Revelation 2:8-17

Reading: Revelation 2:8-17

Today we read the messages to the churches at Smyrna and Pergamum. There is a common theme and a common history between these two churches — the theme is suffering persecution, and the common history is that both are known for suffering persecution.

I will start with Pergamum — Antipas of Pergamum is the first known Martyr in Asia Minor. Antipas died in 92 AD in a Brazen Bull. I don’t know if you know what a Brazen bull is — but, I’ll tell you. A brazen bull is a statue of a bull with a door in the side, and tubing that transmits sound from the inside to the mouth — sound that is distorted by the tubing is supposed to sound like bellows. The victim is locked inside of the bull, and a fire is lit under it; and as the person is roasted, his screams become the bull’s bellows.

The note in Revelation mentions a person who was executed in this creative way. The cruelty and the inventiveness that is displayed here makes it clear that this is a place where Satan’s throne is — if Satan had no throne there, how could such inhuman cruelty be openly part of society.

Smyrna is described as a place where Christians were slandered, and the local Jews were pointed out as enemies. Smyrna is different from Pergamum in that it is a prediction: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer… for ten days you will have affliction.”

In Smyrna, Jews were tolerated, and their monotheism was tolerated. One question that this brings up is whether or not Christians share in the toleration. The Jews distanced themselves from Christians, and the Christians were accused of Cannibalism, human sacrifice, and other libel. I’m not sure how long 10 days is — but I do know the most famous martyr of Smyrna was Polycarp — and he ordered to be burned at a stake about 50 years after Revelation was written — and he was brought to the stake jointly by the Jewish elite and the pagans of Smyrna. Whatever the situation that would last 10 days was, it was still very much in effect 50 years later.

Personally, I like the idea that the 10 days are the 10 persecutions of the Early church; if they are, than at the time Revelation is written, they would be in the second day of affliction — and the ten days would be over at the start of the 4th century — so 10 days would be about 250 years — the persecutions end with the Church becoming the Imperial religion.

The promise I see in Revelation is that if Christianity endures, it will survive the persecution, and even the persecutors. There is a promise that the power of those who kill only have the power to touch the body — and because of Resurrection, they are powerless against the Church.

I’m done talking about history. There is much more that could be said, there is much I could say about idol worship, I could read from Numbers, and summarize Numbers 22-24, telling the story of Balaam in detail. I would try to connect what is written in Revelation to the experience of the ancient Hebrews. — In a normal weekend, that is what I would do, but this isn’t a normal weekend, so, I have already finished my commentary.

Today, I wonder how a letter to an American church might read. Would we read something like: “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is?” Would the letter addressed to us praise us for standing firm against the evil that is in our world? Would it speak of how much we suffer or will suffer?

At this time, I seriously doubt that our letter would read like that. We live in a nation where persecution is so unimaginable that a simple intellectual challenge to Christian morality or belief is as close as we come to persecution — and there are many who seem to believe that such a challenge is persecution. Christian thought is considered in the highest level of government, in a respectful way, even by those who disagree with it; this is so true that those rare times when we don’t hear a common Christian belief being treated respectfully by a government official, we feel that it is wrong, and frighteningly abnormal.

What would a letter be like to a church who faces no persecution, who is not punished nor separated from society for their beliefs, who’s members have control of significant wealth, who has influence in every level of the government, and who’s members hold many positions of high leadership? How does the letter change when in an environment where the president reminds us that we worship God, not government? It seems like we, just like Christian Rome, would get a letter to a church that conquered by enduring hardship.

You see, many American churches have a history of persecution. The American idea of religious freedom was created by and for persecuted Christians. We overcame, we created a place for ourselves where we didn’t face that any more, and part of the goal was to protect the freedoms of those who have no power. With our history, what would Christ say to us?

I think that the letter would be less than kind. I think that we would be called out on our lack of faith in God, and how we really believe in ourselves, our wealth and our power and our personal knowledge.

