Revelation 2:1-11

June 21, 2008 | 14 comments
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Read the previous post in this series here.

Chapter 2 begins the seven letters to the seven churches. Again, seven is a symbol for completeness, which suggests that the Book of Revelation is intended to be read by all of the churches in addition to being read by these seven. I believe I mentioned before that these seven cities are mentioned in the order in which they occur on a road; the idea is that the letter (i.e., the Book of Revelation) would spend some time in each city before moving on to the next.

The seven letters have a very tight structure with the same elements repeated in each letter. The letters more or less follow the covenant pattern found in the Old Testament with a preamble, prologue, stipulation, witnesses, and blessings/cursings. Additionally, each letter contains part (but only part) of the description of Jesus Christ from chapter 1 and the descriptor is always in some way relevant to the condition of the church. (More on this as we encounter it in each letter.) Further, the letters are in a chiastic structure according to the state of each church: the church mentioned in the middle (Thyatira, see 2:18) is in the worst spiritual state while the first and last churches mentioned (Ephesus and Laodicea) are in the best (relatively speaking!).


1 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;

Ephesus was the most important city in Asia Minor at the time.

“These things sayeth he” is a formula found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) used to introduce the words of Yahweh. So, using that phrase and then restating part of the imagery applied to Jesus Christ in chapter 1 is another effort to align Jesus Christ with the God of the Old Testament.

2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:

Another translation for “labour” is ‘hard work.’

This verse hints at terrible discord and apostasy in Ephesus if they have had to try and excommunicate those who claimed to be apostles but were lying (ouch).

I’m thinking that the reason the phrase “who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks” was used in v1 to describe Christ is that they needed to know that He was in their midst and was aware of the difficult situation within their community. There are few feelings worse than knowing that someone is getting away with lying and I think it would have been reassuring for them to know that Christ, always in their midst, knew the truth.

3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.

Add the word “hardships” after the word “borne.” “Fainted” means “gotten weary.” Again, they would have been comforted to know that Christ was aware of what they had gone through.

4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.

If verse 4 is related to verse 2, it may be that suspicion of false apostles (which was good and necessary) has led to a general suspiciousness of each other and therefore a decrease in love for each other. This is speculative, but interesting. I’d pay good money to know exactly what it means that they “left their first love.” Is it love of God (which might imply general backsliding or apostasy or sin)? Or love of man (which might be tied to the suspicion about the false apostles)? Or something else entirely?

5 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.

The first phrase means, roughly, remember the height from which you have fallen.

“The first works” means ‘the things that you did in the beginning.’

Removing the candlestick means that the entire church is removed from the presence of Christ (who, remember, is in the midst of the seven churches, so that’s probably another reason that imagery was used here was to set up this referent). It is interesting that that “first love” (whatever it was) is necessary for the church to retain its place in Christ’s presence.

6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

The first phrase means “this you have in your favor.” The Nicolaitans were pagan assimilationists. Let me say a little about this. The pagan cults were not only religions but also combined some elements of the modern labor union and benevolent society (not to mention butcher and funeral home). To refuse to participate in the local cult often meant being locked out of the job market, as it were. So being a pagan assimilator isn’t just about religious beliefs but also about economic and social needs. This is a very difficult thing they are being praised for doing (or, technically, not doing).


7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.

The phrase “he that hath an ear, let him hear” is used by Jesus (see Mark 4:9) and seems to summon up Isaiah 6:9-10. The idea is that not everyone hearing these letters read to him/her will actually hear what they really mean. This is a hint that the Book of Revelation isn’t a straightforward text (which, if it were, would suggest that a literal reading would be best and that anyone who heard it would hear it) but rather that it will teach us in a different way–a way that will require close and careful attention.

Note that the Spirit is saying something to the “churches” (plural) even though we are in the middle of one letter to one church. That plural implies that the content of each letter is relevant in a general way to all seven (and, by symbolic suggestion, all) churches.

“Will I give to eat” can be translated as ‘will I give the right to eat.’ The promise made here–the right to eat of the tree of life–implies that the person will be returned to a prelapsarian (man, I love that word) state. Which is another way of saying that those who overcome will be returned to the presence of God.


8 And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;

Smyrna had a strong allegiance to Rome and a large Jewish population.

9 I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.

The phrase “thy works” is not in the best ancient manuscripts. Another translation for “tribulation” is “affliction.”


10 Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.

The ten days of tribulation is unlikely to be a literal reference but rather meant to evoke Daniel 1:12-15, with the connotation that the tribulation will be a time of testing and trial from which they will emerge victorious if they cling to their faith. (And, as is usually the case with OT references in Revelation, there is a subversive political tinge to the citation: note that Daniel and his friends are, in Daniel 1:12-15, violating the conventions of the conquering culture and keeping with their own. Given the large Jewish population in Smyrna, using Daniel as an example is particularly potent and comparing the evil Romans to the evil Babylonians all the moreso.)

