The Church and its Environment in the Book of Revelation:

Integration and separation in the Apocalypse of John

Thomas Witulski (University of Muenster, Germany)


Ladies and gentlemen,

The last book of the newtestamentical canon, the Apocalypse of John, poses as many questions to exegetical scholars as before, which can neither be discussed at length nor completely solved in our seminar group[1]. But it seems to be evident, that the writer of the Apocalypse especially tries to admonish his addresses, the Christian communities and in the same way the Christian individuals, to remain faithfully and steadfastly in their faith in Christ. The Christian individuals are exhorted to keep their belief purely and unadulterated, to restrict themselves to the worship of the God of the Old Testament and of his Pñíßïí Christ and to avoid any participation in cultic-religious worship of other, of pagan gods, in particular of the Roman Emperor, reigning at the time of the composition of the Apc.

This becomes evident in the analysis of the letters to the Pergamon community Apc 2,12-17 and Thyateira Apc 2,18-29. After at first praising the community in Apc 2,13, John continues in Apc 2,14 in a more critical tone. He more precisely accuses the Pergamon Christians of tolerating false prophets in their midst. John at first, more closely names their lectures and announcements in Apc 2,14 as äéäá÷x ÂáëáÜì, judging them by their characteristic context. Later he uses comparative adverbs such as ïœôùò and ¿ìïßùò in Apc 2,15 to identify them with äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í. This means that the two terms äéäá÷x ÂáëáÜì and äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í in the end refer to the same heretical doctrine. It seems that John wishes to spotlight the essential and significant context of this current doctrine by referring to the prophet Bileam from the Old Testament.

This would lead to the assumption that the followers of äéäá÷x ÂáëáÜì and äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í are identical. To verify this, in Apc 2,14 ÂáëáÜì is used in singular terms, whereas in Apc 2,15 Íéêïëáúô§í is in plural. The conclusion drawn is that äéäá÷x ÂáëáÜì is referred exactly to the äéäá÷Þ which was intended as propaganda by Bileam himself during the desert flight of the people of Israel. On the other hand, at the time of the Apc this äéäá÷x ÂáëáÜì meaning äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í has been defended by a circle called Nicolaitans.

In the eyes of John this term äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í is despicable. According to Num 25,1–3; 31,16 the misconduct of Bileam results in the fact that he entices the people of Israel to turn away from the Almighty God and his laws. Instead he seduces them to worship pagan gods. The term öáãåsí åkäùëüèõôá with which John in Apc 2,14 immediately in the same way like ðïñíå™óáé emphasizes at first äéäá÷x ÂáëáÜì and only with the following parallelism in Apc 2,15 is indirectly able to characterize also äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í. By doing this, he is referring to the accusation êár höáãåí ¿ ëá’ò ô§í èõóé§í ášô§í stated in Num 25,2b. This èõóßá which is eaten likewise by Israelis and Moabites resp. Midianites at a cultic meal, according to Num 25,2a, is meat, which has before been sacrificed to pagan gods. It is reasonable to suppose that the verb ðïñíå™óáé, which connected in Apc 2,14 with the conjunction êáß follows öáãåsí åkäùëüèõôá is then directly referred to in the following comment Num 25,2c êár ðñïóåêýíçóáí ôïsò åkäþëïéò ášôþí. This however, means that John’s term ðïñíå™óáé in Apc 2,14 has been used in a metaphoric sense meaning the worship of other pagan gods and the breaking away from the Almighty God of the Old Testament.

Viewing the central gist of äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í, which is circling in the Pergamon community at the time of the Apc and which John in Apc 2,15 paralyses with äéäá÷x ÂáëáÜì, one can conclude the following: The located followers of the äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í within the Pergamon community have, so it seems according to the accusation of John, tried to demolish the exclusiveness of Christian worship of the one and only God of the Old Testament and his Pñíßïí Christ and to achieve a broader understanding and participation of sacrifice to pagan gods. To understand these terms öáãåsí åkäùëüèõôá and ðïñíå™óáé as being headwords to characterize the current circular in the Pergamon community äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í the following conclusion can be made: The suggestion that John is using these terms to show an only indirect and unconscious participation in cultic-religious worshiping of pagan gods, due to the purchase of meat in the market scarified to them, is hardly likely. It is more obvious that he means the conscious and immediate participation in the corresponding cultural handlings. With the expression öáãåsí åkäùëüèõôá he either relates to the Christian participation in pagan-religious cultural handlings, cultic meals and festivities in general, or to their direct participation in such cultural handlings, where openly distributed sacrificed meat is also eaten. With the term ðïñíå™óáé he wants to metaphorically point out to the worship of pagan gods, practiced by the followers of äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í, which co-exist next to the worship of the God of the Old Testament and his Pñíßïí Christ. This definitely also corresponds to the Oldtestamentical language and the there metaphorically defined usage of the term ðïñíåßá êôë. In the context of this explanation, the öáãåsí åkäùëüèõôá as participation in pagan-religious cultic handlings, becomes a component of the accusation of ðïñíåßá, dealing with the practising of pagan worship in total.

