There are two primary purposes in Revelation 2-3: first, to introduce us to the Prophet John’s audience, both specific and general, and secondly, to give us our first glimpse of the primary theme of the book. Remember, as a circular letter, this message was intended to be heard by more than its original addressees, but there are still seven actual churches to whom John directs specific words: seven communities living in specific cities, each of which carried its own specific history and issues. Each message is tailor-made to call to mind the imaginaries of each city in order to shine a different angle upon what is, in fact, the main thrust of the entire book of Revelation: the call to overcome.
The word “overcome” is alternately translated as “to conquer,” or “be victorious,” though they come to the same thing. The word nikaō stems from nikē, the Greek goddess of victory (yes, that Nike). Used seven times in these chapters and fifteen in the entire work, this word becomes the mysterious motif John will continue to develop. He first introduces it as the primary call to each church, promising various rewards to “the one who overcomes” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21), yet leaves the specifics of exactly how one is to do the overcoming to be explored in future sections. For instance, we’ll find in chapter 5 that he further inverts our assumptions when we are introduced to the Lamb. Then he spends the remainder of the book displaying exactly how the Lamb’s people are to imitate his overcoming (hint: there’s lots of blood. Or, as the prophet Amos would say, “Many, many bodies–flung everywhere. Silence!”).
Back to the churches.
In these early chapters, the prophet has given us a rare gift in explaining the circumstances of each community. Don’t miss the importance of these words, as they are a veritable cheat sheet to inherent interpretive lenses of John’s original audience. Translation: if read closely, we can come away from the messages to the churches with seven different pairs of glasses giving us the reading prescriptions for the original audience, how they would have first heard these words.
But wait, there’s more.
The number seven is significant in the biblical tradition because it represents the concept of wholeness or completeness due to its use in the creation poem in Genesis 1. So when John writes to the “Seven Churches of Asia Minor,” he’s actually writing to the universal Church, but doing so through the specific experiences of these communities. This is why many commentators have explained the churches as representing both literal bodies of believers as well as various “states of the saints,” as 3rd c. Father Victorinus names them in his commentary.
The ability to apply a Choose Your Own Adventure style of interpretation will come in handy in future chapters, as we can ask ourselves, “Okay, how would the church at Ephesus (2:1-7) hear this?” and have a relatively clear idea. That bustling port city dedicated to both the ancient goddess Artemis (her temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) and the Imperial cult, whose Christians were accused by John as “forsaking your first love,” might hear a very different message than the beleaguered faithful in crumbling Philadelphia (3:7-13).1
These chapters are full of such juxtapositions of circumstance.
Smyrna (2:8-11), known as “first in Asia in beauty” (how’s that for a bumper sticker?) nonetheless boasted only a small, hard-pressed (“afflicted and impoverished”) Christian community, which contrasted greatly to the church at Sardis (3:1-6): You are dead… Wake up… Strengthen what remains… You have unfinished business… Repent. Their arrogance mirrored that of their city, which had once been the center of the great, gilded Lydian Empire, but had been conquered more than once because of their hubristic refusal to protect certain “impenetrable” portions of their defense.
The list goes on. Pergamum (2:12-17) played host to “Satan’s throne,” a not too-subtle reference to the Roman provincial governor who was stationed there, along with the massive mountaintop altar to Zeus, King of the Gods. They had nevertheless held true even in the face of actual martyrdom (2:13), but were warned about the ubiquitous pressure to sell out like Old Testament prophet Balaam (Num. 22ff).
Compare to Thyatira (2:18-28), that fairly nondescript plain city of trade guilds, whose church seemed to have a growing faction devoted to some rival prophetess, “Jezebel” (not that John’s trying to overstate the case or anything).
And then of course there’s Laodicea (3:14-21), home of the missing Pauline letter (Col. 4:16) and the most famous verse you didn’t know was in Revelation: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (vv15-16). See, I was always under the impression I needed to be hot for Jesus, but the context here is that their neighbors were known for their primo water supplies–Colossae, for it’s refreshing cold wells and Hierapolis, for it’s luxurious hot springs–while Laodicea was stuck with tepid water clogged with mineral deposits, fit neither to refresh nor heal, only induce vomiting.
(Be honest, you’re still thinking about how I said, “Hot for Jesus.” Go on, admit it.)
Anyway, this church was neither able to refresh nor heal the world. Instead, like their city, they clung to their wealth (the Laodiceans denied Roman aid after a devastating earthquake and rebuilt their city entirely on their own dime) and fame (they hosted a thriving trade in black wool and a medical school known especially for eye and ear salve).
Now go back and read their message with all of that as your lens!
To bring this one down, we spoke in previous posts about how Revelation can be seen as a call to resistance, but it’s important to clarify that such resistance may look very different based on your community’s circumstances.
Richard Bauckham emphasizes this well:
Encouragement in the face of opposition was only one of the needs of the seven churches. . . . By no means all of his readers were poor and persecuted by an oppressive system: many were affluent and compromising with the oppressive system. The latter are offered not consolation and encouragement, but severe warnings and calls to repent. For these Christians, the judgments which are so vividly described in the rest of the book should appear not as judgments on their enemies so much as judgments they themselves were in danger of incurring, since worshipping the beast was not something only their pagan neighbors did.2
Tomorrow, I want to close our look at these chapters by asking questions about comfort. Have we, living in 21st century America, become so comfortable that these words have lost all effect? Do we imagine persecutions and infringements upon our “religious freedom” where instead we ought to see challenges toward self-denying, radical love? And what’s with the “iron triangle?”
1. The NIV First Century Study Bible has this to say: “Philadelphia also suffered badly in the earthquake of AD 17 and continued to suffer from numerous severe aftershocks. There were times when the city was nearly abandoned and the residents lived outside the city for fear of more earthquakes.”↩
2. Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 15. Print. Emphasis mine.↩