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.

Project Credo: Trinity

This semester I am taking two introductory classes on Christian doctrine, both of which require me to write a 10-12 page credo, simply expressing what I believe about every topic covered in class. I started work on one of these recently, and for fun I thought I’d share my section on the Trinity. (Yes, I will be posting the full credos as PDFs when I’m finished.)

The Trinity

There is only one God, one true divine being with one single essence or ousia. He is a single Subject, indivisible, who cannot be broken apart. Yet it belongs to the one divine essence to subsist in three distinct Persons, revealed as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each Person is fully and entirely God, possessing the fullness of the one divine nature in unity with the other Persons. God thus exists as a unity-in-trinity, or a trinity-in-unity, in which the single divine ousia exists in a trifold mode of three hypostases. The Persons are each distinguished not by any divine attributes of which one person has more or less, for they are all entirely equal and divine, but by their relations to each other. The Father is the Father precisely because He is Father of the Son, for example. Apart from these internal relational distinctions, there is no possible essential or eternal difference to draw between the Persons of the Trinity. They are each essentially equal in power, glory, wisdom, authority, and love. They share one will, intelligence, and emotional life. There is no hierarchy, supremacy, or subordination of any kind within the immanent/ontological Trinity. The Father is an unqualified equal to the Son who is an unqualified equal to the Spirit who is an unqualified equal to the Father. Each has the fullness of the one divine nature, the one divine nature which itself constitutes them as relations of one God. The divine nature both constitutes the relations of the Triune Persons and is constituted by their relations. In these relations, the Father eternally begets the Son, and the Father and the Son eternally spirate the Spirit, but in these cases the generation neither compromises the aseity of each member nor defines some kind of ontological contingency. Neither should the begetting of the Son of the procession of the Spirit be seen as Persons originating from the unoriginate Person of the Father, but rather the Persons come from the being of the Father, the one ousia which each Person fully shares. 

In history, God has expressed Himself in a unique Triune economy, and the way the Trinity is expressed in redemptive history is called the economic Trinity. In the economic Trinity, as a general pattern, the Father sends and initiates, the Son obeys and accomplishes, and the Spirit implements and consummates. In this economy the Father clearly takes the ultimate authority, this likely because of the correspondence with His eternal begetting of the Son and spiration of the Spirit. The Son is, in a certain sense, the fulfillment of God’s economy, as throughout the Old Testament and finally in the Incarnation He was (and remains) the personal, distinct, tangible appearance of God within creation. Throughout the whole of redemption, the Spirit acts as the agent of divine power, the one who accomplishes the supernatural divine will within natural space and time. These role distinctions are consistent and ultimate in human relationship to God, but they are not themselves internal to the divine being, though they in an imperfect and finite way reflect the internal Triune relations of God. They call forth a response for human faith and practice which seeks to worship the Father through the mediation of the Son by faithful union in the Spirit, and to do the will of the Father on the ground of the work of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Narnia and the Cross (An Essay for British Lit)

This is an essay that I wrote for my British literature class last semester. I figure someone might find it interesting. Or a good laugh. Either way.

I Lay Down My Life for Edmund: Atonement Theology in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

“When a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward” (Lewis, ch. 15). With this sentence, every key element to C. S. Lewis’ atonement theology, as portrayed in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is laid bare. Although sometimes derided for theological reasons, Aslan’s sacrifice for Edmund is a rich and beautiful scene which lends much power to the book as a whole. Moreover, while this narrative would not fit into anyone’s systematic theology, there are several themes present in Lewis’ atonement story which both shed light on Lewis’ thought in general and might provide some helpful corrective foci for broader evangelical understanding. In particular, the sacrifice of Aslan for Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe brings together the essential mysterious, personal, and redemptive-historical dimensions of the atonement in a typology that impresses itself upon the heart in a way few stories can do. Taking note of these themes will not only enable the reader to better appreciate what Aslan did, but what Jesus did to which Lewis intended Aslan’s sacrifice to point.

Before looking at the actual key elements of this Narnian atonement, though, some analysis of what took place in the novel and how Lewis meant these events to be interpreted is probably in order. Anna Blanch in her article “A Hermeneutical Understanding of The Chronicles of Narnia” makes the case that allegory or metaphor is not the right way to understand the Narnia books and events, but rather that typology was Lewis’ intent. The differences are subtle, but the main point is to let the story point somewhere as a story, rather than each element in the story having a specific and consistent symbolic meaning. This was, she claims, how Lewis saw the dying-and-rising god myths leading up to Christ, as “types” that ultimately pointed to Christ the “True Myth.” With this in mind, the basic story is straightforward. After entering Narnia, Edmund ends up giving his allegiance to the White Witch. Eventually, because of his family and Aslan’s efforts, he returns to them and betrays her, which gives her a claim on his life based on “deep magic from the dawn of time.” Yet Aslan convenes privately with the Witch and offers his life in exchange for Edmund’s. The Witch kills him on the Stone Table, but the next day he returns and liberates her prisoners (whom she had turned to stone). Finally, Aslan and his freed creatures battle the Witch and her forces, eventually winning as Aslan kills the Witch. The climax to all of this is clearly Aslan’s death and resurrection, and the function of this event as a type of atonement provides many valuable insights, beginning with its mysterious nature.

