Friday, January 15, 2021

Apocalyptic? #17: Harlotry in the Churches (Rev. 2:12 to 3:6)


“To the angel of the church in Ephesus . . . Smyrna . . . Pergamum . . . Thyatira . . . Sardis . . . Philadelphia . . . Laodicea write . . .” 

(The full text of the Letters to Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis is printed in the RSV at the conclusion of this blogpost.)


Middle Layer of the Apathy Sandwich:  The PORNEIA Churches:  Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis                                                        

Would you CARE if your church had leaders or even significant factions within it who promoted a government that allowed and even funded the killing of babies and other innocents—both in your own country and throughout the world?  (The Roman soldiers slaughtered children, adults, and the elderly with impunity—even crucifying them outside the city walls and catapulting them against the walls of Jerusalem!  Even so, the High Priestly party in Jerusalem was trying to secretly turn the city back over to the Romans.  John calls this “harlotry” or PORNEIA—committing adultery with the godless government.) 

1.      If you WOULD NOT CARE, you have APATHY, just like the church in Laodicea.   

2.      If you WOULD CARE DEEPLY and WOULD expunge such factions from your local congregation, despite the fact that you would be SLANDERED by the Synagogue of Satan (the members of the church who chose to backstab their fellow Christians in order to claim a religio licita status as Jews), you would be identified by Christ as a GOOD church, such as Smyrna and Philadelphia.   

3.      If you WOULD CARE, but you would TOLERATE such a faction in your church, you land in the MIDDLE of the Apathy-Porneia sandwich, as do the churches at Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis.   

There are certain terms in Jesus letters to the churches of Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis that all fit in the same bin.  They all refer to the same problem:  PORNEIA, Nicolaitans, Balaam, Jezebel, and defiled.  We have already mentioned the fact that both Jesus and the Ephesians hated the works of the Nicolaitans.  Now, we see that Jesus condemns the Nicolaitans in the church of Pergamum in the same breath as he condemns the teachings of Balaam: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice PORNEIA.  So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicola′itans.”  In other words, those who followed the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans were practicing PORNEIA—i.e., they were “eat[ing] food sacrificed to idols.”  Likewise, the church at Thyatira was condemned because they tolerated “the woman Jezebel, who call[ed] herself a prophetess and [taught and beguiled Jesus’] servants to practice PORNEIA and to eat food sacrificed to idols.”  John equates the Nicolaitans and the Balaamites linguistically by a Hebrew-Greek translation play-on-words.  Balaam (Hebrew) may be translated as Nikolaos (Greek).  They both mean: “he has consumed the people.”  My book Revelation:  The Human Drama (pp. 82-83) explains:

According to Charles:

Balaam = bala am = "he hath consumed the people" . . . while Nikolaos = nikai laon.  Such a play on the etymology of words is thoroughly Semitic.  There is, it is true, no exact equivalent to nikan in Hebrew.  Hence the above can stand.  Furthermore, a comparison . . . which shows that the Balaamites and the followers of Jezebel were guilty of exactly the same vices, makes it highly probable that the latter were a branch of the Nicolaitans.

The “PORNEIA” and “defiled” connection is explained in my book Revelation:  The Human Drama (pp. 82-83):

John's polemic against fornication/porneia both in the church (Jezebel, Balaam, and the Nicolaitans) and in Judaism (Babylon) is probably a polemic against syncretism. Technically, the harlot situation which is confronted in Revelation is one in which there is a fusion of the heroine with the villain.  The "harlot" [PORNĒ] is a "woman" who commits adultery with the "horns" of the "beast."  She is a "woman" who is "seated on" the "beast."  . . . She has, in a Hebrew sense become one flesh with the serpent (through the serpent's synecdochic representative, the beast).

