In my last article I introduced the concept that the seven messages that appear early in Rev are not really letters. Rather they should be understood as prophetic oracles built on the covenant lawsuit model of the Old Testament. These seven oracles are important for several reasons. I will highlight two of those in this article, and the remaining ones in my next article.
First, a major reason John writes Rev is to encourage faithfulness through the storm of persecution befalling John’s original Christian recipients. Throughout Rev he urges perseverance through the coming trials (1:3, 9; 12:11; 13:10; 14:4–5; 16:16; 17:14; 21:7). For instance, John opens with: “I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 1:9). So at the very beginning of his book John declares that he and his recipients are “in the tribulation” and that they must also engage in “perseverance.” The several other verses I list above also testify to the urgent call to hold on through the storm.
This perseverance theme holds true in the oracles as well (2:2–3, 10, 17, 19, 25–26; 3:3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 21). In this distinct section (2:1–3:22). For instance, in the opening comments in the opening oracle, we read: “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; 3 and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary” (Rev 2:2–3). Christ speaks directly to the churches regarding their own specific issues in their own historical contexts and calls them to overcome (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21).
Getting the Message
(by Daniel Doriani)
Presents solid principles and clear examples of biblical interpretation.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
In each oracle Christ states: “I know your X” (2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15). He also calls for spiritual faithfulness in each of the seven churches by using “an aphorism rooted in the Jesus tradition”: ho ech n ous akousat (“he who has an ear”; 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). This call reflects that which Jesus issues to his listeners (Mt 11:15; 13:9, 43; Mk 4:9, 23; Lk 8:8; 14:35).
Second, the themes set forth in the oracles are developed in the dramatic visions to follow in Rev. John Kirby observes that “these serve more or less as ‘cover-letters’ for the rest of the work.” Consequently, as G. K. Beale notes, they serve as a “literary microcosm of the entire book’s macrocosmic structure.” James Barr agrees: “In this way, the story of the letters is really the story of the whole work.” Barr adds: “The letters to the seven churches are small rhetorical gems, not only perfectly balanced within themselves, but each correlated with the opening vision of the risen Christ. . . . They also contain all the basic themes of the work. . . . They are, in other words, a sort of miniature of the Apocalypse in prosaic style.” Or as Alan Bandy expresses it: “the impact of these messages cause ripples throughout the entire vision evident by the intratextual reverberations later in the book.”
We may see that the oracles anticipate the larger narrative of Rev in several respects. In addition to the
perseverance theme just stated, the later visions expand other oracle themes such as: overcoming (2:7, 11, 17, 26 = 12:11; 15:2; 17:14; 21:7), tribulation (2:9, 10 = 22; 7:14), Satan (2:9 = 13; 3:9; 12:9; 20:2, 7), martyrdom (2:13 = 6:9–11; 11:7–10; 14:13; 17:6), idolatry (2:14, 20 = 9:20; 13:4; 21:8; 22:15), sword judgment (2:16 = 6:4; 13:10; 19:15, 21), salvation blessing (2:7 = 22:2; 2:11 = 20:6; 21:8; 2:26b-27 = 20:4 ), and more.
This is especially significant in that Rev’s theme regards God’s imminent judgment against the Jews for their killing Christ (1:7), for in the oracles we also see Jewish opposition against the local churches (2:9; 3:9) and the divine judgment upon them that is approaching (3:10). Christ’s judgment-coming against Israel is also anticipated by his chastening-coming against the individual churches themselves (2:5, 16, 25; 3:3, 11). Significantly, “the conclusion of each message carries a theme that runs through Revelation — viz., God’s mercy and loving-kindness toward his own (cf. 7:15, 17; 19:7–9; 21:3–7). A conditional promise of salvation then follows after an exhortation to ‘listen’ (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 12, 22)” (Robert Muse).