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In Bible blog I have just completed a look at Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian Assembly. You can find these and all my 1772 blogs by date on my archive, or by googling: emmock.com topic, or emmock.com bible reference. My new project is an examination of The Revelation, the final book in the Christian Bible. It’s controversial but fun, offering trumpets, angels, the four horsemen, a beast from the sea and the whore of Babylon. What’s not to like? It begins on 30th July. Join me. The headlines are reminders of the world we live in:
SHADOWS OF HIROSHIMA AUGUST 6th 1945
18 ‘And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are 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, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. 20 But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practise fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22 Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. 24 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 the Adversary”, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; 25 only hold fast to what you have until I come. 26 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end,
I will give authority over the nations;
27 to rule them with an iron rod
as when clay pots are shattered—
28 even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. 29 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
This message proceeds in the form which should by now be familiar to the reader, beginning with images which emphasise the penetrating gaze and the faithful stability of Jesus the Lord. He praises the quality of the Assembly’s life, then moves quickly to condemn its tolerance of a prophetess whom he names Jezebel, after the notorious wife of King Ahab in the scripture, who promoted the worship of Canaanite deities. Everything said about her must be interpreted as “prophetic language” in which fornication means dallying with foreign Gods, committing adultery with her is following her teaching, her children are her followers, striking dead means denouncing and depriving of power.
Certainly the language is vivid and slightly disturbing. What about, “I am throwing her on a bed”? Here God behaves like an angry whoremaster who gives all and sundry free access to a disobedient whore. The Hebrew prophets specialised in indelicate images of God, but this perhaps goes beyond even their savagery. Can we imagine Jesus the friend of whores, behaving in this way? Again, of course, we can defend the author by saying that it only means allowing her to preach openly so that it can be openly seen who consorts with her. Still, I remain just a little uncomfortable with this author’s use of the prophetic language in which movement away from true teaching, not to mention outright evils, are depicted as sexual sins, and usually with a woman as the temptress. I’ ll return to this issue in connection with the “whore of Babylon.”
The society of the first century Roman Empire was a rich mix of cultures and religions in addition to the civil religion which required respect for the divine role of the Emperors. We know from St Paul of the use of “heights and depths” in the religious language of the times referring to the powers above and below the earth. The “deep things of the Adversary” are not otherwise known, but may be either worship of the Adversary, or more likely, a secret way of using his power. The destruction of traditional societal mores and beliefs by the developing civilisation of Rome, left many people fearful and vulnerable to cults that offered new certainty. When people lose traditional belief, it’s not that they believe nothing, but rather that they’ll believe anything. The Assemblies of Jesus had to make their way in this civil society without identifying themselves as just another cult from the East. The savage language employed here is a very Jewish response to any irresponsible playing around with God’s, Goddesses and Powers.
The message ends with the promise that believers will share in the rule of Messiah Jesus, whose justice will break the powers that rule the empire. It uses some vivid phrases from Psalm 2 to convey the irrefutable force of this saving justice. Those who win the battle to stay faithful to Jesus are given the morning star, the harbinger of a new creation.
It’s hard not to feel uneasy at times when reading this book by the evidence of a shared code of expression which is one of the marks of a cult. My own judgement is that the language itself is drawn from the Hebrew scriptures, and its use as a code necessitated by the always imminent scrutiny of Roman officials. Doubtless persecuted churches in China or Syria have their own codes of communication.