Ted Grimsrud—December 10, 2011
The first thing to notice when we begin to look at the messages to the seven churches of Asia that make up chapters two and three is that they are part of the same vision that began in 1:9 when John hears a “loud voice” telling him to write this book that records what he will see and “send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea” (1:9-11).
John turns “to see whose voice it was that spoke to me” (1:12), at which point the first vision of the book begins. John learns that the voice speaking to him is Jesus. In the immediate vision, John sees many images that put together form a kind of Christology. Many of these images are then incorporated in the seven messages to come. As we move on to chapter two, we should not be misled by the chapter break in our English translation. The original did not have such breaks, and it would have been clear to the first listeners/readers that this one vision of Jesus that begins the series that John will report on throughout the book includes both the word-picture of Jesus presented in 1:12-20 and the messages this same Jesus gives to the seven churches in chapters two and three.
These messages, thus, tells us several crucial things for understanding the book as a whole, including not least a fleshing out of the picture of Jesus—the one who John announces with the first words of the book is the subject of the one “revelation” the book gives. These messages are not of interest only for what they tell us about the seven churches and their environments but also for what they tell us about the giver of the messages. They also, clearly, by their place in the larger narrative of the book, set the agenda for the book as a whole. If we want to understand the later visions, we must always return to these seven messages that provide the context for the visions that follow.
John leads into the seven messages with his comment in 1:20 about how seven stars the visionary Jesus holds in his right hand (1:16) are “the angels of the seven churches.” As we read the messages, we will see that with each one, Jesus speaks to “the angel of the church” who in some sense mediates the message to the church. Following Walter Wink’s discussion in Engaging the Powers, I understand the reference to the “angels of the churches” to be a way of talking about each church’s inner, spiritual reality. Jesus will speak to each church’s essence. The congregations each have an existence of their own as a collective of their members. This existence reflects not only the group personality but also the social context of the congregations in how each in some sense is deeply shaped by the social environment of which they are part. When Jesus speaks to the “angels,” he speaks directly to the heart and soul of each congregation.
This collection of seven churches is, at the same time, linking the message of Revelation with actual congregations in those seven cities in what is now the western part of Turkey and linking the message of Revelation to the entirety of the first century Christian world (the number “seven” surely is symbolic for the bigger Christian movement). The particular and the universal join together in these messages—and hence in the book of Revelation as a whole.
Revelation 2:1-7—Message to the congregation in Ephesus
The first message goes to the congregation in the largest city in the area, though also the city closest geographically to the island of Patmos that John claims to write from. Ephesus was the fourth largest city in the entire Roman Empire at this time (after Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch). It was also an early center of Christianity, featured prominently in the Book of Acts and, according to Acts, the Apostle Paul’s home for several years.
As with the other messages, the opening words of the message to Ephesus bring in a pertinent piece of chapter one’s vision of Jesus. Here we are told that Jesus “holds the seven stars in his right hand [and] walks among the seven golden lampstands” (2:1, an allusion to 1:16). We have just been told that these lampstands are the seven churches themselves (1:20). So the Ephesian message starts with a strong affirmation of Jesus’ presence among these congregations—a presence surely that would be reassuring but also a challenge to sustain faithfulness to his way.
John’s Jesus praises this congregation for not “tolerating evildoers” (2:2) and for “hating the works of the Nicolaitans” (2:6). The congregation has refused to countenance “those who claim to be apostles but are not” (2:2). It also has been working hard and exercising “patient endurance.” This notion of “patient endurance” is mentioned numerous times in Revelation as a central calling for followers of the Lamb (in imitation of him). The seven messages as a whole make it clear that one of the central challenges for John’s audience is to sustain their commitment to Jesus’ path of nonviolent resistance to the empire’s hegemony. How might this commitment be sustained? Through “patient endurance,” recognizing that saying no to the empire will likely result in hardship and even conflict. “Follow the Lamb wherever he goes”—i.e., remain clear-eyed about the true bases of Rome’s claims for divine blessing, band together in communities of resistance, “conquer” through self-giving love rather than joining with Rome’s dominating ways.
We may assume, as will be indicated in later messages, that the Nicolaitans and “evildoers” are those who advocate accommodation with Rome—an accommodation, John believes, that will ultimately undermine the heart of the gospel.
John’s Jesus, though, positive as he is about the congregation’s nonviolent resistance to Rome, expresses a sharp concern as well. “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (2:4). This problem is so bad, that Jesus threats to “remove your lampstand from its place” unless it is resolved. Given that the “lampstand” is actually the church itself, it would appear that the very existence of this congregation is at stake.
