REVELATION: Ephesus and Their First Love

The first “letter” written within the book of Revelation is the letter to the church in Ephesus. Many scholars have pointed out that the order of the seven churches comes in the order the postal delivery route traveled in the first century. The letter begins in Ephesus, for that is where the letter is most likely penned. This is where the apostle John ended up being stationed as the “Pastor to Asia,” and Church tradition holds that he lived here with Mary (the mother of Jesus).

Ephesus was written about by some as “the head of the snake” in reference to the Christian movement. While many people speak of Antioch being the headquarters of Christianity, this was only a reality for a small period of time. As this early movement exploded throughout the world of biblical Asia and Asia Minor, Ephesus (the second largest city in the Roman empire) was centrally located and became the likely port city for the movement to call its home. Because of this, one of the battles Ephesus constantly had to fight was that of false apostles, false teaching, and all kinds of bad orthopraxy.

This appears to be something they handled quite well, at least if the letter to Ephesus is any indication. Let’s look at that now.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
You can see John mentions more than once their faithfulness and endurance in the realm of not tolerating wicked people, of testing things for the act of discernment. John also references the Nicolaitans. From what we know in history, our best understanding of the Nicolaitans is that they were a group of people who proposed full engagement with the pagan Roman culture. Probably influenced by the same Gnostic heresies the New Testament writers are often battling, these false believers had proposed that one could engage the pagan practices in the flesh, while keeping their spirit pure and totally devoted to God.

In a sense, it would be like somebody crossing their fingers behind their back while they offer incense to pagan gods. The explanation goes something like this: “I’m not truly worshipping those gods. God knows what’s in my heart.” And what is so damning for many of us is how much we find that thinking prevalent in our own lives and hearts — if we are willing to look closely.

There are many other details in the letter to Ephesus we simply don’t have clear ideas on from history. It is the wrong church letter to teach the greater principles about the methodology of John in Revelation, so we’ll keep moving in order to see those principles more clearly. However, rest assured that we won’t be leaving the overall discussion about Ephesus, but only the letter in chapter two. Since Ephesus was the place where the letter was penned, we will find its culture and imagery come up over and over again as we study.

Don’t fret. We’ll return to Ephesus in good time.


REVELATION: A Man Among the Lampstands

We’ll continue this journey by trying to introduce some very new and big ideas in small doses until we get used to them. Again, I would recommend beginning a study about these things by utilizing the resources I recommended when we introduced Revelation. But let’s start with where we left off the discussion last time:
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”    and “every eye will see him,even those who pierced him”;    and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”So shall it be! Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
John starts by making what seems to be an obvious allusion to the person of Jesus — the one who has freed us from our sins and made us to be a kingdom of priests. About Jesus, John makes two connections directly from the Old Testament. However, John doesn’t just pull the phrasing he wants from any book in the Tanakh; he pulls the references from other apocalyptic books. In doing this, John not only makes it clear about the genre of literature he’s engaging and the ideas he’s working with, but also sets the stage by connecting the context of struggle and perseverance to the context of his audience who is also struggling to persevere. It’s almost as if John is saying, “Remember, we’ve been here before. Let me quote to you from books that were written during similar struggles.”

And in case you were curious about the exact quotations, “coming with the clouds” is pulled from Daniel (chapter 7) and the idea of “those who have pierced him will mourn” is pulled from Zechariah (chapter 12).
I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”
John connects himself to his audience by rooting this vision in his own suffering. John talks about how he received this vision while he was exiled on Patmos. By the way, many people think John was on Patmos when he wrote Revelation, but this is incorrect; John says he “was” on the island of Patmos. You don’t get a whole lot of time to write letters when you’re in exile, but John references his time on Patmos — in the midst of his own suffering — as the time when he received this vision of encouragement. Fitting.
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
Let’s pull this paragraph apart. We need to quit reading these passages as westerners and realize that John is intentionally using apocalyptic literature to speak to his audience. What I’m trying to impress upon you is that John is using ancient apocalyptic books to get his material. He’s not merely accurately describing his visions (although I would assume he is). He’s doing something much bigger than that, and it’s very intentional.

