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The Seven Messages (2:1—3:22)

The seven communications to the angels (2:1—3:22) are commonly known as the seven letters of Revelation, or the letters to the seven churches. They are not letters, however, in any sense of the word. The whole book of Revelation presents itself as one long letter, as we have seen. The communications in chapters 2-3 have none of the formal characteristics of early Christian letters—no self-identification by name followed by an identification of the recipients and a "grace and peace" formula. There is no evidence that any of them ever circulated separately. Rather, they are the oracles of a prophet, given in the name of the divine Being who speaks through them (compare the eight oracles of the prophet Amos in Amos 1:2—2:16). The recurring expression "these are the words of . . ." (literally "thus says . . .") is the common Old Testament formula for introducing a prophet's message from the God of Israel: "Thus says the LORD." In the New Testament, the oracle of the prophet Agabus in Acts 21:11 is introduced by the words "thus says the Holy Spirit." Instead of "the seven letters," chapters 2-3 of Revelation should be called "the seven messages."

The messages themselves mix encouragement with threat, and scolding with praise. Nowhere is the old saying, "If the shoe fits, wear it," better demonstrated than here. Once the values presupposed by the messages are clear, each reader will know whether to find in them praise or blame. The effect of directing each message to "the angel" rather than to the church at large is that "the members of John's churches only indirectly `overhear' the message to the church's `angel'"(Boring 1989:87). The angel is a kind of buffer between the Speaker and the actual individuals or groups that make up each congregation. When the risen Jesus wants to single out individuals or groups, he does so in words that are either indefinite ("some of you," 2:10; "a few people in Sardis," 3:4) or in some way conditional (see, for example, the double refrain at the end of each message, "let anyone who has an ear listen" and "everyone who conquers" NRSV; such phrases as "unless they repent," 2:22, and "if anyone hears my voice and opens the door," 3:20). No individual's fate is determined by the "angel" of the church to which he or she belongs. Everyone is free to choose, there is still time to choose, and there are "overcomers" or "conquerors" in every congregation.

To this extent the situations addressed in these seven messages are interchangeable. Much that is said to any one congregation is said to all. At or near the end of each message comes the appeal to listen to "what the Spirit says to the churches" (not just this church in particular). At one point in the message to Thyatira comes a promise that "all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds" (2:23). The language recalls expressions of Jesus in the Gospels, such as "let anyone with ears to hear listen" (eight occurrences) or "what I say to you I say to everyone: `Watch!'" (Mk 13:37).

One interchangeable feature of the seven messages is the self-introduction of the divine Speaker at the beginning of each message. By this time we know that the Speaker is Jesus, but he introduces himself with a different designation each time: (1) him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands (2:1); (2) him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again (2:8); (3) him who has the sharp, double-edged sword (2:12); (4) the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze (2:18); (5) him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars (3:1); (6) him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open (3:7); (7) the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation (3:14).

There are occasional small connections between the titles Jesus gives himself at the beginning of each message and the messages themselves. In one instance he who has the sharp, double-edged sword in his mouth (2:12) threatens to use it (2:16); in another, he who died and came to life again (2:8) promises the crown of life as a reward for being faithful to the point of death (2:10); in still another, he who has the key of David so that what he opens no one can shut (3:7) immediately promises an open door that no one can shut to the congregation in question (3:8). These, however, are exceptions. For the most part, any of the seven self-designations of Jesus could have been used to introduce any of the seven messages. They are not based primarily on the message that each introduces, or the local situation to which that message is directed, but on John's preceding vision on Patmos and the material leading up to it.

To a point at least, these seven self-designations present a rerun, in reverse order, of certain details from John's vision. The first (2:1) recalls 1:20, the explanation of the "seven stars" and the "seven lampstands." The second (2:8) echoes 1:17-18, "I am the First and the Last. . . . I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever." The third (2:12) echoes 1:16, "out of his mouth came a sharp, double-edged sword." The fourth (2:18) echoes the description in 1:14-15 of eyes "like blazing fire" and feet "like bronze glowing in a furnace," but prefaces it with a familiar title for Jesus, "the Son of God," which is not taken from John's vision—unless it is intended as the interpretation of "one like a son of man" in 1:14. The fifth (3:1) draws together "the seven spirits" of 1:4 and "the seven stars" of 1:16 and 20. The sixth (3:7) is unparalleled in John's introductory vision: while the key of David is vaguely reminiscent of "the keys of death and Hades" mentioned in 1:18, "the holy one, the true one" has no equivalent at all in the preceding vision. The seventh (3:14) enlarges "the faithful witness" of 1:5 into the faithful and true witness, but combines it with two other terms (the Amen and the ruler of God's creation), which were not found in chapter 1.

The cumulative effect of these self-designations is to reinforce the identification of the angelic figure on Patmos with Jesus Christ. Some of the titles not drawn from chapter 1 are paralleled in John's subsequent visions (see, for example, "Sovereign Lord, holy and true," 6:10; "Faithful and True," 19:11). Yet none of these later parallels are of any help on a first reading or hearing of the seven messages. They are of interest only to the bookish modern reader or scholar who pores over the book of Revelation again and again, making minute comparisons among its various passages. The same is true of the promises near the end of each of the messages to everyone who "overcomes": for example, 2:7, the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God (compare 22:2, 14, 19); 2:11, will not be hurt at all by the second death (compare 20:6, 14); 2:28, the morning star (compare 22:16); 3:5, I will not blot your name out of the book of life (compare 20:12, 15; 21:27); 3:12, I will write on you . . . the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven (compare 21:2, 10). Here again, scholarly readers who systematically study the book of Revelation will easily discover these parallels between the promises to the "overcomers" in chapters 2-3 and the concluding visions of chapters 20-22. They will even find it explicitly stated that the one "who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be my son" (21:7).

The problem is that the scholarly reader is not the typical reader of the Revelation—or the one for whom the work was intended. As we have seen, the first readers were the few individuals who read "the words of this prophecy" aloud to their congregations. The rest of the book's recipients were only hearing what was read to them (compare 1:3). A hearer cannot know the end from the beginning, any more than John knew what was coming later in his visions. Consequently, even the modern reader must learn to read the book of Revelation as if for the first time, taking things as they come and not interpreting them in light of something remembered from a previous reading of the text. Not all the promises to the "conquerors" in the seven messages anticipate John's concluding visions in chapters 20-22. Some call forth other associations, whether from Scripture (for example, 2:28, authority over the nations, with a citation from Ps 2:9; 2:17; a new name, compare Is 62:2), Jewish traditions (the hidden manna, 2:17), or the customs of the Hellenistic world (a white stone, 2:17) or even the Gospel tradition (3:5, I will . . . acknowledge your name before my Father and his angels; compare Mt 10:32; Lk 12:8). Some have only very general associations in biblical literature or the book of Revelation itself (for example, 3:5, being dressed in white; 3:12, being a pillar in the temple of my God; 3:21, having the right to sit with me on my throne).

It is not necessary to disentangle and catalogue all these possible allusions to other texts and traditions in order to understand the varied promises to those who "overcome" in the seven messages. They all have in common the assurance of divine approval or vindication of some kind, and consequently the assurance of eternal life. They are, like the self-designations of the Speaker, basically interchangeable and by no means linked to the varying circumstances of the seven congregations. At the same time, there are things in each of the seven messages that do speak to the particular social setting of the congregation to which that message is primarily directed. These settings, and these aspects of the seven messages, must now be looked at one by one. Here the moral and religious values governing the book of Revelation are most clearly seen.

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