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Jesus Kissed Dating Goodbye: Covenant in the Letters of Revelation

Bonham pic croppedJoseph Bonham, M.A. is today’s guest blogger. Joseph has his own blog called the Biblical Bean, linked below. In addition to a Bachelors in Biblical Studies, he holds a master of arts from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Biblical Languages / Hebrew Bible

I don’t actually remember the wording of our vows, my wedding day was such a blur. The one thing I do remember is that we made sure the vows did not include a promise “to obey” (something the Pharisees only later added to the core three biblical vows of marriage).

Our covenant with God is like a marriage of sorts too. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a part of the New Testament that spelled out exactly what we were agreeing to in this covenant?

It turns out that there is just such part… but it’s not where you would expect to find it. It’s not during the Last Supper, or in the Gospels, or on Pentecost, or in any of Paul’s letters.

In Revelation 2:1-3:22 we have the only occurrence of a near perfect covenant form (genre)[1] in the New Testament. Each of the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor

1) identifies the parties of the covenant,

2) describes the history between them,

3) gives a direct command,

4) lists curses, and

5) lists blessings.[2]wedding rings sxc hu small

In Dr. Sargent’s earlier post, “A Crash Course in Covenant Cutting: The Types,” after listing a series of different sorts of Old Testament covenants, he asks, “Now the big question: What kind of covenant is the New Covenant? Do Old Testament era categories work in this covenant?”

From these letters it is clear that the kind of covenant envisioned by Christ as John takes his dictation is what scholars would call a suzerain-vassal treaty in which obligations are stipulated by a Lord to be obeyed by a vassal (i.e. Servant). We may split hairs over whether the covenant vassal is envisioned here as only the “messenger/angel” within each of these churches, or whether the covenant in these letters is only with these historic seven churches, or whether all disciples of Christ are envisioned as vassals of the New Covenant, but the stipulations are certainly not upon God or Christ here—vassals must walk in obedience.

Another interesting aspect is that that almost every stipulation identifies a particular bad behavior and commands “repent” (or “don’t be afraid”). This corrective tone is unique among the ancient covenants with which I am familiar. This is what Jesus preached after all, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is around the corner.” One might wonder if the gospel might boil down to this one basic instruction. Beginning with a command to repent is, seemingly,  beginning with step two, not step one, given that a general command to repent implies that this rule is built on prior unmentioned laws/sins. More on this in upcoming posts.

It also strikes me that many of the covenant blessings offered in these letters  assume exclusion or persecution, “for those that endure/overcome/conquer.” Rather than limiting participation in the covenant to a select few—those in history who have endured persecution—perhaps this merely speaks to times when keeping the stipulation matters most, when it is hardest to observe, when it is easiest to blend with culture.

I may not have to search for persecution to please Jesus, but whether I endure through it will certainly put my Christianity to the highest test, and have cosmic consequences. It sounds like the most important thing to Jesus is that I last and am faithful to him, through everything. We might describe this as the unwritten vow of the new covenant.

This type of covenant is a reality check. It means that churches are just as vulnerable as the physical temple. Whenever Israel failed to listen to God, God’s allowed even the Jerusalem temple, which God set up, to be destroyed, twice. The church does not get a free pass to act however it may want and remain undisturbed by their covenant Lord. In fact, I suggest that the stakes are higher, the threat more imminent.

Does this mean that salvation is a product of our obedience? No. Since almost every letter assumes disobedience, I don’t think one could make a case for salvation-worthy perfect obedience here. It does suggest, however, that God has expectations for those saved by grace, and that continued disobedience can lead to someone “taking our crown from us.” (Rev 3:11) In the words of C. S. Lewis, Jesus/Aslan “is not a tame lion.”

My hope is that this both encourages us and scares us. After all, we know where they say wisdom (morality) begins.

In my wedding, we exchanged rings, lit candles, poured sand, and kissed (as well as made vows). These are all ceremonial acts in which we demonstrate and accept our marriage covenant. That is the one glaring missing piece of the covenant puzzle in Revelation 2:1-3:22. There is no specific ratification act for these churches to accept the covenant given to them. For this we have to look elsewhere in the New Testament.

 

[1] See Dr. Sargent’s post “A Crash Course in Covenant Cutting: The Structures” for more information on these.

[2] William Shea, “The Covenantal Form of the Letters to the Seven Churches” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Spring 1983, Vol 21, No. 1, 71-84.

2 thoughts on “Jesus Kissed Dating Goodbye: Covenant in the Letters of Revelation

  1. frank reedy says:

    It’s to bad you didn’t put that obey clause in your vows, it works great. Whenever I have a problem with Donna I just say in a stern voice, obey woman and she snaps right to. It’s like saying in Jesus name at the end of a prayer, it grantees a swift compliant action. Try it out and let me know how it works out.

    1. I tried it… someone get me to the hospital.

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