Ted Grimsrud—March 31, 2012
The seven messages that make up chapters two and three continue the vision John saw and heard beginning in the middle of chapter one when he hears a “loud voice” that calls him to send the visions that make up the book of Revelation to the seven churches of Asia (1:9). These messages serve today’s readers by anchoring the book as a whole in the context of the struggles of these seven churches in the late first century.
As we are attentive to the concerns Jesus conveys to the seven congregations we will discern the concerns that the later visions will also be centered on.
Revelation 3:1-6—Message to the congregation in Sardis
In the message to the congregation in the city of Sardis, we have one of the more negatively critical of the messages. As with the other messages, this one touches on characteristics of the city itself—implying that the congregation there is reflecting its environment, mostly in problematic ways.
The city of Sardis had a reputation of being invulnerable, safe from outside attack. However, in fact, several times in the past its boundaries had been penetrated by Sardis’s enemies, leading to disaster for the city. Likewise with the congregation. Jesus’ makes an extraordinarily cutting remark: “You have a name of being alive, but you are dead” (3:1).
The introductory comment, where Jesus is described, states that he “has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (3:1). These two images go back to earlier in the vision, “the one like the Son of Man” holds seven stars in his right hand (1:16). These seven stars, we are then told, “are the angels of the seven churches” (1:19). At the beginning of Revelation, “the seven spirits who are before ‘the One’s’ throne” (1:4) seem to be a picture of the Spirit of God that proceeds from the throne to all of creation as God-as-present.
Given the problems with the congregation in Sardis, this picture of Jesus communicates both his presence with the congregation—in this case actually a warning as much as a comfort. He sees through the illusion of life that the congregation seems to be cultivating. He knows that the faith and commitment of this congregation are not life giving. By virtue of his having the “seven spirits” (i.e., the Spirit of life), Jesus offers the Sardians liberation from their false piety and death fostering cultural conformity. But they must choose to “wake up!” (3:2). And, they must choose to understand the actual message of the gospel—devotion to the Lamb as the true king and savior. Too easily the Sardians centered their identity as a congregation on the quest for comfort in and accommodation to empire.
The city of Sardis was home to numerous worship centers for Roman imperial religion and its subordinate deities. Most notably, Sardis hosted an impressive temple dedicated to its patron goddess, Artemis—thought to have been Zeus’s daughter, but by this time a servant to the Roman emperor.
The congregation in Sardis, regardless of its reputation (apparently among other Christians in the area) for “being alive,” had few virtues worthy of commendation according to this message. Only “a few persons is Sardis…have not soiled their clothes.” That is, only a few have remained steadfast to the way of the Lamb in face of the pressures to adapt to the imperial way. These faithful few “will walk with [Jesus], dressed in white” (3:4).
The basic picture here, though, is of distance from the Lamb. Unlike the three earlier congregations that received sharp criticism (Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira), Sardis does not have a strong witness that stands in tension with the ways of Balaam, et al—only “a few” remaining “unsoiled” by conformity with the imperial situation.
The ultimate disaster of having their name “blotted from the book of life” (3:5) can only be averted by wakefulness, turning from the Empire, listening to the Spirit, and “conquering” through persistent love and compassion. As we will see even more forcefully presented in the message to the congregation at Laodicea, it appears that one of the major challenges for the communities of the Lamb is simply remaining focused and committed to active discipleship. That is, the dangers are those of passivity, easy conformity, and imperviousness to the challenges of following the Lamb’s way.
Certainly, as John passionately seeks to convey throughout Revelation, there is a conflict going on of life and death proportions. But one of the big challenges is simply one of self-proclaimed followers of Jesus recognizing that the conflict is happening. It is an issue of sight. It is an issue of hearing. It is an issue of awareness. The community at Sardis sinks into separation from the Lamb and being blotted from the book of life mainly by not listening, by sustaining its comfort and passivity.
Ultimately, though, Jesus is present even in this morally listless congregation—“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (3:6).
Revelation 3:7-13—Message to the congregation in Philadelphia
In contrast to the congregation in Sardis (and at Laodicea in the message the follows), the congregation in Philadelphia is living on the cutting edge of faithfulness, being tested and found faithful.
The initial picture in this message, that Jesus is the one holding “the key of David” (3:7) alludes to the earlier image of the “one like the Son of Man” having “the keys of Death and of Hades” (1:18). Since, as we will learn, the congregation in Philadelphia is small and fragile in human terms, facing the wrath of the Beast and remaining true, this opening image is meant to be one of assurance. The Jesus they seek to follow, even when it’s costly to do so, is actually the one who holds the key to true life. His verdict holds sway, regardless of present appearances on the ground in Philadelphia.
