As the title for today indicates, I want to talk a bit about some of the stranger elements in the seven letters. To do so I want to focus on two letters—to Pergamum and to Laodicea. Using these as our models, we will see how an understanding of the first-century world illuminates our reading of the book of Revelation. Understanding Revelation’s world helps us live out Revelation’s message in our world.
On to Pergamum we go.
Take another look at the letter to Pergamum (2.12-17). Make a mental note of whatever stands out to you in this letter (or if you have time, write or type out a few basic observations).
I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but note the two mentions of satan—what does it mean for him to live and have his throne here?
Pergamum, even more than other ancient cities, was well known for its many temples to pagan deities. (The first temple of the emperor cult was built in Pergamum in 29 B.C.) One of Pergamum’s temples was to Asclepius, a serpent-god of healing, whose snakes were one of the city’s emblems (and one of ours). Sick people would come here and lay down on the ground, hoping that one of the sacred snakes would touch and heal them. According to John’s thought, a serpent-symbol can mean only one thing: this idolatry is empowered by satan (see 12.9).
Many such temples littered the landscape, but none more impressive than one outside the city, erected in honor of Zeus, the king of the gods. Listen to this description of Zeus’ temple:
“The altar stood on a huge platform surrounded by colonnades, and the whole structure looked like an enormous throne. The overwhelming smell of burning animal flesh [from the continual sacrifices offered there] permeated the air, and all day long a column of smoke could be seen from miles around, serving to keep the supremacy of Zeus ever in the public eye.”
It’s no wonder John calls Pergamum the place where satan lives and has his throne (2.13).
Now let’s take a look at Laodicea (3.14-22).
There are two important points to keep in mind about this city—one has to do with geography and the other with history.
One of the strangest details in all of these letters (to me) is all this lukewarm business. I realize that God hates apathy, but it has never made sense to me that he would rather us hate him than just kind of want to please him a little bit. Then I learned about the layout of the land. There are two cities close to Laodicea: Hierapolis and Colosse. Notice these cities on the map below:
Hierapolis was known for natural it’s hot springs. Colosse was known for it’s natural cold springs. Both cities were up in the hills, and aqueducts had been built centuries previously to bring water to Laodicea. Over time, however, these aqueducts broke down, and by John’s day the cold and hot water met just above Laodicea, causing putrid lukewarm water to flow through Laodicea’s streets. Laodicea was actually known for stinking.
That being said, the imagery of lukewarmness would have been extremely familiar to these people.
So how does this help us understand and apply the text?
Well, hot and cold water had one thing in common in the ancient world: fruitfulness. Not in the sense that they produced literal fruit, but in that they were both useful for cleaning, bathing, drinking, etc.
Lukewarm water doesn’t share this commonality. It is literally good for nothing (but stinking). It produces no fruit whatsoever.
Do you want to know something else about Laodicea? In A.D. 61 the city suffered a terrible earthquake. Any time a city in the Roman Empire suffered an earthquake, the emperor would offer a great deal of money to aid the rebuilding process.
Laodicea refused this government assistance. They could do it on their own, thank you very much. They were doing just fine.
Unfortunately, they had the same attitude about their faith. They were doing fine; they could take care of themselves. Jesus clearly had a different opinion (see 3.17-18).
Living what we learn
Jesus’ prophetic oracle against Laodicea scares me.
Why does it scare me?
Because it reminds me of the dangerous truth that we often misevaluate our own degree of faithfulness.
It scares me because it forces me to face a reality I am prone to ignore. Even when I think the church is doing her job quite nicely, I might only see this because I am, in fact, blind to the truth. Or on a personal level, even when I think I’m going great, even when I think I have the strength to do whatever needs to be done, I might be wrong.
My guess is that many of you can relate.
So how can we know if we’re remaining faithful?
Well, it was Jesus who said, “Each tree is recognized by its own fruit” (Luke 6.44). Luckily, Paul elaborated (Gal 5.22-23):
The fruit of the Spirit is love instead of selfish ambition, joy instead of despair, peace instead of violence, patience instead of anger, kindness instead of discord, generosity instead of greed, faithfulness instead of fickleness, gentleness instead of harshness, and self-control instead of laziness.
I also think of Micah 6.8 – He has shown all you people what is good. And what does Yahweh require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
These “lists” certainly aren’t exhaustive, but they give us a pretty good start! In what ways is the Spirit’s fruit evident – or not evident – in the life of your church (or in your own life)?
Prayerfully read through the conclusion to the Laodicean letter: Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me. To those who are victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Rev 3.19-22).
How might Jesus want us to respond to these things? What would that look like or involve? What would stay the same (in our lives) and what would change?
I have one more challenge: let’s each write out a letter, in the same form as Revelation’s seven letters, to ourselves and/or to the church in which we presently serve (whether on paid or volunteer basis doesn’t matter). Include some details – good and bad – from our own lives, as well as some images from John’s vision of Jesus in Revelation 1.
What would Jesus say to us? What would Jesus say to you?