I want to offer some thoughts on Revelation ch2 & ch3.
These are "the letters to the seven churches", of course. They begin with warnings, and end with promises, but I think the promises deserve to be a
topic in their own right.
In these two threads, I'm going to be asking the question; what kind of warning should the church be taking out of these chapters?
I'm going to begin by looking at the details of what they say to the churches of John's own time (which were all based in western Turkey, in what
was then the Roman province of Asia).
Then I'll be trying to generalise from the details, looking for the essential message, hoping to see what can be applicable to the church at large,
and in particular to the church in John's future, when the prophecies of Revelation would be fulfilled.
Instead of starting at the beginning, I'm going to go straight to the most ominous-looking observation. In the beginning of the letter to the church
in Pergamum, the local Christians are told that "I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is". (ch2 v13) What does he mean by this?
Pergamum was a former capital, with a collection of well-known temples. The explanations for "Satan's throne" normally focus on one of them.
One of the possible candidates is the temple of Zeus; as the "high God" of Greek culture, Zeus would be, in a sense, the most direct public rival to
the Biblical Creator God.
Another option is to draw attention to the serpent-form associated with the healing-god Aesculapius, remembering that Satan is later described as
"the great serpent" or "the dragon". In fact, if Satan is to be understood as a promoter of non-Biblical religion, then the entire temple complex
in the city could be seen as a massive power-base for his work.
But if we have to pinpoint any specific location, I'm inclined to put my money on the temple dedicated to Rome- DEA ROMA- and to Augustus in 29BC.
My reason is that the name "Satan", in Revelation, is not just associated with idolatry, but with persecuting
idolatry. I've already
described what was happening in ch12, when his great anger at his "fall from Heaven" was driving him in hostile pursuit of "the Woman" who
represents God's people;
Satan fell from Heaven
On an eagle's wings
Then the dragon calls the "Beast" out of the sea, and gives it "his power and his throne and great authority" (ch13 v2), so that the Beast can
"make war upon the saints". The dragon and the persecuting power which he's called into existence are so closely identified that they even share
physical features, viz the seven heads and ten horns (ch12 v3, ch13 v1).
And that same letter to Pergamum confirms the connection, when it refers to the fact that "Antipas, my faithful witness...was killed among you,
where Satan dwells
". In John's time, of course, the persecuting power was the Imperial authority. It would make sense, then, that "Satan's
throne" should be a reference to Imperial authority, and in particular to the temple which was a local centre of the Imperial cult.
Satan's name is mentioned again in connection with the Jews. In two different places, in the letter to Smyrna (ch2 v9) and in the letter to
Philadelphia (ch3 v9), they're described as "the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not".
I wonder if this, too, has something to do with involvement in persecution. In the Smyrna letter, certainly, the comment about the "slander" of the
Jews is placed in the immediate context of "your tribulation" and "what you are about to suffer", and the fact that "the devil is about to throw
some of you in prison". A plausible connection would be that the authorities were taking action against Christians on information received (DELATIO,
in Roman legal parlance), and that some of this information was coming from the Jews.
The Jews would have been well-placed for this. The Jewish faith was an established "licensed" religion- RELIGIO LICITA- while the Christian faith
was not. In the early days of the church, when the church was only just separating out of the Jewish nation, the distinction would not have been
clear-cut. Roman officials might have been slow to notice that a new group was emerging. Hostile Jews could have made it their business to explain the
difference, and to draw the attention of the authorities to Christian meetings.
And what about "call themselves Jews and are not"? Is this, perhaps, an oblique way of challenging the Jewish claim to be God's people Israel, on
the gounds that this role has been taken over by the church (as, indeed, it has, from a Christian standpoint)? But there's also the possibility that
this letter really does mean what it seems to imply, that the synagogue hostility was coming from, or at least being led by, men whose ancestors were
not born Jews.
When Paul, in Acts, was visiting synagogues, he was able to address "Greeks" there, as well as Jews. There must have been a large number of
"interested" Gentiles, potential proselytes, floating around the synagogue community. It seems likely that Paul was able to divert many of them to
Christianity. But there may have been many others who ignored this distraction and attached themselves to the Jews instead, going on to make a full
commitment. Did the proverbial "zeal of the convert" then prompt them to take the lead in hostility to those among their fellow-Gentiles who took
the Christian route? That would be one way of accounting for the comments in these letters.
What's emerging from these reflections is a sense of the menace which is coming from outside
This is a recurring theme in the Bible as a whole.
The classic example, in the Old Testament, is the the oppression suffered by the Israelites and the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh, which is identified
with the life-work of Moses.
Then, of course, the story continues, with Israel's experiences with the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and so on.
These letters indicate how the same theme was experienced by the church in John's own time.
The rest of Revelation points towards a renewal of the same pattern, in the fulfilment of prophecy.
There would be a parallel to the menace of "Satan's throne", in the sense of experiencing hostility from the centres of power.
The later chapters of Revelation describe the rise of a great persecuting power, "the Beast", leading to a "war on the saints" which involves the
suffering and death of faithful believers (e.g. ch13 v15).
We must consider the possibility that there would also be a parallel to "the slanders of the Jews", in the sense of experiencing hostility from
Later passages in Revelation suggest that a substantial portion of the Christian community would be willing to compromise their faith and to accept
the claims of "the Beast".
If these "co-operative" church members were to begin to assist the subsequent persecution, by giving information to the authorities about their less
"co-operative" former brethren, then the parallel would be complete.
How should faithful believers be conducting themselves in the face of these dangers?
There is very clear advice in these letters, which centres upon the words "patience" and endurance". The churches are praised because "you have
kept my word and have not denied my name" (ch3 v8), because "you hold fast my name and you did not deny my faith" (ch2 v13).
They are urged to resist the temptation to compromise, to be faithful, if necessary, "even unto death".
The key instruction, perhaps, which makes the endurance possible, is-
DO NOT FEAR (ch2 v10).
These chapters are written to give them a warning, but also to give them an assurance, that the promises offerred at the end of these letters are
available to "those who conquer".
[edit on 20-6-2010 by DISRAELI]