Sunday, November 2
Revelation 1:9-20: JohnÕs vision comes "on the LordÕs Day" (verse 10), Sunday (1 Corinthians 16:2), the very day when the seven churches of Asia Minor were celebrating the LordÕs Supper, "the breaking of the Bread." This service of worship normally began on the night when the Sabbath came to a close and Sunday began; it lasted through the night and ended on Sunday morning (Acts 20:7,11). John describes himself as being "in the Spirit," a technical term referring to prophetic inspiration (Numbers 11:25; 2 Samuel 23:2; Ezechiel 2:2; 3:24; Matthew 22:43). Like Ezechiel, John "fell as one dead" (verse 17), a description of the biblical phenomenon known as being "slain in the Spirit." Such was JohnÕs response to this inaugural vision (comparable to the inaugural visions of Isaiah and Ezechiel) of Christ in glory, standing in the midst of the Menorah (verse 12), clothed as the High Priest (verse 13; Exodus 28:4; 39:29; Sirach 50:5-12). The versatile "right hand" of the Lord can simultaneously hold the Pleiades (verse 16) and still be laid gently on the downfallen John (verse 17). In this vision Christ is otherwise frightening, with His white hair (verse 14; Daniel 7:9), the sword of the Word issuing from His mouth (verse 16; cf. 2:12,16; 19:15; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12), His feet like refined brass (verse 15; Ezechiel 1:7). Here He is twice called "the First and the Last" (verses 11,17), an expression that will also appear in 2:8 and 22:13. Drawn from the Book of Isaiah (41:44; 44:6), this expression corresponds to "Alpha and Omega" (verses 8,11), the first and final letters of the Greek alphabet. Christ is, then, the beginning and end of language, the defining content of all intelligible meaning. He is, in short, the Word. He died and rose again and lives forever (verse 18; Romans 6:9). Hence, He hold the keys of death and the underworld (verse 18; cf. 9:1; 20:1).
Monday, November 3
Revelation 2:1-7: Among the early Christian churches, that of Ephesus was particularly renowned for the strictness of its doctrinal purity. This was a book-burning congregation (Acts 19:19), which brooked no heresy. The apostle Paul, who had labored at Ephesus for three years, stressed the importance of doctrinal orthodoxy to all who ministered and taught there (Acts 20:29-31; 1 Timothy 1:3-7,18-20; 4:1-3; 5:17; 6:3-5,20; 2 Timothy 1:13-15; 2:14-18; 3:13; 4:2-5). In contrast to all of PaulÕs other epistles, he mentioned no heresies in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Well into the second century, we know the reputation of the church at Ephesus for its doctrinal purity (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians 6,2; 9.1; Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 1.26.3). Here in Revelation 2 the church at Ephesus is commended for dealing with certain heretics called the Nicolaitans (verse 6), who apparently taught sexual immorality (2:14-15). The church was also obliged to deal with false apostles (verse 2), concerning whom the apostle Paul had earlier given warning to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:29; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; Didache 11). The problem at Ephesus, then, was not a lack of orthodoxy, but a lack of charity Ñ they had forgotten their first agape (verse 4). At one time they had known fervent love (Acts 20:36-38), but now it had grown cold. JohnÕs words to them here stand forever as a warning to those whose zeal for doctrinal purity obscures in their minds the need for true charity. Even though the Ephesian Christians are here commended for their "works," labor," and "patience" (verse 2; cf. exactly these three words in 1 Thessalonians 1:3), they have somehow fallen away from their "first works" (verse 5), as they have from their "first love." The paradisiacal imagery of verse 7 comes from Genesis, of course, and will appear again in the final chapter of Revelation. The first of these seven letters to the Asian churches, then, makes it clear that the most serious dangers facing those churches did not come from external threat and persecution, but from spiritual problems within.
Tuesday, November 4
Revelation 2:8-11: Smyrna, the modern Turkish city of Izmir, was a seaport rivaling and then surpassing Ephesus. The Book of Revelation is our earliest historical witness to the presence of a Christian church at Smyrna, but it does not indicate when or by whom the place was evangelized. A second century bishop of that church, the martyr Polycarp, one of the most revered men in early Christian history, personally knew the apostle John at one end of his ministry, and, at the other end, was the friend of Irenaeus of Lyons in Gaul, who lived to the dawn of the third century. Polycarp thus became the very embodiment of primitive Christian tradition, and because of him SmyrnaÕs status among the early churches rivaled that of Ephesus. At Smyrna there seems to have been considerable conflict between the Christians and the local Jews, who are here referred to as "a synagogue of Satan," not even worthy to be called real Jews (verse 9). Even in the mid-second century the Jews of Smyrna took steps to prevent the Christians from recovering the body of the martyred Polycarp (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 18.1). The four verses here under consideration indicate that, unlike the situations in Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea, in Smyrna the problems faced by the church came largely from without. Thus, unlike the Ephesians (2:5), the believers are Smyrna were not told to repent. John did warn the congregation, however, that they would soon be severely tested (verse 10). How many Christians perished in that testing? It is very difficult to say, but we do know that Polycarp, who was martyred in A.D. 155, was the twelfth name on the list of martyrs at Smyrna (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 19.1). Those martyrs, in any case, were promised the "crown of life," an athletic image indicating their victory in Christ (Philippians 3:14; 2 Timothy 2:5; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4). The "second death" in verse 11 refers to eternal damnation (cf. 20:6.14.15; 21:8).
