THE LETTER TO EPHESUS (Revelation 2:1-7)
2:1-7 To the angel of the Church in Ephesus, write:
These things says he who holds the seven stars in his right hand and who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands. I know your works--I mean your toil and your steadfast endurance, and I know that you cannot bear evil men, and that you have put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and who are not, and have proved them liars. I know that you possess steadfast endurance. I know all that you have borne for my name's sake and I know that you have not been worn out by your efforts. All the same I have this against you--that you have left your first love. Remember, then, whence you have fallen, and repent, and make your conduct such as it was at first. If you do not, I am coming to you, and I will remove your lampstand from its place, if you do not repent.
But you do possess this virtue--you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I too hate.
Let him who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches. I will give to him who overcomes to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.
Ephesus, First And Greatest (Revelation 2:1-7 Continued)
When we know something of the history of Ephesus and learn something of its conditions at this time, it is easy to see why it comes first in the list of the seven Churches.
Pergamum was the official capital of the province of Asia but Ephesus was by far its greatest city. It claimed as its proud title "The first and the greatest metropolis of Asia." A Roman writer called it Lumen Asiae, The Light of Asia. Let us see, then, the factors which gave it its preeminent greatness.
(i) In the time of John, Ephesus was the greatest harbour in Asia. All the roads of the Cayster Valley--the Cayster was the river on which it stood--converged upon it. But the roads came from further afield than that. It was at Ephesus that the road from the far-off Euphrates and Mesopotamia reached the Mediterranean, having come by way of Colossae and Laodicea. It was at Ephesus that the road from Galatia reached the sea, having come by way of Sardis. And from the south came up the road from the rich Maeander Valley. Strabo, the ancient geographer, called Ephesus "The Market of Asia," and it may well be that in Revelation 18:12-13 John was setting down a description of the varied riches of the marketplace at Ephesus.
Ephesus was the Gateway of Asia. One of its distinctions, laid down by statute, was that when the Roman proconsul came to take up office as governor of Asia, he must disembark at Ephesus and enter his province there. For all the travellers and the trade, from the Cayster and the Maeander Valleys, from Galatia, from the Euphrates and from Mesopotamia, Ephesus was the highway to Rome. In later times, when the Christians were brought from Asia to be flung to the lions in the arena in Rome, Ignatius called Ephesus the Highway of the Martyrs.
Its position made Ephesus the wealthiest and the greatest city in all Asia and it has been aptly called the Vanity Fair of the ancient world.
(ii) Ephesus had certain important political distinctions. It was a free city. In the Roman Empire certain cities were free cities; they had had that honour conferred upon them because of their services to the Empire. A free city was within its own limits self-governing; and it was exempted from ever having Roman troops garrisoned there. It was an assize town. The Roman governors made periodical tours of their provinces; and at certain specially chosen cities and towns courts were held where the governor tried the most important cases. Further, Ephesus held yearly the most famous games in Asia which attracted people from all over the province.
(iii) Ephesus was the centre of the worship of Artemis or, as the King James Version calls her, Diana of the Ephesians. The Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was four hundred and twenty-five feet long by two hundred and twenty feet wide; it had one hundred and twenty columns, each sixty feet high and the gift of a king, and thirty-six of them were richly gilded and inlaid. Ancient temples consisted mostly of colonnades with only the centre portion roofed over. The centre portion of the Temple of Artemis was roofed over with cypress wood. The image of Artemis was one of the most sacred images in the ancient world. It was by no means beautiful but a squat, black, many-breasted figure; so ancient that none knew its origin. We have only to read Acts 19:1-41 to see how precious Artemis and her temple were to Ephesus. Ephesus had also famous temples to the godhead of the Roman Emperors, Claudius and Nero, and in after days was to add temples to Hadrian and Severus. In Ephesus pagan religion was at its strongest.
(iv) Ephesus was a notorious centre of pagan superstition. It was famous for the Ephesian Letters, amulets and charms which were supposed to be infallible remedies for sickness, to bring children to those who were childless and to ensure success in any undertaking; and people came from all over the world to buy them.
(v) The population of Ephesus was very mixed. Its citizens were divided into six tribes. One consisted of those who were descendants of the original natives of the country; one consisted of those who were direct descendants of the original colonists from Athens; three consisted of other Greeks; and one, it is probable, consisted of Jews. Besides being a centre of religion the Temple of Artemis was also a centre of crime and immorality. The Temple area possessed the right of asylum; any criminal was safe if he could reach it. The temple possessed hundreds of priestesses who were sacred prostitutes. All this combined to make Ephesus a notoriously evil place. Heraclitus, one of the most famous of ancient philosophers, was known as "the weeping philosopher." His explanation of his tears was that no one could live in Ephesus without weeping at its immorality.
Such was Ephesus; a more unpromising soil for the sowing of the seed of Christianity can scarcely be imagined; and yet it was there that Christianity had some of its greatest triumphs. R. C. Trench writes: "Nowhere did the word of God find a kindlier soil, strike root more deeply or bear fairer fruits of faith and love."
Paul stayed longer in Ephesus than in any other city (Acts 20:31). It was with Ephesus that Timothy was connected so that he is called its first bishop (1 Timothy 1:3). It is in Ephesus that we find Aquila, Priscilla and Apollos (Acts 18:19; Acts 18:24; Acts 18:26). Surely to no one was Paul ever more close than to the Ephesian elders, as his farewell address so beautifully shows (Acts 20:17-38). In later days John was the leading figure of Ephesus. Legend has it that he brought Mary the mother of Jesus to Ephesus and that she was buried there. When Ignatius of Antioch wrote to Ephesus, on his way to being martyred in Rome, he could write: "You were ever of one mind with the apostles in the power of Jesus Christ."
There can be few places which better prove the conquering power of the Christian faith.
We may note one more thing. We have spoken of Ephesus as the greatest harbour of Asia. Today there is little left of Ephesus but ruins and it is no less than six miles from the sea. The coast is now "a harbourless line of sandy beach, unapproachable by a ship." What was once the Gulf of Ephesus and the harbour is "a marsh dense with reeds." It was ever a fight to keep the harbour of Ephesus open because of the silt which the Cayster brings down. The fight was lost and Ephesus vanished from the scene.
Ephesus, Christ And His Church (Revelation 2:1-7 Continued)
John begins the letter to Ephesus with two descriptions of the Risen Christ.
(i) He holds the seven stars in his right hand. That is to say, Christ holds the Churches in his hand. The word for to hold is kratein (Greek #2902), and it is a strong word. It means that Christ has complete control over the Church. If the Church submits to that control, it will never go wrong; and more than that--our security lies in the fact that we are in the hand of Christ. "They shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:28).
There is another point here which emerges only in the Greek. Kratein (Greek #2902) normally takes a genitive case after it (the case which in English we express by the word of). Because, when we take hold of a thing, we seldom take hold of the whole of it but of part of it. When kratein (Greek #2902) takes an accusative after it, it means that the whole object is gripped within the hand. Here, kratein (Greek #2902) takes the accusative and that means that Christ clasps the whole of the seven stars in his hand. That means he holds the whole Church in his hand.
We do well to remember that. It is not only our Church which is in the hand of Christ; the whole Church is in his hand. When men put up barriers between Church and Church, they do what Christ never does.
(ii) He walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands. The lampstands are the Churches. This expression tells us of Christ's unwearied activity in the midst of his Churches. He is not confined to any one of them; wherever men are met to worship in his name, Christ is there.
John goes on to say certain things about the people of the Church of Ephesus.
(i) The Risen Christ praises their toil. The word is kopos (Greek #2884) and it is a favourite New Testament word. Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis all work hard int he Lord (Romans 16:12). The one thing that Paul claims is that he has worked harder than all (1 Corinthians 15:10). He fears lest the Galatians slip back, and his labour is in vain (Galatians 4:11). In each case--and there are many others--the word is either kopos (Greek #2884) or the verb kopian (Greek #2872). The special characteristic of these words is that they describe the kind of toil which takes everything of mind and sinew that a man can put into it. The Christian way is not for the man who fears to break sweat. The Christian is to be a toiler for Christ, and, even if physical toil is impossible, he can still toil in prayer.
(ii) The Risen Christ praises their steadfast endurance. Here is the word hupomone (Greek #5281) which we have come upon again and again. It is not the grim patience which resignedly accepts things. It is the courageous gallantry which accepts suffering and hardship and turns them into grace and glory. It is often said that suffering colours life; but when we meet life with the hupomone (Greek #5281) which Christ can give, the colour of life is never grey or black; it is always tinged with glory.
Ephesus, When Orthodoxy Costs Too Much (Revelation 2:1-7 Continued)
The Risen Christ goes on to praise the Christians of Ephesus because they have tested evil men and proved them liars.
Many an evil man came into the little congregations of the early church. Jesus had warned of the false prophets who are wolves in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15). In his farewell speech to the elders of this very Church at Ephesus, Paul had warned them that grievous wolves would invade the flock (Acts 20:29). These evil men were of many kinds. There were emissaries of the Jews who sought to entangle Christians again in the Law and followed Paul everywhere, trying to undo his work. There were those who tried to turn liberty into licence. There were professional beggars who preyed on the charity of the Christian congregations. The Church at Ephesus us was even more open to these itinerant menaces than any other Church. It was on the highway to Rome and to the east, and what R. C. Trench called "the whole rabble of evil-doers" was liable to descend upon it.
More than once the New Testament insists on the necessity of testing. John in his First Letter insists that the spirits who claim to come from God should be tested by their willingness to accept the Incarnation in all its fullness (1 John 4:1-3). Paul insists that the Thessalonians should test all things and then hold on to that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). He insists that, when the prophets preach, they are subject to the testing of the other prophets (1 Corinthians 14:29). A man cannot proclaim his private views in the assembly of God's people; he must abide in the tradition of the Church. Jesus demanded the hardest test of all: "By their fruits you will know them" (Matthew 7:15-20).
The Church at Ephesus had faithfully applied its tests and had weeded out all evil and misguided men; but the trouble was that something had got lost in the process. "I have this against you," says the Risen Christ, "that you have lost your first love." That phrase may have two meanings.
