Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Luke & Jesus' Kingdom Banquets (part 3)

Having dealt with that transition, it’s now possible to move on to an examination of Jesus at a meal at the house of a Pharisee.  At this particular meal, Luke reports that “a woman of that town, who was a sinner, learned that Jesus was dining at the Pharisee’s house,” and that “she brought an alabaster jar of perfumed oil” (Luke 7:37) to this house.  Jesus, of course, was in the customary reclined position on the dining couch, with His feet away from the table, and this woman “As she stood behind Him at His feet, weeping… began to wet His feet with her tears.  She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil” (7:38).  

At first glance, this may seem to be a repetitive presentation, as this study has already encountered a similar story of perfumed anointing in an examination of the meals of Matthew and Mark.  However, this is clearly a different function and a different woman, with this event taking place well ahead of the anointing story chronicled in Mark and Matthew.  As a matter of fact, Luke omits the particular anointing story found in Matthew and Mark, providing this one instead.    

There are a lot of very interesting things that could be said concerning what this woman is reported to have done.  She wet Jesus’ feet with her tears, and wipes His feet with her hair (7:38).  Jesus calls attention to this when He speaks to the Pharisee, pointing out the fact that she is now doing that which the Pharisee had failed to do when Jesus entered his house, which was wash Jesus’ feet (7:45).  One need not dwell too long on this one point, but for a woman to take her hair down and to use it in this way would bring much reproach. 

Clearly, this woman is unconcerned with the reproach and shame that she is bringing on herself, and is only concerned with honoring Jesus and making up for the dishonor that was extended to Him when He did not receive the customary foot-washing.  She is more than willing to take shame upon herself so that the one that she obviously looks to as Lord might be honored, which is a cruciform expression of love. 

In addition, she was said to have kissed Jesus’ feet and anointed them with oil (7:38), whereas Jesus did not receive this courtesy from His host (7:46).  Though Jesus saw these acts as expressions of love, the Pharisee looked upon them quite differently, saying to himself, “If this man were a prophet, He would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner” (7:39).  As Jesus was quite familiar with the responses that He received in association with His dining with “tax collectors and sinners,” one can imagine that He was sensitive to the demeanor of His host. 

Being obviously aware of what was being thought of Him, Jesus proffers a short parable to the Pharisee, posing a question concerning the forgiveness of debts, to which the Pharisee is said to have responded correctly.  It is upon receiving an appropriate response that Jesus turns the tables on the one that had been subjecting Him to such critical thoughts.  When He calls attention to her acts, not only does Jesus honor this woman, but in the process, He shames the negligent Pharisee.  The Pharisee had sought to shame Jesus and the woman, but Jesus reverses the situation. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Luke & Jesus' Kingdom Banquets (part 2)

One may wonder why this is so.  However, any wondering is blunted when one considers the joint-authorship of both Luke and Acts, with Acts forming the second half of what is effectively a single discourse.  As Acts is a record of the earliest activities of the apostles of Jesus, and because table fellowship was an important and unfortunately contentious issue in some of the earliest church communities (witness the confrontation between Peter and Paul in Antioch over the subject of table fellowship, as recorded in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church), it is understandable to find Luke more inclined to share more table stories, and to create a narratival construct that will make the record of meals and Jesus’ participation and teaching at these meals, a more prominent feature of his biographical and theological presentation of Jesus.  

If taken within the context of meals---a context which has been arranged by Jesus’ reference to the eating and drinking in which both He and John are said to engage, then one can hear Jesus speaking of Himself within the long-standing wisdom tradition within Israel that is associated with the Messiah.  Though it is the Gospel of John that makes a more prevalent use of the highly-developed wisdom tradition, there is no reason to preclude Luke from making use of it as well, as he makes his report on Jesus’ words and deeds.  If the messiah-associated wisdom tradition is in play here, then it is conceivable that there are messianic banquet considerations to be taken from the words of Jesus. 

Is this a bit of a stretch to hear Jesus making messiah and messianic banquet references in this short little statement?  Probably not, especially in light of His making mention of eating and drinking, and then Luke’s transition to Jesus’ presence at the dinner at the house of a Pharisee.  The use of “wisdom” as a clearly self-referential statement at this point in the narrative, when both Jesus’ hearers and Luke’s readers have been thrust into a meal-related mindset, clearly ushers us into a messianic context.  With thoughts of both messiah and meal at play, along with talk of vindication (an incredibly important concept for Israel especially in relation to messiah), it would not be difficult to find Jesus’ hearers associating words such as “all her children,” when used in this context, entertaining thoughts of the great messianic banquet. 

What is provided here is a glimpse into Jesus’ mindset as it relates to this banquet in Matthew, when He is heard to say “I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Luke 8:11-12).  Clearly, if one ever finds himself thinking that any of the Gospel authors are offering up anything less than complex theological constructs in narrative and biographical form based upon the fact of a resurrected Christ that demanded their full allegiance, then a tremendous disservice has been done to them.  

Monday, December 29, 2014

Luke & Jesus' Kingdom Banquets (part 1)

The Gospel of Luke, while it does many things in relation to Jesus ministry, provides believers with a firmly rooted understanding of the significance of meals, not only within the communities, but also within Jesus’ ministry.  Because of what they demonstrate, and because of what they allow to be demonstrated, Jesus consistently seizes upon these occasions to teach and to make points about the nature of the kingdom of heaven.  These meals also become the source of ongoing controversies concerning Jesus. 

Engaging with Luke, one finds a perfect example of that in the seventh chapter, as Jesus is following up on inquiries made of Him by disciples of John the Baptist, and speaking about him to the assembled crowds, doing so in the context of the kingdom of His God (Luke 7:28).  At the close of this dissertation about John, Jesus references the controversial nature of His meal practice (and even that of John in a roundabout way), by saying “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (7:33-34)  One cannot take lightly the importance that Jesus and the Gospel authors attribute to meals.  A hermeneutic must be allowed to be fundamentally influenced by this meal dynamic.

Both Luke and Matthew have Jesus closing out His discourse on John the Baptist by adding, “But wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (7:35).  Though there is an implied break in the narrative following these words from Jesus, with the words of the thirty-sixth verse of Luke seeming to present a new situation, it is noteworthy that Luke immediately moves to inform the reader that “one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him” (7:36a).  With this, the author appears to be communicating the importance of meals, as even though there is a break in the action, so to speak, the theological narrative continues, with Jesus being moved directly from His statement about wisdom and her children (which follows a statement about eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners), to the acceptance of an invitation to dine at the house of a Pharisee. 

If an observer maintains a mental framework that does not have Jesus or Luke diverging from speaking from a context of meals and their importance, then it is quite possible to hear Jesus speaking in that context when He says that “wisdom is vindicated by her children.”  This, then, is not a disconnected aphorism recorded by Luke and randomly placed within the text, but rather, a transition that maintains the meal-related motif.  Of course, this cannot be asserted without addressing the fact that Matthew places Jesus’ speech about John within a different sequence of events, and does not move from the wisdom and children statement to Jesus’ meal in the house of the Pharisee. 

