REVELATION: Waking Up in Sardis (part one)

We now turn our attention to the next church that receives one of the letters in Revelation — the church in Sardis. We’ll be using the same hermeneutic for Johannine apocalyptic literature that we studied with the letter to Thyatira. This hermeneutic is built on the idea of John’s simultaneous and two-sided approach to what we’ll call “Text to context.” John takes the Text of the Hebrew scriptures and applies it to the context of the Greco-Roman world of Asia.

Let’s start by pulling apart some of the context. Sardis was an ancient city (founded by the Hittites or earlier) that eventually touted a population of over 100,000 people. Its main economic staples were agriculture, purple dye made from a regional oak tree, and gold mined from the mountains. The city was built around two mountains, which was unique to Sardis, as these ancient cities were almost always built around one mountain known as the acropolis. On the top of the acropolis you would often find the most important buildings and city centers you would want to protect. It was much easier to protect a mountain, forcing your enemy to fight uphill both literally and metaphorically.

The acropolis of Sardis

But Sardis also had what was known as the necropolis, which you might guess by the etymology means “city of the dead.” While other cities would have had a necropolis located just inside or outside the city gates, Sardis had a second mountain — the twin of the acropolis — used for their elevated city of the dead. Whether this led to a fascination with death and the dead, or whether it was a fitting aspect of their surroundings, Sardis was known for its fascination with death and burial. Even as one looks at the horizon around Sardis today, there are hundreds of pyramid mounds that dot the landscape in addition to the necropolis. Each of these mounds represents a tomb of someone very wealthy or noble.

The necropolis, sitting roughly 60 degrees to the right of the acropolis picture
A major theme we have noted before about first-century Rome was the many earthquakes scattered throughout history. There were major earthquakes recorded in AD 17, 19, 21, 24, 29, and 60. The earthquake of 60 rocked Sardis so hard that the acropolis broke into thirds. One third of the mountain fell away to the backside of the city, another third fell forward and buried more than 300 acres of the residential portion of Sardis, and the final third remains standing today.

We should pause here to realize that such a disaster would play a large part in the writings of Revelation. Consider chapter 6:
I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
Or Revelation 16:
The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!” Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath.
My point is that these passages are not primarily some cryptic reference to the “end times,” but are a direct play on the immediate context of the readers of Revelation. But as we’ve seen, if we’ve been paying attention, we should also have learned to ask, “Where is this in the Text?” John is getting his material from the Tanakh and applying Text to context.

Look no further than Hosea 10 (and some could even point to others):
Samaria’s king will be destroyed,    swept away like a twig on the surface of the waters.The high places of wickedness will be destroyed—    it is the sin of Israel.Thorns and thistles will grow up    and cover their altars.Then they will say to the mountains, “Cover us!”    and to the hills, “Fall on us!”
But there continues to be much more. The city was known as Sard, Sepharad, and Sardis at different points in its history. Once Sardis became the land of the Phrygians and Lydians, many legends arose. The first Lydian king was named Gugu and the Hebrews always referred to him as “Gog”; he was followed by the next king, Magog. Creosus is probably the most famous of kings in Sardis, and there was legend of Creosus’s gold. With all of the gold mined from the hills of Sardis, Creosus must have acquired quite a treasure store; since this treasure was never found, legend has it that Creosus hid his gold somewhere in the mountains, or even in his tomb.

When Cyrus and the Persians arrived, they went to lay siege to the city. Sardis was famous for having what was considered to be an impenetrable acropolis; it would never be defeated by enemy invaders. Cyrus solicited the help of the surrounding peoples to no avail, yet decided to lay siege to the city anyway. Perplexed as to how to defeat the city, Cyrus had stationed his troops at the bottom of the mighty acropolis. One day, as a Persian soldier watched, he saw one of the Lydian soldiers on the wall fall asleep; as his head bobbed, his helmet fell off and down the mountainside. As the astute Persian watched, he saw the soldier appear out of nowhere midway down the mountain, retrieve his helmet, proceed back up the mountain, and disappear. The Persian realized there must be a secret passageway. He was brought to Cyrus, who decided to mount an invasion under the cover of nightfall based on the observation. The secret passageway was found and, according to history, the Persians entered the city to find the Lydians fast asleep. The mighty, invincible Sardis fell.