(a) It can mean that the first enthusiasm is gone. Jeremiah speaks of the devotion of Israel to God in the early days. God says to the nation that he remembers, "the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride" (Jeremiah 2:2). There had been a honeymoon period, but the first flush of enthusiasm is past. It may be that the Risen Christ is saying that all the enthusiasm has gone out of the religion of the Church of Ephesus.
(b) Much more likely this means that the first fine rapture of love for the brotherhood is gone. In the first days the members of the Church at Ephesus had really loved each other; dissension had never reared its head; the heart was ready to kindle and the hand was ready to help. But something had gone wrong. It may well be that heresy-hunting had killed love, and orthodoxy had been achieved at the price of fellowship. When that happens, orthodoxy has cost too much. All the orthodoxy in the world will never take the place of love.
Ephesus, The Steps On The Return Journey (Revelation 2:1-7 Continued)
In Ephesus something had gone wrong. The earnest toil was there; the gallant endurance was there; the unimpeachable orthodoxy was there; but the love was gone. So the Risen Christ makes his appeal and it is for the three steps of the return journey.
(i) First, he says "Remember". He is not here speaking to someone who has never been inside the Church; he is speaking to those who are inside but have somehow lost the way. Memory can often be the first step on the way back. In the far country the prodigal son suddenly remembered his home (Luke 15:17).
O. Henry has a short story. There was a lad who had been brought up in a village; and in the village school he had sat beside a village girl, innocent and sweet. The lad found his way to the city; fell into bad company; became an expert pickpocket. He was on the street one day; he had just picked a pocket--a neat job, well done--and he was pleased with himself. Suddenly he saw the girl he used to sit beside at school. She was still the same--innocent and sweet. She did not see him; he took care of that. But suddenly he remembered what he had been, and realized what he was. He leaned his burning head against the cool iron of a lamp post. "God," he said, "how I hate myself." Memory was offering him the way back.
William Cowper wrote:
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?
A verse like that may sound like nothing but tragedy and sorrow, but in fact it can be the first step of the way back; for the first step to amendment is to realize that something has gone wrong.
(ii) Second, he says "Repent". When we discover that something has gone wrong, there is more than one possible reaction. We may feel that nothing can sustain its first lustre, and so accept what we consider inevitable. We may be filled with a feeling of resentment and blame life instead of facing ourselves. We may decide that the old thrill is to be found along forbidden pathways and try to find spice for life in sin. But the Risen Christ says, "Repent!" Repentance is the admission that the fault is ours and the feeling of sorrow for it. The prodigal's reaction is: "I will arise and go to my father and say I have sinned." (Luke 15:18). It is Saul's cry of the heart when he realizes his folly: "I have played the fool and I have erred exceedingly" (1 Samuel 26:21). The hardest thing about repentance is the acceptance of personal responsibility for our failure, for once the responsibility is accepted the godly sorrow will surely follow.
(iii) Third, he says "Do". The sorrow of repentance is meant to drive a man to two things. First, it is meant to drive him to fling himself on the grace of God, saying only: "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Second, it is meant to drive him to action in order to bring forth fruits meet for repentance. No man has truly repented when he does the same things again. Fosdick said that the great truth of Christianity is that "no man need stay the way he is." The proof of repentance is a changed life, a life changed by our effort in co-operation with the grace of God.
Ephesus, A Ruinous Heresy (Revelation 2:1-7 Continued)
We meet here a heresy which the Risen Christ says that he hates and which he praises Ephesus for also hating. It may seem strange to attribute hatred to the Risen Christ; but two things are to be remembered. First, if we love anyone with passionate intensity, we will necessarily hate anything which threatens to ruin that person. Second, it is necessary to hate the sin but love the sinner.
The heretics we meet here are the Nicolaitans. They are only named, not defined. But we meet them again in Pergamum (Revelation 2:15). There they are very closely connected with those "who hold the teaching of Balaam," and that in turn is connected with eating things offered to idols and with immorality (Revelation 2:14). We meet precisely the same problem at Thyatira where the wicked Jezebel is said to cause Christians to practise immorality and to eat things offered to idols.
We may first note that this danger is coming not from outside the Church but from inside. The claim of these heretics was that they were not destroying Christianity but presenting an improved version.
We may, second, note that the Nicolaitans and those who hold the teaching of Balaam were, in fact, one and the same. There is a play on words here. The name Nicolaos (Greek #3532), the founder of the Nicolaitans, could be derived from two Greek words, nikan (Greek #3528), to conquer, and laos (Greek #2992), the people. Balaam (Hebrew #1109) can be derived from two Hebrew words, bela, to conquer, and ha'am (Hebrew #5971), the people. The two names, then, are the same and both can describe an evil teacher, who has won victory over the people and subjugated them to poisonous heresy.
In Numbers 25:1-5 we find a strange story in which the Israelites were seduced into illegal and sacrilegious unions with Moabite women and into the worship of Baal-peor, a seduction which, if it had not been sternly checked, might have ruined the religion of Israel and destroyed her as a nation. When we go on to Numbers 31:16 we find that seduction definitely attributed to the evil influence of Balaam. Balaam, then, in Hebrew history stood for an evil man who seduced the people into sin.
Let us now see what the early church historians have to tell us about these Nicolaitans. The majority identify them with the followers of Nicolaus, the proselyte of Antioch, who was one of the seven commonly called deacons (Acts 6:5). The idea is that Nicolaus went wrong and became a heretic. Irenaeus says of the Nicolaitans that "they lived lives of unrestrained indulgence" (Against Heresies, 1.26.3). Hippolytus says that he was one of the seven and that "he departed from correct doctrine, and was in the habit of inculcating indifference of food and life" (Refutation of Heresies, 7: 24). The Apostolic Constitutions (6: 8) describe the Nicolaitans as "shameless in uncleanness." Clement of Alexandria says they "abandon themselves to pleasure like goats...leading a life of self-indulgence." But he acquits Nicolaus of all blame and says that they perverted his saying "that the flesh must be abused." Nicolaus meant that the body must be kept under; the heretics perverted it into meaning that the flesh can be used as shamelessly as a man wishes (The Miscellanies 2: 20). The Nicolaitans obviously taught loose living.
Let us see if we can identify their point of view and their teaching a little more definitely. The letter to Pergamum tells us that they seduced people into eating meat offered to idols and into immorality. When we turn to the decree of the Council of Jerusalem, we find that two of the conditions on which the Gentiles were to be admitted to the Church were that they were to abstain from things offered to idols and from immorality (Acts 15:28-29). These are the very conditions that the Nicolaitans broke.
They were almost certainly people who argued on these lines. (a) The Law is ended; therefore, there are no laws and we are entitled to do what we like. They confused Christian liberty with unchristian licence. They were the very kind of people whom Paul urged not to use their liberty as an opportunity for the flesh (Galatians 5:13). (b) They probably argued that the body is evil anyway and that a man could do what he liked with it because it did not matter. (c) They probably argued that the Christian was so defended by grace that he could do anything and take no harm.
What lay behind this Nicolaitan perversion of the truth? The trouble was the necessary difference between the Christian and the pagan society in which he moved. The heathen had no hesitation in eating meat offered to idols and it was set before him at every social occasion. Could a Christian attend such a feast? The heathen had no idea of chastity and sexual relations outside marriage were accepted as completely normal and brought no shame. Must a Christian be so very different? The Nicolaitans were suggesting that there was no reason why a Christian should not come to terms with the world. Sir William Ramsay describes their teaching thus: "It was an attempt to effect a reasonable compromise with the established usages of the Graeco-Roman society and to retain as many as possible of those usages in the Christian system of life." This teaching naturally affected most the upper classes because they had most to lose if they went all the way with the Christian demand. To John the Nicolaitans were worse than pagans, for they were the enemy within the gates.
The Nicolaitans were not prepared to be different; they were the most dangerous of all heretics from a practical point of view, for, if their teaching had been successful, the world would have changed Christianity and not Christianity the world.
Ephesus, The Great Reward (Revelation 2:1-7 Continued)
Finally, the Risen Christ makes his great promise to those who overcome. In this picture there are two very beautiful conceptions.
(i) There is the conception of the tree of life. This is part of the story of the Garden of Eden; in the midst of the garden there was the tree of life (Genesis 2:9); it was the tree of which Adam was forbidden to eat (Genesis 2:16-17); the tree whose fruit would make a man like God, and for eating which Adam and Eve were driven from Eden (Genesis 3:22-24).
In later Jewish thought the tree came to stand for that which gave man life indeed. Wisdom is a tree of life to them that lay hold of her (Proverbs 3:18); the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life (Proverbs 11:30); hope fulfilled is a tree of life (Proverbs 13:12); a tongue is a tree of life (Proverbs 15:4).
To this is to be added another picture. Adam was first forbidden to eat of the tree of life and then he was barred from the garden so that the tree of life was lost for ever. But it was a regular Jewish conception that, when the Messiah came and the new age dawned, the tree of life would be in the midst of men and those who had been faithful would eat of it. The wise man said: "They that do the things that please thee shall receive the fruit of the tree of immortality" (Ecc 19:19). The rabbis had a picture of the tree of life in paradise. Its boughs overshadowed the whole of paradise; it had five hundred thousand fragrant perfumes and its fruit as many pleasant tastes, every one of them different. The idea was that what Adam had lost the Messiah would restore. To eat of the tree of life means to have all the joys that the faithful conquerors will have when Christ reigns supreme.
(ii) There is the conception of paradise, and the very sound of the word is lovely. It may be that we do not attach any very definite meaning to it but when we study history, we come upon some of the most adventurous thinking the world has ever known.
(a) Originally paradise was a Persian word. Xenophon wrote much about the Persians, and it was he who introduced the word into the Greek language. Originally it meant a pleasure garden. When Xenophon is describing the state in which the Persian king lived, he says that he takes care that, wherever he resides, there are paradises, full of all the good and beautiful things the soil can produce (Xenophon: Oeconomicus, 4: 13). Paradise is a lovely word to describe a thing of serene beauty.