Evident first in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the controlling fact of the atonement for Lewis is mystery. Aslan’s death and resurrection, just as Christ’s, does not save in any easily schematized way. Indeed, before his conversion the mechanism of the atonement was a major problem for him, the “how” question leading him away from accepting the reality. In the end as a Christian, mostly due to the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien and another friend showing him the significance of “true myth” to his atonement approach, “Lewis remained reluctant to assume full working knowledge of the atonement, which he saw as wholly mysterious” (Vanderhorst 29). In Narnia, this reality comes across in Aslan’s cryptic and fundamentally magical explanation of why he was alive again after dying in Edmund’s stead:

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know: Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” (Lewis, ch. 15)

A magic deeper than “Deep Magic” is the clearest possible sign that Lewis is signaling away from the “how” instead to focus on the “what.” This also accords with what Lewis states about the atonement in Mere Christianity, namely that, just as one does not need to understand nutritional theory to be nourished by a meal, one needs no understanding of atonement theory to be saved by Christ’s work (55). Surely this is the case for Aslan and Edmund, since no one but Aslan himself understood anything about this deeper magic from before the dawn of time. This fixation on mystery, on an unexpected and inexplicable appearance of grace in self-sacrifice, makes for a brilliant story, and evangelicals would do well to learn from Aslan than the atonement must retain its essentially inscrutable character.

The second essential element to the atonement captured in the Narnia story is personalism, i.e. the framing of the atonement as primarily a reality involving real and particular people, as opposed to abstract individuals or groups. While many evangelical presentations of the atonement take a personal shape (“Jesus died for you because of how much He loves you!”), few evangelical articulations do. The focus is usually on a financial or legal metaphor, which, as useful as such may be, cannot be truly personal. Yet Aslan’s sacrifice is deeply personal, as he steps up specifically to save Edmund by dying in his place. There is no abstract or behind-the-scenes soteriological rationale given. Edmund was going to be killed, so Aslan died in his stead. This was a personal sacrifice, which could not easily be separated meaningfully from the people intimately involved. Again, this theme could well be integrated not only into evangelical Gospel presentations, but into proper theological accounts of the atonement. For indeed, Paul seems to recognize precisely this personal aspect of the atonement when he says that Christ “loved me and gave Himself for me” (Holman Christian Standard Bible, Gal. 2:20), just as Aslan loved Edmund and gave himself for Edmund.

The final theme in the Narnian atonement which has probably been mostly ignored in favor of other questions (such the resemblance to ransom theory) is the redemptive-historical function of Aslan’s death. While, as just mentioned, Aslan’s sacrifice was intensely personal, benefitting no more than Edmund directly, or perhaps the whole Pevensie family, Aslan’s death quickly leads to Narnia’s salvation. After his resurrection, Aslan is free to roam and work unhindered by the Witch, since she assumes he is dead. He can go to her castle and breathe new life on all of the creatures which have been turned to stone, and lead a mighty army back to defeat her. This is not the result of any arbitrary or abstract atonement concept, but rather the historical causal result of the atonement for Aslan’s followers. More than the other points, this redemptive-historical element has often been forgotten altogether in Christian atonement theology. Many atonement accounts treat Christ’s work as something which did or could have functioned out of context, by any death under any circumstances, since only an artificial and metaphysical role is involved. Yet, as with Aslan, Christ’s death paved the way for the survival of the people of God. By establishing the new pattern of suffering unto death without violence, and the advance guarantee of personal resurrection, faithful Jews who followed Him were able to survive the impending doom of Jerusalem and the Temple not just physically, but also religiously, as they had moved on to a new Way. Moreover, the rejection of Christ by the Jews historically pushed the gate open to new circumstances in which Gentiles could enter the people of God as Gentiles. In both the case of Aslan’s ransom and Jesus’ crucifixion, there is an irreducible historical core that grounds the benefits of atonement in actual, causal effect. This entire working is mostly forgotten in evangelical theology, but like these other themes might find recovery when the Christian imagination takes a romp through Narnia.

In the final picture, C. S. Lewis portrays a rich and varied view of the atonement in his typological treatment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Not easily identifiable too closely with any one theory, Lewis held open the mystery that the blood on the altar works because grace has provided it (Lev. 17:11). He painted a profoundly personal picture, a type which reveals the love of God in Christ for each person as a person, and quite significantly, perhaps without even realizing he did so, Lewis presented a clear analogy for the redemptive-historical function of atonement. These three elements, even aside from the more obvious and often analyzed themes of substitution and ransom, provide a helpful corrective to the lack evident in many atonement accounts of present-day evangelical theologians. All would do well to drink from this Narnian well, and to find in Aslan a beautiful and ultimately worship-inducing pointer to Jesus Christ.

Works Cited

Blanch, Anna. “A Hermeneutical Understanding of The Chronicles of Narnia.” Bible Society Australia, 2006. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Holy Bible: The Old & New Testaments: Holman Christian Standard Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible, 2011. Electronic.

Lewis, C. S. The Chronicles of Narnia II: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Vol. 56. 2013. GoodBook Classics. Electronic.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.

Vanderhorst, Ariel James. “Mere Atonement.” Touchstone: A Journal Of Mere Christianity 22.3 (2009): 27-31. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.