Polycarp, Smyrna, and Revelation: A Lesson in Contextualization.

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Allow me to introduce Polycarp, a church father and pastor of the church in Smyrna. According to church tradition, Polycarp was installed as pastor of Smyrna by John the apostle near the end of John’s life. If so, Polycarp served the church in Smyrna for more than 50 years before his martyrdom in 156 A.D.  Why was Polycarp martyred? He refused to bow to Caesar and the gods of Rome, choosing instead to worship Christ alone. As Polycarp neared death by fire, he was urged to renounce Christ and promised freedom if he acquiesced. The aged pastor bravely responded, “Eighty-six years have I have served [Christ] and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

Smyrna was one of the seven churches to whom John wrote the book of Revelation, about 50-60 years before Polycarp’s death. I am convinced that if we are to rightly understand Revelation, we must begin by understanding Revelation in its original context, which is rooted in the seven churches of Revelation 2-3.  Revelation addresses these specific churches, all of which faced certain challenges and problems within. John’s message to these churches includes a mix of commendations, rebukes, warnings, and encouragements specific to each context. When we understand the original context, we will be better prepared to understand the symbols and imagery of Revelation.

It’s interesting to note that Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only two churches not rebuked. Both churches are highly praised for the same reason: they remained faithful to Christ despite persecution. In both churches, the source of persecution includes a “synagogue of Satan” and those “who claim to be Jews” but are not Jews (2:9; 3:9). The popular interpretation is that these groups represent Jewish opponents of Christians. While that may be true, another possibility exists.

It’s possible that John refers to Gentile Christians who have Judaized—that is, gone to the synagogue—for the sole purpose of avoiding persecution and or social ostracism as Christians. This view takes the literal sense of John’s words seriously (those who claim to be Jews but are not Jews would be Gentiles), and rightly recalls that Judaism was a protected religion of the Roman Empire (outside the city of Rome, at least), while Christianity was not. It could be that these turncoats have not only Judaized, they may have also “outed” faithful Christians, resulting in persecution.  If true, these Judaizers may represent the “cowardly,” “the murderers,” and the “liars” sentenced to the “fiery lake of burning sulfur” at the end of Revelation (21:8).

Either way, there is a clear connection between the issues in the seven churches and the blessings and punishments promised at the end (compare chs. 2-3 to chs. 20-22). This is further evidence that much of Revelation was intended to be understood by John’s original audience, rather than serving as a cryptic telegram of end-time events and details.  To those who forsook Christ, Revelation issues rebukes and warns of God’s sure judgment. To those who remained faithful, Revelation commends and encourages while reminding of future reward—inheritance in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21).

Though I cannot prove it, I’d like to think that the promises and encouragements of Revelation were prominent in Polycarp’s mind as he faced the fires of earthly death. As the aged pastor of Smyrna bravely stood at the stake, perhaps the words of Christ—communicated by John— to the church of Smyrna whispered in his ear: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

Revelation Primer: The Purpose of Revelation

This coming Wednesday we will begin a nine-week study of Revelation at Main Street. I’m excited to study this important book with my Main Street family because I’m convinced Revelation has much to say to Christians today, although my understanding may be different than most popular approaches. I’m also a bit apprehensive to teach from a book that has puzzled theologians and scholars throughout church history. That John Calvin and Martin Luther each took a pass on writing a commentary on Revelation reminds us to approach the book (as with all Scripture) with much wisdom and humility.

Christians are fascinated by Revelation, drawn to it by its striking imagery and prophetic vision of the future. Unfortunately, this fascination often grows into preoccupation, leading to fruitless speculation regarding the meaning of the seals, trumpets, bowls, the 1260 days (12:6), the dragon with multiple heads and horns, the 144,000, etc., etc. A wide array of speculation is bandied about concerning these symbols, mostly under the assumption that Revelation speaks exclusively of end-time events, and that the book’s symbolism serves to unlock specific clues related to those events. This has given rise to “newspaper” theology, in which Christians scan the headlines of world events and superimpose them over the symbols of Revelation, wondering if the end is nigh. To me, such an approach misses the primary purpose and meaning of Revelation.

While Revelation certainly speaks of events yet future (Christ’s return/the new heaven and new earth/the final judgment), there is good reason to believe that much of its symbolism and imagery was never intended as keys to unlocking precise details of future events and persons.

For starters, an end-times-only lens of interpretation fails to account for the book’s original audience—the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 2-3)—and what it meant to them. When this fundamental principle of biblical interpretation is considered, we soon realize that much of the book’s symbolism was intended for John’s original audience to understand and apply to their specific situation. If they could understand the meaning and significance of the symbols—which seems likely—then it stands to reason very little of it was intended solely as interpretive keys for a future generation of Christians. Moreover, the book states that the events of the book were to take place soon (1:3; 22:10), and promises a blessing to all who read it and keep its message (1:3; 22:7).

The point is, any viable interpretation of Revelation must begin by understanding that Revelation was intended to be understood by its original audience and every generation of Christians thereafter, not just those fortunate enough to live at the time of Christ’s return. Endless speculation and “newspaper” theology was never the intent of Revelation. This is confirmed when we remember that Jesus warned his disciples about becoming preoccupied with the timing of his return. Instead, they were to remain focused on the mission at hand (Matt. 24:36-51; Acts 1:7-8).

Revelation carries a similar message. The book was written to Christians; some of whom were suffering persecution; some of whom were compromising their faith and values with the world. To the persecuted Christians, Revelation is an encouraging reminder to stand firm in their faith, trusting that Christ will vindicate them and that all evil will be punished by his coming wrath. To the Christians seeking worldly compromise, Revelation sends a sobering message of the need to repent, or else they too will endure divine wrath.

Therefore, Revelation is first and foremost an enduring call to Christians of all generations to remain faithful to Christ to the end. Those who endure can lay claim to immense blessings promised to all who obey the teachings of the book and overcome. All who overcome will have their names recorded in the book of life (Rev. 20:11-15), and reap the reward of everlasting life in the presence of their great and mighty Savior, Jesus Christ, in the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21).