Reflection on Revelation 2:12-17 prepared by Michelle Ellis, Feb. 7, 2021
I’d like to begin by calling our memories back to the beginning of this book. As you know, John is writing Revelation as a letter to seven real churches in Asia minor. He’s writing them because he is convinced that they are about to face hard times, and he wants to prepare them, encourage them and strengthen them to journey through what is going to be difficult.
You’ll remember too, that the book starts with John describing the vision he was given of Jesus. In John’s vision, he sees 7 lamp stands, which are the seven real churches in Asia Minor John is writing to. Then John describes how Jesus is standing right among, in the middle of the lamp stands, with 7 stars in his hand which represent the angels of the seven churches.
I want to root us in this vision as the context out of which these words for the churches are coming from. They are coming from Jesus who is standing right in the middle and among the churches, holding in his hand angels for each one. I was imagining this week, if John had been exiled on Haida Gwaii how he may have had a vision of Jesus standing among seven lamp stands representing the churches of Prince Rupert, Hazelton, Witset, Telkwa, Smithers, Houston, and Prince George. This is the picture of reality that John holds up for us—Jesus himself, standing in power right in the middle of our world, right in the middle of our situation with angels in his hands for us, with words to speak to us.
I’d like to notice here something that I find easy to miss. And that’s the significance that Jesus gives to these ragtag communities of ordinary people that he has called to follow him. I can find it easy to place early churches on some kind of pedestal while dismissing the significance of our own church community. But likely, each of these seven churches in Revelation are communities very like our own—full of ordinary people that have been mysteriously and beautifully called by Jesus into community with himself and each other.
I wonder too, whether committing to some kind of Christian community, whatever that might look like, is coming to be viewed mostly as an unnecessary extra for those who follow Jesus. I think that’s something to notice and to be curious about. I also think it worth noticing that belonging to a community of believers is a taken for granted fact in the Bible, for those who follow Jesus. There is a taken for granted nature to the biblical understanding that a call to Jesus is a call to community, however messy that call may be! In fact, the call to Jesus may be a call to share life with people with whom the only thing you may have in common, is that God called you both to himself. Now of course structures for what the church looks like have changed in different contexts and times. Gathering somewhat invisibly from our homes like we do today has certainly been done before in the life of the church. The big thing I want to notice together is that in this vision, Jesus gives real significance to churches, communities made up of ordinary people who commit to follow Jesus together, just like we’re doing together here. In John’s vision, Jesus is standing in the centre of the churches. He holds an angel for each one in his hand. He notices their shared life. He challenges them. He has a promise for each one. These communities are important to Jesus.
Now that we are rooted in the context in which this letter is written, that it is from Jesus, who stands right in the middle of our church communities, then and now, I’d like to shift and look at the particular piece we read today which is the piece for the church in Pergamum. Pergamum was a large city, located at the top of a hill. It was the home of some enormous temples. Imagine buildings that take up multiple city blocks and you’ll begin to get an idea for how significant these Temples were to the culture. You would go there to worship the emperor, to seek financial security, or to be healed if you were sick. These temples dominated the physical landscape of the city and the worship practices dominated the social and religious life of the city.
Jesus begins his words to this church by naming the fact that while all their friends and neighbours were all going to feasts together for the different gods, while all their friends and neighbours were visiting the temple prostitutes as part of their worship, while people around them likely thought them prudish and anti-social for not joining them in what they did, the church in Pergamum has been true to Jesus. Jesus says, you remain true to my name in this difficult context.
Then Jesus moves to a word of correction. He says, you hold onto false teaching. Here’s where things get a bit tricky for us because there is such a huge distance between us and this letter in time and in place. We don’t know who the Nicolaitans were. We don’t know exactly what this false teaching is, other than this reference to eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. Going to Temple feasts was a major social thing in the Roman world. When people became Christians they wondered how to navigate through that. Was it still okay to go? Could you attend for the social part and not participate in the worship part?
