REVELATION: The Throne Room

We will continue to use the same hermeneutic of culture and Text as we study Revelation. Before we read Revelation 4, it would be helpful to note the context surrounding the Roman priests who worked for/with the emperor.

Rome had twenty-four legal and official religions. Each of these religions had a head priest who served as their imperial representative — like an ambassador — for Caesar. These priests served in a very public and political office, often making their appearances at public proclamations, coronations, parousias, olympic games, and other imperial events. As history describes them, they were always seen wearing white robes and golden crowns. At times, they are described as having golden sashes around their waist or chest, and they would often lead the people in great song.

I’ve mentioned before my belief that Revelation was written during (or at least in reference to) the reign of Domitian. You may also recall the discussion about the largest gymnasium in the world under construction in Ephesus. If you go to those ruins today, you will find dominant images around the structure (as well as other cities in biblical Asia). Just outside the gymnasium sits a gate with ornate decorations of an ox head every ten feet or so. Each emperor had a different animal they chose to represent themselves, whether it was the strength of an ox or the veracity of a lion. Common images for Domitian were the ox and the lion. He also erected numerous images of himself, as well as the great Roman symbol of the eagle.

A statue (located at Pergamum) of a Roman emperor; note the images of
animals around the bottom of the torso (eagles, lions, rams, etc.)
There is record of the rise of Domitian as emperor, and his selection of Ephesus as his neochorus. He planned his great arrival in Ephesus to coincide with the grand opening of his newly constructed gymnasium. It would have been a much anticipated arrival, and the energy in Ephesus at the time would have been electric. Many historians have painted pictures of what the scene could have looked like.

One could imagine the boats arriving in the harbor and the soldiers disembarking, dressed in their shining armor with brand new medallions that read, “Emperor Domitian Flavius, Lord and God.” They may have even brought off the ships brand new statues and other decorative emblems to install all over Ephesus. Eventually, the high priests would assemble, a courier might read the pronouncement and introduction of Emperor Domitian, and then the twenty-four priests of the twenty-four legal Roman religions would begin to lead the people in song. Dressed in white robes and wearing golden crowns, one of the most common songs of the Emperor (think of “Hail to the Chief”) was one that sounded like it came straight out of Isaiah (which raises all kinds of other questions, but some other time).

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty! Who was, and who is, and who is to come!”

We’ve found that record in a couple different places referencing the songs of the olympic games and the arrival of the Roman emperor. But alas, we should read Revelation 4:
After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.  
From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come!”
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
    and by your will they existed and were created.”
In view of the cultural context, this entire fourth chapter is a brilliant subversion of the arrival of Caesar. There are twenty-four priests and pronouncements of glory, incredible songs, and worship of a king. In the words of my good friend Aaron Couch, it’s as if John is writing this letter of apocalyptic encouragement and saying, “I’ve been to the throne room of God — and Domitian isn’t on it.”

In a world that was overrun with the pronouncement and pomp of a powerful ruler, John reminds his readers who the real king is. There is a more true king than the one who claims to wield the throne with power and fear. May this same reminder remain true to us in a world that claims so many things to have power and sway over our present and our future. While it's tempting to wrap up with eloquent resolutions to our conversations, this is actually what the book of Revelation is about. And so we move on into the next chapter, having just been witnesses to the great heavenly pronouncement of who is truly in charge.


REVELATION: Lukewarm Laodicea

** It should be noted that almost all of my material on Revelation has been influenced directly by the teaching of Ray VanderLaan and the main sources that were mentioned toward the beginning of this series. It is not my intent to claim credit for their incredible work. The original lesson that influenced my teaching here can be seen in VanderLaan's series through Focus on the Family titled "That the World May Know" **

And now we come to our final “letter” in Revelation — the letter to Laodicea. We’ll start with a little bit about the cultural backdrop of Laodicea.

Laodicea sat in between two other cities, Hierapolis and Colossae. Hierapolis was a major attraction because of the natural mineral hot springs that flowed from the cliff face there. The water was renowned for its incredible healing properties (even to this day) and was a great place for people to come for vacation or rest. Colossae, as we’ve seen before, was off the beaten path and not on the main road. It was known for its colossenus, which seems to have been a special red wool people made robes and coats out of, and the city also had a freshwater spring providing a constant source of cool and refreshing water.

The white mineral cliffs of Heirapolis

When the major earthquake of AD 60 hit the area, Rome sent money to rebuild Hierapolis and Laodicea, for obvious reasons. Colossae was not integral to the stability of Rome, so they received no money. Not long after, the city vanished from history. Hierapolis accepted the money and rebuilt their city. Laodicea, however, chose to reject the money and rebuild on their own. There’s no evidence their rejection of assistance was viewed as an insult, but Laodicea also served as one of the major mints/banks for Rome, and in the late first century they printed local coins that bore the phrase: “We did it ourselves.”

