The Number of the Beast

NOTE: Headline corrected. How could I have not seen that?

I confess to not being much of a prophesy guy. I was once caught up in the whirlwind of dispensationalism — as I note, its a really good faith for geeky, misfit, and overly intelligent high schoolers — but have not been for some time.

I don’t scour scripture and try to discern the future. Aside from the promise of our redemption, of Jesus returning, and signs of that (which seem to trouble every age since he ascended), and the subjugation of the pagan, gentile world the Christ (whatever that might mean), we have few promises.

Well, and this: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” If we are penitent thieves.

However, while I don’t believe scripture does much pointing to a specific future, it does allude to itself. Which is why I find it curious that no one, so far as I know, has made this comparison.

In Revelation 13, we have a description of two great beasts, and it’s the second beast, “rising out of earth” with “two horns like a lame and it spoke like a dragon.” This is the beast that does great signs, and forces all — “both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave” — to take its mark on the right hand or the forehead so that “no one can buy or sell” without the mark. This is the beast of which John says:

This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (Revelation 13:18 ESV)

Six-six-six. A dreaded number attached to Satan and the Devil and all sorts of evil. Yeah, okay, it’s 616 in some manuscripts, but most have 666.

And so, we count letters, do obscure forms of numerology, try to discern who this person might have been historically and who this might be pointing to now.

But what if this is simply … an allusion to something else in scripture? We find ourselves now in 1 Kings 10, after Solomon has just received the Queen of Sheba:

14 Now the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was 666 talents of gold, 15 besides that which came from the explorers and from the business of the merchants, and from all the kings of the west and from the governors of the land. 1 (Kings 10:14-15 ESV)

There’s that number, 666. This is apparently a lot of gold. Solomon is wealthy, powerful, righteous, draws people — like the Queen of Sheba — to him. His kingdom is impressive, his army large, his palace ornate. “The like of it was never made in any kingdom,” the author of 1 Kings writes.

What if John’s number in Revelation doesn’t name a person, but rather alludes to the kind of power the Second Beast has, the power that echoes that of Solomon, a power that draws all to itself. Solomon too was a man, a man who possessed much wisdom yet also turned from the Lord.

It’s not a perfect parallel, or even a good one. It alludes, it hints at, and little more. Perhaps this second beast will be seen as Solomon-like, wise and forbearing, wealthy and powerful, but a persecuted of God’s people, of the lamb and all those who follow. I suspect the two beasts are likely allusions to Vespasian and Titus, the father and son Roman generals who waged war on Jerusalem and destroyed the city, who then both, in turn, became emperor of Rome.

But the 666 may be an allusion power and wealth, and all that it means, and all that it brings.

SERMON No Gospel But Christ’s

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Third Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 1 Kings 17:17–24
  • Psalm 30
  • Galatians 1:11–24
  • Luke 7:11–17

11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:11–24 ESV)

Who is this Paul character, and why should we listen to him?

After all, he’s new at this, just started preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and he doesn’t possess the proper pedigree. He didn’t hang out with Jesus, or Christ’s followers, he wasn’t there when Jesus preached, or healed, or raised anyone from the dead, or when Jesus had that last supper with his followers in that rented room, and he certainly wasn’t threatened later that night he was betrayed, handed over, tired and tortured and put to death.

He didn’t stand there at the foot of the cross, linger as darkness descended upon the land, stare up in uncomprehending anguish as Jesus breathed his last, painfully exhaling “it is finished” as the nails ripped his flesh.

This Paul wasn’t there to take Jesus down, wrap him in a shroud, didn’t donate his own tomb for Jesus’ burial. He didn’t weep and mourn that sabbath, wasn’t with the women or Peter or the other disciples when they eagerly and strangely told us the tomb was empty.

He certainly wasn’t with us in the days following, when we were scared, and locked the doors, when we wondered if that horrible that thing that happened to him … could happen to us? Did he break bread with us when we were frightened, when we were lost?

No, he did not.

In fact, this Paul was one of the reasons we were cowering in the darkness, behind locked doors, frightened and uncertain and wondering what happens next.

And now here he is, preaching Jesus!

