Monthly Archives: December 2020

A gift beyond comparison

The exact date of the birth of Jesus is unknown but whenever it was I am grateful for God’s gift of His son. Artists paint their conception of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, and artists are generally known for combining two or more ideas into one. That is certainly done in the scene pictured below, but I read the Scripture and the culture of the time as we know it and enjoy the message of the scene.

Nativity scene at Bethlehem. Photo:

A nativity scene at Bethlehem. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

For the two biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus I suggest you read Matthew 1:18-2:12 and Luke 2:1-20.

Here is the account of the physician Luke as recorded in Luke 2.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.
2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,
5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.
10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.
17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.
18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.
19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-20 ESV)

Bryan Windle posted a good article on his Bible Archaeology Report about the Archaeology of Christmas here.

Problems faced by the Seven Churches # 3

There is something unique about the way each of the seven “letters” of Revelation begin.

Each of the “letters” to the named churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3 differs from a letter in being essentially an oral statement and in not making reference to particular individuals. The “letters” to the seven churches (Rev. 2:1, etc.) are edicts and open, as here, with the characteristic verb of declaration, λεγει [says] (Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, I:40. Horsley points to numerous examples of this use during the Roman Imperial period, as do major lexicons.

The terminology used sets up the great battle of the book. It is Lord God versus Lord Caesar or, to say it another way, King Jesus versus the king of Rome.

Too many times I have heard the statement made something like this: “I don’t know what this biblical passage meant to the original readers, but here is what it means to us.” Such a statement frightens me. If I do not understand what a text meant to the original readers, how can I know what it is supposed to mean to me? Understanding a text in its original context allows one to make an application of it to his or her own life situation.

What problem did the church at Pergamum face? Certainly they faced the problems we have already mentioned, the worship of pagan gods and the worship of the Roman emperor. Conditions were extremely difficult for the Christians at Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-17. The church is said to dwell where Satan’s throne is (2:13). In spite of this the saints were holding fast to the name of the the risen savior even in the days of Antipas who was martyred.

Asklepios, Athens National Museum.

Statue of Asklepios displayed in the National Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

The photo below was made at the Askelpium. From there we see the citadel of the ancient city.

Pergamum Ascleipium with citadel in distance. Photo:

The Asclepium at Pergamum with a view of the citadel in the distance. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

What is the meaning of the expression “where Satan dwells”? E. M. Blaiklock, Cities of the New Testament, finds three strata of paganism at Pergamum.

  1. Associated with the worship of snakes and handling of reptiles. There was a great center involving the worship of Asklepios, the god of healing, at Pergamum. The serpent was the symbol of Asklepios.
  2. The worship of Zeus and Athena. There were temples to each of them at Pergamum.
  3. The Imperial cult during the Roman period.

When we see a statue of Asklepios we see a serpent entwined around his staff. The temple of Zeus has been reconstructed in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin, Germany. Some of the reliefs from the temple shows battles involving giants whose legs were massive serpents. The Christians would be familiar with the Old Testament account of the fall of man and the part that the serpent played in it. The book of Revelation presents the great dragon as “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9). The woman of Revelation 12:14-15 was given wings of a great eagle in order to fly into the wilderness to be cared for, like ancient Israel was, for a time, times, and half a time. See also Revelation 20:2 that tells of the binding of “the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan.”

Reliefs from Zeus Altar, Pergamum. Berlin.

Reliefs associated with the Zeus Altar at Pergamum show giants with legs of serpents. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Much of the symbolism of the book of Revelation may be unfamiliar to modern readers, but I strongly contend that it was not unfamiliar to the original readers of the book. Even the coins they used portrayed some of the same symbolism.

In the garden of the museum at Bergama, the modern Turkish city at Pergamum, an inscription naming Pergamum as twice Neokoros (temple keeper or warden) of the Imperial cult. The city was the first of Asia Minor to be awarded a temple. This temple was erected to Augustus in 29 B.C. The second temple was erected to Trajan (A.D. 98-117). A third temple was erected to Caracalla (A.D. 211-217).

Inscription names Pergamum twice Neokoros. Photo:

Inscription in the garden of the Bergama Museum naming Pergamum as twice Neokoros (see fourth line: ΝEΟΚΩPOY) of an Imperial temple. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Ruins of the Trajan temple have been partially reconstructed at Pergamum. Several times I have worked with churches meeting in rental halls or small buildings. Occasionally someone asks, “where is your church [building]”? When I told them where we met they might say that their church was the large magnificent one a block from the city square…. One can imagine how the saints at Pergamum might have felt under similar circumstances.

Inscription in the garden of Bergama Museum naming Pergamum as twice Neokoros of an imperial temple. Photo

Reconstruction of the beautiful temple erected to Trajan at Pergamum. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Some of the saints at Pergamum held to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Some at Ephesus hated the works of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6). I know no more about this group than you can read in dozens of commentaries. But there were some in the church “who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (Rev. 2:14 ESV). These were the requirements to be placed on Gentile converts (Acts 15:29; 21:25). John had urged Christians to “not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15-17). This, he said, includes the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and the pride of life. I hear some putting all of this under the term worldliness. Adding sexual immorality to the eating of food sacrificed to idols definitely introduces our third problem faced by the Christians of the Gentile world. Paul’s discussion in Romans 1:18-32 and in the first epistle to the Corinthians provides more insight into the problem (see 1 Corinthians 6:9ff. and chapter 8).

