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Nothing to Be Afraid of: A Study of the Book of Revelation - Part 3

Travis Rogers, Jr.

Nothing to Be Afraid of: A Study of the Book of Revelation - Part 3

Religion
5 mins
November 17, 2021

The Letters to the Seven Churches

Chapters two and three are the letters to the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Once again, we are not talking about the continent we know as Asia but, rather, the Roman province that was located in the western one-third of Asia Minor or what we call today Turkey.

Pergamum

Pergamum is another large city of approximately 100,000 people and it lies 70 miles northwest of Smyrna. There were also temples to Rome and the emperor and a huge altar dedicated to Zeus, king of the Greek gods. The city was also known for its great library and we even get the word parchment as a derivative of Pergamum.

It was on that altar of Zeus where animal sacrifices were burned around the clock by a platooning team of priests. The reek of those burning sacrifices hung over Pergamum all day, every day. But Pergamum was also the center of worship for the god Asclepius, the god of healing. Wards were attached to the temples where the sick were taken and it was hoped that one of those sacred snakes would touch the sick person and healed him. If you ever wondered where the medical symbol, called the caduceus with the snake curling around a rod, came from—it came from the cult of Asclepius.

Pergamum was a tough place for Christians to live. Hostility against the church was more vicious here than almost anywhere else. There had been real persecution taking place and even a believer named Antipas had been put to death as an example to make other Christians abandon their faith and also to discourage anyone else from becoming a Christian. It must have been some comfort for them to know that the Lord understood what they were experiencing. It even recalls what was said in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Exodus, chapter 2, verse 25, “God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them.” In the Hebrew, it reads much more eloquently. “And God looked upon the children of Israel and God knew.”

Verse 12: these are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. The words of Christ divide the holy from the unholy and the genuine from the false.

Verse 13: I know where you're living, where Satan’s throne is. Of course, that is referring to the thrones of the emperors but also to the temple of Zeus and the temple of Asclepius.

But he goes on to say, “yet you were holding fast to my name and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas, my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.”

Sadly, we don't know anything more about Antipas who had perhaps suffered mob violence or been put to death by the Roman authorities. And Antipas is the only martyr called by name in the book of Revelation.

Verse 14: “but I have a few things against you. You have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam who taught block to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.” 

Verse 15: “So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Ah, the Nicolaitans again.

It is clear that the church needs help against enemies on the outside and on the inside. The Nicolaitans have slipped into the church at Pergamum just like they had at Ephesus. The teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans had apparently promoted assimilation within the pagan culture and that included participating in pagan festivals and eating food ritually slaughtered in connection with the pagan temples. While some of the other New Testament writers don't think too much about eating meat sacrificed to idols as anything really important, John interprets it as a symptom of assimilation. In fact, John's language regards such Christian teachers as committing spiritual adultery, as a failure to remain faithful to the Lord.

While we don't really know what were the exact rules of the churches in Asia, it becomes clear to us that some of them were adapting their Christian life to the non-Christian environment in attitudes that were permissive. The Lord tells them to repent or face punishment. That punishment, the Lord says, will come in the form of making “war against them with the sword of my mouth.” It simply means that those who teach such falsehoods will be cleaved away by the word of the Lord.

Then verse 17 includes one of those remarkable phrases. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna and I will give a white stone and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.

Oh, I do love that verse. Of course, manna is the food that was provided for the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. It was described as being white as hoarfrost and in other Hebrew writings it was described as “having the color of beryl.” Beryl was one of the stones found in the garden of Eden. And in verse 17 it says that the overcomer shall receive the hidden manna and a white stone.

John is incorporating imagery from the Garden of Eden as well as the Exodus in the Book of Revelation. In John’s thinking, I imagine, the manna in the wilderness was a downpayment for a return to paradise wherein God supplied the light and the food. The fulfillment of history, again in John's imagination, is a return and a cashing in on the down payments of manna and beryl.

