6.1) Satan and the Angels of the seven churches
For the sake of clarity, I refer to the John who is the author of the Gospel as John the Evangelist. The John who wrote the three Epistles of John is safely identified as John the Presbyter, as we will see in the section 3 below. Finally, I call the John of “The Revelation to John” by the designation of “John the Divine”—that is, John the Theologian. Traditionally, of course, all three Johns were thought of as one and the same person, to be identified with “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in the Gospel of John. But this neat identification is beset by many problems (which need not concern us here).
John’s first vision in the Apocalypse is of a gigantic “Son of Man,” who was dead and is now alive. He has the keys of Death and of Hades, and holds Seven Stars in his right hand, and from his mouth comes a sharp, two-edged Sword (Rev. 1.13-18). He is the risen Jesus Christ, who has been identified as the Ruler, or Archon, of the kings of the earth (Rev. 1.5). This is close to the title that Devil claimed for himself (Luke 4.6) and which Jesus acknowledged as belonging to him, but soon to be removed from him (John 12.31). Now that Jesus had died and risen, the change of command seems to have occurred.
The Son of Man appears to John in both a conciliatory and a disciplining mood, a combination of “Good Cop” and “Bad Cop,” with messages for the Angels of the Seven Churches, who are symbolized by the Seven Stars. The Churches themselves are symbolized by Seven Lampstands (Rev 1.20).
The first message is for the Angel of the Church of EPHESUS. He compliments the Angel for discriminating against the wicked (kakoi), and for putting to the test (peirasmos) those who claim to be Apostles,
and finding them to be false (Rev. 2.2). The Angel stands as a symbol of the local church.
Let’s allow this image to sink in. Christ is congratulating an Angel for “succeeding” in a testing or temptation. The Angel has tested the fidelity and truthfulness of some of the Christians of Ephesus and found them defective. “Good work!” he says. This would be like God congratulating Satan for succeeding with his temptation of Peter, when Peter committed his threefold sin of denying Jesus. Remember that Satan received authorization to undertake the temptation against Peter and the other Apostles (Luke 22.31).
But the Son of Man goes on to chide the Angel of Ephesus for having abandoned his first love, which has constituted a fall. But all is not lost, for he has a chance of regaining his former position:
Remember from whence you have fallen! Repent! And do the works you did at first, or else I will come and remove your Lampstand from its place. (Rev. 2.5).
So, we must ask ourselves, is this Angel a kind of satan, or an Angel of Satan? Just how does Satan fit in to all of this?
We soon find out about Satan, in the message to the next Angel, the Angel of the Church of SMYRNA:
[To the Angel:] I know thine affliction and thy poverty, even though thou art rich. I know the blaspheming of those who say they are Judeans and are not, but are a Congregation [Sunagoge] of Satan. Fear none of those things that thou art about to suffer.
[To the people of the Church of Smyrna:] Beware, Devil is about to cast some of you into prison as a test (peirasmos), and for ten days you will have affliction.
[To the Angel:] Be faithful until death, and I will give thee the Crown of Life. (Rev. 2.9-10)
I have reverted to the archaic second-person singular to reflect the Greek grammar, to indicate that most of the message is directed to the Angel, taking the plural forms to indicate a direct address to the
people of the Church of Smyrna. The result is not very satisfactory, since it makes the Angel subject to death. It just goes to show that “the Angel of the Church” is merely a visionary way of addressing the people of the Church.
That being said, what does the passage say about Satan? The Pseudo-Jews who say critical things (blasphemy) about the Christians of Smyrna are said to belong to a Synagogue of Satan, as opposed to the genuine Jews (= Christians) who belong to a Synagogue of the Lord (this expression is in LXX Num. 20.4). In other words, they are exercising Satan’s office of making accusations against Christians, and we can presume that they are making these accusations to the local government.