I’m certain some of us are glad, and are, in fact, glorifying God. He did persecute the church. Persecute us. I’m certain some of us lost loved ones and friends because of him. We all lost brothers and sisters in the faith. This is truly the grace of God!

But I suspect others of us are sitting angry and silent. Who does he think he is, this upstart, this convert, who didn’t take any of the risks we took, who didn’t share anything with those of us who were there from the beginning, who didn’t learn what he needed to know from those of us who were with Jesus — who knew Jesus — but claims, rather strangely, to have received this gospel “through a revelation” directly from Jesus Christ.

Who spent some time in the desert meditating and considering this revelation.

Uh-huh, sure he did. Yeah, right, as if he was struck blind on the road to Damascus. Look, there’s only one gospel, and it’s ours. We possess it, we curate it, we preach it, we teach it. We control who, and how, the Son reveals himself to anyone. It’s ours, and it doesn’t belong to any upstarts who come wandering in from just anywhere — but especially those who’ve spent serious time persecuting and killing us, breathing threats and murder against us, terrorizing us.

This gospel, it’s ours. Ours.

I don’t know what we’re going to do with this man Paul, especially as he claims authority to preach and teach to the gentiles — gentiles! If God had intended to call them to follow, chosen them to be part of his people, God would have! Yes, God has occasionally reached out, fed and healed and even raised the dead of faithful non-Israelites, but including them as the people of God? Really?

We’ve not licensed Paul. We’ve not endorsed or approved him. And we need to reign him in, somehow.

We’re going to have a lot of work to undo, a lot of letters to write, a lot of pastoral visits to make, a lot of wrongs to right. Because this guy Paul, he’s been busy. Scribbling and scribbling, keeping the Roman Imperial Postal Service quite occupied with his correspondence. I mean, we have to do this, right? We’ve got to make sure the correct gospel is preached by the right people to the right people.

What gospel am I talking about? Well, I mean what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How we met God in Jesus, and how his dying and rising has defeated death and sin, and given us new life, risen life, eternal life, to love our neighbor as Jesus loves us, to care for the poor, to welcome strangers, to heal the sick and even raise the dead! That’s the gospel we’ve been given, and the gospel we’ve got to protect and defend!

Does Paul preach that gospel? Does he teach it to the churches he writes to? Does he now live for Jesus the way we live for Jesus?

… He does? Really? Really? Are you sure? REALLY?!?

Well, then I guess maybe we can live with him. Maybe. Praise be to God, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, who delivers us from the present evil age, and to whom belongs the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Wait… those are his words too? Damn…

Seven Letters to Seven Churches- Some Final Thoughts

I think it’s easy to forget, even for those of us with red letter Bibles, that Jesus does a lot of speaking in Revelation. This is one of the reasons I undertook these devotionals, to consider the short letters Christ orders John to write:

“Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicean.” (Revelation 1:11 ESV)

I came to love these little letters as Christ’s gift to the church — a gift of hope, mostly, telling us who we are and what it means to be church.

So, a few things I noticed as I wrote these. This short essay is hardly exhaustive, but I think it would be interesting to write a short book about being church based on these letters, since each of these seven churches represents a “type” of church we’ve all seen, or been in. Which means these letters are still, in many ways, dictated to us. Because, as Christ himself says,

