Resisting Trump with Revelation (09)

Letters to seven churches (2)

Thyatira (2:18-29): Imperial Economy vs. God’s Economy

The message to this church comes from the One with “eyes like flames of fire” and “feet . . . like burnished bronze” (v.18; cf. 1:14,15). Thyatira was a growing commercial and manufacturing city particularly working with bronze. This may account for way Christ is identified. Yet fire and burnished bronze can also connote power and judgment. The focus of this message seems to be on economic entanglements with the empire and the ways such commitments can compromise faith and witness.

Again, Christ offers a mixed report.   On the plus side, “love, faith, service, and patient endurance” in which they are growing (v.19). On the negative side, though, they tolerate a Jezebelian teaching (“the deep things of Satan,” v.24). Jezebel was the Canaanite wife of King Ahab of Israel who influenced him and nation to practice idolatry. The parade example was when Ahab schemed to take land from an Israelite who wanted to keep it as an inheritance for the long-term viability of his family as Torah instructed.  Ahab, though, had adopted an imperial land as possession policy which resulted in drastic growing disparities in wealth between the haves and have-nots. Amos, several generations later, railed against this kind of situation.[1]

Grimsrud thus concludes, “Given Thyatira’s role as a regional economic center and noting the condemnation of imperial economics later in Revelation (. . . ch.18), we can assume that the use of the symbol ‘Jezebel’ may well have been meant to include a connotation here that the accommodation has problematic economic ramifications.”[2]

Christ’s vigorous and violent response (vv.21-23)[3] to those practicing such idolatries and economic oppression gives us a clue about seriously he takes such matters. The Levitical Jubilee laws (Lev.25) show God’s intention that land and family are inextricably linked and that disparities of wealth are to be levelled out every 50 years (or once a generation). Christ works off that same set of priorities here.
The one who conquers is given a share in Christ’s rule over the nations (Rev.22:5) and receives the “morning star” (v.28). Jesus takes this name as his own at the end of the book (22:16). Thus the conquerors are united with him and share in his victory which follows the death and resurrection pattern.

Sardis (3:1-6): From Death to Life

The One who has the “seven spirits of God and seven stars” (v.1) brings his next word for the city of Sardis. The Holy Spirit and the reality of the churches are his. He discerns and knows what is really going on in and among them, far better than they know themselves. This community, Sardis, for instance, believed themselves to be safe from aggression even though it had been invaded with drastic results several times earlier in their history. Thus, “you have a name of being alive, but you are dead” (v.2). The church there was in the same boat.

Though a few members of the church have faithfully served God and resisted the lures of Empire (v.4), most  had not. And they were living on fumes at the threshold of extinction as the people of God. Sardis was a site for extensive worship of Rome and its deities. The temple dedicated to Artemis was especially impressive.[4] The baleful influence of the Empire, again, casts its baleful shadow Jesus has a threefold antidote for what ails them (v.3).

                                -remember: who they are and what God calls them to be
                                -obey: live that way
                                -repent: change their way of life
Text Box: “When believers remember the deeds of God and when God remembers his relation to Israel what kind of remembering is in view? Is it merely recollection of information about the past? Or is it remembering the past in such a way that the facts remembered have some impact on the present? As a minimum, this remembering within the Old Covenant would seem to imply that the God who performed the past mighty deeds, which are remembered, is the God who is present with his people as he or they remember those deeds. And he is present as the same, living God, bound to them in election and covenant as he was to their ancestors in days past, for he is Yahweh, ‘I am who I am.’"

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Memory, as Jesus recommends it and the Bible portrays it, is our bulwark against the claims and siren call of Empire. But not as an intellectual exercise of recalling some piece of information or another. Rather,[5]  
To obey then is not the mere keeping of a command but responding out of our living relationship with God which is life-giving. Such remembering and such obedience make repentance possible. We can in this way truly change our lives, our direction, our loyalties, align our lives again with Christ’s.
Conquerors will share in Christ’s white robe of victory.

Philadelphia (3:7-13): Christ Opens Never-to-be-Closed Doors

The One who has “the key of David” and opens and shuts doors for this church brings a word of approbation only to this church. They are small and powerless (v.8). They lived in a city formed to be a conduit for and incubator of Hellenism in the region, a “missionary” city of sorts. Boasting a large Jewish community, Philadelphia was also known as “Little Athens” for the number of temples dedicated to Dionysus located there.[6]

Philadelphia was destroyed by an earthquake in 17 a.d.  Aftershocks abounded and left its residents fearful. Many remained living outside its precincts years after the quake. Some left it at night to sleep outside the city so as not be caught unawares by another quake.

