What does the book of Revelation say? (part 3)

Ted Grimsrud

[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.

The characters from the Old Testament, Balaam (2:14) and Jezebel (2:20), persuaded Israel to turn away from faithfulness to the ways of Torah toward the ways of domination. One telling story, from 1 Kings, shows Jezebel, an outsider to Israel, persuading her husband, King Ahab, to seize a vineyard he wants simply because he has the power to. As we learn, though, this vineyard was part of the inheritance system meant to protect future generations from landlessness and poverty. Jezebel’s influence turned Ahab away from shalom.

This is what John sees happening in these churches—influential people claiming that working in harmony with the empire was appropriate. They could go to the public religious services, identify with the values of the empire—then come back to their churches for a time of private worship.

John seeks in Revelation to show what actually goes on when followers of Jesus accommodate. When you do this, he says, you accommodate with Satan himself. In a later vision, he will state starkly why this is a problem. At the end of a list of all the fine things that Rome produces is this jarring reminder: the merchants also traffic in slaves—and human lives (18:13). This is the negative part of John’s agenda—to confront those who keep the message of the gospel to the private corners of their lives and get along with Rome promises. The “peace of Rome” is built on the bones of “all who have been slaughtered on earth” (18:24). This is not genuine peace, but systemic  violence.

John’s positive agenda

John’s bigger agenda is positive. Resist the Beast, refuse to accommodate—and you will celebrate with the Lamb and the multitudes who follow him. A key motif throughout the book is the call to “conquer.” There are two fundamental ways to conquer: one is to conquer through overwhelming force; the second is to conquer through persistent love. One is to cause the other to suffer; the second is what Gandhi called self-suffering.

The messages promise that those who conquer in the same way Jesus conquered—through persistent love and self-suffering—will be vindicated. The message to the church at Smyrna captures Revelation’s notion of power quite clearly. “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich” (2:9). You are weak but really you are powerful. The corollary point is that the Empire that seems so almighty and attractive actually is weak in its apparent strength.

Power in weakness

The problem is that influential people bought the claims of empire to be truly powerful and argued that Christians should accommodate to those claims. Later, John will see visions that illustrate just how impressive Rome’s power seemed—but the visions reveal that power not to be life-giving power but rather to be the power of domination and death. But still, it’s overwhelming—“Who is like the beast and who can stand against it?” (13:4).

Let’s think about the message of Revelation for today. Certainly some elements of American Christianity run the risk of being all too like the civil religion of the Roman Empire and bless wars and militarism and economic exploitation that further enrich the wealthy. Maybe Christianity as a religion has become so linked with empire, at least in our society, that we might look outside the organized church to find Smyrnan-like creative resistance in our day—places that cultivate suspicion of coercive power, places that embrace cooperative power, places that provide human-scale alternatives to profit-driven corporate economics.

I thought a bit about this, and came up with a few, partly whimsical, examples of ways of resistance. Democracy Now over against, say, CBS or Fox News. The Friendly City Food Co-op over against, say, Walmart. The Dogfish Head Brewery over against, say, Budweiser. Park View Federal Credit Union over against, say, Bank of America. The family-run Taco stand on Reservoir Street over against, say, Taco Bell.

When we Christians embrace the message of Revelation, that we “conquer” with cooperative power, not coercive power, I can see us moving in two directions at the same time. One direction is to work within the churches to call our tradition back to its biblical roots—that those who confess Jesus would seek, in his name, to embody his way of creative resistance to the ways of empire. The second direction is happily to join with all others of good will outside the churches who seek life, who find true power in joining together in myriad ways to resist, to celebrate, and to encourage.

Link to index for “What does Revelation say?” blog posts

Link to part four of this series

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