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

  1. Each Church Has An Angel Watching Over It. The letters aren’t actually dictated to the churches themselves, but to the angels — the seven stars in Christ’s right hand — that belong to and watch over the churches. I say watch over, but we aren’t really told what the seven stars do, aside from “belonging” to each church. Whatever this might mean, we aren’t alone — God is watching us, protecting us, guiding us, disciplining us and keeping us safe while se do the work of and live as church. We are not alone — we have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in our midst, and an angel with us, giving us guidance. We are powerful, even — perhaps especially — when we think we’re not.
  2. We Can Fail to Get It “Right” And Still Be Church This is the most important thing I believe we can learn from these letters. Christ reproaches each of these churches for something, and four of them he specifically calls to repent. The other three, he commands them to courage and faith in the face of tribulation and suffering, or he admonishes them for tolerating heretical teaching. We don’t know if any of these churches “gets it right,” but we do know that they are still church despite not getting it right. This stands in opposition to a lot of Christian thinking, that if we don’t get church absolutely right, we aren’t church. Christ warns and calls each of these churches to some kind of repentance, but he also reminds each of them — even the feckless church at Laodicea that cannot seem to get anything right — that each of them has something going for them (even if it is only their suffering because Christ is disciplining them). Because for all the issues these churches have, they know whose they are. They belong to Jesus.
  3. Consequences Are For Christ Alone For their sins, their falling short, Christ tells each of these churches that something will happen (or, at Laodicia, is already happening). But Jesus is emphatic — he and he alone will impose these consequences, whether it is removing a lamp stand or coming like a thief in the night, bringing enemies to grovel at one’s feet, or inflicting sickness and death upon Jezebel and her children. This is actually a good corrective to the shunning and exclusion that Paul seems to advocate as part of church life. We’re not the authors of the consequences, we don’t impose penalties or punishments for sin. We leave that to God, who promises a kind of “what goes around comes around” when it comes to faithlessness and sin in the church. Our calling is only to be faithful and true to the one who is faithful and true.
  4. To The One Who Conquers… Each of these letters concludes with a promise from Jesus “to the one who conquers” (ὁ νικῶν), a fascinating way to describe those who die in the faith. Because each of these letters are calls by Christ to be faithful unto death just as he was faithful unto death. Though because Christ himself also rises, in this “conquest” in the promise of resurrection with him, to rule with him. God uses this phrase, “the one who conquers,” in Revelation 21 to describe who will share in the new heaven and new earth, who will have living water, and who will be “my son” (which means this could be a reference to Christ, and/or a reference to those who have died in Christ and been risen again). Death is not to be feared here, because we belong to one who died and lives forever. Christ rose from the dead and promises to share that rising, that conquest, with us.

It is a great and eternal hope that we have, this calling to be God’s people in the world. It is not easy, and we are not always very good at it, but that doesn’t necessarily matter. Because even when we cannot be faithful and true, we belong to Crucified and Risen Lord who is faithful and true, to the very end.

To the Church at Laodicea

14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write:‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

15 “‘I know your works:you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:14–22 ESV)

And so we come to the last letter. To a church that is neither hot nor cold, to a church that is so uncommitted Jesus is threatening to have no part of it.

But more than that, this a self-satisfied church, a convinced of its own wealth, its own position, its own works. A church that says it needs nothing because it has provided for itself. It is in this very self-satisfaction and self-reliance that Christ says this church is most destitute, most “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

And so Christ, being every bit the salesman Bruce Barton said he was here, tells his followers at Leodicia to buy gold, clothes, and ointment for their eyes from him. I’m reminded, as I would be, of the frequent command by God in the Qur’an to

Who is he that will lend to God a goodly loan so that He may multiply it to him many times? And it is God that decreases or increases, and unto Him you shall return. (2:245)

Jesus isn’t just the capstone of best multi-level marketing network in creation, he wants the Laodiceans to really be rich, to cover their shame and nakedness, and to see — really see. So, he asks them to “buy” from him, to actually do something with their wealth, to sacrifice what they have earned themselves to have real the real riches Christ provides.

To lend it to God, as the Qur’an says, knowing they will “get it all back.”

Because right now, as wealthy and as comfortable as this church is, they have nothing of value. Give it to Christ, for real wealth, real clothes, and real sight.

Then comes a hard line — “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” — happily used by abusers throughout time. But as with all of threatened consequences here, Jesus is saying he does this. Not his representatives. Not someone in a hierarchy or in authority claiming the merits of suffering while inflicting that suffering.

And never have suffered themselves.

It is we who suffer, who are being removed and disciplined, who must understand this and confess it ourselves. And not those who claim to act on God’s behalf. This is also a suffering, a disciplining, that leads to the riches Christ promises this church — promises us all.

At the end, he gives us a hint of what this means when he delivers his concluding promise to the church — “to the one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on the throne” (I once knew a good Lutheran who did not want to sing a hymn that involved ruling and wearing a crown with Jesus because she was not sure how truly biblical it was) by telling us “I also conquered and sat down with my father on his throne.”

