When we read the book of Revelation, we’re reading apocalypse (which is Greek for “revelation”). And when we read apocalypse, we’re reading a certain genre of storytelling, one that uses colorful, bizarre, even frightening imagery to tell an otherwise familiar kind of story. But apocalyptic storytelling is also employed where suffering is taking place. The Old Testament book of Daniel uses apocalyptic language to describe God’s ongoing activity during Israel’s ongoing life under Babylonian and Persian domination. When Jesus in Mark 13 foretells the siege and suffering to come upon Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, he uses apocalyptic language to do so. When the people of the Old and New Testaments faced great suffering, they shifted into the gear of apocalyptic storytelling, portraying the unfolding of human history and divine action with colorful, bizarre, frightening imagery because it so perfectly fits the bizarre and frightening world the people of God live in.
And so before Revelation shows us much of its colorful and bizarre images, it shows us seven churches, churches whom John knows and for whom John feels pastorally responsible. These are suffering Christians, a minority in a world that’s perfectly willing to bully them for their faith that diverges from their pagan neighbors and governments. In Revelation 2-3, he’s tasked by the colorful, bizarre Christ he met in chapter 1 to send messages to these seven churches. The messages vary in some ways, but still follow a pattern. Each letter begins by first identifying the apocalyptic Jesus who is speaking to the churches – “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” (2:1) Next, Jesus says, “I know.” He knows the suffering of his people. He sees their pain. Their dire situation is not hidden from him. Then comes a message that is specific to each church. Some are admonished. Some are encouraged. Some are given a dose of both. Finally, each letter ends with a call to be paying attention. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (2:7)
The first church addressed is in Ephesus, who receives both praise and admonishment from Jesus. They are enduring their suffering well. But they’ve also “abandoned the love” they had “at first.” In their crusade to eliminate every threat to their survival, the Ephesians have forgotten the very love that brought them to Jesus and made them his sanctified congregation in the first place. All seven of the churches are challenged to endure and survive their trials, but not simply for the sake of survival. They are to endure faithfully and lovingly, never losing the holiness to which God called them in the beginning.
The book of Revelation is the assurance that the world and all of human history belong to God, that God will indeed be victorious over evil. But the first thing at stake is the love and holiness of the Church. If holiness isn’t there, if love isn’t there, then the rest of Revelation doesn’t work. We will have every chance to fall into the trap of pursuing truth and survival, and sacrifice love in doing so. So before we get to the grand apocalyptic drama of Revelation, Jesus will take his time to form and nurture and correct and build up his Church. Let anyone with an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Let us be quiet and still, and pay attention, because before Jesus changes the world, he’s going to change us.