In the ancient world, white stones were highly valued. This was especially true if names, even of their deities, were included on these stones which would serve as amulets. John tells the believers that they will receive everything they need and even things they treasure.

Thyatira

Thyatira was a city of commerce and industry about 45 miles southeast of Pergamum. Many traders and craftspeople were there along with many trade guilds. Like the church at Ephesus, the church at Thyatira is commended for their love and “patient endurance” as well as their faith. Here, faith is probably referring to faithfulness.

The guilds of Thyatira probably looked a lot like some of our modern unions but with religious aspects. Sometimes, the guilds would meet in pagan temples and animals were offered to the gods and then eaten by the members of the guild. This made it difficult for Christians to participate in such feasts but without it they could not make a living. If they did participate, they may have felt like they were being unfaithful to the Lord.

The opening of the message to Thyatira brings back some of the Daniel imagery. He described the son of God as eyes like a flame and whose feet are like burnished bronze. If you recall, in the original vision of Christ, John describes the feet of the risen Lord as having the appearance of burnished bronze refined in a furnace. We talked about the son of man appearing in the furnace with the three Hebrews.

Then, in verse 19, he says “I know your works, your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first.” Once again that phrase patient endurance appears. And to hear that their last works were greater than their first must have been very consoling to the church there. There has been advancement in their spiritual life, again in contrast to the church in Ephesus where they had been criticized for having fallen back. No, there was much to praise at Thyatira. 

However, there is something wrong in that church. “You tolerate that woman Jezebel who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent but she refuses.” He goes on to say, “Beware, I am throwing her on a bed and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings, and I will strike her children dead.

Jezebel

Once again, imagery from the Hebrew Bible. The Jezebel of the Hebrew Bible (1 Kings 18-19) is the foreign queen who was married to King Ahab and who brought in foreign religious cults into the Kingdom of Israel, the North Kingdom. The prophets had condemned her and her practices and, later, foreign invaders would through her body from the balcony onto the street. Twice John uses the phrase throw. Throwing her onto a bed and throwing into great distress. Like Jezebel of the Hebrew Bible, this Jezebel would be thrown involuntarily to where she would not want to be and her children would also die.

Was this woman in Thyatira really named Jezebel? I doubt it. Rather, she has served as a modern-day Jezebel who is acquainted and comfortable with cultic practices. This Jezebel probably thought she was as much a prophet as John himself was. Perhaps she thought she was declaring God's will for a new situation in which they found themselves. But John says that, according to the risen Christ, she and her children--those who accept her teachings and practices--will be struck dead.

But for those who have rejected this Jezebel and her teachings which John calls “the deep things of Satan,” nothing more is required of them but to hold fast until Christ comes for them. That phrase the deep things of Satan refers to the pseudo-profound teachings among the false teachers. The Jezebel of the Hebrew Bible believed that she was a cosmopolitan princess who had come to be queen over a bunch of country bumpkins and that the teachings of her particular cult, that of Ba’al Melqart, was much more sophisticated than the worship of Yahweh. It looks like John is being sarcastic here and is contrasting the deep things of Satan with the deep things of God.

John's usual phrase “everyone who conquers” is here given an addition. John adds “and continues to do my works to the end.” My works is the Lord’s contrast to “her doings.” Again “to the end” is a reference to that patient endurance that John encourages over and over.

Two rewards are promised to the overcomers. They will share in Christ’s rule over the nations and Christ will give them the morning star. It is not to be taken literally that Christ would give them the morning star or Venus. It is the metaphor for announcing a new day. A new day of hope and rejoicing and fulfillment following their long night of anguish and expectation. Even more than that, John's symbolism of Morningstar will return at the very end of the book when the Lord describes himself as “the bright morning star.” More than a new day, which is wonderful, Christ is pledging to give himself to the overcomer. The last best reward for any Christian is to be with their Lord.

[Next time: To the Seven Churches-cont’d]

This article was orginally reported by
Travis Rogers, Jr.

Travis is a contributor in religion and entertainment.

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