If you visit the ruins of Laodicea today, you find the remnants of an ancient arena (from the first century). Seating roughly 60,000 people, the arena served as a regional center for gladiatorial combat. The best of the best gladiators in the world were centered in Laodicea, and people would come from all around to watch them engage in combat. The Roman military even used the location as a training station. As the gladiators created new weapons and became experts in them, the Roman military stationed itself in Laodicea to learn from the experts how to use the new weaponry.

The arena at Laodicea

Because of the large and constant military presence, one of the things the region was known for was the soldier’s demand for a meal. According to Roman law, a soldier could knock on your door at any time and demand a full-course meal. Some of the other cities in the region (like Hierapolis, which had to entertain the soldiers who were on leave) actually wrote to Rome and asked them to loosen the demand on local citizens. Soldiers were always stationed there, and getting a knock on your door was a routine draw on the residents in a way that wasn’t common in other places. While some cities complained, Laodicea never did. Just as their coins said, they were proud to be able to take care of themselves with no assistance from others.

In a similar way to the colossenus wool from Colossae, Laodicea was known for its black wool that was used to make what they called traumata. They also exported a famous eye salve, using mineral mud from Hierapolis and making a medical treatment known to heal blindness. It was also the home of a famous orator name Zeno. He had three children (one son and two daughters) who all ended up marrying royalty from different areas, becoming king/queens.

Finally, the one negative thing Laodicea was known for was its water. There was not a good water source at Laodicea. The hot mineral water of Hierapolis combined with the cold spring water of Colossae to make a lukewarm, somewhat destructive water. Attempting to pipe water in from 35 miles away (which they still do to this day, I’m told), their ancient systems did not work, and they struggled to find good drinking water. There are now remnants of a fountain in Laodicea, which has been replumbed multiple times as the pipes clogged with crusted mineral deposits.

The ruins of the fountain at Laodicea (notice the white mineral deposits)

Now, to read the letter from John:
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
“… you are neither cold nor hot. … because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” I can’t tell you how many youth group lessons I sat through where this passage was used to spur us out of apathy. “Quit living on the fence!” they would say. “Get in or get out! God would rather have you against Him, than have you on the fence.” This well-intentioned lesson could not have missed the point more. The teaching here is clearly pulling on two things that are beneficial and useful. The hot mineral water of Hierapolis brings healing, and the cold spring water of Colossae is refreshing and life-giving. Be something! Be useful! But don’t be useless — some poisonous combination of both that makes you good for nothing.

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ ” This is a great depiction of the attitude of the ‘we-did-it-ourselves’ Laodiceans.

“I counsel you to by from me gold refined in the fire …”  as opposed to the mint and banking institutions of Laodicea,

“… white clothes to wear …” — a contrast to the black traumata of Laodicea,

“… salve to put on your eyes …” — and a reference to the famous mineral salve they exported.

“I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” John references the practice of local soldiers who would come knocking at the door, demanding a meal. Jesus will come knocking, but he makes no demands; should you choose to open the door, he will dine with you and invite you to sit and dine with him (something you would never do with the soldiers).

“… I will give the right to sit with me on my throne …” Some have suggested this could be a reference to Zeno and his children, who went on to sit on thrones.

And where does the material come from? We could look to Isaiah 55:
“Come, all you who are thirsty,    come to the waters;and you who have no money,    come, buy and eat!Come, buy wine and milk    without money and without cost.Why spend money on what is not bread,    and your labor on what does not satisfy?”
We could also turn to Isaiah 65:
“Whoever invokes a blessing in the land    will do so by the one true God;whoever takes an oath in the land    will swear by the one true God.For the past troubles will be forgotten    and hidden from my eyes.”
In Hebrew, the phrase “one true God” could also be translated “the God who is amen.” There’s a shared usage in the Septuagint, and the context of Isaiah 65 (even the reference “hidden from my eyes”) will play into the teaching here to the church at Laodicea.

We might even suggest a looser connection with Proverbs 3:
My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline,    and do not resent his rebuke,because the LORD disciplines those he loves,    as a father the son he delights in.
Blessed are those who find wisdom,
    those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
    and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies;
    nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
    in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways,
    and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
    those who hold her fast will be blessed.
There would be numerous prophets to give us the following idea, but Hosea 12 might be the clearest in this context:
The merchant uses dishonest scales    and loves to defraud.Ephraim boasts,    “I am very rich; I have become wealthy.With all my wealth they will not find in me    any iniquity or sin.”
And the famous reference of “spitting/vomiting you out of my mouth” is certainly not unique to Revelation and could be pulled straight from Leviticus 18:
“ ‘The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.’ ”
Or Leviticus 20:
“ ‘Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you.’ ”
What I love about the history lesson of Laodicea is that they received a sharp rebuke from God through John in Revelation. I think we often assume (at least I do) that these churches didn’t learn their lesson and were punished. However, the church in Laodicea would end up becoming quite a presence in the world of Asia Minor. Archeologists have recently uncovered a church with a brilliant mosaic referencing Polycarp, John’s first disciple.

