A Few Thoughts on the Revelation Letters

For my Revelation class this semester, I’m supposed to journal my way through Revelation, answering four questions for every chapter:

  1. What does the text say?
  2. What did I observe?
  3. How does this chapter fit in the context?
  4. What did I learn?

This is a fun, though not particularly professional, exercise. In any case, by the time I’m done I will have basically assembled an ad-hoc, very informal commentary on the whole book. I will be editing these together into an ebook and uploading it here in case anyone is interested in it.

In the meantime, I thought I’d go ahead and post my journal results from Revelation 2-3, the letters to the seven churches. Enjoy (and feel free to critique):

What does the text say?

At this point Jesus gives John letters to deliver to the seven churches. Each shall be addressed separately.

The Letter to Ephesus

Jesus addresses the angel (lit: messenger) at the church in Ephesus first. He identifies Himself as the holder of the seven stars (angels of the churches) who walks among the lampstands (the churches). He commends them for their works, endurance, and discernment with respect to false teachers. He then mentions one problem: they have abandoned their first love. He commands repentance to their original works, or else He will remove them. He then offers a second commendation specifically about their resistance to the heretical Nicolaitans. He then calls them to hear what the Spirit says to the churches and promises food from the tree of life in paradise to the victor.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus then addresses the angel at the church in Smyrna. He identifies Himself as the first and the last who died and rose again. He recognizes their persecution and suffering at the hands of Jews, but calls them rich and encourages them in their coming suffering. He tells them that they will suffer for ten days but to remain faithful even to death in that time. If they do they will receive the crown of life. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promised protection from the second death.

The Letter to Pergamum

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Pergamum. He identifies Himself as the bearer of a two-edged sword. He recognizes their location as under Satan’s rule, but commends their faithfulness in persecution. He rebukes their toleration of Balaam’s teachings with their idolatry and sexual immorality and the teachings of the Nicolaitans. He commands them to repent at the threat of war with His word. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promises hidden manna and a white stone with a new, private name.

The Letter to Thyatira

Finally for the chapter, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Thyatira. He identifies Himself as the Son of God with fiery eyes and brass feet. He commends their works of love and faithfulness, but He rebukes them for tolerating a heretical prophetess Jezebel, who leads people into immorality and idolatry. She was given time to repent, but He declares that the time is up for her judgment. Her and her children will be diseased and repaid. Those who resist her are told to hold on to their faith. The victor is promises authority over the nations with Jesus, and they are called to listen to the Spirit.

The Letter to Sardis

In chapter three, Jesus begins by addressing the angel at the church in Sardis. Jesus identifies Himself again as holding the seven stars but also this time the seven spirits of God. He does not commend anything but moves straight to a criticism of their false vitality. Their deeds are incomplete, and the church will soon die. Jesus commands them to repent and return to the word they have received. If they do not, Jesus will suddenly come and judge them. A few members, however, are noted as still faithful. Victors like them will be clothed in white and kept forever in the Lamb’s book of life. They are then called to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Philadelphia. Jesus identifies Himself as Holy and True with the keys of David. He commends their good deeds and endurance in weakness despite Jewish persecution. He promises that their love by Him will be vindicated, and that they will be protected from the coming trials as reward for their endurance thus far. He encourages them to hold fast, and the victor will be a pillar in God’s house with God’s name. He then calls them to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Laodicea

Finally, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Laodicea. He identifies Himself as a faithful witness and beginning of creation. He immediately criticizes their lukewarm deeds and threatens to spit them out in disgust. He mocks their self-sufficiency and encourages them to find their riches, clothing, and health from Him. Yet He affirms that He rebukes them out of love and encourages them to repent. If any repents, He will come in and eat with them. The victor will receive a throne with Christ, and they must listen to the Spirit.

What did I observe?

