Five things other than persecution that threatened John’s churches

  1. The church’s interactions with pagan religions. Pagan temples were both the restaurants and butcher shops of the day, so for meat, one needed to either eat at the temple or buy meat that had been sacrificed to idols and take it home. This was a major issue of conscience for the early Christians (see 1 Corinthians 8-10). Revelation mentions this issue in Revelation 2.14 and 2.20.
  2. The church’s interactions with Judaism. Some of John’s churches were in conflict with local Jewish synagogues (Rev. 2.9, 3.9)
  3. The church’s interactions with idolatry in its daily life in society. John’s readers would have been under tremendous social pressure to cave in to idolatry, whether that be worship of the emperor, worship of Roma (the city of Rome personified as a goddess), or worship of the many Greco-Roman deities. Their participation in civic and political life, professional guilds, and many other activities would have necessitated involvement in idolatrous practices.  Temples, monuments, parades, public education, concerts and sporting events all beckoned them to honor and sacrifice to the emperor and other deities. Wives and slaves would not be able to avoid the religious practices of the heads of their households. Tax payments and daily purchases needed to be done with coins that bore the symbols of gods and emperors.
  4. Complacency. Some of John’s readers were become comfortable and complacent because of their relative prosperity. They were in danger of compromising or had already compromised their principles in order to fit into the idolatrous status quo (Rev. 3.1-3, 3.15ff).
  5. Internal differences within the churches. There were false teachers (‘Balaam’, the Nicolaitans, and ‘Jezebel’) influencing some of John’s churches, urging them by their teachings (“deep secrets” which John attributes to Satan, Rev. 2.24) to assimilate with the larger culture and to engage in sexual immorality, possibly temple prostitution (Rev. 2.14-15, 2.20ff).

Recognizing the influence of these issues, especially item #4, are important in order to counter the traditional understanding that John’s purpose in writing was only to prepare and comfort Christians threatened by persecution. Hays, 177, hits the mark when he says that Revelation was written in order to  “afflict the comfortable” just as much if not more than “to comfort the afflicted”. This knowledge also shows the relevance of Revelation for Christians who do not face immediate persecution but do face the temptation of caving in to the status quo of materialism, immorality and complacency.

Sources: Sources are many, but see especially David L. Barr, “John’s ironic empire” in Interpretation 63 no 1 Ja 2009, pp. 20-30, Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. (New York: HarperOne, 1996), Grant R. Osborne, “Recent Trends in the Study of the Apocalypse,” in Scot McKnight and Grant R. Osborne, The Face of New Testament Studies. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004).

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