Each year, during November, the Morning Prayer weekday lectionary takes us through the first few chapters of the Book of Revelation. In chapters 2 and 3, we have messages to the ekklesiae in seven cities of Roman Asia, the west end of what we now know as Turkey. There are some important and challenging things to note about these messages.
First, these are not ‘letters’ as they are commonly called, since they do not have the features of first-century letter-writing. In fact, the whole of Revelation is a letter, with part of the introduction looking very similar to Pauline letters elsewhere in the NT. There is some debate in scholarship about how best to characterise this section, but the most persuasive suggestion is that these are royal proclamations from the risen Jesus who, having been raised, ascended and vindicated, exercises royal power from the throne he shares with the One seated there. And they are not written to ‘churches’ in the way we often think—institutions with buildings and leadership structures. They are addressed to the collective (and occasionally gathered) new Israel of God in Jesus.
Secondly, as is easy to see, the seven messages are striking in their consistent structure of seven main elements, including opening and closing phrases which are repeated word for word:
- To the angel of the ekklesia in (place name) write:
- Thus says he who (appellation drawn from the vision of chapter 1)
- I know your (attributes and actions, varying considerable from one message to another)…
- But this I have against you…
- (Command to respond, often including the requirement to repent)
- Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
- To those who are conquering (promise drawn from the vision of the New Jerusalem)
The messages vary considerably from one to another, the longest being the one to the assembly at Thyatira (222 words in Greek) and the shortest to the assembly at Smyrna (90 words). The variation in length arises from the differences in the content of elements 3 and 4, the affirmations and rebukes. The final message, to Laodicea, includes no affirmation, and both the second and second last, to Smyrna and Philadelphia respectively, include no rebuke, which lends the seven a degree of symmetry. The final two elements of the messages, ‘whoever has ears’ and ‘to those conquering’, switch their order from the fourth message to Thyatira onwards, and this gives the seven a structure of 3 + 4—though it is not very clear what the significance of this change is. (Any coherent suggestion welcomed—and could form part of a thesis!)
Thirdly, within this clear structure there are other elements of structural inter-relation with the rest of the book, ensuring that though these chapters are the most un-apocalyptic-looking section, they are interweaved into other sections. The opening proclamation of Jesus in each of the messages draws on the vision John records in chapter 1, and the promises to those ‘who conquer’ anticipate some aspect of the final vision of the New Jerusalem in chapters 21 and 22—though not in any obviously structured way, and without any consist link between these two elements of each message.
It is worth noting that, as with other parts of Revelation, John combines things which are clearly structured and predictable ordered with things that appear to have connections in other places, though with no obvious systematic order. Interpretative readings of Revelation often err on one side or another—either assuming that nothing is ordered and all is random, or assuming that we can find an ordered explanation for everything. The fact that there is always a mixture of the two suggests to me that John is deliberately keeping his readers on their toes, demanding that we attend to nothing more or less than what he has actually written.
But, fourthly, as elsewhere in Revelation, the messages also manage to interweave details from the local context of the first century. The best-known example is the description of those in Laodicea as lukewarm rather than hot or cold, an allusion to their water supply, which was lukewarm in contrast to the cold waters of Colossae and the hot waters of nearby Hierapolis (Pamukkale). But there are plenty of other examples, including:
- the promise of a crown to those in Smyrna, which was known as the ‘crown of Asia’ and held its own games
- the contrast of a white stone at Pergamum, whose white buildings contrasted with the local black basalt
- the command to ‘wake up’ to those in Sardis, a city twice in its history taken at night when the guards were asleep.
- the rebuke of being ‘poor, naked and blind’ to those in Laodicea, a city made wealthy through the manufacture of eye ointment and its clothing industry.
The combination of common structure, integration with the rest of the book, and connection with the local settings show these messages to be remarkably careful compositions.
But reading these messages through again, I have been most struck by the occurrence of a phrase repeated in three messages, but expressed in a further two: ‘This I have against you’. After lavish praise for their endurance and steadfastness, the risen Jesus ‘has against’ the Ephesian Christians that they have lost their first love. After assurance that he knows where they live, he ‘has against’ the Christians in Pergamum that they have compromised their loyalty and been led astray by misleading teaching. After short but emphatic praise of the Christians in Thyatira, in the most extended of the messages, he ‘has against’ them that they have been misled by ‘Jezebel’. There is also serious rebuke to those in Sardis and Laodicea. It is worth noting that at the end of each message, we are commanded to pay attention to ‘what the Spirit is saying to the ekklesiai‘ (plural). So although they have a specific relevance to each community, the messages also apply more widely—and of course, it means that their ‘spiritual dirty washing’ is being hung out to dry in front of others.
