The End? The end of Evil

This 22nd post in our series through Revelation studies the message of chapter 18. A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

We make use of metaphors in our daily conversations to bring across rich ideas.  We refer to “Wall Street” collectively as the market economy system.  “Hollywood” is synonymous for the movie industry.  “Newspapers” rarely refer to printed media, but rather journalism as a whole.  The “Cayman Islands” are synonymous with tax haven.   In the same way we use words like “The East” or “The West” or “9-11” to bring across collective ideas, and with it the powerful sentiments.

Revelation is full of metaphors which are meant to move its readers emotively.  We read about Christ being the Alpha and Omega, the Bright Morning Star, the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, etc.  Judgments are depicted as seals, trumpets and bowls.  The Church is called golden lamp stands, the 144’000, the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, etc.  In contrast, Rome is depicted as the Beast, the Great Harlot, Babylon, etc.  Just as the 144’000 refer to God’s saints through the ages (7:4-8) so too Babylon refers to more than Rome.  It refers to the all who “want to make a name for themselves” (Babel, Genesis 11:4), any and all empires or ideologies that resist God and his reign.

Revelation 18 paints the scene of the destruction of Babylon, with a funeral scene. In it the Author alludes to the judgments of the pagan cities Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), ancient Babylon (Is 13:19-21) and Edom (Is 34:11-17).  John’s vision reveals three reasons for the destruction of Babylon – a warning to all.

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Al Samara, Iraq.

Self-glorification (18:7-8). “Because she glorified herself” God poured out on her the seals and trumpets and bowls.  Six times in this chapter Babylon is called “great” (18:2, 10, 16, 18, 19, 21); like ancient Babel, this city has succeeded to make a name for herself (Genesis 11:4).  Her boasting alludes to the arrogance of King Nebuchadnezzar who said “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (4:30).  That very moment God brought the proud king down.  Indeed, “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18).

The self-glorification and destruction of Babylon is in stark contrast to the thankful humility and exaltation of the New Jerusalem who “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:23)  Indeed, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

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Emperor Crassus, the richest man in his time (www.nationalgeographic.com)

Power, prosperity and perversion (18:3).  The Caesars of Rome promised peace and prosperity to all who submit to their rule through the Pax Romana.  The life they offered was one of sensuality, wealth and security through its military might.  To the first recipients of Revelation, “Babylon” pointed to Rome.  In this chapter we see three groups of people mourning its destruction: “Kings” representing the pursuit of power, “merchants” representing the pursuit of prosperity, “ship masters and sailors” representing the pursuit of immoral pleasures (18:9,11,17).  The Author shows that Babylon is destroyed because it seduces and ensnares people with the lure of power, wealth and immoral living. 

The bulk of the chapter is directed at Babylon’s failed promise of prosperity, its lure of “luxury” (repeated three times 18:3,7,9).  Riches are said to be “deceitful” (Matthew 13:22) because it promises joy and peace – fullness of life – but Jesus warns that life does not consist in the accumulation of wealth and possessions (Luke 12:15).  The same can be said about Babylon’s lies promising power and sensuality: it’s offers of security and pleasure is a mere mirage to the thirsty, forever visible on the horizon but failing to satisfy.  These John writes elsewhere “are of the world: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life… And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:16-17).  

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Injustice and violence (18:11-13, 24). Verses 11 to 13 list 31 trade goods into ancient Rome – the most comprehensive list of its kind preserved for us.  This thoroughness invites us to question the intent of such an extensive trade catalog in our text; it begs a closer look.  The harsh reality of Babylonian culture highlighted in this text is revealed by the long list of luxury trade items, such as gold, ivory, perfume, etc. ending abruptly with “slaves and human lives.”  Yes, Babylon also views human lives as tradable commodities and consumable resources.  This empire renown for its “luxury” (18:3,7,9) shamelessly gains its wealth through slavery and oppression. A second list comprising city noises affirms this atrocity: the pleasant sounds of music and rejoicing, milling and production, etc. are contrasted with the scenes (or screams?) of martyred saints (18:22-24).  

Rome, like every “great” empire before and after it, was known for its opulent splendor at the expense of human lives.  Babylon seeks pleasure and prosperity at any cost – even human lives and the cruel execution of whoever disagrees with the injustice of the regime.

For these reasons God is judging and will ultimately destroy Babylon.  How should the Church respond? There are two calls to the Church in this section.

