Colin Hemer identifies four “areas of tension” in the church of the late first century. Each of these bullet points are worthy of a chapter of a book, here is a short summary:
- Christianity and the Imperial Cult. The context of the imperial cult in Revelation 2-3 and the growing influence of Domitian would have put Christians under pressure to either conform or face some form of persecution. While this may have not been as organized as modern preachers make it out to be, Christians would have been viewed with suspicion if they did not participate in the imperial cult.
- Christianity and the Pagan world. This is especially seen with regard to the social life of Greco-Roman cities. How does a practicing Christian “fit” in pagan society? Could a Christian participate in a civic event like athletic games if those games were dedicated to a god? Could they eat food at a festival if it had been used in a sacrifice to a god?
- The Church and Judaism. It is possible the church had grown far enough away from Judaism by the end of the first century that the differences were quite clear. How does a Gentile who believes Jesus is Messiah relate to a Jewish faith still looking forward to the Messiah?
- Different sub-Christian Groups. These early “heretical” groups within the church disagreed over authority, which may indicate the possible influence of Docetism and antinomianism. The church needed to develop internal discipline and expel teachers not conforming to apostolic teaching or ethical expectations.
The application of these tensions to the present church seems obvious. First, how does the church of the post-Christian word 21st century interact with culture which is frequently based on a world view completely at odds with the biblical worldview?
Second, how does the modern church relate to the “historic church”? Obviously our doctrine is based on the historical creeds of the church, but to what extent ought we “pull away” and create a new, post-modern church?
Third, how does the modern church deal with anti-Christian influences such as syncretic mixtures of Christianity and other world views? For example, can we have a “Christian / eastern world view”? Is there a possibility of a post-modern Christianity?
Last, how does the modern church deal with fringe elements within the church itself? How tenaciously should we hold to the foundational documents of denominations which are hundreds of years old and perceived as not particularly relevant to the modern situation?
I suppose each of these points is worthy of a sermon. Despite the fact that Revelation is usually mined for end-time prophecies or is used to fuel conspiracy theories on YouTube, John’s pastoral point was much different. Christians living in Asia Minor in the first century were under enormous pressure to conform to the imperial society. Revelation challenges the readers to hold on to what is true and good and pure, since the Lord Jesus is returning soon.
Bibliography: Colin Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1989).