V 1-3 tell me that god sent an angel to bring prophesy to John. This prophesy is about the end-times, which John believes are near. And so John will report everything he ‘sees’. Yeah, I bet. I feel like I just slipped down the rabbit hole.
V 4-8 John is writing to the 7 churches in Asia all about his ‘visions’. He sends greetings from himself, the 7 spirits of god (WTF?), and Jesus. John seems to anticipate that Jesus will descend from the clouds (just like the vision in Daniel 7:13); and everyone will see him (not unless the earth is flat!); and mourn him (just like in Zechariah 12:10). (I’m getting the feeling that maybe John has been studying too many OT prophesies, and he’s starting to dream about them.) And then Jesus makes more grandiose claims about himself – Alpha/Omega, etc. Nothing new there – if you’ve already read ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6), you’re used to his boasting.
In v 9-11 John describes how he was told to write about his visions to the 7 churches in Asia (part of what is now Turkey, not the continent), and then he lists their names. A bunch of obscure places. Anyway, he says he was praying when this happened; I wonder if he was fasting, or in some kind of trance, or maybe smoking a peace pipe, or if he just got a bit too much sun?
V 12-20 Well whatever the cause of his visions, they get pretty weird. He sees this guy standing in between a group of lampstands. He supposes it’s Jesus, and refers to the guy as the ‘Son of Man’. Jesus used that term to refer to himself (Matt 9:6 or Luke 9:22 for example), but he totally stole it from Daniel (see Dan 7:13 again). John’s afraid, but Jesus says not to be, because although he died, he’s back! And he holds the keys to death and hell. (What a nice mental image!) Then Jesus explains some of the other items in John’s vision – the 7 lampstands are the 7 churches and the 7 stars are the angels (messengers) of the churches. (He doesn’t say what the double-edges sword was for.)
I’ll cover these chapters together because they constitute a series of messages from John to each of the 7 churches. The format of each letter follows a pattern.
Ephesus (2:1-7): V 1 John says the message is from the guy with the stars and lampstands, so that’d be Jesus. Why doesn’t he just say so? V 2-6 John gives the church its ‘report card’. On the plus side – the people there are patient, hard workers, don’t put up with crap, rout out false preachers, and hate Nicolaitans just as much as John does. Minuses – they don’t love each other or work as hard as they did at first. If they don’t get their act together, John threatens to remove their lampstand; I’m assuming that’s a symbolic way of saying he will remove them from the list of 7 churches. (A note about Nicolaitans: they were a sect led by a deacon named Nicolas and considered heretical by the early church. Their exact heresy was uncertain. It is commonly thought to have been antinomianism – the belief that because one is saved by faith alone, morality is unnecessary and ‘anything goes’ because all will be forgiven. I didn’t know that had a name! But it might also have been polygamy, or eating food that had been offered to idols.) V 7 – an admonition to heed the words of the spirit because the prize at the end will be fruit from the tree of life; I assume that refers to eternal life.
Smyrna (2:8-11): V 8 John says that this message is from the first/last dead/alive guy. Is John going to find a different cryptic/poetic way to describe Jesus in each of these 7 messages? (yes – yes, he is) V 9-10 John says he knows about the people’s suffering and poverty but they are rich. He doesn’t define rich – is he talking about something spiritual? Then he says he knows the church is facing opposition from a group who claim to be Jewish but belong to Satan. He doesn’t explain that remark either. Then we’re back to glorifying and justifying suffering – if they can just hang in there and ‘take it’, they will get a ‘crown of life’ (some sort of spiritual reward). V 11 The same admonition that the Ephesians got – listen to the spirit to avoid the ‘second death’. I’ll assume that’s another oblique reference to eternal life.