Without attempting to rectify or harmonize the chronological conflicts, the difference can be explained by noting Luke’s greater emphasis on Jesus’ meals.  Though Matthew certainly holds Jesus’ participation at various meals in high regard, rightly signifying their importance for understanding Jesus and their significance for the communication of His mission, it is Luke that has Jesus spending more time at meals, while also sharing some of His most impactful parables (the parable of the prodigal chief among these as one of Jesus’ most important, elaborate, and impactful parables) while at a banqueting table. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Love & The Public Good (part 3 of 3)

Because this is a mixed congregation of both Jews and Gentiles, one can surmise that Paul’s use of “the law” would be well understood to be those basic provisions of the law (circumcision, Sabbath keeping, food regulations, refraining from worship of idols) that served as identity markers for Jews, and were constant points of contention and division in the early church.  Knowing this allows one to see how the unity and actions of love that are outlined and encouraged in chapter twelve of Romans come into play.  In addition to that, when considering that this is a letter that will be read to a gathered church at a single sitting, it is worth remembering a very early statement in the letter, wherein Paul uses the phrase “from faith to faith” (Romans 1:17). 

This simple statement sees Paul borrowing from the imperial propaganda of the day, which presents Caesar as the supreme benefactor.  The statement implies that Caesar is faithful to his subjects, providing them with peace and security, and therefore his subjects are faithful and loyal to him and to Rome.  One must hear the words of the thirteenth chapter with such words and thoughts in mind, in the knowledge that Paul is presenting Jesus as the actual supreme benefactor, of which the Caesar is merely a parody.  All civic interactions proceed within this framework, and the self-sacrificial love modeled by Jesus which saw Him go to the cross (unconcerned with the shame because of the honor He trusted would come), becomes the model upon which the life of the Christian community is based (unconcerned with shame because of the honor that comes with what counts as the fulfillment of the law, thereby marking one out as a member of the people of the Creator God and a participant in His kingdom). 

From here, Paul advances towards the meal table, which it is clear that he has in mind as he goes on to write “Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy” (13:13).  Though it is not meant to serve as an accusation, this is language of the portion of the Hellenistic meal referred to as the “symposium” (period of revelry---singing of songs, debates, speeches, etc…---following a meal), and as it is possible that this church is hearing this letter while gathered for fellowship that will include a meal, the language would not be lost on them either.  It is to this then that Paul adds “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires” (13:14). 

A great disservice is done to the apostle if one simply substitutes personal and subjective notions of “the flesh” here, rather than considering “the flesh” within the context of the potential for disunity, division, stratification, and unwarranted authoritarianism within the church, as well as its connotations of the old age prior to the Resurrection, the inauguration of the new creation, and of the kingdom of the covenant God, in which preferring others above oneself is to be the norm. 

One must also take this statement into consideration in the context of the dissertation regarding the Christian’s responsibilities towards governing authorities.  Because one considers himself or herself to be part of the kingdom of God, a desire of the flesh might be to cast off all restraint and disregard governing authorities.  This was obviously a real possibility, which would account for Paul’s insistence that such authorities are “God’s servant for your good” (13:4a), and that it is “necessary to be in subjection” (13:5a)  (Note: Though democracies did exist, Paul does not have knowledge of a government that is constituted by “We the people,” such as to be found with the United States of America; so it is incumbent upon all generations of Christians, the world over, to understand Paul’s words in context and then to work out the implications of those words within their own time and place, guided by the dictates of the existing kingdom of heaven.) 

Rather than thinking about putting on the Lord Jesus Christ in the context of the cultivation of private spirituality, the understanding of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ should be shaped, and processed horizontally and outwardly, by embodying the transformational, kingdom-of-God-contexted love that was put on display by Jesus throughout the entirety of His mission, culminating in the cross.  This would certainly serve to quell any fleshly desires that might be manifested (separations based on honor and shame) or discussed (open rebellion against Rome that could result in the taking up of arms and the discrediting of the Jesus movement) at the meal table, thus resulting in a life of true holiness (a life laid on the altar of sacrifice in service to Israel’s God). 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Love & The Public Good (part 2)

When reading about “respect” and “honor,” one must remember the culture of honor and shame, and understand this part of what Paul is saying accordingly.  Naturally, if the Christian has complied with his duty to be a voice to the rulers, doing good so as to receive their commendation (Romans 13:3b), with this doing of good the language of public benefaction; and if the church has been complicit in its responsibilities to care for orphans, widows, lepers (sick), and the poor, then the governing authorities will be able to restrict the scope of its activities to being “God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer” (13:4b), rather than engaging in all manners of activities with which the Christian will find disagreeable.  This then allows the Christian to pay taxes with a clear conscience, properly acknowledging their God’s provision of those charged with government functions. 

Of course, this also bears on the responsibility of the church to communicate the words of one who preached the kingdom of the Creator God, as the Gospel of Luke records of John the Baptist that “Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’  He told them, ‘Collect no more than you are required to.’” (Luke 3:12-13).  The idea that tax collectors would collect only that which they were required to collect would have been quite the radical notion in that day, as it was well understood that tax collectors, quite simply, collected more than what was required, lining their pockets and enriching themselves with the excess.  Yes, this issue of government and taxes, as presented by Paul, must be understood within the context of the church’s responsibility to embody the love of its God by effectively preaching the Gospel of the kingdom and living out in their own community the principles of that kingdom. 

If a government, on this side of the cross, has become oppressive, with oppression generally linked to high levels of taxation (while understanding that the average person under the Roman empire paid well over half of their income---in the course of a subsistence lifestyle---in taxes, with this often leading to debt and ultimately slavery, which brings in the issue of “owe no one anything”), then the church of the Christ need only look at itself and its failure to remain true to Jesus’ message of the advent of the kingdom of the covenant God, and of that God’s desire to bring the rule of heaven to earth, as it has most likely retreated into an escapist fixation that limits the acceptance of Jesus’ challenging and world-altering message to going to heaven when one dies. 

It is worthwhile to re-read this section as a whole so that one can frame it within a statement made very early in this letter to the Romans.  Paul writes “Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,’ (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (13:7-10). 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Love & The Public Good (part 1)

Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. – Romans 13:8  (NET)

In the thirteenth chapter of Romans, Paul extends his discourse from chapter twelve, which delineated the love that will be exercised within the Christian community, writing “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (13:8).  This statement takes into consideration the pervasive structure of the debtor society of the Greco-Roman world, while it also seems to address the attendant and entrenched system of patronage and benefaction. 

Those that are instructed to “Owe no one anything” are encouraged to take the necessary steps to free themselves from the encumbrances of debt, and therefore free themselves from having to acquire a benefactor, as slipping into or maintaining such cultural norms will diminish the impact of the Christian community as a force for societal transformation, while it also, possibly, has a deleterious effect on the Christian meal table. 

The Christian, Paul would surely insist, is to be the patron of only one benefactor, that being Jesus, thus allowing the Christian to take the position of being a loving and altruistic benefactor to his community, his country, and to the world, as an enthusiastic representative of the kingdom of the Creator God.  When one considers the context in which Paul delivers the statement of verse eight, it should be noticed that he begins with “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1).  This is the paradoxical situation of the Christian. 

Yes, the confessed member of the body of Christ owes his allegiance to the kingdom of the covenant God, and yes, the Christian message is quite subversive in that it recognizes Jesus as the King of kings.  However, the Christian lives with a tension, recognizing “God’s appointment” of authorities.  That paradoxical tension of respectful subversiveness is well explicated by the second Psalm, which provides an example to be followed by the people of the Creator God and the nature of their interaction with governing authorities. 

There the Creator God’s people, via the Psalmist, are heard saying “So now, you kings, do what is wise; you rulers of the earth, submit to correction!  Serve the Lord in fear!  Repent in terror.  Give sincere homage!  Otherwise He will be angry, and you will die because of your behavior, when His anger quickly ignites” (2:10-12a).  While this can also be taken as words of warning to those that this God intends to be His kings and rulers in this world---His divine image bearers, it is well-understood to be directed to human authority figures.