We are rich, we who have been called to follow Jesus, but we are called to actually follow, to invite Jesus in as the unwanted stranger and guest who would eat with us, to spend of our wealth in the way of Christ (there’s an Arabic phrase on the edge of my tongue here), and to accept that what the world tells us is wealth and comfort is nothing of the sort.

To the Church in Philadelphia

7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

8 “‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him 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. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:7–13 ESV)

Power. Δυναμις. The ability to act. To be strong. To do anything. But especially anything good, or virtuous, or meaningful, or wonderful. This church has none. It is powerless. It does little good in the world. What works Christ knows, and remembers, are probably few.

The church today worries about power. Conservatives lament the end of a social order they built and that made sense to them. Having had power, they taste their powerlessness all that more intensely, and they fear the end — they fear death and irrelevance. The world has turned its back on established and eternal truth.

The progressive church laments a world still governed by prejudice and structures of discrimination, a world that seems almost impervious to change and reform and abolition despite our best human efforts and many years of good intentions. They taste powerlessness too, even as they pick up that power which seems to be slipping from the hands of others. Because so many still suffer, so much remains to be done, and we are so far from the goal.

“You have but little power.” This is a church that cannot do much, cannot change much, cannot accomplish much.

And yet, Jesus says, “You have kept my word and not denied my name.” In the face of utter powerlessness, in the face of that “Synagogue of Satan,” those who say they are Jews, those who say they are God’s people, but are not — difficult words for us to hear given how Jews have fared in Christendom and at the hands of Westerners — Jesus is reminding this church that he, and not their works, have opened whatever doors, accomplished whatever works, done whatever good, they are called to do.

… [S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33 ESV)

This powerless church, however, is promised something — it will be spared the coming tribulation. Hold fast, be faithful, remember the promise of our Lord.

Because no matter how powerless we are, how little we can do, we can still trust God. We can still be faithful. We can still love as we are loved.

To the Church at Sardis

1 “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 reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:1–6 ESV)

You have the reputation of being alive… This letter is to a well thought of, highly respected, probably even envied church. One that, at least to those who hear of it, is vibrant and alive and bustling with work and energy and faith. And maybe they were, once.

But not any more. I worshiped at such a church for a while, a community of people I loved, but who were living off the tale they told themselves of another era, a time when they had lots going and were the center of attention.

Virtually every old and established church in America is that way. Breathing the vapors of another era, wishing desperately that the 1958 or 1963 or even 1971 they designed and built their church for — a time when the place was full, the money was abundant, and the programs easy to run — would come back. Some churches do this better than others, and that wonderful church I attended was coasting far on its heritage and its memories of who, as a community, they once were.

Note what Jesus tells Sardis here after he declares them dead. He does not tell them to go back to what they were, those glory days that were the truth behind their reputation. “Wake up, and strengthen what is about to die…” Not “grow and multiply and become wildly successful and deeply purpose driven,” but simply: repent and be faithful. And if they continue to sleep, if they continue to stumble toward death thinking only their reputation will save them, Jesus will come as a thief in the night and take from them even the little they have left.

Hold fast to what we have received from Jesus — the good news, our baptisms, the supper — for even if we are few, even if we are dying, we can still be faithful. We can still do and be what we have been called to.

In the face of death, Jesus calls us to live.

A Brief Delay

Okay, so I have gotten a good start on the latest in my Revelation church letter reflections, to the Church at Thyatira, but this last weekend was something of a muddle. Our neighbor kept us up all hours with very loud music (no one who lives in a complex as tightly packed as the one we live in should have a sound system that good; there’s no point) and I have appointments this morning. So, I will have to punt on Thyatira right now, and it will have to wait.

Until then, I’d like to present you all with an excerpt from advertising executive Bruce Barton’s classic 1924 work about Jesus as salesman and business executive, The Man Nobody Knows. This is both compelling and horrifying, in that Barton is trying to punch through all the myth to the man Jesus whose followers accomplished such great things with hard work, organization, and moxie, and yet the Jesus he creates is the kind of man you would expect would succeed wildly selling farm implements, municipal bonds, or vacuum cleaners.

