Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Revelation Letters

Why is it that whenever a pastor teaches from Revelation chapters 2 and 3, the long, bony finger gets pointed to the faithful in the pews (or theater seating, as the case may be)?

Frankly, it reminds me of the old joke about how a couple will fight over money. Whose money is whose? In the joke, the woman says, "My money is mine and your money is ours!"

I think a similar thing goes on when a pastors and theologians read Revelation 2 and 3, also known as the "letters to the churches." You'll find this caption in most Bibles, but that wasn't there in the original manuscript. That's added to help confuse you (in this case).

Basically, we have a good chunk of the New Testament devoted to letters to churches. Paul writes two letters to the Corinthian church, letters to the church in Rome, to the Ephesian church, the Galatian church, the .... you get the picture. The other epistles (that's letters for you younger folks) are written to Christians, such as the letter Peter writes to those "scattered about..." also translated "those of the dispersion."

Paul writes the to Galatian Christians, chiding them for their poor doctrine, among other things, trying to set them straight (and free) in Christ.

Long story short: there's no shortage of letters written to church members.

There are also "pastoral epistles." Timothy got two letters, Titus got one ... so, there's precedent to write things to pastors, too.

In Revelation John, who is pretty old. Maybe in his 80s, even, has been imprisoned on the island of Patmos to prevent him from spreading the Gospel. It had been maybe around 50 years since he'd seen Jesus ascend to heaven and had been witness to the miraculous events of Pentacost. It's possible, as it is with all of us, that he might have had doubts that threatened his faith, though never shook him. Yet, he probably wondered about what Jesus had said to Peter when Peter asked what would become of him. Jesus had said, "what is it to you if he should remain until I return?"

All these thoughts might have run through the old apostle's mind when suddenly, Jesus, in glory as bright as the sun appeared before him. He granted him visions that he instructed him to write down and send to the seven churches.

John sees Jesus walking among seven lampstands (or candlesticks, depending on translation) and holding seven stars in his right hand. Then, in Revelation 1:20, Jesus gives John the explanation for the symbolic visions:

The mystery of the seven stars which thou saw in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou saw are the seven churches.
 This is the key to understand the letters which are contained in the next two chapters. Each letter is addressed to "The angel of the church at ..." And contain positives (in many cases) and negatives (in most cases) all addressing "you" in the singular form. The obvious reading is that these are letters to the "angel of the church" not the "candlestick."

Further proof of this obvious reading is found in Revelation 2:5, to the 'angel of the church of Ephesus":

Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.
 If Jesus were dictating a letter to the 'candlestick,' or the church members, he wouldn't use the singular 'thy' or remove the candlestick, which is the church. Some believe it means the church will no longer exist in Ephesus. Which happened a few hundred years later (leading some commentators to suggest that "they" repented and then fell prey to sin later on).

But then, there's Revelation 3:1:

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
 And Revelation 3:3:
Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.
 But then, in Revelation 3:4:
Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
 Reading this with the understanding that the stars are the 'angels' or messengers to the churches, and the letter is to the 'angel,' Jesus is saying that the 'angel' has a reputation of being alive, but is dead.

**Just and aside, here, since I'm this deep in, 'angel' is considered an "interpretive challenge" because no where else in the Bible is the word used to mean anything other than celestial, angelic beings. Some have speculated that the angels here are like "guardian angels" of the churches. But that raises some crazy issues. These angels seem to be ministering to the churches (lampstands) and are held in Jesus' right hand. If we follow the meaning set out in chapter 1, the letters are clearly written to the angels, and Jesus is indicating they need to repent. Which would mean, if they are celestial beings, that we have fallen angels adopting and allowing false doctrine and sin in the churches they're ministering to. Having angels repent raises other theological issues that are better kept for late nights in college dorms at Christian colleges--if they still do that sort of thing. Simply put, the common interpretation is that the 'angels' are actually the pastors of those churches.**

Back to the story! So, this pastor at Sardis is known as being ALIVE! ALIVE! ALLLLLIVE! But, actually, he's dead, no lightning bringing him to semblance of life. Jesus can only be talking about his spiritual condition (unless we want to go off the rails here). And spiritual death is ... not good.

Look at verse 3! He tells the pastor to remember what he received (presumably the Gospel) and repent! The way this comes across to me is that he has a reputation of being a true Christian, but he's not!

Not convinced? Read verse 4. There are a few that have white garments and are 'worthy.'

We know that it is only the works that are done by the Holy Spirit that are worthy sacrifices, so these are true, spiritually alive members of the pastor's congregation.

So, is this all bad news for the pastors? No, not all.

See Revelation 3:11 to the pastor of the church at Philadelphia (not America, by the way):

I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.
 That 'your' in this verse is also singular. The pastor will receive a crown for his ministry at this church.

At the end of each letter, though, Jesus says encouraging things for everyone.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ Revelation 2:7
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ Revelation 2:17
But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star. Revelation 2:24-28
There's more, but you get the idea. The key thing that should NOT be missed is that these warnings, while written to pastors, apply to every believer (just like the pastoral epistles!). But they hold a special place for those who find themselves serving as ministers to a local body within the Church.

To whom more is given, more will be required. Take a moment and read through these chapters again. Note what is being said to the pastors, and what is offered to 'he who has an ear.' 

**Edit: I forgot to check the tense of the "you" and "thou" in the epistles, which are clearly marked, "to the church at..." or to "all the brethren ..." etc. Those are second person, singular, too. So, the obvious reading is to follow the context. In the Revelation letters, as in the epistles, they are addressed at the outset, "To the angel of the church at ..." Similarly, the pastoral epistles are addressed to the people to whom they are sent (i.e. Timothy, Titus, Philemon...).

Interestingly, in the Revelation letters, we have "To the angel of the church at..." then "he who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches ..." and then a message follows that. 
*Blue Letter Bible I've added this link for added study for verb tense, etc.

Another resource for study is here and has charts showing interpretations for and against, etc. It also notes the verb tense, but mistakenly states that some of the sins could not be personal, but only reflect the wider church. I don't think the sins that are charged against the pastors have to be a wider sin, but most certainly are, based on context. The key thing to note, for pastors, is that they are being held responsible for their sins as they lead people in the church and end up allowing the errors that their own sinful permission has granted.

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