Undoubtedly, this is directed firstly to the kings of Israel, and then by extension, to the kings of the earth as the Creator’s people take up their role to be a shining light to the nations that do indeed exemplify divine blessing, with a desire to be continuous extensions of the positive end of the Abrahamic covenant (a blessing to all peoples).  Such is neatly summed up by the last part of verse twelve of the second Psalm, in which insists “How blessed are all who take shelter in him!” 

It is in this light, the light of love and the opportunity to be a legitimate and well-received voice to those rulers that are in need of submission to the imperial claims of Jesus, that Paul writes “For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing.  Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (13:6-7). 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Laodicea's Wealth (part 6 of 6)

When Jesus says, “Because you say, ‘I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing’” (Revelation 3:17a), He lets the church at Laodicea know that the grand claim and accompanying attitude of the city of Laodicea following the earthquake that leveled their city, that they needed no help or funds from Rome to rebuild, had infiltrated their church.  This is what reveals that there were very likely some wealthy individuals to be found in the church (and perhaps they were preaching a very early version of the “prosperity gospel”?).  Again, this is not a problem unless the presence of the wealth leads to ungainly results, in which the wealthy are simply treated better within the church and afforded greater honor (in the honor and shame culture) simply because of the fact of their wealth. 

Lest they become too puffed up with their wealth, which would have been gained through their business of money exchange for the region (3:18a), their sale of high-end clothing made from the black wool for which Laodicea was famous (3:18b), or the sale of their eye salve (3:18c), Jesus lets them know that they are actually “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17b), and encourages them to “take My advice and buy gold from Me refined by fire so you can become rich!  Buy from Me white clothing so you can be clothes and your shameful nakedness will not be exposed, and buy eye salve to put on your eyes so you can see!” (3:18)  One must notice the use of “shameful.”  Such language, given the cultural context, is quite specific and should not escape attention. 

This is a bit of a double entendre, as it serves as both a rebuke against unwarranted puffery as it relates to what is of true value in the kingdom of the Creator God and amongst the people that represent that kingdom, while also reminding them that this is the attitude that those that have acquired wealth (regardless of the means by which it was acquired, whether that be skill, diligence, luck, inheritance, oppression, or fraud) should take when it comes to their position inside the church.  The wealthy, who are seated at the places of honor at the world’s banqueting tables, should be even more fervent in their efforts to take the lowest place when it comes to the gathering together of the church.  Yes, even making a strenuous and concerted effort to do so, while not trumpeting the fact that it is occurring. 

Ultimately, the practice of serving in the church will spill over into their participation in the wider community (as should be the case for all, whether rich or poor), thus the gathering together as a church and exemplifying the power of the Gospel to turn the world upside down (the accusation leveled against the church community in Acts 17), allows the people of the kingdom of the covenant God to learn the way that their God expects them to serve and prefer one another so that they may effectively represent His kingdom to a watching and waiting world, in an ongoing development of the virtue of serving and preferring, so that such things become a matter of habit. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Laodicea's Wealth (part 5)

It does indeed seem to be the case that it is the possession of wealth that is causing the problem that is being worked out in their practice as a church.  In introducing these three things, Jesus, through John, has called attention to Laodicea’s rejection of imperial assistance for rebuilding efforts following an earthquake.  They were rich, had acquired great wealth, and were in need of nothing.  This was true of Laodicea as a city, and apparently, had also become true of this church as well.  The celebration of wealth had infected the church in such a way that they were denying the kingdom of their God by their practice (much like Laodicea denied Rome’s assistance, which also denies the extension of Roman power), causing Jesus to see them as being wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. 

Having made His point concerning what the wealth had accomplished, always with an eye towards correcting the practice of the church, Jesus takes up a discourse that utilizes the three main wealth generators (financial/gold transactions, textiles, eye salve), relating them to Himself and what is available through Him, so as to make it clear that the blessings that are available to His people as part of His kingdom are far superior to anything that could bring them wealth in the world’s present form, especially if it brought about a denial of Him and His kingdom principles and practices.  This denial of kingdom has placed Jesus, as far as He is concerned, outside the church, where He stands at the door and knocks, speaking to them (as He is doing in this letter), and desiring to re-join them.  Before expressing what it is that He desires to do, Jesus says, “All those I love, I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest and repent!” (Revelation 3:19) 

With this mention of rebuke, discipline, and repentance, Jesus offers them a path back to where they belong.  As shall be seen, Jesus’ words are quite specific and quite telling.  Jesus is being very explicit, and this church will have no problem in identifying what they are getting wrong, and setting it right.  Clearly, the church community at Laodicea believes themselves to be quite special.  It would appear that, in this case, there are some wealthy individuals in the church, which is not problematic in and of itself.  However, allowing cherished non-church-community ideals to infect the church and its fellowship is highly problematic. 

The church, of course, while taking the full measure of its cultural context, attempts to shift their community’s culture in the direction of the cross, recognizing above all the sovereign claim of the covenant God’s kingdom and its consequent demand on those that confess allegiance to its King.  The church, which is identified within its community by its fellowship, is not to be overrun by a dominating social ethos in such a way that it begins to reflect society back on itself.  If the church is reflecting the values and ethics of the community in which it is to be found, then unless that community is one that is predominantly shaped by an abiding concern for the kingdom of the Creator, then that church is going to be quite handicapped (wretched, poor, pitiful, blind, naked) in its ability to reflect the glory of its God into the world.       

The world, of course, is the new world that began taking shape at the Resurrection.  Just as a people of Israel’s God was sent into a promised land to live in a certain way that their God desired and to redeem that land as the firstfruits of a redeemed humanity and creation, so too are the people of this same God following the Resurrection, and in the transformative power of the Spirit and the Gospel confession, delivered into their promised land (now the entire creation), to live as their God desires, as the firstfruits of a redeemed humanity and a redeemed cosmos.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Laodicea's Wealth (part 4)

With His words of white clothing, Jesus produces a sharp contrast between His white clothing that is on offer, and the clothing made from black wool that was productive of wealth in this city.  That wealth is creating an insidious problem in the church, and that problem need not exist.  Again, the crux of the issue is not the wealth but rather the response to the wealth by those that are calling Jesus Lord, yet denying Him by their actions.     

Having made reference to Laodicea’s place in the world of finance (buying gold), as well as their position in the fashion world (white clothing in contrast to the black wool), mention is then made of one more source of wealth that has a hand in contributing to that which is happening within this church in Laodicea, and is displeasing to Jesus.  John reports Jesus saying, “buy eye salve to put on your eyes so you can see!” (Revelation 3:18c) 

While this could be thought of as an allusion to Jesus’ healing of the blind, and specifically to the instance of record in which Jesus spits on the eyes of the man whose sight is restored (Mark 8:23), or to the time when Jesus spit on the ground to make some mud and smeared the mud into the eyes of a man that had been born blind (John 9:6)---both of which were interesting types of eye salve to be sure, it is far more likely that the reference hits much closer to home for those that made up this particular congregation. 

This reference to eye salve, or to some type of eye medication, is more than likely yet another reflection of the historical situation in Laodicea.  So once again, these words have an important contextual setting that, when recognized, will keep an observer from running off the tracks into strictly spiritual (and possibly incorrect) interpretations.  At the risk of being overly repetitive (though this is not truly a risk), spiritual applications (for lack of a better term) can best be accomplished and are most effective when steps are taken to hear the words as they would have been heard by the original hearers, to be understood and applied in that context so as to grasp the underlying truths that are being communicated, and then translated through time for personal application. 

