Lesson 2: The Seven Churches of Revelation (Chapters 2 and 3)

Seven Churches of RevelationAny decent understanding of Paul’s letters begins with an appreciation that they were written to particular congregations in a specific historical period. They were preserved in scripture, because the apostle handled their problems in a manner that remains relevant for us.

So, too, any meaningful interpretation of Revelation depends on discerning the situation John was addressing. And in the prophet’s case, it is far easier, because he clearly lays out what is going on in the seven churches to whom his letter is written.

I can imagine some readers shaking their heads and thinking, “Come on! There is nothing clearly laid out in this strange epistle.” However, I insist it is pretty evident, if you don’t allow yourself to get bogged down in the colorful apocalyptic word pictures. Remember,
these are exactly that, auditory stimulants that incite the imagination. They cannot be understood rationally nor transposed into visual drawings. Often while you are still reeling, the angel will explain all that you need to know. At other times, there will be a strange allusion to familiar biblical passages. Scholars chart over 500 biblical references that are never specifically noted, most of them from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Exodus.

The most important of these word pictures are those that are very consciously repeated throughout the letter. Foremost of those are Jesus pictured with a sword coming out of his mouth and even more, Jesus as the Lamb of God. If you miss these, you miss John’s understanding of the Gospel that calls for nonviolence in a violent world. How incredible that so many dismiss the book for being too violent.

So what do we learn about these seven churches? They are congregations that Paul started 50 years ago in Eastern Asia Minor. They are presently experiencing persecution of various kinds from Roman provincial authorities and neighboring Jewish synagogues, as well as conflict within their own communities. Even a casual reading of the two chapters reveals this.

Scholars point out that persecution did not mean that Rome was rounding up and killing every Christian they could identify for 300 years. For the most part, the emperors realized too much violence was self-defeating. They wanted to create a situation in which those outside the Church were afraid to join and those inside began leaving. They could do this by executing or exiling a few outspoken leaders. Although only Antipas is named as a martyr in this letter, there is other evidence that 3 of the 7 congregations remembered members who gave their lives for their faith.. The historian Eusebius recorded that Bishop Polycarp, who lived 60 years later, was the 12th martyr from that region. Of course, John himself was removed to the island of Patmos.

Significantly, John links the political persecution to emperor worship. Augustus began a trend that encouraged citizens to praise divine characteristics of the Caesars. In the West, this amounted to little more than a pledge of allegiance. In the East where our seven congregations are located, it took worship forms. Three of John’s seven cities had temples dedicated to Caesar, one of which he called the throne of Satan. Throughout his letter, the apostle focuses on contemporary myths that developed after Nero committed suicide in 68 AD. He had unabashedly declared himself divine and was remembered for unmercifully executing Christians.

Other emperors were far more subtle. Check out the comment I attached to the lesson. It contains letters between the governor Pliny and the emperor Trajan concerning how to test Christians. Those accused were asked to curse Christ and burn incense before a statue of the emperor. If they were willing to do this, they were released, even though suspicion might remain that they were faking it. The shame of publicly denying their faith achieved Rome’s goal perhaps even better than execution.

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  1. Fritz says:

    The following are two letters that describe the approved way to handle Christians around the time Revelation was written. They are part of a set of exchanges between Pliny the Younger, a governor of Pontus/Bithynia from 111-113 AD and the emperor Trajan found in Pliny’s Letters 10.96-97.

    PLINY TO THE EMPEROR TRAJAN
    It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
    Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
    Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

    They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
    I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.
    TRAJAN TO PLINY
    You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.

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