The history of Israel, documented by both the prophetic and narrative texts, leaves little doubt that assimilation to the surrounding idolatrous values and culture was an easy path for most of God’s people. If Jesus’ own perceptions are to be trusted, and they are, then he also detected the almost inevitability of this when he stated, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). John the prophet also witnessed the assimilation to non-Christian beliefs and lifestyle by numerous Christians among the seven congregations in Roman Asia.
John used the two monikers of Balaam (Rev. 2:14) and Jezebel (Rev. 2:20) to highlight this fatal attraction to Hellenistic-Roman culture among some of the congregations he addressed in the book of Revelation. The prophet might have chosen these particular male and female examples of assimilation to give some gender balance to these prophecies, but in my judgment there is a more likely explanation.
John’s own prophetic piety and anti-assimilationist theology was rooted in the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and he saw, like Paul had earlier seen (1 Cor. 10:1-13), that the church’s departure from biblical faith was on a trajectory begun in the apostasy of Israel. Accordingly, it would benefit us to look at an instructive dialogue between Jeremiah and some Israelite assimilationists of his day. Here is the heart of the text (Jer. 44:15-19):
- Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD! We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.” And the women said, “Indeed we will go on making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her; do you think that we made cakes for her, marked with her image, and poured out libations to her without our husbands’ being involved?”
We clearly see that large numbers of God’s people are enchanted by the prospect of the benefits of departure from biblical faith. There are, admittedly, examples of a handful of assimilationists at times in Scripture, but it is remarkable how many times in Scripture the number of those who are willing to forsake God’s ways are quite large. In this episode Jeremiah is reporting on the Israelites who fled Jerusalem to Egypt to avoid Babylonian capture or destruction. Basically they fled to avoid God’s promised discipline and, therefore, hope of future redemption. This “large assembly” consisted of husbands and wives and “all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt.” Accordingly, one should not be shocked at the great number who prefer idolatry to faithfulness.
A second salient point on this trajectory is the bluntness of their acknowledgment of and commitment to assimilation. Their candor is shocking, “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD!” In fact, some of the woman leaders later pronounced, “Indeed we will go on making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her.” The prophetess Jezebel at Thyatira (Rev. 2:21) appears to be using the same playbook as these earlier Israelite women in Egypt, for Jesus had given Jezebel of Thyatira “time to repent, but she refused to repent.” Repentance is rare from a person whose heart is so defiantly rebellious.
A final similarity between the assimilationists in John’s congregations and those whom Jeremiah confronted was their preoccupation with the external benefits of religion. Somewhere in the history of Israel many of God’s people began to forget the ultimate focus of their faith. They abandoned a desire to love God and began to love the promised benefits of their relationship with God. Once they surrendered to a quid pro quo religion, where benefits became the pinnacle of religious desire, then getting into bed with another “god” who seemingly offered better benefits became rather easy. As these opponents of Jeremiah stated without a blush about their previous devotion to pagan deities, “At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing.”
If modern Christians worry about assimilation and seeing churches, like Laodicea, who have not yet let Jesus in the door, they should listen to John the prophet. John’s prophetic words offer both guidance and encouragement in many areas. One very important facet of John’s theology is his commitment to seeing this issue of assimilation in his own congregations as located on a trajectory revealed by the Hebrew prophets and continuing into his own world.