An important episode in the history of Israel involved Balaam (Numbers 22-25; 31). He is known from
an 8th to 6th century B.C. Aramaic inscription found at Deir-Alla, Jordan, in 1967. Deir Alla is identified with biblical Succoth, the place where Jacob built a house for his family and shelters for his livestock (Genesis 33:16), by some scholars. Others say it is the site of Penuel where Jacob wrestled with the angel (Genesis 32:25-32). I am inclined to the first view, but that is not why we are mentioning the site.

Deir Alla in the Jordan Valley. Photo:

View of Deir Alla in the eastern Jordan Valley. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

In 1967 Dutch archaeologists led by Prof. H. J. Franken, found a fallen plaster wall containing a reference to the seer Balaam son of Beor. For some reason Balaam continued to be a significant influence to some in the area. See Franken’s entry in the Anchor Bible Dictionary and Lemaire’s article in Biblical Archaeology Review 11:05 Sept./Oct 1985. This is slightly aside from our main purpose here, but it illustrates the illumination provided by archaeological discoveries.

Deir Alla inscription showing name of Balaam. Photo:

Inscription from Deir Alla showing name of Balaam. The name of the prophet is on the line above our blog name. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins in the Amman Archaeological Museum.

The problem here is that of compromise with religious error and sexual immorality. Paul refers to the Old Testament episode (Numbers 22-25) but does not call Balaam by name (1 Cor. 10:8). G. B. Caird (A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John) says Balaam is “the father of religious syncretism.” Earlier we stated that the Christians were not persecuted because they worshiped Christ, but because they would not worship the Emperor. Like Paul and John, the apostle Peter commanded the Christians to whom he wrote to keep their conduct among the Gentiles honorable (1 Peter 2:11-25).

The lesson from this episode in the account of Balaam and Balak is to get the people of God involved in the worship with the the pagans and in the immorality associated with it. I would say that it seems to work with most of the people most of the time.

Problems faced by the Seven Churches # 2

In the first of this series we discussed the worship of Artemis and other gods that were prevalent at Ephesus. None of these problems are limited to a single group of Christians but I will often use one of the churches as an illustration.

The second problem faced by the Christians of Asia Minor was Emperor worship. It is common to hear a lot of talk about the persecution of the early Christians, but the term is not used in the Apocalypse. Instead we find the terms trial (Rev. 3:16) and suffer (Rev. 2:10) and tribulation (Rev. 1:9; 2:9,10,22; 7:14). The term tribulation implies pressure brought upon the Christians. We may think of this as persecution but let us not get hung up on that particular term. In my tour notebooks for this area I have included a chart showing the Ten Major Persecutions under the Roman Empire typically listed in works on church history. Here below is that simple list. Nero’s persecution seems to have been limited to Rome. By the time we reach Diocletian we see a more widespread situation. In A.D. 305 Diocletian ordered that all church buildings be burned along with all books and Bibles of the church.

1. Nero (A.D. 64–67).
2. Domitian (A.D. 81–96).
3. Trajan (A.D. 98–117).
4. Hadrian (A.D. 117–138).
5. Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161–180).
6. Septimus Severus (A.D. 193–211).
7. Maximinus the Thracian (A.D. 235–236).
8. Decius (A.D. 249–251).
9. Valerian (A.D. 257–260).
10. Diocletian (A.D. 303–311).

Major persecutions against Christians by the Roman Empire.

Ten major persecutions against Christians by Roman emperors. Photo:

If one understands the Babylon of the book of Revelation (14:8; 16:19; 17-18) to be the Roman Empire then we see the “soon” of passages like 1:1, 3:11, et al. to include this entire period. Certainly the same or similar situations face Christians of all ages.

A bit of background of the situation in Asia Minor might be helpful to some readers. The next section comes from my Studies in the Book of Revelation which includes a chapter on Emperor Worship.

The Roman Empire was made up of many smaller nations. Rome accepted all of the “gods” and the Pantheon in Rome was erected so that all these “gods” could be worshiped. Later, the rulers were often worshiped by all citizens. The worship of kings was common in the eastern portion of the Roman empire. About three hundred years before Christ the Attalid Kingdom was set up in Asia Minor. These Attalid kings, many of them bearing the name Attalus, were worshiped as gods. At Pergamum one may see the ruins of the heroon, outside the citadel gate, which served as a sanctuary of the heroized kings.

