25 December 2018

Thyatira and Sardis (Revelation 2:18-3:6)

City of Sardis, Ruins

          Thyatira: The city of Thyatira was situated fifty-five kilometers southeast of Pergamos and eighty kilometers inland. Its proximity to Pergamos explains why the doctrines of the Nicolaitans also infiltrated this group. Christianity reached Thyatira at an early stage but the details of those distant events remain unknown.
          The city produced a dye used in the production of a purple fabric highly prized around the Mediterranean. The woman Lydia converted by the Apostle Paul at Philippi was a dye merchant from Thyatira (Acts 16:14).
           The city’s economy was dominated by trade guilds for the bronze, linen, leather, pottery and dye industries. Trade guilds promoted the interests of their members, and it would be difficult for a tradesman unassociated with any guild to conduct business in Thyatira. Each guild featured rituals and patron deities; membership demanded participation in religious rites.
          The letter to Thyatira is the longest of the seven and lies at the center of the literary unit. Beginning with this message, the exhortation to hear the Spirit is repositioned to the end of each letter.
          Jesus is identified as the “Son of God” with flaming eyes and feet like burnished bronze (cp. Daniel 10:6). The title “Son of God” occurs only here in Revelation and alludes to Psalm 2:7-9, a key passage in the promise to the one who overcomes at the conclusion of all seven letters.
          The reference to a “furnace” invokes the story of the “fiery furnace” into which Daniel’s three friends were cast when they refused to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatrous image (Daniel 3:24-25). The three were delivered from death by “one like a Son of God.” That fiery furnace later becomes the model for the “lake of fire burning with brimstone” into which the Beast and False Prophet are cast (19:20).
          Jesus knows the church’s “works, love, faith, ministry, and perseverance,” and that “your last works are more than the first.” This description contrasts Thyatira with Ephesus where earlier works of testimony were greater than later ones. Based on usage, “work” points to the bearing of a faithful witness for Christ, not good deeds.
           Despite its past faithful witness, Jesus rebukes the church for tolerating a false prophetess he names “Jezebel.” Her teachings parallel those of the Nicolaitans (“to eat idol-sacrifices and to commit fornication”). She promoted accommodation with the city’s idolatrous culture.
          “Jezebel” is probably not her actual name; she is cast in the image of the Old Testament pagan queen and wife of Ahab, Jezebel. She was known for promoting the worship of Ba’al in northern Israel and persecuting the prophets of Yahweh and Elijah (1 Kings 16:31, 18:4-19, 19:1-2).
           Allusions to Elijah’s ministry appear again in Revelation 11:3-7 where saints, symbolized by the two “olive trees and witnesses,” exercise the prophetic authority of Moses and Elijah. The two figures are identified as “lamp-stands” that will be overcome by the Beast from the Abyss, which confirms their identities as churches (cp. Revelation 12:17; 13:7; 20:8-9).
           “Fornication” is metaphorical for idolatry; note the explanatory “eating meat offered to idols.” Jezebel’s “lovers” and “children” are adherents of her doctrine. The influence of the trade guilds in Thyatira raised questions about eating meat offered to idols that occurred at guild events, and otherwise participating in idolatrous rites. Nonparticipation is such rites meant economic loss.
           This Jezebel is a “prophetess.” This is a link to the False Prophet met later in the book (13:11; 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). Like Jezebel of old, the False Prophet causes others to engage in idolatry (13:14-16; Daniel 3:1-7), and refusal to do so means exclusion from economic activity (Revelation 13:17-18).
           “Jezebel” is a harlot-like figure because of her seductive powers, which also links her to the Great Harlot, Babylon, who causes the earth’s inhabitants to drink the “wine of her fornication” (17:1-6, 18:3, 18:8-9).
          This “Jezebel” in Thyatira is a version of that Great Harlot already at work in the church. The threatened judgment on her and her “children” anticipates God’s judgment on the Greater Harlot; anyone who partakes of her sins also receives “her plagues” (18:4). Babylon is even now in the church!
