Monday, June 1, 2020

READ IT! - Introduction to Revelation 2-8

Readings for this week

Monday: Revelation 2
Tuesday: Revelation 3
Wednesday: Revelation 4
Thursday: Revelation 5
Friday: Revelation 6
Saturday: Revelation 7
Sunday: Revelation 8

Introduction to Revelation 2-8

Chapter 2 

The next section of the book contains Jesus’ letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. John directs the record of his visions to the seven churches in the province of Asia, which incorporated approximately the western third of Asia Minor. His words to the churches contain evidences that he was familiar with the local conditions and traditions of these churches, which may have been personally known to him from his association with that area. His reason for selecting these seven churches, as well as the order in which the churches are listed, probably has to do with geography and communications: The cities in which the churches are located are all centers of communications, and a messenger bearing Revelation to the cities would arrive in Ephesus from Patmos, travel by a secondary road north to Smyrna and Pergamum, and then go east on the Roman road to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. 

To the Church in Ephesus 

John begins with Jesus’s letter to the Church in Ephesus. Ephesus was the center of commerce in first-century Asia Minor. It was home to the Apostle Paul, his disciple, Timothy, and later, the Apostle John. According to church tradition, John was accompanied to Ephesus by Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is believed that she lived here for several years, and that she died here and was buried near what was later named Mary’s Church. This church was the location of the First (431) and Second (449) Ecumenical Councils.

Ephesus was the major sea port on the coast of Asia Minor, constructed with beautiful white marble and architecture that rivaled that of Rome. The Arcadian Way (the way of the sea) went directly from the port of Ephesus to the great amphitheater that we read about in Acts 19:23-41, where the crowd rioted because the spread of Christianity was impacting the sales of idols.

During the first century, there were two primary deities worshiped in Ephesus – Artemis (Diana) and Caesar (actually, multiple Caesars, beginning with Augustus, later Nero, Domitian and, finally, Trajan). Additionally, there are indications that the cult of Mithras also had a foothold in the Roman legions housed in Ephesus. Each of these false gods has a part to play in the Apocalypse of John.

The mystery religion of Mithraism likely began in the first century BC or early in the first century AD, as an attempt to explain a great crisis in astronomy. Greek astronomers discovered ancient writings that claimed the sky was in Taurus during the vernal equinox instead of the normal Aeries, indicating that someone had at some point “killed” Taurus. They believed that whoever had the power to kill Taurus also had power over “the seven stars” of “the heavens” – those being the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. They didn’t know that the earth’s “wobble” would take it through each of the signs of the Zodiac, changing every 2160 years. That “something” had to be bigger than the heavens, and it controlled the seven stars – which would lead departed souls from earth to the heavens. For adherents of this ‘mystery religion‘, Mithras was identified as the “something” controlling the universe. He had a miraculous birth in a shepherd’s cave, he was visited by Magi, and he died and was resurrected, along with many other similarities to Jesus and Christianity. At the time John was in Ephesus, Mithraism was competing with Christianity, and by the time of Constantine in the early fourth century, it was the primary religion competing with Christianity. And so it is that John identifies Jesus as: “Him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lamp stands.” This is in direct opposition to Mithras, who was believed to hold the “seven stars” – the path from earth to the heavens – in his hands.

In Ephesus, there were two incredibly large Agora, places of buying and selling. In order to buy and sell in the marketplace, everyone had to burn incense and declare that Caesar was lord. If you needed food, or water, or clothing, or goods, you could not get into the Agora without worshiping Caesar. By the time Domitian came to power, you could be put to death if you did not declare him lord and have his mark on you or your goods. The Nicolaitans were Christians who believed that since Caesar was not God, they could still burn incense to him for the sake of convenience. If they needed fire, they could go to the Temple of Hestia (goddess of hearth and home) and burn incense to her in order to get fire, because they ‘knew’ she was not God. If they needed food, they could go to the altar of Caesar, burn incense in his name (while ‘knowing’ he was not God), and receive freshly-sacrificed meat. It appears, though, that this practice was not condoned by the Ephesian church: “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”

Ephesus was the center of worship of the goddesses Artemis and Cybele, housing the Temple of Artemis – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In this Temple, criminals could come to seek sanctuary, and as long as they didn’t leave the grounds, they couldn’t be prosecuted. Additionally, it was believed that Artemis would protect women who were in childbirth, with some records indicating that 250,000 women each year came to the temple for such protection. In the center of the Temple of Artemis was a large enclosed garden, called the ‘Paradise of Artemis’. In the center of this paradise were two intertwined linden trees. This tree was called by the Artemis worshipers, ‘The Tree of Life’. Jesus promises that “to him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” – not the paradise of Artemis. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Septuagint), there are two words for ‘tree’ – dendron and xulon. Dendron is used almost exclusively for all living trees. However, xulon, which is used to denote dead wood, is used less often, but is the same word used for Jesus being hung on a tree. When John describes the tree of life in the paradise of God, the tree (xulon) of life is the cross!