But then in the next breath, the government turns out to be run by Devil, for Devil is said to be exercising the Satanic function of testing Christians. Is Devil envisaged as the same person as Satan? Later on in Revelation, this identification is made, but we can’t be sure that this part of the Apocalypse is drawing on the same traditions.
We saw in above (chap 5.1) that two members of the Christian Church of Ephesus, Hymenaeus and Alexander, have been handed over to Satan because of their practice of “blaspheming,” so that they can be cured of their habit (1 Tim. 1.19-20). This fits in with the function of Satan as punisher and rehabilitator. But in the Church of Smyrna Satan encourages blaspheming, doubtless as a form of testing, just as Devil serves as a jailer for the same purpose.
The next Angel to be addressed is the Angel of the Church of PERGAMUM. The Son of Man says, with a menace (mentioning the two-edged sword that comes from his mouth):
I know where you are living, where Satan’s Throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was killed among your people where Satan lives. But I have a few things against you, for some of your people follow the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block (skandalon)
before the sons of Israel, to eat food sacrificed to idols and to behave whorishly. (Rev. 2.13-14)
So at last we know where Satan lives! It’s at Pergamum, the city renowned for pergamena, from which our word “parchment” comes.
But it sounds pretty odd, doesn’t it? Like some kind of joke, perhaps. Scholars have sought to explain the phrases as referring to some local landmark, and they have hit on several possibilities connected with the physical situation of Pergamum, which sat like a great fortress on a sharply protruding rock of a mountain. The city featured various Pagan sites of worship, including a monumental altar to Zeus and a temple dedicated to Augustus and Rome, which served as the center of the cult of the Roman Emperor in Asia Minor. Pergamum was in fact the capital of the Roman Province of Asia.
However, we will see that in the later parts of Revelation, Satan seems to be regarded as the Angelic Ruler of the Roman Empire, so it may be that Pergamum was regarded as Satan’s throne, at least one of them. We recall also that in Matthew Satan took Jesus up a high mountain and showed him all of the kingdoms of the world, and in Luke, as we just noted above, he claimed that all of them had been given to him to rule. It seems more likely that this is the sort of reference that is being made here, rather than that Satan is being associated with Pagan worship. This latter notion, of Satan fostering Pagan rites and beliefs, would soon become evident among the Church Fathers, but it may be premature to find it here in Revelation. Still, we have seen that Satan has been repeatedly connected with unbelievers, especially by Luke (Acts 26.17-18, above, chap. 4.3) and Deutero-Paul (1 Tim. 5.15, chap. 5.1), and perhaps by Paul himself, speaking of the God of This Age (2 Cor. 4.3-4, chap. 3.3).
The reference to Balaam does not reflect Balaam’s initial appearance in Numbers 22, where he and his jenny encounter the “satanic” Angel of Yahweh, but rather the rebuke that Moses makes to the Israelite army in chapter 31: “Why have you spared the life of the Midianite women? They were the very ones who, on Balaam’s advice, caused the Israelites to be unfaithful to Yahweh” (Num. 31.15-16).
The “whorish behavior” of the Pergamenians may simply refer to participation in Pagan customs and not to sexual misconduct.
The message to the Angel of the Church of THYATIRA comes from the Son of Man calling himself the Son of God. It is a similar mixture of compliment and complaint. The complaint is that the Angel tolerates the woman named Jezebel, who poses as a prophet and teaches the people to commit the same sins as the people of Pergamum. Jezebel and her children are hereby given time to repent, but, unless they do, the Son of Man will strike them dead (Rev. 2.18-23). The sinners in Pergamum were blamed for following a false prophet of old, Balaam, but those in Thyatira are following a false prophet in their midst, named after the idolatrous queen Jezebel who opposed the true prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19.1-2; see above, chap. 1.1.)