That story would be impressive enough if it didn’t repeat itself. Later in history when the Seleucids arrived, they were also attempting to take the city when a solider noticed the enemy soldiers throw a dead donkey over the city wall. The vultures gathered and began to pick at the carcass, then fly up to the city wall and perch while they ate. The soldier surmised that section of wall must not be guarded, as the vultures would not perch there in the presence of soldiers. Again under the cover of nightfall, the Seleucids went over that wall and, to the shock of history students, found the residents fast asleep for a second time.

Consider the first half of the letter to Sardis.
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”
Again we find the context to be perfectly fitting. “A reputation of being alive, but you are dead” — spoken to the city with twin mountains, a juxtaposition of their life and a fascination of death. But even more striking is the call to strengthen their defenses and “wake up” because the thief is upon them.

But of course: Where is John getting his material?

Consider that John’s reference to “come like a thief” (which he uses again later in Revelation) will be lifted straight out of Obadiah.

Wait, what? Obadiah? Why go to Obadiah for material?

Because Obadiah happens to be the only letter in the Bible (outside of Revelation) that mentions Sardis/Sepharad. Look:
People from the Negev will occupy    the mountains of Esau,and people from the foothills will possess    the land of the Philistines.They will occupy the fields of Ephraim and Samaria,    and Benjamin will possess Gilead.This company of Israelite exiles who are in Canaan    will possess the land as far as Zarephath;the exiles from Jerusalem who are in Sepharad    will possess the towns of the Negev.Deliverers will go up on Mount Zion    to govern the mountains of Esau.    And the kingdom will be the Lord’s.
And here is the reference from Obadiah that John is utilizing. Tell me this reference doesn’t perfectly fit the people of Sardis (for more help here, you may want to go back and refresh your memory on the teaching of Obadiah and the context of Petra):
“See, I will make you small among the nations;    you will be utterly despised.The pride of your heart has deceived you,    you who live in the clefts of the rocks    and make your home on the heights,you who say to yourself,    ‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’Though you soar like the eagle    and make your nest among the stars,    from there I will bring you down,”declares the Lord.“If thieves came to you,    if robbers in the night—oh, what a disaster awaits you!—    would they not steal only as much as they wanted?If grape pickers came to you,    would they not leave a few grapes?But how Esau will be ransacked,    his hidden treasures pillaged!All your allies will force you to the border;    your friends will deceive and overpower you;those who eat your bread will set a trap for you,    but you will not detect it.”
And we might even turn to Isaiah for some Text to context:
“This is what the Lord says to his anointed,    to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold ofto subdue nations before him    and to strip kings of their armor,to open doors before him    so that gates will not be shut:I will go before you    and will level the mountains;I will break down gates of bronze    and cut through bars of iron.I will give you hidden treasures,    riches stored in secret places,so that you may know that I am the Lord,    the God of Israel, who summons you by name.”
One of the points I’m trying to stress is that Revelation is not primarily a look into the future — it’s a look in the opposite direction. We find ourselves ill-equipped to understand Revelation because we don’t know our Old Testament. Having decided it’s all secondary information, we have rendered our New Testament understanding and theology void of accuracy and power in our ability to interpret and receive John’s message.

But alas, I’m only halfway through the letter to Sardis!


REVELATION: Thyatira and Her Jezebel (part two)

After appreciating the cultural backdrop for the letter to Thyatira, we turn our attention to appreciate the way John uses his command of the Tanakh to continue a teaching well below the surface about the struggle of the church there. A little back story in the Text will be helpful, although it may feel unrelated at first.

When King Solomon was building the Temple in the story of Kings and Chronicles, one of the grave mistakes he made was in not allowing the people of God to do the work on the Temple itself. Unlike the construction of the Tabernacle, led by Bezalel and Oholiab, Solomon outsourced the work of certain specialists — namely that of bronze smiths and stone cutters. Solomon made an arrangement with Huram, the king of Phoenicia, and in exchange for the labor of his best bronze smiths and stone cutters, Solomon gave him twenty towns in the Galilee as payment for their service. Many streams of Jewish teaching show it was this agreement that paved the way for Phoenician-Israelite relations that would eventually culminate in the treaties of Omri and Ahab, particularly the marriage of Ahab to the Phoenician high priestess of Asherah, a woman by the name of Jezebel. Many rabbis will teach that were it not for Solomon’s poor choices with Huram, there never would have been rampant idolatry in Israel.

The few ruins of Thyatira that remain today

But I digress. (Or do I?) Let’s get back to looking out for Text; keep an eye out for Old Testament references as we read through the letter to Thyatira one more time:
“To the angel of the church in Thyatira write:
These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.
Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.’
To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
“… whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” Daniel 10 provides the details John references here; Daniel’s main teaching point is that the people of God have to persevere through persecution. What does John say next? “Your service and perseverance …” A fitting reference.