There is some local color in this verse: the crown probably isn’t a royal crown but an athlete’s crown of laurels with reference to the games held in Smyrna. There was also a circle of buildings commonly called the “crown of Smyrna.”

11 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.

“Of” means “by,” so we should read “hurt by the second death.” The “not” is doubly emphatic.

Summary thought: I’ll have to hold off on most of this until all seven letters are on the table, but for now note that both letters end with promises for those who overcome and that those promises are grounded in the story of the creation/fall (v7: eating of the tree of life in the midst of the garden; v11: not being hurt by the second death).

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14 Responses to Revelation 2:1-11

  1. Thomas Parkin on June 21, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    Hey Julie, I have only one thing to say …

    … “prelapsarian”

    *runs away*

    ~

  2. Ardis Parshall on June 22, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    verse 6 — This is easier to understand after having read some of Wilfried’s posts and Dialogue articles about the social and economic and professional opportunities that are closed to the Saints in Belgium and elsewhere.

    Hey, I *like* “prelapsarian”!

    Thanks, Julie, for keeping up with this tutorial.

  3. Thomas Parkin on June 22, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Ardis,

    I like it, too. I almost, I mean, thanks goodness that my words were just a moment behind my thoughts… I almost used it in church today.

    Thank heavens that didn’t happen.

    Julie – please do keep these coming. I’ve been enjoying them very much, and am learning. I had no idea about the Nicolatians.
    (I always just assumed they were some kind of sex cult, of the kind so prevalent in Sinbad the Sailor times.)

    ~

    PS I know, I know, that Sinbad lived in an Islamic Arabia, and so couldn’t have come till centuries later.
    PPS I don’t mean to be flip – please please do keep these coming.

  4. Researcher on June 22, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    I will be honest and say that I have been saving up to read all of your Revelation posts until sometime when I felt like it. Well, that is today and happened to be very timely. I came into it thinking to learn a little about candlesticks and robes and so forth but have gotten an entirely different message about the ministry of a tender shepherd to his flocks. Well, maybe a rather intellectual, tender shepherd with a particular thing for the book of Daniel, but one who saw and recognized the particular needs of the congregations. I left church today feeling worn down by all the many struggles which are happening right now in our little ward. No need to enumerate them, but it seems like I barely process one crisis before I hear about another one. And not being in ward leadership now, I’m sure that I only know a fraction of what is going on. I’m talking about health crises, economic issues, family problems, people we would like to see at church and never do, families separated by the war, deaths. On the way home from church I was wondering aloud to my husband if there is a single family in the ward that has not been touched by deep hardship or tragedy in the last couple of years. So with that mindset and those cares, I approached Revelation for a little bit of scriptural trivia but instead came away with some insight into the universality of human suffering and then the true hope of the gospel. “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” Thank you, Julie.

  5. Julie M. Smith on June 22, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    “I came into it thinking to learn a little about candlesticks and robes and so forth but have gotten an entirely different message about the ministry of a tender shepherd to his flocks.”

    Yes!

    Thanks for keeping me motivated to keep these coming, y’all.

  6. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 23, 2008 at 1:31 am

    Julie: You mentioned that the order of the seven churches corresponds to the order one would encounter them as you traveled around western Asia Minor. I have no doubt that the admonitions to each church were specifically targeted at its specific problems. However, as you noted, the promises are made to the churches (plural), including probably other churches outside those seven. The phrase “He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear” is also used in Matthew 13 as Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower, preceding it with an explanation (in chiastic format!) of the whole reason he taught in parables, so that meanings would be hidden from the unprepared while opened to the prepared. The parables were, in their full meaning, encoded.

    I think, as you hint, that this is specifically true of the blessings that are promised at the end of each of the seven sections, which all have the same hidden meaning flag–”He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”. They obviously begin with Eden, and then progress through the Fall (the second death), and I believe a correlation can be found with the successive stages of the Endowment. Hugh Nibley wrote about the records referring to the ancient use of the prayer circle among the apostles, based on teachings they received from Christ after his resurrection. His book “An Egyptian endowment” suggests that the endowment as we know it was also known in some form anciently, including in the First Century.

    I would suggest that, since the more mature saints would have been versed in the Endowment, they would recognize references to aspects of it in Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, and would have connected them in a way that the casual reader would not. Why would John do this? John was not able to communicate to them directly. There were apostates who were ready to forge letters purporting to be from the apostles. By offering a hidden message that would only be understood by the initiated, John was authenticating Revelation as coming from one of the small group of people who were mature saints. If he had administered the Endowment to leaders in each church, they would recognize it as coming from him.

    Having that assurance that it was in fact a Revelation to John, and affirming the promised blessings of the endowment, would resonate with the assurance of final eternal victory with god that is the overall message of revelation. In particular, while Revelation assures the church in general, the Endowment is specific to each saint who has received it.

