What does the book of Revelation say? (part 4)

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the fourth 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.]

4. Weakness in power (Revelation 3:1-22)

We may read Revelation as a book of conflicts—the Beast vs. the Lamb, the Holy Spirit vs. the False Prophet, Babylon vs. the New Jerusalem. The question is: Who is more powerful? Which is actually the question: What kind of power is more powerful —the power to conquer through domination or the power to conquer through self-giving love? 

The seven messages that make up chapters two and three, the first of Revelation’s many visions, set the book’s agenda. In my last post, I discussed “power in weakness”—how the little church in Smyrna, besieged, suffering persecution, with little visible power, actually was praised above all the other churches and proclaimed to be rich indeed. Here, I will focus on “weakness in power”—how the big church in Laodicea, wealthy, comfortable, lacking in nothing, actually was condemned above all the other churches and proclaimed to be “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

Empire in Revelation

In these messages, the Roman Empire is everywhere. Each of the seven cities was a center for devotion to the Empire—shrines, temples, monuments. The various strengths and weaknesses in the congregations that the messages speak to are in some sense related to how the congregations navigate being in the midst of empire.

Smyrna and Philadelphia are both small, struggling, fragile congregations. They suffer in large part because their people refused to go along with the Empire’s civil religion, even at the cost of their jobs or more. Thyatira and Pergamum have many who resist bending the knee to Rome. But these congregations also have within them strong voices for going along. Now, in chapter three, we encounter two congregations where the struggle seems to be about over. Sardis has the appearance of being alive, but is actually dead. And Laodicea….

It is no accident that the message to the congregation in Laodicea is the last of the seven. Here, what we see is that the church has, in a genuine sense, actually become Rome. The Laodicean congregation has absorbed the values of Empire so totally that there is no longer any resistance. The Laodicean Christians simply parrot the language of the Empire.

How does the Laodicean church understand itself? “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (3:17). How does the Roman Empire, in Revelation shown as a great harlot, understand itself? “I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief” (17:7). In both cases, in the visions of Revelation, these smug affirmations of self-sufficiency and autonomy, are turned upside down. The powerful are shown to be weak. Continue reading “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 4)”