If you make use of Scripture Union’s Encounter with God Bible reading notes, then you will have been reading through Revelation 1–3 this week. (If you don’t, why not subscribe?) Here are the comments I wrote on these chapters; for more detailed comment, see my Grove booklet How to Read the Book of Revelation.
Revelation 1:1-20: A kaleidoscopic vision
How do you ‘see a voice’ (v 12)? From the very beginning, the book of Revelation challenges our assumptions and breaks down the categories we wish to box it in with. It is a vision, but it is something that John both sees and hears (vs 10, 12), and this extraordinary kaleidoscope of imagery is in fact ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’ (v 2). And although John has a vision, what we now have is a vision report, an extraordinarily beautiful, crafted and intricate piece of writing. We will need to read and listen carefully to hear its message!
All the way through, John presents us with things with which we are familiar – but in a surprising way. It is a letter, the opening greetings (vs 4,9) reminding us of Paul’s letters. But it is also a revelation (apocalypse v 1) and a prophecy (v 3) which draws us into praise and worship (vs 5b and 6). Attentive listening will offer insights that we could not otherwise know, give us a distinctive understanding of God’s perspective, and draw us into a response of offering ourselves afresh to God.
John is clearly a pastor, who knows his congregations well and shares with them the hope of the kingdom, the hardship that being faithful to Jesus involves, and the endurance that is needed to hold reality and hope together (v 9). He sees the realities they face, but makes sense of them by drawing on the full range of the Old Testament scriptures—scriptures which point to the centrality of Jesus, who is the one who makes God known to us. He is the one who sees and judges truly, and he is the one who holds his people secure. This is truly a ‘revelation of Jesus Christ’ (v 1).
Rev 2:1-11: Inside Matters
Given the earlier pattern in Rev 1.1 (God, Jesus, his angel, John, the reader, the hearers), the angel (v 1) is best understood as the one who can communicate God’s message to his people, rather than representing the spirit of the congregation. In these two chapters we read not letters (the whole of Revelation is a letter) but royal pronouncements from the one on the throne, declaring affirmations, rebukes and challenges, and holding out a promise (v 7). The white light of the vision of Jesus in chapter 1, is here split, as if by a prism, into a rainbow of attributes, each pertinent to the appropriate congregation.
Ephesus was a centre of wealth and culture, the second city of the Empire at the time. The congregation there had much to commend it: committed and ready for hard work having persevered through hardships. It was discerning, having obeyed injunctions to ‘test everything’ (1 Thess 5.20–21, 1 John 4.1) and rejected the Nicolaitans (v 6), whoever they were. Yet duty had extinguished joy; hard work had displaced warm love; perhaps even the things of God were of more interest than God himself. Outwardly they looked good – inside something was wrong. They needed to rediscover their first love for the one who walked amongst them (v 1) if they were to enjoy life in all its fullness.
By contrast, those in Smyrna were not fooled by outward appearances (v 9). Though their city was known as the Crown of Asia and held prestigious games, they knew that there was only one wreath worth competing for. Though others judged them, they knew that only one person’s judgement counted. And though struggling and on the point of death (v 10), their faith was in the one who had conquered death (v 8).
The congregation at Pergamum (modern Bergama) faced serious challenges, from within and without. Commentators have speculated that the ‘throne of Satan’ (v 13) alludes to the appearance of the hill on which the upper city sits, or the shape of the temple to Zeus. More likely it refers to Pergamum being the centre of Emperor worship. The challenge here was living in a culture and an ideology systematically opposed to the Christian claim that Jesus – not Caesar – is Lord.
The second kind of opposition was more direct. We know nothing more of Antipas than this mention, though he was not the last in Pergamum to die for his faith. In ‘not loving his life so much as to shrink from death’ (Rev 12.11), Antipas (v 13) is following in the footsteps of Jesus the ‘faithful witness’ (Rev 1.5) — and introducing a new association between witness and death in the word ‘martyr’ (v 13). The Christians here have withstood these external pressures, but have done less well resisting internal ones. ‘Balaam’ (v 14) alludes to Numbers 31.16; the prophet couldn’t follow Balak’s command to speak directly against God’s people, but defeat came indirectly, through their susceptibility to temptation. We know nothing of the Nicolaitans (v 15) or even whether they were an actual group. But the name suggests ‘victory over the people’, and it is their inner weakness which has caused them to stumble.
But it is Jesus, and not the emperor, who holds the ‘double-edged sword’ of truth, the word spoken from his mouth (vs 12,16). He is the true victor, and the one who rewards those who share his victory. He sustains his people, as they were sustained in their desert wanderings; it is he who knows our true name (v 17), that is, our character. He knows both our trials and our needs.
