While on vacation, I was glad to be able to read Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible: A Commentary on Revelation 1-3 by Richard Oster.

Dr. Oster is one of the professors at Harding School of Theology, and is known for his extensive knowledge of New Testament backgrounds, particularly through the study of ancient inscriptions, artwork, and numismatics (coins). In Seven Congregations, Oster does a masterful job of using that knowledge to help better explain John’s letters to the seven churches of Asia in the early chapters of the Book of Revelation.

Oster’s commentary focuses on the Asian congregations, and the challenges they faced as they were forced to choose between faithfulness to Christ and assimilation to the surrounding Roman culture. Interpretatively, Seven Congregations emphasizes the relevance of Revelation to the churches to whom it was written, rather than being a series of predictions of what would happen some 2,000 years in the future (which is exactly how far too many people read it). In addition to this emphasis and the fascinating background information, one of my favorite things about the book is the way in which Oster does not shy away from presenting ideas that are a part of Revelation but are not popular in today’s culture (you’ll see some of this reflected in the excerpts below).

I’ve selected some quotations which I enjoyed and which I think provide a good feel for the book (I have bolded certain parts for emphasis):

“As surprising as it might seem in light of centuries of mistaken emphasis, a careful examination of these six specific verses reveals that there is in fact no explicit reference to a temporary millennial enthronement of Christ in Revelation (20:4, 6). Furthermore, if this traditional view were true, then this millennial interregnum of Christ would stand in clear contradiction to the teachings of the rest of the New Testament regarding Christ’s cosmic enthronement.” (p.11)

“…The prophetic message of John is not designed only to comfort the afflicted. John’s words were also clearly written to afflict those Christians who were guilty of assimilation to idolatry, immorality, and emperor worship, either in the present or future. Without doubt the letters destined for the seven churches of Asia contain the promise of blessings to the faithful, the overcomes, but with equal clarity they contain the assurance of divine punishment and retribution for those believers who surrendered themselves to the pressures of the surrounding culture and its mores.” (21)

“The christophany of Rev 1:12-16…contains powerful and horrific imagery and does not portray a Jesus into whose lap one can sit and be cuddled.” (21)

“Indeed, the relevance of prophetic books lies in their specific connection with their own historical setting and not in their predictions about remote history and the end of humankind.” (24)

“Although it might initially sound strange to some futurists, this mention of Jesus’s “coming with the clouds” is one of the few references to Christ’s Second Coming in the entire book of Revelation. Most of the references to impending punishment in Revelation are either against the seven churches or are plagues, bowls of wrath, and the like, against the Roman Empire. Rarely in Revelation is the wrath of God and the Lamb directed against the entire planet with all its inhabitants.” (64)

“Specifically, John’s sectarian outlook considers all synagogue attending Jews who did not accept the messiahship of Jesus as no longer the true Jews…Thus Revelation agrees with other New Testament writings in its support of a modified replacement understanding of Israel and the Christ based congregation (cf. 1 Cor 3:11) of God…According to John, identification as a real Jew is determined on the basis of devotion to the Lamb rather than upon traditional Jewish criteria, e.g., birth and upbringing, adherence to Jewish statues and ceremony.” (124)

“Even though spiritual intolerance is currently the “unforgivable sin” in most areas of contemporary culture, both sacred and secular, this prevailing Western perspective does not represent the outlook revealed to John by Christ.” (148)

“…Christ’s kingdom is always subversive and has appeared explicitly to destroy alternative nations, empires, and their values, until “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (11:15).” (158)

“…This scene presented to the Laodicean congregation is patently not a prototype of the evangelical “sinner’s prayer” where Jesus is invited into the heart of the unregenerate sinner.” (191)

“…The meaning of repentance in Scripture is to change the direction of one’s life, not merely changing elements of intellectual assent.” (192)

“Unless intercession is only artificial role playing, then God’s future actions may be altered by the intercession of his people.” (207)

The commentary is 276 pages including notes and appendices, and though very scholarly, is still written in an engaging way (I was able to read it in a few days). I think the background information Seven Congregations provides is invaluable, and I look forward to reading the next volume.