Unfortunately for our purposes, what exactly this “abandoned the love you had at first” refers to remains unclear. It is tempting (and attractive) to think of the reference here to be to inter-human love, with the implication that as the Ephesians focused on resistance to Rome they lost the dynamics of compassion, mutual affection, and a welcoming spirit. But the allusion could just as well have in mind a loss of passion and freshness in their commitment to the vision of restorative justice and wide-ranging shalom that they received when they first embraced Jesus and his way. So, we don’t actually receive a lot of clear guidance from this message concerning what problems to avoid. The book does not develop the motif of “love” in a direct way later on.
Maybe at most we can say that, given the centrality of Jesus the Lamb to the message of Revelation and given the centrality in Jesus’ life and teachings of wholehearted and passionate love of God and neighbor, the call to love fellow congregants (and everyone else) and to passionate commitment to Jesus’ way should be assumed. And that the stern warning to the Ephesians stands as a reminder of this assumption—related both to love for other people and love for the path Jesus calls us to follow.
As with the other messages, the message to Ephesus concludes with a call to “conquer.” This call points to one of the central motifs in the book. Reality is portrayed in Revelation as highly conflictual, a struggle within which one must seek victory. But the nature of the victory depends upon the means one uses to engage the struggle. For those aligned with the Empire, the means are violence and domination. For those aligned with the Lamb, the means are “patient endurance” (i.e., “nonviolent resistance”). When John’s Jesus makes promises to “everyone who conquers,” he promises that as with Jesus, “faithful witness” leads to vindication.
Each message has a distinctive promise for the conquerors that points ahead to the later visions of Revelation. Here, the promise is “permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God,” an allusion to the vision of the New Jerusalem where the “tree of life” produces abundant fruit (22:2). Note, too, that this same tree also produces leaves that are for “the healing of the nations.” This reminds us that even though Revelation sets up a sharp contrast between the Lamb’s realm and the Beast’s realm, in the end the hope is for those human beings (and their cultures) that are aligned with the Beast to find healing—reinforcing the call to sustain love.
Revelation 2:8-11—Message to the congregation in Smyrna
The city of Smyrna, an important seaport, was about 40 miles from Ephesus. It was notable for constructing the first temple devoted to the goddess Roma about 300 years prior to the time of Revelation. By the end of the first century CE, Smyrna stood as a major center of the practice of emperor worship. So, as in probably each of these seven cities, the practice of worship of the biblical God bumped directly against its main competitor, worship of the Roman emperor (i.e., worship of the Empire itself).
The initial descriptor of Jesus here speaks directly to Smyrnans’ situation. “The first and last, who was dead and came to life” (2:8, alluding to 1:18) reminds readers again of the pattern of Jesus: faithful witness, crucifixion, resurrection, ruler of the kings of the earth (1:5). To link together “Smyrna” and “death” is to speak to the basic challenge facing Jesus followers. What is at stake is whether one will witness to the path of self-giving love even when it requires witnessing against the violence and oppressions of the “great” empire.
Clearly from this message, the Smyrnans understand what is at stake and have made their choice to follow the Lamb’s path—even when, in the context of the city of Smyrna’s all out embrace of the Empire’s way—it means “affliction and poverty” (2:9). What may be the most significant contribution of this message to the overall picture of the seven messages is what is not said within it. Smyrna (as will also be the case in the message to the similar congregation in Philadelphia) receives no criticism whatsoever. In some sense, this congregation serves as a model for what John’s Jesus has in mind for all congregations.
We are not given much information about the Smyrnans’ faithfulness—presumably the heart of it was a recognition that the allures of cooperating with emperor worship must be resisted. Their material poverty (which is also perhaps itself also a reflection of faithful choices to disdain the quest for comfort and material gain through involvement in the work of merchants that draws John’s condemnation in Revelation 18) does not mask their genuine wealth (in the present!) in things that matter most.
The Smyrnans’ face the possibility of imprisonment at the hands of “the devil”—perhaps even the possibility of death. Should they “conquer,” though, remaining on the path of nonviolent resistance, they will receive “the crown of life” (2:10) and “will not be harmed by the second death” (2:11). The “second death” motif points toward the vision of the final judgment (20:11-15) where those who have lived faithfully and whose names are in “the book of life” avoid the “lake of fire” and enter the New Jerusalem.