(b) In the Septuagint paradise has two uses. First, it is regularly used for the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8; Genesis 3:1). Second, it is regularly used of any stately garden. When Isaiah speaks of a garden that has no water, it is the word paradise that is used (Isaiah 1:30). It is the word used when Jeremiah says: "Plant gardens and eat their produce" (Jeremiah 29:5). It is the word used when the preacher says: "I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees" (Ecclesiastes 2:5).
(iii) In early Christian thought the word has a special meaning. In Jewish thought after death the souls of all alike went to Hades, a grey and shadowy place. Early Christian thought conceived of an intermediate state between earth and heaven to which all men went and in which they remained until the final judgment. This place was conceived of by Tertullian as a vast cavern beneath the earth. But there was a special part in which the patriarchs and the prophets lived, and that was paradise. Philo describes it as a place "vexed by neither rain, nor snow, nor waves, but which the gentle Zephyr refreshes, breathing ever on it from the ocean." As Tertullian saw it, only one kind of person went straight to this paradise, and that was the martyr. "The sole key," he said, "to unlock paradise is your own life's blood" (Tertullian: Concerning the Soul, 55).
Origen was one of the most adventurous thinkers the Church ever produced. He writes like this: "I think that all the saints (saints means Christians) who depart from this life will remain in some place situated on the earth, which holy Scripture calls paradise, as in some place of instruction and, so to speak, class-room or school of souls.... If anyone indeed be pure in heart and holy in mind, and more practised in perception, he will by making more rapid progress, quickly ascend to a place in the air, and reach the kingdom of heaven, through these mansions (stages) which the Greeks called spheres and which holy Scripture calls heavens.... He will in the end follow him who has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, who said: 'I will that where I am, these may be also.' It is of this diversity of places he speaks, when he said: 'In my Father's house are many mansions'" (Origen: De Principilis, 2: 6).
The great early thinkers did not identify paradise and heaven; paradise was the intermediate stage, where the souls of the righteous were fitted to enter the presence of God. There is something very lovely here. Who has not felt that the leap from earth to heaven is too great for one step and that there is need of a gradual entering into the presence of God? May it have been of this that Charles Wesley was thinking when he sang:
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
(iv) In the end in Christian thought paradise did not retain this idea of an intermediate state. It came to be equivalent to heaven. Our minds must turn to the words of Jesus to the dying and penitent thief: "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). We are in the presence of mysteries about which it would be irreverent to dogmatize; but is there any better definition of paradise than to say that it is life for ever in the presence of our Lord?
When death these mortal eyes shall seal,
And still this throbbing heart,
The rending veil shall thee reveal
All glorious as thou art--
and that is paradise.
THE LETTER TO SMYRNA (Revelation 2:8-11)
2:8-11 And to the angel of the Church in Smyrna, write:
These things says the first and the last, who passed through death, and who came to life again.
I know the affliction and the poverty you endure--you are rich in spite of it--and I know the slanders which proceed from those who call themselves Jews and are not, but who are a synagogue of Satan. Have no fear of what you will have to go through Behold! the devil is going to throw some of you into prison in order to test you, and you will have a time of affliction which will last for ten days. Show yourselves loyal to death and I will give you the crown of life.
Let him who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.
Smyrna, The Crown Of Asia (Revelation 2:8-11 Continued)
If it was inevitable that Ephesus should come first in the list of the seven Churches, it was but natural that Smyrna its great rival should come second. Of all the cities of Asia, Smyrna was the loveliest. Men called it the ornament of Asia, the crown of Asia and the flower of Asia. Lucian said that it was "the fairest of the cities of Ionia." Aristides, who sang the praise of Smyrna with such splendour, spoke of "the grace which extends over every part like a rainbow...the brightness which pervades every part, and reaches up to the heavens, like the glitter of the bronze of armour in Homer." It added to the charm of Smyrna that the west wind, the gentle zephyr ever blew through its streets. "The wind," said Aristides, "blows through every part of the city, and makes it as fresh as a grove of trees." The constant west wind had only one disadvantage. The sewage of the city drained into the gulf on which the city stood, and the west wind tended to blow it back upon the city rather than out to sea.
Smyrna was magnificently situated. It stood at the end of the road which crossed Lydia and Phrygia and travelled out to the far east, and it commanded the trade of the rich Hermus valley. Inevitably it was a great trading city. The city itself stood at the end of a long arm of the sea, which ended in a small land-locked harbour in the city's heart. It was the safest of all harbours and the most convenient; and it had the added advantage that in time of war it could be easily closed by a chain across its mouth. It was fitting that on the coins of Smyrna there should be an inscription of a merchant ship ready for sea.
The setting of the city was equally beautiful. It began at the harbour; it traversed the narrow foothills; and then behind the city there rose the Pagos, a hill covered with temples and noble buildings which were spoken of as "The Crown of Smyrna." A modern traveller describes it as "a queenly city crowned with towers." Aristides likened Smyrna to a great statue with the feet in the sea; the middle parts in the plain and the foothills; and the head, crowned with great buildings, on the Pagos behind. He called it "a flower of beauty such as earth and sun had never showed to mankind."
Its history had not a little to do with the beauty of Smyrna, for it was one of the very few planned cities in the world. It had been founded as a Greek colony as far back as 1000 B.C. Round about 600 B.C. disaster had befallen it, for then the Lydians had broken in from the east and destroyed it. For four hundred years Smyrna had been no city, but a collection of little villages; then Lysimachus had rebuilt it as a planned whole. It was built with great, straight, broad streets. Strabo speaks of the handsomeness of the streets, the excellence of the paving and the great rectangular blocks in which it was built. Most famous of all the streets was the Street of Gold, which began with the Temple of Zeus and ended with the Temple of Cybele. It ran cross-wise across the foothills of the Pagos; and, if the buildings which encircled the Pagos were the crown of Smyrna, the Street of Gold was the necklace round the hill.
Here we have an interesting and a significant thing which shows the care and knowledge with which John set down his letters from the Risen Christ. The Risen Christ is called, "He who died and came to life." That was an echo of the experience of Smyrna itself.
Smyrna had other claims to greatness besides its city. It was a free city and it knew what loyalty was. Long before Rome was undisputed mistress of the world, Smyrna had cast in its lot with her, never to waver in its fidelity. Cicero called Smyrna "one of our most faithful and our most ancient allies." In the campaign against Mithradates in the far east things had gone badly with Rome. And when the soldiers of Rome were suffering from hunger and cold, the people of Smyrna stripped off their own clothes to send to them.
Such was the reverence of Smyrna for Rome that as far back as 195 B.C. it was the first city in the world to erect a temple to the goddess Roma. And in A.D. 26, when the cities of Asia Minor were competing for the privilege of erecting a temple to the godhead of Tiberius, Smyrna was picked out for that honour, overcoming even Ephesus.
Not only was Smyrna great in trade, in beauty, in political and in religious eminence; it was also a city where culture flourished. Apollonius of Tyana had urged upon Smyrna the truth that only men can make a city great. He said: "Though Smyrna is the most beautiful of all cities under the sun, and makes the sea its own, and holds the fountains of the zephyr, yet it is a greater charm to wear a crown of men than a crown of porticoes and pictures and gold beyond the standard of mankind: for buildings are seen only in their own place, but men are seen everywhere and spoken about everywhere and make their city as vast as the range of countries which they can visit." So Smyrna had a stadium in which famous games were yearly held; a magnificent public library; an Odeion which was the home of music; a theatre which was one of the largest in Asia Minor. In particular, Smyrna was one of the cities which laid claim to being the birthplace of Homer; it had a memorial building called the Homereion and put Homer's head on its coinage. This was a disputed claim. Thomas Heywood, the seventeenth century poet, wrote the famous epigram:
Seven cities warr'd for Homer, being dead,
Who, living, had no roof to shroud his head.
In such a city we would expect magnificent architecture, and in Smyrna there was a host of temples, to Cybele, to Zeus, to Apollo, to the Nemeseis, to Aphrodite, and to Asclepios.
Smyrna had rather more than its share of a characteristic which was common to all Greek cities. Mommsen said that Asia Minor was "a paradise of municipal vanity", and Smyrna of all cities was noted for "its municipal rivalry and its local pride." Everyone in it wished to exalt Smyrna and wished himself to climb to the top of the municipal tree. It is not without point that in the address of the letter the Risen Christ is called "the first and the last." In comparison with his glory all earthly distinctions are worthless.
There remains one feature of Smyrna which stands out in the letter and which had serious consequences for the Christians there. The Jews were specially numerous and influential (Revelation 2:9). We find them, for instance, contributing 10,000 denarii for the beautification of the city. It is clear that in Smyrna they were specially hostile to the Christian Church, no doubt because it was from them and from those interested in Judaism that Christianity drew many of its converts. So, then, we may well end this study of Smyrna with the story of the most famous Christian martyrdom which happened there.
Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was martyred on Saturday, 23rd February, A.D. 155. It was the time of the public-games; the city was crowded; and the crowds were excited. Suddenly the shout went up: "Away with the atheists; let Polycarp be searched for." No doubt Polycarp could have escaped; but already he had had a dream vision in which he saw the pillow under his head burning with fire and he had awakened to tell his disciples: "I must be burnt alive."
His whereabouts was betrayed by a slave who collapsed under torture. They came to arrest him. He ordered that they should be given a meal and provided with all they wished, while he asked for himself the privilege of one last hour in prayer. Not even the police captain wished to see Polycarp die. On the brief journey to the city, he pled with the old man: "What harm is it to say, 'Caesar is Lord' and to offer sacrifice and be saved?" But Polycarp was adamant that for him only Jesus Christ was Lord.
When he entered the arena there came a voice from heaven saying: "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." The proconsul gave him the choice of cursing the name of Christ and making sacrifice to Caesar or death. "Eighty and six years have I served him," said Polycarp, "and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" The proconsul threatened him with burning, and Polycarp replied: "You threaten me with the fire that burns for a time, and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. Why are you waiting? Come, do what you will."
