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.

The critique of Laodicea

The city of Laodicea was known for several particular characteristics. It was wealthy, much more than surrounding cities. Its wealth, came in part, from its textile industry, and in part because it was a medical center that trained physicians and produced a widely used treatment for eye problems. Presumably, the people in the congregation themselves directly benefitted from Laodicean wealth.

So, when it comes to the warnings in the message, John’s Jesus could not have been more cutting. You claim to need nothing, he sneers, but in reality you are wretched and pitiable. You are poor. You are naked. You can’t see.

The power you hoard and depend on—power that allows you to rest comfortably in the secure arms of the Pax Romana, in the secure arms of the domination system that Empire creates—is nothing. In fact, it’s worse than nothing. Because you believe the lies of the False Prophet. You can not, by brute force and coercion create genuine security and hope. All you can create is an illusion.

Hope for Laodiceans

The book of Revelation, for all its hostility toward the Beast and urgency to challenge its readers decisively to turn from weakness in power toward power in weakness, is not without hope even for the kings of the earth—as we will see later in the book. As the letter to Laodicea itself tells us, and as we will see when we move on to Revelation chapters 4 and 5, the book holds out hope for the Laodiceans of the world. John’s agenda is to heal more than to condemn.

Let’s look at the cutting imagery in the message. Laodicea was known for its wealth, its production of textiles, and its medical treatments, including especially eye treatments. So, the message emphasizes to the church its poverty, its nakedness, and its blindness. But why make these pointed criticisms? Not mainly to score rhetorical points and condemn.

The message does challenge the Laodicean self-sufficiency, naming it in terms of false confidence in wealth, in textile production, in medical care. But John wants to make clear the Lamb’s offer—Jesus makes available for “purchase” “gold refined by fire” that will give the Laodiceans authentic wealth. He makes available “white robes” that will genuinely clothe those who put them on. He makes available “salve to anoint your eyes” that will provide genuine sight.

The danger for the congregations is to become indistinguishable from their surrounding culture. In the United States, the danger has been that Christianity becomes inextricably identified with the American empire. Then it seems that the only way to oppose the empire is to reject Christian faith. What a terrible tragedy.

The seven messages end with a call to open the door to a different notion of power and hope and security and wealth. We can embrace these metaphors from the message to Laodicea: Use the eye-salve that provides genuine sight that will allow you to recognize that empire equals death and that to resist empire leads to life. And open the door to the one who embodies this life—the one whose self-sacrifice and nonviolent resistance leads to resurrection and celebration.

So, this, then, is where we are so far in the story that Revelation tells. The first vision, chapters one, two, and three, warns of accepting the worldview of empire and twisting Christian faith to fit with that worldview. Such acceptance leads to death. But with the warning comes witness to faithfulness that is possible and to genuine wealth that is available to those who resist the Empire story and embrace a different kind of story. The story of the Lamb. Our next vision will go deeper into genuine power and show the one on the throne and the faithful Lamb, already worshiped as the bringer of healing and the giver of life. Then will we turn to the other, more notorious visions, that deconstruct empire as a way of life. But the affirmation of hope and blessing precede the visions of chaos.

The message of weakness in power ultimately is secondary to the message of power in weakness.

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

Link to part five of this series

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