If you haven't read it yet, Reenacting the Way (of Jesus) unwraps the missed messages. Jesus' healing miracles, feeding the 5,000 and calming a storm lose their meaning when we reduce them to proofs of divinity. The same happens when we chase the future relevance of the book of Revelation. We miss Jesus' personalized message for a first century audience. Please stop doing this. Flattening the Bible's first meaning loosens the anchor that holds its meaning from floating down the river of your imagination.
So let's talk swords. Early in Revelation, Jesus introduces himself as “the One who has the sharp two-edged sword” who “will make war with the sword of My mouth” (Revelation 2:12, 16). What's up with Jesus flaunting his sword?
In that context Revelation 2:12-17 delivers Jesus' orders for believers in the powerful city of Pergamum.
Before Rome infiltrated Asia Minor, the Pergamene King Philetaerus threw off Greek control of Pergamum established by Alexander the Great. He created a Pergamene empire that lasted from 281 BC to 133 BC.
After 150 years of independence, pressure from Rome forced a weak king to surrender to the Romans. Although the ensuing decades of transition were marked by struggle (e.g. Pergamene citizens killed all Roman inhabitants at the order of King Mithradates of Pontus during his war against Rome in 89-84 BC... whoops), Pergamum eventually gave full allegiance to Rome. In 29 BC Rome rewarded Pergamum with the privilege of constructing the first provincial temple in Asia to the goddess Roma and Augustus. The imperial temple bestowed special favor on the city.
Rome stationed the regional ruler of Asia, the proconsul, in Pergamum. The proconsul of Asia possessed unlimited imperium—which included ius gladii, or “the right of the sword.” When an emperor permitted a governor to wear a sword, the Roman proconsul could execute anyone who disobeyed his orders (see Tacitus, Histories, 3.68; Dio Cassius, Roman History, 53.13.6-7 & 53.14.5). This deadly and powerful “right of the sword” commanded the obedience of Pergamene citizens. Capital punishment cases did not have to be referred to Rome. The proconsul in Pergamum decided who lived and who died.
Jesus Flashes His Sword
Jesus knew the proconsul's "right of the sword" confused loyalties. If a guy could kill you for crossing him, it demanded respect and obedience from all citizens. That became a problem when the Roman way conflicted with Jesus' way.
That's why Jesus flashes his sword. None of the messages to the other 6 communities in Revelation 2-3 mention the sword. Jesus mentions other characteristics to personalize those messages. But for Pergamum, he flaunts his sword twice in Revelation 2:12 and 2:16.
Jesus is making a point Pergamene citizens would understand. He determines who lives and dies. He should be most feared when deciding which path to follow. Jesus' right to wield his sword demands ultimate loyalty and obedience. There is robust meaning hidden in the symbol of his sword.
"If we miss the Bible's personalized message, we miss how Jesus meets us where we're at"
If we miss the Bible's personalized message to its first audience, we miss how Jesus meets us where we're at. Everyone's story is a little different of how Jesus connected with them. We know this personally. We have experienced it.
The Bible is no different. We call the Bible's personalized (or contextualized) messages an act of accommodation. God is meeting people where they are at. It is a biblical pattern we see God continuing in our time.
When you realize that's how God works, you must study your Bible differently. God connected with people in unfamiliar ways. He related to cultural symbols, political realities and personal values we don't intuitively understand in our time. Remember we are reading 2,000-3,000 years after the fact.
So let's slow down, do our homework, and listen to those students of Scripture who can open up the Bible's personalized message to persons long ago. If we don't, we'll miss its first meaning. We'll create meaning that reflects more our assumptions than God's intentions. We will universalize misunderstandings of what God personalized for someone else. And who wants to misconstrue words from a mouth with a sword in it?