Friday, November 23
Revelation 2:8-11: Smyrna, the modern Turkish city of Izmir, was a seaport rivaling and then surpassing Ephesus. The Book of Revelation is our earliest historical witness to the presence of a Christian church at Smyrna, but it does not indicate when or by whom the place was evangelized.
A second century bishop of that church, the martyr Polycarp, one of the most revered men in early Christian history, personally knew the apostle John at one end of his ministry, and, at the other end, was the friend of Irenaeus of Lyons in Gaul, who lived to the dawn of the third century. Polycarp thus became the very embodiment of primitive Christian tradition, and because of him Smyrna’s status among the early churches rivaled that of Ephesus.
At Smyrna there seems to have been considerable conflict between the Christians and the local Jews, who are here referred to as “a synagogue of Satan,” not even worthy to be called real Jews (verse 9). Even in the mid-second century the Jews of Smyrna took steps to prevent the Christians from recovering the body of the martyred Polycarp (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 18.1).
The four verses here under consideration indicate that, unlike the situations in Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea, in Smyrna the problems faced by the church came largely from without. Thus, unlike the Ephesians (2:5), the believers at Smyrna were not told to repent. John did warn the congregation, however, that they would soon be severely tested (verse 10). How many Christians perished in that testing? It is very difficult to say, but we do know that Polycarp, who was martyred in A.D. 155, was the twelfth name on the list of martyrs at Smyrna (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 19.1).
Those martyrs, in any case, were promised the “crown of life,” an athletic image indicating their victory in Christ (Philippians 3:14; 2 Timothy 2:5; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4). The “second death” in verse 11 refers to eternal damnation (cf. 20:6.14.15; 21:8).
Saturday, November 24
Revelation 2:12-17: Pergamos is now the Turkish city of Bergama, which is about one-tenth the size it was in antiquity; it has had an unbroken history since the fifth century B.C. There is a still a small, poor congregation of Orthodox Christians at Bergama, the direct descendents of that congregation to which was addressed the Book of Revelation. (Christians do not thrive in Turkey, by the way, which is one of the most oppressive countries in which Christians have had to survive. At the beginning of the 20th century, one third of Turkey belonged to the Orthodox Church. Turkish Orthodox Christians now are numbered in four digits.)
One may also see at Bergama the ruins of a once magnificent church dedicated to St. John by the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century. Thanks to the excavations begun under the auspices of the Museum of Berlin in 1878, we know quite a bit about that ancient city.
The problems in the church at Pergamos seem to have been largely internal. There was a laxist group, apparently to be identified with the Nicolaitans (verse 15), who advocated sexual immorality and the eating of sacrifices made to idols (verse 14). Those internal problems were compounded, nonetheless, by external pressure in the form of occasional persecutions, during one of which there perished the martyr Antipas (verse 13), identified by Christian tradition as the first bishop of that city (with an annual feast day on April 11).
So resolute was the opposition to the Gospel in that city that Satan was said to throne there, perhaps a reference to the temple of the god Asculepius, whose symbol was a staff with a coiled serpent. That image, now universally known as the symbol of the healing professions (for Asculepius was the god of healing), would have reminded the early Christians of the serpent in Genesis 3, who will reappear several more times in the Book of Revelation (cf. 12:9 and 20:2, for instance).
Pergamos also boasted temples to Zeus and to Roma, the deified personification of the empire. In verse 16 Jesus says that He will come quickly, a promise repeated six more times in Revelation (3:11; 16:15; 22:7,12,17,20)
Sunday, November 25
Revelation 2:18-29: Thyatira, the modern Akhisar, was a city more modest than the previous three. The church in that city, too, was praised for its works, love, service, faith, and patience (verse 19).
In spite of that praise, the congregation was tolerating in its midst the activities of a pseudo-charismatic woman whom John likened to the ancient Queen Jezebel of Israel, that fine Phoenician feminist responsible for so many of the ills condemned by the prophet Elijah in the ninth century B.C. (verse 20). The moral offenses of the woman at Thyatira, which included the advocacy of sexual sins and the eating of food sacrificed to demons, seem similar to those of the Nicolaitans, but in the present case John took care to single out an individual rather than to talk about a group. Against her he prophesied a dire judgment (verses 22-23). This woman seems also to have been a sort of mistress of the occult, here called “the depths of Satan” (verse 24).
But John does not condemn solely that woman; he speaks very critically, in addition, of the church that tolerated her activities (verse 20). Toleration, which today is everywhere regarded as a virtue to be cultivated, is everywhere in the New Testament regarded as a vice to be avoided (for example, Romans 1:32).