While we know a lot about Ephesus and the Ephesian church, we do not really know what problems they are dealing with in Revelation. They seem to have resisted the blatant worship of other gods that was constantly going on in the city, yet it appears they were guilty of another form of idolatry – one of the heart. Jesus says to them that they have forgotten their first love, but what does this mean? It is possible that while the Ephesians had done a great job in following all the rules regarding not worshiping other gods, they had perhaps forgotten to love their own God. And how is it that we love God? By loving others. 

To the Church in Smyrna 

Next, John records Jesus’s letter to the Church in Smyrna. The city of Smyrna sits on the modern-day location of the city of Izmir. Smyrna was founded as a port city in the region of Anatolia (which means "land of the rising sun") on the Aegean sea. Smyrna is situated on the Hermus valley which was known for its fertility, and its location was important to the romans as a transportation hub for shipping of Roman soldiers during the time of the Second Temple in Judean history as well as during the timeframe of the Early Church. The Romans used the surrounding cliffs and mountains as naturally occurring battlements. These mountain walls were known as the crown of Smyrna and were kept lit by watch-fires at night.

Smyrna was home to one of the ancient world’s largest marketplaces, the agora. It also had a significant Jewish population from the diaspora, which was a key part of the spreading of the gospel here… and also a major source of some of the early church’s major conflicts.

The church in Smyrna is the only church of the seven John addresses in the book of revelation that does not receive a scolding for its behavior. Based on archaeological records as well as clues from John’s letter, the church in Smyrna was very likely made up of the poor of the city… who stood in contrast to many of the Jews of Smyrna who were more well-off. Apparently, The Jews of Smyrna in particular were one of the main groups who were out to persecute the church because of their religious difference. This might be what John is referring to when he says: "I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan."

Towards the end of the first century and the beginning of the 2nd century, the leader of the church at Smyrna was a man named Polycarp. Polycarp was one of John’s disciples, and he as well as several other believers in Smyrna were some of the first Christian martyrs. Polycarp actually narrowly escaped martyrdom on several occasions before he was finally killed at the age of 87. He was a widely respected leader in the church at Smyrna by then. Orders from Caesar had placed the Christians in Asia Minor under extreme pressure to convert to the cult of the emperor. When the local authorities came to arrest Polycarp, they gave him the opportunity to declare that Caesar was god, and go free. But Polycarp politely refused to this. This may provide some context for the words John writes to the church: “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.” When John speaks of a crown, he is not talking about the kind that a king wears, but rather the wreath that would be given to the winner of a race. His point is that if the church in Smyrna was persecuted, they would in fact be rewarded for their perseverance of faith. 

To the Church in Pergamum 

Pergamum was the seat of political power in Asia Minor, and it was also home to the frumentaria, a Roman garrison that protected food shipments through the major trade route from the Aegean into Asia Minor.

When we read John’s letter to the church in Pergamum, we must wonder why John twice refers to this city as a place where Satan rules.

It’s possible that these people might have been some of the early ones to declare their rulers as gods after they died… turning their tombs into shrines of heroes. It’s likely that the Caesars were in part inspired by the practices at Pergamum and adopted them as well, starting with the Caesars of the outlying provinces and eventually leading to the Caesars at Rome being deified upon death, and ultimately with Domitian declaring himself to be a god while still living.

The Acropolis at Pergamum contains the ruins of Trajan’s temple. He ruled Rome from AD 98 – 117. This place may be what John is referring to when he says “Satan’s throne” due to the horrors committed against early believers there who refused to worship Caesar.

An alternative option rests in the agora (or marketplace) also located on the Acropolis. This is where the rule of burning incense to Caesar in order to be able to purchase and trade in the marketplace may have initially started.

This tradition eventually made its way to Ephesus and was so widespread that nobody could purchase or trade, or even get food, water or fire, or acquire meat without declaring Caesar was god, with death as possible punishment.

This is most likely what John is talking about when he refers to the “beast” (probably Nero or Domitian): “He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.” (Revelation 13:16-17)

Another option might be the Theater of Pergamum, which held a lot of influence over the public. It sat on the Acropolis and seated about 10,000 people, and was the biggest of many others here. It was dedicated (like every Hellenistic theater) to Dionysus, the god of wine and orgy. It was adjacent to his temple, and immediately before the shows, the public would get drunk off the free wine offered there and then go watch the show, which was typically sexual in nature. After the show, a lot of them would drink some more and gorge themselves on raw meat which led to a lot of frenzied “visions” and vomiting, followed by rendezvous with the temple prostitutes.