Come out!  (18:4) The first call is to “Come out!” a warning to not partake in the sins of Babylon, and thereby escape its judgments.  This call to separate find its root in Lot’s escape from Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), Israel’s distancing from the sinners during the Korah rebellion (Numbers 16:20-35), and the destruction of Babylon (Jeremiah 51:6).  This phrase is repeated by Paul to abstain from Rome’s sexual immorality (2 Corinthians 6:17),  but here in this chapter the focus is on moral business and financial practices.   In particular it calls to abstain from the unjust practices which makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.  It warns of God’s impending judgment on those who enjoy luxuries while oppressing the poor.  This is indeed good news to the oppressed!

Rejoice! (18:20) The church is called to joyfully celebrate God’s victory over this vile, oppressive city.  And his judgment was given… for you against her.”  No longer will there be the reign of injustice which leads to oppression of the weak and poor, nor the persecution of the saints.  God’s judgment has ended the reign of evil on earth.

Bringing it home

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A golf course next to an informal settlement: inequality in our day.

We can see our world in Babylon’s description above: the pursuit of greatness, driven by greed and lusts, with the rich and powerful oppressing the weak and poor to gain greater wealth and power. Therefore this promise of the fall of Babylon brings joyful relief, but also calls for sober assessment of our attitudes and actions towards power, pleasure and prosperity.

The call to come out is a call not to isolation from the world, but separation from its evil practices (John 17:15-18).  This urges us to evaluate how we value self and others. Do we truly see every person as precious, bearing the image of God?  It challenges us to not only measure our social justice in how much we give, but also how we earn our money (and what we buy into when we shop). This separation (or sanctification) requires a work of transformation in our minds and hearts through diligent study of God’s Word and prayer (Revelation 12:1-2; John 17:16-17).  

We must also soberly acknowledge that although God’s faithful ones will escape the Final Judgment of Babylon, we may (continue to) experience the judgments over Babylon (depicted in the seals and trumpets and bowls).  This requires joyful endurance while we wait for God to make all things new.  Come Lord Jesus!

 

The End? Lukewarm waters

This ninth post in our journey through Revelation brings us to the last of the seven letters to the recipients of Revelation, the letter to Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22).  A recording of this post will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.   

John’s Revelation aims to comfort and challenge the church in its uncertain times.  This book reveals three great threats against the churches during the last decade of the first century: the intimidation by Rome (“the Beast”), the seduction of sensual living (“Babylon the harlot”), and the deception of false religions (“the False Prophet”) – all agents of Satan (“that Great Dragon”) attempting to snuff out the faith of the church.  In Christ’s letter to Laodicea, the lure of sensual living was the greatest threat against the church’s devotion to Christ and their witness of his Kingdom.

Laodicea was situated southeast of Philadelphia, close to major trade routes that connected it to Ephesus, Smyrna and Sardis.  It was a wealthy city, renown for its banking industry, wool industry, medical school, boasting an elaborate aqueduct system bringing water four miles from the springs at Denizli.  

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The ancient city of Laodicea was a wealthy city renown for its banking, wool and medicine as well as its impressive aqueduct systems.

The church in Laodicea was probably founded by Ephafras (Colossians 4:13; 1:7). It was prominent and privileged to receive correspondence from both the Apostles John and Paul (Revelation 1:11; Colossians 4:16).  This church, unlike the other churches in its time, was wealthy and self-sufficient (Revelation 3:17), and is the focal point of Christ’s message to the Laodicean believers. 

Revelation of Christ (3:14).  Christ reveals himself as “The Amen”, the one who is able to bring to fulfillment the purposes of God. He is “the Faithful and True Witness” – the martyr who witnessed the Kingdom of God with authenticity, to the end, paying the highest price.  He is also “the Beginning of God’s new creation” – the initiator and proof of God’s renewed creation.  Seen together, Christ’s revelation to Laodicean church calls them to look to him as example in witness and proof of his ability to rightfully usher in the new Reign of God; it comforts them that he will complete what he started and calls for their allegiance to him.

Condemnation (3:15-18).  Christ offers no commendation for this congregation.  His knowledge of their works reveal that, like the water from their elaborate aqueduct system, their witness is good for nothing – “neither cold (like the springs in Collosi) nor hot (like the springs at Hierapolis)“, inducing vomit.  This is often intepreted as a lack of zeal in the church, but the reference here implies that either hot or cold water is consumable, useful; lukewarm water is undrinkable, useless.  Christ’s condemnation is that the Laodicean church’s witness was compromised like their water supply – it was neither distinctly Christian nor worldly.  Somehow these believers found a loophole to remain in this market economy, avoiding direct Imperial cult worship and appeasing the trade guilds while soothing their conscious (more on this in a previous post).  This left the “streams of water gushing” from them luke-warm, unpalatable and therefore unable to satisfy the thirst of its community (refer to John 4:14).  Christ also found it to be disgusting.