That said, the historical situation in regards to the eye salve has to do with the fact that the region in which Laodicea is located is Phrygia.  There is some debate as to whether or not this is actually the case, as Laodicea is sometimes said to have been a part of other regions, such as Caria.  Contributing to the inability to pin down exact locations is the fact that territorial limitations were often very poorly defined and always changing.  The region of Phrygia was famous in the ancient world because of the “Phrygian powder” produced there.  This powder was an ingredient in various eye medications. 

To go along with the fact of the Phrygian powder, an ancient historian by the name of Strabo reports that there was a medical school in Laodicea, and that this was the location of the practice of a renowned eye doctor.  When coupling the statement about eye salve in the letter to Laodicea with the fact of the Phrygian powder, it becomes reasonable to presume that Laodicea was located within this territory, at the very least at the time of the penning of Revelation.  Putting that aside, this is a clear indication that the Laodicean church had become blind to something in particular, that it must be corrected, and that the issue that must be corrected must be identifiable for the church. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Laodicea's Wealth (part 3)

As a result, Jesus implores this church---the very church upon whose door He stands and knocks so that He might come in and share a meal---to “take My advice and buy gold from me refined by fire so you can become rich!” (Revelation 3:18a).  This is another reference based on historical context.  Laodicea is a place in which large financial transactions take place, with this making a major contribution to the wealth of the city in general, and more than likely, to some of the individuals within the church.  Understandably, precious metals such as gold would have been standard fare in the financial world of the day, which makes sense of Jesus’ reference to the need to buy gold from Him. 

There is no need here to go to any discourses about the impossibility of buying the things of God, or to ponder what it is that Jesus insists needs to be obtained.  Such would be inappropriate, and need only be ventured if one fails to consider the context of Laodicea’s position, its trade, and its source of wealth.  An abundance of gold will generally cause those that possess such abundance to consider themselves rich.  However, Jesus has already informed this church that their practice, quite to the contrary, has made them truly poor.  If they will but discard the practice and enter into what it is that He desires, as demonstrated by His life and practice, then they will truly be rich. 

If the Biblical narrative pattern is followed, these riches (blessings?) that are indissolubly linked to practice will probably have some connection to the Abrahamic covenant.  The true gold that will be purchased from Jesus will be inextricably connected to the kingdom principles that He demonstrated throughout His ministry, and according to the Hebrew prophets, there can be no greater riches than those which are connected to the established kingdom of the Creator God.

According to John, Jesus continues on to say, “Buy from me white clothing so you can be clothed and your shameful nakedness will not be exposed” (3:18b).  Here is yet another contrast.  The issue of putting on clothing appears to be a regular theme in the earliest church.  In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes: “For in this earthly house we grown, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling, in indeed, after we have put on our heavenly house we will not be found naked.  For we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (5:2-4).  Though Paul makes reference to houses, dwellings, tents, and clothes, the subject at hand is the glorified, resurrection body that the believer will have when the kingdom of the Creator comes in its fullness. 

In the letter to Laodicea, the shameful nakedness would seem to have the same point of reference, as there will be no glorified body available, and no place in the kingdom of the covenant God made possible for those that operate contrary to the principles of that kingdom in the course of their natural term.  The purchasing of “white clothing” is yet another reference to that which has garnered wealth for Laodicea, which was the textile industry.  Laodicea was a center for the manufacture of clothing, and the sheep that grazed around Laodicea were quite famous for the soft, black wool that they produced, which in turn created a high demand for clothes made from this black wool. 

Laodicea's Wealth (part 2)

However, contrary to what might be expected, not only did Laodicea not request assistance from Rome or from the emperor, they actually declined the assistance that was offered, choosing instead to rebuild and restore the city from their own means.  This, of course, would grant Laodicea some measure of independence from Rome; but only a measure, as they still relied on the existence of the empire and the relative security and stability it afforded.  In fact, Laodicea received from Rome the title of “free city,” and was the “conventus” of its territory, meaning that it functioned as the capital city of a division of the Roman province in which it was located.  This meant that it would be the seat of a district court, as well as the headquarters for other governmental functions for the region. 

Taken together, the facts of the great wealth of the city, that the wealth enabled them to decline assistance from Rome after a catastrophe, and that it was a seat of provincial government (though not relying on the largesse or beneficence of Rome or of the emperor, in contrast to so many other cities of the region), Jesus’ chiding of His church for its insistence that they were rich, that they have acquired great wealth, and that they were in need of nothing becomes quite understandable. 

Now, this is not meant to be a condemnation of wealth.  Taking a negative view of wealth, whether civic or individual, based on these words, would be unwarranted and out of context.  What one must keep in mind as progress is made in pulling back the layers of nearly two thousand years of cultural changes that have served to obfuscate from view what would have been easily seen and understood by the Laodiceans in their day (they would have known about declining imperial assistance in rebuilding, they would have known why, and as citizens of Laodicea they would have been quite proud of that fact), is that their wealth is what is causing them to engage in practices that have Jesus wanting to vomit them out of His mouth. Therefore, these practices are not in line with what can be observed in His mission, nor are they in accordance with the message of the Gospel. 

The practice or practices (as the case may be) of this “lukewarm” city (Laodicea) stands in contrast to what takes place in the “hot” and “cold” cities (the well-known epithets assigned to Hierapolis and Colossae).  The church in Laodicea, correspondingly, is being asked to observe the difference in practice between itself and the churches in those other cities and to mimic the practice, thereby becoming either hot or cold, either of which was perfectly acceptable to Jesus.

After commenting on their wealth and need of nothing, Jesus makes an interjection that serves to negate any vaunted ideas of self as citizens of Laodicea that might have arisen from such thoughts, saying that this church did not realize that they were actually “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17b).  Not only is this a challenge to their honor, metaphorical and analogical application seems to be unavoidable, as Jesus wants them to understand that though they may be wealthy, their nauseating practice that partially stemmed from the fact of their wealth actually showed them to be something far different.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Laodicea's Wealth (part 1)

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either cold or hot!  So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth!  Because you say, “I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing,” but  do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, take my advice… Revelation 3:15-18a  (NET)

After making mention that their practice had Him displeased to the point of using the imagery of vomiting, Jesus is reported to have gone on to say, “Because you say, ‘I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing’” (Revelation 3:17a).  Since hot, cold, and lukewarm are being employed for purposes of tangible and easily understandable geographical reference, so too should this statement be comprehended in the same manner.  Accordingly, whatever it is in which the church is engaged is somehow tied to wealth. 

The usual interpretation has the Laodiceans over-confident in regard to spiritual wealth, and unable to recognize their spiritual bankruptcy.  Of course, that usual interpretation follows hard on the treatment of hot, cold, and lukewarm as spiritual epithets rather than the geographical indicators leading to an understanding centered on the practice of the church community that would have been readily grasped by those who would be receiving the letter.  There is no initial need to spiritualize here, and one should resist the ingrained desire to do so.  Spiritual analysis and application can and should come later, once Jesus’ words are understood in context. 

With just a little bit of digging, one finds that this is not a subtle reference to a supposed self-righteousness or smug satisfaction with a wealth of spiritual gifts.  Again, the readers of the letter would have to be able to understand what John is writing (and Jesus is saying) within their context in order for it to make sense to them, for it to have meaning, and for it to be productive of Jesus’ desired ends.  If a hermeneutic (method of interpretation) has been carefully established, in a way that keeps in mind that there are real church communities with real people receiving these very real and obviously important communications, it is possible to engage and understand these words from Jesus, as well as the words that lead up to Jesus speaking of standing and knocking (though not in this study), quite easily and altogether profitably. 

