March 23, 2008

Revelation - week 3 (concluded)

7 "To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write the following:

"This is the solemn pronouncement of the Holy One, the True One, who holds the key of David, who opens doors no one can shut, and shuts doors no one can open:

8 'I know your deeds. Look! I have put in front of you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, but you have
obeyed my word and have not denied my name.
9 Listen! I am going to make those people from the synagogue of Satan who say they are Jews but are not—but are lying! Look!—I will make them come and bow down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.
10 Because you have kept my admonition to endure steadfastly, I will also keep you from the hour of testing that is about to come upon all mankind to test the ones living on the earth.
11 I am coming soon/swiftly. Hold on to what you have so that no one can take away your crown.
2 The one who conquers I will make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will never depart from it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God (the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from my God), and my new name as well.
13 Let the ones having ears hear what the Spirit
says to the churches.'
The church at Philadelphia, like the church at Smyrna, receives unqualified praise from Jesus in this 6th letter. And like the Smyrnan church, the Philadelphian church is promised suffering before glory. This, as we have noted, is a major theme in Revelation and all of the faithful followers of Jesus in the book are described as suffering or having suffered for their faith.

The Philadelphian church is also comforted in their persecution by the "synagogue of satan", just as the Smyrnan church was. This is worth commenting on for a moment if for no other reason than to offset the sinful antisemitism that this passage has been used to justify in the history of the church. In Ancient Rome, citizens were all required to pay homage to the Roman gods and goddesses. To do otherwise was seen as an act of treason because there was no hint of separation between religion and government. All Roman citizens were required to honor Caesar as Lord...except the Jews. As the Greeks had found out 2 centuries earlier when they tried to make Israel honor their gods and leaders, the Jews were fiercely monotheistic and would fight to the death rather than pay homage to any other gods. Rome, in pragmatic fashion, arranged that all the Jews had to do was pray to their God for Caesar rather than to Caesar or the gods of Rome.

So how does this apply to Revelation? Well, the majority of early Christians--including John himself--were Jewish. Therefore, they were protected from having to worship according to Roman law by their status as Jews. Gradually, however, non-Christian Jews shunned Christian Jews from their synagogues. They did not consider them true Jews (a situation that is true to this very day!). Therefore, in the eyes of Rome, Christians were not Jews--and therefore not exempt from Roman worship. As a result, they were accused of not only heresy or "atheism" (because they didn't believe in the Roman gods), but also of treason and sedition. They were persecuted as a result of having been cast from the Jewish community and its protection. The word "satan" means "the accuser/adversary". Thus, Jesus is telling His people in Philadelphia that despite being labeled as not a part of Israel, they are absolutely God's people. Furthermore, those who claim to be Jews but who do not follow their Messiah, Jesus, are not actually Jews in the theological sense of the word, but rather are functioning in the role of accuser/adversary (i.e. "satan"). This is quite in line with Paul's argument in the early chapters of his letter to the Romans and is another major theme in Revelation--true "Israel" consists of everyone (both Jew and Gentile) who is in Covenant with God through faith in Israel's Messiah. This is sometimes labeled "replacement theology" and contested by those who hold to a Dispensational form of theology. However, it is not a "replacement" of Israel with the Church that Revelation teaches; it is a widening of the boundaries of "Israel" to include those who are not Jewish by birth, but who are "offspring of Abraham" nonetheless because of their faith. Likewise, it is a clarification that despite being ethnically or religiously Jewish, those who do not follow Israel's Messiah, Jesus, are not actually Israel. This was, and continues to be, a shocking and politically incorrect statement (which is why many Christians have abandoned it in favor of a "two peoples of God" theory); yet it is a major theme in Revelation and was the message of Jesus' followers from day one.

A final point of interest is the phrase found in v.10: "the ones living on the earth" (Gk: katoikountas epi tes ges). As we will see throughout the book, this does not refer to everyone living literally on earth. Rather, it is used to denote those who are not "the ones following the Lamb", or God's people. Some translations attempt to bring out the technical feel of this phrase by translating it as "earth-dwellers" or something similar. Regardless of how it's translated, it's important to keep this distinction in mind as we continue through John's vision. Jesus is promising the Philadelphian church that He will protect them from temporal events that are soon to take place around them. They have already been suffering and will continue to do so, but they will be spared this particular form of suffering, whatever it may be.