          The prophetess “deceives” Christ’s servants, another link to later visions. Note the parallels:
  1. Satan deceives the whole world (12:9; 20:3; 20:8-10). 
  2. False Prophet deceives those who dwell on earth (13:14). 
  3. Mystery Babylondeceives all the nations by her sorceries (18:23). 
  4. False Prophet deceives those who receive the mark of the Beast (19:20). 
         Jesus gave “Jezebel” time to repent but she refused, therefore he is poised to mete out punishment. But all hope is not lost; Christ allows a little more time for repentance (“unless they repent of her works”). Jesus will “cast her into a couch along with them who fornicate with her.” This couch is a sickbed, indicated by her punishment with “great tribulation” and plagues.
          Christ will “kill her children with death” (apoktenō en thanatō), a verbal link to Revelation 6:8 where the four horsemen are authorized “to kill…with death” (apokteinai en thanatō). 
          The clause, “he who searches reins and hearts,” interprets the “eyes like a flaming fire.” The allusion is to Jeremiah 17:10-11. God pronounced judgment on Israelites who participated in idolatry for economic gain. Christ’s flaming eyes pierce through to the innermost being; nothing is hidden from his gaze.
          “The rest” are those not corrupted by Jezebel’s seductions. She argues it is permissible to “know the deep things of Satan,” possibly a slogan propagated by her supporters (“as they say”).
          More likely, in her mind, she is teaching the “deep things of God,” deeper spiritual insight and experiences to protect the initiate from any detrimental effects that might result from participation in idolatrous rites, or so her logic goes; “There is only one God and an idol is nothing! What harm could there be?” Jesus reveals this doctrine is rather the “deep things of Satan.” As Paul once pointed out, idolatry inevitably means communion with demons (1 Corinthians 10:20).
          The “deep things of Satan” is also a link to the “Abyss” in later chapters, the deep pit from which the Beast, demons, and Satan ascend to deceive men and women into idolatrous worship (9:1-2; 11:7; 13:1; 17:8; 20:1-3). “Depth” symbolizes the satanic source of deception. Faithful saints must hold fast and not compromise, “until I come.” All who refuse compromise will reign with Jesus.
           Jesus received the authority to rule the nations through his death and resurrection (1:5; 12:1-5). He shares this authority with faithful disciples, both now and in the future. The text alludes to Psalm 2:8-9, “I will give him authority over the nations, and he shall shepherd them with a scepter of iron, as vessels of earthenware are smashed in pieces.”
         In his allusion to the Psalm, John changes the original “break them” from the Hebrew text to “shepherd them.” This change is based on the Greek Septuagint version of Psalm 2, which uses the Greek verb meaning “shepherd.” This is not to deny that Jesus reigns over nations with full authority, but to suggest that he does so in paradoxical ways. Just as Jesus attained his sovereignty by dying for others, so believers overcome Satan and qualify to participate in Christ’s kingdom by laying down their lives for his sake (12:10-11)
          The “morning star” symbolizes the Messiah’s reign (Numbers 24:17), an image from a prophecy by Balaam. Jezebel’s deception parallels the false doctrines of the Nicolaitans/Balaam. Balaam’s prophecy referred to a “star from Jacob and a scepter from Israel that shall crush.” Note the verbal links between Numbers 24:17 and Psalm 2:8-9 (cp. 2 Peter 1:17-19). To the Romans, the morning star symbolized Rome’s military prowess and divine right to rule. What Rome claimed, in reality, belongs to Jesus; sovereignty and victory are his alone.
          “He that has an ear, Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Once more the pronoun switches to the singular (“he”) and the noun, “churches,” to the plural. The message of this letter is applicable to a larger audience than just the congregation at Thyatira.
         The Greek verb rendered “saying” is in the present tense, which signifies ongoing or action continuing in the present. This is not something the Spirit said at one time but something the Spirit continues to declare to any and all who have an “ear to hear.”