“golden sash around his chest” = Apocalyptic book of Daniel
“eyes were like blazing fire” = More Daniel
“feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace” = Still Daniel
“voice was like the sound of rushing waters” = Apocalyptic vision of Ezekiel
“double-edged sword” = A reference to God from Isaiah

Also, a note about “seven stars.” This happens to be a reference from Greco-Roman culture and their pagan understandings of the Zodiac. In short, they understood the skies to be a swirling ocean and the stars (which moved, giving the impression of floating on this “ocean”) were those who had gone before. Astronomers of their day also noticed there were seven stars that did not move according to the same pattern (the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn). Obviously, the Greco-Romans connected these to their pagan gods and mythology, but to say you “hold the seven stars in your hand” would be a way of saying you control the universe. It was a Roman way of saying, “I know how to get you where you want to go.”
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
“Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
With another reference to the seven stars, John closes what will be the first chapter of Revelation. He also makes mention of seven lampstands, which he tells us represent the seven churches. This was a common image for a community of God’s people, the lampstand (or menorah) often symbolizing the presence of God which lives and dwells in the community of his people (especially after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70). But what we often miss is the obvious connection to the book of Zechariah.

Zechariah, one of the most apocalyptic books in Tanakh, begins with the vision of a man walking among the myrtle trees (which also symbolize the people of God). John’s play here is another obvious nod toward the Old Testament, the apocalyptic genre, and his intent throughout the book of Revelation. We will want to keep our eyes open for these plays as we go through John’s vision.

I often tell my students there is very little new material in the book of Revelation. It’s all drawing off of what was recorded before in the Old Testament. If we’ll learn this valuable lesson, we will have a much easier time understanding what we typically think is an incredibly perplexing letter.


REVELATION: A Book for Its Time

Brace yourself. The time has come.

For some, getting to the book of Revelation has been something you could not wait for. The anticipation of studying Revelation can be stifling. For others, they avoid the conversation of Revelation like the plague. They find the whole conversation far too tense, loaded with problems, confusing, and discouraging. My mother (who actively reads my blog—hi Mom!) is convinced that this isn’t a conversation she has to figure out.

On some level, I can appreciate that. This world (and the Church) could use a lot more of the humility that comes from being okay with not knowing.

But alas, I think we often let ourselves off the hook far too easily, plugging our ears and not wanting to engage a conversation which makes us uncomfortable. The truth of the matter is that what we believe about “where this is all headed” or “what’s going to happen at the end of the world” has more of an effect on what we do day to day than many of the other things we believe. What we believe about the narrative of scripture shapes how we live within it — and nothing shapes a narrative more than the ending.

Before we get started, let’s remind ourselves of the incredibly important aspects of the context surrounding the literature of Revelation. We have a lot of very destructive assumptions that need to be deconstructed.

So, first of all: The book is called ‘Revelation’ — not ‘Revelations.’

Now that we have that out of the way…

It is incredibly important to identify the genre of Revelation as “apocalyptic literature.” Once we settle that in our consciousness (which is typically an easy leap), we need to go back to Zechariah, which gave us a primer on apocalyptic literature; this will be much more difficult to settle in our consciousness.

Third, we need to go back to our study of Zechariah yet again, because this distinction is that important.

Having said all that, it’s essential to remind ourselves throughout the story about the hermeneutic we attempt to use when studying the Bible. We seek to learn “authorial intent,” which means we want to know (as much as we can) what the writer meant when he wrote it, and what the audience understood when they read it. This is the inspired conversation.

This isn’t to say the Spirit doesn’t move as we read the Text today. This isn’t to say there aren’t many applications of a Text throughout history, including today. This isn’t to say Revelation doesn’t have anything to offer about the future or that God won’t do things in the future that line up with the things described in Revelation. But…

Revelation is not written primarily about the future. Revelation is not primarily about the end of the world. Revelation is written to a first-century church being persecuted by the Roman Empire, and to a people who are running for their lives, standing up to the narrative of Empire, watching the execution of their brothers and sisters, and wondering if it’s all worth it.

To them, John uses apocalyptic literature to communicate a clear message: It is worth it. You have to overcome, because we know how this story ends.

Throughout our study of Revelation, I am going to assume Revelation is written during the reign (probably the later reign) of Emperor Domitian, who led one of the most brutal persecutions in history. There are other theories about the date of authorship, but this is mine. To learn more about these conversations, I would recommend reading Christ and the Caesars by Ethelbert Stauffer, the two commentaries on the early church by Roland Worth, or even A Pinch of Incense, which happens to be the second volume of a four-volume series.