In the instance studied here, the church at Thyatira was permitting a very forceful woman, who claimed the authority of a prophetess, to bring moral havoc into the congregation. Whereas the members of the congregation were intimidated by her influence, or were simply reluctant to deal harshly with a woman, John, as we see, suffered from neither that intimidation nor that reluctance. In the present text he accomplished the moral equivalent of that robust defenestration suffered by the aging Phoenician princess of Samaria on that day when Jehu came a-riding.
Monday, November 26
Revelation 3:1-6: In antiquity Sardis had been the capital city of the famous Croesus, king of Lydia, and in Persian times it was the greatest city of Asia Minor, linked by a major highway to the faraway Persian capital of Susa. The acropolis of the city was so high and well fortified as to be nearly impregnable. In fact, it was never taken by direct assault. It was captured twice, however, on both occasions by sneak attacks, once by Cyrus in 546 and once by Antiochus the Great in 218.
It is against another surprise attack that John warns the people of Sardis now (verse 3), using an image found elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 24:43; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10). Truth to tell, lack of vigilance was a great problem in the church at Sardis, part of its more general condition of laziness and despondency. After all, John does not mention a single heresy at Sardis. The evil in that congregation is, rather, apathy and boredom; the congregation is too dead to be sick (verse 1).
Therefore, John summons them to vigilance (verse 2). Very few Christians in Sardis have measured up (verse 4), and the others are in danger of being removed from “the Book of Life” (verse 5; cf. also 17:8; 21:27). This latter image is not a metaphor for eternal predestination, obviously, precisely because names can be removed from it.
The Book of Life is, rather, a register of the citizens of heaven, and the metaphor of erasure testifies that the names written therein, as long as those who bear those names still live on earth, can be removed if the removal is warranted. There is no question, then, of some sort of eternal roll call already fixed and unchangeable, independent of the choices each man makes in his own heart. As long as he is on this earth, there remains the possibility that a man’s name may be erased from the Book of Life. Hence, the necessity of vigilance.
Tuesday, November 27
Revelation 3:7-13: This is the most cheerful, complimentary, and optimistic of the letters to the seven Asian churches. Not one word of criticism is directed to the Christians at Philadelphia. On the contrary, they are twice praised for their perseverance (verses 8,10). The problem at Philadelphia is external, involving conflict with the local Jews (verse 9), the sort of problem we saw at Smyrna.
“The key of David” (verse 7) alludes to Isaiah 22:22, where Eliakim is described as having exclusive power of the keys. A minister with this power was the man who decided who would and who would not be admitted to the royal presence. In describing Jesus in this way, John asserts that if anyone wants to go to God, he must go through Jesus. This emphasis on the unique mediation and finality of Christ is common throughout the New Testament.
The Christian congregation at Philadelphia is evidently small and of limited resources, but we gain the impression that it is about to make significant missionary gains (“open door” — see Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3). Also, there will soon be a trial (verse 10), and those who overcome in that trial will receive the name of God and the name of New Jerusalem (verse 12), the holy city that comes down from heaven (21:2; Galatians 2:9).
St. Paul contrasts the new Jerusalem with the now Jerusalem (he nun Hierousalem), which is simply a city in Palestine (Galatians 4:24-25). By the time that John writes, this latter city, the earthly Jerusalem, has already been destroyed by the Romans.
Wednesday, November 28
Revelation 3:14-22: We commented, with respect to the church at Philadelphia, that John had no criticisms to make about that congregatation. Writing to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pegamos, Thyatira, and Sardis, John paid some compliments and made some criticisms. Writing to the Christians at Laodicea, however, John has nothing at all encouraging to say! He is unable to find a single item for which to praise that church. To John’s thinking, the church at Laodicea is a lackluster group of slackers living in an affluent, self-satisfied society. Although this church was evangelized by Paul’s companion Epaphras (Colossians 4:12-13), it has lost its fervor and is now mediocre (verse 16).
The secular city of Laodicea was famous for three things: (1) large banking interests, (2) textile industry, and (3) a special eye-salve that the great physician Galen called “Phrygian powder.” John alludes to all three things in verse 18, where the church at Laodicea is told to come to God for (1) gold refined in the fire, (2) clothing to cover its nakedness, and (3) a special anointing of its spiritual eyes. The Laodiceans must admit, in short, that they are “poor, blind, and naked” (verse 17).
There are three points of Christology to note in this letter to Laodicea: (1) Christ in the past; the relationship of Christ to creation (verse 14; cf. Colossians 1:15-18; Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:3). (2) Christ in the present, exhorting and inviting His Church, communing with those who open to Him (verses 19-20; cf. 19:9; Luke 22:28-30). (3) Christ in the future, rewarding those who vanquish in His name (verse 21; cf. Matthew 19:28). The image of the divine throne appears over forty times in the Book of Revelation.
