The Bible has multiple meaning (Part 4)

Bible verse used in podcast:

  • Revelation 2:8-11
  • Matthew 22
  • James 1:12

Interesting resources

How many layers?

When looking at the Bible there are often multiple things that a single passage could be talking about. One example of this (or several) is Revelation 2-3. Here you find Jesus is speaking as John is recording letters for seven different churches in the area. In these several letters, there are several layers of meaning.

  1. The Structure of the letter
  2. Real issues
  3. Application to churches
  4. Personal Application
  5. Theological issues
  6. Prophetic application

If you worried that I stopped at 6 layers of meaning, you could organize this differently to get 5 or look deeper to find more if you really wanted to. These are just a handful to focus on. In this, we will only focus on the letter to Smyrna simple for time’s sake. All letters could not be summed up in this length of discussion but Dr. Chuck Misslers commentary on Revelation goes into great detail on these letters and is a great resource for this.

[8] “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. [9] “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. [10] Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. [11] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ – Rev 2:8-11 ESV

The Structure of the letters

As an overview, if you look at all the letters, you will find that there is an interesting structure that they all follow. Each has the following:

  1. Name of the church
  2. Title of Jesus
  3. Compliments
  4. Criticism
  6. Promise to overcomer
  7. Ending Phrase

All letters have all of these except some that don’t have either compliments or criticism. But all elements of the letters reflect the church and things that are going on in the church.

In the case of Smyrna (Σμύρνα G4667 – smyrna), it comes from a root word myrrh, which was often used in during burial at the time. The whole letter happens to center around persecution and death. The title used of Jesus is “ the first and the last, who died and came to life” which speaks to the idea that Jesus is in control of death and we have nothing to fear for persecution. Jesus mentions some good things about them “I know your tribulation and your poverty” in their time of persecution they were doing good things regardless of those who were accusing them. They don’t have any criticism which could be missed unless compared to the rest of the churches. This is important because Jesus isn’t telling them to fix anything in their persecution. Maybe there could be things the church could work on as individuals, but they are already enduring hard times and all they need to do is be faithful. There are general commands about: “ the devil is about to throw some of you into prison” and “for ten days you will have tribulation.” there is a promise to overcome which in this letter comes in two parts, they will be given a crown of life, the second being that they will not taste the second death. Both of which are reassuring to hear during times of persecution. Finally, there is this phrase that all the churches have, “he who has an ear.”

Real People, Real Problems

These are real people who are living in a real place during a real-time in history. The letter is addressing the persecution they are having. At the time there is an issue with the Jewish community as Christianity is emerging. You can find this all throughout the book of Acts as tensions between the Jewish community come as some convert to Christianity and some gentiles are being included in the Christian conversion. But on another level, there is an issue with Rome. They were expected to pay tribute to Rome, but for some of the Christians, this took a deeper meaning. Paying the tribute would have meant that they are recognizing Caesar’s power as their first authority and everything else first. Not complying meant that they had serious trouble on their hands. They could have avoided issues if they simply paid tributes.

Personal Application

Of course, following directly from the real problems of the day, the issue of persecution comes in. What should we do when situations get hard in our lives. How serious should we take our convictions? When you think back to the Book of Daniel, he felt so strongly that he shouldn’t eat the meat of the king, that his diet was an issue. Of course in Smyrna, all they had to do was pay tribute and all was easy (or easier). Jesus speaks of himself and talks about perseverance and how Jesus alone is the only authority who truly matters. Why? Because Jesus conquered death. The fear of imprisonment shouldn’t scare you and the threat of death shouldn’t cause you to turn. Even something as simple as a symbolic act was taken seriously to the people of the day. 

Church Applications

There are several questions that come up. One thing is this phrase, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This is important for several reasons (which we will come back to). One is that all the churches were expected to get a copy of the letter so they could learn from it. But the important thing is it’s not just those churches learn from their own letter, but the letters from others. On some level, all churches, even today, have elements of all seven letters. In the case of Smyrna, some questions are raised, How serious should the church take cultural norms? How serious should the church promise and uphold their convictions as a body? Is having problems in the church a bad thing? 

Theology and Prophecy

In the area of Theology, several things come up. For instance, what does the phrase “who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” mean? What about this crown of life? Is it the same thing as James 1:12 or other passages?

In the realm of Prophecy, some scholars have noticed some characteristics of the letters. It appears that when you take the church in the order that they are presented they lay out the history of the church in advance. This could be a study in itself but just as a highlight:

  • Ephesus – Strict on Doctrine Early church
  • Smyrna – Persecution Persecuted church
  • Pergamum – “worldly marriage” Church during Rome acceptance
  • Thyatira – Jezebel Medieval church
  • Sardis – Name but issues Reformation
  • Philadelphia – Overall good Missionary age
  • Laodicea – Overall bad Modern times

Just to hit a few highlights when looking at the details from the letters. Smyrna mentioned that there are ten days of persecution. Historically there happen to be ten emperors who explicitly adopted anti-christian rulership. After them you have Constintain (being a large factor) helping Christian tolerance and bringing in pagan practices some of which are still debated today. Thyatira mentions Jezebel who used her power to get land from the people using religious claims but lived an ungodly life. After the medieval church area, many reforms happened with different denominations forming trying to break off from the church. But it was still a time of religious conflict and debate about what we should be united over (which we still argue about).  

Of course, each of these letters has its own layers of meaning. When you put them together you get even more meaning whether it be through a timeline or through seeing how Jesus addresses the church and their situations compared to others. Often we need to keep an open mind knowing that a single passage can have multiple layers of meaning even with different interpretations that could all be correct. 

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