There is a lot going on here, but some repeated themes are prominent. Jesus stands as the all-seeing Judge, the one who rewards faithfulness and punishes heresy and wickedness. Truly He is seen to exercise the “all authority” He has been given by the Father, and the statement in John that the Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son is at least partially fulfilled. Jesus has taken the place of the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament, proclaiming His judgments on God’s people through a prophet. The Spirit is also important here, for Jesus identifies Him as the one who speaks to the churches rather than John, the appointed congregational reader, or anyone else, though He also identifies Himself as the speaker. The unity between the word of the Spirit and of the Son here indicates both the way that, through Christ’s Incarnation and exaltation, the Spirit of God has become more particularly for us the Spirit of Christ, and of course also the inherently Trinitarian direction of New Testament theology.

As to the particular letters:

The Letter to Ephesus

One interpretative issue here is the meaning of abandoning their first love, along with the corresponding works to which they are called to return. I find plausible the suggestion that the “love” here is primarily horizontal in nature. The Ephesians have forgotten to care for each other and the poor. This use of “love” in the New Testament is not uncommon. Taking their original love this way makes sense of the works they did at first: they were originally charitable and communal, but (perhaps in the face of persecution and in their efforts to combat heresy) they have come to neglect this essential practice.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus’ identifying Himself as the first and last, dead and raised, seems relevant to the harsh persecution the Smyrnan church is set to experience. Some of them will die, but they will be raised like and with Christ, and thus they will be spared the second death. This, in fact, seems to sum up the whole content of the letter.

The Letter to Pergamum

Pergamum is the first church mentioned to permit heresies, and they have permitted more than one. This is odd given their harsh persecution, which seems to have had a purifying effect on some of the other churches. In light of this, Jesus essentially upgrades the threat they face by adding His own sword if they do not repent. A church with Christ on its side will stand no matter what assails it, but a church with the world and Christ as enemies will surely die.

The Letter to Thyatira

Jesus intensifies His terrifying image here, apparently because of the seriousness of Jezebel’s heresy. Though the church has kept faith and love, they have (perhaps in the process) permitted a vile movement to go on too long and too far. Jesus will take this movement down, period, and it will not be pretty. Those who remain faithful appear to be promised a part in the same fiery, obliterating power by which Christ will judge the rest of their church.

The Letter to Sardis

What it means that Sardis’ deeds are incomplete seems unclear. Perhaps this simply means they had mostly stopped working, no longer doing the works of love and evangelism which many of the other churches were doing. This could well be because, with the lack of any mention of persecution, they had grown complacent and comfortable with primarily a self-incurved focus. The church looked like it thrived, but they did nothing and were serving themselves rather than God. This trap, of course, is one into which many churches today also fall.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Philadelphia is one of the two churches with no rebuke. Instead, Jesus simply promises their protection and vindication in light of their present endurance under harsh Jewish persecution. It is interesting to note the way that Philadelphia contrasts with the immediately preceding Sardis. No persecution is mentioned for Sardis, and they receive no commendation, whereas much persecution is mentioned for Philadelphia, and they receive no condemnation. This highlights the theme in Revelation of suffering for the Gospel as purifying and glorifying. Indeed, Jesus promises to exalt them above all their enemies when the coming day arrives.

The Letter to Laodicea

Laodicea is the second church to receive no real commendation, but Jesus’ tone seems more compassionate than His tone to Sardis. He specifically points out the loving nature of rebuke and portrays Himself as patiently knocking for entrance into their congregation. Laodicea being the last church, this serves as a compelling reminder of the abundant mercy of Christ even in His judgment. He does not want to punish them but wants to bless them and wants them to come to Him. The question of what exactly they were doing wrong, however, seems much less clear than many of the traditional interpretations of lukewarm-ness would indicate.

How do these chapters fit in context?

As the second and third chapters of Revelation, this passage immediately follows the introductory material and constitutes the bridge which is the collection of letters for the seven churches. The background, then, is the announcement that God is unveiling His plan in Christ to the churches through John. Something divine is afoot, and these letters are meant to give some of the initial warnings and preparations that the churches will need in order to play their part faithfully.

