A Christian lectionary is a book or list of selected Scripture readings for corporate or personal worship. Lectionaries include something like a “Daily Office,” which provides suggested daily Bible readings for individuals. These include one or more psalms, a reading from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament letters, and one from the New Testament Gospels. Those who use the Daily Office will read through most of the Bible over a period of two years.
This week’s Revised Common Lectionary’s readings include the opening chapters of The Book of Revelation. Each day’s readings include one of the “letters to the seven churches” which are found in the second and third chapters of The Revelation.
The Revelation was written sometime in the late first century. The early church, which had begun as a subset of Judaism and enjoyed its standing as a government-sanctioned religion in the Roman Empire, had by the time of publication been condemned as an “illicit religion.” Persecution against Christians spread across the Mediterranean and beyond. The Revelation was written to be a source of hope to hard-pressed Christians.
Because the book contains prophetic material dealing with the future, some interpreters have held that each of the letters to the seven churches was intended for an audience from a different period of church history. According to this interpretation, the first letter, sent to the Church at Ephesus, addressed issues related to the book’s first readers, with each ensuing letter addressing a later generation and the final letter intended for the church at the time of Christ’s return.
It is common for those operating from this perspective to say that the final letter, the one to the Church at Laodicea, describes Christians living in our time. In the letter, that church is chided for being lukewarm, an accusation often leveled against contemporary Christianity.
Perhaps there is something to the futurist approach to the letters, but there is too much detail specific to the destination of each letter to think that they were not primarily intended for the first century churches to which they were sent. Likewise, there is application to our time in each of the letters, not simply in the final one.
For example, the fifth letter is sent to the Church at Sardis. The church there is told to wake up, probably a reference to the famous fall of Sardis in battle in 546 BCE. Because the city’s residents thought it was impregnable, they were caught sleeping during an enemy invasion and conquered. Conversely, the withering description of the church as having “a reputation of being alive” when it was really dead could be leveled at the contemporary church as well.
Even for the Church at Sardis, there was hope. There were some in the church who had remained faithful and whom Jesus described as “worthy.” To these, he gave this promise: “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father …”
The “book of life” Jesus referenced is mentioned in the Old Testament, where it appears to be a registry of God’s people—the people to whom he gives life. The New Testament makes use of two etymologically unrelated words for life. The first, “bios” (from which we get words like biology and biography), refers to the hustle and bustle, work-a-day life humans share. When brainwaves go flat, and heartbeats cease, this kind of life ends.
The other word for life is “zoe,” which is the origin of the name “Zoe.” It refers to the eternal life God himself has and shares with those who trust him, who open their lives to him. People “whose names are written in the Book of Life” possess this kind of life, which thrives in heaven and changes people’s lives for the better on earth.
A dubious revivalist used to place a large book on a table at the front of meeting halls, which he called “the book of life.” For a donation, he would write people’s names in it. Such shenanigans would have outraged the Biblical writers, for whom the eternally-enduring, personally-transforming life is God’s free gift to those who trust in his Son Jesus Christ.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/12/2019