Though Laodicea was located on a major road, Laodicea was a place of little importance in its early history.  This changed under the first few Roman emperors.  During this time, Laodicea began to benefit from its location on a major road, and thus a major trade route, in time becoming one of the most important and flourishing cities of Asia Minor.  Among other things, a specialization in large financial transactions sprung up in Laodicea, and it would also become important in the textile industry. 

The area in which it was located also suffered from earthquakes.  One especially strong earthquake occurred in 60AD, destroying the city completely.  In that time, earthquakes were just as common as they are today, but of course, buildings were not constructed to be earthquake proof, so the general result of significantly powerful earthquakes would be the complete destruction of the cities in the effected regions.  During the time of Roman domination, most cities destroyed by earthquake would quickly appeal to Rome to provide funds and resources to assist in rebuilding as quickly as possible.  This would be especially true for cities on major trade routes, and likely even more true of Laodicea, considering the city’s role in the financial arena. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mark, A Meal, A Leper & The Kingdom Of God (part 5 of 5)

Beyond the fact that the meal is taking place at the house of a leper (though one may be tempted to imagine that the meal is taking place at Lazarus’ house because it is said “they prepared a dinner for Jesus there” (Mark 12:2), the “there” must be a reference to Bethany), when folding in the details from the Gospel of John, one is now urged to look a second time at the fact that Martha was serving.  Martha is not only serving, but she, a wealthy woman like her sister (who can afford to “waste” a valuable amount of perfume), is serving in the house of a leper.  This is unthinkable in that day. 

Clearly, Simon is somebody that is further down the social scale from Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, so the fact that a more noble member of society is serving in the house of somebody that is “beneath them,” is a radical shake-up in the normal social order, though such things seem to be quite commonplace with Jesus.  It is the presence of Jesus, and that alone, that is bringing this unthinkable occurrence to pass.    

The social mobility of modern times (for a large part of the world), along with the casual mixing of classes that makes it impossible to positively and concretely identify one’s socioeconomic status was unknown in the ancient world.  Various aspects of the culture, especially the setting of meals and banquets, revealed social status in no uncertain terms.  The fact that this is so foreign to most people causes results in missing these aspects that would have stood out in the early years of the church.  One tends to read past these things, whereas a time and a culture that is thoroughly accustomed to these things and ordered around meals, would have had very strong reactions and opinions associated with what was being seen in Jesus’ actions and what was being communicated by the church about Jesus’ actions. 

A prominent feature of this story is that Mark makes it a point to mention that Jesus is dining at the house of a leper named Simon.  For some reason, Lazarus is absent from Matthew and Mark’s story, and of course, is absent from any Gospel save that of John.  Though Lazarus’ lack of any presence at all in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is bizarre (to say the least), it is Simon who is conspicuous by his absence from the telling in John. 

Though Simon is not present in John, Lazarus, though he is famous and people are coming to see Jesus on account of him, is not presented as the honored guest.  He does not take the place of Simon, but is presented merely as “among those present at the table with Him” (John 12:2b).  Lazarus is just another guest, Martha is serving, and Mary is (according to John’s record, wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair---which brings its own provocative considerations that are beyond the pale of this study).  There is a dynamic at work here with this particular meal that should serve to provide structure for any thoughts and considerations of Jesus’ kingdom message.

Mark, A Meal, A Leper & The Kingdom Of God (part 4)

This account of Jesus dining at the house of Simon the leper provides a bit more detail.  Here, the reader is informed that “six days before Passover,” (thus answering the question as to whether or not Jesus had adequate time to complete purification rituals before celebrating Passover---so Jesus (the Messiah) went to the cross in a state of ritual impurity, and the early church was unconcerned with this aspect of the story, though it would have certainly attributed to the scandalous, stumbling-block nature of the message of Jesus) “Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom He has raised from the dead.  So they prepared a dinner for Jesus there.  Martha was serving, and Lazarus was among those present at the table with Him” (John 12:1-2). 

If one did not have the stories of Matthew and Mark, when reading this story in John it would be possible to get the sense that Jesus is dining in the house of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  If He was doing so, that would be quite understandable.  Lazarus had, quite naturally, become famous.  Many people, as John reports few verses later, came to this house to see both Jesus and Lazarus (12:9).  Not only that, there are indications that the family may have had some wealth, and therefore may have been an honored family within the community, with that indication being the fact that Mary had the costly perfume with which to anoint Jesus, and the fact that the gathered guests make mention of “the poor,” with the words themselves ringing out and serving as an indication of the dichotomy that existed between the poor and those that were joining Jesus at this meal.  However, this meal is not taking place at the house of the now-famous-and-potentially-wealthy Lazarus, but rather, at the house of Simon the leper.       

In the ancient world, it was customary for a community to receive a famous and honored individual into their midst with great pomp and ceremony.  Often, a delegation from the community would go outside their town, meet the arriving person of prominence, and accompany them back to their locale.  This is referred to as a “parousia”.  There are several examples of parousia in the life of Jesus, and even one when He goes to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead.  There is no record of Jesus being received in this way upon this visit to Bethany, but one can imagine that such an event took place, as His fame could only have grown as Lazarus continued to live amongst the people. 

As a part of the reception, there would be a determination made as to which member or family of the community was the most worthy and important individual, in the best position to accept the dignitary into their house, most capable of reflecting favorably on the larger community so as to give the best possible impression to the honored guest, and able to bring honor to the whole of the community in the process.  As was said, it would have been a natural choice, owing to previous events, for Lazarus to host Jesus in Bethany.  The fact that Jesus loved Lazarus and His sisters would have contributed to this more than natural arrangement.  However, it is Simon the leper that receives the honor of hosting a meal for Jesus. 

Whether this is the choice of the community or Jesus’ choice one is left to wonder, but what is clear is that one who would normally be marginalized and even ostracized in the community for a variety of reasons is the one that has this honor.  If the story of Zaccheus (as a prime example of Jesus choosing His own host) is any indication, it is likely that it is Jesus that has made the choice of meal location, but it is not something about which one can be dogmatic. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mark, A Meal, A Leper & The Kingdom Of God (part 3)

As Mark is written within the confines of the early church that found itself immersed within much knowledge of the historical Jesus, along with resounding and powerful traditions about Him that would clearly have weighed heavily upon them in the area of practice, it is right to call attention to the marked contrast between what can be observed here in Mark and what one finds presented in a situation in the Gospel of John (which is also written during a time and within a community steeped in first-hand knowledge of Jesus). 

In John, after Jesus’ arrest and initial questioning by Annas and Caiaphas, “they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s residence” (John 18:28a).  The author then reports that “They did not go into the governor’s residence” (18:28c).  Why did they not go in?  It was “so they would not be ceremonially defiled, but could eat the Passover meal” (18:28d).  A stark contrast indeed.  In Mark, Jesus dines with a leper, sitting on his furniture and sharing a table with him in complete disregard of established custom, clearly communicating truths about the kingdom of the Creator God and about the nature of His own rule of that kingdom through what He was knowingly and consciously doing. 

When these two accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry include such stories, both are making points that are not easily dismissed.  One account represents separation and exclusion, whereas the other highlights inclusion --- pointing to a highly necessary aspect of ecclesiology.  John’s account of a concern to not become ritually impure before the commencement of Passover is useful because it points up the high level of seriousness with which such things were taken at the time.  For the sake of rabbinic credibility, and especially that of a rabbi that carried and stoked messianic expectations, issues of impurity would have been a concern. 