The revelation of Christ is powerful glory in the first chapter is also essential here. This glorified, risen, exalted Christ is the Judge of the churches. Again, this is important because of the way it links Jesus in the New Testament to Yahweh in the Old. Just as Yahweh spoke judgments on His people and their cities through the prophets of old, Jesus speaks judgment on His people in each city through His prophet John.

Finally, these chapters are important in setting the stage for the rest of the book. The eschatological sub-pictures given in Christ’s address to each of the churches will be integrated and transcended through the rest of the book in order to show the whole story. What Christ announces to each of these churches has a role to play in understanding the events coming upon the world. The themes will be extended and expanded, and the wider scope of what Jesus is warning the churches about will be revealed.

What did I learn?

Examining these chapters highlighted a couple of things for me which I had never really noticed. The most impressive to me is the way (as I mentioned twice already) that Jesus takes the place of Yahweh over the people of God. The parallels to Old Testament prophetic texts, especially those announcing judgment on Israel, are pretty strong. Just as God announced to Israel their judgment (and His mercy), often in connection to a coming judgment on the rest of the nations, through His servants the prophets time and again, so Jesus now announces to the churches their judgment (and His mercy) in connection with the rest of the book which addresses a judgment on the rest of the nations through His servant John. The message is clear: the role played by the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament has been given to the name of Jesus in the New. This unique conflation of the roles of Jesus and Yahweh certainly helps to indicate Christ’s deity, even if it is not alone sufficient to prove the matter. The human messianic dimension must also be regarded. Now a man judges the people of God, namely the man Jesus. God has exalted humanity in Christ as His covenant partner.

Going through these two chapters has also helped clarify the relationship between the letters and the rest of Revelation. It seems to me that the letters provide the particulars of God’s coming judgment on the world, which begins with the house of God. The churches will be judged first, all of them represented in these particular seven, and this judgment will then move into the nations. The judgment over the whole world system will carry on the themes found here in the judgment of the churches. Yet it seems that even these specific churches will be present during the coming judgment, and in fact it looms over their immediate future directly following their own judgment. This seems to protest against a primarily futurist reading of the judgment described in the rest of Revelation. On the other hand, that this judgment is moving to the world from the people of God indicates to me that it is not traditional preterism which is being described, for the focus does not seem to be on Israel. This suggests that the eschatological horizon here is a judgment on the pagan world in particular. Nonetheless, I could see support for traditional preterism here in the letter to Philadelphia, which seems to lend support to the idea that the Jews are in fact the subject of the coming judgment. Perhaps we should consider that, if Revelation is in fact post-AD 70, the church had begun to consider the Jews who persecuted them as bound up with the pagan world. This could have been traced back to their cooperation with Rome to execute Jesus.

Jesus the Apocalypse: The Messiah Appears

To continue my Mark Bible study (which began in this post), I’ll move on to the very first verse:

This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What the Bible Says

Let’s not miss the significance of this. Mark has the simplest introduction of any of the Gospels. No genealogy (Matthew), preface (Luke), or poetic allusions to creation (John). He just says, “this is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” By the next verse, he’ll be introducing John the Baptist. So let’s take a closer look at this first verse.

Good News – The words “good news” here come from the Greek word euaggelion, which is usually translated “gospel” and from which we get our word “evangelize.” It was primarily used in particular of politically-relevant military victories, especially if the emperor was involved. This kind of good news would be along the lines, “Good news! We’ve won the battle!” or “Good news! A new emperor has been crowned!” The theme of royal victory was most likely a common connotation. Keep that thought in your back pocket for now.