“… that woman Jezebel … misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” This is a fitting reference for Sambathe. John mentions another “Jewish” prophetess who enticed Israel into idolatry and sexual immorality (if you remember, Asherah worship was centered around the fertility goddess and sexual promiscuity). “I will cast her on a bed suffering …” How was Jezebel killed in the Old Testament? By being cast from a window. “I will strike her children dead.” What happened to Jezebel’s children? They were all struck dead. This entire teaching is pulled perfectly from the Text.

“… I am he who searches hearts and minds …” There are a few options here. It could be a reference to Psalm 139:23. It could also be a reference to Jeremiah 17. I think it’s a reference from Jeremiah. Do you know why? More on that in a moment.

“… will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery …” Here we have an obvious and direct reference to Psalm 2, and most of your study Bibles will catch the reference. What they often don’t catch is that Psalm 2 is written about the one who God says, “you are my son.” Wait. The “son of God” Psalm being referenced in the only letter to mention the “son of God”? This is almost too much.

“… the morning star.” This idea of a rising star is pulled from Numbers 24 and the last oracle of Balaam.

But wait. We already discussed the oracle of Balaam. We talked about the Jewish understanding that Balaam was the guy who taught Balak to entice the Israelites into idolatry and sexual immorality. Aren’t idolatry and sexual immorality the very issues John is trying to warn about here? So these references are perfectly chosen: Daniel to communicate perseverance, and Balaam to communicate the struggle with sexual immorality and idolatry.

But we still aren’t done.

The other references are going to work perfectly, as well. The letter starts and ends with a direct reference to Psalm 2, a psalm we’ve seen before (linked through a beautiful gezerah shavah to Psalm 118) is linked to Solomon. Wasn’t Solomon the guy we pointed out as responsible for the mess surrounding…

Jezebel! And that was the next reference in the letter. Jezebel was the next play that would lead into the “searches the hearts and minds” reference of Jeremiah 17.

Why is Jeremiah important? Because Jeremiah starts out with these words:
“Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron tool,    inscribed with a flint point,on the tablets of their hearts    and on the horns of their altars.Even their children remember    their altars and Asherah polesbeside the spreading trees    and on the high hills.”
John quotes a Jeremiah passage that directly references the Asherah worship introduced by Jezebel, who was referenced earlier, which was the result of a bad relationship that began with Solomon, who was referenced on both ends of the letter!  It is hard to communicate the complex brilliance John is displaying here in his writing of Revelation. Not only is John brilliantly writing about the cultural setting of his day, but he’s using biblical quotations to do it. This would be impressive enough, but John is actually choosing his quotations from stories that already teach to the cultural content at hand.

It’s almost impossible to believe what the book is doing before our eyes. It’s stunning. And to quote one of my favorite teachers, “It’s almost like the author had help.”

But most of this is lost on us as we look toward the future and try to interpret the headlines of our newspapers. Trying to place the happenings of our current world and our understanding of eschatology and rapture theology, we completely miss the message that objective historical study reveals to us right in front of our noses. We want to carry this lesson with us as we continue our study of Revelation.


REVELATION: Thyatira and Her Jezebel (part one)

We will now take an in-depth look at the letter to Thyatira in order to fully understand the principles we just introduced. In this first part, we’ll be studying the cultural context of Thyatira to understand the cultural relevance of the letter. In part two, we’ll look at where John is getting his material and the brilliant way he is using Old Testament Text to preach a sermon within the letter to Thyatira.

So first, we need a little background on Thyatira.

By far the smallest of the seven church cities, Thyatira was estimated to be around 25,000 to 30,000 people. The city sat on the main road and was founded by Seleucus I around 300 BC (or Humenes I around 250 BC, depending on who you ask) as a military outpost. Very much unlike places such as Smyrna, Thyatira was very “blue collar” and unsophisticated in its demographic. Thyatira was a hard-working city full of labor guilds. In fact, we found a list of the registered guilds in Thyatira and its one of the longest lists we’ve ever uncovered. The guilds in the city included leatherworkers, wool workers, weavers, bakers, tailors, dyers, candlemakers, cobblers, potters, bronze smiths, blacksmiths, slave merchants, dyers of purple cloth, and stonecutters. For a city the size of Thyatira, that list is very long, and the jobs are for hard workers.