Pergamum (2:12-17): V 12 Another message from Jesus, this time described as the guy with the double-edged sword. V 13 What John thinks they did right – Remain loyal even while living in a city occupied by Satan. Maybe he means there is a lot of animosity towards the church in Pergamum, or a lot of non-believers live there. Anyway, John is pleased that the church members in Pergamum refused to deny Jesus even when their bishop was martyred. (They’re braver than I would have been.) The Antipas mentioned here is not Herod Antipas; that confused me. This is another dude named Antipas, who according to Christian tradition, was ordained by John the Apostle as bishop of Pergamon. The traditional account goes on to say Antipas was martyred in ca. 92 CE by burning in a brazen bull-shaped altar for casting out demons worshiped by the local population. Nice image there…
V 14-15 But the people of Pergamum aren’t perfect, either. There are some among them “whose teaching is like that of Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to sin by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin” (NLT). I had to look that reference up, and it’s interesting. Balaam is the guy with the talking donkey (Numbers 22-24), and I reread that story, but there’s no reference in it to Balaam teaching the Israelites any sins. In fact, contrary to Balak’s request, he blesses them. This verse in Revelation relates to a second mention of Balaam in the OT, which quotes Moses (here’s the whole passage so you’ll get the context)
““Why have you let all the women live?” he demanded. “These are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the Lord at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the Lord’s people. So kill all the boys and all the women who have had intercourse with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.” (Num 31:15-18, NLT)
So in Numbers, all we are told about Balaam is that he led the Israelites into some kind of unnamed sin. In Revelation, John mentions food offered to idols and ‘sexual sins’ (fornication) – where did John get that from? It’s not in the OT. Next we are told that the Nicolaitans follow that same teaching – which jives with the info I found about the Nicolaitans. So the church better repent, or Jesus will come at them with his double-edged sword (v 16). V 17 The same admonition to listen to Jesus, and the reward this time is manna from heaven and a stone with a secret message.
Thyatira (2:18-29): V 18 This time the message comes from Jesus, the guy with eyes like flames and feet of bronze. V 19 These folks got a few things right – love, patience, service, endurance. V 20-25 Here comes the ugly. The people of Thyatira allow an evil woman to lead believers astray (notice how women in the bible always fill the role of temptress or witch?). And the punishments Jesus vows to inflict on her in v 22-23 sound like they came from the pages of a Stephen King novel.
V 26-29 The same admonition to listen and the rewards this time are authority over all the nations and the morning star! Usually that’s the planet Venus – is that what John means? The bit in v 27 about the iron rod and clay pots is actually from Psalm 2:8-9
Sardis (3:1-6): V 1 In this message, Jesus is the guy with 7 spirits and 7 stars. V 2-3 Sounds like Jesus finds this church a little lack-lustre. He doesn’t say that they have done anything major wrong, more just like they have lost their enthusiasm and need to hold a pep rally. V 4-5 The reward for those who do not sin will be to wear white and walk with Jesus, and have assurance that their names will be in the Book of Life. I had to look that up: In Judaism and Christianity, this is the book in which God records the names of every person who is destined for Heaven or the World to Come. According to the Talmud it is open on Rosh Hashanah, as is its analog for the wicked, the Book of the Dead. Creepy! Sounds like the stuff of nightmares – can you imagine teaching this to a child? V 6 The same admonition to listen.
Philadelphia (3:7-13): V 7 this time John describes Jesus with a little riddle; which just happens to be stolen from Isaiah 22:22. Needless to say, the verse in Isaiah is completely unrelated to Jesus. V 8 and 10 Jesus commends the people there for their strength, perseverance, and obedience, and for not denying him. V 9 He will force those lying Jews to bow down at the Christians’ feet. (Anyone still think Jesus is Love?) V 11 the people are warned to hold onto what they have. And the prize? They will be protected from the hour of trial (v 10), they will become pillars in the temple of god (WTF does that mean? Is it supposed to be literal or metaphorical?), Jesus will write the name of his god on them (Yahweh?) as well as his own name, and they will become citizens of the New Jerusalem (v 12). Whew – that must be the Grand Prize! V 13 the usual advice to listen zzzz
Laodicea (3:13-22): V 13 Now Jesus calls himself the Amen (is that like the Dernier Cri?), and the beginning of god’s creation. V 15-19 Another church that seems to have lost its enthusiasm. Jesus describes it as ‘lukewarm’ and ‘indifferent’. But in v 17-18, although they are confusing, it seems to me that Jesus is telling the people that there is something wrong with them, when they don’t think themselves that there is anything wrong – and then he is trying to sell them on a remedy for a non-existent deficiency. Anyone have a different interpretation? V 20-22 The usual advice about listening, and reward in this case will be dinner with Jesus, plus a chance for the lucky winner to sit on the throne with him and his father. Steve Wells, in the SAB, asks – if all 3 sit on it together, who will end up on the bottom. Bahaha! You should recognize v 20. Who knew it came from the bible?