Jesus Christ – The name “Jesus” doesn’t really warrant much explanation, though an interesting tidbit is that “Jesus” is the English way of saying the Greek translation of the Hebrew name “YehĂ´shua.” That name, if translated straight to English instead of to Greek first, is “Joshua.” So you can tell all your friends that Jesus’ name was Joshua. More important is the “Christ” part. What does that mean? The word “Christ” essentially means “anointed one,” or the same as “Messiah” from Hebrew. By saying “Jesus Christ,” Mark is saying, “Jesus the Messiah.”

This makes sense in connection with the theme of royal victory behind the term “Good News.” After all, there is nothing many of the Jews of Jesus’ day, of whom He was a part, wanted more than a Messiah who would rescue them from Rome in a military victory, and be crowned the true king under God. An unsuspecting reader from Mark’s world would at this point probably have in the mind the picture of a king like David, who would defeat God’s enemies and be acknowledged as God’s chosen ruler. The difference of the Messiah would be that He is the final king, whose victory and reign would be permanent and through whom God Himself would rule.

the Son of God – This is a particularly interesting title. See, before the early church did some serious study of what Jesus said about Himself, the term “son of God” had not been used to say someone had a divine nature, or was God. The most popular use of “son of God” when Mark was written would have been as more or less a synonym for “Messiah,” but with special emphasis on the royal aspect. In the Old Testament, the king of Israel, and Israel as a whole, was often spoken of as God’s son (Exod. 4:22-23, 2 Sam. 7:14, 1 Chr. 17:14, 22:10, 28:6, Ps. 2:6-7, 89:20-26, Ezek. 21:9-10, Hos. 11:1). This is important. God called Israel to be His child, and the king was especially so as God’s anointed representative of the whole nation. By Jesus’ day, these connections developed in many concepts of the Messiah, and the two phrases were practically synonyms (Matt. 16:16, 26:63, Mk. 14:61, John 1:49, 11:27).

So Mark here is again claiming Jesus as Messiah, only this time the emphasis is even more on His role as the King who represents all Israel in Himself. What He does is relevant for the whole nation. (Note that none of this is to say that Jesus wasn’t God’s son in another, more unique and divine, way as well. That’s simply not the original focus of the title “son of God.” Part of the reason this changed is because of who Jesus revealed Himself to be.)

The Theology Part

Putting these pieces we’ve just looked at together, we can start to see the startling scene Mark is trying to show us. Out of nowhere, Jesus appears. Like an unexpected scene in a dream, the Messiah has shown up. This is the beginning of the apocalyptic vision Mark has written his Gospel as. To dramatize it: “Good news!” he yells to his readers out of the fog. “Your Messiah has come!” The fog then parts to reveal the silhouette of Jesus.

We should remember that, for Mark’s readers, God has seemingly been silent and unhelpful to the Jews for many years. Even though they came back from Babylon way back when, many still believed that the Exile was still going on in some sense. They may be back in their land, but they’re still under pagan rule (the Romans this time), their king (Herod) is a corrupt puppet, and God has yet to do anything to show that He has returned to Jerusalem to dwell in His temple like He promised.

With this gloomy backdrop, the sudden appearance of the Messiah clearly has significance. Jesus has come to fix this situation, lead Israel out of exile, and win the final victory of God. This is indeed “Good News!” Yet whatever expectations may have been created in this first verse, the rest of the Gospel will end up confusing them.

For us, on the other side of these events, we know what has been accomplished. Jesus, the Messiah, who is God’s Son not only as King but as the eternal Word of God Himself, has defeated Satan and dealt with our sin on the Cross, then rose again. Now He is reigning on high, exalted above all. For us, the Jewish Messiah has already completed His mission, fulfilled the destiny of Israel, and brought us, the Gentiles who didn’t belong, in on the blessings. We now stand as one body, saved by Jesus alone, and acknowledge Him as the Son of God whose sudden appearance in history was the day of salvation for all people!

What to Do about It

So how are we to respond to what Mark 1:1? What changes can even this little verse make in our lives? I can think of a couple possible applications.