John demands that the Pergamon Christians turn back, meaning to give up the at this time evident toleration of the Nicolites in the community and to fiercely fight the äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í and their representatives. He who does not follow this call, will be punished with death, whereas the phrase ìåôE ášô§í Apc 2,16 refers to the followers as well as to the people who tolerate her äéäá÷x Íéêïëáúô§í.

The writings to the Pergamon community close with the expressions „alarm call“ and „overcoming hurdles“. Those who are steadfast in their belief in God and in Pñíßïí Christ and do not disown them will be rewarded with Manna, which up to that time has been evidently concealed, and a –íïìá êáéí’í on a øyöïò ëåõêÞ, which is only revealed to those who conceive this stone.

After the opening of his writing to the Christian community of Thyateira, using the stereotype framework elements „writing order“ and „messenger phrase“, John addresses the situation in the Thyateira community. In Apc 2,19 he at first praises the behaviour of the Christians of Thyateira, more specifically their love to God and to their fellow man, their readiness to help one another and their patience. Their behaviour, on the contrary to the behaviour of the Christians in Ephesus (Apc 2,41f.), has improved the longer it lasts.

Subsequent to this captatio benevolentiae, John then makes massive accusations against the community. Most essentially he criticizes that the Christians of Thyateira tolerate a woman named ÉåæÜâåë, who calls herself a prophet and seduces the community members to whoring (ðïñíå™óáé) and the consumption of pagan meat. Her behaviour evidently corresponds with the Pergamon Nicolites. According to 1Kings 16,31-34; 21,25f.; 2Kings 9,22 the sin of the Israeli queen Isebel was essentially that she introduced and supported in Israel the cult and worship of the god l[b/Âááë and other pagan gods. From this we can derive, as already shown in Apc 2,14, that also in Apc 2,20 the in their order evidently exchangeable terms ðïñíå™óáé and öáãåsí åkäùëüèõôá are used more metaphorically and inclusive and interpreted as „identical metaphors regarding the breaking away from the true faith“. The term öáãåsí åkäùëüèõôá in this context refers to the participation in pagan-religious cultic events, cultic meals and festivities. With the term ðïñíå™óáé, John hints at the worship of pagan gods, being worshiped side-by-side with the God of the Old Testament and his Pñíßïí Christ.

In Apc 2,24, Pñíßïí Christ speaking through John, turns to the Christians in Thyateira who have not (as yet) fallen under the spell of the prophet EéåæÜâåë, who have (not yet) taken on the äéäá÷Þ, practiced and proclaimed by her. They are not to be punished by a new âÜñïò; they should only secure what they have recognized as fundamental belief in the past, and have expressed in the Apc at present, and practiced in their lives, till the resurrection of Christ.

The term óáôáíOò in the Apc indicates that John, contrary to the general assumption, by using the term (ïšê) hãíùóáí ôN âáèÝá ôï™ óáôáíO ©ò ëÝãïõóéí Apc 2,24, wishes to turn the positive statement of EéåæÜâåë and her followers, that they have seen the depths of God, into a negative one. Especially in Apc 12,8; 20,2.7-10 and further also in Apc 2,9.13; 3,9 this term is related so clearly to God’s and his Pñíßïí Christ’s opponent, that there is no chance John could have in Apc 2,24 used it as a (possibly ironic) synonym for God. Especially in Apc 2,24 there is a term ©ò ëÝãïõóéí which rather marks the phrases hãíùóáí ôN âáèÝá ôï™ óáôáíO as headwords of the opponents. It can be concluded that with this phrase in Apc 2,24 John refers to the äéäá÷Þ, the false prophets opposed by him. They evidently claim to have recognized the depths, the fundamental religious relevance and the theological meaning of God’s opponent.

Based on this interpretation and in view to the äéäá÷Þ , proclaimed by EéåæÜâåë and her followers and the behaviour resulting from that, which John describes with the terms öáãåsí åkäùëüèõôá and ðïñíå™óáé/ðïñíåßá (Apc 2,20), two possible explanations result : (a) The prophetess EéåæÜâåë and her followers have recognized the âáèÝá ôï™ óáôáíO and have determined that the óáôáíOò is a non-existing, powerless figure. This would mean that participation in cultic-religious handlings cannot pose any danger to one’s own Christian identity and faith.

b) The prophetess EéåæÜâåë and her followers have recognized the âáèÝá ôï™ óáôáíO and really were of the opinion that God’s opponent had indeed religious and soteriological meaning. This led them to participate in events within the religious-cultic worship of the óáôáíOò. This explanation is unlikely, given the fact of a postulate, far-reaching transformation of Christian faith, which has to be added to a belief of a second saviour next to Pñíßïí Christ. It would be more likely that the prophet EéåæÜâåë and her followers in the Christian community of Thyateira were strongly of the opinion that worshipping pagan gods was definitely allowed, given the fact that these gods were non-existent and trivial and had no real meaning for Christians.

