Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Letters (Chs. 2-3)

After promising the readers a prophecy of things to come in the opening lines of his text, John takes a brief aside to record letters to the churches which are less like prophesies and more like sermons. It is perhaps telling that after the first chapter focuses so keenly on the persecution suffered by Jesus, John, and the churches these letters are not primarily calm reassurances of the seven churches but strongly worded indictments. In a reverse of the structure of Amos--who first directs his attentions to God's enemies before turning viciously on God's people--the frightful Jesus of the first chapter, as the author of the letters, takes aim at his own kingdom even though we all know that his sights will ultimately be set on her enemies.

Amid accolades for their staid endurance under hardship, Jesus peppers the letters with biting imprecations. The Ephesians have forgotten their first love, and, if they cannot get their act together, Jesus promises to come and "remove your lampstand from its place." Pergamum and Thyatira are dens of sexual iniquity, with the latter harboring a seductive prophetess. Of the church in Laodicea he writes, "you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." And if those words to the "lukewarm" Ladocieans are not strong enough, he says of those in Sardis that they are "dead."

The purpose here is obviously not to rain down unqualified condemnation on the churches, and certainly any reader should anticipate--and rightly--that infinitely more forceful judgment is just a page turn away for those who persecute Christ's imperfect churches. The point, then, is to set the right attitude for John's audience. It would be all too easy and altogether inappropriate for the churches to take a divine pledge of fire and brimstone for their enemies and to adopt an air of unjustified self-righteousness. God's judgment is coming not because the churches are perfect but because God is perfect, and Jesus makes clear from the beginning that any hint of self-glory, any impulse to rest on their spiritual laurels would be dangerous.

Instead, he delivers a message of perseverance to the churches which ought to convict contemporary readers as well. Over and over in the letters he repeats his promise to the churches--they will get new names, eat from the tree of life, be spared the second death, sit on a heavenly throne, and more--but he precludes almost every promise with some variation on the phrase "to the one who conquers." It is not enough that Thyatira has endured thus far, that Ephesus once loved God truly, that Pergamum did not deny Jesus' name in the days of Antipas, or that you can remember a time when your faith was strong. In a book which is so often touted as being about "the end," the initial emphasis is not on will happen at the end or when the end will come but on how Christians are to live until the end. The first duty of these suffering Christians, and of all Christians, was not the condemnation of their enemies or dreams of escape into an eternal home but living righteous lives of faith. Jesus forcefully turns the focus of the churches away from his promised justice and onto their own need for personal and corporate repentance. It is almost as if Jesus is playing on his own teaching in Matthew 7, "We're going to deal with the speck in the world's eye, but first let's have a word about the plank in your own."


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

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