Resisting Trump with Revelation (08)

Letters to seven churches (1)

Christ’s messages to the seven churches in Asia Minor in Rev.2-3 flow organically out of the vision of Christ we just considered even though there is a chapter break between them in our translation. They are two sides to the same coin. The majestic vision of Christ based in his resurrection from the dead becomes the basis for the fundamental message of the book enshrined in these communications of Christ to seven particular congregations in the 1st century a.d. which are also his word to his churches anywhere and everywhere (that number seven again!).

And that fundamental message is resistance to Rome’s Empire (and by extension all other pagan Empires) in the name of the world’s true Emperor and Empire which John names Kingdom of God. “John the Revelator recognizes that the primary challenge his brothers and sisters in the early church face is not just sporadic persecution but the constant lure of to compromise to their new Babylon.”[1] One way to get a more concrete feel for what this means is to look at some examples of the early churches resistance to Rome. Tim Keller[2] offers a list of eight points where this resistance occurred. The church

1.    opposed bloodthirsty sports and violent entertainment, such as gladiator games.

2.    opposed serving in the military.

3.    opposed abortion and infanticide.

4.    empowered women.

5.    opposed sex outside of marriage and homosexual activity (pederasty was common in the empire.

6.    encouraged radical support for the poor.

7.    encouraged the mixing of races and classes.

8.       insisted that Jesus is the only way to salvation.

Christ’s words are both judgment and affirmation. Two churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, receive only commendation. Two, Sardis and Laodicea, receive only censure. The other three, Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira get mixed reviews. The issues facing each congregation are but different aspects of living faithfully in the belly of the beast of the Empire. We ought to be able to see our struggles for faithfulness in the American/Trumpean Empire reflected in these messages.

Christ addresses the “angel” of each church. This probably refers to the spiritual reality of the church.

Ephesus (2:1-7): The Peril of Culture Warriors

The Christ who is present to each church and addresses their reality diagnoses this church as having worked had with “patient endurance (2:3; 1:9), tirelessly holding to the integrity of the faith (contra the Nicolaitans (v.6). Yet in one way they have failed, a way that compromises all the good work they have done. They have “abandoned the love (they) had at first” (v.4). Whether this means the Ephesian Church has made something other than Christ their “first love” or compromised the love for others they once had (and either is possible and no doubt interrelated), it is clear something has gone seriously wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the reality is that this church’s existence has been put in doubt (v.5).

The issue, the big thing at stake in this and all these letters, is the threat of compromising and caving into the ethics and ethos of the Empire. This can happen in a variety of ways (as these letters show). Here it is by combatting the Empire in all the way they perceive it is challenging them. Combatting it in a way that this fight itself becomes the “first” thing in their life and practice. No longer does love for Christ or the love he calls us to share with others have precedence over everything else. No, the Empire as captured this church attention in such a way as to turn it into a “culture warrior.” And it was good at it. But here the good had become the enemy of the best. And ceased to be good. Now it has become a bitter, culture-hating parody of the gospel to the point that Christ may no longer count them as his own.  

Unless they repent. And no longer allow the Empire first place in their attention. And love Christ and neighbor above all else. This love is the most effective antidote to the Empire’s never-ceasing efforts to co-opt and corrupt our life as God’s people. And this love is the self-generating “tree of life” Christ’s offers us those who “conquer.”

That the Spirit speaks to the “churches” (plural) suggests that this word to Pergamum has wider currency than just for them.

Smyrna (2:8-11): Resisting Fear by Resurrection

The spiritual reality of this church is the power of Christ’s resurrection at work in their midst (v.8). In this it parallels the history of Smyrna itself. A prime port location the city was destroyed and rebuilt several times and came to bear the title of “The City That Died Yet Lives.”[3] They are rich even in the midst of their poverty because of the One who dwells in them and the vocation to which he has called them. This church, poor and persecuted by the Empire, particularly Jews who had adopted the ethos and ethics of the Empire in order to get along and preserve their existence (“synagogue of Satan,” v.9), the reality of the crucified and risen One is first and last in their hearts and mission.

Fear is the enemy Christ encourages the Smyrnans to continue to resist. And nothing kick starts fear like threats to security and survival (the “Babel Syndrome,” see Gen.11:1-9). Though even harder times are coming (“ten days,” v.10), enduring in faithfulness to the end (as they have been doing) is the ticket.

-Fear disables resurrection power. We cannot live fearful of our security and significance and yet live out Christ’s sacrificial servanthood at the same time.

-Fear is disabled by resurrection power. When the worst we can fear (death) is neutered by Christ’s resurrection as the power at work in and for us we can live free and risky lives for the sake of Christ.

Whoever “conquers” such fear by confidence in the presence and power of the resurrected Christ has nothing to fear from the “second death” (v.11), judgment and separation from God (20:15).

Pergamum (2:12-17): Allegiance Contested

Pergamum is a center of conflict between the church and the Empire. The city’s aspiration was to be Rome “east.” It aspired to reflect the life of Rome, albeit on a lesser scale. It became a key center for Emperor worship. Roman edicts controlled life. The One present with his people there bears the “two-edged sword out of his mouth” (v.12). Which “word” will govern the church’s life? What witness will they bear to their city about whose flag they salute with their lives?

Christ gives the church of Pergamum a mixed review on this score. Even with valorization of Rome everywhere around them – living at the foot of “Satan’s throne” (v.13) – the church was holding firm to their witness to Christ. Even under persecution which had brought death to one of theirs (Antipas, v.13), they stood fast.

Yet all is not well for them. The Nicolaitans, whom the Ephesian church resisted, have apparently made inroads among them (v.15). The “teaching of Balaam” is working its evil there too. In both cases the pull is towards participation in the life of the city, its feasts, its rituals, its worship, especially of the Emperor. The inroads of these pagan ideas and “spiritualities” are eroding the quality of the witness such that Christ calls them to account for it. Failure to repent will bring Christ’s word on this congregation as a word of judgment against those allowing such corruption to gain a foothold among his people (v.16).

“Conquering” for this church means turning its “ear” to hear the Spirit’s leading for the churches. In sharpening its allegiance to Christ by listening to the Spirit the church at Pergamum receives gifts befitting that renewed allegiance. “Hidden manna” for sustenance even if one’s opportunities for livelihood were curtailed for their allegiance to Christ as could happen if one did not participate in the festivals and religious observances of their guild. Further, they receive a “white stone” with a name written on it that only they know. This seems to be something of a token of admission and belonging to God’s people and their life with God.

[1] T. Scott Daniels, Seven Deadly Spirits: The Message of Revelation for Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 21.
[3] Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez and Justo L. Gonzalez, Westminster Bible Companion: Revelation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 25.


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