This message crystallizes the emphasis of the book as a whole. The fear of “poverty and affliction” seems to drive the kind of accommodation with the Empire that John sees as idolatrous—echoing the terrible problems the ancient Hebrews had with foreign gods that pushed them away from faithfulness to Torah and its concomitant practice of shalom for all in their community. The idolatry invariably led to injustice and violence (see Amos, Hosea, and Micah). In exposing the terribly violent underbelly of the Roman Empire that belied its claims to be the bringers of peace (the Pax Romana), John hopes to challenge his audience to break free from the cycle of idolatry leading to injustice and death (see also Romans 1 for Paul’s parallel concern). John’s Jesus wants to drive home to the Smyrnans that their choice to turn from such idolatry puts them on the path of life. They are rich now and are promised the crown of life.
We might easily misunderstand who the Smyrnans’ opponents are here. If we remember that Smyrna was a center for emperor worship, and if we keep in mind that later in Revelation, the Empire is directly linked with Satan, and if we also understand that Judaism and Christianity did not at this point exist as separate religions (in fact, John surely understood himself to be a Jew), then the reference to those who “say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan” will make more sense.
The very next message, to the congregation at Pergamum, refers to the recipients living “where Satan’s throne is” (2:13). Pergamum was also a center for emperor worship, being the home of a temple to Caesar and an enormous altar to Zeus (the ancient Greek high god who by now had been incorporated into the Roman Empire religion).
So, most likely, we should understand “synagogue of Satan” in terms of “Satan’s throne.” John’s Jesus, then, is referring to conflicts between the Lamb’s followers in Smyrna, who rejected any accommodation with Empire religion, with others who claimed to be Christians but who were accommodating with Empire religion. True “Jews,” in John’s mind, reject accommodation—and those who do accommodate simply are not “Jews” (i.e., worshipers of the true God of the Bible). John is not rejecting Judaism or linking it with Satan. His enemies were not members of the Jewish religion in contradistinction with those who were members of the Christian religion. Rather, his enemies are those who see biblical faith as compatible with “going alone” with Empire religion.
By presenting this congregation as one that receives not a single criticism, John wants to challenge his entire audience to seek to imitate their model. He seeks to subvert the conventional wisdom that linked faithfulness with material prosperity and embraced the possibility of cultural accommodation as the necessary path to such prosperity.
Revelation 2:12-17—Message to the congregation in Pergamum
Pergamum was also an important city with, as mentioned above, strong support for Empire religion. This put the congregation there is a difficult situation. What was called for, in face of the powerful attraction of accommodation, was discernment. Hence, the message begins with the image the two-edged sword being held by Jesus, drawing from the beginning vision of Jesus (2:12, alluding to 1:16). The “two-edged sword” connotes discernment, being able to differentiate between truth and falsehood. The vision from chapter one (picked up again in chapter 19) emphasizes that this sword comes out of Jesus’ mouth. So the sword is not a literal weapon of blood-letting (again a key contrast with the Empire—the Empire’s swords to draw blood and visit violence and death; the Lamb’s sword is his word, his nonviolent message of self-giving love).
John’s Jesus commends the Pergamum believers for their perseverance (“you are holding fast to my name”) even in the face of suffering (the one named martyr in the book, Antipas, was killed by the Empire in Pergamum [2:13]). He repeats twice in this one verse that Pergamum is where “Satan” is present—clearly an allusion to the centrality of Empire religion in this community.
The congregation, though, struggles to remain true. People within it accept teachings that weaken their resolve to resist the Empire. These teachings are called “the teaching of Balaam” and the “teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Likely these teachings were essentially the same (interestingly, the name Baalam [Hebrew, from Numbers 22–24] and the name Nicholas [Greek] mean essentially the same thing—literally “conquer the people”). The content is not spelled out, but the idea seems to be that they were teaching that there was nothing wrong with people from the congregation entering fully into the religious life of Pergamum.
As a rule, the Empire religion did not require exclusivity from its adherents. Problems arose not when people worshiped with the general public in the Roman services but also engaged in their own distinct religious practices. This pluralism was tolerated. What caused trouble was when people refused to join in the Roman services in the name of some other faith. This is the kind of trouble John believed his fellow followers of Jesus should be getting into. But they would suffer. Their economic opportunities would be limited. They might even face harsh persecution. His rivals argued that such trouble was unnecessary. We can still worship in our congregation; Rome does not mind that so long as we also join in its services. John’s Jesus calls such an accommodation (spiritual) “fornication” (2:14).
John’s insistence on exclusivity stemmed from his belief that a believer cannot actually pull of the giving of allegiance to two masters. Inevitably, they will have to choose. The worship of the biblical God requires standing against injustice. And Rome was profoundly unjust. If you accommodate to Rome, your private worship in the Christian congregation actually becomes blasphemous. You are worshiping God while also accepting the injustices of the Empire. This parallels the situation in the time of Amos—“go to Bethel and sin” was Amos’s condemnation of those Israelites who attended services claiming to worship God while at the same time exploiting their vulnerable neighbors. Hence, the worship was not an offering to God but a rejection of God.