14 "To the angel of the church in Laodicea write the following:

"This is the solemn pronouncement of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the originator of God's creation:

15 'I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you
were either cold or hot! 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth!
17 Because you say, "I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing," (but do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked!), 18 take my advice and buy gold from me refined by fire so you can become rich! Buy from me white clothing so you can be clothed and your shameful nakedness will not be exposed, and buy eye salve to put on your eyes so you can see!
19 All those I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent! 20 Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with me.
21 I will grant the one who conquers permission to sit with me on my throne, just as I too conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
22 Let the ones having ears hear what the Spirit
says to the churches.'"

The final church Jesus addresses in Revelation is the church at Laodicea. Much has been written about this passage and for a full treatment, I recommend the commentaries mentioned at the beginning of this week's study. For now, we will only address two points: "lukewarm" christians and Jesus' "standing at the door knocking."

I was always taught, based on this passage, that there are 3 types of people with respect to God. Those who are "hot" (i.e. "on fire for Jesus"; follow God passionately), those who are "cold" (i.e. spiritually dead, actively rebelling against or ignoring God completely), and those who are "lukewarm" (i.e. "fence-sitters"; those who sometimes follow Jesus, but only when it's convenient for them or doesn't demand anything of them). Thus, Jesus was saying here that He would rather people be completely against him, "headlong into Hell" as I once heard it put, than to half-heartedly follow Him. But the more I grew and studied Scripture, the less Biblical this idea sounded to me. But I couldn't say why...until I learned about the city of Laodicea itself and its historical setting.

Laodicea was known for many things in the ancient world: wealth, fine fabrics, culture. They had even invented a cure for certain eye diseases in the form of an ointment or salve. What they were not known for, however, was an abundant water supply. Laodicea had no natural source of water nearby. However, since they were so wealthy, they could afford to have their water piped in via aqueducts from two surrounding cities miles away. They received water from Heiropolis, a city 6 miles North which was renowned for its amazing natural hot springs (which you can still visit today and which are pictured below).

Likewise, they received their cold water from Colossae which was 10 miles east and have an abundant supply of fresh cold water from snowmelt and runoff in the Lycus Valley.

Thus, Laodicea had a source for hot water as well as a source for cold water...with one minor problem. By the time the water traveled the distance it was no longer hot or cold! In addition, whatever debris may have fallen along the path got carried along with the water into the city. Thus, Laodicea's water was unable to quench one's thirst (like Colossae's cool water) and unable to soothe and heal (like Hieropolis' hot water) and if someone from out of town took a swig of Laodicean water, they would likely spit it out or vomit after swallowing it!

This makes Jesus' warning to the Laodiceans all the more poignant. Though they were known in the eyes of the people as being wealthy, well-dressed, and even able to cure blindness, in the eyes of the King of Kings they were poor, blind, pitiful and naked. And just like their water supply, they were not good for anything. If they remain that way, they should not expect anything but judgment.

But there is hope! Jesus loves His people enough to discipline them and chastize them when they rebel or become complacent. Even for a church as spiritually tepid as the one in Laodicea, Jesus "stands at the door knocking." Notice that contrary to popular usage, this verse is not written to unbelievers in order to get them to pray Jesus into their hearts (though there may very well be Biblical support for that notion elsewhere in the NT). Rather, He is telling the Laodicean church that He is waiting for them to let Him into their midst. Those who hear His voice and open up to Him will dine with Him in fellowship. It's quite likely that this is a reference to His spiritual presence at their worship gatherings which consisted of, among other things, a Love Feast--what we would call Holy Communion or the Eucharist. But Jesus will not force His way into their gatherings. His grace is quite resistable! But to those who allow Him to reign in their life, will in the end reign with Him over all creation.

And it is that universal reign from the Heavenly throneroom that John is about to have revealed to him in the next chapter!


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