With no real record of time, and no textual sense of time between His certain contracting of ceremonial impurity while at this house and the celebration of Passover with His disciples, it would appear to His fellow members of the house of Israel that Jesus has, in fact, presided over a Passover (His last supper) celebration while he found Himself in a state of impurity.  With what one must presume is a well-founded grasp of this information, Mark demonstrates a complete lack of concern in this area, and instead presents this picture of Jesus that is stocked with a great deal of implications for those, both inside and outside of ethnic and national Israel, who call or will come to call Him Lord. 

There are other quite significant points to be made.  One of those points has to do with the fact that Jesus has chosen to dine in this particular house.  Calling upon the Gospel of John for assistance, one is reminded that Bethany is the place of Lazarus’ residence.  In chapter twelve of John, it appears that the reader is presented with a story (unless there was another story about Jesus being anointed with costly oil, the action being criticized as wasteful, and Jesus criticizing the criticizers and commending the “waste”) that is based upon the same meal as that which is reported in the fourteenth chapter of Mark. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mark, A Meal, A Leper & The Kingdom of God (part 2)

In the same chapter, when Jesus stands before the Sanhedrin, Mark writes that “Some stood up and gave this false testimony against Him: ‘We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple made with hands and in three days build another not made with hands.’” (Mark 14:57-58)  The author punctuates this with “Yet even on this point their testimony did not agree” (14:59), but He is clearly cognizant of and counting on an awareness of what must have been the well-known Jesus tradition recounted in the Gospel of John (not relying on John, as Mark came first, but what would have been the oral and possibly written Jesus tradition), in which Jesus says, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (2:19).  Shortly thereafter, John helpfully provides the gloss on Jesus’ words by informing the reader that “Jesus was speaking about the Temple of His body” (2:21). 

When all of this is taken together, the reader sees a widow giving all that she has (which is an almost worthless amount) to a Temple that is going to fall, which is ultimately a wasteful action, whereas the woman with the alabaster box gives something of immense value in recognition of the One that is the eternal Temple, causing the onlookers to refer to this as a wasteful action.  Jesus makes it clear that it is the former (the widow’s gift) that was wasteful (and tragic), whereas the latter was “a good service” (14:6b), and therefore not wasteful. 

Because the stories in the Gospels demand to be heard within Jesus’ pronouncement that the kingdom of the Creator God is at hand, one must ascertain what this has to do with Jesus’ kingdom understanding.  It is by this that Jesus addresses the prevalent and apparently incorrect understanding that the kingdom of His God would be centered in Jerusalem, with all nations coming to its Temple to offer worship to Israel’s God.  Jesus makes it quite clear that even though they were correct in believing that all nations would in fact come to worship the Creator God by means of the Temple, that Temple by which this God would be worshiped, in recognition of His kingdom, would be Himself (Jesus).     

To go along with the interesting theological Temple dynamic that has been inserted into the narrative here in chapters twelve and fourteen of Mark’s Gospel, the place of the meal in which Jesus is engaged and at which He is anointed, as He says, “for burial” (14:8), is the house of “Simon the leper” (14:3).  Yes, Jesus is dining at the home of a leper, and therefore dining at the home of one whose entire existence is one of impurity in relation to Jewish law and custom.  Simon would definitely have found himself at the lower end of the honor and shame social spectrum, if not outside of it altogether as one unable to even compete for honor. 

As a leper, Simon would stand almost completely outside the social order, as he would translate ritual impurity to those who came into contact with him.  In the eyes of those that were in a position to observe this meal, Jesus Himself would have fallen into ritual impurity, and amazingly, within Mark’s narrative, Jesus can be seen doing this immediately before Passover.  Though He is looked upon as a respected rabbi within Israel at this point in time, Jesus apparently finds Himself unconcerned with the perceptions. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mark, A Meal, A Leper & The Kingdom Of God (part 1)

Now while Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, reclining at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of costly aromatic oil from pure nard.  After breaking open the jar, she poured it on his head. – Mark 14:3  (NET)

Jesus is at a meal table.  Though there is not an explicit mention of a meal taking place, based on what is presented in the text it is appropriate to infer that a meal is taking place.  Mark writes that Jesus was “reclining at the table” (14:3b).  This is a clear indication that Jesus is participating in yet another meal, as it informs the reader that Jesus is utilizing a dining couch rather than an upright chair, and that He has most likely assumed the traditional posture of laying on the couch, propped up on one elbow, with His head near the table and His feet at the end of the couch away from the table.  Because this presents a much better picture of Jesus’ posture, it is then possible to form a more complete picture of what took place at this table. 

It is said that there was a woman “with an alabaster jar of costly aromatic oil from pure nard.  After breaking open the jar, she poured it on His head” (14:3c).  The text indicates that the woman did not stop with Jesus’ head, but might very well have poured out the perfume over the whole of His body, because Jesus, when some present scoffed at what was perceived to be a waste of a costly item that could have been sold, with the money given to the poor, responded by saying, “She has done a good service for Me… She did what she could.  She anointed My body before burial” (14:6b,8). 

There is an interesting dynamic that is at play here, having to do with the context in which Mark sets this event.  Though there is an intervening chapter of prophetic apocalyptic speech (pulling back the veil) by Jesus (Mark 13), the previous event that is recorded by Mark is that of Jesus observing the crowds making their offerings at the Temple.  While observing this activity, Jesus sees a poor widow who “came and put in two small copper coins” (12:42b), saying “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the offering box than all the others… she, out of her poverty, put in what she had to live on, everything she had” (12:43b,44b). 

Following that, Jesus goes on to tell His disciples that the very Temple to which this widow gave the last of what she had “will be torn down” (13:2b).  It would be difficult for the disciples not to draw the conclusion that the offering made by this poor widow, sacrificing all that she had for that which was going to be destroyed, was itself quite a waste.  From there, in terms of the presentation of events, Mark moves directly to the meal at which Jesus is present, and to the breaking open of the alabaster jar for the purpose of anointing His body, with the indignant insistence that this was nothing but a waste.  However, Mark is making a point related to the fact that Jesus saw Himself as the true Temple of God that would stand eternally, so that nothing offered to it could possibly be considered a waste (unlike the widow’s tragic offering). 

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 6 of 6)

In the United States of America, mention can be made of the “city that never sleeps,” or “the windy city.”  Those that are accustomed to operating within the social context of the United States, know that these are references to New York city and Chicago.  This is not limited to the United States, but is a common practice the world over.  One could use phrases such as “city of lights,” or “the eternal city,” in full knowledge that the user is making reference to Paris and Rome. 

Singapore, in southeast Asia, is sometimes referred to as “the fine country.”  Upon first glance, this appears to be a positive appellation, expressing a subjective sentiment not unlike the way that is traditionally applied when confronted with the “lukewarm” of Laodicea.  However, upon further examination, though Singapore is indeed a fine city-state, this use of “fine” is connected to the fact that the government of Singapore, in its efforts to keep the country clean, civil and highly organized, levies fines for littering, spitting, or chewing gum in public. 

An analogy here is probably useful.  In the United States, the city of Cleveland is roughly the midway point between Chicago and New York (much like Laodicea is roughly midway between Hierapolis and Colossae).  If somebody wanted to address the city of Cleveland, encouraging the residents to order their lives or engage in activities more akin to the goings-on in New York or Chicago for which there is a high level of notoriety (say in the area of theatre), one might write something like, “I know your deeds, you are sleeping and lacking wind.  I wish you were either not asleep or windy!  So because you are mistaken, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth!”  (“Mistaken” because one of the not-so-flattering nicknames of Cleveland is “the mistake on the lake”)  Given proper context, the residents of Cleveland would take this as a message that they needed to improve their offerings in the area of theatre, and would most definitely not understand it to be an indication that they needed to sleep less or construct windmills.   