One of the leading guilds of Thyatira was an extensive network of bronze smiths. They specialized in a very famous kind of bronze that we know as “burnished bronze.” In a world that didn’t have the glass technology of today, burnished bronze was the material used to produce the closest thing to mirrors they had. The Greek word for this special bronze was chalkolibanos.

What little we know about Thyatira comes mostly from coins and currency circulated through the area. The one thing we know about the worship of Thyatira was that their chief god was Tyrimnos, son of Zeus. Scholars have always found this quite perplexing, as Tyrimnos is certainly not a major player in the Greco-Roman Olympiad of gods. Why choose such an obscure god to worship? Some have suggested it's because such a blue collar city would have wanted to root for the underdog. Others have pointed to an obscure reference to the honor of a very young son of Domitian who passed away while still an infant. One inscription was found where the late son was being held by Domitian and the child held the seven stars of the Roman zodiac in his right hand. Could the choice to worship Tyrimnos be a pointed reference to the song of Domitian? It’s a possibility.

One last point of interest about Thyatira is the presence of a Jewish prophetess that operated at a Sybil shrine by the name of Sambathe. Sybil shrines were like minor league oracles and dealt in pagan witchcraft (you might remember our discussion about oracles here). Apparently, from what we can gather from the little information we have, Sambathe was a big proponent of the Roman labor system and the many guilds that not only powered the local labor force, but also — if you remember — would be steeped in pagan idolatry and sexual immorality.

Inside the oracle temple at Didyma

Now, let’s look at the letter of Thyatira and keep our eyes peeled for culture.
“To the angel of the church in Thyatira write:
These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.
Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.’
To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

“These are the words of the Son of God …” This is the only reference to “Son of God” in all the letters to the seven churches. Why here? Is it because their worship centered on the son of Zeus and the son of Domitian? Fitting that the reference would be found here and nowhere else.

“… feet are like burnished bronze.” Here we see that special export that Thyatira specialized in.

“… your service and perseverance …” This is a fitting reference for such a hard-working, military town.

“You tolerate that woman Jezebel …” Here we have an obvious reference to Sambathe, the Sybil oracle.

“… she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” This points to the ever-present temptation to engage in guild feasts as would have been widely available in a city like Thyatira.

“So I will cast her on a bed of suffering …” The actual reference in the Greek is to the word cline (where we get the word “recliner”), which is the same word used to reference a “guild couch.” This is where sexual immorality happens at a guild feast.

“I will strike her children dead.” This is a possible reference to the dead child of Domitian.

“… Satan’s so-called deep secrets…” These secrets are a reference to the underworld oracles proclaimed by the Sybil oracle Sambathe.

“… iron scepter … pottery …” These are some of the guilds present in Thyatira — particularly the potter’s guild and the blacksmith’s guild.

“I will also give that one the morning star.” And finally we have the son of Domitian who held the stars in his hand.

Every line of this letter to Thyatira came directly from the immediate culture of the city; the letter is stunning in its clever, cultural relevance. But now, let’s ask the question of what the source for John’s material would be…


REVELATION: Pergamum and Satan's Throne

The next church addressed in Revelation is the church in Pergamum. Pergamum was a cultural center in the early Roman empire, and Augustus even declared the city his capital in the province of Asia. Sitting atop the acropolis of Pergamum to this day are the ruins of the vaulted platform that held the temple to Caesar Augustus (later redone under the name of Tiberius and other later emperors). This temple to Caesar had an altar that doubled as a “throne” (very common in Greco-Roman altars; the altars were often shaped like thrones to communicate the rule and presence of the god). Some historians spoke of how you could see the shining temple atop the acropolis in Pergamum from miles out to sea.

Because of the political prominence of Pergamum, the city was also given what was known as poteste gladii, or “power of the sword.” The Romans had a double-edged sword known as the symbol of power. If a city or colony had the “power of the sword,” then they had been given the right to make decisions with the authority of Caesar. Their rulings were as true as if they had been uttered by Caesar himself.

But this wasn’t the only throne residing on Pergamum’s acropolis. In fact, decades ago, the gigantic altar to Zeus was moved to a museum in Berlin (you can see pictures of it by doing a Google image search for "pergamon altar of zeus"). This altar sat just a couple hundred yards away from the temple to Caesar. Covered in gold leaf, this “throne” stands 44 feet tall from the base of the stairs (which still sit in Pergamum), and would have been another attribute to make the acropolis visible from miles away.

