Revelation 3:1-6: Sardis was a city of 75,000 forty miles southeast of Thyatira, and is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. Again, the angel of the church is addressed by Jesus the Christ, who appears in yet another new visionary phrase. The experience of Jesus as the Christ is one which finds a variety of expression, again testifying to a certain elasticity in Christian expression.
The church has a reputation for being lively, but the writer says that it is dying. What are the marks of a lively church and what are the signs of dying. Numbers alone probably never tell the story, yet a certain vibrant attractiveness is probably a sign of life if one reads other parts of the New Testament. The most important sign of life would seem to be the presence of the risen Christ in the midst of the people and their responsiveness to this. While measuring matters in church life, the liveliness of a congregation is difficult to assess according to that standard. The church is invited to turn again, to recapture what it may have lost along the way. Church renewal often entails recapturing elements from the past. In Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: Revival of church life always brings in its train a richer understanding of the Scriptures. Behind all the slogans and catchwords of ecclesiastical controversy, necessary though they are, there arises a more determined quest for him who is the sole object of it all, for Jesus Christ himself. What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is his will for us today? How can he help us to be good Christians in the modern world? In the last resort, what we want to know is not, what would this or that person, or this or that Church, have of us, but what Jesus Christ himself wants of us. (p. 37) The simple term “wake up” is used for encouragement. Failure to wake up means a loss of the life God intends, missing out on God’s purposes.
Revelation 3:7-13: Here is another community about which nothing else is written in the New Testament. It was located 28 miles southeast of Sardis. The city was grateful to the empire for its help in rebuilding after an earthquake in 17 CE. It added “New Caesarea” and “Flavia” to its name in praise of imperial rule. To this community tied to the empire, the writer addresses a letter from “the holy one.” Roman emperors also used this to describe themselves. The author is speaking on behalf of another kingdom, with metaphoric roots in the Davidic kingdom.
The people of this Jesus Community are praised for their patient endurance, and promises of open doors and protection are made to them. They are promised identification with the very name of God if they continue in the way they are going.
Revelation 3:14-22: Laodicea was a large and wealthy city on a major road forty miles southeast of Philadelphia, one hundred miles east of Ephesus, and near Colossae. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 CE, but it was able to rebuild itself without the help of the Roman empire. As in all these “letters,” Jesus as the Christ is described in yet another set of images.
The phrase “neither hot nor cold” does not have anything to do with emotionality, as those terms do for us. They have the meaning of “for or against” – if one is hot one is for something and if one is cold one is against something or someone. John judged this congregation to be insufficiently “for” Jesus as the Christ, though we are not sure why. The simple for/against categories are typical for apocalyptic literature, as would be an image of being turned away (spit out).
The categories of wealth and poverty are used as they were in the letter to Smyrna, but here wealth may be literal and poverty metaphorical/symbolic – at least in verse 17. In verse 18, riches are also used symbolically/metaphorically. The congregation is invited to turn, to repent, to seek true riches – the riches of life in Christ.
I am particularly struck by the context for the famous image in verse 20. So often this has been used to picture Jesus knocking at the door of a human heart, but while that may not be an inappropriate use of that image, it is not its primary meaning in this context. These words are written to a congregation – Jesus stands at the door of the church knocking. They are also written to a Christian community, not to those outside that community. This is an excellent reminder that the church is invited to continue to let the Christ form its life, enter more deeply into the community.
This particular letter provides caution against the spiritual dangers of material well-being. Wealth is not evil in itself, and poverty and deprivation are no blessings by themselves. Material prosperity is not wrong as such, but wealth and prosperity have a tendency to promote spiritual complacency. John Wesley was concerned about that for his Methodist movement as he encouraged thrift and industry, and he is not alone in the Christian tradition. When we are doing fine it is easy to believe God is blessing us just as we are, and easier to ignore the persistent knocking of the Christ who may be calling us in a new direction.
Revelation 4:1-11: “At 4:1, the scene changes from earth to heaven, and John receives a series of visions depicting God’s establishment of justice in the world by judging the world-city” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). The model of the universe presupposed here is of a three-tiered universe – earth is in the middle (flat), above it is heaven and below it the underworld. A door is opened for John so he can ascend into heaven and there receive his vision from God.