Likewise the Roman world had a very peculiar view of sex. There was a saying in the Roman world at this time that prostitutes were for pleasure, concubines for companionship, wives for the producing of legitimate children. Sexual appetites were seen very similar to hunger ones. If you’re hungry, eat! If you’ve got a sexual appetite, go see a prostitute. Simple. If you had a female slave as a man it was expected that he would force himself on her, and that was deemed ok by the culture. All that’s to say, the Christian sexual ethic was a very steep learning curve for new Christians and hugely counter-cultural at the time, way more so than it is today. So when people became Christians, they were navigating through this. Why isn’t it okay for me to have sex with a prostitute when I want to, just like how I eat when I want to? Why shouldn’t I be able to have sex with my slave? It’s just what I’m doing with my body—my soul isn’t involved, it doesn’t change that I want to follow Jesus. Can’t I just go to the temple feast for the social part? My heart isn’t in the worship part. These are the kinds of questions that this church was likely wrestling through.
And they’re not that far off from questions we as followers of Jesus navigate through now, in our context. We are in a similar situation of having to discern how to live faithfully in a culture with very different values. Is it really so bad to watch porn? It’s not hurting anyone. Is it that big a deal if I buy from a company that has questionable practices? I just want the good price, I don’t really support what they do. What are the grey areas in your life that you find yourself spending energy justifying? Maybe it’s how you spend your money, while thinking something like, “well I earned it, I can do what I want with it”, maybe it’s how you treat or think about a particular group of people.
What’s at stake here isn’t just thoughts that don’t have any real application. We’re not debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Jesus cares about his people having an accurate view of the world he made so they can live rightly in it. If we think there is no spiritual dimension to the temple feasts, or to our world and our practices, we aren’t accurately viewing reality. If we view sex as merely a physical act, something we can watch or take part in with no strings attached, we will inevitably diminish ourselves and others. If we think of ourselves as individuals accountable only to ourselves or our money as belonging only to us, or as other people as anything less than sacred beings made in the image of God, we don’t do justice to the way God has made us and his world. We will be led to live in the world in a way that doesn’t fit, that doesn’t work, because it doesn’t reflect reality.
Navigating though how to live and think in our culture can be hugely complex. There are so many things that seem muddled and unclear. And it does take work and intention, and prayer on our part to navigate through. But there is good news. Jesus gives a picture of himself doing passionate battle with the minds of his people with the sword of his mouth. Jesus gives us a picture of himself doing battle for our minds, taking our every thought captive, moulding and shaping our hearts, minds and actions together to be more in step with reality. Jesus says, turn around, repent, or I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
To which I say, Jesus, please come! Take captive my thoughts. All the thoughts that don’t reflect the reality of you. All the thoughts that say, whatever, it’s just what I do with my body, all the thoughts that say it’s pointless, nothing will every change, I’m on my own, the other powers are too strong, all the thoughts that diminish others, myself, all the thoughts that don’t take into account the reality that Jesus Christ himself has come and is doing the work of setting all things right. All the thoughts that don’t take into account the reality that Jesus, the first and the last, is standing right here in the middle of us affirming us, holding us up, shining in and through us, making us more and more into his image as individuals and as a community. I want Jesus to do battle with all those thoughts, to put them to death, so that thoughts and out of those thoughts actions that more accurately represent reality can take root, flourish and grow in their place.
Jesus ends his words to this church with a promise. To those who overcome, I will give hidden manna, food from heaven to nourish and sustain when it is wanting here. Jesus also says he will give a white stone. In the time that this letter was written, white stones were used for a number of things, one of them being as a ticket to a party. Jesus says, to those who overcome, I will give an invitation to a grand feast, a party. I don’t know about you, but I could really go for a good party right now. Jesus says, I’l give you an invitation to a party. And all your friends will be there. Even and especially the friends you didn’t think of as friends. You’ll laugh together. You’ll dance together. You’ll eat together. You’ll feel more truly and freely yourself than you have for a long, long time. You’ll say together with everyone present, “Our God has done great things for us.” Your heart and your spirit will be restored.
In a little bit we’re going to celebrate the Lord’s supper together. This is a way that Jesus has given us of holding this promise of an invitation to a feast always before us. This promise to a great celebration where Jesus himself is the host. It’s a promise that through everything that is difficult, we are headed in the direction of restoration. We’re headed in the direction of renewal. We’re headed in the direction of all things being made whole and well because of what Jesus has suffered for and with us. Jesus himself has prepared this table as a way of rooting us in this truth, and as a way of nourishing us for the journey.