    Since those who have received their own Endowment in the temples know what it consists of, the correlation between the seven blessings and the stages of that ordinance can be recognized without me going into detail. I will just point out that the last blessing involves knocking at a door and meeting the Savior, and that this segues into John being in the heavenly temple to receive the remainder of the Revelation or Apocalypse, which literally means “opening the veil.”

  7. Julie M. Smith on June 23, 2008 at 10:13 am

    Raymond, I decided to pull up the seven promises to think about what you wrote. Here they are:

    “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”

    “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.”

    “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”

    “And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:
    27 And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father.
    28 And I will give him the morning star.
    29 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”

    “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.”

    “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.
    13 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”

    “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.”

    Are some of those temple-ish? Yes. But it doesn’t follow the pattern of the endowment closely enough (or in order–shouldn’t eating from the tree of life be near the end?) for me to feel comfortable with the idea that it is aiming to suggest it. Further, given the changes in temple worship just in my lifetime, I would seriously doubt that the 2000-year-old version would be similar enough to recognize any comparison.

    But even if hints of the endowment are there (and I agree that there might be hints there) the idea that it was used to authenticate that the letter was really from an apostle and not an apostate is, in my opinion, extremely unlikely. In the first place, I doubt something like that would have worked because some of the apostates would have been endowed (whatever that would have meant then, if anything) and therefore able to fake the letter. (Looking at the seven promises above, would you feel certain, if it were written today, that it came from an endowed person? I wouldn’t. Everything in there can come from the OT or current first century general cultural knowledge, as I’ll show when I discuss each one.) Further, we know how they authenticated the letters–they had trusted people known to the sender and the audience hand deliver them–there’s plenty of evidence for this in Paul’s letters.

  8. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 23, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    Given the public nature of this venue, I hesitate to go into much more detail about the correspondences I think are there in the language of the promises. The tree of life is definitely tied to the Garden of Eden, which is properly at the beginning. As you note, the Endowment has been modified in our own lifetimes, so we don’t know the particulars of how it was taught in the First Century, and can only find correlations that suggest this is a possibility. Because the baseline information in the endowment would not be publishable, it is a hypothesis that could not be offered and critiqued and refined in an academic forum.

    The notion about the purpose of these references being authentication is a separate hypothesis, and I grant that it may not have been necessary or sufficient for the reasons you state. On the other hand, the fact that Chapter 4 has John in what we would call the Celestial Kingdom implies that he has arrived there in the manner we think of as normal, i.e. through the Endowment. I think the correlation may be strengthened if the ancient endowment included administration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

    I arrive at my hypothesis about the meaning of the blessing passages because it seems to me that the structure of the promises, and the labeling that they contain a hidden meaning, suggest that there is a unifying theme here that even a “mere Christian” would not apprehend. It seems more likely to me that what is being communicated is something progressive in nature rather than random blessings, that takes one from the Isle of Patmos into the presence of God. The most obvious candidate seems to be the Endowment. I am happy to entertain alternative proposals as to what the unifying theme is, what the hidden message consists of. But unless we have an explanation that provides unity and that reveals information hidden from the casual reader, it remains a mystery, in the formal sense of something that is revealed to those who are prepared to receive it.

  9. Julie M. Smith on June 23, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Raymond, I appreciate your unwillingness to discuss this in terms that wouldn’t be appropriate on a blog. I think the “labeling that they contain a hidden meaning” is the strongest part of your argument. I do think, though, that after I have posted on all the letters, you will see that certain phrases that scream “TEMPLE!” to the endowed could have easily and simply been understood by any random person in the first century.

    As far as ch4, I don’t think seeing it as “entering the celestial kingdom” is as useful as seeing it as “another entry in a long line of scenes where a visionary is commissioned in the presence of God.” But more on that later . . .

  10. Gerald Smith on June 24, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Julie, Thanks for the great concepts.

    Do you think there\’s a reason why there are only 7 churches? Had Paul\’s missionary journeys not had better response than to only have 7 churches for the Lord to talk to? Or perhaps of all the churches founded, there were only 7 left that would accept John as apostle and leader of the church (of which, even some of these had major righteousness issues)?

  11. Julie M. Smith on June 24, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Gerald, there are definitely other congregations in other parts of the world at this time; these seven are all in Asia Minor. And we know that there were even other congregations in Asia Minor, such as Galatia, because they had other letters sent to them. (Unless you postulate that a congregation existed in Galatia when Paul wrote that didn’t exist when the Revelator wrote . . . ) Why John picked these seven, I have no idea. Good question, though.

  12. Ardis Parshall on July 19, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Julie, I’m eager for more. Will you be continuing this series when you have a moment or ten?

  13. Julie M. Smith on July 19, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    I’ll try to get one up this weekend, Ardis. Thanks for reminding me.

  14. Researcher on July 19, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    I was just wondering the same thing the other day. I’ll be looking forward to the new installment.