This most-praised-by-Christ church of the seven addressed here faced numerous obstacles. Three of them were conflict with the Jewish community in Philadelphia (v.9), lack of power (v.8), and the ubiquitous specter of the Empire. In spite of all this, Christ promises this congregation that their witness would prevail (the “open door,” v.8).

Thus, the city created to evangelize the region for the Greco-Roman worldview would host a church mandated by God to evangelize that same region for the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the promise of the “holy” and “true” One rested with the latter. Because he is with them, crucified but risen and installed by God as world ruler (”key of David,” v.8), this church clothed in weakness will prevail by Christ’s power. Fear made perfect sense for a church in this setting. But it makes no sense because the one they follow had “opened the door” for them. And they heard that assurance and acted on it. And Christ promises them a place in his city from which they will never have to leave but reside securely there bearing his name.

Laodicea (3:14-21): Shutting the Door in Christ’s Face or The Dangers of a “Country Club” Church

The “faithful and true witness” brings to the church in Laodicea a word about the source of all things (“origin of God’s creation”) and their costly blindness to this truth and the corruption of their witness.
Laodicea was a wealthy “can do” sort of town. Shortly after a devastating earthquake in 60 a.d. the city rebuilt itself in an even grander fashion and refused imperial aid to do so.

Situated in the Lycus valley, Hierapolis was 6 miles away and Colossae 10 miles. The former was known for its pools of hot water known for their healing qualities. The latter for its cold springs which proved recuperative for weary travelers after a long day on the road.  We’ll return to this shortly.

Laodicea was known for its medical schools (especially its eye salve), its sophisticated and secure banking system, and its manufacture of garments of raven black cloth.

They could do, did do, and expected to keep on doing what they needed to do for themselves.

The church there imbibed the same attitudes and reflected them religiously. “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (v.17) is Christ’s damning judgment against them. He spells this out in terms of each point of Laodicean pride. “Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see” (vv.18-19). They do not realize that they are poor, naked, and blind (v.17).

Further, this church is neither “cold nor hot” though Christ wishes they were one or the other (v.15). Being “lukewarm” they only make Christ sick to his stomach!  Often, we take the terms hot, cold and lukewarm psychologically as our spiritual temperature. We use those terms that way. The oddity of taken the terms this way, hot (spiritually alive), cold (spiritually dead), and lukewarm (spiritually apathetic) it that it puts Christ in the position of commending no faith (cold) to apathetic faith (lukewarm). And claiming that the latter rather than the former makes him ill. This is not usually how the Bible or Christ sees these things.

In John’s world these temperature terms were not used psychologically. In fact, John tells us it is our “works” that show us neither hot nor cold. If we remember the geography mentioned above, we have the clue to what John means. Hot refers to the healing waters of Hierapolis; cold to the refreshing invigorating pools of Colossae. Laodicea had not water supply of its own. The hot water of Hierapolis was carried by an aqueduct system down to Laodicea. It arrived lukewarm, useful in that state only as an emetic to induce vomiting.  John uses this imagery to suggest that the ministry of the Laodicean church was neither healing nor restoring or energizing but lukewarm, making God want to vomit them out.

This bleak judgment is tempered only by Christ’s reminder that he loves these folk and that is why he “disciplines” them (v.19). So there is hope. But it is the hope of a community that has closed its door on Christ, leaving him outside knocking on the door to gain entrance to them and their lives (v.20). This verse does not refer to Christ knocking on an individual’s heart as popularly thought. The idea is that the community has shut its gates to Christ, just as they closed their city gates to protect against intruders every night. Christ wants to gain entrance again so that the community’s meal will be a true Eucharist. This is the way they can conquer and share in his victory (v.21).
In the next post in this series I will try to pull the various threads of these seven letters in a synthetic portrait of a resistical church.

[2] Ibid.
[3] We must remember here that in the vision of Christ John gives us his “weapon” is that “two-edged sword” of the Word of God in judgment and mercy. The violence here is metaphorical of divine judgment which ends in restoration. More on this as we proceed.
[4] Grimsrud at
[6] Daniels, Seven Deadly Spirits, 106.


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