In heaven, caught up in the spirit (in a prophetic/visionary trance) John sees a throne room. Heaven is often compared to an earthly monarchical throne room. It is one way to contrast the reign of God with earthly imperial power, but we need to be careful with these overlapping images. Might it be the case that sometimes the writer ascribes to God certain elements of earthly power, might and rule that would be better left to imperial power? We will want to ask this from time to time. The early theologian, Origen (c. 184- c. 254) once wrote: Moreover, even the simpler of those who claim to belong to the Church, while believing indeed that there is none greater than the Creator, in which they are right, yet believe such things about him as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men. (On First Principles, Book IV, Chapter 1)
It is clear, however, that the writer is caught up in a vision that proclaims something of the wonder, beauty and greatness of God. It is also a vision that assures the readers that the empire is not finally in control of the world, that there is One whose purposes will not finally be thwarted, even by a powerful earthly empire. I appreciate what Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury writes about the notion of “God almighty.” The word translated “almighty” in fact in the Greek means “ruler of everything” or even something like “holder of everything;” and this suggests a slightly different approach. It means that there is nowhere God is absent, powerless or irrelevant…. God always has the capacity to do something fresh and different, to bring something new out of a situation. (Tokens of Trust, 16). The vision in Revelation 4 is the author’s way of proclaiming “God almighty.”
Taking a cue from Ezekial 1, the presence of God on the throne is described using precious gems rather than human features. Surrounding the Divine Presence is a rainbow, a sign of hope. The number twenty-four is used nowhere else in apocalyptic literature, but in the context probably evokes the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles in order to suggest the entire people of God. Thunder and lightening evoke past images of God’s presence, such as on Mount Sinai. The “seven spirits of God” is a way to suggest the fullness of God’s Spirit. The crystal sea in front of the throne suggests God’s ordering presence in the midst of creation. The sea was often associated with chaos and opposed to creativity in ancient Near Eastern myth. Here even the seas are calm before God, reminding readers who may have known it of the story about Jesus calming the sea. The wonder and mystery of creation are also evoked in the four living creatures flying around the throne. They seem to represent all of life, though the picture painted in the words is rather absurd and grotesque – eyes everywhere. Sight is often a metaphor for spiritual illumination and the author may be suggesting that God’s presence is the source of such illumination – in the Divine Presence our lives are fully open, and we can see fully, too.
The scene becomes one of worship – all these figures and creatures sing praises to God, the one seated on the throne. God is holy, almighty, worthy, the Creator. In our democratic age, many of us struggle with such images. They evoke groveling before a powerful figure, like the scene in the Wizard of Oz before Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man discover the man behind the curtain. The vision here is too monarchical, and our experiences of monarchy is that they maintain their might and power by denigrating and denying the might and power of others.
The image can speak to us, I think, if we understand that the writer is doing his best to picture the deeper reality of worship. Worship comes from a combination of words – “worth” and “ship”. To worship is to focus on what is of value, what is of worth (“worthy”). In Christian worship we acknowledge that our lives are part of a larger reality and Christians say that knowing that helps us make the most of life. Worship in its broadest sense is contributing to the life of God. If we believe our good genuinely contributes to God’ life, then all that we do for justice, peace, human development, joy, beauty is a form of worship. The early Christian theologian, Irenaeus wrote that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” As a Christian I would argue that we need to more focused times of worship, gathering together in community to sing, pray and hear the word proclaimed in order to have the strength and courage to lead lives that are also worship. With these thoughts in mind, perhaps the vision of this chapter can resonate more deeply with our lives. To help it do so, let me conclude with some words of others, words which evoke the deeper reality of worship.
Peace and praise. This and this alone is God’s “agenda”: the world he has made is designed to become a reconciled world, a world in which diverse human communities come to share a life together because they share the conviction that God has acted to set them free from fear and guilt. And this in turn is only one facet of a reconciliation that somehow affects the whole cosmos, that draws the diversity of the created world itself together so that it works harmoniously. This reconciliation liberates human voices for praise, for celebrating the glory of God who has made it possible and has held steadily to his purpose from the beginning. This is what God is after, and there is no hidden agenda, nothing is kept back. (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, 8-9)
Primary Wonder (Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire)
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
Revelation 5:1-14: The One seated on the throne holds a scroll in his hand. The scroll had a number of connotations in the culture of the time: a scroll of the Law, a scroll of the Prophets, the prophetic scroll given to Ezekial (2:10), a scroll with edicts about the future, the book of life on which the names of the redeemed are recorded, a scroll with a record of human deeds, a last will and testament. Because this is a poetic image, one need not choose between these various alternatives. I get a sense of the image of the scroll as something like the key to history and to the mystery of life. The initial problem with this scroll with seven seals is that no one can open the seals, no one is worthy. Why the One seated on the throne cannot do so is not explained – such is the nature of a poetic work. The author is distressed – will his vision now end because of the sealed scroll? Will he be left in the dark as to the meaning of history, the meaning to the mystery of life? But there is one worthy to open the seals and reveal the contents of the scroll.