The letter to the community of Thyatira ends with the stereotype framework elements „surmount“ (Apc 2,26-28) and „alarm call“ (Apc 2,29), whereas contrary to the Pergamon letter (Apc 2,17) the alarm call does not proceed the surmount, but follows it. The íéê§í, which preserves the work of Pñíßïí Christ till the end, will in the same way, just as has Pñíßïí Christ from his Father received in the past the dîïõóßá (Apc 2,28a), will receive power and glorious authority over the people (Apc 2,26bf.) and a morning star (Apc 2,28b), according to Apc 22,16 the Pñíßïí Christ himself.

Conclusion: In the letter to the community of Thyateria, a group of community members are violently criticized, because they have evidently supported a woman acting as a false prophet. This prophet teaches them, that due to the insignificance of pagan gods, there is no harm to also participate in their corresponding religious-cultic worship and to practise this in their everyday life. Opposed to this view, John through Pñíßïí Christ demands them to distance themselves from pagan worship and to exclusively and without compromise worship the one and only God, his Father, and himself.

From all this results in view to the question of integration and separation in the Apocalypse of John: Especially in his letters to the Christian communities in Pergamon (Apc 2,12–17) and Thyatira (Apc 2,18–29), John fights against inner groups of these communities, whose members join in the cultic-religious Emperor worship in their cities and, above all, justify their participation by pointing to theological reasons. In Apc 2,24, the Thyateiric prophetess EÉåæÜâåë and her followers were described as such, who hãíùóáí ôN âáèÝá ôï™ óáôáíO ©ò ëÝãïõóéí, as such, who have, according to their own testimony, “recognized the depths of Satan”. In my opinion, this formulation seems to indicate, that the Christian followers of EÉåæÜâåë are of the opinion, that the óáôáíOò and the pagan gods and goddesses including the Roman principes, which all depend on him, are finally only helpless and powerless figures, insignificant for the salvation or the fate of the Christians. But the theological conclusion, which is drawn by EÉåæÜâåë and her followers from this knowledge, is as follows: The participation in the cultic-religious worship of pagan gods and goddesses and of the Roman Emperors cannot harm the Christians in their past and present status of salvation, cannot result in loosing their right to salvation for now and for the future.

Contrary to this opinion, which tries to interpose and to integrate the Christian faith and the participation in the cultic-religious worship of pagan gods and goddesses, also by pointing out to theological reasons, John opposes this in his Apc very fiercely and sharply: These Christians, who, founded by theological reasons or not, participate in the cultic-religious worship of pagan gods and goddesses, are called to account by the Pñíßïí Christ already in present times (Apc 2,16.22f.) and will be excluded from salvation in the future, described in Apc 21f. (Apc 2,17.26ff.). Against this theological position, which tries to interpose between the pagan environment and the individual existence as a Christian, John himself polemizes and develops a separating, respectively separatistic statement: Only the Christian individual, who stays faithfully and steadfastly in his faith in Christ, who keeps his belief purely and unadulterated, will participate in the present and also in the future salvation.

From this exegetical thesis results, the in my view exciting question, if and in which way John could work as a Christian missionary in his pagan environment, in the presence of his separating respectively separatistic statement. In my opinion, the theological statement of John implies the following basic principles of a theory of Christian mission: (a) Christian mission has to be practised on condition that present and future salvation can be created, granted and obtained only by the grace of the God of the Old Testament and its Pñíßïí Christ. (b) Christian mission has to be practised in clear and distinct delimitation and distinction from other, non-Christian religions, from other, non-Christian cultic-religious worship. (c) Christian mission has to be practised by clearly characterizing other, non-Christian gods and goddesses as evil forces, whose worship and positive evaluation leads Christians to the loss of their salvation, which they have already experienced in Christ. Summa: Christian mission cannot be seen as an interposing or integrative dialogue between different religions and cultures, but only in a sharp and also polemical distance and distinction of them.

But now, what shall we, Christians, Christian theologians, priests, pastors and missionaries in the year 2004, do with this non-integrative, separating respectively separatisting statement of John? Here are some short remarks concerning this question: (a) At first, we have to realize, that the Apc of John, like all other writings of the New Testaments, was written in a specific historical situation, and reflects, at least for the present, the theological position of only one appointed historical person. The voice of this person, whose writing has been taken into the newtestamentical canon, is, at least for this reason, to be heard and also to be considered, but in every case also to be referred to in relation to the other voices and positions within the newtestamentical canon. This may lead to a new and different valuation of the theological position of John. (b) As a historically grown theological position within the early Christianity, the theological statement of John cannot be immediately fully accepted and adopted in our present times, but should be interpreted at first. Nevertheless, we are admonished by John, that in our work within the Christian mission, we have to keep and hold out as a central aspect of Christian proclamation, that present and future salvation can be created, granted and obtained only by the grace of the God of the Old Testament and its Pñíßïí Christ. In my opinion, we have again and again to keep this aspect very clearly in mind, especially within our mutual work and in our dialogue with representatives of other religions and with non-Christian individuals. If we want to follow the statement of John, Christian mission can take place intergratively, also in our times, only by having a mutual belief in the God of the Old Testament and his  Pñíßïí Christ.

Thank you very much for your attention.


[1] I hope to clear in my Habilitationsschrift „Hadrian oder Christus? Untersuchungen zur Datierung der neutestamentlichen Johannesapokalypse“ the problem of the dating of the Apc.