Syncretistic tendencies have been identified by Revelation scholars as the porneia (fornication) of which John accuses Jezebel and Babylon.  Perhaps syncretistic tendencies are an important rationale in John's choosing "Babylon" as the name of the harlot.  John appears to be greatly influenced by the book of Daniel.  The heroes of Daniel are the young men who resist syncretism, once they have been carried away into "Babylon."  They refuse to eat Babylonian food (Dan. 1:8) on the grounds that they would be defiled (summolunô in LXX) by (the syncretistic? act of) eating the king's food.  This is possibly the verse that John had in mind when he spoke in 14:4 of the "virgins" who were not defiled.  John uses the cognate molunô (defiled).

The Babylonians attempt to assimilate the young men into their religion by renaming the young men with Babylonian names, often associated with Babylonian deities. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are renamed respectively Shadrach, Meshach, and Aved Nego (Abednego).  Daniel is renamed Belteshazzar.  Daniel is determined to resist the law outlawing prayer to his God, even if it means incarceration with lions.  The other three young heroes are determined to resist pagan worship, even if it means death in a fiery furnace.  These heroes are models of anti-syncretism.  Even John's literary style in many ways imitates this thoroughly anti-syncretistic book.

"Why," John's favorite Psalm (the 2nd) asks, "do the heathen [Gentiles/goiim] rage?"  "They have plotted together against the Lord and His Messiah," it answers.  All other nationalities are expected to oppose the Lord and His Messiah.  Therefore, syncretism does not matter for the heathen.  They are all united against the Lord and His Messiah, anyway.  Any alliance with these heathen is porneia, for John.  The dragon is not in the important sense syncretistic, because the union of heathen gods, religions, and cultures is not porneia.  Only when Jews or Christians are united with heathen elements is there the type of syncretism which is equivalent to porneia.  The Old Testament harlot, Israel/Zion, is guilty of harlotry only to the extent she seduces and enters into alliances with her heathen neighbors.  The specific identity of the neighbor is insignificant--so long as it is heathen.  Therefore, John, in guarding against porneia, is interested only in this type of syncretism--Jewish (and Christian) alliances with heathen.

I have written more on syncretism in my posts:  Apocalyptic? #7, #10, and #11.  The church at Sardis is referred to by Jesus as a “dead” church, but some hope is still held out for some members of the church:

Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy. He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”

Not being “defiled” means that, while most in the church are dead/defiled, some have not succumbed to the pressure to engage in syncretism.  Although Jesus connects PORNEIA/defilement with “eati[ng] meat sacrificed to idols,” he is doing so synecdochically (see Apocalyptic? #14).  “Eati[ng] meat sacrificed to idols” is only one “part” that represents the “whole” of caving-in to a perverse, anti-Jewish, anti-Christian government or culture.  The Apostle Paul, you will remember, saw no problem with eating “meat sacrificed to idols,” so long as one understands that God is the one who created the meat, and not some idol, and so long as one does not cause his brother to stumble (i.e., by misinterpret one’s eating or drinking something from the marketplace as an indication that one is “worshipping” a false god to whom it has been dedicated).”

I Corinthians 8:4-13 (NIV) states:

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Jesus is concerned, here, not so much with “eating meat” as he is with making alliances with pagan Rome.  The high priestly party in Jerusalem is called the “harlot/
PORNĒ Babylon” not because she “ate meat” sacrificed to idols (she did not), but because she made an alliance with Rome, to secretly work to turn the Jewish state that had rebelled against Rome in 64 A.D. back over to Roman authority.  She had conspired with pagan governmental authorities (Pilate and Herod) to crucify Jesus.  She had committed adultery/PORNEIA with the Beast/Rome!