There are not a few reasons why we struggle with the idea of Jesus ‘having things against us’, not least because of the central message that the reason he died for us was because ‘God loved the world in this way’ (John 3.16). In fact the Johannine language of love is notably absent from Revelation as a whole. It does occur twice, in Rev 1.5 and Rev 20.9, but it is mostly displaced by the language of power and faithfulness. Perhaps we struggle with the idea mostly because it does not look like good pastoral practice; you neither grow churches nor nurture children by going on to them about what they are doing wrong. (For a mildly terrifying example, watch Mark Driscoll’s talk ‘God hates you.’) Against this, we need to remember that the rebukes come in the context of the assurances of the vision of Rev 1, and of Jesus as the one who walks amongst his people (the lampstands) and holds them firmly in his right hand—in other words, these are rebukes arising from presence and nearness, not from absence and distance.
We might also see a contrast with Pauline language about the relationship of God with his people. He has poured his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit (Romans 5.5), and if God is for us, who can be against us? Will not God, who gave his Son for us, give us all things (Romans 8.32)? Yet this is the Paul who sees judgement coming to test the works of all (1 Cor 3.13) and who even sees God’s judgement being played out in the congregation in the present (1 Cor 11.30). As Peter found out, and we can read in Galatians, when Paul thinks that people are going wrong, he has no difficulty in offering a rebuke in God’s name. Peter appears to have agreed, at least in principle, when he comments that ‘judgement begins with the household of God’ (1 Peter 4.17).
This leads us to a broader question about Christian discipleship. Does God disciplines those whom God loves? At first glance, this question is easy to answer in the light of Prov 3.12: clearly, yes. But a single text cannot settle an issue, especially a text that talks of discipline in physical ways (‘spare the rod and spoil the child…’; compare Prov 13.24) which we now find problematic for all sorts of reasons. And yet the principle is reappropriated in the new covenant in Hebrew 12.6, and in the context of the eschatological struggle between the power of sin and the work of the Spirit, as an illustration of what it means to be children of God—so it is not easily set aside.
But the question needs to be grappled with for at least two specific reasons. The first is in response to the ever-common mantra ‘Love is love’. Well, it isn’t. Love is sometimes self-seeking love, manipulative love, co-dependent love, immature love, needy love, indulgent love, self-giving love, or selfless love—and not all of these could claim to accurately picture the love that God has for us in Jesus, poured into our hearts by the Spirit (Rom 5.5). To proclaim that ‘God is love’ without explaining what this love looks like is at best meaningless, and at worst misleading.
The second reason is our ongoing struggle to actually understand the Jesus we encounter in the pages of the gospels. On the one hand, here we find the Jesus who is radically inclusive and welcoming, who preaches the coming of the kingdom of God to the unexpected and the marginal, who confronts the powerful and the religiously complacent, and who brings healing and forgiveness to those who never expected it. On the other hand, here we also find the Jesus who does not shy away from the reality of God’s judgement, who urges a response to his message without which there will be catastrophic consequences, and who is ferocious in his condemnation of those who refuse to listen. Having flung open a wide gate of invitation, Jesus directs us to a very narrow path of discipline and discipleship if we are to follow him. At one moment it is all about God’s grace; at the next it all hinges on our response. It is the same Jesus warmly inviting us to ‘Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matt 11.28) who also warns us that ‘Unless you repent, you too will all perish!’ (Luke 13.3). Many traditions in the church focus on one of these Jesus’ and not the other—but we are not following the real Jesus unless we listen to both.
There is a tendency, particularly within the Church of England, to see the idea of Jesus having something against us as belonging to one (rather extreme and often angry) end of the theological spectrum. But in fact bishops are commissioned to ‘refute error’ when necessary at the point of their ordination, and Rev 2 and 3 highlight the unavoidable reality within biblical theology—not least when put in the wider context of God’s rebuke of his people in numerous places throughout the canon. Although it doesn’t feature much in current thinking about church growth and ‘renewal and reform’, this suggests we need to consider carefully what God might ‘have against’ us. And it is even more pertinent in discussions about unity within and between denominations. Our desire to be polite and inoffensive seems to rule out that idea that a church or denomination might have fallen into error, and that God has something against this.
The messages in Rev 2–3 suggest that the possibility that God might have something against us this is, in fact, rather important, that the consequences are dire if we fail to respond, and that our response needs the one that the risen Jesus calls for in these messages—that we should ‘repent’, which after all, is an integral part of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom.
For more on the Book of Revelation, you might be interested in my Grove booklet How to Read the Book of Revelation, my commentary in the Tyndale Commentary series, or my group study booklet published by LICC, Revelation: Faithfulness in Testing Times.