The message to Thyatira goes on to connect the above wickedness with Satan, now addressing not the Angel of the Church but the Christians who have not strayed from their faith:
But to the rest of you in Thyatira who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what are named “the deep things of Satan” (as they call it), to you I say: “I do not lay on you any other burden; only hold fast to what you have, until I come.” (Rev. 2.24-25)
“The deep things of Satan” seems to be a sarcastic reference on somebody’s part: “as they call it.” But it is not clear who “they” are. One would naturally ascribe the saying to the faithful Christians of Thyatira to characterize the doctrine that their straying co-congregants are espousing: namely, the teachings of Jezebel. But if that were the case, we would expect the explanatory phrase to be, “as you call it.”
In any case, “the deep things of Satan” is a take-off on “the deep things of God,” an expression used by St. Paul (1 Cor. 2.10). But why Satan? Presumably because of Satan’s association with false belief, which he uses to test the Christian faithful to abandon their principles and thus “fall into temptation.”
We will see below, in section 4 of this chapter, that the faithful of Thyatira who succeed in avoiding the deep things of Satan will have Lucifer, the Morning Star (that is, Christ), bestowed on them.
When the Son of Man addresses the Angel of the Church of SARDIS, he identifies himself as “the one who had the Seven Spirits of God and the Seven Stars” (Rev. 3.1). Before this, we have heard of the Seven Spirits as being before the Throne of God (Rev. 1.4). The message is bad news: “I know your works. You have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what is on the point of dying” (Rev. 3.1-2).
So it turns out that the Angel of Sardis is not really dead, but asleep, with dying (gangrenous?) members. However, the Son of Man concedes that there are a few names in Sardis that have not been defiled.
The sixth message is to the Angel of the Church of PHILADELPHIA, who is in much better shape. In spite of having only a little power, he has kept the word of the Son of Man. But this Angel has the same problem as the Angel at Smyrna: there are liars there who say they are Jews but are not; rather they belong to the Synagogue of Satan. The Son of Man will make them bow down to the Angel, and the Angel himself (and presumably his Church) will be kept from the hour of the peirasmos that is going to test all the people of the Earth (Rev. 3.9-10).
Finally, the Angel of the Church of LAODICEA gets an earful: he is lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, and the Son of Man, who calls himself the Great Amen, is ready to spew him out of his mouth. He wishes that the Angel were either hot or cold (Rev. 3.14-16). Does that mean, “completely good or completely bad”? If so, why so? That is, why would being wholly bad be better than being half-bad?
At any rate, the Angel is rebuked for claiming to be rich, whereas he is in reality poverty-stricken. He is advised to buy gold refined by fire and dress properly. The policy of the Son of Man is then enunciated: “I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3.19).
It seems fairly clear that the Angels of the Churches aren’t really Angels but simply personifications, or, as I stated earlier, symbols, of the people in the Christian congregations of the various cities. It may be that Satan is just as much a figure of speech. But whether figurative or not, certain conclusions can be drawn about his relations with the Churches of Asia Minor, and therefore about his identity.
We are probably safe in assuming that Satan has a testing function in the two cases where Pseudo-Jews are said to constitute a “synogogue” of Satan, in Smyrna and Philadephia, and in Smyrna their accusations are coupled with Devil’s imprisoning of Christians to be tested. The only other explicit use of testing, peirasmos, is on the part of Angel of Ephesus, and he is commended for using it to expose false Christians. A big future test of the whole inhabited world is on its way. It’s not clear where it’s coming from, for all that we know is that the Angel of Philadelphia will be protected from it.
Idolatry and/or licentiousness are/is associated with the Churches at Pergamum and Thyatira. Satan is said to live in Pergamum and to have his throne there, and the heretical opinions or practices of the Thyatirese have been labeled “the depths of Satan” by some people. Once again, we are probably to think of Satan’s testing techniques: he has used specious accommodations with unbelievers to seduce Christians from their faith, thereby successfully converting his tests into temptations.
But the explicit or implicit moral of all the messages to the Seven Churches is that all those who have succumbed to such temptations still have a chance to repent and repair the damage they have done to their faith and to themselves.