Wednesday, November 5
Revelation 2:12-17: Pergamos is the modern Turkish city of Bergama, which is about one-tenth the size it was in antiquity; it has had an unbroken history since the fifth century B.C. There is a still a small, poor congregation of Christians at Bergama, the direct descendents of that congregation to which was addressed the Book of Revelation. One may also see there the ruins of a once magnificent church dedicated to St. John by the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century. Thanks to the excavations begun under the auspices of the Museum of Berlin in 1878, we know quite a bit about the ancient city. The problems in the church at Pergamos seem to have been largely internal. There was a laxist group, apparently to be identified with the Nicolaitans (verse 15), who advocated sexual immorality and the eating of sacrifices made to idols (verse 14). Those internal problems were compounded, nonetheless, by external pressure in the form of occasional persecutions, during one of which there perished the martyr Antipas (verse 13), identified by Christian tradition as the first bishop of that city. So resolute was the opposition to the Gospel in that city that Satan was said to throne there, perhaps a reference to the temple of the god Asculepius, whose symbol was a staff with a coiled serpent. That image, now universally known as the symbol of the healing professions (for Asculepius was the god of healing), would have reminded the early Christians of the serpent in Genesis 3, who will reappear several more times in the Book of Revelation (cf. 12:9 and 20:2, for instance). Pergamos also boasted temples to Zeus and to Roma, the deified personification of the empire. In verse 16 Jesus says that He will come quickly, a promise repeated six more times in Revelation (3:11; 16:15; 22:7,12,17,20).
Thursday, November 6
Revelation 2:18-29: Thyatira, the modern Akhisar, was a city more modest than the previous three. The church in that city, too, was praised for its works, love, service, faith, and patience (verse 19). In spite of that praise, the congregation was tolerating in its midst the activities of a pseudo-charismatic woman whom John likened to the ancient Queen Jezebel of Israel, the Phoenician feminist responsible for so many of the ills condemned by the prophet Elijah in the ninth century B.C. (verse 20). The moral offenses of the woman at Thyatira, which included the advocacy of sexual sins and the eating of food sacrificed to demons, seem similar to those of the Nicolaitans, but in the present case John took care to single out an individual rather than to talk about a group. Against her he prophesied a dire judgment (verses 22-23). She seems also to have been a sort of mistress of the occult, here called "the depths of Satan" (verse 24). But John does not condemn solely that woman; he speaks very critically, in addition, of the church that tolerated her (verse 20). Toleration, which everywhere today is regarded as a virtue to be cultivated, is everywhere in the New Testament regarded as a vice to be avoided (for example, Romans 1:32). In the instance studied here, the church at Thyatira was permitting a very forceful woman, who claimed the authority of a prophetess, to bring moral havoc into the congregation. Perhaps they were intimidated by her influence, or simply reluctant to deal harshly with a woman. John, as we see, suffered from neither that intimidation nor that reluctance. In the present text he accomplished the moral equivalent of that robust defenestration suffered by the aging Phoenician princess of Samaria an the day that Jehu came a-riding.
Friday, November 7
Revelation 3:1-6: In antiquity Sardis had been the capital city of the famous Croesus, king of Lydia, and in Persian times it was the greatest city of Asia Minor, linked by a major highway to the Persian capital of Susa. Its acropolis was so high and well fortified that the city was nearly impregnable. In fact, it was never taken by direct assault. It was captured twice, however, both times by sneak attacks, once by Cyrus in 546 and once by Antiochus the Great in 218. It is against another surprise attack that John warns the people of Sardis now (verse 3), using an image found elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 24:43; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10). Truth to tell, lack of vigilance was a great problem in the church at Sardis, part of its more general condition of laziness and despondency. After all, John does not mention a single heresy at Sardis. The evil in that congregation is apathy and boredom; they are too dead to be sick (verse 1). Therefore, John summons them to vigilance (verse 2). Very few Christians in Sardis have measured up (verse 4), and the others are in danger of being removed from "the Book of Life" (verse 5; cf. also 17:8; 21:27). This latter image is not a metaphor for eternal predestination, precisely because names can be removed from it. The Book of Life is, rather, a register of the citizens of heaven, and the metaphor of erasure testifies that the names written therein, as long as those who bear those names still live on earth, can be removed. There is no question, then, of some sort of eternal roll call already fixed and unchangeable, independent of the choices each man makes in his own heart. As long as he is on this earth, there remains the possibility that a manÕs name may be erased from the Book of Life.
Saturday, November 8
Revelation 3:7-13: This is the most cheerful, complimentary, and optimistic of the letters to the seven Asian churches. Not one word of criticism is directed to the Christians at Philadelphia. On the contrary, they are twice praised for their perseverance (verses 8,10). The problem at Philadelphia is external, involving conflict with the local Jews (verse 9), the sort of problem we saw at Smyrna. "The key of David" (verse 7) alludes to Isaiah 22:22, where Eliakim is described as having exclusive power of the keys. A minister with this power was the man who decided who would and who would not be admitted to the royal presence. In describing Jesus in this way, John asserts that if anyone wants to go to God, he must go through Jesus. This emphasis on the unique mediation and finality of Christ is common throughout the New Testament. The Christian congregation at Philadelphia is evidently small and of limited resources, but we gain the impression that it is about to make significant missionary gains ("open door" Ñ see Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3). Also, there will soon be a trial (verse 10), and those who overcome in that trial will receive the name of God and the name of New Jerusalem (verse 12), the holy city that comes down from heaven (21:2; Galatians 2:9). St. Paul contrasts the new Jerusalem with the now Jerusalem (he nyn Ierousalem), which is simply a city in Palestine (Galatians 4:24-25). The latter city, the earthly Jerusalem, by the time John writes, has already been destroyed by the Romans.