Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
To the Church in Smyrna
8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.
To the Church in Pergamum
12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
The New Testament readings have now begun a series from the early chapters of the Revelation of John. We don’t devote a lot of our Bible Reflections to the Revelation, but it seems to me that these early chapters provide us with a good chance to think a little about the meaning of this book, and about how it fits within the New Testament and the history of the church.
The Revelation is sometimes called an “apocalypse” – a word from the Greek that means basically the same thing as “revelation,” which is a word based on Latin. So the word “apocalyptic” has come to be associated with the kind of cosmic warfare people associate with the last book of the bible.
Obviously, some Christians spend a lot of time trying to decode these apocalyptic parts of the Revelation – the four horsemen, the dragon, etc. They search for clues to what’s going to happen at the end of the present age, and look for how people in the news might correspond to the various figures in the text. The Left Behind movement, with its novels and movies, was so popular among these believers that it practically became an industry unto itself. There are several websites that feature running countdowns to the events described in this book.
But today’s passage reminds us that at heart, the Revelation is a letter to a group of congregations of the early church – a letter that was meant to offer a combination of correction and encouragement to those congregations, which were located in present-day Turkey. These congregations were faced three main problems:
First of all, some of the followers of Jesus were facing persecution. We usually picture this persecution as large-scale events, like mass executions, feeding to lions, etc. And those forms of persecution certainly happened on some occasions. But most of the persecution faced in the early days of the church was local in nature. Many early Christians continued to observe Jewish customs, and worship in local synagogues. Lots of them were expelled and shunned – even stoned. Other Christians were fired from their jobs, thrown out of their homes and rejected by their families. Some were thrown in prison and sometimes tortured and murdered.
The second problem the early church was facing was that believers were drifting away from the church. Following Jesus has always been a serious and life-changing commitment. That was true in the early church, and some people hung around for a while and then lost interest.
The third problem these churches faced was that some believers combined the teachings of the Christian faith with the practices of other cults and religions. There was a religious movement called the Gnostics, who believed they had secret knowledge that gave them great power, and some of them started a Gnostic faction within the early church. Another early splinter group called the Nicolaitans are mentioned in this passage, and they’re thought to have practiced strange sexual rites. These splinter groups and others like them eventually died out, but at the time they were a real threat to the integrity of the church and its ministry.
The Revelation of John was written to offer guidance and encouragement to congregations who were struggling with these problems. John wanted to warn them of the seriousness with which God viewed their sins and errors. But he also wanted to reassure the early Christians that God will be victorious in the end, and that his kingdom will be brought to fulfillment in this world when the powers who threatened the early church had been destroyed.
Lots of Christians associate the story of the Revelation with the threat of “the beast.” Some Bible commentators say that the beast represented the Roman Empire of John’s day. Others have claimed that it represents more modern movements like the Nazis or the Islamic State. But lots of scholars, including most of those in our Presbyterian tradition, believe that the beast is meant to represent the ruthless powers of the world in general – including the Roman Empire which persecuted John, but also other earthly powers like the Nazis and ISIS, but also powers like the Stalinist Regime, the Pol Pot Regime in Cambodia. More disturbingly, some scholars look at our country’s genocide of the Native Americans, and wonder if in that, we might have been a manifestation of ‘the beast.’
(The famous “666” code, by the way, probably refers to the Latin name of the Emperor Nero, who unleashed the widespread persecution on the early church. There was a commonly-used system for calculating the number of a person’s name, and according to that system, the number of Nero’s name would have been 666.)
While the Revelation is used in some parts of the church as a tool to scare people into being good, it’s important to keep in mind that the main intention of the Holy Spirit in inspiring it was probably to express comfort and encouragement to followers of Jesus who lived in world that was often hostile and threatening – just as it sometimes is today.
As you might remember from past seasons when the New Testament readings were coming from the Revelation, I can forward an article on the Revelation that summarizes the common understanding of the book in our part of the church. I’ll be happy to forward that article to anyone who wants to read it. Just request it with a reply to this Reflection.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for standing by the followers of your Son who face persecution by the powers of this world, and we thank you that your power has often been shown most clearly among those persecuted believers. We pray for your comfort and healing for our brothers and sisters threatened by the beast today, and we pray that you will show us how we can help them. We thank you also for the promise that in the end, you will win a victory over the forces of evil and bring your eternal kingdom to fulfillment. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 93 and 146; Isaiah 59:15b-21; and John 4:46-54.)