So the crowds came flocking with faggots from the workshops and from the baths, and the Jews, even although they were breaking the Sabbath law by carrying such burdens, were foremost in bringing wood for the fire. They were going to bind him to the stake. "Leave me as I am," he said, "for he who gives me power to endure the fire, will grant me to remain in the flames unmoved even without the security you will give by the nails." So they left him loosely bound in the flames, and Polycarp prayed his great prayer:
O Lord God Almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed Child,
Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of thee,
God of angels and powers, and of all creation, and of the whole
family of the righteous, who live before thee, I bless thee that
thou hast granted unto me this day and hour, that I may share,
among the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, for the
resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body in the
immortality of the Holy Spirit. And may I today be received among
them before thee, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as thou, the
God without falsehood and of truth, hast prepared beforehand and
shown forth and fulfilled. For this reason I also praise thee for
all things. I bless thee, I glorify thee through the eternal and
heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Child, through
whom be glory to thee with him and the Holy Spirit, both now and
for the ages that are to come. Amen.
So much is plain fact, but then the story drifts into legend, for it goes on to tell that the flames made a kind of tent around Polycarp and left him untouched. At length the executioner stabbed him to death to achieve what the flames could not do. "And when he did this there came out a dove, and much blood, so that the fire was quenched, and all the crowd marvelled that there was such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect."
What is sure is that Polycarp died, a martyr for the faith.
It can have been no easy engagement to be a Christian at Smyrna, and yet the letter to Smyrna is one of the two in which there is undiluted praise.
Smyrna, Under Trial (Revelation 2:8-11 Continued)
The Church of Smyrna was in trouble and further trial was imminent.
There are three things that the letter says about this trial.
(i) It is thlipsis (Greek #2347), affliction. Thlipsis originally meant crushing beneath a weight. The pressure of events is on the Church at Smyrna.
(ii) It is ptocheia (Greek #4432), poverty. In the New Testament poverty and Christianity are closely connected. "Blessed are you poor," said Jesus (Luke 6:20). Paul described the Christians at Corinth as being poor yet making many rich (2 Corinthians 6:10). James speaks of God choosing the poor in this world to be rich in faith (James 2:5).
In Greek there are two words for poverty. Penia (compare Greek #3993) describes the state of the man who is not wealthy and who, as the Greeks defined it, must satisfy his needs with his own hands. Ptocheia (Greek #4432) describes complete destitution. It has been put this way--penia describes the state of the man who has nothing superfluous; ptocheia (Greek #4432) describes the state of the man who has nothing at all.
The poverty of the Christians was due to two things. It was due to the fact that most of them belonged to the lower classes of society. The gulf between the top and the bottom of the social scale was very wide. We know, for instance, that in Rome the poorer classes literally starved because contrary winds delayed the corn ships from Alexandria and the corn dole could not be distributed.
There was another reason for the poverty of the Christians. Sometimes they suffered from the spoiling of their goods (Hebrews 10:4). There were times when the heathen mob would suddenly attack the Christians and wreck their homes Life was not easy for a Christian in Smyrna or anywhere else in the ancient world.
(iii) There is imprisonment. John forecasts an imprisonment of ten days. That is not to be taken literally. Ten days was an expression for a short time which was soon to come to an end. So this prophecy is at once a warning and a promise. Imprisonment is coming, but the time of trouble, although sharp, will be short. Two things are to be noted.
First, this is exactly the way in which persecution came. To be a Christian was against the law, but persecution was not continuous. The Christians might be left in peace for a long time, but at any moment a governor might acquire a fit of administrative energy or the mob might set up a shout to find the Christians--and then the storm burst. The terror of being a Christian was the uncertainty.
Second, imprisonment does not sound so bad to us. We might say: "Imprisonment? Well, that is not so bad as death anyway." But in the ancient world imprisonment was merely the prelude to death. A man was only a prisoner until he was led out to die.
Smyrna, The Cause Of The Trouble (Revelation 2:8-11 Continued)
The instigators of persecution were the Jews. Again and again in Acts we see how the Jews stirred up the authorities against the Christian preachers. It happened at Antioch (Acts 13:50); at Iconium (Acts 14:2; Acts 14:5); at Lystra (Acts 14:19); at Thessalonica (Acts 17:5).
The story of what happened at Antioch shows us how the Jews often succeeded in moving the authorities to take action against the Christians (Acts 13:50). Round the Jewish synagogues gathered many "god-fearers." These were Gentiles who were not prepared to go the whole way and to become proselytes but they were attracted by the preaching of one God instead of many gods, and were attracted specially by the purity of the Jewish ethic as compared with the heathen life. In particular women were attracted to Judaism for these reasons. Often these women were of high station, the wives of magistrates and governors, and it was through them that the Jews got at the authorities and moved them to persecute.
John calls the Jews the synagogue of Satan. He is taking a favourite expression of the Jews and reversing it. When the people of Israel met together they loved to call themselves "the assembly of the Lord" (Numbers 16:3; Numbers 20:4; Numbers 31:16). Synagogue is in Greek sunagoge (Greek #4864), which literally means a coming together, an assembly, a congregation. It is as if John said: "You call yourselves the assembly of God when, in fact, you are the assembly of the devil." Once John Wesley said of certain men who were presenting a crude Picture of God: "Your God is my devil." It is a terrible thing when religion becomes the means of evil things. It has happened. In the days of the French Revolution, Madame Roland uttered her famous cry: "Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!" There have been tragic times when the same could be said about religion.
Six slanders were regularly levelled against the Christians.
(i) On the basis of the words of the Sacrament--this is my body, and this is my blood--the story went about that the Christians were cannibals.
(ii) Because the Christians called their common meal the Agape (Greek #26), the Love Feast, it was said that their gatherings were orgies of lust.
(iii) Because Christianity did, in fact, often split families, when some members became Christians and some did not, the Christians were accused of "tampering with family relationships."
(iv) The heathen accused the Christians of atheism because they could not understand a worship which had no images of the gods such as they themselves had.
(v) The Christians were accused of being politically disloyal because they would not say: "Caesar is Lord."
(vi) The Christians were accused of being incendiaries because they foretold the end of the world in flames.
It was not difficult for maliciously-minded people to disseminate dangerous slanders about the Christian Church.
Smyrna, Christ's Claim And Christ's Demand (Revelation 2:8-11 Continued)
We have seen that the Church at Smyrna was battling with difficulties and threatened with worse to come. In view of that the letter to Smyrna opens with two resounding titles of Christ which tell what he can offer to a man confronted with such a situation as faced the Christians at Smyrna.
(i) Christ is the first and the last. In the old Testament that is a title belonging to God. "I am the first," Isaiah heard God say, "and I am the last" (Isaiah 44:6; Isaiah 48:12). This title has two aspects. To the Christian it is a tremendous promise. Come what will, from the first day of life to the last the Risen Christ is with us. Of whom then shall we be afraid?
But to the pagans of Smyrna it was a warning. They loved their city calling it the first in Asia, and they themselves were all striving every man to be one better than his neighbours. The Risen Christ said: "I am the first and the last." Here is the death of human pride. Beside the glory of Christ all human titles are of no importance and all human claims become ridiculous. When Julian, the Roman Emperor, had failed in his attempt to banish Christianity and bring back the old gods, and when he had come to death in the attempt, he said: "To shoulder Christ from out the topmost niche was not for me."
(ii) Christ is he who was dead and is alive again. The tenses of the verb are of the first importance. The Greek for "was" is genomenos (compare Greek #1510), which means became. It describes what we might call a passing phase. Christ became dead; it was episode through which he passed. In the Greek the verb which the King James Version translates "is alive" is not a present tense but an aorist, which describes one action completed in the past. The right translation is "came to life again" (as in the Revised Standard Version), and the reference is to the event of the Resurrection. The Risen Christ is he who experienced death came to life again in the triumphant event of the Resurrection, and is alive for evermore. Here again there are two aspects.
(a) The Risen Christ is one who has experienced the worst that life could do to him. He had died in the agony of the Cross. No matter what happened to the Christians of Smyrna, Jesus Christ had been through it. Jesus Christ can help because he knows what life is like at its worst and has experienced even the bitterness of death.
(b) The Risen Christ has conquered the worst that life can do. He triumphed over pain and over death; and he offers us through himself the way to victorious living.
In this passage there is also a demand, and the demand is for loyalty, loyal even when death is the price to be paid. Loyalty was a quality of which the people of Smyrna knew something, for their city had flung in its lot with Rome, when Rome's greatness was only a far off possibility, and had never wavered from in its allegiance, in fair weather and in foul. If all the other noble qualities of life were placed in the balance against it, loyalty would outweigh them all. It was R. L. Stevenson's prayer that "in all the chances of fortune, and down to the gates of death" we should be "loyal and loving to one another."
Smyrna, The Promised Reward (Revelation 2:8-11 Continued)
Jesus Christ will be in no man's debt and loyalty to him brings its own reward. In this passage two rewards are mentioned.
(i) There is the crown of life. Again and again the crown of the Christian is mentioned in the New Testament. Here and in, James 1:12 it is the crown of life. Paul speaks of the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8), and of the crown of boasting (1 Thessalonians 2:19). Peter speaks of the crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4). Paul contrasts the immortal crown of the Christian with the fading crown of laurel which was the prize of the victor in the games (1 Corinthians 9:25), and Peter speaks of the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4).
Of in each of these phrases means "which consists of". To win the crown of righteousness or glory or life is to be crowned with righteousness or glory or with life. But we must understand the idea behind this word crown (stephanos, Greek #4735). In Greek there are two words for crown, diadema (G), which means the royal crown, and stephanos (Greek #4735), which has usually something to do with joy and victory. It is not the royal crown which is being offered to the Christian; it is the crown of joy and victory. Stephanos (Greek #4735) has many associations, and all of them contribute something to the riches of thought behind it.
(a) First to the mind comes the victor's crown in the games. Smyrna had games which were famous all over Asia. As in the Olympic Games, the reward of the victorious athlete was the laurel crown. The Christian can win the crown of victory in the contest of life.