May we learn the lessons we need to learn and let the Lord discipline us as a child He loves. May we wake from our slumber and sloth to seize the calling to be useful in God’s Kingdom.


REVELATION: Philadelphia and Her New Name

Now that we’ve been exposed to this hermeneutic in Revelation, we should be able to cover ground a little more quickly. We’ll take a look at the context of Philadelphia, we’ll let it shape the way we read the letter, and then we’ll ask where John is drawing his material from in the Old Testament.

Philadelphia is another city that was plagued in the first century by earthquakes. (You might remember the conversation in 1 Thessalonians about parousia and the second coming of a Roman emperor.) In AD 17 there was a major earthquake that destroyed Philadelphia; the rebuilt city was given a new name to honor the Caesar who helped them rebuild: “NeoCaesarea.”

In AD 60, another major earthquake hit and the city was rebuilt again by the Flavian dynasty. They sought to rename the city “Flavia,” but the name was rejected because of how the residents of the city despised the Flavian dynasty. (While the city’s name was changed formally, it appears nobody recognized the new name and it reverted to Philadelphia.)

Among the many things that plagued the early Roman empire, the lack of grain production crippled the Roman economy (think of our dependance on oil and we start to understand the problem). Rome was doing everything they could think of to produce more grain. In fact, one of the references in the book of Revelation (found in 6:6) matches exactly what we’ve found in Roman records; the price mentioned is 500 times the average price prior to the grain shortage.

One of the major exports of Philadelphia was its incredible wine; they loved their wine and were known throughout the land as having wonderful grapes. The Flavian dynasty, in an effort to curb the grain shortage, ordered more than 75% of the grapevines of Philadelphia uprooted. They were replaced with grain fields that never produced healthy grain (and they were certainly warned by experts that the grain wouldn’t grow). In light of this, you can understand the anger of the residents.

Philadelphia was also known as “The Door” to Asia Minor. It was the border between the two regions on the main highway. Once you passed through Philadelphia on your way west, you had entered into the province of Asia.

Now, let’s read the letter to Philadelphia and listen for context:
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 
I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
“What he opens no one can shut … See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” We have a fitting reference to the city known as a doorway into the kingdom of Asia.

“… synagogue of Satan …” Most scholars have based the reference in our discussion about Smyrna on scholarship surrounding this reference in the letter to Philadelphia. It appears to be a similar situation where the Jewish assembly in Philadelphia is denying the acceptance of the Gentiles.

“I am coming soon.” This deliberate reference to a parousia speaks to a city that has experienced at least two of them.

“I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, … I will also write on them my new name.” Three different references to a new name in this letter? That’s more than mere coincidence; this is most certainly a play on the cultural backdrop of a city that’s had its name changed frequently.

But then we need to ask about John’s source material. Consider the following from Isaiah 45:
“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.For the sake of Jacob my servant,    of Israel my chosen,I summon you by name    and bestow on you a title of honor,    though you do not acknowledge me.”
Here we see a reference to God opening doors that cannot be shut; Isaiah also spends an unusual amount of time talking about summoning Cyrus by name. Not only this, but the whole passage is about God using a Gentile to save and redeem His own people — a reference directed to the “Synagogue of Satan”?

Now consider Isaiah 62:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,    for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet,till her vindication shines out like the dawn,    her salvation like a blazing torch.The nations will see your vindication,    and all kings your glory;you will be called by a new name    that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand,    a royal diadem in the hand of your God.No longer will they call you Deserted,    or name your land Desolate.But you will be called Hephzibah,    and your land Beulah;for the LORD will take delight in you,    and your land will be married.As a young man marries a young woman,    so will your Builder marry you;as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,    so will your God rejoice over you.
It’s another incredibly fitting source from which to grab material for the letter to Philadelphia. John made mention of nobody taking their crown, a reference to a passage that is also filled with references to a new name?

But there’s also one more in 2 Chronicles 3:
For the front of the temple he made two pillars, which together were thirty-five cubits long, each with a capital five cubits high. He made interwoven chains and put them on top of the pillars. He also made a hundred pomegranates and attached them to the chains. He erected the pillars in the front of the temple, one to the south and one to the north. The one to the south he named Jakin and the one to the north Boaz.
John said they would be pillars in the temple of my God. Such a reference would take any Jew’s mind back to the temple of Solomon, because when we were told of Solomon’s project, one of the notable things he did was to set up two pillars. However, as you can see above, he doesn’t just set up two pillars; he does something peculiar —

He gives them names.

