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Revelation 2-3: The Letters to the 7 Churches and early Christian Persecution

Revelation 2 continues the introductory section of Revelation. Though using more colorful images and language than Paul, John the Revelator begins laying out an epistle-esque (or epistolary if you’re feeling fancy) series of notes to the 7 churches. We probably shouldn’t worry too much about whether these were intended for the specific churches they were addressed to or whether they were meant to speak to the whole church. What they do instead for us is start to give us a picture of the kind of situations that John was writing to.

Since we left Paul and his letters and the book of Acts a lot had changed for the church. In the early days of the church Christianity was viewed as another school of Judaism. And Judaism had unique protections under Roman law. Rome had a great appreciation for ancient things and Judaism was one of the oldest practiced faiths in their day. They had exemptions from conscription into the army and certain Roman religious practices which were mandated in other parts of the empire. But in 70 AD Israel’s last and final rebellion against Rome was crushed with devastating force, costing them both their protections and the temple itself.

This unrest accelerated the separation of Jew and Christian. Suddenly the broader Greco-Roman world was becoming aware of Christians as a unique religion in their own right. But Christians, much like the Jewish faith they were slowly separating from, were a problem to the Roman world.

For Rome there was no divide between church and state, secular (non-religious) and religious. Everything was both. To be a good citizen (or resident since most folks weren’t real citizens), not only meant paying taxes but participating in a variety of religious activities. You couldn’t just follow Roman law, you also needed to worship the goddess Roma (personification of Rome) and in some areas even worship current and previous Caesars. This was the Roman version of pledging allegiance to the flag or singing the national anthem (but more hardcore).

This was a huge problem for the monotheistic Christians. They couldn’t worship Caesar or Roma. This made them look very very suspicious bordering on traitorous. If you didn’t worship Roma or Caesar your other behavior is called into question. And in fact this “atheism” which Christians were accused of (for not believing in a wide world of gods but just one) also separated them from social, business and community life. The coliseums, athletic events, festivals and celebrations, local tradesman groups and even birthday and funeral celebrations all required elements of pagan worship. They would make sacrifices to Artemis and Zeus or chthonic hero cults like Hercules. This meant that not only did Christians look atheistic and un-patriotic but they also seemed to be intentionally isolating themselves from their local communities.

Imagine if instead of the flag the US had a giant golden eagle called Starry. And if you wanted to go to school, or a baseball game or Target you had to worship Starry. This was a huge issue for the early churches. They were seen as immoral, dangerous and hateful because of their monotheism.

The situations John describes in the different churches all seem to be different ways of dealing with these issues. When we put the first four letters together we get a portrait of a widespread problem. John uses metaphorical language like “Jezebel” (no one in this time would have called their child Jezebel), “Satan’s throne,” and “The Synagogue of Satan” to talk about how this issue was impacting their churches. These Nicolaitans, together with this “Jezebel” were probably people who considered themselves Christian who were convincing other Christians that worshiping Caesar and Roma (or just pretending to) was somehow OK to God. Jezebel was a well known Hebrew image of both seduction and idolatry, a common prophetic metaphor. The “Synagogue of Satan” was probably a church or literal synaoguge which was buying into these views and mixing Imperial-worship with the worship of God. “Satan’s throne” would have been a literal temple to Roma and the Caesars (something we know was found in several of these cities). Balaam was probably a teacher or faction who were allowing small acts of idolatry like taking part in functions in pagan temples.

We see here that John has no problem mingling Satan, the Devil and Rome. He sees Rome with its idolatry and hatred and violence as a clear personification or instrument of evil. This mingling will help us understand some of the more bizarre images we’ll find later.

This might sound like a small thing but remember that Christians were already dying for this. If you refused to denounce or blaspheme Jesus and worship Roma and the Caesars you could be jailed, beaten or put to death. Just because the Romans were kind of tepid, half-hearted or disorganized about these early persecutions doesn’t mean they weren’t still horrific and violent (that was kind of Rome’s default setting). The letters of Pliny and Trajan from around 110 AD, help show both the boring officialness of Roman persecution layered in tight with the awful violence and callous harm. They are very short and you should read the whole thing here

So John’s audience has some very harsh decisions to make. Do you remain faithful to God even if it costs you everything? And what does this have to do with the sevenfold reference to conquering that John has made, using the term in the close of each letter to the churches? Who are the conquerors? We’ll stay with these questions as we continue on in Revelation.