Thursday, November 29
Revelation 4:1-11: In Chapters 2 and 3 John has warned the Christians of the seven churches of Asia that judgment is imminent. He has endeavored to strengthen them for an impending outbreak of chaos and disorder.
In the present chapter, John turns their vision on high, to the throne of God, which is the source of all order. Like Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and other prophets, John slips into an ecstatic trance, a rapture in which he is seized by the Holy Spirit. He hears a voice, and a mysterious door opens (verse 1). He is introduced to the heavenly worship before God’s throne (verse 2), over which is the rainbow of the covenant (verse 3; Genesis 9:12-17). The dominant color is green, the symbol of spring and hope.
As in the temple of Solomon (1 Kings 7:23), which was modeled, after all, on the heavenly throne room, there is “a sea of glass, like crystal” (verse 6), symbolizing the chaos over which the Holy Spirit brooded in Creation. Other details remind us of Isaiah 6 (which is also read today) and Ezekiel 1. This should not surprise us, because in all of Holy Scripture we are dealing with the same God and the same heaven. The hymn, with which the chapter closes, concentrates on Creation. Recall that this vision takes place on Sunday (1:10), the first day of Creation.
Friday, November 30
The Feast of Saint Andrew: If a Bible-reader takes the care to notice him, the Apostle Andrew is among the most attractive individuals in all of Holy Scripture. A certain measure of careful attention is necessary to lay hold of this fact, nonetheless, for Andrew does not really “put himself forward.” He does not come bounding forth impetuously from the biblical page, so to speak, like a David, a Moses, or a Paul. Indeed, this disinclination to draw explicit attention to himself is one of the very features that render Andrew so attractive.
To appreciate this quiet, self-effacing aspect of Andrew it may be useful to contrast him, in this respect, to his bolder, more emphatic brother, the Apostle Peter. Peter most certainly does draw attention to himself, which may be one of the reasons that he is invariably named first when the original Apostles are listed (cf. Mark 3:17–19; Acts 1:13; etc.). In the memory of the early Church, Peter would have been extremely difficult to overlook. He appears in Holy Scripture very much as an in-your-face apostle, if the term be allowed. It was he, after all, who flung himself into the lake and swam toward the risen Jesus, while the others came rowing to shore in their boats (John 21:7–8). On that occasion Peter was at least swimming toward the Lord and not attempting, as he had earlier done, to walk to Him on the surface of the water (Matthew 14:28–31).
Even though Peter often served as a spokesman for the others (cf. Matthew 19:27; Mark 1:36), one has the impression that he sometimes went out of his way to distinguish himself, to set himself apart, from the rest of the Apostles—“Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be” (Mark 14:29). A consummate alpha personality, Peter simply cannot be overlooked; like the very sun, a boisterous giant rejoicing to run his course, there is nothing hidden from his heat.
In his brother Andrew we find none of this. Andrew, on the contrary, appears not to draw attention to himself, but serves entirely as a conduit for others to come to the Lord. Even in that scene that prompts the Church to remember him as the first-called, he immediately went to share his blessing with his sibling. It is no wonder that he was known among the first Christians simply as “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother” (cf. John 1:38–42).
As the first-called of the Church, then, Andrew was apparently recognized to enjoy a kind of special access to the Lord. Thus, when the Greek-speaking visitors to Jerusalem approached Philip (besides Andrew, the only other apostle with a Greek name) saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” Philip went first to Andrew so that the two of them might together facilitate that meeting (John 12:21–22). Evidently Philip felt the need to have the helpful, accessible Andrew by his side at that time.
In all of the Gospels, however, there is one scene that seems most clearly to reveal this trait of friendly, relaxed availability in Andrew, and that scene is in John’s narrative of the multiplication of the loaves. Of the six New Testament stories on this theme, only John tells us of the special role of Andrew: “One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?’” (John 6:8–9). Now, the attentive reader of Holy Scripture should be asking a question of the text at this point, namely, just how did Andrew know that there was a little boy present who was carrying those particular pieces of food? It is unlikely, after all, that a small boy would be holding all seven items in his hands at the same time. The five barley loaves and two little fish must have been carried in a sack of some sort. The lad was part of a large multitude that had been with Jesus for some days (Matthew 15:32), and his mother had packed him several meals in a lunch bag. By now, he has already eaten most of that food—the fresh fruit and sweets are gone, for instance. All the lad has left in that sack are five barley loaves, possibly a tad beyond their prime, and a couple of salted fish. So how did Andrew know what was contained in that little boy’s bag? Surely the answer is obvious. He noticed the child standing near him, maybe alone, perhaps a bit distracted, and he simply asked in a cordial, engaging way, “Say there, son, what all did your mama pack for you in that bag?” From such friendly inquiries are missions and ministries begun, and miracles born. (From P. H. Reardon, >Christ in His Saints)