Christ justifies his accusation: the church in Laodicean boasted in their riches, prosperity and self-sufficiency (3:17) – just like Babylon the great harlot (18:7).  In contrast to the church in Smyrna who were materially poor but rich in God’s sight (2:9), Christ reveals the Laodicean church as “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (3:17).  Note the irony: this charge is made to a wealthy church in city known for banking, eye medicine, and wool industry.  Yet this group of believers were blinded by pride; their focus on material prosperity made them blind to their state spiritual deprivation.

Exhortation and warning (3:18-20).  Christ urges this church – who is “wretchedly poor” to buy from him “gold refined by fire” and “white garments” (3:18).  This invitation to satisfy one’s needs “without costs” alludes to Isaiah 51:1, a familiar phrase in Revelation (21:6, 22:17).  Both “gold refined by fire” and “white garments” invite the comfortable Ladicean believers to embrace persecution which refines faith like fire does gold (1 Peter 1:7) and purifies the believers, leaving their characters spotless (compare 3:4-5; also 7:9, 13-14).  Eye salve was something the Laodiceans were famous for, but Christ says “I want to heal your sight, to correct your perspective!”

The exhortation is to “be earnest and repent” (3:19) from their self-sufficiency and in humility turn to Christ as their source – a sober assessment to their pitiful state and honest decision to change their ways.  This “rebuke” of Christ is wrapped in the loving concern of a father who sees his child growing complacent to immanent danger (3:19; compare Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:6).

As a final appeal Christ urges the church that note that they are gathering without him – he is standing outside the door of their feast.  Note that Christ has not abandoned them; he is patiently knocking and calling to be welcomed back into to their fellowship.  His invitation is gracious. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (3:20)

Promise (3:21-22).  To the one who overcomes the lure of self-sufficiency in riches, Christ offers to share in his eternal reign. “Just as I overcame” is a reference to Jesus’ victory over Satan’s temptations in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), in particular the temptation of materialism (v9-10).

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Bringing it home

The big warning in this text is that material self-sufficiency often lead to spiritual self-sufficiency and ultimately self-serving.  Comfort breeds complacency, bringing compromise.  The Old Testament affirms this: prosperous Israel grew perverse.  And our own lives often reveal how abundance makes the heart grow colder.

It is easy for us in our self-indulging, materialistic age, to sympathize with the Laodicean believers who were tempted to compromise their witness in order to maintain their socio-economic status, high living standards and financial security.  It alerts one to the reality of Jesus’ warning “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24)

This letter to Laodicea leads us to examine out hearts and habits regarding our material world.  To us as to them Christ calls the church to repent – to forgo our compromise and embrace the testing of our faith and purifying of our character which comes through hardship and persecution.

In a wider context it begs us to answer the question: are we merely maintaining fellowship with the church, or feasting with Christ?  Answer the call, invite him in, and join in his feast.  The cost might be great but brief, yet the rewards glorious in eternity.

The End? Be Watchful!

This 7th post in our reflective study through Revelation hones in on the letter to Sardis (3:1-6).  An video recording is available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel. See the link in the image below.

 

Revelation, a prophetic letter written in the Jewish apocalyptic genre, was written to seven churches during the harsh reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 90-92) to comfort and challenge them in their struggle against the evil they endured.  As is typical with this symbolic genre, Revelation draws much from the Old Testament canon to reveal what is at play in their day.  In noting these symbolic references and the historic context, we get a clear understanding of the intended message to the first readers, which in turn breaks open the message of encouragement and exhortation to us in our day.

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This is the case with our reading of Christ’s message to the church in Sardis today.  Sardis (present day Sartmustafa in western Turkey) was once an impenetrable mountain fortress, a wealthy agricultural and wool-trading city characterized by arrogance associated with religious adherence and learning.  Temple ruins and statues to the gods of Dionysus (Roman name Bacchus), Artemis, and Cybele remain as witness to the culture of the day.

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Images depicting the Siege of Babylon and the Siege of Sardis – two “impenetrable cities” conquered by Cyrus the Great. The ruins of Sardis are on the top of the cliffs (right top and bottom).

During his Persian conquest, Cyrus the Great lie siege to both the impenetrable cities of Sardis (547 BC) and Babylon (539 BC).  The night of the Fall of Babylon is described in the Bible by  the prophet Daniel.  The arrogance of emperor Belshazzar and this great city lead to its fall when, besieged by the Persian army, they continued feasting, trusting in it’s secure walls.  That night the Lord wrote in blood on the palace walls “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN…—God has numbered the days of your reign and has brought it to an end… you have been weighed on the balances and have not measured up… your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:24-28).  Ironically, this siege is known as the Bloodless Battle: Cyrus the Great simply diverted the Euphrates river which flowed through the city and marched his army into the capital.  Babylon woke up to a conquered city.

