, and it was still a flourishing center of Pauline Christianity as well as for Christians of other traditions” (People’s New Testament Commentary) John is to relay a message that comes from Jesus the Christ – here described using part of the vision he has already related. This church is commended for a number of reasons – for their works and patient endurance. They have not grown weary – a temptation in any time. Even so, they are faulted because they “have abandoned the love you had at first.” This is an interesting phrase. Does it mean something like Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message – “you walked away from your first love”? Or is there another reading possible? They rejected false apostles and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, but were unloving. It is possible to be orthodox and still miss the “more excellent way.” (People’s New Testament Commentary) I must admit I have always read it Peterson’s way, thinking that the Ephesian church was being criticized for falling away from God, Christ, faith as a first love, but the alternative needs to be given strong consideration. Think more about the context – they are commended for their endurance, hardly a falling away from a first love – but one can be tenacious in faith and at the same time unloving in that faith. They are encouraged to repent and “do the works you did at first” – the works of love?
They have rejected a group called the Nicolaitans, about whom we know little, except that the primary issue was probably the degree to which they sought accommodation with pagan culture. In the name of “progress” they advocated accommodation to pagan culture, represented by participation in festivals and social occasions that included eating meat ritually sacrificed to idols. John considered such actions an unacceptable compromise with paganism. (People’s New Testament Commentary) While this issue seems far removed from our contemporary experience (when was the last time you asked your butcher if the meat you were buying had been a part of a pagan ritual?), there are parallel issues. “The underlying issue of Christians conforming in an unprincipled way to the surrounding society remains a very current problem.” (Brown, Introduction to the New Testament)Have you ever heard some Christians speak as if the interests of a country and of Christian faith were exactly the same? Could that be a problem?
The note to the Ephesian church ends with a word to pay attention to what the Spirit is saying to all the churches and with a promise – a promise not specifically tied to the admonition in the note itself. The Ephesian Christians were asked to turn again (repent) and do the works of love they first did, or to rediscover something about their first love. The promise made at the end has to do with patient endurance, which the Ephesians are commended for. Still, the promise is powerful, evoking ancient stories (the Genesis) and perhaps offering a counter-cultural observation. In Ephesus the great temple to the god Artemis was built on a primitive tree shrine. While expressing concern for too great an accommodation with the surrounding culture, John uses its artifacts to tell his gospel story.
Revelation 2:8-11: Smyrna was a large seaport forty miles north of Ephesus, and it was a center of emperor worship. Again, the message is to be given to the angel of the church and comes from the Christ who is first and last, who died and came to life – echoes from the earlier vision.
Poverty and wealth can be used literally or metaphorically in the Bible, and in verse 9, they are used differently. The poverty and affliction are literal. Christians here probably suffered economically for trying to live out their faith. Commerce and empire were often intertwined, as were empire and worship of imperial gods. Christians may have been wary of the rules of commerce and suffered economically because of that. Nevertheless, the Christians in this Jesus community have borne up well under affliction and for that they are rich – used metaphorically, meaning spiritually wealthy. The harsh words for other Jews are startling. Remember a few things here. The writer is himself probably Jewish, and he uses “Jews” in a positive sense. He is not critical of all Jews, only certain ones who he believes have betrayed their faith. The statement is an indication of the intense religious conflict within the Jewish community of the time. Christians, many of whom were Jews, had, in many places been banished from synagogues. “Such epithets were frequently used in inter-Jewish religious conflicts” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). In addition, “such language represents the dualistic framework inherent in apocalyptic thought” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). Like a classic Western movie where the good guys and the bad guys are always easily distinguished, the form of literature John is using clearly distinguishes the godly from those who are not. Another analogy might be the pep talk a coach gives his team, wanting to spur them on to victory. In that moment he may say things about the other team that are rather harsh. When the game is finished, the rhetoric changes, and the other team is congratulated for their good effort. In our day and time, to use language of Jews that would say they are from “the synagogue of Satan” would be cruel, given the history of Christian anti-Semitism, and inconsistent with the use of the phrase in this context. For the Christian community in Smyrna, part of their affliction may have come for some in the local Jewish community.