But there aren’t only two thrones that sit in Pergamum. No, Pergamum also served as the neochorus (think “capital”) of Dionysius, the Greco-Roman god of wine and orgy. The temple to Dionysius served as the starting point for what was called “the Sacred Way,” and also warranted the construction of the tallest theatre in the ancient world, still an acoustic marvel to this day. The Sacred Way weaves its path down the acropolis and past some seventeen other temples to major Greco-Roman gods. Without a doubt, the pagan worship present in Pergamum was second to none. This Dionysian worship culminated in the annual festival to Dionysius every year where there would be consumption of raw meat, drinking of incredible amounts of wine, and indulgence in rampant sexual immorality. Local law stated that a woman was not free to marry in this pagan culture unless she had lost her virginity in the Dionysian festival. One of the stops I make with participants on my trips is at the ruins of a three-story storefront. The first floor had the remains of giant wine vats (used for serving, not for storage or selling), the third floor has tricliniums (the three-sided banquet table of the first century), and the second floor has large vats that are plumbed for drainage. The archaeological team that did the work there believes these storefronts, found on the Sacred Way, were used during the Dionysian festival to serve wine and raw meat to the public. They would dine and party until sick, at which point they would descend to the second floor and vomit into the vats.

The view from the Dionysian temple, looking towards the Asclepion

And this wasn’t the only pagan worship that found itself centered in the city. Pergamum was also home to the largest Asclepion in the ancient world. Asclepius was the god of healing, and the Asclepion was their equivalent of a hospital. One could think of the Asclepion in Pergamum as the “Mayo Clinic” of their day — the best of the best medical treatment the pagan world had to offer. One would check in to the Asclepion, wash themselves for spiritual purity, make offerings and gifts to the gods, and proceed to treatment. The treatment was incredibly holistic and included education (each patient had to study their disease/condition in the massive library), entertainment (the drama of the Asclepius myth was displayed twice a day in the theatre on the grounds), medical diagnosis, and spa treatments at the bathhouse and mud treatment center. When patients were healed, they would return to write their name and their healed condition on one of the many white stone pillars that stood in the courtyard. In the center of this courtyard, to this day, sits a spring they plumbed throughout the facility in order to give the acoustic ambient sound of rushing water, which they believe was the voice of Asclepius himself and had healing properties.

We could easily write three times as much about the relevant context of Pergamum, but that should set the stage for us to look at the letter to Pergamum:
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”
“… who has the sharp, doubled-edged sword.” or “… fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” These are references to the poteste gladii that was present in Pergamum and a cross-reference to the power and authority of Christ. While we didn’t have time to unpack the temple and library of Athena that sits on the acropolis, as well, the “sword of my mouth” reference only gets juicier as we realize the power of words — or, more particularly, God’s Word.
“I know where you live — where Satan has his throne. … where Satan lives.” Whether this is a reference to one of those particular thrones we mentioned (Caesar, Zeus, Dionysius, or the myriad others), or a blanket reference to this incredibly pagan city, the cultural reference is unmistakable.

“…the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.” John nails the message to the neochorus of Dionysius right on the head. This annual festival was steeped in idol meat and sexual immorality. To live in Pergamum would be to reject the daily temptation to give into the cultural narrative of your day.

“I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it…” This is a reference to the healing God offers and a subversive reclamation of the practice so prevalent in the local Asclepion.

By now we should be getting the idea that Revelation is deliberately playing off of the cultural context of its original audience. These aren’t vague references to future entities, but direct references the original audience completely understood without hesitation. But there is a new idea we need to introduce ourselves to, one likely to make our minds explode as we realize what John is doing in the writing of this incredible letter. It’s one thing to use the culture to brilliantly craft a teaching the audience needs to hear. We would call that clever.

John is doing so much more than that.

Besides culture, where is John pulling his material? While we hinted at this earlier in our discussion of Revelation, it’s time to bring it back and put it to work here in our study. John is getting all of his content from the Hebrew Scriptures. Everything John is writing about in his references to culture also comes from the Tanakh! And often, these references are coming from other pieces of apocalyptic literature — books like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. This is almost impossible to grasp immediately, and I had to study this concept in Turkey for some time before it finally settled in my consciousness.

Here’s an example from Pergamum: Why does God choose to use Balaam as his reference to the people of Pergamum? Because the book of Numbers provides the contextual (think remez) material for the lesson John is trying to teach. As we mentioned in our study of Jude and 2 Peter, Jewish tradition teaches that Balaam was the one who told Balak to entice the Israelites into sexual sin (Numbers 25). By using Balaam as his reference to the Tanakh, John teaches an entire sermon without writing it down. Every Jew who hears that reference is going to understand that John is saying, “Hey! We’ve been here before! We can’t fall into temptation here in Pergamum!”

