Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation address each of the seven churches. Each church has challenges, though some are commended and others warned. The reading that most of us at Wascana are familiar with about these churches is that they represent successive “eras” of the church, using the geographical analogy of their location along a Roman mail route. Naturally, everyone wants to be part of the “Philadelphia” church, because it seems to be the one that is not reprimanded by God.
Dr. Spilsbury suggests that the best way to understand the churches is that they were the literal original addressees of the letter. Their respective spiritual conditions were real and current in John’s day. Successive generations can gain insight by seeing them as typical of various difficulties and challenges faced by followers of Jesus Christ in all ages. There are many ways of losing faith in Jesus, such as those in Jesus famous parable of the sower and the seed. Some get worn down by trials, while others may be enticed by sin or deceived by wolves in sheeps’ clothing. The wolves, the trials and the enticements exist in all times and afflict Christians in all nations. John’s pastoral concern is that they not lose faith in Jesus and that they do not stop following and worshipping Him. He is going to do that by telling of his vision that involves Jesus’ tribulation, Jesus’ Kingdom and Jesus’ patient endurance and how those three things intersect with the believers’ own faith.
Chapters 4 and 5 introduce the vision proper by taking John through a doorway to heaven. What he finds in heaven is a throne, and “one seated” on it, bearing a scroll. The “one seated” is none other than God, whose permance and glory is described in words that suggest glowing reddish and gold living precious stones. He is surrounded by a sort of court of 24 “elders” and four “living creatures,” whose major function seems to be to praise and worship Him night and day. The number 24, combined with “elders,” suggests the 24 shifts of priests who served in the Temple for evening and morning sacrifices before God.
The emerald rainbow reminds the reader of the “rainbow covenant” with Noah, spoken by the God who drowned the world in response to worldwide rebellion. This is a God not to be trifled with, but who nevertheless can be trusted to both keep His promises and to be merciful in the face of repentence. The “sea of glass” represents the sky above the earth, depicted as “the waters above,” which are separated from “the waters below” in the creation account in Genesis. This is the God who is responsible for creating the whole world, and every creature within it.
As an aside, Dr. Spilsbury tells us of the significance of the sea in Biblical times. The ocean waters were thought of as the chief source of danger and chaos by the peoples who lived next to it and drew their living from it. They loved it and feared it. It was the abode of the dreaded sea-monster, called Leviathan by the Canaanite tribes. Leviathan was the seven-headed monster that was feared by sailors in that time. The multi-headed monster was a common feature of ancient myth, and one needs to look no further than that to understand the fear inspired by the idea of seven-headed monsters in the book of Revelation. Since seven represents perfection or completion, there is nothing more “beastly” than a beast with seven heads.
Since the sea was the domain of evil and chaos, and the land was the proper domain of humankind, the confluence of monsters from the sea and the land suggests cooperation between evil spiritual entities and human rulers. As Dr. Spilsbury points out, “it is significant that when John speaks about the new heaven and the new earth at the end of Revelation, the first thing he has to say is that ‘the sea was no more.'” Contrasted with the sea “below,” the heavenly sea is calm, “like glass.”
These creatures and the description echo passages of Ezekiel and Isaiah that describe encounters with God by those worthy prophets. These echoes suggest that John is being privileged to bear a major prophetic announcement to the people of God. The prominence of visual images from the books of Ezekial and Daniel suggest that they are intended to speak to a people who are in captivity and exile rather than a people who are in control of their own nation. In other words, this book is addressed to a people who will face persecution from powerful foes in the form of worldly governments that are militarily, economically and religiously powerful. The symbols that would be understood for all that was powerful and evil in the world would have been Rome, its Empire and its Emperor (probably Domitian, according to Dr. Spilsbury). This is the identity of the “city” that rides the land-beast (which consists of many peoples). It looks like this important message will be about not only the fate of God’s people, but also about the kings and peoples of the whole world.
The prophetic message John is being privileged to deliver is contained in a sealed scroll… but who can open the seal?