  • Just like Jesus suddenly appeared in the middle of Israel’s suffering to save His people, we now wait for Him to suddenly return. When He does, we have hope that He will implement His victory once and for all. In the mean time, we must work and prepare, telling the whole world about what Christ has done for us. One day time will run out, and just like Jerusalem was destroyed after it missed its chance with the Savior, so next time the whole world will fall if we do not prepare them for the return of the King.
  • God is always faithful, and we can trust Him. It had been 400 years since the Old Testament was written, and the Jews were wondering where God had gone. When would He help them again? Yet He did return to His people in Jesus just as He swore, and today we can trust that He will fulfill all of His promises to us. This means we can live boldly and without fear, doing whatever God calls us to, because we know He will do what He has promised.
  • We should never lose hope. Like I said, 400 years had gone by. No word from God in this time. Even after the Jews’ victory in the Maccabean revolt (study here if you’re interested), little progress was made and all the authorities were still corrupt. Pagan rule hadn’t stopped. Even in the midst of this bleak situation, though, God suddenly made His move for His people. So we can wait patiently, but also eagerly, because God might act at any moment to help us in whatever we need, or to rescue us from any of our sufferings. He could change your life whenever, so never lose heart.

Jesus the Apocalypse: A Study on Mark

This is the third and final new series I’m starting now. I thought it would be fun to do a Bible study series on a particular book of the Bible. My recent studies have led me to Mark. The shortest and (according to most scholars) earliest of the Gospels, as well as the most cryptic, it begged for good study. So, on to the background details.

Date and Authorship

Mark is widely believed to have been the first Gospel written. More conservative dating puts it in the AD 50s, while more mainstream scholarship says 65-70. Very few people date it any later, simply because the book gives no indications that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 had yet happened, which would have been very theologically significant if it had since Jesus is recorded to have prophesied this event.

While no solid historical evidence exists surrounding the author of Mark, and the book itself does not specify the author (remember that the titles were added later), the tradition of the early church was that a disciple of Peter named Mark wrote the book based on Peter’s preaching. Modern historians mostly disbelieve this tradition, but the reasons for this seem to be mostly involve skepticism about the historical truth of Mark. If Mark is taken as overall a reliable work, then there is no obvious reason to question the traditional claim.

Theme: Let the Reader Understand

The idea which I have recently run across, and which I plan to explore with this Bible study, is that Mark is essentially an apocalypse. At first, this may not make sense, but this is probably because of the widespread misunderstanding about what an apocalypse is. So in order to explain how and why Mark might be an apocalypse, I should address briefly what apocalyptic literature actually is.

In popular imagination, “apocalypse” means “end of the world.” But that’s not quite right. Our word apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which basically means an “unveiling” or a “revealing.” Specifically, the genre of apocalypse involves God revealing His secrets in mysterious ways, usually by strange visions or dreams. Daniel, for example, consists of much apocalyptic material. Sometimes they are interpreted there (like often happens in Daniel), and sometimes the reader is left to understand by himself. Often times, these revelations have to do with what God is about to do in the future (such as end times matters), but they can also refer to the present and the past, giving the heavenly, theological perspective on earthly events.

How does Mark fit into this category? It seems that Mark portrays Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection like a series of apocalyptic visions. The events of His life are written as short and cryptic, strung together like the scenes of a dream or visions with the word “immediately,” and ultimately ending in suspense. “Let the reader understand” seems to indeed apply to the whole of Mark; he gives us a mysterious picture of the Messiah which only those with ears to hear will truly understand.

Coming Up

With this context in mind, my next post will start at the beginning in Mark 1:1 and move on from there. I’m hoping to find lots of interesting goodness in this book, a book which testifies of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. Any fresh riches to find about Him are worth the search. So until next time, maybe try reading Mark with what I’ve mentioned in mind, if you’re at all interested. Comment if you find anything to say, as always.