These allusions to Jesus holding the key to Death and Hades, the key of David, foreshadow the drama in chapter five when John feels despair and grief at the prospect of no one being found to open the scroll that proceeds from the one on the throne. But we are already told that Jesus holds the “key”—surely a parallel image to his ability to open the scroll. We learn throughout the book of Revelation that Jesus comes to hold the “key” and to open the “scroll” due his modeling what the Philadelphians are called to practice: “patient endurance” (or, in Brian Blount’s translation, “nonviolent resistance”).
In contrast to the community in Sardis, which has the appearance of being alive but, according to Jesus, in reality is dead, with Philadelphia the confounding of appearances works the other way. “I know that you have but little power,” but your works are solid and faithful (3:8).
As with the congregation at Smyrna, in Philadelphia is appears that the Lamb-followers are besieged and facing a great deal of oppression and danger. When Jesus praises them (you “have not denied my name,” 3:8), he is not simply saying it’s great you let it be known you are my followers—it’s specifically that in claiming “my name” you recognize that you must say no to the Emperor’s name. You recognize that there is an either/or choice of loyalties at stake. This contrasts with many of the people in the churches of Asia Minor who seem to believe that their faith in Jesus and their collaboration with the Empire can be a both/and choice.
Also, as with the congregation at Smyrna, in Philadelphia the opponents are Christians who are too eager to fit in with the Empire. They are called “the synagogue of Satan” and said to “say they are Jews” because, as noted above, Christianity was not separate from Judaism at this point in the early years after Jesus’ ministry. The Christians John was writing to wanted to be known as Jews. So, John is saying, actually, that these are false believers (i.e., in reality, false Christians).
Jesus here promises the faithful ones who in this rare case make up the entirety of the congregation, that their perseverance will be rewarded with security in their connection with God even in the face of terrible traumas (3:10). He points ahead to what is to come in Revelation with the promise to be “a pillar in the temple of my God” (3:12). The reference to the New Jerusalem here makes it clear that this “temple” is actually the New Jerusalem itself, which will host God’s presence and will not have a literal temple in it because the city itself will resemble the holy of holies and God and the Lamb are themselves the true temple and always present (21:22).
Revelation 3:14-22—Message to the congregation in Laodicea
The seventh and final message in some senses provides a focus for John’s concerns with the group of churches he is writing to as an entirety. The sad state of the Laodicean congregation stands as a warning to all of John’s readers.
The message starts with an implied contrast between Jesus, the “faithful and true witness” (3:14), and the congregation, which turns out to be unfaithful and without a witness.
Famously, the reference to the faith of the Laodiceans (“neither hot nor cold”) alludes to the water that came to the city via a viaduct and arrived too warm to drink and too cold to use for cooking or washing. That is, the “neither hot nor cold” refers to being useless—that is, without a witness.
The big problem is that in its prosperity and comfort, the people in this congregation think they have arrived; they have all they need. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Jesus: “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
As it turns out much later in the book, this indictment will tightly link the Laodicean congregation with the Empire itself. In chapter 18, using the metaphors of the Empire as Babylon and Babylon as the “Great Harlot,” chillingly similar words are voiced: “I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief” (18:7). John sees a great reversal in chapter 18 as Babylon is brought low and its self-satisfied boasts prove utterly empty—parallel to the reversal in the message to the Laodicean congregation.
Part of the horror of John’s critique here is that Revelation 17-18 will unveil the true nature of the Empire that seems to attractive to so many of the believers in the seven churches (or, more precisely, in five of the seven churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia aside). This seeming benefactor, John’s visions will assert, actually is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (17:6).
In the spirit of the Old Testament prophets, though, Jesus here intends not to condemn in order to reject and punish, but to critique in order to warn and hopefully bring healing. There is a way out of the Laodiceans spiral of comfort complicit with death. “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich” (3:18). The riches Jesus has in mind are the rewards promised to the “conquerors” throughout the messages. The Empire’s riches are but the dust of death. However, true riches are available for those who trust in the Lamb and follow his path.
The city of Laodicea was a center both for textile production and medical supplies. These were the source of much of the city’s wealth. So when Jesus promises to provide “white robes…to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen” and “salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see” (3:18), he speaks directly to a contrast between trusting in the commerce of the Empire over against trusting in Jesus himself.
To reinforce his redemptive intent in the sharp confrontation, Jesus promises, “I reprove and discipline those whom I love” (3:19) and promises a place “on my throne” to the conquerors (3:21).
Clearly, the words in this seventh message have the specificities of Laodicea in mind—as do each of the other six messages in relation to their locations. However, it surely is no coincidence that this message concludes the series. The fate of this congregation, its “wretchedness” before Jesus, stands as a warning to all the other communities as well. This is what happens when comfort in Babylon takes precedence over conquering with the Lamb.
Now the stage is set for the visions to come. It truly does matter to whom the Christians of Asia give their loyalty to. John will proceed to report a series of remarkable visions that show us why.