John mentions the character of Balaam in his letter to them, the sorcerer from the book of Numbers that the Moabites hired to curse Israel. God would not let him curse but only bless them… so he came up with another plan to lead them astray through prostitution and idol worship. He is saying that the same temptations that Israel had in ancient times were still around in the present.

People from all over Rome would show up at the Asklepion to be healed. Some would stay and wait for years. Those who were healed would record how Asclepius had healed them on a large white stone and sign their name to it. This is probably why John writes: “To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.” His point is that the local church has no need of what the pagans rely on, whether it be from a frumetaria or Asclepius. He says that if they overcome then they will get their own white stones from Jesus. 

To the Church in Thyatira 

Thyatira is located on the Lycus River, roughly forty miles to the east of Pergamum. It was a city founded on trade, manufacturing its own wool and purple cloth. Historical accounts relate that Thyatira was the location of many influential trade guilds, all of which paid allegiance to one or more of the patron gods of the city: Tyrimnos and the Roman Caesar – both of whom were recognized as sons of Zeus.

This is the only one of the seven letters to refer to Jesus by His title “Son of God”, probably in contrasting response to the worship traditions there. Affiliation with of one of the trade guilds coincided with partaking in the guild feasts. At the feasts, all the food and wine would be sacrificed to Tyrimnos or whichever god associated with that guild. Everyone there was required to partake in the sacrifice as well as various public sexual acts. This would have been an obvious problem for Christians living there.

The ‘Jezebel’ that John refers to is likely a figurative person in the city and not an actual person. Jewish Christians in Thyatira would have identified “Jezebel” as the name of one of the most loathed figures in their history. The Jezebel of the Hebrew Bible led Israel into worshiping Baal. John is contrasting her with the systems of the current day that were attempting to get Christians to fall in line and worship the contemptible gods of the culture. This figure is condemned by John for leading others into sin more so than anything else. 

Chapter 3 

To the Church in Sardis 

Sardis was an important Roman city in the Hermus valley, and was located at the center of the mail route that included the Seven Churches in Revelation. Mount Tmolus overshadows the city, and the ruins of a defensive stronghold can still be seen on top of it. Sardis became rich and influential as a consequence of gold being found in the river that went through it, the Hermus River. It’s likely that Sardis is one of the areas that many Jews settled during the diaspora. Sardis is home to the largest known synagogue of the time period, decorated with marble and detailed mosaics. It sat in front of the Roman gymnasium. The remains of early churches in Sardis were discovered near the Temple of Artemis, and a fourth-century chapel was constructed into the rear of the temple’s ruins. Sardis also had a wealthy textile industry. Sardis was destroyed by an earthquake in AD 17 and was only partially rebuilt. 

Emperor worship was common in Sardis. Caesar is ‘King of King and Lord of Lords’ was carved in doorways and arches all over the city. Caesar Domitian even demanded that his wife refer to him by this title. John is very clear about who he thinks is the true King and Lord in his letter.

Sardis was an epicenter of worship for the Greek goddesses Cybele and Artemis. According to myth, Agdistis was initially born from the ground where Zeus’ semen fell as a hermaphroditic demon. The other gods were fearful of Agdistis and castrated its male sex organ, which then fell to the ground and became an almond tree. After this, Agdistis turned into the goddess Cybele. Later, Cybele fell in love with her son/grandson, Attis, and took him in as a lover. One day, in a fit of jealousy, she drove him insane and he castrated himself and died, but was then resurrected as a pine tree. In response to these myths, the people of Sardis worshiped Cybele and regarded almond and pine trees in reverence. Additionally, they held fertility festivals in honor of Attis’ re-birth, where everyone would parade down the main street in Sardis in white robes while cutting themselves. When they got to the shrine, a few people would be castrated and would offer their parts to Cybele. Those who left with blood on their robes were thought to have received Cybele’s blessing. This type of practice appears to have ended after the second century. 

To the Church in Philadelphia 

Philadelphia lies halfway between Laodicea and Sardis on the Roman mail route through Asia Minor. Not much is left of the city which makes archaeology difficult. Nevertheless, many written records exist form this time period from neighboring cities, including from early church leaders like Polycarp, showing that Christians were often persecuted by Jews.

Domitian reigned from AD 81-96 and heavily persecuted Christians as well, however, it appears to be that most of the Christians in Philadelphia escaped this persecution. This may be what John is referring to when he writes, “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.”

The city was also heavily impacted by the same earthquake that destroyed Sardis in AD 17. It was located near the fault line and had many aftershocks for over two decades afterwards. The people were constantly afraid and fled to the hills often.