Once we can keep our commitment to an appropriate hermeneutic in biblical interpretation, the writing of Revelation will begin to come alive. I can state this with confidence because I have watched this time and time again in people as I take part in study tours through Turkey. The ride through Revelation is a wild ride of deconstruction, but one that can change us in untold ways.

And so to end, let’s start where John begins:
The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
To the seven churches in the province of Asia:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.


JUDE: False Teachers

Before we get started in the book of Jude, it might be helpful to go back and review the letter of 2 Peter. The two are incredibly similar in their content and structure, and the student of the two would swear they were together as they penned their respective letters. The context of Jude is similar to that of 2 Peter in that Jude is concerned about the false teachers who are leading God’s people into horribly destructive practices. These pagan practices are leading God’s people to compromise in the areas of idolatry and sexual immorality because they want to advance in the Roman system, hungry after wealth, prestige, power, and influence. One might remember the guild systems we’ve spoken of before, where sexual immorality and idolatry ran rampant, and recall that if one is going to find financial peace and security in the Roman world, it’s going to come at a price. They will have to sell themselves to the idolatry of their culture.

Jude seems to be concerned.
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James,
To those who have been called, who are loved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
Mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance.
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.
There are apparently teachers within the movement who are using God’s grace and promise of free forgiveness to say it’s acceptable to engage this Roman culture of debauchery. They are saying compromise is the way of success, but Jude says they make a mockery of the way of God. He also claims this problem is nothing new; God’s been speaking to His people about this for some time. Jude’s now going to show that to be the case.
Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord at one time delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.
Notice the three groups Jude points out, drawing off of Hebrew Text and midrash. He speaks of the destruction of the idolators who were destroyed at the Golden Calf. He draws off of the midrash of 1 Enoch (a pseudepigraphal work that shows up in ancient midrash all throughout Jewish literature) and speaks of the fallen angels — a reference to the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1–4, where Enoch says they were punished for their disobedience. For those familiar with how this plays into Greek mythology (an explanation of which would be beyond the scope of this writing), you will realize this is a reference to wanting advancement through disobedient means.

Jude also references Sodom and Gomorrah, a story that is about our call to love and show hospitality to all people. It should be noted that this is the only biblical reference connecting Sodom and Gomorrah to sexual immorality (the handful of references throughout the Old Testament always link the idea to pride, wealth, and failing to take care of the poor; see Ezekiel 16:49 and context). The reason for linking this story to sexual immorality is the cultural context of Jude. His larger point is that they are neglecting their true calling (love and hospitality) and engaging instead in the sexual immorality of their Roman world.

My point is to help us notice how culturally perfect these references are.
In the very same way, on the strength of their dreams these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings. But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” Yet these people slander whatever they do not understand, and the very things they do understand by instinct—as irrational animals do—will destroy them.
In another reference to the midrash (this time to “the Testament of Moses,” another pseudepigraphal work), Jude talks about these false teachers who slandered true authority for the sake of advancement. One might also note the reference to the “beast nature” or sarx that we talked about in Romans, or the larger conversation we had years ago surrounding Adam and Eve.
Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion.
These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.
Notice again, the intentionality of the references. There is a reference to Cain, which you might remember is a story about wealth and acquiring (Cain’s name means “to acquire”). There is a reference to Balaam, who — according to the midrash — told Balak to destroy the Israelites by enticing them into sexual immorality (and idolatry) with the Moabite women. There is also a reference to the story of Korah, who rebelled against authority.

The same three themes — over and over again.
Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all of them of all the ungodly acts they have committed in their ungodliness, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.
Here Jude quotes directly from the book of 1 Enoch. Although this raises all sorts of good questions, it’s not the point we are making now. The point is that Jude is quoting from their context, to their context, to make an incredibly relevant point.
But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.
But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.
Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.
To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.
Jude then reminds his readers to be faithful to the same three things we’ve been discussing the whole time. He calls them to purity and obedience. He calls them to respect the authority God places in their lives. He calls them to remain steadfast to the work of love and hospitality, committed to others, pure in their walk, respecting the teaching of the apostles — not giving in to the temptations and idolatry of their world.