[This is the third in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation. I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]
3. Power in weakness (Revelation 2:1-29)
Chapters 2 and 3 in the book of Revelation contain messages to seven churches in cities in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean. We don’t usually think of these as the key to understanding the visions that follow. I think that’s what they are, though. The seven messages are, you could say, instructions for understanding the rest of the book.
Living in empire
John’s main concern is with how the people in the churches will negotiate living in the Roman Empire—the visions that follow will in their own creative ways repeat what John conveys here: confrontation to those who too easily find themselves at ease in Babylon and comfort to those who seek to follow the Lamb and suffer because of that.
The reference in the message to Smyrna (2:8-11) seems to pit Christians against Jews. But that is not actually the case. John and other Christians thought of themselves as Jews. The conflict here is not between Christians and non-Christians but between two different ways of envisioning being the people of God. What was at stake was their attitude toward the empire. This charge of being a “synagogue of Satan” has to do with being too tight with the empire, which is linked elsewhere in Revelation with the Dragon, that is, Satan.
Pergamum is where “Satan’s throne” is (2:13)—a major regional center for emperor worship. In John’s view, the Roman Empire is a force for evil in the world, not a representative of the true God as it claimed. The empire sought to separate believers from God, probably most fundamentally by its ideology of power as domination. Rome was ruthless; nations and peoples who did not go along were crushed. Witness the thousands of Jews who were crucified by the empire before and after Jesus’ execution.
“Fornication” (2:20) is an old prophetic metaphor for when the community of faith turned from the ways of Torah and trusted in idols. To “commit fornication” in this figurative way is to forget the calls to justice, compassion, care for those in need—to forget that true worship is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
What’s at stake in these messages is the politics of empire versus the politics of the Kingdom of God. To which vision of ways humans relate to one another will those in the churches commit themselves?
The empire’s threat to faith
John is deeply concerned with the powerful currents in his culture that push believers to forget Jesus’ way of being in the world. The empire gives the message that it represents the gods. Because of this its power is to be feared and accepted as definitive. The villains in the messages to the seven churches, though, are not the beast and dragon so much as people in the churches who advocate cooperation with empire.