The city was founded by the kingdom of Pergamum during the second century B.C. and was renamed several times eventually becoming “Philadelphia”, the name given to the city by Eumenes II in honor of Attalus II, a brother he loved dearly.

In 17 AD, Tiberius paid to rebuild the city, and its name was changed to Neo-Cesarca, much to the chagrin of its citizens. This theme of renaming is also seen in John’s letter when he writes to them Jesus’ words: “I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.” 

To the Church in Laodicea 

Laodicea is situated in the Lycus River Valley in southwest Turkey, in a location that used to be the Roman territory of Phrygia. It was on the Roman mail route with the other six cities addressed by Jesus through John in his Revelation.

One of the answers to figuring out the context of the letter to Laodicea may be in understanding its water supply. Colossae was about twelve miles east of Laodicea and was was well-known for its cold refreshing water, which originated from the melting snow atop Mount Cadmus. Hierapolis was about seven miles north of Laodicea and was known for being a large Roman city with centers devoted to the worship of Apollo and, later, Caesar – Domitian, in particular.

Perhaps its most well-known attraction was its hot baths, sourced by hot springs, which were used to treat illnesses. Laodicea was between Colossae and Hierapolis. This is the place where the western cold streams and the eastern hot streams converged. This mixing of mineral-rich hot water with cold water caused the drinking water of the area to taste terrible and be lukewarm. The water flowed via aqueduct into clay pipes in the town that would frequently become clogged due to the high mineral concentration in the water. The water helps provide some context to John’s letter where he reports that Jesus is about to spew them out of his mouth like lukewarm water since they are neither hot nor cold, neither healing nor refreshing.

Laodicea was also destroyed by an earthquake in AD 60. When Nero offered them aid in rebuilding their city, they wrote back to him, saying that they were rich and could rebuild it themselves. So it makes since that John calls them out on their pride. 

Chapters 4-5 

In the next section of the book, John sees a vision of the Throne of God. The Throne of God appears, surrounded by twenty-four thrones with twenty-four elders seated in them. The four living creatures are introduced. A scroll, with seven seals, is presented and it is declared that the Lion of the tribe of Judah, from the "Root of David", is the only one worthy to open this scroll. When the "Lamb having seven horns and seven eyes" takes the scroll, the creatures of heaven fall down before the Lamb to give him praise, joined by myriads of angels and the creatures of the earth. 

Chapters 6-7 

In the next section seven seals are opened.

First Seal:

A white horse appears, whose crowned rider has a bow with which to conquer.

Second Seal:

A red horse appears, whose rider is granted a "great sword" to take peace from the earth.

Third Seal:

A black horse appears, whose rider has "a pair of balances in his hand", where a voice then says, "A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and do not damage the oil and the wine."

Fourth Seal:

A pale horse appears, whose rider is Death, and Hades follows him. Death is granted a fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

Fifth Seal:

"Under the altar", appears the souls of martyrs for the "word of God", who cry out for vengeance. They are given white robes and told to rest until the martyrdom of their brothers is completed.

Sixth Seal:

There occurs a great earthquake where "the sun becomes black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon like blood." The stars of heaven fall to the earth and the sky recedes like a scroll being rolled up. Every mountain and island is moved out of place. The people of earth retreat to caves in the mountains. The survivors call upon the mountains and the rocks to fall on them, so as to hide them from the "wrath of the Lamb".


The text then comes to an interlude where the 144,000 Hebrews are sealed. 144,000 from the Twelve Tribes of Israel are sealed as servants of God on their foreheads (note that Dan is missing). A great multitude stands before the Throne of God, who came out of the Great Tribulation, clothed with robes made "white in the blood of the Lamb" and having palm branches in their hands.

Seventh Seal (which introduces the seven trumpets):

There is "silence in heaven for about half an hour." Seven angels are each given trumpets. An eighth angel takes a "golden censer", filled with fire from the heavenly altar, and throws it to the earth. What follows are "peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake." After the eighth angel has devastated the earth, the seven angels prepare to sound their trumpets.

Chapter 8 

In the next section, the seven trumpets are sounded.

First Trumpet:

Hail and fire, mingled with blood, are thrown to the earth burning up a third of the trees and green grass.

Second Trumpet:

Something that resembles a great mountain, burning with fire, falls from the sky and lands in the ocean. It kills a third of the sea creatures and destroys a third of the ships at sea.

Third Trumpet:

A great star, named Wormwood, falls from heaven and poisons a third of the rivers and springs of water.

Fourth Trumpet:

A third of the sun, the moon, and the stars are darkened creating complete darkness for a third of the day and the night.

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