In the midst of reading this work constructed in apocalyptic form, this bit of wisdom from Alexander Solzhenitsyn is worth remembering. If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere else insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were simply necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (quoted in Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace)
The affliction experienced by those in the Smyrna Jesus community may even get worse, as some may have been and more may be imprisoned. John is certain this will only be for a brief time. Some may even suffer death for their faith, and John encourages them to stay true to that faith even in the face of death. To do so is to be given “the crown of life.” “The second death” is one of John’s apocalyptic images for the ultimate judgment of God (People’s New Testament Commentary). Though people may even die for the faith which has given them life, the promise is that such death will not be the last word. Such death will not be futile, but will be honored by God.
Revelation 2:12-17: Pergamum was also a large city of about 100,000 people about 70 miles northwest of Smyrna. In its precincts was found an enormous altar to Zeus. The message to them comes from Christ as the figure with a sharp, two-edged sword. The reference to “Satan’s throne” is probably a reference to the imperial temple with the Zeus altar. In our age, when inter-religious dialogue is encouraged, it is uncomfortable to hear another religious tradition so disparagingly referred to. Some Christians in our day would use the same kind of phrase for all non-Christian religious centers, but that is to take these remarks out of context. Remember that Christianity is here a minority faith, and one being persecuted to some degree. The religion being critiqued is a religion tied to the empire so that the two are inseparable. “The struggle between the materialistic and military values embodied in the Roman Empire and God’s rulership expressed in Jesus Christ is a vital theme of Revelation” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). The people of this Jesus Community have been faithful to their way of life in Christ, even when one, Antipas, was killed for his faith. We know nothing more of this figure.
Even though they are commended for their faith, there are also issues. The followers of Jezebel, Balaam, and the Nicolatians apparently encouraged accommodation to the pagan culture, including participation in pagan festivals and eating of meat ritually slaughtered in connection with a pagan temple. Other NT authors considered eating such meat to be a matter of indifference, which is not inherently wrong, but is sometimes to be avoided in order to avert misunderstandings. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). The concern about fornication may also be tied to temple rituals or may be a metaphor for any participation in pagan culture. Those who have participated in the activities described are encouraged to repent, to turn around, to turn over the soil of their hearts.
These texts should force us to ask about the shape of interfaith dialogue in our day and time, under very different circumstances than those of the readers of this work. In any event, those who remain faithful are promised a new name and hidden bread. In 586 BCE, when the Babylonians overtook the Jerusalem temple, the ark of covenant that contained the sacred bread was taken and never recovered. The author makes use of the idea of hidden manna here. The reference to a new name on a white rock is cryptic.
Revelation 2:18-29: Thyatira was a center of business and industry forty-five miles southeast of Pergamum, and the home of Lydia (Acts 16). Jesus is described here as “Son of God,” the only such reference in Revelation, but a contrast to imperial claims that the Caesar was “son of god.” The community is commended for its works – love, faith, service and patient endurance.” Not a bad combination of things to be known for. Not a bad goal for our churches today.
Even though they have much going for them, there are also concerns. Like in Pergamum, there are teachers who are raising concerns for the author – here, Jezebel – though this is probably a symbolic name, recalling the wife of King Ahab (I Kings 18-19). No one names their daughter “Jezebel”! She is teaching some accommodation to pagan culture including the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. The language of sexual immorality is almost certainly metaphorical here. Jezebel and all who follow her teaching of Christian faith are to turn away from it – repent. In verse 23, “children” is a metaphor for those who follow this person’s teaching, and so is the death they will suffer. It is an eschatological threat.
Jesus the Christ searches minds and hearts, and encourages faithfulness to the end. In the end the promise is that the faithful will rule in God’s new world. The phrase, “deep things of Satan” (verse 25) is probably as sarcastic put down of those whom the author opposes. They probably claimed to be teaching the deep things of God.
If the previous “letter” pushed us to ask questions about interfaith dialogue, this section asks us to do the same for intra-faith conversation. The language of unfaithfulness to Christ has been bandied about between Christians for centuries. Here is a note in the Scofield Reference Bible (original edition): “As Jezebel brought idolatry into Israel, so Romanism weds Christian doctrine to pagan ceremonies.” Great care needs to be taken here as well. I have argued again and again in this commentary that Christian faith has an elasticity to its expression. Some attempts to express Christian faith seem to stretch it beyond that elasticity, but our first response to persons who claim Christian faith should be attentive listening rather than quick labeling.