Sardis
           Sardis was sixty kilometers south of Thyatira at the crossroads between Smyrna and Pergamos. Its location made commerce integral to the city’s life and helps to explain its prosperity. Commerce in woolen goods figured prominently in its economy.
            Sardis is first mentioned in the Bible in Obadiah 20 (“they of the captivity of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad shall possess the cities of the South”). ‘Sepharad’ represents the Hebrew and Aramaic forms of Sardis.
        Some of the city’s wealth was derived from gold found locally in the river Pactolus. According to legend, gold coins were first minted in Sardis by its ancient king, Gyges (716-678 BC). In Assyrian inscriptions, Gyges is Guguand most likely the source of the biblical name “Gog” in Ezekiel 38:1-2 (see also Revelation 20:8).
          Sardis was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia (‘Ludim’ in Genesis 10:13) and later capital of the western Persian Empire. The famous Persian “royal road” began in Persepolis and terminated in the west in Sardis. It remained under Persian rule until the region was captured by Alexander the Great in 334 BC. The city came under Roman rule in 133 BC.
           Sardis featured a temple to the goddess Artemis, sometimes worshiped by locals as Cybele. Also prominent was a temple to honor the Roman emperor. The imperial cult played a key role in Sardis, as well as the other cities of Asia.
           The “letter” begins with John commanded to write to the messenger at the church of Sardis by the one “who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.” Previously, the seven spirits of God were seen “before the throne of the One Who is and Who was and Who is coming” (Revelation 1:4). The seven spirits are found two additional times in Revelation:
  • (4:5) - “And from the throne proceed flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder. And seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.”
  • (5:6) - “And I saw between the throne with the four living creatures and the elders, a Lamb standing as one slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”
          Jesus possesses the seven spirits because of his victory over death; they serve at his command. It is the Lamb who sends the seven spirits “out into all the earth” (5:6). The “seven spirits” allude to Zechariah 4:10, the seven eyes of Yahweh that went throughout the land (“These seven are the eyes of Yahweh which go about in all the earth”). They represent God’s all-seeing knowledge, which Jesus now possesses to observe, correct, admonish, comfort and deliver his people.
         “The seven stars” represent the seven angels or “messengers” of the seven churches. They are held tightly in Christ’s right hand (1:19-20); he has both his messengers and events firmly in hand.
          “I know your works; that you have a name; that you are living and are dead.” Christ knows the “deeds” of the congregation, but Sardis receives no commendation. Only the church in Laodicealikewise receives no praise. Sardis appears healthy to human evaluation but the one who commands the seven spirits of God sees the true state of affairs. Jesus was once dead but now lives (1:18), whereas Sardis once lived but is now dead.
          “Become watchful and strengthen the things that remain that were going to die.” If Sardis fails to “wake up and repent,” Jesus will come “as a thief.” The simile occurs elsewhere and apparently originated with him (Matthew 24:42-44; Luke 12:39-40; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; 2 Peter 3:10). This coming refers to a visitation in judgment upon the congregation, not his universal arrival in power and glory. The conditional clause confirms this understanding: “if therefore you do not wake up, I will come as a thief.”
           The adverb “how” or pōs has the sense, “in what manner” and refers to the manner in which Sardis received the gospel. In light of that past, Jesus calls the church to repent, watch and awake. “Watch” and “wake” suggest spiritual slumber, as in the parable of the ten virgins when all ten fell asleep before the arrival of the bridegroom.
            The problem is not pagan opposition but Christian apathy and accommodation to a pagan culture. This is borne out by the description of a faithful few who have not yet “defiled their garments.” No mention is made of external opponents or internal deceivers. The problem is internal; a loss of faith and zeal.
          In Sardis, the majority of members are in poor spiritual condition; only a few still wear “undefiled garments.” “Defile” or molunō suggests accommodation with idolatry. This same verb elsewhere is applied to the stain of idolatry (14:4; 14:6-9). There is no anti-Christian opposition in Sardis because the church no longer is a light-bearer.
           The one who does overcome is to be “arrayed in white garments and his name will not be blotted out from the book of life” (Psalm 69:28; Exodus 32:32-33; Deuteronomy 9:14; Revelation 6:11; 7:9-14; 19:14). Hellenic cities maintained civic registers or lists of their citizens. When a citizen committed an egregious offense his name could be expunged from it. The “book of life” contains the roll of citizens of the heavenly city, New Jerusalem (21:27; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12; 20:15; 22:19).
          The “book of life” does not symbolize Calvinistic predestination. Names inscribed in it can still be “blotted out”; only “he who overcomes” finds his name in it. Repentance, watchfulness, and obedience are necessary. Conversely, disobedience and a return to the “defiled” practices of the past result in the removal of one’s name from the book.
         As with the other “letters,” the one to Sardisends with the exhortation to “hear what the Spirit is saying to all the churches!

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