This initially subjective usage that becomes, upon further examination, highly objective, is quite similar to what has been discovered when it comes to the information being conveyed in Revelation’s letter to Laodicea.  Clearly, the terms in use are not meant to convey any sense of morality or spiritual state, but are common identifiers.  On the other hand, there are nicknames that do have negative connotations.  One such nickname would be “sin city.”  A socially and culturally aware reader today (like that which would be expected in first century Asia Minor) would immediately think “Las Vegas.”  In the time of Jesus and His apostles, “sin city” would have been the nickname of Corinth, in Greece.  These examples (Las Vegas and Corinth) have obvious moral judgments attached to them, but one does not see that with the names associated with New York, Chicago, Paris, or Rome.   

So to put this lack of moral judgment associated with city identifiers into the context of the letter to Laodicea, which now seems to be pointing more logically towards identifiable activities and practices within the churches of the region (Hierapolis, Laodicea, and Colossae) that would have been well known to the other churches (as information seemed to be able to flow freely between and amongst those churches, as indicated by what Paul writes to the Colossians), it would appear that one is no longer looking at a contrast.  Rather, the three temperature-related terms can now be understood as applying in reference to what was taking place in those churches, with a certain activity of Hierapolis and Colossae being approved by the Creator God, whereas the related activity in Laodicea has Jesus indicating violent illness. 

With this, it is now possible to rightly discard any idea that “hot or cold” are in anyway related to “good or bad” in a subjective or ethereal sense of spiritual condition.  It seems much more proper to think along the lines of both hot water and cold water as useful (with specific and identifiable practices of the Hierapolis and Colossae churches being useful within Christ’s kingdom and its proclamation), whereas lukewarm water is useless (with a specifically identifiable practice of the church at Laodicea failing to serve the purposes of the Christ as opposed to what was rightly taking place in the “hot” or “cold” churches --- “I wish you were either hot or cold”).  Understanding the message in this way will be far more useful, as believers will eventually end up not being left to wonder whether they are hot, cold, or lukewarm based on either a subjective self-examination or the subjective examination of a self-appointed (on both ends of the relationship) spiritual authority that will generally be partially informed and unfortunately biased.     

Monday, December 15, 2014

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 5)

Having established the close connection between Colossae and Laodicea, this does not account for the use of “cold” in conjunction with the city.  It is the presence of Colossae’s cold, fresh water streams that would have supplied this descriptive title to the city.  Laodicea was located to the southeast of Colossae, and to the northeast of Hierapolis, near the Lycus River.  This meant that the waters of Colossae (colder because Colossae was situated at the foothills of a mountain), flowed down towards Laodicea. 

The water, quite naturally, would lose some of its coolness as it flowed, rising a few degrees in temperature by the time it reached Laodicea.  On the other hand, the water from Hierapolis had to be brought uphill, which explains the aqueduct.  That water from the hot springs of Hierapolis would, of course, cool down as it traveled the aqueduct to reach Laodicea, though it would still be prized for its healing qualities even if it had fallen in temperature. 

In the case of both the water from Colossae and the water from Hierapolis, by the time it reached Laodicea, the water would be lukewarm.  Thus, the rhetorical effect is preserved, with hot, cold, and lukewarm all making reference to water.  Furthermore, in conceptual terms, the city that would be located roughly halfway between the hot city and the cold city could easily be thought of as the lukewarm city (halfway between hot and cold).  Thus Laodicea would come to be referred to as the lukewarm city, with this being common knowledge for all of the residents of the region, with nary a thought related to the spiritual tenor of the city. 

Because of the interesting geographical positioning, and the unique feature of the water supplies to Laodicea, the cities came to be linked together in common usage as the “triangle cities.”  So if it was common for the cities to be linked and identified together, and if Paul links the cities in his letter, why should one be surprised if Jesus, communicating through the author of Revelation, also links the cities, doing so by taking advantage of common nicknames that were applied to them? 

Is it warranted to think that these highly spiritualized (today and in popular ways of thinking) terms are little more than nicknames that are meant to aid in identifying the real problem within the church in Laodicea, rather than an indicator of those problems?  Why not?  Once it is established that it is not possible to revert back to thinking that hot, cold, and lukewarm are to be applied in spiritual terms or to spiritual state, then it is possible to move towards a far more proper understanding of what Jesus is attempting to communicate to this, one of His churches. 

Is it warranted to think that these were simply nicknames or shorthand references for those cities?  Again, why not?  This is not without precedence today.  Much like what was true of the utilization of terminology in context and according to then-current understanding in order to rightly understand what is being communicated (as in the case of Nimrod), most people ready make these types of applications such that they become second nature, which should cause an observer to realize that thinking about the letter to Laodicea in this way is not wholly unique.  Individuals freely and casually operate within their own historical and cultural contexts, so imagining that men and women of the first century also operated in such ways is not exactly far-fetched. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 4)

With all of that said, having posited that the “temperature” terms were geographical indicators, it is now possible to posit that use of “hot” is in all likelihood a reference to the city of Hierapolis.  It should be said that this is not groundbreaking by any means, and the same can be said for the applications that will be made to the usage of both cold and lukewarm.  These things have long been understood, but for some reason, they have been completely obscured in modern and popular considerations of Revelation and its letters to the churches.  It might be casually referenced, but not worked out to its logical and contextual conclusion, as commentators want to tread the far more popular path of Revelation as a book that tells the future, rather than a writing that tells about a faithful God and what He expects from His people as they go about living their lives in this world as His image-bearers. 

The city of Laodicea was located five miles north of the city of Hierapolis.  In Hierapolis, there were hot springs.  Owing to this, Hierapolis gained fame as a health resort, as well as being the place for the worship of the god Heracles, who was looked to as the god of health and hot waters.  Archaeology indicates that Laodicea had an aqueduct that probably carried water from the hot mineral springs of Hierapolis. 

If this is the case, remembering that this study is attempting to determine the impetus of the communication from the context of what could be readily understood by its recipients rather than from the position of attempting to unravel the events of world history using Revelation as a guide in the effort, then not only should one think “Hierapolis” when reading “hot,” but one can easily imagine that the residents of the region would have thought of Hierapolis in connection with hot as well. 

If “hot” is a reference to a city, then it would make sense that “cold” is also a reference to a city.  Furthermore, if the “hot” of the nearby city of Hierapolis is a reference to its famous hot springs, then for rhetorical consistency, “cold” should also be making reference to water as well; and that city should be in the general vicinity of Laodicea.  Is there a city to which one can logically apply this epithet?  It seems that there is, and the candidate is the city of Colossae. 

Colossae and Laodicea were situated in relative proximity.  Not only are they close in that they are approximately eleven miles apart, but the churches appear to be close in communication, owing to the Apostle Paul’s references to Laodicea in the close of his letter to the Colossians in which he instructs the church at Colossae to share the letter with the church at Laodicea, while also indicating that they church at Laodicea will share its letter with the church at Colossae.  Paul also makes mention of Laodicea earlier in the letter, when he writes: “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you, and for those in Laodicea” (Colossians 2:1a).  Clearly, there is something of a close connection between Laodicea and Colossae.  The churches were familiar with each other. 

