Today, a non-believing historian named Tom Holland is helping me to listen to Jesus Christ.
In his letter to the church in Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17, our passage for August 5), Jesus affirms those who “hold fast my name;” (Rev. 2:13) and he warns those who “hold to the teachings of Balaam.” (Rev. 2:14) We don’t know much about the teachings of Balaam, but they seem to promote compromise with practices in the Roman Empire that endorsed cruelty in the form of idolatry and sexual exploitation. Jesus warns his followers that unless they repent from such callousness, he will come to them soon “and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Rev. 2:16)
Initially, picturing Jesus waging war with the sword of his mouth may seem grotesque. But when Jesus wields the sword of his mouth, he operates like a wounded surgeon saving lives with a healing scalpel. Jesus cuts us to the heart so that “we can receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:11-16) When Jesus makes war, he fights to overcome a false peace in which the strong force the weak to shut up and sit down. Instead, Jesus brings a positive shalom-peace in which every human being shines with the image of God and every creature reflects the compassion of God. (Psalm 145:9)
For followers of Jesus, it takes a life-time (and more) to understand how to embody the Lion of Judah who conquers as a Lamb “standing as though it had been slain.” (Rev. 4-5) Like James and John when they asked to sit on either side of Jesus in his glory, we do not always know what we are asking. (Mark 10:35-45) We need the word of the Lord to transform our notions of power and wisdom in the light of Christ crucified. (1st Corinthians 1:18-25)
Historian Tom Holland left the simplistic Christian faith he learned in his childhood, and he has not (yet?) returned to Christ in terms of faith. But his world class studies of classical antiquity have taught him that universal respect for human persons comes to us not from Greco-Roman sources but from Christians such as the Apostle Paul spreading the biblical teachings we inherit from Judaism. In an article called “Why I was wrong about Christianity,” Holland writes that Christianity, rooted in the self-giving love of Jesus, “is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value.” Holland concludes, “In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.”
As people not ashamed of the Gospel, we can listen humbly to Christ as, by the sword of his mouth, he forms us into people who embody his universal love and respect. And if you want to listen to a friendly and fruitful dialogue about such matters between Tom Holland and an equally brilliant believing historian named Tom Wright, you can click on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlf_ULB26cU.