(b) When a man had faithfully performed the work of a magistrate, at the end of his term of office he was granted a crown. He who throughout life faithfully serves Christ and his fellow-men will receive his crown.
(c) The heathen world was in the habit of wearing crowns, chaplets of flowers, at banquets. At the end of the day, if the Christian is loyal, he will have the joy of sitting as a guest at the banquet of God.
(d) The heathen worshippers were in the habit of wearing crowns when they approached the temples of their gods. At the end of the day, if he has been faithful, the Christian will have the joy of entering into the nearer presence of God.
(e) Some scholars have seen in this crown a reference to the halo or the nimbus which is round the head of divine beings in pictures. If that is so, it means that the Christian, if he is faithful, will be crowned with the life which belongs to God himself. As John said: "We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).
In this life it may be that the Christian's loyalty will bring him a crown of thorns, but in the life to come it will surely bring him the crown of glory.
(ii) Cyprian uses two great phrases to describe those who are faithful unto death. He describes them as "illustrious with the heraldry of a good name," and he calls them "the white-robed cohort of the soldiers of Christ." To the faithful another promise is made: they will not be hurt by the second death. The second death is a mysterious phrase which occurs nowhere in the New Testament outside the Revelation (Revelation 20:6; Revelation 20:14; Revelation 21:8). The Rabbis talked of "the second death whereof the wicked die in the next world." The phrase may have two origins.
(a) The Sadducees believed that after death there was absolutely nothing; the Epicureans held the same doctrine. This belief finds its place even in the Old Testament for that pessimistic book Ecclesiastes is the work of a Sadducee. "A living dog is better than a dead lion; for the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing" (Ecclesiastes 9:4-5). For the Sadducees and the Epicureans death was extinction. To the orthodox Jew this was too easy, for it meant that for the wise and for the fool the end was the same (Ecclesiastes 2:15, Ecc 16 ; Ecc 19:2). They, therefore, came to believe that there were, so to speak, two deaths--physical death which every man must undergo and after that a death which was the judgment of God.
(b) This is very closely connected with the ideas which we touched on when studying the word paradise (Revelation 2:7). We saw that many of the Jews and the early Christian thinkers believed that there was an intermediate state into which all men passed until the time of judgment. If that were so, then indeed there would be two deaths, the physical death which no man can escape and the spiritual death into which the wicked would enter after the final judgment.
Of such things it is not given to any man to speak with confidence but, when John spoke of the faithful being unharmed by the second death, he meant precisely the same as Paul when he said that nothing in life or in death, in time or in eternity can separate those who love him from Jesus Christ. Such a man is safe from all that life or death can do to him (Romans 8:38-39).
THE LETTER TO PERGAMUM (Revelation 2:12-17)
2:12-17 And to the angel of the Church in Pergamum, write:
These things says he who has the sharp two-edged sword. I know where your home is. I know that it is where the throne of Satan is; and yet you hold fast to my name, and have not denied your loyalty to me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan has his home. But I have a few things against you. You have among you some people who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat meat offered to idols and to commit fornication. So you, too, have those who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. So, then, repent. If you do not, I am coming to you quickly, and I will go to war with them with the sword of my mouth.
Let him who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches. To him who overcomes I will give a share of the hidden manna; and I will give him a white stone, and written on the stone a new name, which no one but him who receives it knows.
Pergamum, The Seat Of Satan (Revelation 2:12-17 Continued)
There is a difference in the name of this city in the different translations of the New Testament. The King James Version calls it Pergamos, while the English Revised Version, the Revised Standard Version and Moffatt call it Pergamum. Pergamos (Greek #4010) is the feminine form of the name and Pergamum the neuter. In the ancient world it was known by both forms but Pergamum was much the commoner and the newer translations are right to prefer it.
Pergamum had a place all its own in Asia. It was not on any of the great roads, as Ephesus and Smyrna were, but historically it was the greatest city in Asia. Strabo called it an illustrious (epiphanes, Greek #2016) city and Pliny called it "by far the most famous city in Asia" (longe clarissimum Asiae). The reason was that, by the time John was writing, Pergamum had been a capital city for almost four hundred years. Back in 282 B.C. it was made the capital of the Seleucid kingdom, one of the sections into which the empire of Alexander the Great was broken up. It remained the capital until 133 B.C. In that year Attalus the Third died and before he died he willed his dominions into the possession of Rome. Out of the dominions of Attalus, Rome formed the province of Asia and Pergamum still remained its capital.
Its geographical position made Pergamum even more impressive. It was built on a tall conical hill, which dominated the valley of the River Caicus, from the top of which the Mediterranean could be seen, fifteen miles away. Sir William Ramsay describes it: "Beyond all other cities in Asia Minor, it gives the traveller the impression of a royal city, the home of authority; the rocky hill on which it stands is so huge, and dominates the broad plain of the Caicus so proudly and so boldly." History and honour gathered around Pergamum. Let us then set down its outstanding characteristics.
(i) Pergamum could never achieve the commercial greatness of Ephesus or of Smyrna but it was a centre of culture which surpassed both. It was famous for its library, which contained no fewer than 200,000 parchment rolls. It was second only to the unique library of Alexandria.
It is interesting to note that the word parchment is derived from Pergamum (Greek #4010). In the ancient world parchment was he pergamene charta, the Pergamene sheet; and to this name attaches a story. For many centuries ancient rolls were written on papyrus, a substance made of the pith of a very large bulrush which grows beside the Nile. The pith was extracted, cut into strips, pressed into sheets and smoothed. There emerged a substance not unlike brown paper, and this was universally used for writing. In the third century B.C. a Pergamene king called Eumenes was very anxious to make the library of the city supreme. In order to do so he persuaded Aristophanes of Byzantium, the librarian at Alexandria, to agree to leave Alexandria and come to Pergamum. Ptolemy of Egypt, enraged at this seduction of his outstanding scholar, promptly imprisoned Aristophanes and by way of retaliation put an embargo on the export of papyrus to Pergamum. Faced with this situation, the scholars of Pergamum invented parchment or vellum, which is made of the skins of beasts, smoothed and polished. In fact parchment is a much superior vehicle for writing and, although it did not do so for many centuries, it in the end ousted papyrus altogether as writing material.
(ii) Pergamum was one of the great religious centres. In particular it had two famous shrines. In the letter of the Risen Christ Pergamum is said to be the place where "Satan's seat" is. Obviously this must refer to something which the Christian Church regarded as particularly evil. Some have found the reference explained in Pergamum's religious splendour.
(a) Pergamum regarded itself as the custodian of the Greek way of life and of the Greek worship. About 240 B.C. it had won a great victory against the savage invading Galatae or Gauls. In memory of that victory a great altar to Zeus was built in front of the Temple of Athene which stood eight hundred feet up on Pergamum's conical hill. Forty feet high, it stood on a projecting ledge of rock and looked exactly like a great throne on the hillside. All day it smoked with the smoke of sacrifices offered to Zeus. Around its base was carved one of the greatest achievements in the world of sculpture, the frieze which showed the Battle of the Giants, in which the gods of Greece were victorious over the giants of the barbarians. It has been suggested that this great altar was Satan's seat. But it is unlikely that a Christian writer would call that altar Satan's seat, for even by this time the old Greek gods were anachronisms and it would have been a waste of the powder and shot of Christian invective to attack them.
(b) Pergamum was particularly connected with the worship of Asclepios, so much so that Asclepios was known as "the Pergamene god." When Galen was mentioning favourite oaths, he said that people commonly swore by Artemis of Ephesus, or Apollo of Delphi, or Asclepios of Pergamum. Asclepios was the god of healing and his temples were the nearest approach to hospitals in the ancient world. From all over the world people flocked to Pergamum for relief for their sicknesses. R. H. Charles has called Pergamum "the Lourdes of the ancient world." The task of healing was partly the work of the priests; partly the work of doctors--Galen, second only to Hippocrates in the medical history of the ancient world, was born in Pergamum; and partly the work of Asclepios himself. Was there anything in that worship to move the Christians to call the Temple of Asclepios Satan's seat? There may have been two things.
First, the commonest and most famous title for Asclepios was Asclepios Soter (Greek #4990), Asclepios the Saviour. It might well be that the Christians felt a shudder of horror that the name Saviour should be given to anyone other than Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.
Second, the emblem of Asclepios was the serpent, which still appears on the cap badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Many of the coins of Pergamum have Asclepios' serpent as part of their design. It might well be that Jew or Christian might regard a religion which took the serpent as its emblem as a Satanic cult. Again this explanation seems unlikely. As has been pointed out, the Christians would regard the place where men went to be healed--and often were--with pity rather than with indignation. The worship of Asclepios surely would not give adequate ground for calling Pergamum Satan's seat.
It seems then that we must look elsewhere for the explanation of this phrase.
(iii) Pergamum was the administrative centre of Asia. That meant that it was the centre of Caesar worship for the province. We have already described Caesar worship and the dire dilemma in which it placed the Christian.
It was organized with a provincial centre and an administration like that of a presbytery or diocese. The point here is that Pergamum was the centre of that worship for the province of Asia. Undoubtedly that is why Pergamum was Satan's seat; it was the place where men were required on pain of death to take the name of Lord and give it to Caesar instead of to Christ; and to a Christian there could be nothing more Satanic than that.
And here is the explanation of the beginning of the letter to Pergamum. The Risen Christ is called he who has the sharp two-edged sword. Roman governors were divided into two classes--those who had the ius gladii, the right of the sword, and those who had not. Those who had the right of the sword had the power of life and death; on their word a man could be executed on the spot. Humanly speaking the proconsul, who had his headquarters at Pergamum, had the ius gladii, the right of the sword, and at any moment he might use it against any Christian; but the letter bids the Christian not to forget that the last word is still with the Risen Christ, who has the sharp two-edged sword. The power of Rome might be satanically powerful; the power of the Risen Lord is greater yet.
Pergamum, An Engagement Very Difficult (Revelation 2:12-17 Continued)
To be a Christian in Pergamum was to face what Cromwell would have called "an engagement very difficult."