I think that we would be condemned for the relationship formed with political parties. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are truly based on Christian morality; both are essentially secular. Now, there is both a Christian Right and Left that have one this one thing in common — both compromise things they believe to be part of the party. Sometimes compromise comes in the form of deemphasizing a traditional belief, or a teaching of Jesus — sometimes it goes further, and it is literally calling something good that scripture calls evil, or condemning something that Christ commands.

I think that we would be condemned for the idolatry of nationalism. The first Christians dealt with the question whether or not Caesar is Lord — they made it clear that Jesus is Lord, and nobody else really is. We live in a nation where Caesar makes no claim to be lord — yet, we are willing to compromise the gospel for political power. We are not asked to worship Caesar, but we are willing to bow down and worship Satan for the promise that he will give us the world to rule.

Today, I think the biggest thing that would be spoken against us is that we say we love God, but we openly hate our neighbor. We think nothing about speaking of those created in God’s image as if they had no value, and if their lives were worthless. It is as if we’ve decided that God’s image is a select group of people — not every human, but just one ethnicity.

This weekend, a group of White Nationalists extremists held a rally in Virginia. This rally included a Nazi terrorist using a car to harm and murder people who disagreed with the Nazi message. I look at the American church, and I see a group that does not have the courage to say that this hate is sin; and that if you hate your neighbor, who is made in God’s image, you cannot love God. If the American church said this clearly, we would not have seen the ugly display that formed at Charlottesville; but we have not said it — instead, too many of us have defended the rhetoric of hate. In fact, we have a Christian culture where church members recruit other church members for the Klan. Your grandparents likely were aware of the days in the 1920’s when one of the local pastors was a leader of the Indiana KKK; and nobody seemed to have a problem with this. We long ago compromised to the point of blasphemy. If there were a letter to the American church, the letter would tell us to repent of this blasphemy.

Every generation has its own difficulties. The difficulties we read about in scripture are very often the difficulties of living in a hostile culture under a hostile government. Our situation is different, our greatest difficulty is that we are caving without any pressure to those things that early Christians would resist to their death. Our greatest enemy is not Caesar, but compromised Christian leaders telling us that evil is good.

The letters all have this in common: “Whoever conquers” has a promise such as never tasting the second death, or a white stone with a new name. Overcoming a disease in the community is harder than overcoming what is external community. It is very hard because it is our problem; it is our sin. May we overcome though, because a church that hates who it should love is no Christian church at all.

Revelation 2:1-7

Reading: Revelation 2:1-7
Ephesus was an important church — tradition tells us that John settled in Ephesus, and that he brought Mary with him. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians is one that focused on the gospel of Christ rather than any specific problems with the church. Scripture tells us that Paul spent about 3 years in Ephesus — that he was nearly run out of town because the Christians were not buying things dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Scripture also tells us that Paul’s student Timothy became a leader in the church at Ephesus.

The message given to the Ephesians is given to a church that looks to me like it was the center of Christianity, following the destruction of Jerusalem. The last of the disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus settled there, all of the big names preached there, and it was enough of a center theological knowledge that John writes to them that they tested those who falsely claimed to be apostles and found them false.

The Church at Ephesus is a church that is theologically correct. The Ephesians cannot be fooled; they were taught by the best and they know who and what Jesus is; they know the True gospel, and when they see a false gospel, they are able to name it as a counterfeit.

This passage speaks of a specific false teaching — that of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans are only mentioned twice in scripture, the second time is later in this chapter in the letter to Pergamum:

You have some there who hold to the teachings of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so they would eat food scarified to idols and practice fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. (Revelation 2:14-15 NRSV)

These short lines, and a few sentences from early Christian writers is all we have to tell us about this group. Ireanius called them antinomians, and associated them with one of the Gnostic sects of his time. Justin Martyr said that they ate food sacrificed to idols; which I also got from reading Revelation. What I was able to find left me guessing who the Nicolaitans were; but, one thing stood out: The early Christian writers were clear that they took the name from the Greek deacon Nicolaus of Antioch, who was appointed a leader with other Gentile Christians in order to correct a problem that was forming due to having a multi-cultural church.

Just making the leadership multicultural didn’t fix the problems. The conflict between the different cultures in the church would continue. When Paul wrote his epistles, the chief false teaching he opposed was that of the Judizers. Paul spoke against those who demanded that Gentile Christians first give up their own culture, and become culturally Jewish. Judiziers were not able to separate their faith from their culture.

When I was at FUM triennials, I went to a workshop led by Eden Grace where we learned about cross cultural ministry. While we were in the workshop, she spoke of the mistakes made by well meaning missionaries over 100 years ago — specifically in the context of Kenya.

The original missions in Kenya were large compounds, and the people who joined the church were taken into these compounds to live like Christians. They built western-style Christian houses, planted Christian gardens the way Englishmen planted gardens, dressed in Christian clothes like Englishmen wore, and learned English culture as the culture of Christianity. Many 19th century missions did not separate English culture from Christian faith; and they taught English culture as Christianity.

Growing up American, but having an interest in cross cultural ministry, I’ve become aware that I must recognize that faith and culture are not the same thing. When I experience cultural differences, my culture is the one that feels right. I even want to look for proof that what I am used to is better — but when I’m honest, I realize that scripture does not really endorse European culture either, there are things in there that challenge us too. We all can make the same mistake the Jewdizers made.

One thing that I learned when studying Church history is that Heretical teachings come in pairs; there is the false teaching, and then there is another false teaching that forms while trying to refute the first false teaching. When people focus on correcting errors, instead of the truth — that focus reliably leads to another error.

Now, what error would come from Greeks rejecting the call to turn into Jews; the most obvious error would be to create a Greek Christianity that cared more about being Greek than Christian. The error would be to avoid questioning anything that was part of Greek culture — leading to people who claimed Christianity, yet would go to the pagan temple to buy meat scarified to idols, and perhaps even offer a pinch of incense to Caesar. I really think this is the most likely error of the Nicoliatan; that they Hellenized Christianity just as the Jewdizers Jewdized Christianity.

In I Corinthians 8, Paul seems to be writing to exactly this type of Christian. They rationalize their behavior by pointing out that they know that the Greek gods are nothing. There is the idea that openly participating in Greek pagan culture is ok, because they don’t believe in the gods that received the sacrifice. This is a convenient faith, it is one that does not challenge a person’s place in society — but, as Paul writes: “not everyone has this knowledge.” Paul urges these Christians to behave different from their Greek culture, so they will not cause others without their knowledge to stumble.

What is ironic is that if I am right about who the Nicolaitans were, then they and the Ephesians church had something in common; both were correct in knowledge, but somehow in error. Those who did not separate themselves from idolatry simply because idols are nothing knew the right thing, yet did the wrong thing, and they were able to justify it by their knowledge. The Ephesians are condemned because they “abandoned the love they had at first”.

When Jesus spoke to the disciples at the last supper, he told commanded them to love one another. It is said that people looked at the Christians, and said of them “see how they love one another.” Even when Jesus spoke of how we will be judged, Jesus didn’t say there was a theological entry exam for heaven, but instead spoke of the way we treat others. Loving one another, and acting according to love is a big part of what it means to be Christian.

One group was smug, and acted wrongly with the knowledge that because there is but one true God, none of the Greek paganism even mattered, the other group was able to tell which teachings were right and which ones were wrong, but ended up failing to continue to live in love. One might say their faith moved from their hearts to their heads.

Of course, I’d recommend Biblical knowledge, good Theology, and a good enough understanding of the gospel to recognize when somebody is preaching a false one. The knowledge and discernment the Ephesian church had was a good thing to have. I think the point here is that we cannot put knowledge over the love we are commanded to have. A smug superior knowledge can even become a justification for bad behavior; and right knowledge can be applied wrongly. Knowledge is good, but knowledge alone is not enough.

We must remember the love that we had at first. We might make mistakes, we may even be mistaken about something that we think we know — but, as Peter wrote in I Peter 4: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Remember, no mater how much we know, no matter how good we are at discernment, if we forget to love, we have strayed from the way Christ taught us to live.