The writer is told that the Lion of Judah, the root of David who has conquered will be able to open the seals and unroll the scroll. The traditional messianic hope was for a powerful figure sent by God to destroy evil and establish justice for the oppressed. The hoped-for Messiah, who would execute God’s purposes, was sometimes depicted as a powerful lion-like conqueror descended from King David and would reestablish David’s powerful kingdom. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). Excitement builds, but there is a tremendously surprising development – instead of a lion, a lamb – a lamb that had all the marks of being slaughtered. In one of the most mind-wrenching reversals of imagery in all literature, John sees that the lion has been replaced by a lamb. The one who has conquered did so not through violence, but by sacrificing his own life. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). In other words, “he accomplished God’s redemptive purpose not by killing others, but by being killed by them” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The Roman empire, claiming to be the kingdom of God, sought to establish peace through strength, war and on-going intimidation. The kingdom of God established by Jesus would seek a different way. There may be times when John loses that thought, when the conquering Jesus gets portrayed as leader of a conquering army. Such imagery, while serving the purpose of contrasting God’s dream for the world with the Roman empire may borrow too much from imperial imagery. We will confront that issue as we move through the book. Here it is clear that the one who conquers appears as a slain lamb. The lamb image is enhanced by adding horns and eyes representing the powerful presence of God’s own Spirit in this person.
The lamb takes the scroll from the one seated on the throne and a new song breaks out. It is as if the author is telling us that in the figure of the lamb, history’s meaning will be clarified, and its mystery given greater clarity. The lamb is the central figure in God’s relation with earth and humanity. The song contains imagery that some find difficult, imagery about the slaughter of the lamb making possible a reconciliation between God and people from every “tribe and language and people and nation.” This universal vision is striking in a day and time when tribe and language were often used to separate people. The vision of God’s work in the world is a vision of barriers being broken down. It is also a vision of human beings being raised up – of people becoming a kingdom and priests before God. This is an important image in a very hierarchical society. How the death of Jesus contributes to this, precisely, has been the subject of great theological debate for centuries. C.S. Lewis writes some wise words on this matter. The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start…. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity. (Mere Christianity) I would want to add that we cannot separate the death of Jesus from the life of Jesus. Somehow the very life of Jesus, a life which ended in a shocking death, was given so that we would know life, so a fresh start would be possible for us.
While some of the images may not be ones we would choose for our own understanding of the importance of Jesus as the lamb of God, there is no question that song breaks out, songs reminiscent of the songs sung to the One seated on the throne. For the author of Revelation, Jesus as the Christ is the one in whom we know what God is like. “God and the Lamb are being put on virtually the same plane, with one being hailed as the creator and the other as the redeemer” (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 787). Rowan Williams also writes about how, for Christians, Jesus is our key to understanding God. The life of Jesus of Nazareth, 2000 years ago, was sees by those who were closest to him as the key to God’s nature and intentions; it is because of Jesus that we grasp the idea of a God who is entirely out to promote our life and lasting joy…. Here is a human life so shot through with the purposes of God, so transparent to the action of God, that people speak of it as God’s life “translated” into another medium. Here God is supremely and uniquely at work…. Awkwardly and slowly and with much complication and even apparent contradiction, the New Testament moves towards the extraordinary notion that the Creator of the universe is at work without interruption in the life and work of Jesus – that is God who is doing what Jesus is doing (Tokens of Trust, 57, 62-3). In his own poetic way, that is what John is saying in Revelation 5. Whatever else unfolds, Jesus as the Christ is the center of God’s purpose in the world and that center will hold though all else around seems to melt into air. It is a message as relevant today as it was in John’s time, though we may need to discuss it differently and consider how our Christian faith, centered in Christ, relates us to other religious faith traditions. The Christian claim for the utter importance of Christ and for his centrality to Christian faith is not the same as a claim that God never works beyond those who name the name of Jesus. I believe there are Christian reasons for arguing that God is at work in other places and in other ways. I concur with theologian Douglas John Hall: I can say without any doubt at all that I am far more open to Jews and Muslims and Sikhs and humanist and all other kinds of human beings, including self-declared atheists, because of Jesus than I should ever have been apart from Jesus (Why Christian?, 34)
We will have an opportunity to visit this theme again. For John, what he writes here is for the encouragement of Christian communities in a difficult time. He encourages them to hold on, and the words of encouragement echo through the centuries to us.