We have already seen what a concentration of pagan religion had its centre in Pergamum. There was the worship of Athene and Zeus, with its magnificent altar dominating the city; there was the worship of Asclepios, bringing sick people from far and near; and above all there were the demands of Caesar worship, hanging for ever like a poised sword above the heads of the Christians.
So the Risen Christ says to the Christians of Pergamum: "I know where you stay." The word for to stay is here katoikein (Greek #2730); and it means to have one's permanent residence in a place. It is a very unusual word to use of Christians in the world. Usually the word used of them is paroikein (Greek #3939), which means to be a sojourner. Peter writes his letter to the sojourners throughout the provinces of Asia Minor. But here the matter is being regarded from another point of view. The Christians of Pergamum have their permanent residence, so far as this world is concerned, in Pergamum; and Pergamum is the place where Satan's rule is strongest.
Here is something very important. The principle of the Christian life is not escape, but conquest. We may feel it would be very much easier to be a Christian in some other place and in some other circumstances but the duty of the Christian is to witness for Christ where life has set him. We once heard of a girl who was converted in an evangelistic campaign. A reporter on a secular newspaper, her first step after her conversion was to get a new job on a small Christian newspaper where she was constantly in the society of professing Christians. It was strange that the first thing that her conversion did was to make her run away. The more difficult it is to be a Christian in any set of circumstances. the greater the obligation to remain within these circumstances. If in the early days Christians had run away every time they were confronted with a difficult engagement, there would have been no chance of a world for Christ.
The Christians at Pergamum proved that it was perfectly possible to be a Christian under such circumstances. Even when martyrdom was in the air they did not flinch. Of Antipas we know nothing; there is a late legend in Tertullian that he met his death by being slowly roasted to death within a brazen bull. But there is a point in the Greek impossible to reproduce in English which is intensely suggestive. The Risen Christ calls Antipas my faithful martus (Greek #3144). We have translated that "martyr"; but martus (Greek #3144) is the normal Greek word for witness. In the early church to be a martyr and to be a witness were one and the same thing. Witness meant so often martyrdom. Here is a rebuke to us. So many are prepared to demonstrate their Christianity in Christian circles but are equally prepared to play it down in circles where Christianity is met with opposition.
We must note another thing. The Risen Christ calls Antipas my faithful martus (Greek #3144) and so gives him nothing less than his own title. In Revelation 1:5 and Revelation 3:14 Christ himself is called the faithful martus (Greek #3144); to those who are true to him he gives nothing less than his own name.
Pergamum, The Doom Of Error (Revelation 2:12-17 Continued)
In spite of the fidelity of the Church at Pergamum there is error. There are those who hold the teaching of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. We have already discussed these people in connection with Ephesus and we meet them again when we come to study the letter of Thyatira. They sought to persuade Christians that there was nothing wrong with a prudent conformity to the world's standards.
The man who is not prepared to be different need not start on the Christian way at all. The commonest word for the Christian in the New Testament is hagios (Greek #40) whose basic meaning is different or separate. The Temple is hagios (Greek #39) because it is different from other buildings; the Sabbath day is hagios (Greek #40) because it is different from other days; God is supremely hagios (Greek #40) because he is totally different from men; and the Christian is hagios (Greek #40) because he is different from other men.
We must be clear what this difference means, for there is a paradox in it. It is Paul's summons to the Corinthians that they should be different from the world. "Come out from among them" (2 Corinthians 6:17). This difference from the world does not involve separation from it nor hatred for it. Paul says in writing to the very same Church: "I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22). It was Paul's claim that he could get alongside all men; but--and here is the point--his getting alongside them was that he might save some. It was not a question of bringing Christianity down to their level; it was a question of bringing them up. The fault of the Nicolaitans was that they were following a policy of compromise solely to save themselves from trouble.
It is the word of the Risen Christ that he will make war with them. We must note that he did not say: "I will go to war with you"; he said: "I will go to war with them." His wrath was not directed against the whole Church but against those who were seducing her; for those who were led astray, he had nothing but pity.
It is the threat of the Risen Christ that he will make war against them with the sword of his mouth. The Christ of the sword is a startling idea. Thinking of past conquerors and comparing them with Jesus Christ, the poet wrote:
Then all these vanished from the scene,
Like flickering shadows on a glass;
And conquering down the centuries came
The swordless Christ upon an ass.
What then is the sword of Christ? The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the word of God which is sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). Paul speaks of "the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:17). The sword of Christ is the word of Christ.
In the word of Christ there is conviction of sin; in it a man is confronted with the truth and thereby with his own failure to obey it. In the word of Christ there is invitation to God; it convicts a man of sin and then invites him back to the love of God. In the word of Christ there is assurance of salvation; it convicts a man of sin, it leads him to the Cross, and it assures him that there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). The conquest of Christ is his power to win men to the love of God.
Pergamum, The Bread Of Heaven (Revelation 2:12-17 Continued)
In this letter the Risen Christ promises two things to the man who overcomes; the first is a share of the hidden manna to eat. Here is a Jewish conception which has two aspects.
(i) When the children of Israel had no food in the desert God gave them manna to eat (Exodus 16:11-15). When the need of the manna passed, the memory did not A pot of the manna was put into the ark and laid up before God in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and in the Temple (Exodus 16:33-34; Hebrews 9:4). Early in the sixth century B.C. the Temple which Solomon had built was destroyed; and the rabbis had a legend that, when that happened, Jeremiah hid away the pot of manna in a cleft in Mount Sinai and that, when the Messiah came, he would return and the pot of manna would be discovered again. To a Jew "to eat of the hidden manna" meant to enjoy the blessings of the Messianic age. TO a Christian it meant to enter into the blessedness of the new world which would emerge when the Kingdom came.
(ii) There may be a wider and more general meaning. Of the manna it is said: "This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat" (Exodus 16:15). The manna is called "grain of heaven" (Psalms 78:24); and it is said to be the "bread of the angels," (Psalms 78:25). Here the manna may mean heavenly food. In that case John would be saying: "In this world you cannot share with the heathen in their feasts because you cannot sit down to meat which is part of a sacrifice that has been offered to an idol. You may think that you are being called upon to give up much but the day will come when you will feast in heaven upon heavenly food." If that is so, the Risen Christ is saying that a man must abstain from the seductions of earth if he wishes to enjoy the blessings of heaven.
(iii) There is one possible further interpretation of this. Some have suggested that the hidden manna is the bread of God given to the Christian at the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. John tells us that when the Jews said to him that their fathers had eaten manna in the wilderness, so receiving bread, and Jesus said "I am the bread of life" (John 6:31-35). If the hidden manna and the bread of life are the same, the hidden manna is not only the bread of the sacrament but stands for nothing less than Christ, the bread of life; and this is a promise that to him who is faithful he will give himself.
Pergamum, The White Stone And The New Name (Revelation 2:12-17 Continued)
The final promise of Christ to the faithful in Pergamum is that he will give them the white stone with the new name on it. This is a passage of which there are almost endless interpretations. In the ancient world a white stone might stand for many things.
(i) There was a Rabbinic legend that precious stones fell from heaven along with the manna. The white stone would then simply stand for the precious gifts of God to his people.
(ii) In the ancient world coloured stones were used as counters for working out calculations. This would mean that the Christian is counted among the number of the faithful.
(iii) In the ancient law courts white and black stones were used for registering the verdict of juries, black for condemnation, white for acquittal. This would mean that the Christian is acquitted in the sight of God because of the work of Jesus Christ.
(iv) In the ancient world objects called tesserae were much used. A tessera was a little tablet made of wood or metal or stone; it had writing on it; and, generally speaking, the possession of a tessera conferred some kind of privilege upon a man. Three of these tesserae add something to the picture.
(a) In Rome the great houses had their clients, dependents who every morning received from their patron food and money for the day. They were often given a tessera by which they identified themselves as having the right to the free gifts. This would mean that the Christian has the right to the free gifts for life which Christ can give.
(b) To win a victory at the games was one of the greatest honours the ancient world could give. Outstanding victors were given, by the master of the games, a tessera which in the days to come conferred upon them the right of free entry to all public spectacles. This would mean that the Christian is the victorious athlete of Christ who is a sharer in the glory of his Lord.
(c) In Rome a great gladiator was the admired hero of all. Often a gladiator had to fight on until he was killed in combat. But if he had had a specially illustrious career, when he grew old, he was allowed to retire in honour. Such men were given a tessera with the letters "SP" on it. "SP" stands for the Latin word spectatus, which means a man whose valour has been proved beyond a doubt. This would mean that the Christian is the gladiator of Christ and that, when he has proved his valour in the battle of life, he is allowed to enter into the rest which Christ gives with honour.
(v) In the ancient world a specially happy day was called a white day. Plutarch tells that when Pericles was besieging Samos he knew that the siege would be long; he did not wish his army to grow weary; so he divided it into eight parts; every day the eight companies drew lots; one was a white bean; and the company which drew the white bean was exempt from duty for the day and could enjoy itself as it wished. So it was that a happy day came to be called a white day (Plutarch: Life of Pericles 64). Pliny in one of his letters tells a friend that that day he had had the joy of hearing in the law courts two magnificent young pleaders in whose hands the future of Roman oratory was safe; and, he says, that experience made that day one marked candidissimo calculo, with the whitest of stones (Pliny: Letters 6: 11). It was said that the Thracians and the Scythians kept in their homes an urn into which for every happy day they threw a white stone and for every unhappy day a black stone; at the end of their lives the stones were counted, and as the white or the black preponderated, a man was said to have had a wretched or a happy life. This would mean that through Jesus Christ the Christian can have the joy that no man takes from him (John 16:22).
(vi) Along this line there is another and most likely interpretation. One of the commonest of all customs in the ancient world was to carry an amulet or charm. It might be made of a precious metal or a precious stone but often it was nothing more than a pebble. On the pebble there was a sacred name; to know a god's name was to have a certain power over him, to be able to summon him to one's aid in time of difficulty and to have mastery over the demons. Such an amulet was thought to be doubly effective, if no one other than the owner knew the name that was inscribed upon it. Most likely what John is saying is: "Your heathen friends--and you did the same in your heathen days--carry amulets with superstitious inscriptions on them and they think they will keep them safe. You need nothing like that; you are safe in life and in death because you know the name of the only true God."