Attalus III, who died in 133 BC, bequeathed all the movable assets of his empire to the Romans. “This was misinterpreted as meaning all his possessions, including his whole kingdom. Thus, the Romans inherited a country of 66,750 square miles with the most beautiful cities of Asia Minor” (Cosmades, Nothing Beside Remains, 36). This territory served as an excellent buffer between Rome and the Seleucid empire of Syria and later the Parthians. This explains how Rome came to have power in Asia Minor. Emperor worship was easily adopted by the people of this region.

Christians could not worship the emperor and were considered atheists by Empire standards. The Christians were not persecuted for serving Christ, but for not worshiping the emperor. The cities of Asia Minor vied for the honor of erecting a temple to the emperor. Pergamum won this honor as early as 29 B.C. (cf. Rev. 2:13). When the Christians were persecuted some of them were willing to serve the Emperor but others were willing to die. It cost something to be a Christian then. (Studies in the Book of Revelation, p. 5.)

⇒ This book is available from the Florida College Bookstore here. Search for the title of the book or the author’s name.)

One of the significant things to see during a visit to the ruins of ancient Ephesus is called Domitian Square. There we see the platform with steps leading to the top where the Temple of Domitian, or Temple of the Flavian Emperors once stood.

Domitian Square, Ephesus.

Domitian Square at Ephesus. Some writers refer to this area where the temple stood as the temple of the Flavian Emperors. This would include Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. The temple stood on the platform above the arches. The steps to the right of center led to the temple. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

A large statue of the emperor stood on the platform. Several scholars hold the more recent view that the head discovered here is that of Titus.

Portions of the larger-than-life statue of Domitian (or Titus) from the temple in Ephesus. Ephesus Museum. Photo:

Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey) became a great center for Emperor worship. Out of the Pax Romana (the Roman peace) grew the worship of Dea Roma (the goddess Rome). Smyrna was the first city of Asia to erect a temple to the cult of the city of Rome in 195 B.C. In 26 B.C., during the early imperial period, eleven cities of Asia were competing for the right to build a temple of Tiberias and thus become the neokoros (temple warden) for the Roman Imperial cult. Rome decided in favor of Smyrna in recognition of her long loyalty (Tacitus Annals Iv. 55.56). Smyrna won the title of “First of Asia” (found on coins) and was thrice named “Temple Warden” (Cosmades, Thomas. Nothing Beside Remains, 1964. 26).

During the reign of the emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117), Ignatius of Antioch passed through Smyrna on his way to execution in Rome. While at Troas he wrote letters to several churches including The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smymaeans, and an epistle to Polycarp (The Ante-Nicene Fathers).

Polycarp, a leader in the church at Smyrna, was martyred by the Romans in about A.D. 156. He was arrested and ordered to say Lord Caesar” and to offer incense to the image of the Emperor Antonius Pius (A.D. 138–161). Upon refusing to do so, Polycarp was then asked to swear by the fortune of the emperor, to
deny Christ and to denounce the atheists (Christians). He was sentenced to death by burning because he would not comply with the wishes of the authorities. He is remembered for his offer to teach the
Roman soldiers, and for saying “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” Yamauchi says about 10 other Christians were martyred in the city’s stadium at the same time (The Archaeology of New Testament Cities in Western Asia Minor, p. 61).

Persecution of Christians at Smyrna. Photo:

Polycarp of Smyrna was put to death during the reign of Antonius Pius in about A.D. 156. Powerpoint slide:

In Izmir, Turkey, the modern counterpart of ancient Smyrna, we find the Polycarp church. There a large piece of art illustrates what we know about his death.

Artist rendition of the martyrdom of Polycarp displayed in the Polycarp church in Izmir. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Artist rendition of the martyrdom of Polycarp in the city stadium displayed in the Polycarp church in Izmir. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

The letter to the church at Pergamum names a Christian by the name of Antipas who was killed (Rev. 2:13). After the close of the New Testament we find other references to followers of Christ who were martyred at the hands of the Romans.

From the writings of Pliny, governor of Pontus, to the emperor Trajan we learn that the same procedure was practiced by the authorities before they killed Christians. See our article with more photos here.

Numerous illustrations could be used from other cities, but I will leave the subject here. The situation described in the book of Revelation fits perfectly with what we learn when we read the history of the area and visit the ruins of the ancient cities named in the book.

The term autokrator (= English, autokrat) is used of the Roman emperors on coins and inscriptions. Domitian styled himself Master and God. Two inscriptions found at Jerash, Jordan, in 1974 describe Domitian as son of the divine (theou) Vespasian. Domitian’s name is erased from both inscriptions as it is on many other inscriptions indicating that he  is of damnable memory. After the death of Domitian the Roman Senate issued a damnatio memoriae (of damnable memory) and his name was erased from many monuments throughout the Empire. I have examples of this from Ephesus, Smynra, Thyatira, and other places. (See Franz, Gordon. “The King and I: The Apostle John and Emperor Domitian.” Bible and Spade 12.2 (1999): 44. Print.

Above I mentions my Studies in the Book of Revelation. There I list several believers who were martyred during the reign of various Roman emperors (pp. 79-81).

Our lesson from all of this is to be loyal to Christ no matter what the threat may be.