Likewise, certain parties (Jezebel, the Balaamites, and the Nicolaitans in the churches) and, perhaps, also in the churches, those who said they were Jews but were what Jesus called “the synagogue of Satan” were more intent on serving the Beast/Rome than they were on serving God and Jesus or even helping their fellow-Christians.  J. A. T. Robinson (pp. 207-208) reports, regarding the Neronian persecution of Christians following the Roman Fire of 64 A.D.:

exceptional and dangerous circumstances, involving the betrayal of fellow-Christians . . . [in] the Neronian persecution in Rome.  Describing it, Tacitus . . . spoke of the “information” given by those who confessed which led to the conviction of their fellow-believers.  Clement, reflecting on the same sad story from the Christian side, speaks of “a vast multitude of the elect, who through many indignities and tortures, being the victims of jealousy, set a brave example among [the Christians].  . . . [The Shepherd of] Hermas . . . pictures vividly the various sections under pressure: “As many . . . as were tortured and denied not, when brought before the magistracy, but suffered readily, these are the more glorious in the sight of the Lord; their faith is that which surpasseth.  But as many as became cowards and were lost in uncertainty, and considered in their hearts whether they should deny or confess, and yet suffered, because this design entered into their heart; for this design is evil, that a servant should deny his own lord.”

Even in Asia Minor, where being a Christian might not have cost someone their life in the Neronian persecution, it certainly might have cost one financially.  So, in a move to protect their businesses and business interests, many “Christians” chose to put distance between themselves and the Church.  Perhaps, as a show of good faith to Rome, these “Jewish Christians” even participated in pagan festivals.  It was just good business.  Robinson (pp. 211-212) comments: 

If we ask why now [the Jewish Christians] were . . . “staying away” from assembling with their fellow Christians ([Hebrews] 10:24f.), we may recall that in his description of the [Neronian] persecutions, [the Shepherd of] Hermas speaks of those who “were mixed up in business and cleaved not to the saints”; they “stood aloof . . . by reason of their business affairs . . . from desire of gain they played the hypocrite . . . .  Some of them . . . are wealthy and others are entangled in many business affairs”; and the wealthy “unwillingly cleave to the servants of God, fearing lest they may be asked for something by them.  . . . [T]he Jewish community in Rome had a strong business sense, which was reflected in its Christian members.  Their temptation was to allow racial and economic connections to outweigh the commitment of their Christian faith.  . . . [T]hey sought to shelter under the “protective colouring” of the religio licita [=legal religious status] of Judaism.”

In John’s and Jesus’ terminology, the synagogue of Satan, Jezebel, the Nicolaitans, and the Balaamites sold out their fellow Christians.  Since the Jews were exempt from Nero’s persecution of the Christians—because Judaism was considered an “acceptable religion” (religio licita), many Jewish Christians became—like the high priesthood in Jerusalem—"harlots” who committed PORNEIA with Roman authorities.  Their garments were “defiled” because they chose to be in league with the Beast. 

Before we quickly condemn those “Christians” who chose political expediency over loyalty to Christ in the churches of Asia Minor, it would be wise for us to consider those “Christians” today who (for political expediency) tolerate, vote for, support financially, and generally promote those who want taxpayers to fund the murder of babies, who support rampant sexual deviancy, who shout obscenities at law enforcement officers—all for the sake of physical and/or financial security.  (The issue of “financial security” for those who speak out as Christians in America is exploding in the year 2021.  Many Christians are tempted to stay quiet and allow pagan influences to infiltrate the church.  This is the circumstance of the three PORNEIA churches.)  Would Jesus say to such Christians, today: “Repent, or I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place or I will come to you soon and war against [you] with the sword of my mouth or I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you?”  Or, will Jesus say to Christians today, as he did to the two churches—Smyrna and Philadelphia—at the second level of the sandwich: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life; I will make [you] a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall [you] go out of it, and I will write on [you] the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.”

The Text (Revelation 2:12-3:6)

The Message to Pergamum

12 “And to the angel of the church in Per′gamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.

13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; you hold fast my name and you did not deny my faith even in the days of An′tipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality. 15 So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicola′itans. 16 Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him 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 which no one knows except him who receives it.’

The Message to Thyatira

18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyati′ra write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.

19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jez′ebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her immorality. 22 Behold, I will throw her on a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches shall know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyati′ra, 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 upon you any other burden; 25 only hold fast what you have, until I come. 26 He who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, I will give him power over the nations, 27 and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received power from my Father; 28 and I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

The Message to Sardis

“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 name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy. He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

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