Theology has spoiled the thrill of his life by assuming that he knew everything form the beginning–that his three years of public work were a kind of dress rehearsal, with no real problems or crises. What interest would there be in such a life? What inspiration? You who read these pages have your own creed concerning him; I have mine. Let us forget all creed for the time being, and take the story just as the simple narratives give it–a poor boy, growing up in a peasant family, working in a carpenter shop; gradually feeling his powers expanding, beginning to have an influence over his neighbors, recruiting a few followers, suffering disappointments and reverses, finally death. Yet building so solidly and well that death was only the beginning of his influence! Stripped of all dogma this is the grandest achievement story of all! …

Success is always exciting; we never grow tired of asking what and how. What, then were the principle elements in his power over men? How was it is that the boy from a country village became the greatest leader?

“Whoever meets or exceeds quarterly expectations will inherit eternal life!”

First of all he had the voice and manner of the leader–the personal magnetism which begets loyalty and commands respect… . . We speak of personal magnetism as though there were something mysterious about it–a magic quality bestowed on one in a thousand and denied to all the rest. This is not true. The essential element in personal magnetism is a consuming sincerity–an overwhelming faith in the importance of the work one has to do… .

The second [secret of Jesus’ success] was his wonderful power to pick men, and to recognize hidden capacities in them. It must have amazed Nicodemus when he learned the names of the twelve whom the young teacher had chosen to be his associates. What a list! Not a single well-known person on it. Nobody who had ever made a success of anything. A haphazard collection of fishermen and small-town businessmen, and one tax collector–a member of the most hated element in the community. What a crowd! …

Having gathered together his organization, there remained for Jesus the tremendous task of training it. And herein lay the third great element in his success–his vast unending patience. The Church has attached to each of the disciples the title of Saint and thereby done most to destroy the conviction of their reality. They were very far from sainthood when he picked them up. For three years he had them with him day and night, his whole energy and resources poured out in an effort to create an understanding in them …

The Bible presents an interesting collection of contrasts in this matter of executive ability. Samson had almost all the attributes of leadership. He was physically powerful and handsome; he had the great courage to which men always respond. No man was ever given a finer opportunity to free his countrymen from the oppressors and build up a great place of power for himself. Yet Samson failed miserably. He could do wonders singlehanded, but he could not organize. Moses started out under the same handicap. He tried to be everything and do everything; and was almost on the verge of failure. It was his father-in-law, Jethro, who saved him from calamity. Said that shrewd old man: Said that shrewd old man: The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou and this people that is with thee, for this thing is too heavy for thee, for thou are not able to perform it thyself alone.

Moses took the advice and associated with himself a partner, Aaron, who was strong where he was weak. They supplemented each other and together achieved what neither of them could have done alone.

John, the Baptist, had the same lack. He could denounce, but he could not construct. He drew crowds who were willing to repent at his command, but he had no program for them after their repentance. They waited for him to organize them for some sort of effective service, and he was no organizer. So his followers drifted away and his movement gradually collapsed. The same thing might have happened to the work of Jesus. He started with much less reputation than John and a much smaller group of followers. He had only twelve, and they were untrained simple men, with elementary weakness and passions. Yet because of the fire of his personal conviction, because of his marvelous instinct for discovering their latent powers, and because of his unwavering faith and patience, he molded them into an organization which carried on victoriously. Within a very few years after his death, it was reported in a far-off corner of the Roman Empire that these who have turned the world upside down have come hither also. A few decades later the proud Emperor himself bowed his head to the teachings of this Nazareth carpenter, transmitted through common men.

Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1925), 8–9, 18–19, 23, 27, 29–31.

Jesus clearly had the Glengarry leads.

To the Church at Pergamum

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

13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, 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, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. 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 the one 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 that no one knows except the one who receives it.” (Revelation 2:12–17 ESV)

To a church situated in the midst of Satan’s stronghold — where else would “Satan’s throne” be? — Jesus speaks some strange and hard words.

This is a faithful church, one that holds fast to the name of Christ, even in the face of death. But it is a church where some strange things are believed and taught.

I honestly do not understand the Balaam/Balak reference here. I know the story, from Numbers 22–24. Balak is the king of Moab, and he sees what Israel has done. He calls upon Balaam

“Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 22:5–6 ESV)

God, however, tells Balaam, “You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (Num 22:12) And three times Balaam blesses Israel when Balak demands he sacrifice (each time seven bulls and seven rams upon seven altars!) and curse Israel. Balaam concludes by cursing Moab, and Amelek, and a handful of other peoples Israel has found troublesome and inhospitable. After which, “Balaam rose and went back to his place. Also Balak went his way.”