Rev 2:18–29: True prosperity
The longest and most complex of the seven messages is addressed to the city about which we know least. What we do know is that money mattered in Thyatira. This was one of the first cities to use coins, and as it was not in a strong position militarily, it relied on trade for its prosperity and importance. It was on major trade routes north and south, and in Philippi Paul met Lydia, a cloth trader from the city (Acts 16:14). With trade came trade guilds which were as much religious organisations as they were economic, each having their own gods. So protecting one’s prosperity often meant a compromise in belief. To change religious affiliation always had economic consequences, as the Ephesians discovered (Acts 19:23-41).
Jezebel (v 20) was the wife of Ahab and arch-enemy of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 16 to 2 Kings 9). She was never accused of sexual immorality, but of leading God’s people to worship other gods, so we need to read the language of sexual immorality here as a metaphor for being unfaithful to God – as used by Hosea and other OT prophets. Jesus’ judgement (vs 22, 23) sounds severe, but needs to be read in the context of Revelation’s imagery. His warfare is with the sword of his mouth (v 16) and brings about the death of false claims. Striking ‘her children dead’ (v 23) means that Jezebel’s following will not last.
To those who have continued in ‘love, faith, service and perseverance’ (v 19) nothing more is needed. Echoing a letter in Acts (Acts 15.28), the message makes clear that there are no first and second class followers of Jesus. To all who stay faithful, the reward is to not only share in Jesus’ authority (v 27) but to share in Jesus himself, the ‘morning star’ (v 26, Rev 22.16).
Rev 3:1–13: Wake up! Hold on!
Today we read two contrasting messages—one contains little praise (vs 1-6), and one contains no rebuke (vs 12-13). They are addressed to two contrasting cities as well. Sardis was ancient, prestigious and proud. It had been the seat of Croesus, the king of legendary wealth. Its upper city (acropolis) was so impregnable it had never been taken by force. But it had been taken twice, by stealth. The citizens were so sure of themselves that they posted no night watch. When the enemy noticed someone coming out of a hidden back door, they used that route to take the city whilst the people slept. Three hundred years later, another enemy read the account—and the same thing happened. The people were still complacent and sleeping!
‘Wake up!’ calls Jesus (v 2). Faith is not about resting on your laurels, thinking that your upbringing, track record or reputation will keep you safe. It is about walking with Jesus daily, and heeding his call to holy living.
By contrast, Philadelphia was the newest of the seven cities. Like others, it was devastated in an earthquake in AD 17—but the people remained fearful, continuing to live in the surrounding fields rather than return to the city itself. In the light of the fear of opposition from Jews who had not received him, Jesus himself reassures them. He has placed before them an ‘open door’ (v 8) which usually means an opportunity for mission (1 Cor 16:9, 2 Cor 2:12, Col 4:3); not only will the opposition cease, but the opponents will themselves come to acknowledge Jesus (v 9)! As they hold on to God (v 11), God will hold on to them; whatever threatens to shake them, God will make them an unshakeable part of his temple, where he himself takes up residence (v 12).
This message is perhaps the best-known of the seven – and the most misinterpreted! To us, being hot or cold is about being passionate or indifferent about faith, hot being good and cold being bad. But would Jesus prefer us to be cold than to be lukewarm (v 15)? Does that make any sense? Is open antagonism to faith better than half-hearted acceptance?
To hear this as John’s readers would have heard it, we need to visit Laodicea. Founded in the third century BC, it was (like Thyatira) a commercial rather than military city. Cicero knew it as a banking centre but it was also famous for textiles, especially a cloth made from glossy black wool. Its medical school produced ear ointment and eye salve. The city was so proud of its financial independence that it refused imperial help for rebuilding after an earthquake in AD 60. No wonder they thought they were rich, well clothed and had good eyesight (v 17)!
What they did not have was a good water supply. Colossae, further up the Lycus valley, was known for its cold springs. Hierapolis, across the valley, had hot springs and was a centre for healing and religion. But Laodicea’s water was from hot springs further up the mountain. By the time it reached the city it was lukewarm and full of calcium deposits—enough to make you throw up if you drank it! Cold water is good for refreshment, hot water for healing, but lukewarm water is good for nothing—just like the Laodiceans (v 16). Jesus’ criticised their works not their faith (v 15). Their complacency meant that the grace they had received was not being translated into action to transform the world around them. Yet Jesus still loves them; he still offers to come and sit with them and put things right – if invited (v 20).
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