The same principle could be used for every reference. “Sword of my mouth” or “where Satan has his throne” or “a new name” written on a white stone. Where is John getting his material? Obviously from the culture, but each one of these references comes from the Old Testament!

Next we will take these principles and apply them to the letter written to Thyatira.


REVELATION: Smyrna and Their Crown

As we continue to learn some of these principles for reading the book of Revelation in context, I am committed not to overwhelm you with all the possible content. I have pointed you toward some sources where you can go further and deeper in your specific studies. I want to take a few more steps into this new hermeneutic and keep us learning and stretching to understand what John is trying to accomplish. There are many other details that those familiar with this understanding would add into the conversation, but I want to continue building so we can keep the greatest amount of our readers with us.

So, let me introduce you to a format I’m going to use in the letters to the seven churches (and other parts of Revelation). I want to give you some of the context of this particular geographical location in the first century and see if it impacts the way we read the letter.

Smyrna received its name from one of its largest exports — myrrh — used for many things, but predominantly in the preparation of dead bodies. Smyrna was infatuated with death. Combine this infatuation with the center of medicine and the focus on “science” (at this point in history, largely superstition mixed with some science) and you also find a large Roman cult following around the different pagan myths that contained beliefs about resurrection. More than most places in Rome, Smyrna talked at length about death and resurrection.

Smyrna was yet another port harbor in the Roman empire that made for fantastic trade. While this is true for many of the cities we study, what was unusual about Smyrna was its absolute allegiance to the emperor and Rome in a way not seen throughout the rest of the empire. After Alexander the Great conquered Sardis, Smyrna became the cultural center of Asia; in fact, in the third century BC, Smyrna formed a more formal relationship with Rome as Antiochus (from Syria) was threatening to attack. This relationship was fostered all throughout the rising of the Roman empire. What this probably means, and is supported by other details in history (and the letter to Smyrna), is that believers — especially Gentile believers — in Smyrna were persecuted more than the average believer elsewhere in Asia. Doing commerce in a place like Smyrna would have been incredibly difficult if you didn’t affirm the worship of the emperor, leading to a life of struggle and poverty.

Smyrna was also known for a Jewish contingent that did not accept the inclusion of the Gentiles. Having written to Rome to declare that these Gentile converts were not true Jews, they had thrown the Gentile converts under the Roman bus and excluded them from the “Jewish Exception” that allowed them not to have to bow the knee to Caesar as god. As we’ve looked at before, this would not have been a normal experience throughout Asia and much of Asia Minor, but appears to be the case in Smyrna.

Throughout history, ancient historians use the imagery of crowns when writing about Smyrna. One historian (Apollonius) referred to Smyrna’s city center as “the crown of porticoes.” These references lead some scholars to think Smyrna may have made use of the Greco-Roman crowns in a unique way. Being a larger and more sophisticated city (unlike some of the more “blue collar” cities we will study), Smyrna would have celebrated much wealth and enjoyed the benefits of the Roman class system. One of the ways these classes were distinguished was by the use of crowns. Everything from a Greek crown wreath, to a crown of bronze, silver, or even gold, would have been a way of setting yourself apart.

Now, with just a few items of cultural context under our belt, let’s go to the letter to Smyrna in Revelation 2 and see what we notice in the writing:
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.”
“…who died and came to life again.” This is an obvious reference to Smyrna’s infatuation with death and resurrection, tying it back to the person of Jesus.

“I know your afflictions and your poverty — yet you are rich!” Here we see a reference to the struggling believers, persecuted by Rome and others, finding it hard to make it day-to-day in a world that doesn’t appreciate the way they worship.

“…those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” This is definitely not a blanket statement about Judaism (as it’s often interpreted), but a direct reference to the group of Jews who have rejected the Gentile converts.

“…I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” The usage of their crown imagery speaks to them about perseverance.

“…will not be hurt at all by the second death.” To a place infatuated with death and resurrection, John points out that there is a “second death” they ought to be thinking about. However, those believers who persevere to the end will find the reward they have been placing their hope in.

Again, what we end up finding is that these letters in Revelation are certainly not (at least primarily) some coded reference to the future and the “end of days,” but are very fitting messages of encouragement to their original recipients. To this end, we continue to realize that Revelation is fitting the mold for apocalyptic literature in its ability to use pictures and images to convey a message of hope to the present day.