Revelation loves the number seven. In the column of big-time sevens, we have “seven communities” (Revelation 1:11), “seven seals” (5:1, 5, 6), “seven trumpets” (8:2), and “seven bowls” (15:7), the latter bringing the “seven last plagues” (15:1, 7). Among the smaller sevens, we have “seven lampstands of gold” (1:12, 20), “seven stars” (1:16, 20), “seven horns” (5:6), “seven eyes” (5:6), “seven thunders” (10:3), “seven heads” (17:7), “seven mountains” (17:9), and “seven kings” (17:9).
There must be a reason why the seven communities (“churches”) come first among the big sevens. What might the reason be? The seven believing communities are seven points of light, a distant equivalent of the “thousand points of light” envisioned by the late president George W. H. Bush. In Revelation, they are heaven’s outposts on earth. Right from the outset, therefore, Revelation provides a lesson on missiology.
Two things stand out. First, in Revelation’s view of mission the action is local. The communities of faith exist in larger communities; they denote local presence in the larger society. The faith-community does not stand at a distance; it is not virtual presence; it is certainly not televised presence from some distant site. Genuine mission is a ground operation, and it happens in local communities. The health and vitality of the local community is thus an indispensable element in heaven’s strategy for disseminating light into the world.
Second, the missiology has an urban feel. The mail sent from heaven is addressed to communities living in cities in Asia Minor. The cities vary in size and significance. Ephesus would be the equivalent of New York, Pergamum of Los Angeles. This is understandable. But there is mail for communities in small cities, too. Thyatira and Philadelphia are small and insignificant cities located somewhere in flyover-country. They would be the equivalent of Benton Harbor, Michigan, or Colton, California. Heaven has mail for them, too. Take this as the first take-home elements of the messages to the believing communities: mission is local and, already in the first-century setting, it acknowledges the importance of the urban center.
The rhetoric of the messages is puzzling. In Thyatira, believers are said to be at fault because “you allow playing room for the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and deceiving my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (2:20). We will be hard-pressed to find a more notorious character than Jezebel. One scholar calls her “one of the Bible’s most booed antiheroes.” Was there a woman named “Jezebel” in Thyatira? This is unlikely. “Jezebel” takes the stage because Revelation makes use of hyperbole.
Hyperbole is a form of intentional exaggeration. “Balaam” in Pergamum (2:14) and “Jezebel” in Thyatira are examples of hyperbole. Such speech comes with a risk if we take it literally. An example of the risk involved is name-calling. Imagine a local community today within which believers affix the label “Jezebel” to people who hold divergent views. Such a church would not be a fun place to be. Jürgen Roloff recognizes the symbolic character of “Jezebel,” but he misses the import. He claims that “[a]t the pinnacle of the gnostic movement, which the church apparently tolerated uncritically, stands a woman who claims to be a prophetess.” This interpretation says too much and too little.
Risky — and still in the realm of hyperbole — are the terms “Synagogue of Satan” in Smyrna (2:9) and Philadelphia (3:9). A “synagogue” has a Jewish tenor. This gets worse when the “synagogue” compasses people who say that “they are Jews but are not” (2:9). I can think of no text in Revelation where circumspection is more important. In the reception history of the book, these expressions became part of the armamentarium of Christian anti-Semitic rhetoric. Quite a few scholars are convinced that the roots of Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism can be traced to texts in the New Testament, as here, and in the Gospel of John (John 8:44). This risk disappears when we recognize the hyperbole and the symbolic language.
Amid the hyper-particularity, hyper-specificity, and hyperbole of the messages there is a constant: the “Synagogue of Satan” in Smyrna (2:9), “the throne of Satan” in Pergamum (2:13), “the deep things of Satan” in Thyatira (2:24), and “the Synagogue of Satan” in Philadelphia (3:9). Just as the believing communities are commissioned to carry out heaven’s business on earth, “the Synagogue of Satan” represents the opposing side in the cosmic conflict. Fiercely competing interests are in view. This cosmic and theological element has not received the attention it deserves in the messages to the communities.
Awareness of conflict changes the way we construe victory and defeat. While Jesus makes promises “to everyone who conquers” (tō nikōnti) with no object in the sentence (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21), the tenor of conflict is better preserved if we translate it “to everyone who overcomes in the war.” It is not wrong to say that the believers “overcome” or “conquer” (tō nikōnti), but it is implied throughout that they are engaged in a war (cf. 2:7, 11, 17). This is beyond doubt when Revelation later specifies that “they have overcome him” (enikēsan auton) (12:11; cf. 15:2; 17:14). “Overcoming” or “prevailing” happens in relation to the adversary in the story, not only in the realm of personal piety, and it is couched in the language of conflict.
In almost all the messages, there is a discrepancy between self-representation and reality. In Ephesus, we have “those who say about themselves that they are apostles but are not” (2:2); in Smyrna, “those who say that they are Jews and are not” (2:9); in Thyatira, one “who says of herself that she is a prophetess” (but is not) (2:20); in Sardis, those who “have a name that you are living, but you are dead” (3:1); in Philadelphia, “those…who say about themselves that they are Jews and are not” (3:9); in Laodicea, a community saying about itself, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I have need of nothing” (3:17).
Two of the last three, Sardis and Laodicea, are in the worst bind. Sardis has a better reputation than it deserves, and Laodicea has an inflated self-image. Which is harder to cure? In marketing terms, Sardis has built a successful brand. Must the community take steps to scale back perceptions of its success? The Laodicean community revels in a sense of wholeness, ensconced within an all-around edifice of accomplishment. The community has no sense of need. We should assume that the community is too sophisticated to say openly the things attributed to it, but it is capable of behaving in ways that convey the attitude described. The message to the community is the keenest statement of how difficult it is to see the discrepancy between self-representation and reality. And yet, to this thoroughly unlikeable community, Jesus propositions a privilege so amazing that I don’t dare to repeat it (3:20-21).
What’s the impact of Revelation’s seven points of light? Even before we get to the seven messages proper, there is a hint. “Look! He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him — even those who pierced him — and all the tribes of the earth will mourn deeply and sincerely because of him. That’s how it will be! Amen!” (1:7, translation mine). This is the climax of a passage that has John as the speaker and the seven communities as addressees (1:4-7).
It is too narrow to see this text as though it only describes the second coming of Jesus. My translation relies on taking seriously the allusion to Zechariah 12:10-12. Zechariah describes a hostile relationship that turns friendly. This happens when people gaze intently “on the one whom they have pierced” (Zechariah 12:10). A commentary says that those who “look” become “favorably inclined toward and asking forgiveness from the one(s) whom they had previously treated with violence.” A relationship of hostility is changed into one that is friendly and trusting, and the change of heart extends to “all the tribes of the earth” (1:7; see also 14:6).
In the life of the witnessing communities in Asia Minor, nothing is more important than to mediate a vision of the one who was pierced. This is what the community will do, and the result is salutary. The texts in Zechariah and Revelation do not describe futility and regret but revelation and reversal. It is not a “too late” scene.
Let me say it again: It is not a “too late” or “too bad” scene (1:7). The reverse is also true — if we put revelation where many tend to read prediction. Given the witness of the believing community somewhere in our neighborhood, it is not too early.
Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.
Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash
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