The great Lydian capital Sardis fell in the same way: while the citizens kept their feast, trusting in their ancient, secure walls, a Persian scout noticed how a lookout’s helmet fell and how he retrieved it through a gap in the wall.  That night Cyrus lead his army through that gap, surprising the gaurds who were enjoying the feasting inside.  And this arrogant security sets the background and tone to Christ’s letter to the church in Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6).

Revelation of Christ (3:1a). Christ reveals himself as the One among them “who has the seven spirits of God” – a reference to Isaiah’s promised King endued by God’s Spirit, who will judge the earth and bring about his eternal, peaceful reign (Isaiah 11, esp. verse 2).  He is also the One “who has the seven stars”, preserving and directing the affairs of his church.  What great comfort to be held securely by this Great King!

Commendation (3:1b). There is no commendation for this congregation, apart from the fact that Christ knows the the activities of this community.    Form the context it appears as though this church gained “a reputation” as pious in the city and/ or neighboring churches, through these works of religious adherence.

Condemnation and exhortation (3:1c-3).  Christ has two charges against this church, both pertaining to their works.  Firstly, “you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.   Although there is much activity, there is no proof of life-giving witness.  Secondly, “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God”: your works have been “weighed and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27) – it lacks substance.  These works are paraded by this church as evidence of Christ’s life and kingdom, but these are merely pretenses, void of the life-giving impact it should have on the city.

Christ exhorts the church to “wake up!” and “put on strength” (Compare Isaiah 52:1).  It is a call to arms, alerting the members of this church to be on the lookout for immanent, “unexpected” danger “like a thief” in the night.  By telling this church they have been weighed and found wanting, and by calling them to be watchful, Christ is drawing their attention to his charge against Belshazzar’s Babylon, warning that there is an enemy outside the city walls, ready to destroy this church.

But in this letter – unlike the other six in Revelation 2 and 3, there are no enemies mentioned. No Jews or trade guilds, no Nicolatians, no Roman procounsel or Jezebel. We know surprising little of this church.  Yet what we read is enough to wake up the reader: we know that they were spiritually dead, in spite of much religious activity.  By alluding to the fall of Babel (a stinging reminder that Sardis fell the same way), Christ charges them that their pride prevents them to recognize how truly vulnerable they are.

Evidently the accusation against ancient Edom, that mountain kingdom, could be said of the church in Sardis: “The pride of your heart has deceived you” (Obadiah 1:3).  Indeed, “pride come before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)     

Warning and Exhortation (3:3-4).  If there is no enemy in this letter, who should they be on the lookout for?  Christ warns the church that he himself is poised and ready to scale the walls of this seemingly secure city and bring judgment on this proud church.  Because it is void of life-giving witness, Christ will come to bring judgment on it.

This is a grim warning, but there is hope – a chance to “remember” what they had, to “obey” Christ’s commands and “repent” from their religious callousness.  This letter is a gift of grace – the opportunity to turn and avoid immanent destruction.

Perhaps the commendation to “some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their (white) clothes with evil” give us some insight into the decay of this congregation.  The phrase here points to the strong Sadrian cult of Cybele whose “pious” worshipers wore white ceremonial clothes.  Yet these worshipers would participate in the most vulgar immoral acts during their worship rituals, soiling their clothes.  This reveals that the Sardian church fell into acedia – a state of spiritual apathy or carelessness that unravels into immorality.

Although they upheld their religious habits, they were dead spiritually.  Therefore their listless hearts gradually degraded into the sexual promiscuity of their city.  This left the church callous towards God and their witness were void of the life and kingdom of Christ, resembling their hypocritical, religious community.

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Acedia depicted by Pieter Bruegel the elder.

Promise (3:4-5).  This grace-filled letter holds two promises.  First, those who have stayed pure can be sure that they are “worthy”” to be received by Christ in his Kingdom, “walking with him in white.”  And second, those who overcome this acedia, this spiritual apathy leading to carefree sinning, will also be clothed in white with Christ, and their name will never be blotted from Christ’s book of life – another hint to the cult of Cybel whose worshipers were recorded in her “book of life”.  To those who repent, Christ declares complete forgiveness and shameless association: I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”

Bringing it home.

This sobering message to Sardis calls us to be aware that sin in all its forms are seductive and deceptive – that we should always “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.”  (1 Peter 5:8)

Pride can give a false sense of security, leading us to fall into acedia.  Acedia leads to dead religion at first, allowing our consciousnesses to be seared (1 Timothy 4:2), causing us to live a double life of hypocrisy – like the cult of Cybele and some in the church of Sardis.

How living is your public and private habits in Christ?  Search your heart.  Remember what you had a first, return to Christ, our Life, and his supremacy as Lord of your life.