Saturday, 12 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 2+3: John blogs to seven churches

This is the second of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. The previous reading was ch 1, the gift of prophecy. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.
So I guess just as John was influenced by his context, so are his contemporary readers… My reading of chapters 2 and 3 (which belong together) are strongly influenced by having spent the day at the Premier Digital Conference in London.

I spoke about what we might call ‘informational mission’ – the way in which information can be understood in church contexts. I drew, of course, on our work in the Difference That Makes a Difference research group, and Bateson’s definition of information, as well as the work of the URC’s Blended LearningTask Group.

There was much talk about reaching out to others online (as well as reaching in, and reaching God). As befits a digital event, there was a hugely busy backchannel on Twitter. Perhaps my single favourite quote from the day comes from Pete Phillips of Durham University: “Church should be digitally savvy, digitally connected, but always incarnational”.

But enough of the conference, because that brings me neatly to Revelation chapters 2 & 3. In the last episode, we saw John’s calling as a prophet, to speak to the seven churches of Asia (mostly now in modern-day Turkey). And here we see John writing a letter to each of those churches (under prophetic inspiration, the text tells us – in my online Bible the entire chapter is marked in red, the traditional way of denoting the words of Jesus).

There’s something strikingly modern, even rather digital, about these letters. They could have come from an online email generator. They’re short. They’re to the point, and well structured. All the letters share the same structure:
  • there’s an introduction “To the angel of the church in X write:”;
  • then a text that begins “These are the words of him who…” with a description from the prophetic vision;
  • then some kind of specific message of praise or warning for that churches;
  • lastly a summary which begins each time “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” followed by a take-home message, a promise of what might happen (in some cases these two elements are reversed).
The last sentence could easily be a tweet, the rest has a public-facing feel that, while it has a target, could nowadays just as easily sit on a blog or Facebook.

In other words, John was using the communications technology of his time, writing to the seven churches but with an eye to other readers, writing in a stylised format that could easily be understood and interpreted by others.

What of the content of the messages to the churches? Each of these could be interpreted at length (I once heard a sermon series which took a week on each mini-letter) but I’ll only discuss them briefly:

  • The church in Ephesus - praised for their endurance, and that they haven’t grown weary. But they’re also told they’re lacking in love – perhaps that an enthusiasm they once had has been lost over time. They’re also warned off a group called the Nicolaitans, who John clearly objected to (little is known of this group). They promised the right to eat from the tree of life.
  • The church in Smyrna – praised from their afflictions and poverty. They receive little criticism, but are warned that they have great suffering and persecution to come. They’re promised that they will not “be harmed by the second death” (of the spirit as well as the body).
  • The church in Pergamum – these words, they are told, come from one who holds a double-edged sword (seen in chapter 1). They are reassured that they live in the place where Satan reigns, and praised for their faithfulness, even when one of their number was put to death. But they’re still criticised for false beliefs – the teachings of Balaam and again the Nicolaitans. Their promise is stranger still – hidden manna and a secret name written on a white stone.
  • The church in Thyatira – they are praised for their deeds, faith and perseverance, and that they are “doing more than you did at first” (NIV). But they’re greatly criticised for a female prophet known as Jezebel, who is said to mislead the faithful into immorality. I imagine this text has been used at times by misogynists to speak against any women in leadership; it doesn’t say this, but rather speaks against a single person. This letter feels especially harsh.
  • The church in Sardis – they are warned to wake up, as they are spiritually dead. This closely resembles the wisdom literature which often talked of people or groups being spiritually dead; but it continues in a passage reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the watchful slaves, told to keep watch as they do not know when the Son of Man will return. Not everyone in Sardis is like this, they are reassured, and those people will walk with the Son of Man, dressed in white.
  • The church in Philadelphia – they are reassured rather than criticised, as ones with little power yet who kept God’s word. They are distinguished from the “synagogue of Satan” (constantly this book is full of strong language), and reassured that the Son of Man is coming soon.
  • Lastly the church in Laodicea - the most critical letter of all. They are described as lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. They are personally rich, but do not realise how spiritually poor they are – “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked”. They are told that he (the Son of Man, or Jesus) stands at the door and knocks, a much-loved verse (though with clear echo of “knock, and the door will be opened to you” in the Sermon on the Mount), but they need to respond if they want him to come in to eat with them.
Lots of strong & symbolic language. It feels very much of its time – despite John’s statement that it is prophetic, the words closely resemble those of St Paul writing his various pastoral letters to churches. The letters intervene in a variety of local disputes, probably some with quite small groups of Christians, even those some of the towns were important ones in the Graeco-Roman world.

So the details of the letters seem to me less important than the form and the style. John writes in a timely and interesting style - whether the message has much to say to us today is a different question, but we can certainly learn much from his means of communication. Such letters to individual churches from a local bishop or other regional church leader would certainly get attention!

Next reading: ch 4, John before the throne of God

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