The Situation of the Asia Minor Churches

As we prepare to study through the Book of Revelation it will be helpful to know the historical circumstances of the Asia Minor churches. The Book of Revelation was not written in a vacuum; rather, it was written to historical people, in historical places, encountering historical situations. By familiarizing ourselves with these historical circumstances we give ourselves a better opportunity for a right understanding of the Apocalypse.

I will be quoting from G.K. Beale’s, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC): The Book of Revelation, pg. 28-33. (G.K. Beale’s commentary is not the only book you should read on the situation of the Asia Minor churches. However, if you want an excellent summary of the major primary sources … this is a great one.)

Up to the time of writing there had been no programmatic persecution but only sporadic oppression. The author is in exile on Patmos, Antipas has been martyred for the faith, and the church of Smyrna has undergone economic persecution (2:9). On the other hand, the book envisions an escalation of persecution in the near future that will be greater and more official than that pictured by Pliny. Pliny noted that some he interviewed said they had been Christians but had ceased being so “twenty years ago,” which suggests some degree of selective persecution during Domitian’s reign as the probable reason for apostasy.

… John is presently suffering exile, and some of the seven churches have already endured degrees of “tribulation” (2:9) and persecution “on account of the name” of Christ (2:3), which they had “not denied” (2:13; 3:8). Many in Smyrna will be imprisoned and even executed in the future (2:10).

… The Apocalypse is a prophetic work which not only posits a theodicy for some Christians already suffering, but also sets forth definitions of reality for Christians in general that run counter to those of the dominant political, economic, and religious society in which they live. John views the church as a group that is to function to preserve the “‘plausibility structure’ for the ‘counter-definitions’ of reality” revealed by God; in particular, the church’s liturgy reminds believers of the true cosmic order undergirding them and all society.

… This must be understood especially against the background of compromise with the trade guilds and their patron deities. Apparently, a significant group among the Asia Minor churches did not think it a grave sin to show open expressions of loyalty to such trade guild deities. This was especially the case when they were expected to pay their “dues” to trade guilds by attending annual dinners held in honor of the guilds’ patron deities. Homage to the emperor as divine was included along with worship of such local deities. For the culture in general these expressions of loyalty were part of being patriotic. After all, the patron gods of the guilds together with the imperial god of Rome were purportedly responsible for the social and economic blessings that the culture had enjoyed. Refusal to show gratefulness to these gods was bad citizenship.

… John’s purpose was to jolt these Christians back into the reality of their faith and the seriousness of their sin by telling them that they could not be loyal to two masters but only one. The false teachers who were teaching that Christians could identify with the pagan cults and still be considered faithful had to be refuted (so 2:14-15, 20-24). In essence, the false teachers, such as the Nicolaitans, probably redefined the apostolic tradition so that it could be easier for Christians to live more peaceably and profitably with the surrounding society. John has these teachers and their followers in mind when he refers to “cowards” and “faithless ones”: they render verbal witness to the meaning of their community’s name (Christian) but “deny the meaningfulness of the counter-definitions of the community. This false teaching was likely found in more churches than merely Pergamum and Thyatira, since compromise is evident also in Smyrna and Laodicea (see on 3:2ff., 14ff.) Indeed, one of the main reasons for the figurative visions in chs. 4-21 is to present horrific pictures for the churches in order to portray the spiritual gravity of their precarious circumstances. Those with “ears to hear” will perceive the seriousness of the situation and cease compromising.

In addition to the imperial and local trade guild pressures, another problem with compromise arose from the Jewish community.

… Apparently, the Jews made it clear to the local government officials that Christians were not a legitimate sect within Judaism but a new religion, whose adherents had no legal right to practice their religion outside of Palestine. Such instigation probably caused the  Romans to focus more on the Christians and to investigate Christians’ loyalty to the deity of the emperor. This Jewish pressure would have tempted some Christians to maintain a quieter attitude about their faith so that they would not attract too much attention to themselves before either Jews or Romans.

… There was an ongoing threat that Christians would be brought before Roman officials and asked to show their loyalty to the emperor by invoking the Roman gods “according to the [set] formula, offering sacrifices of wine and incense before the emperor’s image and cursing Christ.” For a polytheist to say “Caesar is Lord” was not problematic, but for a genuine Christian, doing so was a direct contradiction of the confession that “Jesus is Lord.”

Christians could respond to this situation in a number of ways. First, they could recant and deny their Christian faith, as Pliny records some did. Secondly, they could openly confess Christ and suffer persecution, as Pliny also tells us happened. Thirdly, they could compromise, which is what some of the false teachers in churches were encouraging (2:14-15, 20).

… Perhaps they decided that a synergistic combination of Christianity and pagan religion could be made in which their Christian faith could still be held with much integrity, much as the Old Testament Israel had attempted to combine Baal worship with worship of Yahweh. Alternatively, some Christians may have practiced forms of deception whereby they openly confessed faith in pagan deities but still felt in their heart that they were ultimately loyal to Christ … Possibly, some may have been inspired by the Jewish practice in which sacrifices were made in honor of the emperor as a respected person but not as a god, and prayers were said on behalf of but not to the Roman ruler … John has in mind such rationalizing believers in 21:8, 27 and 22:15 when he refers to “liars.”

… John’s purpose in writing is, therefore, to encourage those not compromising with idolatry to continue in that stance and to jolt those who are compromising out of their spiritual anesthesia so that they will perceive the spiritual danger they are in and repent and become witnesses to the risen Christ as Lord. For those who never respond, only judgment will ensue.

John’s warnings about judgment are primarily addressed to those within the church community who turn out to be apostates and false believers, those who ultimately identify with the ungodly world system.

… Therefore, the focus of the book is exhortation to the church community to witness to Christ in the midst of a compromising, idolatrous church and world.

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