This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the fifth of twenty-six short reflections.
The Book of Revelation is addressed to seven church churches, and each church gets a unique charge from Jesus. The first, from Ephesus, goes like this:
With some variation, all of the addresses follow this format. The address is always, “To the angel of the church in . . . write”. Jesus, who is ending the message, is then identified with an image. Jesus then usually says something praiseworthy he “knows” about the church. He often knows something not so praiseworthy, which he introduces with a “But . . . “. He then gives a command or instruction, followed by a blessing. The variation is in the middle. Smyrna, for example, comes in for no criticism, whereas Laodicea gets no praise. (See below for the other churches.)
The seven churches are all relatively close to each other in eastern Anatolia, in what in now Turkey; the cities furthest apart, Laodicea and Pergamon, are about 265 km or 165 miles, which could be comfortably walked in seven days or less. In John’s time the seven cities were majority Greek speaking, but also majority pagan – the churches in these places were presumably small, several dozen or perhaps a hundred or so.
What can we say about Christianity in these seven cities at the time John was writing?
First, it is evident that faith in Jesus Christ was already spreading in the cities of Asia. While some of these cities might claim to be founded by Paul, most of them were started by unknown Christians, probably ordinary people whose names are lost to us, who simply moved from one place to another in search of work or for family reasons. There may have been some travelling evangelists among them, and thy might have made a circuit. The church was not centralized as yet.
John give no evidence of being aware of bishops or deacons, although he does mention presbyters in the twenty-four elders around the throne of God in chapter 5. The word seems to be being used in its Jewish sense, which is to say, a leader in a synagogue. At the time the word “church” did not quite have the technical, religious meaning it does now; in those days, it simply meant “something called together,” or “convocation”, and “synagogue” – literally “something brought together” — is a synonym.
Something that seems quite evident is that there is a significant amount of conflict. John praises the church in Smyrna and has no qualifying “but” comment, but even there he talks of conflict with the “synagogue of Satan” who are “those who say that they are Jews, but are not;” this is also a problem in Philadelphia. The folks in Ephesus are not particularly loving, suggesting that they may be the survivors of a schism – perhaps the one described in the Letters of John? Someone named Antipas appears to have been killed for being a Christian in Pergamum in the past, but now the congregation tolerates those who eat food sacrificed to idols and what John sees as fornication. These practices are also taught by a woman in Thyatira. The church in Pergamum also holds to the teachings of the Nicolaitans, whatever those are. The church in Laodicea do not seem to understand the perpetual need they have of God, and so rest on their riches (which may actually be spiritual powers).
So Jesus, through John, is challenging the churches. They are followers of Christ, but they are all over the map with issues, conflicts, and problematic members. This is the problem of the Body of Christ in a broken and fallen world. On the one hand it is like Christ, pure and spotless, but on the other hand, when we as individuals enter the church we do not cease to be creatures capable of sinning and failing to repent. At best a church is an icon of Christ, the lamp shining in the darkness, that city on the hill, to use gospel metaphors. At worst, we have lost the ability to love, we have allegiances to things that are not of God, we are lukewarm, we are dead.
In the past many commentators have identified these seven churches as archetypes, and in some cases identified them with eras in church history. I think these are the all-too-frequent cases in the history of the interpretation of Revelation where people are taking as metaphorical that which John meant to be taken literally. These were real church communities at the time John wrote. He knew them well. For the most part they were falling short of the glory of God. And so, for the same reason that Paul wrote letters, John is trying to admonish them to a higher righteousness, one based in the faith of Jesus Christ and the higher righteousness he espoused.
Once this is acknowledged, then we can try to apply these challenges to ourselves as a community, or as a collection of churches. Where are we most like one of these seven churches? What is the suggested remedy? Why would that work or not work?
Below are the messages to the other six churches. I hope the print is not too small! Tomorrow I will look at the continuity of the Book of Revelation with its Jewish antecedents.