Beyond the multiple mentions (five) of Laodicea, one can also happily find a reference to Hierapolis in this letter.  Paul, writing about Ephaphras, says that “he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and Hierapolis” (4:13b).  This implies a relationship between Hierapolis and Laodicea beyond that of an aqueduct.  If the church at Colossae “learned the gospel from Ephaphras” (1:7a), as Paul communicates within his opening statements to the Colossians, and then goes on to mention Epaphras in connection with both Laodicea and Hierapolis, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that Epaphras may well have been responsible for bringing the message to all three cities (though one should certainly refrain from dogmatism on this statement). 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 3)

In Revelation, though there is an employment of a significant amount of apocalyptic imagery, much like in the prophetic works of the Hebrew Scriptures, this apocalyptic imagery is primarily designed to reveal what some may refer to as “spiritual” truths and activities that are at work and at play in relation to material and physical happenings. 

Humans are limited in vision, and as Isaiah says, the Creator God’s ways and plans are not those of humanity, nor are His thoughts and deeds the thoughts and deeds of those that were created to bear His image (Isaiah 55:9).  There is something of a veil that limits human vision, which keeps humanity from seeing what it is that the Creator God sees.  The purpose of apocalypse (revelation) is to remove that veil, which is the very definition of the word. 

For those that were understood to have been receiving communications from the Creator God through the Hebrew prophets in the centuries before Christ, and for those in the first century that were understood to have been receiving communications directly from Jesus through John the Revelator, this removal of the veil, in a world in which there were no separations between religious activities and so-called “secular” activities---no division between the sacred and the profane, the unveiling would be understood as the Creator God taking steps to condescending to reveal the spiritual goings-on that were related to what was happening in the world around them.  This is dreadfully important for any potential understanding of words to be found within Revelation. 

One must remember that Paul and Peter, along with the Hebrews author and the author of the letters of John, all wrote letters to specific churches and individuals.  Though these letters would become useful to the whole of the church, they were first directed to and dealt with places, people, and events.  Knowing this, one should exercise restraint when tempted to treat John’s communications differently.  Just because a reader of Revelation happens upon fantastic and difficult-to-understand imagery, that certainly doesn’t mean that the same reader should dismiss John’s insistence that these letters, and this Revelation, are for the “seven churches that are in the province of Asia” (1:4a). 

Returning then to the words of temperature (hot, cold, lukewarm), having insisted that they serve as geographic indicators, it is imperative to realize that they are something of a play on familiar words and of what is well-known about the area in which Laodicea is set.  It should not be a surprise to find Jesus, through the author, employing such a strategy.  Even the Apostle Paul’s famous phrase of “from faith to faith,” or “ek pisteos eis pistin” (Romans 1:17), is lifted from what could be termed as the liturgy of the Caesar cult. 

In this, Paul takes a familiar term and applies it to what should be truly understood about Jesus, rather than Caesar.  This is even more pronounced with the New Testament’s employment of the very word “gospel,” which was also in heavy and specific use within the Caesar cult, in application to the works of Caesar himself.  So the New Testament has recurring instances of plays on words and the usage of familiar terms, re-worked and re-deployed for particular effect on a regular basis. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 2)

Another example would be the word “gay.”  In the past the word meant one thing, but today it signifies something different.  In the future it may carry an entirely different set of meanings from that which surrounds the use of the word today.  The same thing occurs in the use of slang, when pejorative terms are employed in a positive manner, and positive terms are often turned about to perform tasks of negation. 

The dynamics of language are such that later generations would be hard-pressed to understand common words that are put into use on a daily basis, with the users knowing full well what they mean because they are ensconced within their own culture and language setting, without delving into the history and events of today in order to determine the context of those words.  If later generations were to read the work of a social commentator in the early twenty-first century and find him referring to an individual as a “Nimrod,” it would be completely untrue to the author’s intention if they took it to mean that the author was lauding the individual in question as valiant and mighty. 

Most understand this implicitly, yet when it comes to the Bible and to attempts to understand the very Word of the Creator God, it seems that many, for the most part, have a blind spot in this area---so much so that many are inclined to freely cast aside all gifts and skills of reason and critical thinking in the misguided attempts at interpretations and understanding according to a thoroughly anthropocentric spirituality.  In this, it seems that many actually approach the Word of the Creator God in a far less serious manner than that which is offered to other written works, with an apparent unwillingness to give the sacred Scriptures the studied attention that they deserve and demand.     

Which now brings this study to the issue of “hot,” “cold,” and “lukewarm.”  Though this will most likely come as a great shock, these terms are most assuredly not employed as references to spiritual condition or relative spiritual fervor and a related general manner of living.  Rather, they are used as geographical indicators.  Though they are not indicators of spiritual temperatures, it is quite likely that they are being employed as a means of approbation and correction, based on an awareness of certain activities. 

Though readers are certainly in position to tease out spiritual truths from the whole of Revelation and from the letters to the churches in particular, an observer must have a constant awareness, as they analyze the book and the letters, that the letters of Revelation were directed to real churches in real cities at a specific time in history, all of which were facing real situations.  It is in approaching the Scriptures in this way, knowing that the Scriptures are rooted within history as they provide information about the Creator and His purposes, that will then make those Scriptures so much more important and telling for a reader.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 1)

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either cold or hot!  So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold…” – Revelation 3:15-16a  (NET)

The vast majority of those reading this study live in a world that bears very little resemblance to the first century world of the middle east and Asia Minor, and that fact must be borne in mind when approaching Scripture and its world.  No matter how educated one is in terms of being able to interact in the world on multiple levels and in and with a variety of disparate environments or group, or how Spirit-filled one may consider himself or herself to be, and no matter how strongly one declares a strong reverence the Bible, serious presentations of the all-important message of the Gospel cannot take place without serious study. 

In that light, when looking at this sliver of the message to the church at Laodicea, it must be insisted upon that one cannot casually approach the Scriptural text as if the terms in use carry the precise meaning today that they did when first penned.  In addition, it would behoove a reader not to overly rely or place a possibly un-warranted confidence in a knowledge of either Greek or Hebrew.  This knowledge often finds one translating the words from their original language and then interpreting the translation according to a modern understanding within one’s own subjective pre-determination that has been probably been determined by a relatively un-critical (and even unacknowledged) acceptance of a prevalent theology, philosophy, soteriology, ecclesiology, or eschatology, while simply congratulating oneself on the use of the ancient languages and acting as if truth has been rightly grasped. 

If and when effort is undertaken to translate from the original languages of Scripture, it is critical to be all the more attentive to the historical, cultural, and social contexts into which the words were uttered, bearing in mind that the words may have carried a meaning in those days that has been lost to modern hearers or readers, but which can be re-discovered upon the application of adequate effort in such a pursuit.  Words are regularly re-defined through usage, and often take upon themselves a variety of meanings and connotations that may very well be entirely foreign to original usage. 

To take a non-controversial Biblical example, consider the name “Nimrod.”  A reader will come upon this name in the tenth chapter of Genesis and read that “Cush was the father of Nimrod; he began to be a valiant warrior on the earth.  He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.  (That is why it is said, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.’)” (Genesis10:8-9)  From there, one can go on to find out that he was a king and the builder of great cities.  Without going into further detail of the life of Nimrod, it is quite clear that he was a man that demanded great respect.  He is called a valiant warrior and a mighty hunter.  He was the builder of a kingdom, and men flocked to his leadership.  His name, in his day and in the days that followed, was a great name. 

Now, however, the situation is dramatically different.  In this day, if somebody is referred to as a “Nimrod,” the name is being offered as an insult.  That person is being referred to as a fool, with the ensuing implications standing at a great distance from “valiant,” “warrior,”, “mighty,” and the like.  So in a bygone era, if somebody was referred to as being a Nimrod, it would have been considered an honor.  Today, this is not the case.  Words change.