Pergamum, Renamed By God (Revelation 2:12-17 Continued)
It is just possible that we ought to look for the meaning of the new name and the white stone in another direction altogether.
The words white and new are characteristic of the Revelation. R. H. Charles has said that in the Revelation "white is the colour and livery of heaven." The word used does not describe a dull, flat whiteness but one which glistens like snow in the winter sun. So in the Revelation we find white garments (Revelation 3:5); white robes (Revelation 7:9); white linen (Revelation 19:8; Revelation 19:14); and the great white throne of God himself (Revelation 20:11). White, then, is heaven's colour.
In Greek there are two words for "new." There is neos (Greek #3501), which means new in point of time. A thing can be neos (Greek #3501), and yet exactly like any number of things. On the other hand there is kainos (Greek #2537), which is new not only in point of time but also in point of quality; nothing like it has ever been made before. So in the Revelation there is the new Jerusalem (Revelation 3:12); the new song (Revelation 5:9); the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1); and God makes all things new (Revelation 21:5). With this in mind two lines of thought have been suggested.
It has been suggested that the white stone is the man himself; that the Risen Christ is promising his faithful ones a new self, cleansed of all earthly stains and glistening with the purity of heaven.
As to the new name, one of the features of the Old Testament is the giving to a man of a new name to mark a new status. So Abram becomes Abraham when the great promise is made that he will be the father of many nations and when he, as it were, acquires a new status in the plan of God for men (Genesis 17:5). So after the wrestling at Peniel, Jacob becomes Israel, which means the prince of God, because he had prevailed with God (Genesis 32:28). Isaiah hears the promise of God to the nation of Israel: "The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name which the mouth of the Lord will give" (Isaiah 62:2).
This custom of giving a new name to mark a new status was known in the heathen world as well. The name of the first of the Roman Emperors was Octavius; but when he became Emperor he was given the name Augustus to mark his new status.
A curious superstitious parallel to this comes from peasant life in Palestine. When a person was very ill and in danger of death, he was often given the name of someone who had lived a long and saintly life, as if this turned him into a new person over whom the illness might lose its power.
On this basis of interpretation, Christ promises a new status to those who are faithful to him.
This is attractive. It suggests that the white stone means that Jesus Christ gives to the man who is true to him a new self and that the new name means the new status of glory into which the man who has been true to Christ will enter when this life ends and when the next begins. It remains to say that, attractive as that interpretation is, the view which traces back the white stone and the new name to the use of amulets is more likely to be correct.
THE LETTER TO THYATIRA (Revelation 2:18-29)
2:18-29 And to the angel of the Church in Thyatira write:
These things says the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire and whose feet are like beaten brass.
I know your works--I mean your love and your loyalty and your service and your steadfast endurance; and I know that your last works are more than your first.
But I hold it against you that you make no effort to deal with the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and whose misleading teaching causes my servants to commit fornication and to eat meat offered to idols. I have given her a time within which to repent and she refuses to repent from her fornication. Behold, I am going to cast her into a bed and I am going to cast her paramours into great affliction, unless they repent from her deeds; and I will slay her children with death; and all the Churches will know that I am he who searches the inmost desires and thoughts of a man's being; and I will give to each one of you what your works deserve.
To the rest of you in Thyatira, to all those who do not hold this teaching, to such as have not known the depths of Satan, as they call them, I say this--I am not going to put any other burden on you. All I say is, hold on to what you have until I come. I will give to him who overcomes, and who keeps my works to the end, authority over the Gentiles; and he will smite them with a rod of iron; like vessels of pottery they will be smashed; for this is the authority that I have received from my Father; and I will give him the morning star.
Let him who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches.
Thyatira, The Peril Of Compromise (Revelation 2:18-29 Continued)
The longest of the seven letters is written to the least important of the seven cities. None the less, the problem which faced Thyatira and the danger which threatened it were those which were universally involved in the position of the Christians in Asia.
Thyatira lies in the long valley connecting the valleys of the Hermus and the Caicus rivers through which the railway runs today; and it was its geographical position which gave it its importance.
(i) Thyatira lay on the road which connected Pergamum with Sardis and went on to Philadelphia and to Laodicea, linking up with both Smyrna and Byzantium. That was the road by which the imperial post travelled; and it was crowded with the commerce of Asia and the east. Therefore, first and foremost Thyatira was a great commercial town.
(ii) Strategically the importance of Thyatira was that it was the gateway to Pergamum, the capital of the province. The first we hear of Thyatira is that it is an armed garrison, manned by a company of Macedonian troops, placed there as an outpost to protect Pergamum. The difficulty was that Thyatira was not capable of any prolonged defence. It lay in an open valley. There was no height that could be fortified; and all that Thyatira could ever hope to do was to fight a delaying action until Pergamum could prepare to meet the invaders.
(iii) Thyatira had no special religious significance. It was not a centre of either Caesar or of Greek worship. Its local hero-god was called Tyrimnus and he appears on its coins on horseback armed with battle-axe and club. The only notable thing about Thyatira from the religious point of view was that it possessed a fortune-telling shrine, presided over by a female oracle called the Sambathe. Certainly no threat of persecution hung over the Thyatiran Church.
(iv) What, then, was the problem in Thyatira? We know less about Thyatira than about any other of the seven cities and are, therefore, seriously handicapped in trying to reconstruct the situation. The one thing we do know is that it was a great commercial centre, specially of the dyeing industry and of the trade in woollen goods. It was from Thyatira that Lydia, the seller of purple, came (Acts 16:14). From inscriptions discovered we learn that it had an extraordinary number of trade guilds. These were associations for mutual profit and pleasure of people employed in certain trades. There were guilds of workers in wool, leather, linen and bronze, makers of outer garments, dyers, potters, bakers and slave-dealers.
Here, we think, was the problem of the Church in Thyatira. To refuse to join one of these guilds would be much the same as to refuse to join a trade union today. It would mean to give up all prospect of commercial existence. Why should a Christian not join one of these guilds? They held common meals. These would very often be held in a temple and even if not, they would begin and end with a formal sacrifice to the gods, and the meat eaten would be meat which had already been offered to idols. Further, it often happened that these communal meals were occasions of drunken revelry and slack morality. Was it possible for a Christian to be part of such occasions?
Here was the problem at Thyatira; the threat came from inside the Church. There was a strong movement, led by the woman addressed as Jezebel, which pled for compromise with the world's standards in the interests of business and commercial prosperity, maintaining, no doubt, that the Holy Spirit could preserve them from any harm. The answer of the Risen Christ is unequivocal. With such things the Christian must have nothing to do.
Thyatira, The State Of The Church In Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29 Continued)
R. H. Charles points out that by far the longest of the seven letters is written to the most unimportant of the seven cities; but its problem was far from being unimportant.
Of all the seven letters this is the most enigmatic. Our trouble is that we have so little definite information about Thyatira and we are presented with a series of four questions--What was the situation of the Church in Thyatira? Who was Jezebel? What did she teach? What do the promises made to the Church at Thyatira mean?
(i) The letter opens with a description of the Risen Christ which has a threat in it. His eyes are like a flame of fire and his feet like burnished bronze. The description is taken from that of the angelic messenger in Daniel 10:6 : "His face was like the appearance of lightning, and his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze." The flaming eyes must stand for two things, blazing anger against sin and the awful penetration of that gaze which strips the disguises away and sees into a man's inmost heart. The brazen feet must stand for the immovable power of the Risen Christ. A message which begins like that will certainly be no soothing tranquillizer.
The letter goes on to terms of the highest praise. The love and loyalty and service and endurance of the Church at Thyatira are matters for congratulation. We must note how these great qualities go in pairs. Service is the outcome of love and patient endurance the product of loyalty.
Then comes the condemnation of the woman Jezebel and all her ways and teaching; and one can hardly avoid the conclusion that she had very considerable influence in the Church at Thyatira.
The necessary conclusion seems to be this. On the surface the Church at Thyatira was strong and flourishing. If a stranger went into it, he would be impressed with its abounding energy and its generous liberality and its apparent steadfastness. For all that, there was something essential missing.
Here is a warning. A church which is crowded with people and which is a hive of energy is not necessarily a real Church. It is possible for a Church to be crowded because its people come to be entertained instead of instructed, and to be soothed instead of confronted with the fact of sin and the offer of salvation; it maybe a highly successful Christian club rather than a real Christian congregation.
Thyatira, The Source Of The Error (Revelation 2:18-29 Continued)
(2) The source of the trouble in Thyatira centred round a woman whom the letter calls Jezebel. A variety of answers have been given to the question of her identity.
(i) We begin with an answer which is very interesting, although it is doubtful if it is possible. The King James Version calls her: "that woman Jezebel." Moffatt translates "that Jezebel of a woman." The Greek is: ten (Greek #3588) gunaika (Greek #1135) Iezabel (Greek #2403). A few manuscripts have after gunaika (Greek #1135) the word sou (Greek #4675), which means "your." The noun gune (Greek #1135)--the nominative of the word of which gunaika (Greek #1135) is the accusative form--not only means "woman" but also "wife"; and if with these manuscripts we read ten (Greek #3588) gunaika Greek #1135) sou (Greek #4675) Iezabel (Greek #2403), the phrase will mean: "your wife Jezebel."
Early on we saw that the angel of the Church may be the bishop of the Church. If, then, the letter is addressed to the bishop of the Church and there is a reference to your wife Jezebel, it means that the cause of all the trouble is the bishop's wife! That would be an interesting sidelight on the early Christian congregations and it would not be the last time that the wives of church officials were the sources of trouble in a congregation. But this interpretation must be rejected because the evidence for inserting sou (Greek #4675) is not good enough.
