07 November 2011

soiled and sterile in sardis

One of the great benefits to those of us who work in the church, especially as teachers and preachers, are the (quite popular) lay commentaries on the New Testament produced by The Bishop (NT Wright).  They are known as the for Everyone series and, if you have yet to encounter one of them, seeks to make the text of the New Testament accessible to folks who would otherwise not open a commentary on Scripture.  Based upon Wright's own translation of the text, there is a dynamic presentation of both the original meaning and contemporary application that many have used for personal study or small group settings.

Wright has recently completed the publication process for the New Testament (John Goldingay is embarking on a similar quest for the Old Testament), appropriately saving Revelation for the final volume.  Although I now possess all of the volumes (I went on a blitz to finish out my set), I confess that I have only read straight through two of them.  The rest I have jumped in and out of as situations arise, mostly when I am looking for ideas of how to present a passage of Scripture to a particular group.  Having been a student of Revelation (as an academic hobby, I suppose) and currently leading a Sunday school group through the text, I have decided to read through Revelation for Everyone along with the material from week to week.

Whenever someone has written as extensively and in-depth as The Bishop, it is a matter of time for even his bigger fans to find areas of disagreement.  I openly admit that I'm a fan of Wright's scholarship, but have had those times when I think he isn't quite on target with a particular thought or idea.  But this time I think he's simply wrong on the facts.

In presenting the Letter to the Church in Sardis (3:1-6) Wright reads v. 4 ("You do, however, have a few people in Sardis who haven't allowed their clothes to become dirty and polluted") as part of a two-stage criticism of the church from the risen Christ.  Let's look.

The critique of Sardis is not good.  Caird once said that this is "perhaps the perfect model of inoffensive Christianity."  They are pronounced dead, yet with the summons to wake up (perhaps only mostly dead).  The sense that there are a few people, "however," that have not soiled their clothes seems to indicate a contrast to those who are not keeping awake, waiting for the coming thief (v. 3).  Yet, Wright takes verses 4-5 as "the second charge" against this church (30), perhaps indicating that these are believers who have demonstrated spiritual laziness and have not allowed their clothes to become dirty from working on behalf of the gospel.  They are likened to people who don't regularly wash their clothes, becoming slack in their spirituality.

Still, vv. 4-5 says that this group of people (the "howevers") will walk with Christ as those who have clean robes, along with those who overcome.  Nowhere have I encountered the notion that this image is used as a criticism rather than a commendation.  Lupieri's commentary says it this way, "Throughout the book 'clothes' are to be 'kept' (16:5) from being 'defiled' (3:4), and if they are not yet white or are no longer white they must be 'washed (7:14; 22:14 . . .) or 'purified' . . ." (124).

I'm not sure what happened in the for Everyone series at this particular point.  And perhaps I will have further disagreements as I move forward in the text.  But this is a point on which I felt the need to respond.  In many ways it is a minor disagreement, but it is also the Word of God which should be sought after for the greatest accuracy possible.  This in no way overshadows the power of Wright's handling of the text (notably the seven letters), and the entire for Everyone collection remains at the height of my recommended reading list.

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