Scripture Reading: Revelation 1-5, 19-22
Significant Moments in The Story
The letters to the seven churches – Revelation 2-3
The new Jerusalem – Revelation 21-22
The supremacy of Christ
Revelation is full of stark, strange, and even confusing imagery. However, one constant theme rings clear and true throughout the entire book: the supremacy of Jesus Christ. Throughout John’s vision, Christ is seen to be triumphant and worthy of honor and glory both in heaven and on earth. In many ways, the confusing imagery only enhances our understanding of this supremacy. John’s descriptions of what he sees are attempts to give definition to the “(w)holy other”, one who cannot be easily defined or described. As opposed to what others might claim or what evidence might be seen, John wants believers to understand that Christ is supreme and that any who would try to claim or take his authority will fail.
Hope in the face of hard times
John, imprisoned for his faith, is writing to believers who themselves are being persecuted for their faith. Most would date John’s vision to sometime near the end of the first century, in a time when the Roman emperor Domitian was known to have persecuted those who refused to worship him as a deity. Though it is unclear whether this persecution was empire-wide or not, it at least probably triggered other more localized persecutions of those who were seen as opposed to the Roman authority, including Christians. It is likely, then, that the original audience of this book were believers who, faced with persecution, wondered if Christ truly was Lord and King. John’s revelation assured them that the day was coming, and coming soon, when the powers that persecuted them would be revealed as nothing, when those who remained faithful to Christ would share in his glory and victory and would finally know peace.
The John of Revelation has traditionally been connected to the author of the gospel of John. Some have even argued that this same John authored the three letters that share his name, though most would probably argue against such a claim. There is very little we can say for certain about John other than what we are told in Revelation: he is on the island of Patmos as a prisoner for his faith. That John is imprisoned and that he is writing to churches that may be facing institutionalized or localized persecution is important to remember when considering the sometimes confusing imagery of Revelation. John’s message was that those who were persecuting the church (namely, the Romans) would eventually be overcome and Christ would be the ruler of all. To say so directly – to even name the Romans directly – could have brought accusations of treason against John and those he was writing to. Therefore, John probably intentionally clouded his message so that those he was writing to could understand his meaning without bringing any more unwanted attention.
A small rocky island in the Aegean Sea. Such islands were used by the Romans to banish political prisoners.
The seven churches
John addresses his revelation to “… the seven churches that are in Asia”: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. In 17 AD, a massive earthquake struck this region that caused major damage to several of these cities. Most of the rebuilding was done with substantial help from the Romans, which may have been a factor in some of the persecution that believers in the region were facing. Below is some information about each city and/or church.
Ephesus was perhaps the greatest city in the region. It was a large seaport city that was a center for religion and commerce. We have already encountered Ephesus in our study of Paul, as it was a center of operations for Paul for quite some time (Acts 20:31). We also know that it was a long-time center for the worship of the Greek god Artemis. Within the city was a sacred precinct was dedicated to Rome and the Emperor.
Smyrna was the largest and busiest commercial center that was perhaps the most common victim of earthquakes in the region. The city was very loyal to Rome, and that loyalty brought with it great benefits provided by the Roman Empire. The city also had a large Jewish population that was hostile to early Christianity.
Pergamum was the center of the cult of the worship of the Roman emperor, containing three different temples devoted to him.
Thyatira was a city made up of numerous trade guilds – coppersmiths, tanners, woolworkers, etc. In order to earn a living, a workman would have had to join a guild. Each guild had a patron god associated with it, and each guild would sponsor feasts and other social occasions that could at times become orgies. Thyatira was also a center for the worship of the Greek god Apollo.
Sardis was a city known for its luxury and licentiousness. It also contained a rather lavish temple to the god Artemis.
Philadelphia’s prosperity was tied to agriculture and textile and leather production. There was long-held tension in Philadelphia between the local church and synagogue.
Laodicea was a town of such wealth that, after an earthquake in 60 AD, they refused help from Rome and rebuilt the city themselves. Their wealth came from fertile land that good grazing ground for sheep, especially sheep with a raven-black wool that would be woven in the city into special garments and carpets. Their prosperity also led them to become a center for banking and finance. The cities water supply came from a series of nearby hot springs, which may have contributed to the imagery of spitting out lukewarm water.
Alpha and Omega – Revelation 1:8
Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, Omega the last.
Nicolaitans – Revelation 2:6
It is hard to say for certain exactly what the heresy of the Nicolaitans is, since the only mention of them is here in Revelation, and John has harsh words for them without saying much in detail about what they actually teach or do. It could be that the term was being used by John as a general term to refer to different specific teachings that he found to be antithetical to the gospel.
One issue seems to involve a teaching held by some that it was OK to eat food that had been offered to pagan idols. John’s concern may have been that such a teaching would cause some to return to the worship of these idols. Another concern seems to have been a claim to some kind of deep knowledge that was not accessible to other believers, a form of Gnosticism that would later come to universal condemnation by the Christian church. There also may have been a teaching that immoral behavior was acceptable because of Christ’s grace.
The teaching of Balaam – Revelation 2:14
Balaam was a “prophet for hire” who Numbers 31 blames as responsible for leading the Israelites in the wilderness to turn to the worship of false gods. John is connecting this understanding with a concern that there are those in Pergamum who are teaching that it is OK to eat food sacrificed to idols, thus presenting a “stumbling block” to true worship of God.
Jezebel – Revelation 2:20
John references the Old Testament queen Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, to refer to a female false prophet in the church at Thyatira. In 1 Kings, we are told that Jezebel and Ahab led Israel to worship false gods and to turn from the one true God. John is presenting this false prophet as one who presents a similar threat.
Scrolls and seals – Revelation 5
The scrolls contain God’s purposes for the future. The fact that they are sealed means that they have not been altered and that they are unknown to others.
Gog and Magog – Revelation 20:8
Gog and Magog are first referenced in Ezekiel 38. There, they represent a northern kingdom that has threatened Israel and that God will overturn to restore Israel. It is possible that Gog and Magog were representative at that time of Babylon.
No temple – Revelation 21:22
The vision that the new Jerusalem has no Temple should take us back to Jesus’ words to the woman at the well in John 4. When she exclaimed to Jesus that the Jews expected everyone to worship at the Temple, Jesus announced that the day would come when worship would not be about location but about the heart – “worship in spirit and in truth”. Here, in John’s vision, God’s presence is not tied to one location, but flows freely throughout the new heaven and new earth.
The tree of life – Revelation 22:2
Genesis 2 & 3 described the river that flowed through Eden and nurtured all life there, including the tree of life. At the end of Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are banished from Eden to prevent them from eating of the tree of life. In John’s vision, the river of life flows right down the middle of the streets of the new Jerusalem, and the tree of life and its fruit are readily available “for the healing of the nations”.
A word of warning – Revelation 22:18-19
Some have misconstrued the warning in these verses regarding the “word of the prophecy of this book” to refer to the entire Bible. It is important to remember that Revelation was not written to be the last book of the Bible; instead, it originally was written as a standalone work. Therefore, the words of warning here were meant to apply only to the words of the book of Revelation.