And again, I’m forced to recognize the literary genius that is the book of Revelation. We could write much more just on the different “hidden sermons” that are being preached through John referencing these passages (known as remez). May we continue to push in and learn more about the book that has perplexed so many for so long, but may we remember that if we’re going to study the last book of the New Testament, one of the most critical things we better bring with us is the Old Testament.


REVELATION: Waking Up in Sardis (part two)

As we continue our study of Sardis and the context that drives the letter in Revelation, if we proceed down into the city ruins, we would find the second largest gymnasium (remember to think “university”) in the Roman world of Asia and Asia Minor — second only to the gymnasium of Domitian in Ephesus. If you were to walk into the center courtyard of the gymnasium, you would be able to spin around to admire the palestra, the colonnaded courtyard whose edges would have housed the many classrooms utilized for Greco-Roman study.

Within the palestra and the gymnasium walls would actually be the largest synagogue found in the ancient world. This would strike anyone as being quite odd. Why would you put a place of Jewish worship and education so close to a place of Roman education? When you walk through the ruins of the synagogue, you are struck by many different features. First, there are no images on the floor, but you see an ornate Torah closet and Moses seat — what you would expect from a devout Jewish community. But there are other features which suggest compromise. There are lions toward the front of the synagogue, which wouldn’t be alarming in another context, but the goddess of Sardis, Cybele, was represented by lions. The Torah reading table has large eagles on its side supports, a distinctly Roman image. And then you have the synagogue’s location to consider.

Synagogue at Sardis, with the gymnasium palestra in the background

Is this ancient community committed to missional living? Or is this a community struggling with compromise? Or is it both?

It could be that this is what the letter spoke of when it told them to “wake up and strengthen their defenses” and that they had “a reputation for being alive, yet were dead.”

Of course, the archaeological team from Harvard disagrees — and I happen to agree with them.

The team at Harvard pointed out that the Christian bishop stationed in Sardis (long after Revelation was written), Bishop Mileto, was one of the most anti-Semitic bishops in Asia and Asia Minor. He mounted numerous written attacks against the Jews of Sardis, and not once did he ever accuse them of compromise. If their history was so littered with compromise, this would be a strange omission.

Harvard also points out that the mikveh fountain located outside the entrance to the synagogue was also listed as one of the eleven public fountains with free access in the city of Sardis.

It seems we have an ancient group of people trying to be a light to the Gentiles.

But for now, let’s take this conversation back toward the mountains of Sardis where the great temple to Cybele sits between the acropolis and the necropolis. Symbolizing the mythology of Sardis that surrounded life, death, and resurrection, one side of the Temple would frame the acropolis in the great doorway, while looking the other direction would frame the necropolis. The myth of Cybele is what would eventually give rise to the Greco-Roman worship of Artemis.

According to the story, Cybele had both male and female genitalia and was able to procreate on her own. Her grandson was enamored with her and longed to sleep with her, but Cybele, in need of no male companionship, continually rejected him. In a frenzied attempt to prove his undying devotion to her, the grandson castrated himself and offered his prized organs on the altar as an act of worship.

Every year in Sardis, over one million people would visit the city for a great 40-day celebration commemorating the myth. At multiple times during the festival, a large procession would leave from the city center (with everyone dressed in white robes), and they would make their way up to the temple to Cybele. The goal was to get yourself into such a drunken lather that you would be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and recreate the myth, offering your own castration to the goddess.

As one might imagine, not everyone would engage in this most holy of acts, but the priests of Cybele had declared that if you got some of the blood of those who did on your white robe, their offering would be accepted on your behalf.

Today, as one examines the ruins of the temple to Cybele, they might notice a small building built onto the corner of the ruins. (It dates to around the third or fourth century, near the time Cybele worship and paganism is dying out, but the point still stands.) It happens to be the ruins of a church. Much too small to be a place of corporate worship, some scholars have noticed the circular shape and identified it as a medical clinic. Some have theorized that the Christians here at Sardis decided to start a mission-based medical clinic and offer care to those who engaged in pagan worship.

Small church ruins sit in the lower right; temple ruins behind

I have always loved that picture. Whether the historicity of that claim is accurate or not is highly debatable, but the picture of a community of people building their church on the corner of the Cybele temple is an incredible image to me. It reminds me of Jesus’s words at Caesarea Philippi about where he would build his church. But I find myself reading the last half of the letter to Sardis with new eyes. See for yourself:
Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
What a wonderful picture. May we be those who are willing to walk with Him into the darkest of places, bringing light and care, love and hope into the worst chaos imaginable. May we be willing to continue to build our churches at the Cybele temples and in shopping malls and the inner cities as ways of walking with Him, dressed in white. And may we never forget the importance of not staining our robes.