I believe that John chose to address his letters to these specific churches because he was familiar with these churches. He was their brother, and fellow companion in their shared sufferings (Rev. 1:9). He knew them and they knew him. Even though John knew the cultural, political and social struggles in each of these seven cities, it must be noted that in Apocalyptic literature the number “seven” has a symbolic meaning, whole, complete, etc., so these letters to the seven churches are really meant to be overhead by all the church in the province of Asia. As was mentioned in class, and was revealed in our readings this week, there is no special significance to the order of these churches other than they are connected by the major Roman road in the area, and the order of the churches are the order in which one would travel leaving Ephesus.
Boring does point out, however, “each of these cities named had a Roman law court, a location where Christians has bee or could be charged with membership in the Christian sect, which was suspected of being subversive; and at least the first three churches addressed were sites of temples dedicated to Caesar (Ephesus, Smyrna Pergamum)” (Boring, 87). Ephesus was the capital of the Asian province, and as Boring notes, Christianity was an “urban phenomenon” (Boring, 87). As such, the issues addressed in the seven letters to the seven churches would have been indicative then for the whole church; a show down between two kingdoms, Babylon or the kingdom of God. So, the issue then becomes how to live out the Christian witness in the kingdom of Babylon without giving up one’s allegiance to the kingdom of God. In other words, the church was facing an identity crisis, and John is writing to awaken the church from its coziness in this world.
I think John’s vision of the “throne” of God is central to book of Revelation. John is writing to a struggling community of believers, who are already facing some intense persecution in some places, and yet warns them of a “soon” coming time when things are going to heat up even more. From all appearances the dark forces are winning, and yet John’s vision of the throne of God is a reminder that contrary to appearances God is still sovereign over his creation. The throne is occupied by the one who was, is and is to come, the creator of the universe. Things may look bad now, but this will not always be the case. The throne room vision is corrective vision for the way things appear.
John draws on imagery from Ezekiel and Isaiah as well as typical Jewish theophanic theology for his great throne room vision, and even pulls in ancient near eastern mythology to demonstrate the majesty and transcendence of God. John’s throne room vision is meant to be seen in our imaginations, and it is meant to draw us to our knees in worship. So, this grand image of worship before the throne of God should offer a rebuke to the contemporary church, in our quest for entertainment over the presence of God. Worship is the central act, and yet most of the time in churches it gets relegated to a couple of songs, and a couple of memorized prayers. Where is the awe and majesty in our worship? May we be transformed by what we encounter in Revelation 4.
Reddish and Boring note that John’s vision has political overtones. Even though Rome is the ruling force in the land, there is a Ruler who is supreme, who has real power and control, and is sovereign over the whole earth. All other claims to divinity or lordship are false claims and will come to nothing. Boring provides a nice summary of this political polemic on p. 103, “The repeated ‘Worthy art thou’ (4:11; 5:9, 12) directed to God/Christ reflects the acclamation used to greet the emperor during his triumphal entrances. The title Lord and God (4:8) is paralleled by Domitian’s insistence that he be addressed by this title. The twenty-four elders may be influenced by the twenty-four lictors who surround Domitian…The act of the twenty-four elders placing their crowns before God’s throne in 4:10 calls to mind Tacitus’ report that ‘the Parthian King Tiridates placed his diadem before the image of Nero in order to give homage to the Roman emperor” (Boring, 103).
I think this is crucial to our interpretation of Revelation 4 and 5. We need to be reminded that only one is sovereign, the one who sits on the heavenly throne. Nationalism, however grand it may be is a dangerous thing if love and loyalty to our country of residence or origin becomes our salvation or our hope. It comes down to who or what do we place our faith in, the almighty dollar and the nation that backs it up or the Almighty God who is the creator and sustainer of the universe.
I think John is addressing the past, in that he was writing to address the contemporary needs of his late first century audience. The political polemic in the throne room vision would have been heard, and understood by John’s first recipients, as well as the emphasis of worship. They were living in an uneasy time. I think Revelation is stripped out of context if we move it to solely addressing events in the future (long range). John mentions several times, that he sees things that are “soon” come to pass. I believe that soon means that same thing it did in the first century, “soon.”
I do think though, that the throne room vision will preach today. We too need to hear the political overtones of John’s message afresh in our time. We still have one King, and must stand up for him at all costs. And we need to repent from our self-centered attempts at worship. So, Revelation certainly has an enduring message, but before we get at contemporary application we must understand it in light of its first century meaning!