John’s Jesus calls upon the congregants in Pergamum to repudiate Balaam and the Nicolaitans—or else face “war.” Note that this “war” will be fought with the sword that comes from Jesus’ mouth. It will not be a bloody battle but a “battle” fought based on the proclamation of the word of God in Jesus’ life and teaching.
The reward for the conquerors here is nourishment from “some of the hidden manna” (likely a metaphor for joining in God’s messianic banquet welcoming the partiers into the realm of the New Jerusalem, see 19:1-10) and the gift of a white stone upon which is written the recipient’s name (see 19:12 for a similar reference in relation to Jesus; the stone seems to be a kind of “ticket” that allows its bearer to enter into the New Jerusalem).
Revelation 2:18-29—Message to the congregation in Thyatira
The fourth message goes to the congregation in Thyatira, a city especially noted for its industry and commerce. The images of Jesus that are repeated here refer to his “eyes like a flame of fire” and his feet “like burnished bronze” (2:18, alluding to 1:14-15). These seem to be allusions to his power and his awe-inspiring presence. As with the earlier messages (and the ones to follow), the general sense is that this figure has authority and is present—both in comfort and in confrontation. Whichever, he must be taken seriously.
The Thyatiran congregation’s strengths echo those of Ephesus (“faith, service, and patient endurance,” 2:19) with the added affirmation of their “love” and, crucially, that their “last works are greater than the first.” So, unlike Ephesus, they are not losing their “first love” but still growing in it.
However, unlike the Ephesians, who do not tolerate the accommodationist Nicolaitans (2:6), the Thyatirans are tolerating accommodationist theology and ethics. The symbol here is their acceptance of “that woman Jezebel” (2:20). Almost certainly, “Jezebel” is not the prophet’s name. Jezebel is a figure of condemnation in the Bible. Married to Israel’s king Ahab, she was a Canaanite who influenced Ahab—and with him, the broader nation—to turn to other gods. John’s Jesus is using this label to evoke the same kind of condemnation of the prophet who was influential among the Thyatirans.
He sees the problems as a contemporary manifestation of what happened in the day of the historical Jezebel: “practicing fornication and eating food sacrificed to idols” (2:21). That is, as with the first Jezebel, now the people in the community of faith are being lured into accommodating with Empire religion—leading to spiritual adultery and acceptance of imperial ethics. In the case of ancient Israel, the paradigmatic expression of Jezebel’s influence was when Ahab framed and then executed an Israelite whose faithfulness to Torah led him to insist on retaining his land as an inheritance for his descendants. Ahab’s big move was to push the nation from a respect for the role of land-as-inheritance in making it possible for all the people in the community to maintain viable lives and toward the acceptance of land-as-possession, triggering devastating disparities in wealth between the haves and the have-nots with concomitant exploitation of the vulnerabilities of the have-nots to further enrich the haves. This was the situation that had evolved that Amos railed against several generations after Ahab.
Given Thyatira’s role as a regional economic center and noting the condemnation of imperial economics later in Revelation (note especially chapter 18), we can assume that the use of the symbol “Jezebel” may well have been meant to include a connotation that here the accommodation has problematic economic ramifications. John’s Jesus echoes Amos in warning of devastating consequences for those who do not repent—i.e., turn back to God’s justice.
Part of Jezebel’s teachings include a focus on “the deep things of Satan.” Many interpreters see here an allusion to special claims for insight in a Gnostic sense—religious truths only available to insiders. Remembering the other allusions to “Satan” in the messages, we might also see here another reminder of the allegation that the Roman Empire is linked inextricably with Satan. The “deep things of Satan” may simply be the claims made by Rome to divine status. They may seem like “deep truths” but are actually only lies of Satan.
For those who resist Jezebel’s teachings (and, hence, resist accommodation to empire), thereby “conquering,” the reward will be sharing in Jesus’ “rule of the kings of the earth” (1:5) to be manifested in the New Jerusalem. The “rule” here can be seen as a kind of shepherding (also a possible translation of poimonei, “rule”) that ultimately leads to the healing of the kings (22:4). The “shattering of the clay pots” may actually be an allusion to the ending of the kings’ resistance to the Lamb’s rule. When this resistance ends, the kings enter the New Jerusalem, whose doors are never shut but who also does not admit anything unclean.
The conqueror will also be given “the morning star” (2:28), which is a title given to Jesus at the very end of the book (22:16). That is, the conqueror will be united with Jesus, a powerful promise in face of possible suffering for one’s nonviolent resistance in the present.