Balaam is again mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:4–5, as part of the reason neither Ammonites not Moabites are allowed to “enter the assembly of the Lord.” And again in Joshua 24, where the account echoes Deuteronomy — Balaam was hired to curse Israel, but would listen to Balaam. “Indeed, he blessed you. So I delivered you out of his hand,” God tells Israel in Joshua 24:10.

And there is a mysterious reference in 2 Peter to Balaam as Peter describes a group of believers who have “gone astray” to follow “the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing.” (2 Peter 2:15) I find the Numbers account reasonably sympathetic to Balaam — he is not a bad guy, just some kind of priest for hire who God uses to bless Israel when he has been hired to curse the people of God. He ends badly, according to Joshua.

But clearly there is a “way of Balaam,” and it is not a good way. It is one that leads the followers of Jesus astray.

Repent, Jesus tells this church — as he tells nearly all the churches to which he dictates these letters to — or else Christ himself will come and deal with those who trust in the wrong things and work the wrong works within the church.

And to “the one who conquers” — a promise also made to each church, and again in Revelation 21 to all the followers of Jesus with the presentation of the New Heaven and New Earth — something secret will be given: hidden manna and a new name. Sustenance in the seemingly never-ending wilderness and a blessing after a long and brutal struggle with God.

These are the promises of our Lord to a church that lives where the very throne of Satan sits, that struggles with false and misleading teachings in its midst, that struggles with works that bear bad fruit.

Be faithful. Trust God. Even if no one else ever knows.

To the Church at Smyrna

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” (Revelation 2:8–11 ESV)

Do not be afraid.

Wherever that is said in scripture — usually directly by God, or an angel, or from God through an anointed leader like Moses — you have the gospel, the Good News of God for the people of God. For humanity. For the world.

Outwardly, Jesus is not calling upon this community to repent of anything. But he is telling them, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Jesus already knows what this church deals with — struggle, suffering, oppression, affliction, evil, poverty, destitution, and the slander of those who claim to be God’s people but clearly are not — and he is calling them to remain faithful in the face of what appears to be much worse to come.

Be faithful unto death, Jesus says, because what matters is not death itself, the death we see, the death we think is the final end, but “the second death.” This is the first mention of “the second death” in Revelation, something spoken of nowhere else in scripture. This “second death” has no power over the martyred dead, those who die bearing witness to Christ and will rise to rule with him (20:6), and “the second death” is the consigning of Death and Hades — the place of the dead, which Jesus holds the keys to (1:18) — themselves to “the lake of fire,” which is the fate of all those who are not found in the “Book of Life” (20:6). The “lake of fire” and “the second death” will also become home to

… the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.(Revelation 21:8 ESV)

But we who are faithful unto death, who bear tribulation as Christ bore the sin of the world on the Cross, who conquered death by dying, we will receive a crown of life.

Be faithful, Jesus says. And do not be afraid.

To the Church at Ephesus

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:1–7 ESV)

Hate. That’s a hard word, especially one coming from the mouth of Jesus, the first and the last, the dead and the one who has risen and lives forever. Not something Jesus is supposed to do.

And yet here, he does. But note what he he hates. Not the Nicolaitans themselves — whoever they were and whatever they believed, for that specific information has been lost to history, and all we have is speculation — but their works. Their deeds. And whatever it is they confess. There is a difference, and Jesus knows that.

Jesus tells the church at Ephesus that he knows what they do, how they confess. He speaks of their works, their patience, their persistence, their determination to bear whatever burdens they bear. And all of this he commends. But they do so without love — αγαπε — and without that love, they are incapable of “the works they did at first.”

Repent, Jesus tells the church at Ephesus, and love. It is certainly good to hate “the works of the Nicolaitans,” but this is a church that has fallen because it does not love. It cannot do what it once was able to do because it does not love. Without repentance and love, this church will fail to be light, no matter how patient and persistent the Ephesians are.

Repent, Jesus says, and love.