(ii) One of the few claims to distinction which Thyatira possessed was an oracle called the Sambathe, a woman fortune-teller. The Greeks made great use of oracles. The oracle at Delphi was world famous and the expression a Delphic utterance has become proverbial. It may be that this oracle was a Jewess, for the Jews in the ancient world went in largely for this business of fortune telling. There are those who see in the Sambathe the evil influence which was threatening the Church at Thyatira; but this, too, must be rejected, for it is quite clear that Jezebel was a member of the Church and her influence was being exerted from within.
(iii) Some, on no grounds whatever, have identified Jezebel with Lydia, the seller of purple from Thyatira, whom Paul met and converted at Philippi. It is suggested that she came back to Thyatira and became an evil influence in the Church because of her wealth and her business interests. That theory is merely a slander on Lydia.
(iv) The only reasonable conclusion is that we have no idea who Jezebel was, although we can with certainty trace the kind of person that she was.
That she claimed to be a prophetess is not so very surprising. It is true that Paul would have nothing to do with women speaking in the Church (1 Corinthians 14:34). But it is also true that in both the Old and the New Testaments there are prophetesses. In the Old Testament there are Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah ( 4:4) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14); and in the New Testament there are Anna (Luke 2:36), and the four virgin daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9).
This woman is called Jezebel and, therefore, her character must be discovered in the original Jezebel than whom few women have acquired such a reputation for wickedness. She was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon, and the wife of Ahab (1 Kings 16:31). When she came from Sidon, she brought her own gods and caused Ahab and his people to worship Baal. It was not that she would have wished to banish the worship of Jehovah, if the prophets of Jehovah would have accepted Baal in addition to Jehovah. She slew the prophets of the Lord and at her own table supported four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:13; 1 Kings 18:19). She was Ahab's evil genius; in particular, she was responsible for the murder of Naboth in order that Ahab might enter into the possession of the ground where his vineyard stood (1 Kings 21:1-29 ). And she left behind her a name for "harlotries and sorceries" (2 Kings 9:22).
All this must mean that Jezebel of Thyatira was an evil influence on the life and worship of the Christian Church. It must be clearly understood that she had no wish to destroy the Church; but she wished to bring into it new ways which were, in fact, destructive of the faith.
(1) Thyatira, The Teaching Of Jezebel (Revelation 2:18-29 Continued)
(3) This Jezebel of a woman is accused of teaching two things--eating meat offered to idols and committing fornication.
(a) One of the great problems of the Christian Church was that of meat offered to idols and it was one which met the Christian every day. When a man made a sacrifice in a Greek temple, very little of the meat was burned on the altar. Sometimes all that was actually burned was a few hairs cut from the forehead of the animal. The priests received a share of the meat of the animal as their perquisite; and the worshipper received the rest. With it he did one of two things. He might hold a feast of his friends within the temple precincts. A common form of invitation to a festal meal ran: "I invite you to dine with me at the table of our Lord Serapis." Or he might take the meat home and hold a feast in his own house. Here was the Christian problem. Could a Christian, in a temple or anywhere else, eat meat which had been consecrated to idols? Paul discusses this very problem in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; 1 Corinthians 9:1-27; 1 Corinthians 10:1-33.
The problem was complicated by the fact that even the meat in butchers' shops might well have been offered to idols previously. The priests in the temples could not possibly consume all the meat which fell to them and therefore, sold much of their share to the butchers' shops. Such meat was the best meat. What was a Christian going to do about that?
The Church had no doubt as to where a Christian's duty lay. Abstention from things offered to idols was one of the conditions on which the Gentiles received the right of entry into the Christian Church (Acts 15:29).
The prohibition of meat offered to idols had one far-reaching consequence. It came near to cutting off a Christian from all social fellowship with non-Christians; there were few social occasions, and almost no banquets, which he could share with the heathen world.
This had another consequence which, as we have already said, we think was at the back of the situation in Thyatira. It meant that the Christian could not join any trade guild for all the guilds had a common meal as a central part of their practice which might well be held in a heathen temple and would largely consist of meat offered to idols. His abstention from guild membership was equivalent to commercial suicide.
Here is where Jezebel came in. She urged upon the Christians that there was no need to cut themselves off from society or abstain from the guilds. When she did so, she was not proceeding on grounds of principle but was simply trying to protect her business interests. Jezebel is to be counted amongst those to whom the claims of commercial success speak more loudly than the claims of Christ.
(2) Thyatira, The Teaching Of Jezebel (Revelation 2:18-29 Continued)
(b) The other part of Jezebel's teaching is not so clear. She is said to teach the people to commit fornication (Revelation 2:20); she is urged to repent from her fornication (Revelation 2:21); and her paramours and her children are threatened along with her (Revelation 2:22-23). Is this reference to be taken literally or in the metaphorical sense which is so common in Scripture to sexual immorality or to spiritual infidelity?
(i) There is no doubt that in Scripture infidelity to God is expressed in terms of fornication and adultery. Israel is the Bride of God (Isaiah 54:5; Jeremiah 3:20); and in the New Testament the Church is the Bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:1-2; Ephesians 5:24-28). Again and again in the Old Testament the Israelites are, therefore, said to "play the harlot after strange gods" (Exodus 34:15-16; Deuteronomy 31:16; Hosea 9:1). In the New Testament the age which is unfaithful to Jesus Christ is an "evil and adulterous generation" (Matthew 12:39; Matthew 16:4; Mark 8:38). Is the fornication which Jezebel's teaching inculcated a spiritual infidelity to Jesus Christ? If that is the meaning, her paramours (Revelation 2:22) will be those who are flirting with this kind of teaching and her children (Revelation 2:23) those who have accepted it.
It may well be that the teaching of Jezebel was that the Christians did not need to be so exclusive in their worship of Jesus Christ and, above all, that there was no need for them to refuse to say, "Caesar is Lord," and to burn their pinch of incense. If the Christian Church as a whole had accepted that form of teaching, the inevitable consequence would have been that Christianity would have become nothing more than still another of those religions of which the Roman Empire was so full. The claim of Christianity is not that Jesus Christ is one of the Saviours nor even the chief of Saviours; but that he is the only Saviour.
(ii) One thing in the letter militates against that view. We read that the followers of Jezebel claimed to know the depths of Satan (Revelation 2:24). Some scholars think that this is the Risen Christ's contemptuous description of the false teaching. The real Christian knows what Paul called the deep things of God (1 Corinthians 2:10); what Jezebel and her company know is the deep things of Satan. But that will not do, for the letter unmistakably speaks of "the deep things of Satan, as they call them." This is quite certainly a reference to a kind of belief that was not uncommon among the heretics. Some of them held that it was a plain duty to experience every kind of sin. The real achievement was to allow the body to wallow in sin and to keep the soul unaffected. Those who knew the deep things of Satan were those who had deliberately plumbed evil to its depths. Jezebel may well have been teaching that it was a duty to sin.
It seems to us that in this case all the threads tie up and there is no necessity to make a choice between views. All the probability is that Jezebel was teaching that a Christian ought to accommodate himself to the world; in other words she was urging on the Church a spiritual infidelity which was bound to issue in physical fornication. It is in the mercy of God that the teaching of Jezebel and her like did not become the view of the Church. If that had happened, the Church would have become a kind of pleasant paganism. On this Paul said: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Romans 12:2). And Jesus said the last word on the matter: "No one can serve two masters.... You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24). The old choice is still the new choice: "Choose you this day whom you will serve" (Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15).
Thyatira, Promises And Threats (Revelation 2:18-29 Continued)
(4) The letter to Thyatira finishes with a series of great threats and great promises. Jezebel has been given all the latitude the divine mercy can give her. If she does not repent, she will be cast into a bed of sickness and her paramours and followers will share her fate. This will prove to all men that indeed the Risen Christ, as the King James Version has it, "searches the reins and hearts." The phrase is a translation of Jeremiah 11:20. In Jeremiah the prerogative of searching the inmost thoughts of men belongs to God; but in the Revelation, as so often, the prerogatives of God have become the prerogatives of the Risen Christ.
The reins are the kidneys; strange as it may seem to us, Hebrew psychology believed that the seat of emotion was in the lower viscera, the kidneys and the bowels; and the seat of thought was in the heart. When the Risen Christ says that he will search the reins and the heart, it means that every emotion and every thought will be open to his gaze.
There is real point here. When we began to study the letter to Thyatira we saw that anyone coming into that Church for the first time would have believed it to be surging with life and fruitful in every good work. No doubt those who prospered in business because of their compromise with the world were lavish in their liberality. No doubt those who attended the trade guilds gave generously to charitable funds. They looked like real Christians. No doubt Jezebel seemed to many a fine character. She must have had a command of language and a fine presence to be regarded as a prophetess. The point here is that the Risen Christ can see beyond the outward disguise; he will know whether or not her repentance is real.
To those who are faithful the promise is made and it is twofold.
(i) The first part comes from Psalms 2:8-9; "Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel." In Jewish belief that was a Messianic Psalm, thinking of a conquering Messiah who would smash the heathen and extend the rule of Israel to the ends of the earth. But it has also been one of the great missionary inspirations of the Christian Church. Many a missionary claimed that promise: "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage."
(ii) The second part is the promise of the morning star. Four main interpretations have been given.
(a) It is taken as a promise of the first resurrection. As the morning star rises after the night, so the Christian will rise after the night of death.
(b) It is taken as the conquest of Lucifer. Lucifer is the devil, the angel who was so proud that he rebelled against God and was cast over the battlements of heaven (Isaiah 14:12). Lucifer means light-bringer and it is the name of the morning star. If that be so, this is a promise of complete power over Satan and over sin.
(iii) This has been referred to Daniel 12:3. There the promise is: "and those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever." If that be so, the morning star is the glory which will come to those who are righteous and have helped others to walk in the paths of righteousness.
(iv) All these are very lovely and may all be involved in this promise; but we are quite certain that the correct interpretation is this. The Revelation itself calls Jesus "the bright morning star" (Revelation 22:16). The promise of the morning star is the promise of Christ himself. If the Christian is true, when life comes to an end he will possess Christ, never to lose him any more.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on Revelation 2". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany