22 April 2009
The Book of Revelation (4): Revelation 2
Chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation contain the Seven Letters to the Churches in Asia Minor, which John has been told to commit to writing in the cave at the top of Patmos. These seven letters provided the basis for the daily Bible studies for the bishops at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury last summer.
These letters could be compared in an interesting way with Amos 1-2, with its seven stereotyped judgment oracles,.
In Revelation 2 and 3, each letter falls into a stereotyped pattern consisting of the same basic components. Each letter contains an address, a descriptive phrase referring to the Risen Lord, a commendation or a condemnation of the Church addressed in the Letter, and a concluding promise and exhortation to the faithful, with a reminder or message to be victorious as Christ is also always victorious.
The basic structure of each letter can be seen in this outline:
• The charge to write: “To the angel of the church in … write:”
• The identification of the sender: “These are the words of …”
• A commendation or a condemnation: “I know …”
• A pastoral admonition: “Remember …”, “Do not fear …”, “Repent …”, and so on.
• A pastoral exhortation: “Let everyone who has an ear listen …”
• A promise: “To everyone who conquers …”
In some letters, these components follow a different order, and in each case the message is directed towards the circumstances in a specific church. Those circumstances provide a form of poetic enclosure for each letter:
Churches 1 and 7, Ephesus and Laodicea, are in grave peril;
Churches 2 and 6, Smyrna and Philadelphia, are not censured for shortcomings;
Churches 3, 4 and 5, Pergamum, Thyatira and Sardis, are middle of the road churches, neither bad nor good.
This literary device, this chiasm, draws attention to the real need for repentance in both Ephesus and Laodicea.
The poetic approach is emphasised with each church being attributed a virtue and a vice:
Ephesus: Vice, Contentiousness; Virtue, Love.
Smyrna: Vice, Fear; Virtue, Courage.
Pergamum: Vice, Doctrinal compromise; Virtue, Orthodoxy (correct belief).
Thyatira: Vice, Moral compromise; Virtue, Orthopraxis (correct behaviour).
Sardis: Vice, Over-confidence; Virtue, Vigilance.
Philadelphia: Vice, Lack of strength; Virtue, Endurance.
Laodicea: Vice, Indifference; Virtue, Zeal.
2: 1-7, The Letter to Ephesus:
1 Τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Ἐφέσῳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ κρατῶν τοὺς ἑπτὰ ἀστέρας ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ αὐτοῦ, ὁ περιπατῶν ἐν μέσῳ τῶν ἑπτὰ λυχνιῶν τῶν χρυσῶν:
2 Οἶδα τὰ ἔργα σου καὶ τὸν κόπον καὶ τὴν ὑπομονήν σου, καὶ ὅτι οὐ δύνῃ βαστάσαι κακούς, καὶ ἐπείρασας τοὺς λέγοντας ἑαυτοὺς ἀποστόλους καὶ οὐκ εἰσίν, καὶ εὗρες αὐτοὺς ψευδεῖς: 3 καὶ ὑπομονὴν ἔχεις, καὶ ἐβάστασας διὰ τὸ ὄνομά μου, καὶ οὐ κεκοπίακες. 4 ἀλλὰ ἔχω κατὰ σοῦ ὅτι τὴν ἀγάπην σου τὴν πρώτην ἀφῆκες. 5 μνημόνευε οὖν πόθεν πέπτωκας, καὶ μετανόησον καὶ τὰ πρῶτα ἔργα ποίησον: εἰ δὲ μή, ἔρχομαί σοι καὶ κινήσω τὴν λυχνίαν σου ἐκ τοῦ τόπου αὐτῆς, ἐὰν μὴ μετανοήσῃς. 6 ἀλλὰ τοῦτο ἔχεις, ὅτι μισεῖς τὰ ἔργα τῶν Νικολαϊτῶν, ἃ κἀγὼ μισῶ. 7 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις. τῷ νικῶντι δώσω αὐτῷ φαγεῖν ἐκ τοῦ ξύλου τῆς ζωῆς, ὅ ἐστιν ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ τοῦ θεοῦ.
1 ‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
2 ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3 I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.’
Classical and Biblical Ephesus:
The Library of Celsus in Ephesus, one of the great libraries of the Classical wolrd (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The first letter from Patmos is, appropriately, for the Church in Ephesus, for Ephesus (Ἔφεσος) was the most important city at the time in Asia Minor, boasting the title of Supreme Metropolis of Asia.
For centuries, Ephesus had been a centre for the worship of Artemis. The magnificent Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and its reputation and the cult at the sanctuary of Artemis brought visitors, trade and prosperity to Ephesus. It is said that on the ay Alexander the Great was born, a lunatic named Herostratus set fire to and destroyed the Temple of Artemis. Later Alexander offered to rebuild the temple, but the Ephesians declined his offer on the ground that it was inappropriate for one god to dedicate a temple to another.
The ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the classical world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford
Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s generals, moved the site of Ephesus when he rebuilt and refounded the city about the year 289 BC. By the beginning of the Christian era, Ephesus was a major centre of trade, industry and finance in the Eastern Mediterranean, with a population of 200,000 – neither Paris nor London reached this size until after the 15th century. It was home too to the Library of Celsus, one of the greatest libraries in the classical world.
When the Apostle Paul arrived in Ephesus about AD 53, on his return from his second missionary journey, the city had a Jewish population of about 10,000, making it the largest Jewish centre in western Anatolia. Paul worked with the Church in Ephesus for over two years, organising missionary activity into the hinterlands (see Acts 19: 8-10). He became embroiled in a dispute with the city’s traders and artisans, whose livelihood depended on selling small, souvenir-like statues of Artemis (Diana) in the Temple of Artemis (see Acts 19: 23–41). A riot ensued and Paul decided to leave.
Paul also wrote I Corinthians from Ephesus, perhaps from the “Paul Tower,” close to the harbour, where he was a prisoner for a time. Later, he wrote his Epistle to the Ephesians to the Christian community at Ephesus around 62 AD, while he was a prisoner in Rome.
Ephesus is particularly associated with Saint John the Divine. According to tradition, he lived above the city and above the Temple of Artemis on the hill of Ayasuluk – a modern Turkish name derived from the Greek Aghios Theologos (Holy Theologian). He is said to have written the Fourth Gospel there around 90 to 100 AD, to have died there at the age of 120, and to have been buried on the site of the later basilica in a grave that he had dug himself.
Two decades later, the Church at Ephesus was still important enough to be addressed by a letter written by Ignatius of Antioch in the early 2nd century AD, beginning: “Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which is at Ephesus, in Asia, deservedly most happy, being blessed in the greatness and fullness of God the Father, and predestined before the beginning of time, that it should be always for an enduring and unchangeable glory.”
Many of the ancient religious sites were destroyed after the Emperor Constantine’s conversion in the third century. Ephesus was sacked by the Goths in 262, but soon recovered and was the venue for the Third Ecumenical Council in the year 431, when the Nestorians were condemned. The Second Council of Ephesus in 449 came to be known to its opponents as the Robber Council of Ephesus.
The city was sacked again by the Sassanians in 614, and by the Arabs in the seventh and eighth centuries. Meanwhile, as the centuries passed, the Cayster River continued to silt up, so that by the ninth century Ephesus was an inland city, with Phygela and Scala Nuova (the modern resort town of Kusadasi) serving as its harbours. Soon, the population began to move out of city onto the hill of neighbouring Ayasuluk, around the Basilica of Saint John, so that by the 15th century and the Turkish conquest, Ephesus had been abandoned.
In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, John introduces Christ in the same way as he does in the introduction to the Book of Revelation: he is holding the seven starts, representing the seven angels of the seven churches, in his right hand, and walking among the seven golden lampstands, the symbol of the seven churches. The metaphor confirms that Christ is ever-present in each of the churches. In the New Testament, the disciples are often described as lights or lamps in the world. As the lamp on the candlestick lights up the surrounding darkness, so the disciples are to have an illuminating effect on all around them.
The phrase, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance,” is repeated at the beginning of each of these letters and refers to the work and weariness in this world that will be over one day. Christ commends the Ephesian Christians for their zeal in the face of enemies and their faithful testing of those who claim they are apostles but are not and are false. In the past Paul had warned the elders of Ephesus about the danger of false teachers who would distort the truth (see Acts 20: 29-31), and Timothy too had to deal with false teachers in Ephesus (see I Timothy 1: 3-11, 4: 1-9, 6: 3-0).
Verses 3 and 4:
But despite their patient endurance, and their unwavering commitment, the Ephesians have lost that first spark of love that they had as young Christians. A lack of love is inconsistent with the truth of Christianity (see I John 3: 14).
If they do not work at recovering that loving commitment, they are in danger of their light being quenched. But before the light goes out, they can repent and renew that flame of love.
To hate evil is the Biblical counterpart of loving good. Whatever the failings of the Christians in Ephesus may have been, they are praised for resisting the heresies of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans denied the incarnation and victory of Christ, taught that what one did in the body made no difference at all because the body was mortal while the soul was immortal, and so they taught that they were free to eat food offered to idols and to practice immorality in the name of religion, both of which were real temptations in every-day Ephesus at the time.
The letter to Ephesus ends with the promise that whoever shares with Christ as conquerors will eat of the tree of life that is in the paradise of God (see Genesis 2: 9 and Revelation 22: 1-2).
2: 8-11, The Letter to Smyrna:
8 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Σμύρνῃ ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ πρῶτος καὶ ὁ ἔσχατος, ὃς ἐγένετο νεκρὸς καὶ ἔζησεν:
9 Οἶδά σου τὴν θλῖψιν καὶ τὴν πτωχείαν, ἀλλὰ πλούσιος εἶ, καὶ τὴν βλασφημίαν ἐκ τῶν λεγόντων Ἰουδαίους εἶναι ἑαυτούς, καὶ οὐκ εἰσὶν ἀλλὰ συναγωγὴ τοῦ Σατανᾶ. 10 μηδὲν φοβοῦ ἃ μέλλεις πάσχειν. ἰδοὺ μέλλει βάλλειν ὁ διάβολος ἐξ ὑμῶν εἰς φυλακὴν ἵνα πειρασθῆτε, καὶ ἕξετε θλῖψιν ἡμερῶν δέκα. γίνου πιστὸς ἄχρι θανάτου, καὶ δώσω σοι τὸν στέφανον τῆς ζωῆς. 11 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις. ὁ νικῶν οὐ μὴ ἀδικηθῇ ἐκ τοῦ θανάτου τοῦ δευτέρου.
8 ‘And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:
9 ‘I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.’
Classical and Biblical Smyrna:
The ruins in the Agora are all that remain of classical Smyrna in Izmir today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The second letter in these chapters is addressed to the Church in Smyrna, known in modern Turkey as Izmir. Smyrna (Σμύρνη) probably dates back to the first half of the third millennium BC, and became one of the wealthiest cities in this part of the ancient and classical world. The Temple of Athena dated back to the seventh century BC. The city was subsequently relocated and rebuilt by Lysimachus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Alongside Ephesus, it became one of the most important coastal cities in Asia Minor. As one of the principal cities of Roman Asia, Smyrna vied with Ephesus and Pergamum for recognition as the “First City of Asia.”
Smyrna was a centre of the imperial cult, with a temple to the Emperor Augustus and his mother, and a temple to Tiberius, even though he had never been officially deified by the Roman senate.
There was a Christian church in Smyrna from a very early time, probably originating in the considerable Jewish colony. Saint Ignatius of Antioch visited Smyrna and later wrote letters to its bishop, Saint Polycarp. By the time Polycarp was bishop, Smyrna had a population of 100,000. Polycarp’s story provides the first authentic post-Biblical narrative of the martyrdom of a leading Christian. He is thought to have lived around 69-156 AD, and is said to have been converted by Saint John, who appointed him Bishop of Smyrna. He was arrested and was burned to death in the stadium in Smyrna.
Saint Irenaeus, who heard Polycarp as a boy, was probably a native of Smyrna. Polycrates recounts a succession of bishops, including Polycarp, and the church in Smyrna was one of only two that Tertullian acknowledged as having some form of apostolic succession.
After the Ottoman conquest, Greek influence remained so strong in the area that the Turks called the city “Smyrna of the infidels.” The Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922, which resulted in the deaths of countless Greeks and Armenians, is one of the early, horrific examples of attempted “ethnic cleansing” and genocide in 20th century Europe. Today, nothing survives from the Hellenistic city, and all that remains in Izmir of Roman Smyrna is the ruins of the Agora.
The letter to Smyrna introduces Christ as the first and the last, the πρῶτος (protos) and the ἔσχατος (eschatos), who was dead and who came to life. Compare this to the description at the beginning and the end of this book of Christ as the alpha and the omega (1: 18 and 21: 6). The reference to one who was dead and who came to life is also appropriate in Smyrna, a city that had been destroyed by the Lydians and that lay in ruins until it was rebuilt by Lysimachus.
This letter commends the Church in Smyrna for its perseverance in the face of affliction and poverty, with the Christians of Smyrna bravely hanging on to their faith despite severe affliction and persecution. Despite their poverty, the Christians of Smyrna are rich in things spiritual. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6: 20).
Do you find the expression “synagogue of Satan” to describe the non-Christian Jews of Smyrna shocking today?
The description of the sufferings facing the Christians of Smyrna must have been read with greater poignancy after the martyrdom of Polycarp and other leaders. However, this persecution will not last long – ten days is used in apocalyptic literature to say that a period of testing or tribulation is going to be limited and not lengthy (see Daniel 1: 12). In John’s time, ten days was the length of two gladiatorial contests in the stadium.
The image of the “crown of life” may have been derived from the crown or wreath that was the most common symbol on coins in Smyrna and from the crown that athletes were rewarded with in the stadium.
Christ tells the Church in Smyrna that he who conquers will not be harmed by the second death. Those who are baptised into Christ are already dead, for baptism is symbolic of the first death. After baptism, the second death is entry into eternal life and into the presence of God. Once again, a reference to victory has been disclosed.
2: 12-17, The Letter to Pergamum:
12 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Περγάμῳ ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ ἔχων τὴν ῥομφαίαν τὴν δίστομον τὴν ὀξεῖαν:
13 Οἶδα ποῦ κατοικεῖς, ὅπου ὁ θρόνος τοῦ Σατανᾶ, καὶ κρατεῖς τὸ ὄνομά μου, καὶ οὐκ ἠρνήσω τὴν πίστιν μου καὶ ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις Ἀντιπᾶς ὁ μάρτυς μου ὁ πιστός μου, ὃς ἀπεκτάνθη παρ' ὑμῖν, ὅπου ὁ Σατανᾶς κατοικεῖ. 14 ἀλλ' ἔχω κατὰ σοῦ ὀλίγα, ὅτι ἔχεις ἐκεῖ κρατοῦντας τὴν διδαχὴν Βαλαάμ, ὃς ἐδίδασκεν τῷ Βαλὰκ βαλεῖν σκάνδαλον ἐνώπιον τῶν υἱῶν Ἰσραήλ, φαγεῖν εἰδωλόθυτα καὶ πορνεῦσαι: 15 οὕτως ἔχεις καὶ σὺ κρατοῦντας τὴν διδαχὴν [τῶν] Νικολαϊτῶν ὁμοίως. 16 μετανόησον οὖν: εἰ δὲ μή, ἔρχομαί σοι ταχύ, καὶ πολεμήσω μετ' αὐτῶν ἐν τῇ ῥομφαίᾳ τοῦ στόματός μου. 17 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις. τῷ νικῶντι δώσω αὐτῷ τοῦ μάννα τοῦ κεκρυμμένου, καὶ δώσω αὐτῷ ψῆφον λευκὴν καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν ψῆφον ὄνομα καινὸν γεγραμμένον ὃ οὐδεὶς οἶδεν εἰ μὴ ὁ λαμβάνων.
12 ‘And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword:
13 ‘I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling-block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practise fornication. 15 So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.
The Library of Pergamum rivalled those in Alexandria and Ephesus and was given to Cleopatra as a wedding present
Classical and Biblical Pergamum:
The third letter is sent to the Church in Pegamum. Pergamum, Pergamon, or Pérgamo (Πέργαμος) is an ancient Greek city about 105 km north of Ephesus, and is known today as Bergama. Pergamum’s wealth, library, temples and beauty were surpassed in the region only by those of Ephesus.
Pergamum’s library on the Acropolis was the second best in the ancient Greek civilisation. When the Ptolemies stopped exporting papyrus from Egypt, the Pergamenes invented a new substance to use in codices, called pergaminus or pergamena (parchment) after the city. This was made of fine calf skin, and was a predecessor of vellum. The library at Pergamom was said to have 200,000 scrolls, rivalling the libraries of Alexandria and Ephesus – Mark Antony later gave them to Cleopatra as a wedding present.
The Asklepion of Pergamum, after those of Kos and Epidavros, was the most important in the Roman world, and attracting pilgrims and people in search of healing from all over the known world. There, a live serpent was kept in a mystical chest as an object of veneration. The city was also a noted centre of idolatrous worship and of the Roman imperial cult. In John’s time, there was a statue of Caesar Augustus in the Temple of Athena on the summit of the acropolis, and the walls of the Great Altar were decorated with reliefs showing the battle between the Greek gods and the giants.
But the church was planted at an early stage in Pergamum, and the best-known surviving church building is the Church of Saint John.
Christ is introduced to the Church of Pergamum as the one with the two-edged sword (see1: 16; see also Hebrews 4: 12, and Psalm 149: 6).
The great altar to Zeus with its motifs, the statue of the divine Caesar and the veneration of the snake may all have inspired John to describe Pergamum as “Satan’s throne.” The Christians there are commended for holding fast to their faith, despite martyrdom and murder. Antipas, one of the Church leaders in Pergamum, was martyred by being roasted in a brazen bull for his refusal to take part in the imperial cult.
However, it appears some Christians in Pergamum had been compromised by the imperial cult, described here the cult of Balaam, eating food sacrificed to idols and engaging in fornication. Balaam, a greedy false prophet, was asked to curse the Israelites, and induced them in engage in prostitution with Moabite women and to eat food sacrificed by their neighbours to their gods (see Numbers 22-25). In this instance, John may be referring to those who had taken part in the imperial cult. Participation in sacrifices to the emperor amounts to spiritual unfaithfulness and prostitution.
The Church in Pergamum, like the Church of Ephesus, also suffered inroads from the Nicolaitans.
Those who do not take the opportunity to abandon idolatry and heresy are warned of the consequences facing them.
But those who listen and believe are promised the “hidden manna” which Christ gives to those who conquer with him. Manna sustained the children of Israel in the wilderness; now, in the wilderness of persecution, those who abandon idolatry and follow Christ are promised the hidden manna, which may refer to the Eucharistic banquet.
In the classical world, stones of various kinds served as tickets and admission passes. The white stone and the new name may refer to the believer’s baptismal name, written on a stone, which can be compared with a ticket or a right to enter into the higher heavens.
2: 18-29, The Letter to Thyatira:
18 Καὶ τῷ ἀγγέλῳ τῆς ἐν Θυατείροις ἐκκλησίας γράψον: Τάδε λέγει ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, ὁ ἔχων τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ ὡς φλόγα πυρός, καὶ οἱ πόδες αὐτοῦ ὅμοιοι χαλκολιβάνῳ:
19 Οἶδά σου τὰ ἔργα καὶ τὴν ἀγάπην καὶ τὴν πίστιν καὶ τὴν διακονίαν καὶ τὴν ὑπομονήν σου, καὶ τὰ ἔργα σου τὰ ἔσχατα πλείονα τῶν πρώτων. 20 ἀλλὰ ἔχω κατὰ σοῦ ὅτι ἀφεῖς τὴν γυναῖκα Ἰεζάβελ, ἡ λέγουσα ἑαυτὴν προφῆτιν, καὶ διδάσκει καὶ πλανᾷ τοὺς ἐμοὺς δούλους πορνεῦσαι καὶ φαγεῖν εἰδωλόθυτα. 21 καὶ ἔδωκα αὐτῇ χρόνον ἵνα μετανοήσῃ, καὶ οὐ θέλει μετανοῆσαι ἐκ τῆς πορνείας αὐτῆς. 22 ἰδοὺ βάλλω αὐτὴν εἰς κλίνην, καὶ τοὺς μοιχεύοντας μετ' αὐτῆς εἰς θλῖψιν μεγάλην, ἐὰν μὴ μετανοήσωσιν ἐκ τῶν ἔργων αὐτῆς: 23 καὶ τὰ τέκνα αὐτῆς ἀποκτενῶ ἐν θανάτῳ: καὶ γνώσονται πᾶσαι αἱ ἐκκλησίαι ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἐραυνῶν νεφροὺς καὶ καρδίας, καὶ δώσω ὑμῖν ἑκάστῳ κατὰ τὰ ἔργα ὑμῶν. 24 ὑμῖν δὲ λέγω τοῖς λοιποῖς τοῖς ἐν Θυατείροις, ὅσοι οὐκ ἔχουσιν τὴν διδαχὴν ταύτην, οἵτινες οὐκ ἔγνωσαν τὰ βαθέα τοῦ Σατανᾶ, ὡς λέγουσιν, οὐ βάλλω ἐφ' ὑμᾶς ἄλλο βάρος: 25 πλὴν ὃ ἔχετε κρατήσατε ἄχρι[ς] οὗ ἂν ἥξω. 26 καὶ ὁ νικῶν καὶ ὁ τηρῶν ἄχρι τέλους τὰ ἔργα μου,
δώσω αὐτῷ ἐξουσίαν ἐπὶ τῶν ἐθνῶν,
27 καὶ ποιμανεῖ αὐτοὺς ἐν ῥάβδῳ σιδηρᾷ,
ὡς τὰ σκεύη τὰ κεραμικὰ συντρίβεται,
28 ὡς κἀγὼ εἴληφα παρὰ τοῦ πατρός μου, καὶ δώσω αὐτῷ τὸν ἀστέρα τὸν πρωϊνόν. 29 ὁ ἔχων οὖς ἀκουσάτω τί τὸ πνεῦμα λέγει ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις.
18 ‘And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze:
19 ‘I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. 20 But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practise fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22 Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call “the deep things of Satan”, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; 25 only hold fast to what you have until I come. 26 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end,
I will give authority over the nations;
27 to rule them with an iron rod,
as when clay pots are shattered –
28 even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. 29 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Classical and Biblical Thyatira:
A mound with the ruins of Thyatira, the least-known and least-important of the seven Churches of Asia
The fourth letter is addressed to the Church in Thyatira (Θυάτειρα), and is the longest of the seven letters, although the city was the least-known and least-important of the seven cities. Thyatira, a Lydian city dating back to the seventh century BC, was a stronghold for Hellenistic Pergamum. It was known for its trade guilds, including bakers, potters, slave-dealers, bronze-smiths, wool workers, linen weavers and tanners, who sponsored periodic feasts in honour of their guilds’ own adopted idols. These rituals excluded Christians from the guilds and trades.
Lydia, one of Paul’s converts, was a rich woman who traded in purple cloth from Thyatira (see Acts 16: 11-16). The city fell to the Goths and later to the Arab invaders, but enjoyed a brief revival under the Byzantine Lascarids. But Thyatira was materially the most insignificant city among the seven churches addressed in these two chapters.
The Church of Thyatira survives today in so far as the tile of Archbishop of Thyatira was revived in 1922 by the Patriarch of Constantinople for the Exarch for Western and Central Europe. The Archbishop of Thyatira lives London and has pastoral responsibility for the Greek Orthodox Church in Britain and Ireland. Today, the Turkish city of Akhisar occupies the site of Thyatira.
Christ is introduced to the Church of Thyatira as the Son of God, the only occasion on which this title is used in the Book of Revelation. He has eyes like a flame of fire (see 1: 14) and feet like burnished bronze (see 1: 15), the second image particularly appropriate in city where the bronze-makers were a powerful economic force.
The Christians of Thyatira are commended for their love, faith, service and patient endurance. Love is the crowning virtue at the head of this list; faith is also alive; service is the diakonia of servant ministry.
However, there is one major problem in the Church there. Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of King Ahab, worshipped Balaam, ate food offered to idols, and indulged in sexual immorality (see I Kings 16: 31, 19-19; II Kings 9). This links the problems in Thyatira with those in Pergamum.
The women singled out for condemnation may have been a priestess of the sibylline oracle, one of the female seers of the cult of Apollo, who claimed to prophesy in states of ecstasy. They were consulted not only by pagans but by some Jews too, and some Christians may have been consulting this woman too, or she may have been allowed to attend the Church in Thyatira.
The warning to the Church in Thyatira is direct and to the point.
If the Christians of Thyatira can put all this behind them, then those who conquer will be given power to rule over the nations, which is symbolic of being in the Kingdom of God, which is possible to attain in this world.
The image of the morning star or the planet Venus may refer to Christ. The rabbis applied the text in Numbers 24: 17, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel,” as applying to the Messiah. Christ is the messianic herald of the new world that is dawning.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible Study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 22 April 2009.
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